After Alexander

Review: Peter Thonemann, ‘The Hellenistic Age’

'Dying Gaul' replica after Epigonos / Photograph by Anthony Majanlahti

In 336 B.C., on the death of his father, Alexander the Great set out to conquer an empire—the largest empire the ancient world had ever known. It reached from Greece to India along one diagonal, Bactria to Egypt along the other, and it lasted until . . . well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Alexander died in 323 B.C., only a dozen or so years later, and in many ways his empire died with him—immediately carved up into rival satrapies by his generals, relatives, and friends.

But the places that Alexander named after himself (from Alexandria in Egypt to Kandahar in Afghanistan) testify to his enduring influence. And so perhaps the world shaped by Alexander survived till 30 B.C., when Rome finally annexed Egypt, last of the kingdoms begun by the followers of Alexander. Or maybe it survived for another millennium and a half, until the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453 and Trebizond in 1461, the final Byzantine cities. For that matter, as late as the 1920s there were still towns in Turkey that spoke a form of koiné Greek, the trading and ruling language of the Eastern Mediterranean. Where Alexander had been, Greek would come to be spoken, and where the Greek language was, there was the Hellenistic Age.

Peter Thonemann, a classicist at Oxford, takes an expansive view in his small but informative new book, The Hellenistic Age. He doesn’t look much past Cleopatra and the end of Egypt, historically, but he extends his reach far beyond ordinary histories to claim the essential Greekness, the fundamental Hellenisticy, of everything that happened in the Mediterranean-influenced world after Alexander. Forget the Jews. Forget the Romans. They are of interest, of influence in the greater world, exactly to the extent that they became Graecized and took advantage of the pan-Mediterranean culture that the conquests of Alexander forced into existence. The Hellenistic Age, for Thonemann, is defined by a Greek style rapidly pervading the world—the influence of Greek sensibility appearing in coinage, sculpture, architecture, literature, science, politics.

Just to chronicle the fifty years of war between the Diadochi, Alexander’s immediate successors, would fill an entire volume. And so would the further history of the Seleucid Empire, and the tale of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, and the story of the sudden expansion of Greek colonization that would Hellenize towns from the Black Sea down to the Hindu Kush and out to the straits of Gibraltar. It’s all too much to cover with any precision, and besides, for Thonemann, the details can obscure the overall picture. In The Hellenistic Age, he turns from his opening sketch of the era to a series of miniatures: individual portraits of those who, he thinks, best represent their era.

To illustrate the new Greek style of politics and personality, for example, Thonemann devotes a chapter to Demetrius the Besieger, a third-century Macedonian king. The man’s somewhat ironic epithet refers to the great machines he had built to attack Rhodes: an enormous siege tower (125 feet tall and 60 feet wide) that required over three thousand men to push it forward, and a huge battering ram (180 feet long) that needed another thousand. As it happens, Demetrius failed to capture the city and withdrew after a year—abandoning his siege equipment, which would be sold off or melted down to help create the Colossus of Rhodes.

Demetrius was known throughout the Hellenistic world, however, for his grandeur and wealth—defining the style of the new epigoni of Alexander. Claiming to be a king increasingly required presenting oneself in this fashion. Hellenistic rulers, writes Thonemann, "were expected to look and behave like young Demetrius"—which is to say, like someone "handsome and radiant, rich and warlike, fighting on horseback at the head of his troops." Notice that Thonemann’s description contains nothing about actually winning. The need to gain the victories of Alexander had given way to the need to appear like Alexander, and The Hellenistic Age is a book that sees the definition of the time in the styles it chose to celebrate and embrace.

And that’s a problem, isn’t it? Thonemann is an enthusiast for the era of Ancient History in which he has his specialty, and The Hellenistic Age is an enthusiastic book that seeks to kindle readers' interest in the time, drawing them out from the old-fashioned emphasis on the Hellenic Age—the Greece of everyone from Homer to Demosthenes, the eighth century to the fourth century, that ended with the rise of the Macedonian kingdom from which Alexander would explode onto the world’s stage.

Of course, the old complaint, from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, was that the Hellenistic Age was so much more decadent than the Hellenic Age. In politics, literature, and culture, those centuries before the rise of Rome seem messy and confusing, unenlightening and unedifying—the events far less emblematic of the reasons we return to the Ancient Greeks again and again to study the human condition. Not for nothing did Gilbert Murray coin the phrase "failure of nerve" to describe the Hellenistic era of Greek religion. To those who wanted to use Greek history for didactic purposes, nearly everything in the centuries of Greek influence after Alexander was a kind of failure of nerve: the result of an Asianating of Greek ideas as much it was a Graecizing of Asian cultures.

Hardly anyone is willing to insist on this old-fashioned thesis these days, but Thonemann still has it in view. He wants us to reject even the dying old ghost of his bugbear and embrace the Hellenistic Age as a fascinating era of world history, filled with memorable emblems of human behavior and human thought.

In his chapter on Eratosthenes, the librarian of Alexandria who first measured the circumference of the earth, Thonemann does manage to demonstrate that the mathematicians and scientists of the Hellenistic Age quickly advanced far beyond their Hellenic predecessors. In his chapter called "Encounters," he shows how the Greek-influenced culture of trade and exploration allowed meetings of individual Macedonians and Hindus, Somalis and Italians, Britons and Bactrians. In a final miniature, he turns to one of his archaeological specialties: the city of Priene in the Meander River valley of Asia Minor. The silt that gradually filled up the Bay of Miletus cost the town its harbor, and by the second century A.D. it had ceased to be more than a dying village. Its ancient ruins remain relatively well preserved, however, and Thonemann uses his description of the city to illustrate the ubiquity of Greek influence on material culture outside Greece.

But in his repeated insistence on Greek style, doesn’t Thonemann actually reinvigorate the old dismissal of the Hellenistic Age that he seeks to end, once and for all? The Hellenistic Age does not dwell on the philosophical writing of the era, but it certainly looks to any student to be a straightforward failure of nerve: From Stoicism to the spread of Epicureanism, Skepticism to Neoplatonism, Hellenistic philosophy is consistently more gestural, more stylistic, and less profound than its Hellenic predecessors.

Now Thonemann wants us to see the whole of Hellenistic culture as more gestural and stylistic than earlier Greek civilization. His enthusiasm cannot keep us from the additional suspicion that the Hellenistic Age was also much less profound—a weak and decadent time, devoted to style above substance.