Book Review: The Hellenistic Age: A Short History

The Hellenistic Age: A Short History, by Peter Green

This is a book whose existence is a case of recognized irony. The Hellenistic Age became notorious for the proliferation of short extract histories whose ease of reading kept many larger histories with much more information in them from surviving. This practice became so notorious that the writing of short and straightforward histories has often been viewed at best apologetically (as is the case here) and at worst as some sort of offense against scholarship. This author is wise enough to apologize and self-aware enough to note at least some similarities between the Hellenistic age and our own, not least the fact that Hellenism itself and the term Hellenistic spring from biblical commentary that is at least somewhat harsh towards Jews who sought to behave like Gentiles and adopt their heathenish culture, a tendency that has been marked in our own age, and viewed in a no less hostile fashion by believers. It should be noted, though, that in this age, just as our own, it is not really the believers who write much in the way of history, and this book does not really deal with the biblical aspects of the history of the age so much as it does the narrative history of the age.

In terms of the contents of this book, this work is less than 200 pages long, but it covers the area from 336-30BC nonetheless, despite its small size. The book begins with a preface and acknowledgements and then moves to a discussion of background and sources in an introduction. This leads to an opening chapter on Alexander and his legacy (1), where the author deals with the example that Alexander set for later imitators through his conquests. This is followed by a discussion of the brutal decades of conflict waged by his successors to determine who was the strongest, a contest in which almost none of the successors, not even those who survived into old age, died peacefully in their beds, instead waging eternal warfare to expand themselves at the expense of rivals (2). This is followed by a look at kings, cities, and cultures, and a look at the mythic past as the future (3). After that the author discusses the rising importance of Rome and the cloud it (should have) caused in the West (4), the dynastic troubles of the Seleucids and Ptolemeic dynasties (5), and Rome’s final solution to the Hellenistic empire as a whole (6), after which the book ends with a selective chronology, maps and genealogies, a guide to further reading, a bibliography, abbreviations, notes, and an index.

The author’s goals are, I think, largely met. This is a short history that does not distort the larger historiography of the age, and it deals thoughtfully with the complexities of the period, interspersing narrative history with a look at issues of politics and culture as well as artistic and scientific matters. Those readers who enjoy what they see here are also given a look at other works that have been written about the Hellenistic Age and so the author’s goal of being an entrance into a fascinating area of study rather than a replacement for longer and more nuanced and more complete histories is, I think, handled very thoughtfully. The author has somewhat of a pattern in writing concise histories, and so it would not be at all surprising if the author was highly sensitive to being compared to the writers of condensed histories whose brevity made it difficult for larger histories to survive in manuscript since there was little interest in them when shorter and simpler works were available. This is not a surprising tendency in our own time as well, though at least for the moment there are still institutional favors provided to larger books, even if they have small print runs.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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