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.

Homeric Warrior Ethos in the Histories of Alexander the Great

There are any number of things which have peaked my interest as side projects since the start of my thesis, some not at all related, others just tangents. One of the tangents that I have been unable to shake off and will likely return to at some point down the line in actual research is the connection between Homer, Alexander III of Macedon (the Great), and the historians of Alexander.

In nearly all of the sources (Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Arrian) are stories concerning Alexander compared to Achilles, Hephaestion to Patroclus, Philip to Peleus, and his tutor Lysimachus to Phoenix (the tutor of Achilles), and Alexander is reported to have taken a copy of the Iliad notated by Aristotle with him into Asia, sleeping with it and a dagger under his pillow. This obsession is generally qualified as Alexander seeking to be put on a level with Achilles, far above other mortal men, and in all likelihood he appeared as such to many of the rank and file soldiers–an invincible, ever victorious hero whose only comparison was with his ancestor Achilles (if I am remembering correctly, it was his mother Olympias whose family descended from Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, while his Philip’s family descended from Hercules).

Now I am not an expert on the Homeric warrior ethos and how they were supposed to behave militarily and whatnot, but Alexander would have been aware of it, but more importantly to me is how writers at least four hundred years later were still picking up on it and superimposing the values onto their histories. One of the most confounding elements in these histories is how Alexander was supposed to be demoting various officers by giving them critical administrative or organizational posts, often with large contingents of troops, yet this repeatedly crops up either in word or in tone. My current thought is that this is where the warrior ethos kicks in because these men were no longer in the best position to be out winning glory with their king and as such “must have considered this a slight” (my own broad generalization).

Conspiracy theories abound about Alexander and some of my other problems with the scholarly work is how readily they abound, but there is not much to do about it. On the other hand, I think using this methodology could potentially open up new possibilities in the histories, while the main study of the histories themselves currently rest in the portrayal of the officers based on the actual primary sources written by Ptolemy, looking at his biases.