Alexander the Great’s Successors: in defence of the Hellenistic period

Meeting chaired by Guy Whitmarsh

Dr Daniel Ogden

University of Exeter

6 December 2004

The three centuries that elapsed between the death of Alexander and the seizure of Ptolomaic Egypt by Octavian (Augustus) have been conventionally identified as the time of Hellenistic Civilisation. In recent years, the speaker explained, Ancient Historians have attempted dismantle the traditional chronological boundaries of the Hellenistic period, namely 323-30 BC. It is now customary to promote the elements of cultural continuity the Hellenistic world shared with the Classical one that preceded it and the Imperial one that succeeded it. It is timely, accordingly, to reassert the value of the traditional periodisation.

The Hellenistic period is very easy indeed to define in terms of its single most important constituent, namely the highly distinctive group of intermarrying and warring Macedonian-derived dynasts that presided over it, prominent among whom were the Ptolemies, the Seleucids and the Antigonids. The earliest group of rulers, Perdiccas and his fellows, was created by the death of Alexander in Babylon in 323 BC and the last ruler, the Ptolemaic Cleopatra the Great, who was driven to her death in 30 BC. For all their dynastic and individual differences, the kings (and proto-kings) and queens bestow upon the period a coherence and a distinctiveness of superstructure that can be claimed for no other period in Greek history. What similar coherence can be claimed for any of the fragmented and chaotic Greek worlds of the Archaic, Classical, or Imperial periods from which the Hellenistic world stands proud in this respect? It will, now, be objected that such an appeal to the dynasties depends upon an old-fashioned and elitist approach to ancient history. For fashion I care nothing, but as to the question of elitism, we need only observe that scholars remain happy enough with the canonical periodisation of Roman history in terms of the activities of its ‘elites’ and the shapes into which they formed themselves (Monarchy, Republic and Empire).

Did the later ancients themselves perceive the Hellenistic period as a coherent entity? We can answer the question with a qualified affirmative. There was, on the one hand, even within the Hellenistic period itself, a clear sense that the career of Alexander had transformed the Greek world and created a new epoch. Demetrius of Phaleron spoke of Fortune lending the blessings of the wealth of Persia to the Macedonians upon their overthrow of the empire. These blessings would one day pass on to others, and Polybius recognized that the process was already happening in his own day, as the blessings of the Macedonians passed to the Romans. At the end of the 1st century- AD Plutarch was to see the world as having been transformed from a different point of view, namely by Alexander’s mission to bring Greek culture, agriculture, marriage, law and general civilization to the barbarians. Significantly, a series of histories - anticipating the works of more recent historians of antiquity - was compiled on the Diadochic period under such titles as ‘the things after Alexander’. Works on this theme were written by Hieronymus of Cardia, Nyrnphis of Heraclea, Arrian of Nicomedia and Dexippus of Athens.

30 BC was probably perceived as an even stronger and more decisive watershed. We cannot be reminded too often of the last words Plutarch gave to Cleopatra’s handmaiden Charmion after she had helped the queen kill herself, words which were so memorably reworked:

First Guard: What work is here! Charmian, is this well done?

Charmian: It is well done, and fitting for a princess descended of so many royal kings.

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra Act v scene ii

So many kings: how many? All the Ptolemies, of course, but the earlier Seleucids were also Cleopatra’s ascendants, and these are hardly excluded. Nor are the Argeads, the earlier kings of Macedon. Even if nothing was made of the possibly real, albeit indirect connection to the Argead family through Ptolemy of Alorus. Ptolemy Soter, the dynasty’s founder, had put it about that he was the secret son of Philip II. Nor are the old Egyptian pharaohs excluded. Even if Cleopatra did not draw down the blood of Egyptian royalty through her (to us) mysterious mother and grandmother, the notion that Alexander himself had been secretly sired by the last pharaoh Nectanebo [I had at any rate conferred upon Soter a pharaonic brother, of sorts. This concise and powerful epitaph, then, encapsulates in the noble death of a single woman not only the end of her immediate dynasty but also that of the history of the world, which the Greeks knew to have begun, long before their own, with the pharaohs. Such a view of the significance of Cleopatra's death was expressed in more explicit and extreme terms by 2nd century AD satirist Lucian who speaks of the duties of the pantomime-dancer:

His entire stock-in-trade is ancient history. the capacity to call episodes to mind readily and to represent them with appropriate dignity. For, beginning right from Chaos and the moment when the universe was created, he must know everything down to the tale of the Egyptian Cleopatra.

Lucian On Dancing 3?

Here the death of Cleopatra brings a close to everything that had ever happened before it.

In the search for ancient periodisations we may be tempted to turn to the chronological frames constructed by ancient historiography. Admittedly, there do not seem to have been a great many ancient prototypes for the histories scholars now produce of the Hellenistic period - that is to say. histories with a focus roughly commensurate with the 323-30 BC span and with the geographical spread of Greek culture during it. But then, according to comparable criteria, there were no ancient prototypes for our histories of the Archaic or Classical periods either. Antiquity’s histories tended to be either wider (‘universal’) in scope, or much narrower in their temporal and geographical purview than the Hellenistic world as traditionally defined.

Of course am Ptolemaic history compiled after the dynasty’s end would have come close to fulfilling our temporal remit, and may also have come close to fulfilling the geographical one in indirect fashion, given that the Ptolemies were always closely involved with the other dynasties and major Greek states, in war or peace. Unfortunately the dynastic histories of the Ptolemies have almost completely disappeared from the record, as have those of the other Hellenistic dynasties. Pausanias tells that the personal historians of the Hellenistic rulers had already come to be disregarded by his own (2nd century AD) day, and he therefore feels the need to remind his readers of what they did. But in doing this, he does at ally rate to have a notion of an age defined by the dynastic.

But one lost history, about which we are frustratingly under-informed, is indeed thought to have focused tightly or. the Hellenistic period, and in particular upon its four great dynasties. Timagenes of Alexandria’s On kings may well have been a Will's Histoire Politique for its time. The testimonia and fragments tell that Timagenes was taken captive and brought to Rome by Gabinius in 55 BC, where, after being freed, he taught rhetoric and associated, for as long as it was safe to do so, with the Antonian camp. His work almost certainly went down to the death of Cleopatra; one fragment mentions her father Auletes, and a testimony tells us that he eventually found it prudent to burn the latest part of his work, which dealt with Augustus.

The Latin history of the Gallo-Roman Pompeius Trogus. which is substantially preserved for us in Justin's epitome of it, may actually have used Timagenes’ history as its principal source. The original was composed under Augustus; the epitome was made at some point before Augustine, some centuries later. The focus of this supposedly universal history is very clearly what we would now call the Macedonian and Hellenistic worlds, with some prefatory books on the background to these worlds in the clashes between the Greeks and the Persians. In giving his work the title Philippic Trogus was following in the footsteps of Theopompus of Chios and Anaximenes of Lampsacus, both of whom had used the title for their histories of Philip II himself. Trogus’ reasons for expanding the scope of the term to allow it to connote, at some level, all the Macedonian dynasrties of the Hellenistic age have long been the subject of debate. but it will also have helped that Philip II remained the node of Trogus’ work. He it was that transformed the Macedonian state and planned the invasion of the Persian empire; he it was that sired Alexander, who continued his remarkable trajectory, and who in turn created, through his death, the successor dynasties.


Green, P. Alexander to Actium (London, 1990).

Chamoux, F. Hellenistic Civilisation (London, 2003).

Ogden, D. (ed.) The Hellenistic World: New Perspectives (London, 2002).