Revisiting the turbulent world of Alexander, Antony and Cleopatra.

Anthony and Cleopatra (1885)
Anthony and Cleopatra (1885) (Lawrence Alma-tadema / Wikipedia)

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, April 1, 2007

THE HELLENISTIC AGE

A Short History

By Peter Green

Modern Library. 199 pp. $21.95

Speak of Greek antiquity, and most people will call to mind the golden age of 5th century B.C. Athens -- the time of Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, Sophocles, Pericles. Without question, these intellectual titans decisively influenced western thought and culture. For centuries, their noble brows and visages, sculpted in mottled white marble, adorned the reading rooms of university libraries and the leather-chaired lounges of gentlemen's clubs. They were, after all, paragons, and later generations were required to look up to them. Little wonder, then, that after a while these overly revered Grecians started to seem more than just a trifle smug and self-satisfied. We're so smart, and you're not.

In recent years, the periods just before and after the Athenian miracle have grown increasingly attractive to modern readers and scholars. The surviving fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers and poets -- Heraclitus, Archilochus, Sappho -- now seem to capture more feelingly the relentless mutability of life, whether the ups and downs of the suffering human heart or the ceaseless shocks of an inherently unstable world. This sense of familiarity is even more pronounced in the three war-torn centuries bracketed between the Asian conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) and the naval battle at Actium (31 B.C.), which hastened the downfall of Ptolemaic Egypt and assured the triumph of imperial Rome.

After Philip of Macedon made himself the master of Greece following his great victory in the battle of Chaeronea (338 B.C.), his son waited impatiently for a chance to display his own mettle. Once he inherited the throne at 20, Alexander immediately launched a seemingly never-ending campaign to conquer the known world. In part he wished to outdo the achievements of Heracles and Achilles but, as Peter Green tells us in The Hellenistic Age, he also desperately needed the riches of Asia to support his overextended and debt-laden government and to pay off the soldiers in his army. The stocky, clean-shaven warrior, who personally led his men into battle, cared little for the trappings of wealth; what really mattered to him was kleos, the Greek term for glory. For 11 years, he consequently fought his way across modern-day Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to the frontiers of India, where he defeated the army and elephants of King Porus. But then his own battle-weary troops refused to go any farther, and Alexander was forced to turn back toward Europe. In the city of Babylon, he fell ill with a high fever and died at the age of 32.

On his deathbed, the conqueror reportedly willed his spear-won empire "to the strongest." As a result, he set in motion three centuries of conflict, starting with a power struggle among his generals, today called the Diadochoi, or Successors. Eventually, three kingdoms emerged: one in Europe, composed of Macedonia and greater Greece; another in Asia, reigned over by the Seleucids; and the Egypt of the Ptolemys. All these then jockeyed for total domination through "the well-tried Hellenistic blend of diplomacy, aggression, intermarriage and murder," not to overlook outright war. Being so intently focused on one another, these incestuous and ruthless monarchs -- they seldom hesitated to murder their own children when necessary -- shortsightedly neglected "the cloud from the West." But once Rome had defeated Hannibal and destroyed Carthage, it began to extend its political hegemony into Successor-held territories. Battles ensued, and nearly always the Roman legion defeated the Greek phalanx. By the time Cleopatra ensnared first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony, that "serpent of old Nile" was playing a desperate game to preserve Egypt from becoming a satrapy of Rome. To no avail. "Finish good lady, the bright day is done,/ And we are for the dark."

The Hellenistic Age is subtitled "A Short History," but to sum up the period's complexity and richness in under 200 pages requires a draconian conciseness. More often than not, enlivening anecdote and detail have been sacrificed, leaving an overly schematic outline (and an overuse of colons in the sentences). For instance, Green tantalizingly refers several times to the mass marriages at Susa but never explains what these were (Alexander and his Macedonian officers married Persian women, in theory to cement the unity of East and West). Moreover, as the political history grows increasingly bloody and frantic, it also grows difficult to keep clear who's who, since the names Demetrius, Antigonus, Alexander, Philip, Ptolemy and Cleopatra recur from generation to generation. At one point, four women gamely, if vainly, distinguished as Cleopatra the Sister, Cleopatra the Wife, Cleopatra Thea and Cleopatra Tryphaena vie with one another for power. After a while, one hungers for a more leisurely and expansive narrative. In his defense, Green does underscore that The Hellenistic Age is simply an introduction, and he duly offers a prefatory overview of "backgrounds and sources," as well as an up-to-date guide to further reading.

As it happens, that guide to further reading includes a magnificent (if occasionally contrarian) account of this fascinating period titled Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (1993), by none other than Peter Green. The poet Callimachus famously observed, "Big book, big mistake," but not in this case. In its nearly 1,000 pages, replete with illustrations, Alexander to Actium explores every aspect of these three racked centuries. By contrast, this short digest for Modern Library Chronicles can mainly just assert a point and move on. For instance, in The Hellenistic Age Green notes that literature and culture are characterized by escapism from a brutal reality, an antiquarian reverence for the Greek past (this is the heyday of the scholiast and the Library of Alexandria), a widespread belief in Tyche (chance or fortune), and a preference for the personal, introspective and fantastical over the patriotic, public-spirited and pragmatic.

All these assertions are examined with supporting evidence in Green's full-length account: There he offers entire chapters on the Epicureans and Stoics, on the mystery religions surrounding Dionysus, Isis and Cybele, on the plays of Menander, the mimes of Herodas, the epigrammatic verse of Callimachus, the vastly influential pastoral idylls of Theocritus, and the epic Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes. Rather than merely refer to them, he discusses the achievements of Euclid and Archimedes and Diogenes. Art receives a similarly in-depth treatment: This is, after all, the era that produced such sculpture as the Aphrodite of Melos (a.k.a. the "Venus de Milo"), the winged Nike or Victory of Samothrace, the languorous Barberini "Faun" and the once rabidly admired, now rather despised, Laocoön.

Despite the superiority of Alexander to Actium, there's no gainsaying its enormous length. (I haven't even mentioned its author's related biography, Alexander of Macedon.) So readers with other calls on their attention should, faute de mieux, still spend a couple of evenings with The Hellenistic Age. Green doesn't approach the past by kowtowing to it. He writes with strong views, avoids jargon and isn't afraid of arguing with received opinion. In his youth this emeritus professor of classics at the University of Texas worked as a journalist and reviewer, published novels ( The Laughter of Aphrodite) and even a biography of Kenneth Grahame (author of The Wind in the Willows); he lived by his pen. In his scholarly work, he has brought to bear the same kind of panache. The Alexandrian "Museum and Library, like the J. Paul Getty Center (which in many ways they much resemble), never seem to have had payroll problems, and their resident scholars enjoyed permanent appointments."

He pointedly notes that slaves fueled the economy of the ancient world as oil does ours. With even greater daring, he berates the Stoics and countercultural Cynics for their quietism, despite "the dilemma that faced a thinking man in a world where, no longer master of his fate, he had to content himself with being, in one way or another, captain of his soul." Most tellingly of all, he repeats that the lot of a slave or peasant (in this or almost any other era) did not improve until the late 18th-century Industrial Revolution, when machine power finally replaced manpower.

Fragmented, insecure, ivory-towered, obsessed with sex and celebrity, the Hellenist era is, as all historians agree, the period of classic antiquity that most resembles our own. This isn't a happy thought, but it does add another reason for exploring these troubled and often sleazy centuries between the age of Athens and the age of Rome. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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