Imagine two Athenians bumping into each other in the Agora one day, and (allowing for some willing suspension of disbelief) one asks the other, “Do you know what year this is?” “Not really.” “Well, it’s 30 BC!” To which our second Athenian exclaims, “By Zeus, that means it’s the end of the Hellenistic period!” This make-believe exchange addresses the point of my current research: a book on Hellenistic Athens not ending in the “usual” 30, but with the Emperor Hadrian in AD 132.
Why? Well, we commonly accept 30 as the end of the Hellenistic period, beginning with Alexander the Great’s death in 323, because 30 is the year Rome absorbed Egypt into its empire, and so could boast it had conquered the entire eastern Mediterranean world. For the Egyptians, then, the year 30 was a watershed, but what about other places in the eastern Mediterranean? Greece, for example, had become a Roman province over a century earlier, in 146, so wouldn’t that have been a more significant year in its history than 30? And when we turn to Greece’s most powerful city, Athens, we have a choice of momentous years to call them that. Take, for example, 86, when Lucius Cornelius Sulla besieged Athens, which was defying Rome one more time, and sacked the city, taking back to Rome all manner of art works and the libraries of Aristotle and Theophrastus. That fate was surely something that would stand out in the Athenian mind.
But then Athens bounced back; it became a more cosmopolitan city, thanks to Roman visitors and emigrants, playing host to Cicero, Pompey, even Antony and Cleopatra. A building program begun by the likes of Pompey, Caesar, and Appius Clodius, and continued by Augustus, morphed Athens from a Hellenistic city to a Roman one. And then came Hadrian. His famous arch more overtly than any other construction showed how far Athens had moved from its heyday in the Classical period, for on that arch was a simple inscription that spoke volumes, and went far beyond being a sign post: “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus.”
That inscription, for me, sums it all up, and is why for the first time I take “Hellenistic” Athens down to AD 132 in my book. Athens had fallen under Macedonian and Roman control throughout the Hellenistic period, but it always stayed true to itself, and the city was always – Athenian. How Hadrian’s arch changed all that! While my approach is anchored in military and political history (let’s face it, you can’t do any history without these foundations!), I also discuss social, economic, intellectual, and artistic backgrounds to provide a comprehensive treatment of Athens over these centuries. And along the way some views of Athens’ position in Greece get corrected.
The Romans ended one era in Athenian and indeed Greek history and started another, but at the end of the day it’s the Greeks who had the last laugh as Horace so aptly put it: “Captive Greece captured her rude Conqueror”!