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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit disappointing for the expert or student, 26 Jan. 2012
This review is from: THE HELLENISTIC WORLD (Fontana History of the Ancient World) (Paperback)
Written over thirty years ago, F.W. Walbank's "The Hellenistic World" is intended to serve as a very brief overview of this historical period, accessible to both experts and newcomers. It generally succeeds in this objective, but is by no means an authoritative study. The book provides a brief summary of political events, and describes the wars of Alexander's successors (Diadochi). It's main focus, however, is on the three principal Hellenistic kingdoms (Egypt, Macedonia, Syria) - each given a chapter - and the cultural, economic, and religious developments in their societies. There is also an interesting chapter on "the frontiers of the Hellenistic World", which deals with Greek exploration. However, I found the maps and pictures provided were somewhat mediocre (except for one good photo showing coins).

Walbank's book has some very strong points. He produces a good survey of the scant primary sources recording this era (Polybius, Arrian, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus, etc.), and encourages his readers to consult them. His approach to Alexander is kept in context, emphasizing how his policies foreshadowed and later influenced those of Hellenistic rulers. This analysis highlights four distinct themes: Alexander's attitude towards Persia and his transformation of the Macedonian army, his increasing despotism, authoritarian relations with Greek city-states, and the establishment of his divinity cult as a propaganda tool. Walbank also pays much attention to the Greek settlement of Hellenistic states, and how this affected eastern civilizations.

On the other hand, even though this work is meant as an introduction, it still contains some glaring omissions. Pontus does not seem to exist for Walbank. The adventure of how Mithridates I came to found this kingdom in 291BC is not even mentioned. Neither are the wars of Sulla, Lucullus, and Pompey against the mighty Mithridates VI and his Armenian allies (see Mommsen's "History of Rome"). We know that Mithridates I's army included divisions of silver shields. It would have been interesting to examine how Greek culture influenced the lower Caucusus region. Moreover, there is practically nothing on the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Yet this was an important and powerful realm, for its greatest king (Demetrius I) invaded India when his Mauryan allies were overthrown by the Sunga dynasty. The chapter on "the coming of Rome" is almost exclusively devoted to Rome's Macedonian wars. Attalus of Pergamum is scarcely addressed, and links between Egypt and Carthage are not discussed. In general, the book is dominated by Greco-Roman relations, and fails to properly investigate the effects of the rise of Parthia and the Mauryan Empire in India.

In Walbank's defense, it should be said that very little is understood about the Hellenistic period, and few English academics have published books on the subject. Most of the literature in the field discusses Ptolemaic Egypt, because that's where a majority of the evidence (papyri, inscriptions, etc.) comes from. If you are a student seeking a more in-depth analysis, then Peter Brown's "Alexander to Actium" remains by far the best reference in English. "The Cambridge Ancient History" volume 7 (Hellenistic Monarchies & Rise of Rome) and volume 8 (Rome & the Mediterranean 218-133BC) are also worth a look. French scholars have done a very good job of researching this era. The classic work for them is probably Edouard Will's "Histoire politique du monde hellenistique" (which has unfortunately never been translated into English).

In conclusion, I must admit that having previously studied this subject I was a tad disappointed. Walbank is a serious scholar who writes in a pleasant style, but his work focuses too much on the triumvirate of the "big three" (Egypt-Macedonia-Syria) at the expense of other dynasties and nations whose histories are just as fascinating.
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Location: Norwich, UK

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