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A good overview but some problems and some omissions
on 26 January 2012
When this book was first published (mid-2008), it was indeed the most accessible piece focusing on Alexander's Successors. There were other books, of course, and not only in English (there a some excellent ones in French or German, for instance), but, as another commentator mentioned, these were either biographies of the main protagonists or books that covered the whole of the Hellenistic period down to the Roman Conquest (Peter Green's FRom Alexander to Actium being a case in point). So, this was the first book targeting the "general reader" (as opposed to the history student or specialist). Since then, Dividing the Spoils from Wakefield has been published and, in my view, it is better the the present volume.
Although the narrative is well told and quite a lot of content has been cramed into about 220 pages, there are several problems with this book.
Perhaps the first of them is precisely that too much content has been crammed into a limited amount of space, so that there is hardly any possibility for discussion. A related problem is that there is practically no discussion of the sources themselves, with the introduction being mainly a (very) short summary of Alexander's conquests and last years before you get thrown into the fray and made part of the turmoil. There is an obvious advantage to this: the pace is fast and the narrative is that much more lively. But there are also some BIG setbacks. A discussion of the sources would have shown that:
- there is much that we do not know because most of the direct sources (with the exception of a few fragments here and there) have been lost
- the sources we have were written several centuries after the events, although they extensively used the primary sources (from eye witnesses). We have, of course, the same kind of issue with Alkexander's reign but it is even worse here because it is so much more important to understand and interpret the events that we are told about and, of course, when you have up to four major contenders, you can have up to four different versions as to what really happened and why it happened. This whole dimension and all of the associated discussions that historians have been having for decades are completely absent from this book.
This may be largely because of space constraints but it also reveals a deliberate choice made by the authors: to present a coherent and unbroken narrative without revealing to what extent this is based on assumptions.
A second problem is that, to some extent at least, the book does not entirely live up to its promises. It is supposed to be about commanders and campaigns, says the subtitle. In fact, it is about the political and military history of the Hellenistic world and mostly up to 301. There is a lot of the various Wars but much, much less about the various commanders. I was expecting much more here and, in particular, some comparisons about their generalship and command style. Apart from some scattered remarks, some of which are in the conclusion and refer to Pyrrhos (who, by the way, was NOT on of the Alexander's Successors, since he belonged to the next generation, just like Demetrios).
A third problem, still related to the sources and to the author's choices is that the book itself is VERY unbalanced. The first 166 pages cover the first half of the period down to Ipsos, but there is only 52 pages devoted to the next 20 years. The authors blame this on the sources. This is only partly true and it is to some extent a bit disingenious. They could have perfectly well covered the ways the various Successor kingdoms were organized by their founders, especially those of ther Seleucids and the Lagids, but also the Kingdoms of Lysimmachus and the homeland - Macedon. This would still have been within their subject since these kingdoms were, at least initially, essentially geared towards war. So something aboiut the respective richnesses, tax systems and foundations of cities which were first and foremost military colonies could have been verw useful and is missing.
As a result, you get quite a good narrative, but that's about it... A pity, it could have been much better