Hellenistic Civilisation by W. W. Tarn: when East and West first moshed

Hellenistic CivilisationHellenistic Civilisation by W.W. Tarn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A keen-sighted overview of a turning-point in the development of Western civilization, by an author with deep knowledge of the period.

I wish I’d got this book sooner, for it has provided me with a better orientation than any other work I’ve consulted for the period in which my own work in progress is set: the Hellenistic age. The name itself is not ancient; it was coined by the German historian J. G. Droysen in 1836 to denote the period following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, and ending about three centuries later. Scholars differ as to when to place that end-date, but a commonly accepted one is the date of the Battle of Actium, 31 BC, when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and gained supremacy of the Roman world, making it effectively into an empire. From that point on, historians speak of the “Roman” period.

I can’t remember what made me decide to buy this book, even though that was only two months ago. I got a sturdy, well-worn, burgundy-bound ex-library book from London, the original 1927 edition, withdrawn from circulation after a meager record of borrowings (most recent date-due stamp: 19 Feb 1982). But as soon as I started reading I knew I was in the hands of a master—one who was passionate about his topic.

Tarn himself, in his 1-page preface, states that his book

is neither a history nor a textbook, but an attempt to get a general picture of the civilisation of the Hellenistic period, covering all the main subjects and as detailed as space permits.

And that is an excellent encapsulation of what he achieved. The book comprises 10 chapters, the first of which is a 42-page outline of the history of the period. I skipped most of this, because I had a rough idea of the history to begin with, and because the details of the history are mind-numbing. For while the history of the life and campaigns of Alexander can be told more or less coherently as “one thing,” the events following his death were the international equivalent of a riot.

Part of the reason for this was the inevitable scramble by Alexander’s successors—he had no clearly qualified heir—to gain as much of his legacy as they could. But the bigger part of the reason stemmed from the nature of Alexander’s project itself: to unite the entire known world, West and East, under a single government—his own. Alexander’s great army exploded into Asia, violently bringing two (or more) formerly separate civilizations into intimate contact like lava hitting the sea. Whole populations were torn up, mixed, and reorganized, and the resulting shock-waves and eventual backlash formed what Droysen finally called the Hellenistic age.

Tarn delves into these consequences with great authority. He examines the changes in political structures; he looks at changes in the Greek cities, Asia, and Egypt; he devotes a chapter to Hellenism and the Jews; he covers trade and exploration; and he devotes the last 3 chapters to the cultural topics of literature and learning, science and art, and finally philosophy and religion. After 298 pages, I felt I’d had a thorough and also absorbing briefing.

It was an age of transition; the classical world was dying. Greek-style city-states still existed, but, as Tarn shows, the old ethos and philosophy of the city-state was gone. Cities were increasingly full of foreigners, either resident aliens or, in time, citizens. Some cities remained independent, but many were engulfed by the kingdoms into which Alexander’s brief empire was torn. The Western invention of democracy became submerged under the Eastern tide of absolute monarchy. It was a time of rising individualism: the old cultural and national loyalties, the worship of the local god, fell by the wayside as people sought their own personal welfare and spiritual salvation.

When the wars of Alexander’s Successors had finally played themselves out, the Hellenistic world became a relatively peaceful and mainly prosperous place, with great increases in trade and travel. There was an explosion of cultural forms; people started reading and writing books on a much greater scale. Alexander’s general Ptolemy, and his son Ptolemy II, created the great Museum and Library at Alexandria, prototype of the modern university.

Tarn’s prose is very readable, the more so because his passion carries one along. And although the book was all interesting, for me it kept getting better and better, culminating with his final chapter on philosophy and religion, in which he tries to look into the worldviews of that age. By far the dominant philosophy was that of Stoicism, with its emphasis on virtue and duty. But the bigger story was the spiritual ferment within the soul of almost everyone. Religions of salvation, all from the East, beckoned with the promise of salvation from the crushing wheel of Fate, and of eternal life beyond the grave. The winner in that great sweepstakes would eventually prove to be Christianity.

While Tarn does not emphasize this, the great interest of the Hellenistic age is in its resemblance to our own. We too live in a time when East and West have been stirred together; only now on a scale that is truly global. Cities all over the world teem with foreigners and with the dispossessed; old spiritual traditions are dying, combining, and finding new life with adherents on new continents. People still yearn for peace and universal brotherhood, even as the world is ripped with vicious conflict. We are individuals seeking our way.

That’s the real interest of that age and of this book: the problems of the Hellenistic world are our problems. And for that reason I think it’s a book of general interest and not just for specialists. I believe that thinking people in the Hellenistic world, if they had been shown a panel from Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo, would have understood it perfectly. In it, one character says: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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