Haberstroh on Matyszak, 'The Rise of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, 336-250 BC'

Philip Matyszak
John Haberstroh

Philip Matyszak. The Rise of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, 336-250 BC. Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2019. Illustrations. 176 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4738-7476-3.

Reviewed by John Haberstroh (University of California Riverside) Published on H-War (May, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56072

Philip Matyszak has produced a brief and lively narrative of the early Hellenistic period. Although the title implies a scope from the ascension of Alexander III (“the Great”) of Macedon until the middle of the third century BC, the content of this book necessarily spills over into the earlier reign of Philip II of Macedon as background. The stated argument of the book is that “the Hellenistic kingdoms were massively successful” because “the Greek rulers of Egypt, Anatolia, Persia, and points east did not try to change the peoples they ruled.” By extension, Matyszak actively works against the notion that the Hellenistic Greek rulers had any semblance of a “denativization” policy and “made little effort to convert the peoples they ruled to their own way of life” (p. 1). On the whole, this argument is generally successful, though in practice the book actually achieves more. The book could be divided into two sections, with chapters 1 through 5 narrating the conquests of Alexander and the Wars of the Diadochi (“successors”) and chapters 6 through 9 taking up more geographically focused treatments of the successor kingdoms. This review will first lay out a chapter-by-chapter analysis followed by thematic comments on the execution of this easygoing introduction to the early Hellenistic period.

A brief introduction airs (some of) the intellectual baggage that often comes with the Hellenistic period in scholarship: colonialism, racism, and narratives of decline. Matyszak is careful to distinguish his work from these problematic earlier accounts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though he does not completely escape certain questionable colloquial phrases (see below). Ultimately, the Hellenistic kingdoms were “humanistic and inclusive” (p. xiii). Chapter 1, “Before Alexander,” introduces the kingdoms of Macedon, Persia, and Egypt as a prelude to the invasion of the Persian Empire by Alexander. Chapter 2, “Alexander Conquers the World (Part I),” frames the invasion as an “all-or-nothing gamble” by Alexander, who was a typical paranoid Macedonian monarch using a superior army as a personal vendetta against Darius III of Persia. Chapter 3, “Alexander Conquers the World (Part II),” picks up after the battle of Gaugamela and describes the abortive foray into India and the full revelation of Alexander’s agenda of fusing aspects of non-Greek cultures into his administration. Chapter 4, “The Wars of the Diadochi (‘Successors’),” begins with a “who’s who” of the major players in the Diadochi Wars: Perdiccas, Antipater, Antigonus Monophthalmus, Ptolemy, Eumenes, and Seleucus. The rest of the chapter narrates the bloody conflicts between these men as a case study in “realpolitik, shifting alliances, back-stabbing and betrayal on a truly epic scale” (p. 54). Chapter 5, “Wars of the Successors – Part II,” recounts the final phases of the successor wars from the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC to the death of Seleucus in 281 BC.

Chapter 6, “Hellenism: The Next Generation,” eases readers out of the chaos of the successor wars and into the consolidation of distinct though still consistently fluctuating geographic empires in Macedon, Egypt, and the Seleucid Empire, ending with the Cremonidian War (267-261 BC). Chapter 7, “The West,” begins the formal treatments of each major Hellenistic kingdom starting with Antigonus Gonatas in Macedon but also gives brief treatments of southern Greece, Pergamon, Bithynia, and Syracuse. Chapter 8, “The Seleucid Empire,” covers the broad geographic span of the Seleucid Empire, noting mostly how the easternmost portions quickly broke off and formed independent kingdoms or were absorbed by opportunistic Indian monarchs, the development of the Mesopotamian and Syrian heartlands, and the effective yet strategically hamstrung Seleucid army. Chapter 9, “Ptolemaic Egypt,” dives into economic and cultural successes of the Ptolemaic state, with nearly half the chapter devoted to the Great Library of Alexandria and the Lighthouse at Pharos. A brief epilogue providing cursory treatments on Hellenistic philosophies (Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism), warfare, art, and literature concludes the book.

Tackling this complex period and geographic content is a brave undertaking, and for packaging it in such a comprehensible way, Matyszak should be commended. There are many memorable phrases that demonstrate the groundedness of Matyszak’s writing style, such as his description of how a Persian scythe chariot worked (“rather in the manner that a hand blender hits a fruit salad”) and how the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues quarreled in Greece (“it should come as no surprise that the pair fought like cats in a sack”), as well as tongue-in-cheek quips like that concerning the unoriginal naming conventions of the Ptolemys (“Ptolemy had decided earlier that his eldest son Ptolemy was unsuitable for the throne, and had therefore repudiated him in favour of his son Ptolemy”) (pp. 35, 111, 82-83). The professed “great fun” of the subject matter and Matyszak’s spirited prose are what make reading the book so engrossing—one could easily go cover to cover in a day or over a leisurely weekend (p. xii).

Like for many of the other military and political narratives published by Pen & Sword, the audience for this book is largely interested lay readers with no scholarly training. The absence of footnotes or endnotes, general lack of direct references to ancient documents, and the avoidance of the nitty-gritty of scholarly debates on chronology seem to be aimed at the interested lay reader. It would be somewhat useful for undergraduates, but the slim background on ancient sources and important topics like imperialism and cultural exchange might deter college instructors.[1] The very short select bibliography is naturally focused on anglophone scholarship, and it pays homage to major and well-known works in the field, like Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (1990), Arnaldo Momigliano’s Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization (1975), and S. Sherwin-White and A. Kuhrt’s From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire (1993), but only five of the twenty-six bibliographic entries are within eight years of the publication under review.[2] There are four poor-quality maps in the front matter, but the seventeen plates in the middle of the book are much better, though the reader is never directed to them in the text. The index is adequate; however, most of the entries are names of individuals or places with a few thematic entries (fans of military affairs will not find “phalanx,” “war elephants,” or “sarissa” in the index).

A disappointing area of the book is its treatment of women and casual colonialist references. The focus on political and military narrative already circumscribes the roles of many women, save for the few royal women who forced their way into the recorded historical narratives by their own will and volition. Matyszak unfortunately chooses to fall back on misogynistic attitudes that essentially reduce important women like Olympias, the mother of Alexander, and the many royal women named Berenice, Arsinoe, and Eurydice to mere stock characters. Olympias has “a highly unstable character” and has an “irrational and sadistic impulsiveness” (pp. 46, 49, 55). Eurydice, who sought an advantageous marriage with Alexander’s brother Philip Arrhidaeus, was a “formidable” and “strong-willed lass” (p. 58). Hellenistic royal women are often described as “scheming” or “backstabbing,” or otherwise depicted in a negative light (pp. 88, 92, 94, 105). Many today would also disagree with Matyszak’s statement that “it does feminism an injustice to maintain that women can be just as hard and ruthless as males” (p. 62). While these portrayals are often what has been handed down through the historical record, a more sympathetic and up-to-date appraisal is warranted.[3]

Similarly, the unironic use of phrases like “barbarians,” “barbarian hordes,” “wild tribes,” and the like ought to be abandoned by publishers. Matyszak argues that the Macedonians were always in a state of high alert, fearing another invasion by the Persian “Menace,” an Orientalist phrasing, but this claim seems to be overstated. There is also a somewhat covert colonial mindset that underpins the book, which relates to the overall thesis. For Matyszak, the success that characterized the early Hellenistic kingdoms was due to the process of city foundation and settling colonists abroad effectively to create “islands of Greek culture” (pp. 17-18). Matyszak attributes the success of this model to earlier Archaic and classical era colonial foundations by southern Greeks across the Mediterranean, but it should be clarified that such foundations did not always result in some harmonious settlement between Greeks and “natives.” Likewise, in the early Hellenistic period there was surely conflict between new arrivals and local populations, despite the general indifference that Matyszak imputes on the Hellenistic rulers. The picture painted in this book more closely resembles an optimistic viewpoint of British and European colonialism of the early modern era: “What the Greeks asked of the peoples in the lands where they settled was that they remain peaceful and provide raw materials for manufacture or trade” (p. 18). Similarly, a strange aside referencing “a moment of particular regret to Hellenistic scholars when the British Library was moved away from the British Museum, where previously the pair had reduplicated the dual role of the Alexandrian Museum and Library,” appears tone deaf to the modern concerns about the colonial realities of how the museum acquired many of its antiquities (p. 146). Considering the target audience for a book like this, it is even more important to present such topics as gender and imperialism in less sensational ways.

Overall, this book would serve as a usable introduction to the complexities and variety of topics that encompass the early Hellenistic period. There are many things that I learned from reading this book (like how the word “parchment” is a corruption of Pergamon, the word “fissiparous,” and the interesting possibility that the Library of Alexandria housed Buddhist texts). There are a few loose interpretations of facts, but these do not impede the argument of the book: Servius Sulpicius’s testimony of the decay in first-century Greece completely ignores how Romans may have contributed, slavery was not banned in Persia, religious syncretism occurred in Egypt and Asia Minor before the Hellenistic period not as a result of it, and the comment that a Macedonian-style Persian military unit could be made of “children of mixed Persian-Greek unions” while Alexander was alive seems like a stretch (p. 48).[4] To general audiences, this book will provide an entertaining introduction to a complex and lively corner of ancient Greek history.


[1]. Undergraduates might be better served by Peter Thonemann’s The Hellenistic Age: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[2]. Other important yet accessible works that might have been included are Paul Kosmin, The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Robin Waterfield, Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great's Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and James Romm, Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire (New York: Vintage Books, 2012). Readers may now be interested in Paul Kosmin’s latest book, Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[3]. The only book in the select bibliography specifically focused on women is also the oldest: Grace Macurdy, Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman-Power in Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1932). At a minimum, readers should be aware of the scholarship of Sarah B. Pomeroy: Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1975; repr., New York: Penguin, 2015), and Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990). See also, Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H. Alan Shapiro, “The Hellenistic Period: Women in a Cosmopolitan World,” in Women in the Classical World: Image and Text (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 136-82; and Elizabeth Donnelly Carney, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000). Bonnie MacLachlan’s Women in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook (New York: Continuum Publishing, 2012) has a useful collection of translated primary sources in the chapter “Women in the Hellenistic Era” (pp. 203-22).

[4]. Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 7.6.1; Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 47.3, 71.1; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 17.108.1-3; and Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander, 8.5.1 all agree that these were not “mixed” children but adolescent Persians or young recruits from the different satrapies.

Citation: John Haberstroh. Review of Matyszak, Philip, The Rise of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, 336-250 BC. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56072

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.