Recorded: May 19, 2022
Event: The World of Ancient Iran and the West
Citation: Ma, John. "Achaemenid Cultural History and the Hellenistic World." Pourdavoud Center: The World of Ancient Iran and the West (May 19, 2022).
by John Ma (Columbia University)
John Ma is an ancient historian who holds particular interest in the Hellenistic world and the interactions between local community and empire. He completed his doctoral work at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Fergus Millar, and taught at Princeton and Oxford before his current position at Columbia University. He is the author of a book on the cities of Western Asia Minor and their relations with the Seleukid ruler Antiochos III, and of a book on civic culture in the Hellenistic polis as embodied in the practice of honorific monuments; he is finishing a book on the Greek city-state from Early Iron Age to Late Antiquity. He is also the co-editor of a volume of essays on the history and historiography of the Athenian empire, and of the recently published, three-volume Aršāma and his World: The Bodleian Letters in Context (Oxford UP, 2020), which uses the letters of the satrap of Egypt to his estate manager to approach a series of questions about the Achaemenid empire. He is fascinated by, and convinced of the historical importance of the Achaemenid empire for the story of ancient history in general, and as a source for broad interpretive issues, detailed test-cases, and theoretical interrogations on empire, culture and society.
Achaemenid Cultural History and the Hellenistic World
Among the transformational impact of the “new Achaemenid history” on the study of the Hellenistic world, cultural history has been neglected: the assumption often seems to be of a radical break. Yet the prehistory of Hellenistic / Alexandrian elite poetry (so visible in the third century BCE, in its reflexive, playful, ironical, puzzling, aporetic, or destabilizing modes) partly lies in fourth century BCE Asia Minor, with such figures as Antimachos and Philetas. The practice of learning, philology, and scholarly allusion can hence be interpreted within the context of the Achaemenid empire, and specifically a frontier region of the empire, Asia Minor. The latter region offers a picture of complex ethnic identities and cultural practices, where local cultures, “Iranization,” “Achaemenidization,” and “Hellenization” coexisted within the context of Achaemenid power and social relations. I propose that the particular practice of Greek philology within the context of Achaemenid history can be interpreted together with Antimachos’ poetry, or Ephoros’ history, as a cultural stance of deliberate disengagement with the Achaemenid empire; this stance can be contrasted with other forms of “Hellenism” in Achaemenid Asia Minor: the “Ionian renaissance,” the adoption of Greek visual tropes by Achaemenid elites, eclectic forms developed by the Hekatomnid or the Lykian dynasts. In conclusion, I propose examining the specific nature of Antimachean “hyper-Hellenism” as a local learned culture within the Achaemenid empire, but also to reexamine the role of “pre-Hellenistic” forms (the term need not imply teleology) across the Achaemenid space.