The Hellenistic Period in Modern Historiography

The Hellenistic period is conventionally said to extend from the accession of Alexander the Great to the throne of Macedon in 336 B.C. to the death of Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 B.C. Its beginning is marked by Alexander's successful invasion of the Persian Empire and its end by the redivision of the Near and Middle East between Rome and the new Iranian-ruled kingdom of Parthia. For much of the intervening three hundred years the territory of the former Persian Empire was dominated by a series of Macedonian-ruled kingdoms in which Greeks and Greek culture enjoyed unprecedented preeminence. Art and literature flourished, the foundations of Western literary scholarship were laid, and Greek scientists formulated ideas of theories that would remain fundamental to work in a variety of fields until the Renaissance.

There was also a dark side to the Hellenistic period. It was the first great age of Western imperial expansion in Asia, ushering in the beginning of the end of the great civilizations of the ancient Near East that had dominated the Near and Middle East for almost three thousand years. These two aspects of the Hellenistic period, the emergence of Greek culture as a significant factor in the culture of the old world and the decline of Greece's Near Eastern rivals, were intertwined, since it was Macedonian imperial domination in the east that facilitated the cultural hegemony of Greece.

This view of the Hellenistic period as one of the major creative periods of Greek history and a fundamental turning point in the history of ancient Eurasia is, however, comparatively recent. Prior to the nineteenth century the Hellenistic period attracted little scholarly interest. To scholars who identified the concept of Hellenism with the Greek republican tradition of the polis , or city-state, and with the restraint and balance of fifth-and fourth-century art, the "baroque" art and "oriental" monarchies of the Hellenistic period seemed decadent. Three factors were responsible for a more positive reassessment of the importance of these three centuries.

The first was the publication between 1833 and 1843 of J. G. Droysen's great three-volume Geschichte des Hellenismus (History of Hellenism), with its revolutionary interpretation of the Hellenistic period as the time in which Greek and Near Eastern cultures mingled in the lands conquered by Alexander the Great to form the cultural matrix from which Christianity emerged.2 The second was the archaeological revolution. Excavation of Hellenistic period sites in Europe and Asia provided--and continues to provide--extensive information concerning the physical setting and material culture of the inhabitants of the new Macedonian kingdoms and their neighbors. Archaeology has also furnished scholars with a wealth of new written evidence in the form of inscriptions on stone and especially papyri, both literary and nonliterary,3 which has made the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the most important period for the recovery of classical literature since the Renaissance. Equally important, the texts also provided scholars with a detailed view of the government and society of a major kingdom, Ptolemaic Egypt, through documentation unrivaled for its comprehensiveness before the late Middle Ages. The third factor that contributed to the reassessment of the Hellenistic period was the creation of new European empires during approximately the same period in the areas once dominated by the Hellenistic kingdoms. The opening of these regions to Western exploration encouraged scholars to see Alexander, his Macedonian successors, and their Greek collaborators as forerunners of their own people and imperial endeavors. The result was almost a century of creative scholarship in which three generations of the most talented European and American historians assimilated the new data and fleshed out Droysen's view of Hellenistic civilization as a mixed culture, Greek in its essential character but enriched by the admixture of elements derived from the ancient cultures of the Near East.

The "heroic age" of Hellenistic scholarship ended in the 1940s. Thereafter, for almost two decades the views of the founders of Hellenistic studies reigned almost unchallenged, becoming enshrined in textbooks and encyclopedias that are still in common use today. During the last three decades--but especially during the 1980s--a new generation of Hellenistic historians, building on the foundations laid by their predecessors but reflecting the changed perspectives of a different time, have re-examined the bases of the interpretation of Hellenistic history and civilization first proposed by Droysen over a century ago. The result has been disconcerting.

The disappearance of the nineteenth-century European empires has left late twentieth-century scholars skeptical of their predecessors' optimistic picture of Graeco-Macedonian invaders and their Near Eastern subjects harmoniously living together and cooperating in the creation of a brilliant new mixed civilization. Contemporary scholars have emphasized instead the colonial character of the Hellenistic kingdoms, the tendency of the Greeks and Macedonians to hold themselves aloof from their non-Greek neighbors, and the essentially Greek character of most manifestations of Hellenistic culture. Aided by the recent publication of new editions and translations of Hellenistic Egyptian and Babylonian literary and documentary texts, scholars have also begun to remedy the neglect of the cultures of the subject peoples of the Hellenistic kingdoms that characterized so much of nineteenth-and twentieth-century scholarship. A new and more complex Hellenistic history is beginning to emerge, one that recognizes both the achievements of Hellenistic civilization and the price paid for them.4 The purpose of this essay is to give a preliminary outline of this new history of the Hellenistic period.

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