Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Andrew Erskine, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (ed.), Creating a Hellenistic World. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2011. Pp. xx, 355. ISBN 9781905125432. $110.00.

Reviewed by Gillian Ramsey, University of Leicester (

Version at BMCR home site

(Table of Contents at the End)

This volume begins with the not unfamiliar premise that the Hellenistic period introduced something new to life in the Mediterranean and near east, and this is complimented by a common aim in all the chapters of providing new appraisals of Hellenistic material. Studies of Hellenistic change tend to envision sweeping culture shifts as based on Alexander the Great's grand enterprise and traceable according to the rise of the three major successor kingdoms, 1 while Erskine and Llewellyn-Jones assert Alexander's death as the watershed moment, and the subsequent 'fragmentation' of political agendas and identities as the reason for new modes of communicating, thinking and living (p. xv-xvi). The volume brings together chapters on historical, literary and visual expressions of changed aesthetic, philosophical and political priorities in the early Hellenistic period, and though covering a wide range of topics, it all hangs together well and provides scholars and students alike with a valuable source of recent research. The chapters are organised into five sections: New Worlds, Rulers and Subjects, The Polis, The Court and Changing Aesthetics.

The first part, New Worlds, begins at the traditional beginning, with Droysen and Alexander the Great. Robin Lane Fox points to Alexander's role as a 'Hellenistic moment' (p. 4), by solidifying the standards of monarchic behaviour in the minds of people then and historians now, serving as arbiter of Hellenistic taste and style, and demarcating a new type of personality and manners. Colvin tackles another equally monumental, but less prominent, pillar of the Hellenistic, koine Greek, and strips away assumptions about its development and ideological significance. He compares the situation of post-Classical spoken and written Greek to modern Arabic with its 'many mutually unintelligible vernaculars' united by a sense of being Arabic-speaking and sharing an archetypal Classical Arabic (p. 39). Showing that the koine we often imagine at work throughout the Hellenistic world is a scholarly construct, Colvin argues that what really existed was a plethora of local and 'nativized' dialects and orthographies, and that anything recognizable as the koine we envisage was a literary language variously subject to Atticizing, archaizing and other conceits. The story of Hellenism's manifest destiny (as one might put it) is again challenged by Hunter, who examines the Letter of Aristeas and the story of Alexandrian scholarship, translation of Jewish scriptures and Ptolemaic cultural patronage, all cherished monuments to Hellenistic progress. He rehabilitates the Letter as an 'imaginative reconstruction' (p. 54) that fits neatly in the Hellenistic fictional genre, borrowing programmatic aims from Thucydides and others and betraying an 'anxiety' about its engagement with truth (p. 56), a fitting exemplum of our own scholarly concern to pin down the Hellenistic world within a satisfying paradigm.

In part two the focus shifts slightly to take in the formation and exercise of kingship. Roisman reconstructs the later history of the Silver Shields in the post-Alexander environment, examining the role Hieronymus of Cardia's 'elitist' account (p. 61) has played in shaping the story of how the individual power of new successor generals eclipsed the traditional authority of the Macedonian soldiery. Lloyd looks back to the final, ill-received phase of Persian occupation in Egypt to highlight the benignity of Alexander and then Ptolemy. The success of Ptolemaic kingship and its policy (maintain what works, extract the maximum wealth possible and promote Egyptian power and influence in all spheres) is noted, but for Lloyd the new thing was Egypt's relocation out of Asia and into the Greek world, heralding its eventual encounter with Rome (p. 98). More productively, Wiesehöfer's chapter on the frataraka of Persis effectively reminds us that much more Hellenistic history lies beyond the Polybian movement of Greece toward Rome than within it.

Wiemer and Wallace pack a lot into their chapters for part three, The Polis, exploring how cities re-edited old ideologies and aims for a new political scene. The hegemonic 'dream' of escape from domination on the one hand and on the other exercise of leadership over others remained in force, motivating and shaping Rhodes' expansionary aims and its installations at Delphi and in the Colossus. According to Wiemer, the reality facing the Rhodians was not quite the glorious independence and power they envisioned for themselves or proclaimed, but hegemony as a concept loomed large in their minds and in the commemorations of their success. The other, more potent element in the Greek political vocabulary was freedom, banner for Alexander's campaign against Darius and his control of affairs in Greece (p. 152). Wallace argues that panhellenism, eleutheria and homonoia remained powerful in Greek political thought and action through the fourth and third centuries BC, and that Plataia continued as focus for these ideologies in memory and in new games and benefactions for the cult of Zeus Eleutherios and Homonoia.

Earlier in the volume, Robin Lane Fox agrees with Ogden that the advent of the royal court at the forefront of politics and culture was the 'distinctive element in the Hellenistic age' (p. 4). Indeed, part four, The Court, is the largest in the volume. Erskine's chapter on Persaios of Kition at the Macedonian court in Pella picks up on Ogden and Lane Fox's point and highlights the perceptions of court life among philosophers of the time. The stories surrounding Persaios' life reveal the tension between holding 'philosophical convictions' and engagement with the luxuries of court life (pp. 185-187). This 'very Hellenistic dilemma' facing those brought into the orbit of royal power is the same one facing scholars which the volume seeks to address: that we seek after a neat and unitary definition for the Hellenistic. We wish for a koine with which to describe parallel developments in politics, art and social custom; we want an Alexander as touchstone, but what we see is fragmentation and conflicting trajectories of change.

Women are given attention here, but it is indicative of the work yet to be done that study of Hellenistic women has to begin (at least) with them as appendages to male institutions, and only royal ones at that. But the chapters by Carney, Ogden, Llewellyn-Jones and Winder are to be credited for avoiding the desire to explain the roles of royal women in the old terms. Carney explores the power attached to the female gender within the Argead and Successor dynasties, seeing royal women as bearers of ruling legitimacy in a way unique from men, and in different ways depending on the dynasty. She cautions against generalizations regarding the nature of Hellenistic monarchy as a whole (p. 196) and notes the multiple influences of Persian, Asian and Greek expectations (to name a few) that shaped the early expressions of royal power (pp. 197, 204-206). In particular she stresses that matrimonial bonds did not supersede familial ones, and that Hellenistic royal women consistently acted on behalf of their birth families' political interests (p.201), and this primacy of the dynasty set the context for innovations in queenship, including the basilissa title, cult and sibling marriage. Ogden rehabilitates the early Hellenistic royal courtesans as full participants in dynastic politics, like wives and queens brought into relationships with kings for 'diplomatic' reasons (p. 222). For the Antigonids, at least, these royal courtesans enjoyed the same consortship and motherhood of heirs as full wives, and all the political pitfalls that accompanied that status. Llewellyn-Jones and Winder reformulate another Hellenistic standard, Callimachus' Rape of the Lock as commemoration of Berenike II's sophisticated alignment of herself with the goddess Hathor, associated with queenship and sensuality. By dedicating a lock of her hair Berenike drew a direct line to Hathor's alluring coiffure and the desire of her husband for her, establishing her legitimacy as queen versus the potential claim of Berenike Syra Phernophoros as full sister of Ptolemy III. The move towards understanding Hellenistic queens on their own terms, and accepting that they sometimes formulated those terms themselves, is clearly well underway.

Part four, Changing Aesthetics, features two chapters that again tackle monoliths of Hellenistic tradition: λεπτότης and the baroque. They refocus our understanding of these terms, in both cases persuasively arguing for a greater continuity of artistic values from the Classical period and for the deep and abiding conceptual priorities of artists and poets amid the layers of paradoxical gigantism, subliminality, monumentality, dynamism and ephemerality in their works. Porter expresses his doubts that Hellenistic 'refinement' can be quite so tidily pinned down as the neoteric, detail-oriented, 'miniaturist, pointillist, and precious' aesthetic that it has been to date (p. 272). He argues that the Hellenistic poets, through 'speaking objects' and euphonistic sunthesis, played with the affect of poetry's momentary utterance versus its monumental endurance, and that in doing so they deserve recognition as practitioners of a '"baroque" theory of aesthetic contemplation' (p. 282). Schultz examines the chiaroscuro, movement and scale we associate with the Hellenistic baroque, drawing attention to the meaning of stylistic continuity and its significance in the minds of artists (p. 314-315). While we imagine the baroque as emblematic of Alexander and the Successors' bold new ethos, Schultz's comparisons of Classical and Hellenistic sculptural anatomies and draperies show that the hyperbolic and pathetic featured in both, and that the meaning in the Hellenistic baroque included a 'retrospective tradition' of older Classical styles and their attendant meanings.

This volume is an excellent contribution to the Hellenistic field, and while the temporal focus is on the early period, scholars of the later and Roman periods will find much of importance and relevance in it. Creating a Hellenistic World presents a convincing and compelling case for viewing the Hellenistic period as one of multi-scalar and multi-directional change. There are some truly bright points of scholarship contained within, which promise to reconfigure their respective fields of artistic, philological and political history as well as the study of the Hellenistic as a whole.

The volume is another of the beautifully produced ones from The Classical Press of Wales, with several nicely chosen images.

Table of Contents

Andrew Erskine and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Introduction xv-xviii
Robin Lane Fox, The first Hellenistic man 1-29
Stephen Colvin, The Koine: A new language for a new world 31-45
Richard Hunter, The letter of Aristeas 47-60
Joseph Roisman, The Silver Shields, Eumenes and their historian 61-81
Alan B. Lloyd, From satrapy to Hellenistic kingdom: the case of Egypt 83-105
Josef Wiesehöfer, Frataraka rule in Seleucid Persis: a new appraisal 107-121
Hans-Ulrich Wiemer, Early Hellenistic Rhodes: the struggle for independence and the dream of hegemony 123- 146
Shane Wallace, The significance of Plataia for Greek eleutheria in the early Hellenistic period 147- 176
Andrew Erskine, Between philosophy and the court: the life of Persaios of Kition 177-194
Elizabeth D. Carney, Being royal and female in the early Hellenistic period 195-220
Daniel Ogden, How to marry a courtesan in the Macedonian courts 221-246
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and Stephanie Winder, A key to Berenike's Lock? The Hathoric model of queenship in early Ptolemaic Egypt 247-269
James I. Porter, Against λεπτότης: rethinking Hellenistic aesthetics 271-312
Peter Schultz, Style, continuity and the Hellenistic baroque 313-344


1.   Compare Walbank, F. W. The Hellenistic World, revised edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981; Shipley, Graham. The Greek World After Alexander 323-30 BC. London: Routledge, 2000; Bugh, Glenn R. ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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