For many readers, talk of a “Hellenistic Age” conjures up the ideal of a universal Greek culture overlaid on conquered peoples throughout the three centuries before Christ. While most historians know this to be false, they usually present the period either as a mere afterthought to the glory of classical Greece (at best) or as Greece’s second Dark Age (at worst).
Neither view, however, tells the whole story, a problem Graham Shipley seeks to resolve in his book, The Greek World After Alexander 323-30 B.C. While recognizing “the problems associated with the name ‘hellenistic’,” he employs the term as “a convenient and clear [chronological] label for the period beginning with [the death of] Alexander . . . in 323 BC” and ending with the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC (Shipley 1). While both of the preceding views treat the period as one of considerable change (a point that the author himself readily concedes) Shipley believes that such changes should be viewed as “innovations in discourses conducted at an elite level of society” rather than fundamental changes in “popular culture,” the latter of which reflects a “far greater . . . degree of continuity” (1, xiii).
For literary sources, Shipley relies primarily on fragments, writings about Alexander, historians contemporary to the period, and other writings with varying levels of direct historical material. He supplements these with a number of other sources including papyri, inscriptions, coins, and other archaeological findings. Though he spends over thirty pages discussing such evidence, Shipley’s point is clear: “This rapid review of the range of evidence will, I hope, have convinced the reader that, far from being the inferior historical period for which it has often been taken, the period after Alexander the Great is not only rich in evidence but poses crucial questions of historical interpretation which any society that calls itself civilized would do well to consider” (32).
The bulk of his work is essentially topical in structure, interspersing studies of broader cultural concepts with those of a more geographical and political nature. Such an approach reconciles two aspects of the age that he believes are “often left disconnected.” The “cultural and intellectual output of the period” simply cannot be explained without first understanding the “political, economic, and administrative changes that took place after Alexander” (xiii). Each chapter can therefore be traced back to either cultural concepts or the geopolitical context in which they were developed (each of which he then elaborates on chronologically).
Shipley first considers the impact of Alexander’s death and the conflicts of succession that it spurred through 276 BC, and then moves into a discussion of the continuing development of the concepts of the kingship and the polis. In particular, he finds that “Despite earlier anxieties on the part of scholars, a consensus is growing that the Greek polis (city-state) continued to exist and in some respects to flourish and prosper [after Alexander’s death]; it seems clear that more cities were in some sense democratic than before, but that their freedom of action was limited” by the transfer of influence from hegemonies to outright monarchies (Shipley 3).
Next, the narrative moves into a discussion of the religion and philosophy of the Greeks during this time, covering changes that led toward both a broader agreement in principle as well as increased local variation in practice. Shipley then examines the cultural and social tensions of the period through the witness of extant literary works, including the development of Greek thought on the cosmos.
The first realm of geopolitics Shipley addresses is that of the Greek homeland itself, including the evolving relationship between Greece and Macedonia. He then moves south to Egypt under the Ptolemies before returning north to the Seleukid Empire, discussing the scarcity of their resources, their dynastic situation, and other matters relating to their governance.
Both aspects (political and cultural) come to a crossroads with the rise of Roman influence in the west. Shipley concludes his work with a discussion of how this influence gradually brings an end to a politically independent Greece while also bringing a cultural victory as the Romans themselves absorb a Rome-filtered form of Hellenism into their own identity as a people.
The breadth of this work is by far its greatest strength. The first-time reader is provided a thorough survey of Hellenistic history that gives attention to a number of points often left uncovered in modern works on the ancient Greeks. It also gives full credit to a period that is relegated to a final chapter in most survey works on the subject. For example, as Kitto notes in his own previous work: “I have stopped short with Alexander the Great . . . not because I think the Greece of the next few centuries unimportant, but on the contrary because I think it far too important to be tucked away in a perfunctory final chapter – which is often what happens to it” (11). Thankfully Shipley has filled much of this void.
The work’s other great strength is the shear number of classical works Shipley employs to provide the reader further sources for inquiry. His list of abbreviations for classical sources alone is seven pages long, which he supplements with nearly two hundred pages of notes, diagrams, indexes, and bibliography. This is especially useful for historiography, broadening the scope of future literary endeavors as both a reader and a writer. Often, however, his use of parenthetical citations and notes can be confusing to one unfamiliar with either Greek history or citations of classical works. For example, consider this excerpt from page 51:
In the Greek west, the tyrant Agathokles of Syracuse took the royal title in 304, some twelve years after seizing power over his city from an oligarchic regime, ‘since he thought that neither in power nor in territory nor in deeds was he inferior to them’ (the Diadochoi; Diod. 20. 54. 1.). (Diodoros, 19.5-31. 17 passim, is our main source, mostly using Timaios.) Already exiled twice, Agothokles was apparently recalled by the people and, with Carthaginian help, returned in 319/8, becoming ‘strategos (general) with full powers over the strongholds in Sicily’ (Parian Marble (FGH 239), B 12, Austin 21, Harding 1 a). Three years later he overthrew the six hundred oligarchs and became strategos in charge of the city, in effect a tyrant (Diod. 19. 9. 4.).
Though these citations may indeed scare off any first-time reader, they should not. As one reads the book, it becomes ever easier to train one’s eye to skip the citations during the first reading and then rereading the passage with an eye on the sources. Nonetheless, should the author have used either endnotes or footnotes, the reader’s effort could be employed to more productive ends.
Perhaps Shipley’s greatest strength, however, is in clearly demonstrating the value of Hellenism not merely as an historical period, but as a way of life, seamlessly uniting the cultural and political threads of ancient life. Though at times tedious, he provides a survey of the Hellenistic age that is as deep as it is broad. Though the work’s rhythm occasionally falls out of clear diction into that of a bibliographic essay, in general it will continue to serve the author’s, and the reader’s, purposes well.