Sunday, August 08, 2010

The most surprising sentence I read today

...while philosophers mandated self-control for kings in regard to both alcohol and sex, the Antigonid king Demetrius the Besieger appropriated the Parthenon itself for the use of his personal harem (ca. 290 BC), and the lead float in the great procession of Ptolemy II in Alexandria in 271/270 was a penis 150ft long with a 20-foot star coming out of its tip.
From a piece by Arthur M. Eckstein on "Hellenistic Monarchy," in the Blackwell Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, p. 256. The reference to the harem of Demetrius is from Plutarch (Demetrius, 23); the reference to Ptolemy's float is from Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae, 196a-203b). The feminist criticism basically writes itself.

The Hellenistic kings, I learned, were basically warlords (like most kings most of the time - most small coalition, small selectorate political systems are depressingly similar), though they were also more upfront about it than most (their kingdoms were more or less explicitly premised on usurpation and force; they never appeared in civilian garb; they called their territories "spear-won land").

The piece also makes good sense of the idea of deification (which happened with some frequency among Hellenistic kings and later Roman emperors): in a world were gods are basically powerful beings who can grant or deny your wishes, powerful warlords were not functionally different from gods; they too, could grant or deny your wishes, so why not build temples to them? I suspect deification as ideological control (as in modern totalitarian regimes) was probably not used much in ancient times.

One small point of contention. Eckstein thinks that the classical Greek portrayal of the Achaemenid monarchs of Persia as absolute despots (in Herodotus or Plato) was an ideological "fantasy," but the Hellenistic kings were apparently the real deal. The Persian kings, according to him, were constrained by custom and a powerful aristocracy, while the Hellenistic monarchs were (apparently) not. This may be partly true, but I doubt it settles the matter; kings constrained by small aristocracies can be as absolute as kings not so constrained (and even the Hellenistic monarchs must have had a small winning coalition that had to be kept happy, the so-called "friends" [philoi] that Eckstein mentions - friends here is an actual title, not just an informal relation). The well-attested opulence of the Persian court certainly suggests a very high extractive capacity and a not very constrained monarch from the point of view of their subjects, though perhaps their rule was legitimated in a different way and their freedom of action with respect to their selectorates and winning coalitions was smaller than the freedom of action of the Hellenistic kings.

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