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A Short History

By Peter Green

Pub Date: April 10th, 2007
ISBN: 0-679-64279-X
Publisher: Modern Library

A well-crafted and indeed short history of the three centuries between the death of Alexander the Great and Rome’s final conquest of the eastern Mediterranean.

As Green (Emeritus, Classics/Univ. of Texas) observes, the Hellenistic age is a category invented by historians, not the people who lived in it, and whatever material evolution and wealth ensued from it was to the benefit of only a few. (As for social strata and progress, he writes, the rule of thumb is, “The lower, the slower.”) Alexander the Macedonian boy wonder conquered half the ancient world at the dawn of the age, but when he died in Babylon, his empire instantly fell apart, contested by rival lieutenants. Green finds it noteworthy as well that the empire was not forged by an alliance of the willing—far from it; the Greeks contributed only a few thousand soldiers to the campaign, “a tiny fragment of what was actually available.” The “Persian other” began to disappear with the chaos, with new enemies closer to home, from Seleucids to Celts. When the rivals died off, a balance of power was struck: Three post-Alexandrian worlds evolved in Europe, Asia and Egypt, though all were characterized by increasingly urban societies, a process that accelerated with the continued development of strong city-states. The greatest and most interesting of these may have been Alexandria, a place where “commercial success and intellectual panache” ruled. The flowering of Egypt and the Near East ended with the arrival of the Romans, who were concerned not to be seen as barbarians but who definitely had an aggressive way of adding to their territories. “As colonial rulers,” Green writes, “the Romans neither bothered much with benefactions nor showed any real interest in democracy.” Neither did Marc Antony and Cleopatra, whose attempt to re-create the empire of Alexander ended rather badly for both.

A readable survey for the nonspecialist with an interest in the ancient world.