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Thursday, May 18, 2017

“From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World”, by Michael Grant

352 pages, Charles Scribner’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0020327875

Michael Grant was the prolific author of almost a hundred of brief and accessible books on ancient history. Thus, From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World is just one of the many times he has trod over this, to him, familiar ground. The book is only 275 pages, but each page is filled with detail and serves as an introduction of the period for those who are not well versed in it. After briefly discussing the events after Alexander’s death in the introduction, Grant goes on to analyze each of the Hellenistic Kingdoms which followed in some detail, from their foundations to their eventual decline during the rise of Rome. The history, achievements, and cultures of the major kingdoms (Macedonia, Ptolemaic Egypt, the Seleucid Kingdoms, and Pergamum) are all discussed, but Grant goes far beyond this; in his title he labels his book a history of the Hellenistic WORLD, and he meant it. Grant discusses Epirus under Pyrrhus, the Spartans under their revolutionary Kings of the era, the Greek state of Syracuse in Sicily, the fascinating Eastern Greek Kingdoms in Bactria and India, and finally the non-Greek states in the East including Pontus, the Parthians, and even the Hasmonean Jewish state. After this description of the Kingdoms, Grant discusses the continuance of city-states (in Greece, Italy, and beyond) and their occasional banding together in Leagues such as the Achaean League. He contrasts the general poverty and decline of the city-states with a higher level of prosperity in the Kingdoms where the monarchs invested to a great degree in trade and cultural pursuits.

The latter half of the book examines Hellenistic culture and achievements in fields such as art, science, mathematics, philosophy, poetry, literature, etc. There is an important discussion of the growing role of women in Greek society during the Hellenistic period, as well as insight into Greek religion. Grant notes that the violence of the Hellenistic period and decline of the city-states led to a lessening of the influence of the traditional Olympian gods and that people responded by following a plethora of “mystery cults”, or turning to astrology or magic (Hmmmmm…sounds sadly familiar…) as most people began to believe that their lives were dictated by chance and fortune (again, sadly familiar). Those who sought something more rational and comforting turned to the philosophers who promised Ataraxia, or tranquility. Here, Grant ably discusses the different philosophical schools of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics. Overall, this is a fascinating discussion of Hellenistic culture, and although there are a few slow places where if you are not deeply interested in the field being discussed (literature, sculpture, etc.) the level of detail might bog you down. For me, however, this was rare and a minor complaint. There are also some helpful maps and black and white plates distributed throughout the work. This is certainly a detailed and academic read, but for those who want to understand the Hellenistic World, I highly recommend this book. You will come away with a detailed knowledge of this often neglected period.

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