The First Generation of the Hellenistic Age: A Lament

The periods in history that most interest me are those with great political upheaval. Often, this means wars. One of the periods that keeps drawing me back in is the first generation of the Hellenistic period, otherwise known as the first thirty five or forty years after the death of Alexander the Great. There are some very good books such as A.B. Bosworth’s The Legacy of Alexander, but most follow the few extant sources enough that the period comes out as a rush, a never ending list of marches and counter-marches. Even just trying to follow the actions of a single individual is confusing.

Part of the problem, I think, is that historians who attempt any sort of lengthy analysis either fit this period into the post-script of a history of Alexander’s conquests (even if it is largely an imagined history or a history that follows Alexander’s followers, in which case Alexander’s conquests loom), or as the foundation aspect to the rest of Hellenistic history. Often, the books try to do both. The result is a litany of details that get in the way of either useful conclusions or a lucid narrative that brings the history to life. It also hurts that histories of this time period require coverage of a vast expanse of land and an equally varied cast of characters.

There needs to be a new history. A new history that forces the Hellenistic historiography for this period to confront the geography and the local cultures. This has been done for the Ptolemaic kingdom more than for any other, in large part because of Alexandria and the plethora of written sources that do not exist in some of the other areas, though (from what I know) the histories that take into account the local history of Egypt tend not to be the same ones that focus on the reign of Ptolemy I. In any case, the combination of lack of information on the local areas such as Babylon and the focus on accounting each move of a period of extended campaigning and intrigue makes the histories hard to follow and harder to actually envision.

This lament comes, in part, from reading a history of the creation of the Seleucid Kingdom and failing to envision what Babylon would have looked or been like in the Hellenistic Age. The histories (stemming from the account of Polyaenus) talk about city warfare, without actually talking about the city itself.

This begs the question “what is history?” In one sense, these factual details and rushed presentation are sufficient since they do account for the period and provide a narrative. In another, they are chronology, but horribly deficient as history since they do not actually demonstrate anything help people imagine the past events.

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