CJ Online Review: Evans, Daily Life in the Hellenistic Age

posted with permission:

Daily Life in the Hellenistic Age: From Alexander to Cleopatra. By James Allan Evans. Revised edition. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. xli + 196. $19.95. ISBN 978-0-8061-4255-5.

Reviewed by Thomas R. Keith, Loyola University Chicago

Those who are charged with teaching undergraduate-level courses on Hellenistic history will appreciate the virtue of James Allan Evans’ goals in Daily Life in the Hellenistic Age. His text, first published in hardcover in 2008, seeks to bridge the gap between most introductory Greek history textbooks, which tend to give the Hellenistic age short shrift compared to the Archaic and Classical periods, and masterful but unwieldy tomes like Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium. The intended result is a book accessible to those with no background in ancient history, yet with sufficient detail to serve as the core text for an entire course on the period. If Daily Life falls short in these aims, this is a consequence not of any flaws in its construction, but of a cumulative lack of attention to detail.

The book’s strongest suit, without question, is its impressive breadth. Evans does a capable job of working around the problem of the paucity of literary evidence for certain aspects of Hellenistic history; he is particularly skilled at mining non-historiographical sources such as New Comedy, Theocritus, and Herondas for insight into details of mundane life. Consequently, close attention is paid throughout to the issues of gender, class and ethnicity that more traditionally minded historical surveys sometimes neglect, as well as to such matters as diet and dress. Compliments are also due to Evans’ in-depth treatment of the complexities of Hellenistic religion in Chapter 14. As is reasonable for a book aimed at a non-specialist audience, he largely downplays abstract questions of theology in favor of a focus on the details of “on-the-ground” practice. The resulting analysis communicates ably the sheer vibrancy and diversity that pulsated beneath the uniform veneer of Greek culture.

The text also casts a wide geographical net. In particular, Evans devotes much attention to Ptolemaic Egypt, and ably demonstrates its unique status as both Greek and “other,” with all the attendant interpretive difficulties that status poses. Judaea, too, is well-treated, and undergraduates interested in the interaction between the classical world and Judaism will find much of interest. Political affairs in mainland Greece itself are dealt with more cursorily—the growth of federal states, for example, passes largely undiscussed—but any shortcomings in this regard are made up for by the lengthy Chapter 13, “Hellenistic Kingdoms,” an intelligent and incisive summary of the competing power blocs in the Hellenistic world and the ideologies of rulership that prevailed in each.

However, the pedagogical value of the text is undercut by its sloppy production. Errors, both typographical and factual, occur with unsettling frequency. This is perhaps most obvious in the realm of dates: at various points, the battles of Chaeronea (p. x), Lake Trasimene (p. xxv), and Cannae (ibid.), the Peace of Apamea (p. xxxvii), the death of Hadrian (bis, p. 133 and photo 11), and the reigns of every Antigonid monarch save Philip V (p. 182) are dated incorrectly. The text is also often confused on fundamental matters of geography (e.g. the Lydian empire is described as Asia Minor “east of the Halys,” rather than west (p. x); Attica is referred to as Greece’s “western peninsula” (p. 15)). Transliterations of Greek names are variable and sloppy (e.g. p. 112 “Amphiareus” for “Amphiaraus”; p. 119 “didaskoloi” for “didaskaloi”). For whatever reason, these problems are most acute in the preface, but they are by no means confined to it.

Evans’ prose style is competent, but uninspired, and he is strikingly prone to repetition; in part this is a necessary consequence of the book’s thematic, rather than chronological, organizational schema, but it is less easy to excuse the multiple cases in which phrases are repeated almost verbatim, sometimes only a few paragraphs apart. (See e.g. p. 32: “[The chlamys] was the favorite costume for horsemen in Greece”; pg. 33: “The chlamys was also the favorite dress of horsemen in Greece”; pg. 95: “[The
krater] would be a fine example of the potter’s art …”; p. 96: “The krater was usually a splendid example of the potter’s art …”). The only illustrations provided are a folio of black-and-white photos, all but one of which are pictures of archaeological sites. Only one map is offered, a new addition to the paperback edition depicting the Hellenistic kingdoms in 280 bce; maps of the western Mediterranean and of mainland Greece in detail are definite desiderata for future editions. While the bibliography is full, the notes given at the end of each chapter are very sparing. Throughout, the text gives an impression of having been prepared in haste, which is surprising for a revised and updated edition.

This is all the more unfortunate, given the attractiveness of Daily Life’s comprehensive scope and low cost. It is to be hoped that future editions will correct the text’s flaws, after which it will be a worthy addition to the curriculum for undergraduate ancient history courses.

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