Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age

Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age

by Peter Green
Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age

Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age

by Peter Green


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The Hellenistic Age, the three extraordinary centuries from the death of Alexander in 323 B. C. to Octavian's final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, has offered a rich and variegated field of exploration for historians, philosophers, economists, and literary critics. Yet few scholars have attempted the daunting task of seeing the period whole, of refracting its achievements and reception through the lens of a single critical mind. Alexander to Actium was conceived and written to fill that gap.

In this monumental work, Peter Green—noted scholar, writer, and critic—breaks with the traditional practice of dividing the Hellenistic world into discrete, repetitious studies of Seleucids, Ptolemies, Antigonids, and Attalids. He instead treats these successor kingdoms as a single, evolving, interrelated continuum. The result clarifies the political picture as never before. With the help of over 200 illustrations, Green surveys every significant aspect of Hellenistic cultural development, from mathematics to medicine, from philosophy to religion, from literature to the visual arts.

Green offers a particularly trenchant analysis of what has been seen as the conscious dissemination in the East of Hellenistic culture, and finds it largely a myth fueled by Victorian scholars seeking justification for a no longer morally respectable imperialism. His work leaves us with a final impression of the Hellenistic Age as a world with haunting and disturbing resemblances to our own. This lively, personal survey of a period as colorful as it is complex will fascinate the general reader no less than students and scholars.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520914148
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/24/1990
Series: Hellenistic Culture and Society , #1
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 970
File size: 60 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Peter Green is Dougherty Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin. A novelist and translator as well as a scholar, he is the author of many books, including The Laughter of Aphrodite: A Novel about Sappho of Lesbos (California, 1993).

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Alexander To Actium

The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age

By Peter Green


Copyright © 1990 Peter Green
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91414-8



When Alexander lay dying in Babylon, in June 323 B. c., Perdiccas, now his senior commander, spent much time at his bedside. The question of the succession was in everyone's mind. It was to Perdiccas, reportedly, that Alexander gave his ring, its seal the symbol of imperial authority; but the ultimate source of that report must have been Perdiccas himself, a fact that does not inspire confidence. And what, even if true, did the gesture signify? Was Perdiccas to be the king's heir, his regent. or nothing more than the supervisor of what he hoped would be a peaceful succession? Perdiccas himself claimed that he was to be epimeletes tes basileias, a nicely ambiguous phrase that could be-and has been-translated as either "regent of the kingdom" or "guardian of the monarchy," thus ensuring its bearer's position whether or not the predominantly royalist Macedonians actually put a king on the throne. Perdiccas may well have invented the title; in any case, his interpretation of Alexander's dying gesture left him in an unchallengeable position of authority.

It was probably to Perdiccas—again, if Perdiccas did not invent both statements on his own behalf-that Alexander uttered his two last famous apothegms. He was asked to whom he left his kingdom. Since he had no obvious heir, this was an urgent question. "To the strongest," he replied." He also declared—his last recorded words—that "all his foremost friends would hold a great funeral contest over him." True or invented, that was a shrewd assessment. Waiting in Babylon was a group of tough, battle-scarred, ambitious commanders. Their eyes were fixed on the glittering prizes of empire, and their ideals were a good deal more mundane than Alexander's own. Not for them, in any form, the fusion of East and West. When Alexander was dead they repudiated, almost to a man, the Iranian wives wished on them in that bizarre mass-marriage ceremony at Susa. Not for them Persian court protocol or high-flown plans to change the shape of the world.

Indeed, the very fact of their Macedonian background—with all that this implied—was to prove a major determining factor in all that followed. Macedonia had always been, and to a great extent remained, an ambiguous frontier element of the Balkans. Despite the assertions of parti pris advocates, there is insufficient linguistic evidence to identify what the Macedonian language, and, hence, Macedonian ethnicity, really was. Macedonia formed, as it were, a buffer enclave between the Thessalians (whose Hellenism was never in doubt) and a range of variously hostile and dubiously civilized tribes such as the Epirotes, the Illyrians, and the Paeonians. At least since the early fifth century the lowland royal house of the Argeads had been at some pains to establish its Greek identity, in a cultural no less than an ethnic sense. Alexander I, at the time of the Persian Wars, was held eligible to compete in the Olympic Games on the basis of a family tree (almost certainly fictitious) deriving the Argeads from Argos. By the time of Archclaus (413–399), the Argead court at Pella had acquired a considerable veneer of Attic sophistication, and some distinguished resident Athenians, including Euripides. Yet Macedonian society remained, in essence, sub-Homeric and anti-Greek, a rough and vigorous monarchy ruling, by main force, over ambitious barons (many of them former princes in their own highland cantons) whose chief interests in life were fighting and drinking. Southern Greeks never lost an opportunity of sneering at Macedonian barbarism, nor Macedonians at Greek effeteness; and though it would be unwise to take all Demosthenes' insults at face value, there can be no doubt that Alexander's marshals, all of whom sprang from Macedonian baronial families, were a breed apart.

Xenophobic (Peucestas was the exception that proved the rule) and grasping imperialists, these old soldiers had no intention of sharing real power with the locals—Persian officials advanced under Alexander were to get short shrift in the years ahead, doing most of the bureaucratic donkey-work and getting few of the plum jobs—or of learning native ways, or even of speaking the languages, much less studying the literature. It was the last Lagid monarch, Cleopatra VII, who was also the first to learn Egyptian (see below, p. 663). Insofar as they cultivated the local population at all, the Macedonian generals set their sights on the wealthy, the conservative, the influential elite (both civil and religious), those who were most likely to support their rule in return for special concessions, speciously disguised as eunoia, good will, euergesiai, benefactions, or philanthropia. What these marshals wanted was colonial power, and the enormous fringe benefits that such power gave. Under their charismatic leader they had done what generations of panhellenists had advocated: they had conquered the Achaemenid empire of Persia. It had been a long, fierce, eleven-year struggle, and for all that time they had played subordinate roles to a new Achilles in pursuit of his heroic destiny. Now they wanted something more. Most of the gold and other loot had already been shared out, to flood the Mediterranean markets and provide the ostentatious brand of conspicuous consumption that the Hellenistic monarchs made peculiarly their own. What these Macedonian commanders now sought was to get their hands on the empire itself.

They did not, to begin with, all have the same ideas about how this gigantic prize should be handled. Some wanted to maintain a unified kingdom on behalf of the legitimate royal heirs. Others made no bones about wanting to win control of it on their own account. Others, again, greed limited by cautious pragmatism, hoped to carve up the cake to their measure, to settle for lesser but still profitable fiefs—surely this vast imperial mass could accommodate them all? The real, central contest was between the unitarians and the separatists, those who wanted to preserve the monarchy and those eager to go it alone. This was the main result of Alexander's death-inevitable when the entire empire had been won, and held together, by one man's unique and irreplaceable personality. The crisis was the more intense for the lack of an obvious successor: uncertainty spurred ambition; ambition bred paranoia.

Roxane, Alexander's Bactrian wife, was pregnant, but even if she bore a son, that would mean a long regency—ideal for ambitious would-be usurpers. What was worse, the child would be half-Bactrian, a point heavily exploited by Ptolemy. The only other possible blood-successor was Arrhidaios, Philip IJ's son by a Thessalian dancing girl. Arrhidaios was reputedly weak-minded and epileptic; certainly Alexander had not entrusted him with any responsible command, civil or military. For traditional royalists the choice was uninspiring. While many of the future contenders for empire must have foreseen, from the start, that no one could hold Alexander's conquests together en bloc—and indeed that even Alexander himself might have found the task beyond him when the momentum of his quest finally slackened—there were others who feared anarchy, bloodshed, and chaos if the direct succession were lost, and others, again, who simply could not envisage a continuation of Macedonian power except through Alexander's descendants.

The true conflict, in other words, would come between the rival Macedonian commanders, with little influence from outside, and heavy reliance on the loyalty, or purchasability, of private, professionalized, quasi-mercenary armies. Persian and Iranian allegiance, if "allegiance" is the right word, would go to whoever came out on top in the struggle to be Lord of Asia: it is significant that only two native risings occurred on the news of Alexander's death, and both of these, as we shall see in a moment, involved Greeks; there were otherwise no indigenous revolts against the colonial government. As for the sixty thousand-odd mercenaries, of various nationalities, who had been serving under both Alexander and Darius, they would throw their support to whoever paid them most generously and promptly. If the Macedonian barons wanted power, the mercenaries would settle for cash; and below the top echelons Macedonian veterans also had loot as their prime concern. The soldiers of Alexander's old Guards' Brigade (Hypaspistai), now renamed the Silver Shields (Argyraspides), many with over forty years' continuous service, not only enforced what amounted to employment contracts on their general, Eumenes, but were quite capable, even in the moment of victory, of selling him off to the other side, for inevitable execution (below, p. 20), in order to ransom their camp, baggage. loot, and women, captured by a diversionary action (316/5 B. C.). But then, Eumenes was a Greek, and Macedonian troops, especially the old sweats who had served under Philip II, were never really comfortable being led by non-Macedonians. ("That pest from the Chersonese" was how the Silver Shields dismissed. Eumenes when he was pleading for his life as a prisoner.) The Greek cities invoked the name of freedom and fought wars and revolts in the name of self-determination and autonomy. Yet even here the motives were seldom as simple as they sometimes look; the autonomy motif was soon cynically exploited by the Successors (Diadorhoi) for propaganda and divide-and-rule purposes, as it would be again later by Rome.

Even at the initial conference in Babylon after Alexander's death, the debate concerning the succession sparked off a confrontation, nearly a civil war, between the Macedonian cavalry and infantry. The elite cavalry commanders, including Perdiccas himself, wanted to wait for the birth of Roxane's child, and, if it proved to be a boy. to acclaim him king under a regency. The bid of the fleet commander, Nearchus, to have Heracles, Alexander's son by Barsine, acclaimed as the heir apparent got nowhere: why choose a bastard over legitimate offspring? In any case, despite his seniority under Alexander, Nearchus never came to much among the Successors; but then he, like Eumenes, was a Greek; worse still, he was a Cretan, and thus a proverbial liar. Ptolemy's quintessentially Macedonian proposal for a ruling council of the King's Friends was killed by the supporters of Perdiccas, whose ambition was held in check only by the consideration of Roxane's unborn child. Even so, a proposal to make Perdiccas king was actually advanced at the meeting (not, one supposes, without his prior knowledge), and made some impression: this was what most provoked the representatives of the infantry phalanx. Their spokesman, Meleager, urged the acceptance of Arrhidaios as a candidate—an act that must, even if Arrhidaios lacked the drive or personality ever to achieve true independence of action, make one wonder just how mentally incapable he really was. Xenophobia also played its part here: the Macedonian rank and file did not relish the prospect of kowtowing to a half-Oriental monarch.

Arrhidaios, who had clearly been waiting in the wings, was now brought in by Meleager, and the infantry acclaimed him vociferously. They then stormed the palace, and the Bodyguard, including Perdiccas, barely escaped a lynching and withdrew, taking the cavalry with them. Meleager now briefly held the key to the succession, but lost his nerve when the cavalry cut off food supplies to the city. In the end Eumenes, still acting as Alexander's chief secretary, managed to talk Meleager's troops into a less belligerent attitude, and proposed a compromise by which Arrhidaios should be made king, and Roxane's son, if son the child proved, should be made joint king with him. This proposal was accepted. Arrhidaios was given the title of Philip Ill, while Alexander's child by Roxane—who was indeed a boy—became Alexander IV.

Perdiccas, bent on reasserting his somewhat shaken authority, announced a "purification" of the army after Alexander's death. At the public parade to perform this ritual, the ringleaders of the infantry revolt were rounded up, without effective protest, for immediate execution—in one account by being trampled to death by war elephants. Meleager was, diplomatically, spared, and was even appointed Perdiccas's deputy (hyparchos); but as soon as the crisis died down, and the situation was once more under control, he was murdered while seeking sanctuary in a temple. So, for the time being at least, the unity of the empire was preserved. But the omens were not good. Arrhidaios, at best, was no forceful ruler: it is symptomatic of the realities of power that Perdiccas, though officially now acting in the name of the new kings, nevertheless retained all the authority of a regent. It would, too, be fifteen or sixteen years at least before Roxane's child—even if a boy who took after his father—became a force to reckon with. Whatever happened, and despite any traditional Macedonian loyalties to the throne, the empire was going to be dependent, for the crucial next decade or so, on regents and advisers who had their own ambitions to satisfy.

This was at once dear when Perdiccas—in his new capacity as epimeletes, either guardian or regent, or, when convenient, both, 22 and with the authority of Alexander's seal ring as further support—summoned a council in Babylon to announce the various key commands that had been agreed on. Here we find almost all the great marshals. Three, however, were absent. Antipater, who during Alexander's expedition had held the key post of regent or viceroy in Macedonia, was still at Pella. A few months before his death Alexander had summoned him to Babylon; but Antipater, sensing that if he obeyed he was a dead man, had remained at home, sending out his son Cassander to negotiate on his behalf. It proved a wise decision. Craterus, whom Alexander had appointed to replace Antipatcr, was on his way back to Europe with Polyperchon, his second-in-command, leading ten thousand of the veterans: he had got as far as Cilicia, and sensibly stayed there until the situation clarified itself. A genial bear of a man, in his broad-brimmed Macedonian slouch hat, he was popular with the troops; but he lacked that fine edge of ruthlessness necessary for supreme rule. A third key figure, Antigonus One-Eye (Monophthalmos), who almost from the beginning of the Persian expedition had held the appointment of commander in central Phrygia, responsible for keeping Alexander's lines of communication open, also, for the time being, remained where he was, in his fortress at the crossroads city of Cclaenae. He too, like Craterus, was larger than life: a towering, corpulent figure, with a harsh parade-ground voice and a shatteringly hearty laugh—not to mention the physical deformity for which he was nicknamed.

When the appointments were announced, they were revealing. Antipater was reconfirmed as Macedonian viceroy: this could be construed as a direct blow at Craterus, thus robbed of the post for which he had Alexander's own authority. Perdiccas was well aware of Craterus's popularity with the infantry; he may now have given him his problematic, and in any case largely honorary, guardianship (prostasia, as opposed to epimeleteia) of the monarchy, as a sop to this not-so-dangerous military Cerberus. Meleager's appointment as hyparchos can be viewed in much the same light. Even if Craterus was technically guardian (prostates) of one or both kings, he never stood in a position to exercise that office; whereas Perdiccas retained both Alexander and Arrhidaios in Asia, where he could keep a watchful eye on them. Among the other appointments, the most important were those of Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Antigonus One-Eye, and the Greek, Eumenes. Ptolemy was one of the few to realize that limiting his ambitions would actually get him farther in the long run. He asked for Egypt, and got it. He had no cause to regret his choice. Lysimachus was given Thrace, while Antigonus was confirmed in his existing command of Pamphylia, Lycia, and Greater Phrygia. Whether this was "really a political setback" for Antigonus is debatable, but certainly he and Perdiccas had never cared for each other, and renewed conflict between them was, in these circumstances, a foregone conclusion. Eumenes, who was resented by the Macedonian old guard, but like all shrewd administrators knew far too much about his colleagues to be discounted, got Cappadocia and Paphlagonia. This could not be described as generous, since neither area had yet been conquered; they were held by a local monarch called Ariarathes, and the appointment was contingent on Eumenes' ousting him. Alexander's old friend Leonnatus was allotted Hellespontine Phrygia. All these men were either Macedonian or Greek: the era of Persian equality had died with Alexander. The dead king's other projects, as costly as they were grandiose, also now met their demise, voted down by the army assembly. 14 They had included a fleet of a thousand large warships for a North African campaign, the encouragement of racial fusion by mass transfers of populations, and the construction of transcontinental highways, numerous temples, and a tomb for Alexander's father, Philip, "to equal the biggest of the Egyptian pyramids."


Excerpted from Alexander To Actium by Peter Green. Copyright © 1990 Peter Green. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Pcrdiccas, Eumcnes, Cassandcr, 323-316
2. Antigonus One-Eye's Bid for Empire, 316-301
3. Demetrius of Phaleron: The Philosopher-King in
4. Zcno, Diogenes, Epicurus, and Political
J. Theophrastus, Menander, and the Transformation of
Attic Comedy
6. The Politics of Royal Patronage: Early Ptolemaic
7. Early Hellenistic Art and Its Antecedents, 380-270:
Space, Pathos, Realism; or, The Horse as Critic
8. The Division of the Spoils, 301-276

9. Ptolemy Philadelphos and Antigonus Gonatas,
10. The New Urban Culture: Alexandria, Antioch,
11. The Critic as Poet: Calli mach us, Aratus of Soli,
12. Kingship and Bureaucracy: The Government of the
Successor Kingdoms
13. Armchair Epic: Apollonius Rhodius and the Voyage
of Argo
14. Events in the West: Sicily, Magna Graecia, Rome
15. Urbanized Pastoralism, or vice versa: The Idylls of
Theocritus, the ,Wimes of Herod as
16. The Road to Sellasia, 239-222

17. Polybius and the New Era
18. Antiochus III, Philip V, and the Roman Factor,
19. The Spread of Hellenism: Exploration, Assimilation,
Colonialism; or, The Dog That Barked in the Night
20. Middle-Period Hellenistic Art, 270-150:
Si monumentum requiris ...
21. Production, Trade, Finance
22. The Individual and Society: Slavery, Revolution,
23. Ruler Cults, Traditional Religion, and the Ambivalence
24. From Cynoscephalae to Pydna: The Decline and Fall of
Macedonia, 196-168
25. The Wilderness as Peace, 167-146
26. Mathematics and Astronomy: The Alternative
27. Technological Developments: Science as Praxis
28. Hellenistic Medicine; or, The Eye Has Its Limitations
29. Hellenism and the Jews: An Ideological Resistance
30. Ptolemaic and Seleucid Decadence and the Rise of
Parthia, 145-116

31. Mithridates, Sulla, and the Freedom of the Greeks,
32. Late Hellenistic Art, 150-30: The Mass Market in
33. Foreign and Mystery Cults, Oracles, Astrology, Magic
34. Academics, Skeptics, Peripatetics, Cynics
35. The Garden of Epicurus
36. Stoicism: The Wide and Sheltering Porch
37. Caesar, Pompey, and the Last of the Ptolemies, 80-30


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