Historiography Of The Hellenistic Period

If the outlines of the political history of the Hellenistic period are clear, its details are not. Indeed, compared to the history of fifth and fourth century B.C. Greece or the history of the Roman Republic, it has a disconcertingly kaleidoscopic character. The narrative of events shifts abruptly from one geographical locale to another, its chronology is vague and insecure, and the personalities and policies of even the most important rulers are frustratingly unclear. The cause of these problems is not in doubt. No comprehensive ancient narrative history survives to serve as a guide for modern historians. By a cruel stroke of luck, the last manuscript of such an account, a copy of books twenty-one to forty of the vast Library of History of Diodorus of Agyrium, the first century B.C. universal historian, perished in the Ottoman Turkish sack of Constantinople in A.D. 1453. Diodorus's history is the only significant ancient literary work known to have been lost in that tragic event.9 As a result of its loss, modern historians are forced to cobble together their accounts from disparate, fragmentary, and often intractable sources. This same fact explains the extraordinary volatility of Hellenistic as the constant discovery of new evidence through archaeology forces the revision or abandonment of even the most seemingly secure historical reconstructions. Not surprisingly, in these circumstances the perspective from which historians view their subject is especially important.

This is particularly clear with regard to the interpretations offered by the nineteenth-and early twentieth-century founders of Hellenistic studies. Obsessed by the analogy between the Hellenistic kingdoms and modern European imperialism in the Near and Middle East, they placed at the center of their works the problem of the ultimate failure of the Macedonian kingdoms and the possible implications of this failure for their own compatriots. The triumph of Greek political rationalism over Eastern theocratic absolutism, the most important result of Alexander's conquests, proved to be only temporary; it was the unchanging East that won the lasting victory. Such was the central theme of the great early histories of the Hellenistic period. Their authors' interpretations of this theme were usually cast in terms of stereotypes typical of what the literary critic Edward Said has called "Orientalism."10 Scholars accepted as accurate the tendentious characterization of Hellenistic Greek society offered by European Greeks and Romans, who claimed that virile European Greeks degenerated into corrupt Asiatics. Evidence of interest in or sympathy for the traditional cultures of the Near and Middle East, particularly their religious cultures, was excoriated as a betrayal of Western values. Total collapse was averted only by the fortuitous intervention of the philhellenic Romans, which prolonged the survival of Western rule and the dominance of Hellenism in the western portions of Alexander's empire until the Arab conquests and the final victory of the East in the seventh century A.D.

The study of the political history of the Hellenistic period has been least affected by the contemporary reaction against imperialist and chauvinist interpretations, and for good reason. Progress in the study of ancient history has always gone hand in hand with the discovery of new historical sources, and, with the exception of inscriptions, no significant new sources for Hellenistic political history have been discovered. Almost every archaeological expedition brings with it a harvest of new inscriptions, many of them of great interest. Epigraphical evidence is, however, by its very nature particularistic. It throws a bright light on isolated events, but it leaves their historical context in the shade. As a result, the general outlines of the account of Hellenistic political history sketched out in the great late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century histories of the period have remained essentially intact despite numerous modifications and corrections in their details.

The situation is different with regard to historians' views about the character of the Hellenistic kingdoms themselves. Recognition of the colonial nature of the Macedonian kingdoms, combined with intensive study of a steadily growing body of evidence bearing on their organization and social structure, has led to what can only be called a revolution in scholars' understanding of how these states actually functioned.

Descriptions of the organization of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the standard histories of the period are marked by a striking clarity and simplicity. The Hellenistic kingdoms were the result of conquest, and their organization was said to be based on two principles: first, that as spear-won land, the kingdom and its population essentially belonged to the king; and second, that the conduct of the king's business and the performance of the king's work took precedence over all other economic activities. These principles were common to all the Macedonian kingdoms, but analysis of their practical application was based largely on the example of Ptolemaic Egypt. There, the rich papyrological evidence--including royal letters, decrees, government regulations, petitions, and similar sources rescued from the debris of long-abandoned Egyptian towns--seemed to provide a vivid picture of the day-to-day functioning of a state, whose elaborate organization would win approval from even the most demanding modern government planner.

In these historical reconstructions the barter-based economy of Pharaonic Egypt was seen as having been transformed and modernized by the introduction of coinage on a large scale. Land usage was rationalized by the introduction of a comprehensive classification system according to which all Egyptian land was divided into two broad categories: royal land for basic agricultural production and "released land." There were four functional subcategories of released land: cleruchic land to support the army, gift land to reward government officials, temple land to provide economic support for Egypt's numerous temples, and private land, which included personal house and garden plots owned by individuals. Each major economic activity of the state was organized as a separate monopoly so as to generate the maximum revenue from fees and taxes for the king with the least risk. Potential foreign competition for the profits of Egyptian commerce was neutralized by currency manipulation and strict import controls. Every detail of the functioning of the Egyptian economy was planned and managed by an extensive bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was headquartered in Alexandria but its agents--Greek at the upper levels and Egyptian at the lower--could be found in even the most remote village. To facilitate proper functioning of the system, every person from royal peasant to immigrant soldier was registered according to place of residence and economic function. Over the whole system presided the king. The king was, however, no longer merely the first among equals as he was and continued to be in the tradition of the Macedonian homeland. In the Hellenistic state he was an autocrat whose every word was law and whose supremacy over all levels of society was symbolized by the institution of an official cult of the living ruler and his royal ancestors. This picture of the Hellenistic state as an example of a planned society, which the early Hellenistic historians teased out of the evidence, was breathtaking in its completeness and apparent rationality--and hardly any aspect of it has remained unchallenged by recent scholarship.11

The new view of the Hellenistic state is, in part, the result of the contemporary scholarly reaction against "Eurocentric" interpretations. Nineteenth-and twentieth-century historians treated the Hellenistic state as an essentially Greek--that is, European--political form and saw in it, therefore, a sharp break with the past. Recent scholars, on the other hand, increasingly tend to emphasize continuity with the political traditions of the ancient Near East and view the Hellenism of the Macedonian kingdoms as a facade behind which traditional Near Eastern institutions continued to function much as they had under the Persians and even before. This trend is particularly clear in studies of the Seleucid kingdom. Examples are easy to find. For instance, an important series of late-third and early-second-century-B.C. Greek inscriptions from Caria, in southwestern Anatolia, revealed that the traditional ruler of the sanctuary of Labraunda, the high priest of the temple of Zeus Labraundos, continued to function much as his predecessors had under the Persian regime. All that had changed was that decrees issued in his name were now composed in Greek and couched in the terminology typical of a Greek polis . Recently published epigraphic and cuneiform sources have revealed similar continuities in landholding patterns and political institutions between Persian and Hellenistic Syria-Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Just as important in encouraging this revisionist trend has been contemporary scholars' interest in determining how the Hellenistic state actually worked on a day-to-day basis. The picture of the Hellenistic state found in the standard textbooks was the product of an enormous collective scholarly effort to assimilate and organize into meaningful patterns the huge mass of discrete and heterogeneous source material produced by modern archaeology. The result was the elaboration of schematic constitutional and administrative frameworks into which the abundant but all too often fragmentary evidence could be fitted. In this effort particular attention was devoted to documents such as the so-called Revenue Laws of Ptolemy II and P. Tebt. 703 : The Instructions of a Dioiketes (financial administrator) to his Oikonomos (steward), which were thought to be official digests of the rules governing the organization and administration of some of the most important governmental and economic institutions of Ptolemaic Egypt. Contemporary scholars, however, are more interested in determining how the Macedonian kingdoms functioned than in constructing abstract models of their administrative organization. Through the analysis of the growing mass of documents reflecting the actual operations of the Hellenistic states, they have almost totally deconstructed these simple and sometimes even simplistic reconstructions of their organization.

Most dramatically affected has been the understanding of the nature of the Hellenistic monarchies. Until comparatively recently, the Macedonian monarchy was characterized as a hereditary monarchy tempered by elements of popular sovereignty that included the right of the people represented by the army assembly to actively participate in the choice of king and to function as a court of first instance in cases of crimes against the state. Evidence of such extensive citizen rights is almost totally lacking for the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms, whose monarchs ruled as autocrats and were defined in their official documents as consisting of the "king, his friends [the king's personal entourage] and the army." Not surprisingly, earlier scholarship attributed the atrophy of supposedly traditional Macedonian rights to the pervasive "oriental" influence in the Hellenistic kingdoms.12 In an important series of studies R. M. Errington demonstrated that this contrast between the supposedly "constitutional" Macedonian monarchy and its autocratic Hellenistic successors is illusory since the actual behavior of the Macedonian kings as described in the literary sources and inscriptions makes it clear that they also ruled as autocrats and that the only significant limits on the extent of their autocracy were not constitutional but practical, namely, the loss of the support of the army and the potential resistance of the great nobles, who had the power to unseat a king if provoked too far.13

Hardly less dramatic have been the changes in the understanding of the way Hellenistic governments conducted their affairs. The changes are most apparent with regard to Ptolemaic Egypt, but similar developments can be seen in the scholarship dealing with the other kingdoms. Most striking is the almost total disappearance from the scholarly literature of reference to the idea that rational planned economies managed by large and efficient bureaucracies were characteristic of these kingdoms. Typical of the new view of Hellenistic governmental practice is the reinterpretation by the French historian P. Vidal-Naquet of one of the centerpieces of the traditional interpretation--the diagraphe sporou or "crop planting schedule."14 Formerly viewed as a comprehensive plan drawn up in Alexandria that set out in detail the crops to be planted in each area of Egypt for the next year, the diagraphe sporou is now seen instead as a document compiled by the central government from often arbitrary estimates by local officials of their areas' potential agricultural yields, which the administration used to calculate the government's future revenues.

Working independently, a young American scholar named D. Brent Sandy undermined another of the main supports of the traditional view of the Hellenistic central planning by showing that the Revenue Laws of Ptolemy II does not describe the actual management of the Ptolemaic oil monopoly but some administrator's unrealistic dream of how such a monopoly ought to work.15 At the same time, closer examination of the bureaucracy revealed that it lacked some of the key characteristics of any true bureaucracy, namely, defined career paths, clear chains of command, and clearly specified areas of responsibility for its officials. Instead, government officials were political appointees with often multiple and sometimes even overlapping responsibilities, who accepted whatever position the king posted them to, irrespective of their previous service. Instead of the smoothly running bureaucratic machines envisioned by their late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century predecessors, more recent scholars see the Hellenistic governments as vehicles whose primary purpose was to extract the maximum revenue from their rulers' subjects. Documents such as Ptolemy II's (282-246 B.C.) recently discovered order for a complete economic survey of Egypt, and his letter forbidding lawyers from assisting individuals in disputes concerning taxes, bear witness to the Hellenistic kings' insatiable need for money to support their ambitious foreign policies.16 The numerous royal orders forbidding government officials from exploiting the king's subjects for personal gain and frequent recourse in the second century B.C. to the issuance of philanthropa , blanket amnesties for unfulfilled obligations owed the government and for charges of wrongdoing by government officials, equally attest to the inherent inefficiency and corruption of the system in actual practice. The result has been the creation of a view of the Hellenistic kingdoms that is less clear and elegant than that held by the founders of Hellenistic historiography, but that is more nuanced and more accurately reflects the historical situation in which these states existed.

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