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Stefan Pfeiffer / Gregor Weber (Hgg.): Gesellschaftliche Spaltungen im Zeitalter des Hellenismus. (4.-1. Jahrhundert v. Chr.) (= Oriens et Occidens. Studien zu antiken Kulturkontakten und ihrem Nachleben; Bd. 35), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2021, 222 S., eine Tbl., 6 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-3-515-13079-0, EUR 46,00
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Rezension von:
Shane Wallace
Trinity College, Dublin
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Shane Wallace: Rezension von: Stefan Pfeiffer / Gregor Weber (Hgg.): Gesellschaftliche Spaltungen im Zeitalter des Hellenismus. (4.-1. Jahrhundert v. Chr.), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2021, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 5 [15.05.2023], URL:

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Stefan Pfeiffer / Gregor Weber (Hgg.): Gesellschaftliche Spaltungen im Zeitalter des Hellenismus

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When it comes to the social history of the Hellenistic world Rostovtzeff is still the standard bearer, though it is unavoidably dated and the entire question of the social history of the Hellenistic period is in need of revision. Pfeiffer and Weber's book uses a series of case-studies to examine social conflict in the Hellenistic world as a highly localised phenomenon. Individual chapters by and large stick closely to some, if not all, of the five research questions identified by the editors: what are the lines of division in the Hellenistic world (social, cultural, economic, political, religious, ethnic, legal); how did division manifest itself; how important was the size and voice of any particular group; through what media were conflicts manifested; what possible solutions were developed to deal with the problem of social division and were kings conflict resolvers? Seven chapters take us from Greece, to Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt, Babylon, the Seleukid empire, Bactria, and Jerusalem.

Henning Börm examines mainland Greece and argues that since Greek elites were structurally inclined towards conflict amongst themselves over honour and power, stasis was a ubiquitous feature of the Greek polis throughout its history. Apart from the brief period of Alexander's unrivalled rule, Macedonian power did nothing to change this situation, indeed it could not have. Whereas Macedonian kings may have wanted stability, they were inevitably drawn into this deep Greek history of intra-polis conflict, as his enlightening discussion of the reign of Perseus makes clear. Only the onset of sole Roman rule lead to an end of stasis as there was no other external powers for members of the Greek elite to appeal to, though factionalism did occasionally flare up again with Mithridatic wars and the civil wars of the first century BC.

Starting from Polybius' celebrated discussion of the Alexandrian population, Thomas Kruse explores the evidence for social conflict in Ptolemaic Alexandria. Polybios, however, is not actually interested in social divisions and is of almost no use in determining the social character of this cosmopolis. In a neat discussion of revolts in Ptolemaic Egypt, focusing on that of Agathokles in summer 204, Kruse argues that Polybios is concerned with shaping an image of conservative rebellion that supports monarchy and the territorial integrity of the empire, and that his description of Agathokles' revolt exemplifies the ochlocratic behaviour outlined in his theory of political forms.

Hilmar Klinkott shifts attention to Babylon where he argues that the 'multicultural coexistence' that characterised the city from Alexander to Antiochos IV was dependent in large part on the willingness of the Babylonians to welcome both Alexander and Seleukos, who had privileged the site by renovating and rebuilding temples, such as Esagila, and made it their capital until the building of Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris. The legitimising acceptance of the Babylonian priestly elite was an important consideration for both kings. Conflict only begins with the institutionalisation of Babylon as a Greek polis through the foundation of a politeuma, with the Babylonians and Greeks now making decisions together concerning the institutions of the city. This had the potential to interfere with ancestral privileges and lead to conflict since Greeks became decision makers in regards traditional Babylonian matters, such as temple protection.

Stefan Pfeiffer looks at the reconciliation strategies employed by the Ptolemies after instances of revolt and questions the causes of conflict: ethnic tension; economic disparity; or multi-causal. Arguing against a binary cultural opposition between Greeks and Egyptians, Pfeiffer characterises the great Egyptian revolt as a 'non-radical revolt', in that Egyptian rebels sought to replace the Ptolemies with a new native Pharaoh, not overthrow the Pharaonic system altogether. In terms of Ptolemaic legitimisation strategies in the aftermath of the revolt, Pfeiffer identifies three: the priestly elite presenting Ptolemy as a legitimate Pharaoh purging Setites; the Ptolemaic crown issuing amnesty decrees to rebels; and the Ptolemaic military maintaining a close grip on areas that had rebelled.

Franz Peter Mittag takes a case-by-case approach to revolt in the Seleukid empire and argues that conflicts arose primarily from economic or political disenfranchisement, rather than indigenous rebellion. While disloyal behaviour is rare, native disloyalty does feature in accounts of Babylonian opposition to the foundation of Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris. Indeed, Mittag argues that it is the Greek population of Antiocheia-on-the-Orontes that reveals the most evidence of violent uprisings. After a wide-ranging survey of the sources, Mittag concludes that social, ethnic, and cultural concerns play little to no demonstrable role in revolts.

In one of the few studies able to draw on a non-Greek literary tradition, Andreas Hartmann downplays the idea of conflicting religious doctrine in the outbreak of conflict between Pharisees and Sadducees. The emphasis on ethnic tension in the books of Maccabees is a later literary interpretation drawn on by the Hasmonean rulers in order to characterise anyone who does not follow their programme or support the new rulers as a culturally and ethnically constructed enemy of the state and Israel. Hartmann suggests that this may reflect the reality of the position of the High Priest as a religious and a political figure who has to navigate external politics and internal religion.

Turning to Bactria and India, Gunnar Dumke focuses on the meridarch inscriptions which show that office-holders prior to the mid-1st century BC had Greek names while those attested after this point had Indian names. It is tempting to postulate a shift in the ethnic make-up of the kingdom's ruling class around this time, but as Dumke points out our knowledge of Hellenistic Bactria is so poor that almost nothing can be said with certainty. While individuals with non-Greek names, such as Sophytos of Kandahar, could achieve social prominence, the reality of situational identities means that the appearance of a perfectly Greco-Macedonian name does not mean that the name-holder was, or identified as, Greek.

Hans-Joachim Gehrke provides a short but useful conclusion bringing together the volume's main themes and arguments. This book argues clearly that ethnic considerations were not a major influence on social conflict in the Hellenistic world. Certainly, there was no brotherhood of mankind, no perfect melding of cultures, though there was rich interaction, literary influences, and visible syncretism seen in religion and art. Rather, the Macedonian conquests imposed a new set of social and cultural hierarchies throughout the ancient world which helped to encode ethnic divisions structurally through the tax system, privileged social, military, or administrative status, and access to financial or political resources. The editors and contributors caution against interpreting social conflict as 'national' or 'nationalistic' which, as Gehrke suggests, encourages anachronistic interpretations of the evidence.

One of the common features of the Hellenistic world, from Alexandria to Ai Khanoum, was that Greeks and Macedonians formed a privileged ethno-class. Conflict between the native populations and this Greco-Macedonian elite was not ethnic or nationalist, but since the Greco-Macedonian elite enjoyed a structurally privileged status and came from the same ethnic group as the king, conflict between the native populations and the Greco-Macedonian elite appears on the surface to be ethnic in origin. However, when placed within a broad context, conflict with native peoples was a relatively small-scale phenomenon that rarely manifested as major violent conflict, but could be quite damaging when it reached large-scale proportions, such as the Egyptian revolt of 207/6-188/7. Indeed, foreign threats, such as the Parthians, and Greco-Macedonian revolts - i.e. polis stasis, defection of military commanders, and civil war - were far more destabilising and required much greater violent suppression. Social groups in the Hellenistic world were hardly homogenous anyway, so religious or ethnic tensions can be detected within indigenous groups themselves, amply emphasised by Pfeiffer and Hartmann. Not all 'Egyptians' thought or acted the same, fought on the same side, or even shared goals during the great revolt of 207/6-188/7. Postulating a binary opposition between Greco-Macedonians and Egyptians/Bactrians/Babylonians/Jews, etc. is unhelpful as ethnicity was only one of the many ways in which conflict manifested within the Hellenistic empires.

The quality of analysis is exceptionally high in all papers, the case-study approach works very well, and the book makes a major contribution to the question of social history and cultural relations in the Hellenistic world. The contention that conflict throughout the Hellenistic world was primarily between those who had privileged access to status, wealth, and power, and those who did not, is well argued throughout. It will be for future researchers to test the limits of this conclusion.

Shane Wallace