Exploring the Hellenistic age

28th April 2016

News, Student news, Alumni news

Two short books on the Hellenistic age have been published by Peter Thonemann, Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Wadham.

Intended for undergraduate students and the general public. the books explore the thrilling and fascinating Hellenistic age, a period which Peter feels has been traditionally rather neglected by historians of the Greek-speaking peoples.

“The three centuries that followed the Asiatic conquests of Alexander the Great (334-323 BC) saw the expansion of Greek civilization across the entire vast stretch of land and sea from Marseilles in the western Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush in the East.  The Hellenistic age has never been afforded the kind of detailed and loving attention lavished by historians, archaeologists and art historians on the so-called “Classical” age of Greece (c. 479-338 BC) that preceded it,” said Peter.

“By any standards, this is a gloriously exciting period of Greek history. The Hellenistic age saw the globalisation of Greek culture, with a single civilisation for the first (and only) time holding sway everywhere from the Rhône to the Indus.  The Greek language was spoken and written in the Ukraine, Bahrain, and Uzbekistan, and Greek kings and colonists settled new Greek-style poleis in the mountains of Afghanistan and the plains of Mesopotamia,” he continued.   

Peter’s new book The Hellenistic Age (2016 Oxford University Press), provides the non-specialist reader with a short and lively introduction to this extraordinary epoch, including developments in science and mathematics (the work of Archimedes of Syracuse), the stupendous expansion in Greek geographical knowledge (including the first good estimate of the circumference of the earth, by Eratosthenes of Cyrene), and the earliest contacts between India and the Mediterranean.  

Peter commented: “It’s true that our evidence for Hellenistic history is a wreck.  Very few literary sources from the period survive, and no continuous narrative histories of the kind which we can draw on for earlier periods (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and others).  But there is always material evidence: the physical remains of cities and sanctuaries, inscriptions, art and architecture, and gold, silver and bronze coins.”

As Peter argues in his second new book, The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources (Cambridge, 2015), the evidence of coins is perhaps more important for this period than for any other epoch of Greek history. Several of the great Hellenistic kingdoms are known to us effectively from their coin-issues alone: the Greco-Macedonian kingdom of Bactria, in northern Afghanistan and central Asia, and the Indo-Greek kingdom, in modern Pakistan, are perhaps the two most notable examples.  Peter shows how rich and nuanced a history of the Hellenistic world one can write through the beautiful gold, silver and bronze coin-issues of its kings and cities.

  • Peter Thonemann

    Peter Thonemann

Learning from a coin: Peter Thonemann reveals the evidence gleaned from a single coin

“Here, (below) is a four-drachm silver coin (“tetradrachm”) struck in western Iran in the mid-third century BC, perhaps at Istakhr, just to the north of the old Achaemenid Persian capital at Persepolis. 

The text on the reverse face of the coin is in Aramaic, and proclaims the coin to have been minted by a certain Baydād, a native Iranian dynast who carried the title of frataraka or “forerunner”.  This seems to have been the earliest coinage ever struck in south-western Iran.  The front or obverse face of the coin carries a highly distinctive portrait – probably an image of Baydād himself – showing the frataraka sporting an elaborate headdress, with long ear-flaps tucked below a broad band; he also wears a diadem and hoop earrings, along with a splendid beard and moustache.  On the reverse, Baydād is shown seated on a throne, wielding a sceptre, in front of a Persian military standard. 

At first sight, this coin looks about as un-Greek as can be – but appearances are misleading!  Macedonian royal coinages provide the model for the weight-standard (Attic, based on a drachm of around 4.3g) and the denomination (tetradrachm), as well as for the right-facing diademed ruler portrait on the obverse, the Zeus-like seated figure on the reverse, and even the borders of dots on the obverse and reverse.  The exotic coin-portrait of Baydād, for all its superficially Persian attributes (headdress, earrings, twirly moustache), is in stylistic terms unambiguously a portrait à la grecque: note in particular the highly individualised features, the long neck with pronounced tendon, and deepset eyes, all of them standard features of Greek ruler-portraiture in this period.  On the reverse, the seated king’s pose is identical to that of Zeus on the reverse of the silver coins of Alexander the Great, and seems to be an imitation of the coinage of the Macedonian conqueror.  

So what this amazing coin shows is, in fact, quite how Hellenized the native dynasts of south-western Iran were by the mid-third century BC.  They were using coins struck in the Greek style, on a Greek weight-standard, in Greek denominations; almost every individual detail of their portraiture and coin-iconography was drawn directly from contemporary Greco-Macedonian royal coinages.  This particular Iranian ruler is completely unknown from any source other than his coins: but from those alone, we get some sense of how well he fitted into the “big” Greek world of the early Hellenistic period, when a single language and culture could carry you from the western Mediterranean to the foothills of the Hindu Kush.” 

Peter Thonemann

  • Tetradrachm minted by Baydād, mid-third century BC.  The legend on the reverse reads ‘Baydād, frataraka by grace of the gods, son of Bagawart’.  16.79g.  ANS 1968.244.40.


Peter Thonemann teaches Greek and Roman history at Wadham, where he is the College’s Tutor for Access.

He is the author of The Maeander Valley: A Historical Geography from Antiquity to Byzantium (2011), the winner of the Anglo-Hellenic League's prestigious Runciman Prize 2012, and co-author (with Simon Price) of The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine (2010). His most recent book is an introduction to Hellenistic coinage, The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources (2015). He writes regularly on all aspects of Greek and Roman history and culture for the Times Literary Supplement. More