Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Hellenistic Age (2007)

     There is a real and marked difference between history books written for the mass market – and I don't necessarily mean those titles that are dumbed down to be appealing to the pseudo-intellectuals – and those written for historians.  What author Peter Green, who penned one of my favorite books [The Greco-Persian Wars (1996)], assumes is at an introductory level may be for those who are dedicated to proper academic historiography is a dense and ultimately unfulfilling read.  While The Hellenistic Age (2007) does have much information about the royal lines and personages that vied for control of the disparate parts of Alexander the Great's empire, the general information about the age is mostly hidden and comes out in anecdotes and asides. 
     It is understandable that Green does not dwell long on how Alexander came to power or how he conquered multiple empires.  He has written on the topic of Alexander before and is not merely searching for a way to rehash material.  Ultimately, Alexander III of Macedon ("the Great") is important to the age because his conquest and empire define its beginning.  The cities founded by him and subsequently ruled by Macedonians (largely) loyal to him became important centers.  What information is given about the life and times of Alexander helps frame the intrigues that follow; it seems that much like "nobody out-crazies Ophelia" (thank you, Lisa Simpson), few lines in the whole of human history could even aspire to be regarded as competing with the Seleucids, Ptolemies, or competing Macedonian and Thracian lines for various thrones and lands.
     The Ptolemies in particular are a subject that cannot be correctly handled in this brief text.  Putting aside that every daughter from the line over a 100 year period seems to be named Cleopatra, the scheming is fascinating.  Sons murder mothers, mothers murder sons and daughters, people are summoned but flee – only to be executed in a place they presumed to be a safe-haven – or are married off to rivals and raise an army against the person who married them off.  Their rule in Egypt is just part of the story, one that is certainly more widely known to American schoolchildren than the Seleucid Empire.  Indeed, there is no escaping the interconnectedness of the fragmented and warring empires until they fall, one by one.
     The odd fascination with creating a dynastic line – something that is relatively new to the eastern Mediterranean – is contradicted by the willingness to kill of certain family members (or turn against the family altogether) to speed immediate political aims.  Culturally if not ethnically Greek, the Hellenistic kingdoms find themselves in a constant state of war.  Part of this, Green argues, stems from the motivation of Alexander's conquest in the first place – to make money.  Because modern war is so obviously a cost-generating endeavor, it takes a little mental gymnastics to order the mind to accept the reality of ancient conquests being about returning gold, silver, and slaves to the conquering nation and with little to no regard for the (not enslaved) population won in the battles.
     Green does not present a clear case for how Rome came to conquer the Hellenistic kingdoms other than to say that not even the Macedonian phalanx could stand up to the Roman legions.  Fine.  The question that I had – and really more related to Rome than the Hellenistic kingdoms – was: from where did Rome get all of her soldiers?  Rome conquers the Macedonians with help from rebellious Greek city-states, but these are too weak to resist Rome in any meaningful manner – even when banded together in "leagues".  But Rome does this during the Second Punic War (or so is my understanding from the text).  Lots of soldiers, more than one would think a city-state Republic (which Rome really is at the time) could be expected to muster for just one theater of the war.
     Rome gets involved in the way the Classical Greeks used to get involved – somebody came and asked for them to get in the fight.  The psychology of modern politics makes this seem like a ridiculous way to handle foreign relations, but it was the status quo in the Mediterranean for a good long time.  Indeed, it seems that the only things Rome wanted more than money (in the form of tribute or from direct conquest) and art (looted by the legions) was slaves.  The Hellenistic Age apparently operated – largely – on a slave economy, the kind that made it legal to go out and capture people in any conceivable manner so they could be sold for profit or ransomed back to their people.
     Green makes some comparison to the dominance of the slave trade to oil dependency, but he is not aggressive enough in this to please me.  The lesson learned – from various slave rebellions (where the rebellion was not over the fact that there were slaves or that slaves were treated poorly, but rather that some of the educated or aristocratic person who had been enslaved felt that they were suffering in an inappropriate position) – was to always keep the slaves busy.  That meant that rather than fostering efficiency – siege weaponry excepted – the Hellenistic Greeks turned to intellectual pursuits.  They became like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory (2007-present), looking down on the practical application of science (see Howard being an engineer who actually designs real, functional things) in favor of the theoretical.  There was likewise a turning from public works and service to more selfish pursuits, including book reading.
     The Hellenistic Age is a good book, but it is not a quick read (despite its low page count).  Green does not seem as focused as he was with The Greco-Persian Wars, and cannot find a comfortable in-between his desire to write a text that is an introductory and accessible piece yet still fitting for one looking for a springboard into more serious, academic works.  Had I not taken the time to refresh myself with the age and its preceding (more glorious) Classical Age, I think I would have been both lost and frustrated, so I would caution any potential readers to have some recent familiarity with the material covered.

     What were a few of the passages that jumped out at me?
"It has often been pointed out that ancient inventors were familiar with steam power (indeed, produced a model) and could make effective pistons yet never combined their knowledge to build a steam-engine. Water-driven mills were known but not used. The same applied ti the compound pulley, which enormously reduced the energy needed to shift a given mass. The reason should now be clear. Any device that left the servile labor force with spare energy was seen as a direct stimulus to revolution." – p 77
     Yes, it bothers me that the slave economy delayed the implementation of the steam engine by close to 2000 years.  More than that, it offends me that the human race was doubled diminished because it ignored the drive to advance the (practical) knowledge of the species in favor of keeping others bound in service and robbed of any sense of freedom.  This endured for quite some time, and it is a sad legacy of the Hellenistic Age.  Seriously, that amount of human trafficking boggles the mind.
"As in the case with oil, there was a great deal of money to be made from the slave-trade by the unscrupulous. Any human being, rich or poor, high- or lowborn, of whatever nation, if seized in war or by pirates could be legitimately deprived of freedom, turned into a mere commodity. ...Like the oil-cartels, [the slave trade], in a very literal sense, kept the wheels turning." – p 77 
     See the note above.  Green doesn't develop this point further, but he is an historian and not a political scientist.  The implied warning is more alarming than the danger the traditions internal combustion engine and its fuel on the planet or the scarcity of petroleum.  The reliance – and profitability – of oil has kept new technologies from being fully developed.  Will we, as a species, find ourselves 200 years behind the scientific curve because our focus was on tinkering with an existing technology and fuel rather than properly exploring and developing alternatives?
Ptolemy IX Lathyros, who himself had be married to two of his sisters.
"On Lathyros' death in 81/0, [Sulla] sent out Ptolemy X's son as the successor. The youth (Ptomley XI) was required to marry Lathyros' daughter Cleopatra Berenice, his stepmother or, possibly, his mother. After the honeymoon, he murdered her and was duly lynched by the Alexandrian mob. Sulla (in this typically Roman) took no further steps to implement the will but washed his hands of the whole business." – p 121
     Here, we have Roman interference (Sulla) in Ptolemaic matters combined with the insanities that were the marriages in the royal line.  Part of the problem may have been the belief that it was a good idea to marry son to step-mother, or to sister, or mother, or to marry a daughter to successive brothers (to keep the power in the hands of the family).  The will in question was over who was to be in charge and whether or not Rome had any claim to Egypt.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a Roman who had great success mucking around with the Hellenistic Kingdoms.

"Berenice, with ambitions of her own and aware that Rome disliked petticoat governments, looked around desperately for a passable husband. A soi-distant Seleucid nicknamed, from his oafish manners, Kybiosaktes ("the Salt-Fish Hawker") proved so revolting that after a few days of marital intimacy, [Cleopatra Berenice (IV)] had him strangled." – p 125
      By this point in the story, it is a little hard to believe that anyone in their right mind would marry into any of the ruling families.  On the other hand, this type of behavior had become normative and is remarkable to us because it relates to the lineage of the ruling houses.  The way that Green brings all of this salaciousness to light, it is hard to believe that there is no premium cable series in the works for the Ptolemies.  Much more interesting (and more material with which to work) than the Tudors.

Cleopatra VII – the one that was married to two of her brothers, had a child by Julius Cesar and twins by Marc Anthony, and was just not dainty or demure.
"[T]he moviemakers' femme fatale is, in essence, Cleopatra as Horace and Propertius painted her." – p 129
     The Cleopatra in question is Cleopatra VII, the one that everyone knows.  I just liked this line because it is great writing.  It takes the interactions that seem so deviant and alien to modern sensibilities and places it in an easily accessible frame.  More than that, it makes the whole thing more human by showing that the propagandists of the time presented her in a manner that we could both recognize and understand.

"Yet in the end – and if there is a moral to be drawn from the Hellenistic age, this is surely it – the essential condition of the common people, from mountain tribesmen to fellahin and, a foriori, slaves, had changed little between the coming of Alexander and the death of Cleopatra; nor would it, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution meant that they were no longer the near-exclusive and stringently controlled source of the world's energy and could break free, at last, from that imprisoning and repetitive cycle." – p 130
     Here, Green makes a brief statement about how it didn't much matter to the peasantry who was in charge after the end of the Classical Age.  The overlords were often distant, almost exclusively foreign, and they were forced to labor for a mere subsistence existence.  Unfortunately, Green did not dedicate the focus of this book to the plight of the slave and how that did not change for nearly twenty centuries.
The various regions and peoples of the Hellenistic Age.

Greece, or as they undoubtedly thought of it, a hundred little realms of disparate people who share a common base language (and speak of form of Attic Greek to allow for trade).  We get a good (and true) story of how Rhodes came to have the funds to build the Colossus.
The Macedonian/Thracian Lineage.
The Selecuids.

The Ptolemies.  Take a look and see if you can figure out where it all went wrong.

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