Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian empire (334-323) opened up a vast new world for Greeks and Macedonians, who constituted the new ruling class of territories which stretched from the Adriatic to the borders of India. Alexander’s empire soon fragmented into three main kingdoms:
- The Ptolemies (Ptolemy I, Ptolemy II, Ptolemy III’, Cleopatra) firmly centred on Egypt and the new city of Alexandria, with interests in the Aegean, notably in Cyprus, in ‘Coele-Syria’ or ‘Hollow Syria’ i.e. the Levant (the area covered by modern Israel, Palestine, Lebanon) and Cyrene in modern Libya. They are often seen as the richest (and most decadent) of the kingdoms, the most strongly tied to their core region, great sponsors of arts. A history in one sentence: They started with a bang, were outgoing and successful for nearly a century and then fell into a very long and soon very inward-looking decline, before vanishing with a flourish in the reign of Cleopatra VII (the famous one).
- The Seleucids (Seleucus I, Antiochus III) often fought with the Ptolemies over ‘Hollow Syria’. They had two main territorial interests, 1. to the north in modern Turkey with an important base at Antioch (on the Orontes) in the corner of the Mediterranean opposite Cyprus and 2. to the east in modern Iraq and Iran with an important centre at Seleucia-on-the-Tigris 18 miles south of Baghdad. The Seleucids seem to have spent most of their time trying to keep their far-flung territory together. One important issue concerns their relationships with a wide variety of ancient and proud subject peoples, with very different ways of doing things, notably the Babylonians and most famously with the Jews. A history in one sentence: They started well, but very soon found they could not keep it up, enjoyed a revival in the years around 200 BC and then the Romans came along.
- The Antigonids (Antigonus Gonatas, Philip V). A dynasty founded by the most ambitious of Alexander’s successors, Antigonus Monophthalmos (‘One-Eyed’) and his son Demetrius Poliorketes (‘the Besieger’). The line was nearly extinguished, but under Demetrius’s son Antigonus Gonatas the Antigonids eventually came to centre their kingdom on Macedonia with a capital at Pella. Much of the time they were engaged in a struggle for influence over the old Greek cities and their federations to the south. A history in one sentence: They looked the most promising in the beginning but took ages to establish a base and were the first to experience Roman imperialism.
The module will investigate the construction of this new world, its style and character, the interactions between its constituent members, the relationships between the Greek elite and the majority non-Greek populations, and the diverse and dynamic cultural output of its inhabitants. One of the most important reasons for studying the period is that it provides a bridge to the world of the Romans who engaged with the art and literature of the Hellenistic World as they engaged with its Great Powers.
Lectures will introduce the broad historical and cultural developments during the three centuries covered by the module. A key topic throughout will be the problematic source material (there is no continuous narrative source for the period, and inscriptions are a vital part of the evidence), and the fortnightly cycle of seminars provide students with an opportunity to discuss central texts. The final examination will include a compulsory gobbet question in which students will be able to display their understanding of the sources and their relevance to general questions.