You are here
The Greeks in Asia
January 2017 (121.1)
The Greeks in Asia
By John Boardman. Pp. 240, figs. 208. Thames & Hudson, London 2015. $50. ISBN 978-0-500-25213-0 (cloth).
The Greeks in Asia is the most recent academic effort of Boardman. This book predominantly deals with the consequences of the impact of Hellenistic (more than simply Greek) culture on the visual arts of Iran, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, all lands that were characterized by a strong local and lasting Indo-Iranian tradition. The book also includes discussion of the effects of the contacts between this western culture and China. Boardman’s chronological focus is on the period between the rise and fall of Achaemenid Persia and the advent of Islam in Iran and Central Asia, with the exclusion of late antiquity. As stated by Boardman in his preface, this book is not designed to be a comprehensive account of the subject but rather has been written to synthesize a vast topic spanning several centuries and a broad geographical area that includes all the lands once subject to the Achaemenids and beyond, up to the Far East. Such an undertaking is clearly not an easy task and is a work of synthesis that only an experienced scholar can achieve with all the limits of a—consciously avoided—nonencyclopedic approach. More details on the processes of acculturation that occurred in Asia because of the impact of Hellenistic civilization and its ensuing local developments can be found in Boardman’s previous works, such as The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity (Princeton 1994), and in the volumes of other specialists in the history and archaeology of Central and South Asia. With this in mind, The Greeks in Asia might well be considered an update and an integration of Boardman’s earlier scholarly accomplishments, a manual especially useful for those students and art historians, or archaeologists, who are not acquainted in particular with the evidence regarding the eastern Hellenistic milieu that developed in Asia after Alexander. Additionally, its clarity and accessibility make this book ideal for the lay public—a well-written and not-too-dense scholarly work on a topic that is, to say the least, quite engaging, and accompanied by 208 high-quality illustrations.
The book is composed of seven chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter, partitioned in subsections, focuses on one of those geographical areas of Asia that were influenced by Hellenism to different degrees. The structure follows the diachronic progresses of the influence of this western-originated culture in the East, taking into account its various developments—a characteristic that makes this a very readable volume.
After a six-page preface with maps illustrating the geographical areas considered, chapter 1 (“Greece and the East: Beginnings”) delineates the early stages of the exchanges that occurred between the Greeks and Syria, the Near East, and Anatolia. This is followed by a section dedicated to the presence of people of Greek culture within the Persian empire (“Greeks and Achaemenid Persia”) and, in chapter 3, a discussion of the contacts that occurred between these two civilizations during and after Alexander’s anabasis (“Greeks and Alexander ‘the Great’”). The author dedicates chapter 4, “The New Greek Kingdoms in the East,” to the history and culture of the post-Alexandrine kingdoms of Asia. Chapter 5 (“Greeks and Their Arts in Central Asia”) considers the interactions of the Hellenistic culture with the seminomadic populations of the Eurasian steppes. Called by the Achaemenids Sakā (i.e., the Oriental Scythians), groups of these populations overwhelmingly entered the historical record of Central Asia and India during the second century B.C.E. They include, for example, the “Yuehzhi” mentioned in Chinese sources, later known as the Kushans, founders and rulers of the homonymous empire. Following the geographical and chronological organization, chapter 6 concentrates on “Greeks and Their Arts in India.” This chapter is the longest in the book and deals in particular with the Indian artistic milieu of Gandhāra, where Asiatic Hellenistic (and Romano-Hellenistic) components were further used to develop a Buddhist artistic language. Chapter 7, “Greeks, Romans, Parthians and Sasanians: Before Islam,” briefly considers the arts of Persia in particular during Parthian and Sasanid times, where the Iranian and Hellenistic legacies, further fueled by the proximity of the eastern part of the Roman empire (and the Eastern Roman empire afterward), developed a complex stratification of cultural elements.
The Greeks in Asia allows readers to find their way in the complex and multilayered historical background that is the East during its historical period, and it enables them to explore in depth the various themes that are remarkably well organized by the author. Perhaps the editorial choice of having all the bibliographical references within the concise endnotes was not the best one possible: the book would have greatly benefited from a full and exhaustive bibliography arranged in a clear geographical and chronological order, a different choice that would have been the ultimate refinement to this useful publication.
University of Bordeaux
Ausonius Institute UMR 5607 CNRS
Book Review of The Greeks in Asia, by John Boardman
Reviewed by Michele Minardi
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/3372