Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 10.

R. Malcolm Errington, A History of the Hellenistic World 323-30 BC. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. xix + 348, with 21 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-0-631-23388-6. UK£19.99.

John Atkinson
School of Languages and Literatures, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Malcolm Errington, Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at the University of Marburg, is particularly well qualified to be the author of this important volume in the Blackwell History of the Ancient World series. His earlier major publications include Philopoemen (1969), The Dawn of Empire: Rome’s rise to World Power (1971) and A History of Macedonia (1990). In line with the aim of the series, which is to provide ‘a new narrative history of the ancient world’, he describes this book as ‘a history of important political events and developments, not an encyclopedia with a brief run-down on all aspects of cultural life in the 300 years covered by it’ (p. x). In other contexts he has defended (though those who know him and his work would consider it fairer to say that he has championed) his more traditional approach to historical writing in his monographs, with its focus on well researched narrative and political history. And indeed this matches perfectly the aim of the series, which is ‘to provide a new narrative history of the ancient world’. So here we have, embedded in the narrative, sober analysis of the complex, multifaceted developments of this momentous political history that stretched from the death of Alexander the Great down to the demise of ‘the last of the great Macedonian monarchies’ (p. 308) in 30 BC.[[1]] Developments are properly contextualised and interconnections are clearly established. He eschews the biographical approach, which means not having to bother with anecdotal material of dubious historical value, and not having to face the temptation to cater for any assumed devotion on the reader’s part to the characters of popular imagination. Errington is also careful not to distract or irritate the reader with obtrusive direct or intertextual references to contemporary politics.

The book comes without footnotes or endnotes, but references to the ancient sources are built into the text, and where the name of a modern scholar is cited in parenthesis, the reference is in respect of factual or source material rather any particular line of argument. The Select Bibliography (pp. 316-19) provides a short schematic guide to source selections in, or with, an English translation, and to the key modern books (sic), with a deliberate emphasis on books in English. Errington directs the reader to the listed general studies and more detailed monographs for bibliographic details on more specialist articles and studies, including material in languages other than English. This model seems to be becoming more fashionable, and the clutter-free style no doubt makes a book like this more manageable and more affordable. My reservation about this is that for those whose task is to introduce students to research methodology -- especially in institutions with modest library resources (and yes, I do know about the Web -- and its limitations), more annotation would be helpful. This I can mention as the target readership is said to be ‘students and general readers’ (my emphasis), and I guess that students and academics in the field will constitute the majority of the readership until the film and documentary industries do more to fill the gap between Alexander the Great and Cleopatra VII.

What makes this book particularly valuable is Errington’s mastery of the source material, and in particular the epigraphic and papyrological sources, without which our knowledge of some periods and topics would be decidedly thin. One appreciates the way he offers for many of the documents alternative source books in which the relevant text or translation can be found.

Errington cleverly opens the Introduction (pp. 1-9) with a reference to the Olympic Games of August 324 BC at which Alexander’s envoy announced that the Greek cities were to readmit and reinstate as citizens all those whom they had exiled. In this, Alexander ignored the provisions of the Corinthian League, and Errington contrasts Alexander’s unilateralism with Antipater’s more pragmatic approach, born of awareness of the ‘dissension and political instability’ that the decree on the exiles would cause. Indeed Greek resistance to Macedonian control led to the Lamian War. But the cities of Asia, ‘whether Greek, Syrian or other’, had long been conditioned to subservience to the Persian Empire, and had few illusions about their liberation by Alexander (p. 3). As for the peoples of the non-Greek areas, ‘there could be no disguising the fact that the Macedonians and their Greek administrators (or their indigenous collaborators) were foreign occupiers, despite the real efforts they made to accommodate the interests of their subjects’.(p. 6) The introduction clearly foreshadows a Hellenocentric approach to the period.[[2]] Otherwise he might have started not with the Exiles’ Decree but with the marriage parade in Susa which recognised the unions between Macedonian officers and men and Asian brides,[[3]] or the incorporation into the army of the 30,000 Asian Epigonoi.

Part 1, ‘The making of the Hellenistic World’ (pp. 11-76), covers the period 323-281 BC, starting with chapter 1, ‘First steps’ (pp. 13-35), which takes the story down to the peace agreement with Antigonus in 311 and the liquidation of Roxane and Alexander IV in 310.[[4]] Errington shows his purpose by what he omits as much as what he spells out. Thus he passes over the circumstances of Alexander’s death and the allegations that he was the victim of a plot master-minded by Antipater; and he therefore ignores attempts that have been made to reconstruct some political history from elements transmitted by the Alexander Romance and the Liber de morte Alexandri. Errington is dealing with political history at a higher level.

Part 2, ‘The Hellenistic World in action’ (pp. 77-161), looks separately at the affairs of Macedon and Greece, Asia, and Egypt under the Ptolemies down to the 220s. In the case of Iran Errington notes that the level of ‘Hellenizing’ is not known (p. 137), and there was surely a grey area between planned Hellenization and some measure of voluntary or even unconscious assimilation.

Part 3, ‘The challenge of Rome’ (pp. 163-245) includes coverage of the Fifth Syrian War, the Second Macedonian War (201-197), and Rome’s war with Antiochus III of Syria (192-189 BC). This section concludes with chapter 10, entitled ‘Symploke’, which starts with the Peace of Apameia, and runs down to the Third Macedonian War and Rome’s termination of the Macedonian monarchy after the battle of Pydna (168 BC). Errington does not subscribe to the view that Roman foreign policy in the east was driven by greed and economics, though there were material gains (for example, pp. 213, 223); rather, strategic considerations came first (pp. 203, 211). Like Gruen, Errington holds that the clientela system was well established in the Hellenistic world before the Romans came on the scene.[[5]]

Errington opens this section with special emphasis on Polybius’ notion of the interconnectedness of events which called for universal history with the interweaving (symploke) of the various parts of the whole (Polybius 1.3.4 and 1.4.11). Polybius chose to begin his detailed history with the 140th Olympiad (220-216 BC), as this marked the start of a complex of events that were to draw Rome in as a new force in the politics of the Hellenistic kingdoms. With Polybius to hand and a richer supply of source material Errington seems more relaxed, and there is a noticeable lightening of the style as the book proceeds.

Part 4, ‘Rome in the Hellenistic World’ (pp. 247-308), followed by chapter 16, Epilogue (pp. 309-15), covers the period 168-30 BC, including Athens’ suicidal decision to throw in its lot with Mithridates VI in 88 (p. 255), the demise of the Seleucid dynasty and Rome’s annexation of Syria in 64, and the Ptolemaic tragicomedy that ended with the suicide of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC and Rome’s annexation of Egypt.

For the period covered by the first two sections of the book, 323 to c. 221 BC, chronological problems abound. On the diversion of Alexander’s hearse to Egypt and Perdiccas’ retaliatory invasion of Egypt, Errington rightly, in my opinion, holds to the ‘low chronology’, putting Perdiccas’s death in 320. On the dating of the assumption of the royal title by Antigonus and the subsequent adoption of kingship by Ptolemy and others, Errington accommodates conventional dating in the chronological scheme that heads the relevant chapter, thus making 306 (p.36) the ‘year of the kings’,[[6]] but in the text he reflects awareness of the lengthy gap between the battle of Salamis, which must belong to the summer of 306 and Ptolemy’s assumption of the royal title which Egyptian documents indicate to have happened no earlier than late 305 BC. Errington therefore suggests that Antigonus’ action did not take place immediately after the battle of Salamis, but ‘during the following months’ (p. 43), yet still in 306 (p. 52), and was known in Athens by April 305 (p. 44); Ptolemy only followed suit after his repulse of Demetrius’ subsequent attempt to invade Egypt (p. 44), but D.S. 22.73-76 sets this campaign at the end of 306 BC. Errington’s solution, as I understand it, is that Egyptians (presumably as opposed to Ptolemy’s Macedonian and Greek subjects) did not count the beginning of Ptolemy’s reign till 305/4 when it was officially recognised that Alexander IV was dead, and thus that Ptolemy was no longer formally his satrap (p. 44). At p. 147 Errington states that it was only in 304 that Ptolemy arranged for the Egyptians to recognise his royal status by crowning him at Memphis Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt. All this takes us further away from 306 as the year of the kings.

Errington gives the date of Arsinoe II’s death as 270 BC (pp. 154f.), but the agreed date now seems to be 1 or 2 July 268, thus, as Habicht says, ‘a month or two’ before Chremonides introduced his proposal that Athens should enter into alliance with Sparta and her allies (clearly, but not explicitly, against Antigonus Gonatas).[[7]] But Errington agrees with Habicht in defending the high chronology for Chremonides’ decree (August 268) and the start of the ‘Chremonidean’ War (267 BC; p. 89). This is now the communis opinio, as is his date for the end of the war, if by 262 BC (p. 89) he means the Athenian year 263/2 and not 262/1.

On the agreement negotiated between Hannibal and Philip V’s envoy Xenophanes in 215, and intercepted by Romans, Errington comments on the effect this had on the Senate’s thinking (p. 186), but a reference to Livy’s account needs to be added.

Errington translates the Ptolemaic cult title Epiphanes as ‘Renowned’ (pp. 168 and 304), but I am reluctant to give up the idea that an allowable connotation is ‘manifest’, the related noun epiphaneia meaning ‘manifestation’. ‘Renowned’ would be the appropriate translation when the word is used in a secular context, but as S.R.F. Price notes, when a Roman emperor was styled a theos epiphanes, this implied that ‘the emperor was present in the world like one of the traditional gods’.[[8]] And, of greater relevance, from the early Hellenistic period we have the Athenian ithyphallic hymn to Demetrius Poliorcetes hailing him as the god who has appeared in person (Duris, in Athenaeus 6.253d-f).

Having periodically to defend the odd South African English usage I can sympathise with Errington if some of his expressions seem quaint, such as ‘loose gun’ (p. 43), ‘Nikomedes’ pre-mortal diplomacy’ (p. 120), ‘shaken in its elements’ (p. 125), and ‘consoled to the idea’ (p. 252). His usage of the phrase ‘politically correct’(as at pp. 174 and 186) seems unusual to me. But, stylistic quirks aside, some formulations are obscure or confusing: for example the penultimate sentence on p. 35, and the beginning of the second paragraph on p. 115. Missing words mar the summary of D.S. 19.57.1 on p. 29, and the translation of a section of Chremonides’ decree (Syll.[3] 434, lines 32-35) on p. 89. Baktria is missing its ‘t’ at p. 122. The maps and chronological tables that head each chapter are helpful, but family trees of the key dynasties should be added before a second edition is published (as it surely will be).

So this is, as the series objectives prescribe, a new narrative history, written by an expert in the field, offering an authoritative and accessible survey for students and readers alike. This is an excellent model of how it should be done, and I am sure that it will be not only students who find this a valuable reference work.


[[1]] Thus Errington’s chronological approach differs from the more thematic survey by F.W. Walbank, The Hellenistic World (London 1992[2]).

[[2]] This can be seen later, for example, in his reference to the Galatians as characterised by ‘barbarism’, the ‘classic barbarian bogey’ (p. 116); and he does not linger to elaborate on the alternative view of them: contrast S. Mitchell, ‘The Galatians’, in A. Erskine (ed.), A Companion to the Hellenistic World (Oxford 2003), esp. 287f.

[[3]] Errington alludes to the marriages later, at p. 64, and there refers to fifty nobles as the grooms, though Chares gave the total as 92 hetaeroi (in Athenaeus 12.538b), while Arrian further refers to the registration of the partnerships of some 10,000 of his troops and their Asian brides (A. 7.4.4-6).

[[4]] This date is given at pp. 13 and 45, but 311 BC is indicated at p. 34.

[[5]] E. Gruen, ‘Rome and the Greek world’, in H. I. Flower (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic (Cambridge 2004), esp. 259f.

[[6]] To borrow the phrase used by O. Müller for his Antigonos Monophthalmos und ‘das Jahr der Könige’ (Bonn 1973).

[[7]] Ch. Habicht, Athens from Alexander to Antony (Cambridge, Mass., 1997) 142f., but the debate is not closed: Ph. Collombert, ‘La “Stèle de Sais” …’ Anc. Soc. 38 (2008) 83 n. 1, who finds the case for 270 for Arsinoe’s death stronger.

[[8]] S.R.F. Price, ‘Gods and Emperors’, JHS 104 (1984) 87.