I’ve long been interested in the ancient world. The Roman Empire, especially, gets a lot of my historical interest. In my reading, it’s very easy to find books on Rome (Empire and Republic), and on Alexander. The period right after Alexander is a bit more difficult. So I’ve been searching for a good book on the diadochoi and the successor states in general for quite some time.

Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium is that book. Green is a professor of Classics who needed a textbook on the Hellenistic world for a set of lectures, and found that no appropriate work existed (which explains my troubles). It is a history of the entire Hellenistic world from the death of Alexander to (to spoil his alliteration) the death of Cleopatra. He wrote it with both the specialists and more general audience in mind, “The main text throughout remains free (I hope) of all arcane allusions, historiographical jargon, specialist shorthand, and quotations—familiar commonplaces apart—in foreign languages.” He is much more successful with the earlier parts of the list than the later parts. There is a fair amount of academic French scattered throughout the book that is opaque to me.

The book itself is broken into five parts, roughly delineating different periods of Hellenistic history, and for the most part chapters of ‘straight’ history are alternated with examinations of particular subjects such as art, architecture, medicine, science (or the lack thereof), and philosophy. Philosophy in particular gets two chapters in part five, and proved hard for me to get through, as opposed to the rest of the book, which was (a few phrases apart) a very interesting read.

I should mention that it is a very long read as well. Nearly three hundred years of an area stretching from Greece to India (at its greatest extent) is a lot of territory, and this is not a beginning summary, but a full, detailed overview of the entire subject. Despite the size of the book, and the amount of detail that is in the book, it does not hold your hand. It starts with Alexander dead, and plunges directly into Macedonian/Greek power politics with no real guide to who these people are. This holds true, though to much lesser extent in other places as well. Thankfully, this wasn’t a major problem for me, but I sure could have used a dramatis personae going in.

In all, this really is the book I’ve been looking for for over a decade. History, culture, thought, of a period I wanted to know more about, all well told in a single package, and a great place to go back to for reference, and to tie any greater detail I find back into the whole. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the period.