HELLENISM IN LATE ANTIQUITY. By G. W. Bowersock, University of
Michigan Press, 107 pp., $24.95, 2)ALEXANDER TO ACTIUM: THE
HISTORIAL EVOLUTION OF THE HELLENISTIC AGE. By Peter Green,
University of California Press, 970 pp., $45, 3)PERICLES OF ATHENS
AND THE BIRTH OF DEMOCRACY. By Donald Kagan, Free Press, 287 pp.,
THE names run like worry beads through my fingers: Erbil, with
its traces of a town going back to 7000 BC; Nineveh, capital of the
ancient empire of Assyria; the Arch of Ctesiphon; Ur, with its royal
cemetery from the third millenium; Baghdad. As allied bombs rain
down on the land between those immemorial mothers of humanity, the
Tigris and Euphrates rivers, these and other traces of the cradle of
civilization, the discovery and preservation of which is perhaps the
chief honor of 20th-century archaeology, are in danger of being
Books are more durable than such remains, and these names and
others shine brightly in the pages of many histories. The burdens of
empire in this part of the world have long attracted historians.
Joining this long distinguished line stretching from the fabulous
Herodotus (who traveled about Egypt and Persia in the fifth century
BC) are two modern historians, G. W. Bowersock and Peter Green.
"I have often asked myself, " writes Bowersock in Hellenism in
Late Antiquity, "how it must have felt to have lived through the
Islamic conquest (AD 630) with all the accumulated baggage of the
Hellenic-Semitic East, both Christian and pagan."
That baggage is the subject of his compact, eloquent, and tightly
argued history. Intelligent and inspired interpretation of
archaeological remains gives this book great power. Bowersock shows
over and over again how the so-called polytheism of the Greek
pantheon helped local cultures - whether Arabic or Christian -
express their individuality.
Of Greek culture, he says, "In language, myth, and image it
provided the means for a more articulate and a more universally
comprehensible expression of local traditions." Of Islam, he
writes, "In many ways Hellenism prepared the way for Islam by
bringing the Arabs together and equipping them with a sense of
common identity." Of the Christians, he says, "The rural Christians,
no less than the pagans, made use of Greek mythical iconography to
adorn both their churches and their homes with mosaics that evoked,
in a reassuring and still meaningful way, the old local cults of the
A stunning example of this comes from Cyprus, with analogues in
Syria. A mosaic consisting of six panels represents Dionysos as the
redeemer. Familiar stories are reinterpreted; in one, the Christian
figure of "Error" appears. Bowersock comments, "The supremacy of
Dionysus suggests a kind of pagan monotheism, responding to
Christian monotheism, and with it comes the possibility of error or
Rich in startling perspectives, Bowersock's book concludes with a
quote from Proust that speaks for many who have read it: "My head
swam to see so many years below me, and yet within me, as if I were
thousands of leagues in height."
If Bowersock is Proustian in his discipline - as catholic towards
cultures of the past as he is insightful - Peter Green is more like
the Roman satirist Juvenal, whom he translated years ago.
Savage indignation moves his pen - at least sometimes - in his
almost 1,000-page history. Alexander to Actium: The Historial
Evolution of the Hellenistic Age starts with Alexander the Great
(356-323 BC), who, with his armies, spread Hellenism in West Asia
Minor, Eqypt, Babylon, Media, central Asia, and India. The book ends
with the rise of the first Roman emperor.
The enormous length of the book will not keep it from being read.
Opening it at any page, the reader will be glued to the page.
Green's flexible, idiomatic style draws one on and on, as does the
syncopation of subjects, from politics to medicine to philosophy to
sport to business. …