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.

The Hellenistic Age

Typically the Hellenistic Age is defined as the years between Alexander’s death and the Battle of Actium. I humbly offer another definition. My own interpretation of Hellenistic is Greek-ish, Greek-like, Greek-esque, etc. Perhaps I am misguided in this definition, but there it is.

The Hellenistic Age should be considered begun after the Battle of Chaeronea, or alternatively at the foundation of the second League of Corinth when Philip essentially declared Hegemony over Greece. If the Macedonians were taken to be Greek-esque in and of themselves, then the rise of Pseudo-Greeks as the dominant force, and in particular a force that begins to expand, heralds the rise of the Hellenistic Age.

In my as-of-yet unwritten Master’s thesis, I endeavour to show that Philip II actually had more to do with the creation than did Alexander, whereas Alexander only incorporated the territory, which in turn made these separate kingdoms significantly larger than they could have been otherwise.

Philip’s rise over the traditional power of mainland Greece brought about a significant change in the balance of power and brought about a new epoch in history far more than did Alexander or Alexander’s death, ergo the Hellenistic Age should be dated to Philip’s ascension, not Alexander’s death. That the Hellenistic age is not taught as a cohesive period is another issue altogether.

Historical narrative, largely a created phenomenon

There is only so much complication that the human mind can comprehend; once complexity reaches a certain level, one that is different for each person, the ability to perceive the interplay amongst each component disappears. In books, movies and TV shows, this results in a limited number of main protagonists and antagonists. If the scope is not contained, then the story feels disjointed and convoluted to the audience.

The same is true in the study of history and in particular ancient history. Rome is a simple example; there is Rome and the “others.” The intricacies of the Roman state may be infinitely complicated, deep and full of characters pulling for one agenda or another, but when it comes to identifying a period as a historical one that can be covered in a continuous narrative, Rome is the ultimate. In fact, Rome is so much of a historical era that it is written in three or more eras: the republic, the empire and the fall. Of course each of those eras can be further broken down into smaller narratives, but such is always the case.

The nature of “Greece” makes even this level of narrative more difficult as nearly every city was a polis and each polis was an autonomous state. This has not stopped historians from covering the so-called Golden Age as a historical narrative, but they tend to actually be covering Athens and Sparta, with other city states such as Corinth, Thebes and Megara appearing as side, rather than main, characters. There is some justification for this decision, largely resting in the dearth of information from most Greek city states and the undeniable preeminence of Athens and Sparta. This said, it is still an artificial creation.

This brief introduction in the creation of historical periods and narratives leads up to the Hellenistic Age, called because it saw the spread of Greek-ish (as Hellenistic implies) culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of Asia. Loosely this period is defined from Alexander’s death until the advent of Rome, but when precisely it ends it difficult to say. This seems a solid block of time that could well be considered for a narrative, yet almost every historical book on the age covers three narratives, one-third of the whole narrative or only covers it in topical format. My proposition is that this stems from there being three main Hellenistic Kingdoms, each with their own peculiarities and issues. Then there are the Greek city states and two further Kingdom’s of sorts, one the Attalid state in Pergamum and the other the city state of Syracuse. All in all, the Hellenistic age is complex, but even with several thorough books on many of these issues, most scholarship and writing is set on avoiding the other end of the spectrum, which is to say that all three Hellenistic kingdoms were the same and therefore can be painted with one brush.