The Ptolemies and Egypt
Dorothy J. Thompson
1 Setting the Scene
When Alexander died in 323 BC, Ptolemy son of Lagos, Macedonian general and
historian of Alexander’s conquests, made straight for Egypt, a country he first met
together with the Conqueror. Here, with a keen eye on the geography and natural
wealth of the region, he inaugurated the most long-lasting of the Hellenistic dynasties.
On his invasion in 332 Alexander had gained swift recognition as ruler in succession to the unpopular Persians. His foundation of Alexandria on the coast, with its
rich agricultural hinterland and double harbour, formed a new Mediterranean focus
for the country. Here he built a temple to the goddess Isis, and at Memphis he
sacrificed to Egyptian Apis and the other gods. These acts combined with his visit to
the oracle of Ammon, out in the western desert at Siwa, to provide a clear policy
statement for his successors (Arr. Anab. 3.1Â±5). Control of the wealth and power of
Egypt depended on a rule attuned to the existing sensibilities of a people whose
religion and culture were deeply established.
A local Greek, Kleomenes of Naukratis, was left in control by Alexander. Supported
by military garrisons and local administrators, Kleomenes proved successful in revenue-raising. How far, on liquidating the man himself, Ptolemy adopted Kleomenes’
system remains speculative; he was certainly more conciliatory towards the priests
than was the latter. Strengthened no doubt by the successful hijack of the embalmed
remains of the Conqueror (Erskine 2002a), at first Ptolemy governed the region on
behalf of Alexander’s heirs. In 304, however, he followed Antigonos and took the
Greek title of king, so regularizing his position as the new monarch of Egypt (see now
P. KoÃˆln VI 247.ii.28Â±38; Braund, this volume).
The country he ruled consisted of some 23,000 square kilometres of fertile land
which extended some 320 kilometres along the narrow valley of the Nile from the first
cataract in the south to the Delta and the Mediterranean coast. The broad-stretching,
well-watered Delta to the north was difficult to cross; the entry to Egypt from the east
ran south from Pelousion to Memphis. From Heliopolis at the Delta’s apex, the
Kanopic branch of the Nile ran north to Alexandria from where the coastal route ran
west to Cyrene, a key Ptolemaic possession. From Memphis, there was access overland
to the rich lake province of the Fayum. To the south lay Thebes with its great temples at
Karnak and Luxor, another historic centre of the country. Ptolemy’s foundation of a
further full Greek city in the south, Ptolemais Hermeiou, marks a deliberate attempt to
spread Ptolemaic control along the full valley of the Nile. By the 290s there were
Greeks well-established in Thebes which, despite Ptolemais, remained the key centre of
Upper Egypt (Clarysse 1995: 1; Depauw 2000: 32).
Bounded on either side by desert Â± Libya to the west and Arabia to the east Â± the
thin strip of the Nile valley was linked to the Red Sea by caravan routes from Dendera,
Koptos and Edfu (Apollonos Polis MegaleÃƒ) (Alcock et al., this volume, section 3); to
Ptolemais Hermeiou Dendera
Philai Berenike First Cataract
M E D I T E R R A N E A N S E A
FAYUM (ARSINOITE NOME)
Soknopaion Lake Moeris Nesus (Birket el-Qarun)
Fayum (Arsinoite nome)
Naukratis D E L T A
Thebes (Diospolis MegalÃª)
N U B I A
Figure 7.1 Map of Egypt
106 Dorothy J. Thompson
the north across the Delta, a canal along the Wadi Tumilat joined the river to the head
of the Red Sea. From various points along the valley south from Oxyrhynchos caravan
trails ran west to the oases. A postal service, most probably a Persian inheritance,
provided speedy communication along the valley (Sel.Pap. II 397 [c. 255 BC]) and
new foundations on the Red Sea coast formed staging posts for the transports
bringing African elephants for the Ptolemaic army, together with ivory and Nubian
gold for the royal treasury (Strabo 17.1.45; Burstein 1996b). Egypt was a rich
country and the annual flood of the Nile allowed extensive irrigation agriculture
(Bowman and Rogan 1999).
The agricultural wealth of Egypt allowed Ptolemy to develop the country’s
finances, and the natural frontiers for defence aided his consolidation of an effective
and lasting power-base. When his competitor Perdikkas attacked in 321, Ptolemy’s
forces combined with the crocodiles of the Nile to defeat the invader (Diod. 17.33Â±
6); it was not until the mid second century that a rival dynast, the Seleukid king
Antiochos IV of Syria, succeeded in (briefly) conquering Egypt.
With a strong base at home and an Aegean empire, Ptolemy made use of family and
friends in his management of his kingdom and its dependencies. His stepson Magas
was installed in Cyrene in 301; that city was to prove a fertile source of both troops
and scholars for the Ptolemies. His brother Menelaos governed Cyprus from 310
until 306, when it fell to the Antigonids. In setting up a monarchic system in which
cities had little part to play, Ptolemy made use both of the newcomers and existing
administrative classes. As Diodoros reports in what is a reliable account for these early
years, `he treated the natives with kindness’ (18.14.1). Native temples were recognized with donations of land recorded in hieroglyphics, the sacred script of Egypt
(D. J. Thompson 1994b: 72). A royal loan of 50 talents helped meet mummification
costs for an Apis bull, and the Memphite cult of the deified (mummified) bull as
Osorapis lay behind the development of the new Greek cult of Sarapis. Among his
native advisors Manetho of Sebennytos, high priest of Heliopolis and historian, seems
likely to have played a key role.
Egyptian religion had never been exclusive; presenting themselves to immigrant
and local populations in different forms, the gods of Egypt had a long and powerful
life. Horus the Behedite of Edfu was Apollo for the Greeks, Ra became Helios, Amun
of Thebes was Zeus, and so on. For the Greek immigrants, however, it was their
human guise which was preferred to Egyptian animal forms. In promoting the cause
of native gods, their festivals and cults and in temple-building, Ptolemy I and his
successors found a sure way to establish their rule.
An important feature of the Ptolemaic administration set up by Ptolemy I was that
it was a literate system, one that was administered by scribes at all levels in writing.
It is only in the reign of Ptolemy II that a change in burial practice occurred with
important consequences for our knowledge of this system. The introduction of
mummy casing formed from waste papyri known as `cartonnage’, a form of papier
maÃƒcheÃ‚, has provided information unparalleled in the ancient world. Given the dry
climate of Egypt, papyri used for cartonnage preserve intact not only literary texts but
also the papers, both public and private, of those involved in the administration of the
country. Once discarded, these recycled texts now give insights to the modern
historian that are all the more precious given the absence of more regular historical
accounts and the different sorts of issues that they treat.
The Ptolemies and Egypt 107
Such histories as do survive Â± that of Polybios, in fragments only, of Diodoros, of
importance mainly for the early period, or the lurid and headline-grabbing stories
of Pompeius Trogus, excerpted by Justin Â± may for Egypt be filled out not only
by inscriptions but, more particularly, by the evidence of papyri. Regularly devoid
of a wider context and surviving often in fragments, such texts create their own
problems but also offer great possibilities. The view of Ptolemaic Egypt they allow
is a patchwork one, a kaleidoscopic picture in which the hand of the historian needs
a firm control. To write history from papyri is a formidable challenge (Bagnall
2 The Ptolemaic System
Under a dynastic rule, political stability depends on a trouble-free form of succession.
The Ptolemaic dynasty was a family one which in normal times provided a clear and
easy change of rule between the generations. Sometimes, however, and especially in
the second and first centuries, sibling rivalry in an extreme form, aggravated by the
rivalry of related queens, threatened central control; this was the case with the two
sons of both Kleopatra I and III. With brotherÂ±sister marriage added to Macedonian
royal polygamy (from the reign of Ptolemy II), the family relationships of the
Ptolemies at times are barely credible (Whitehorne 1993; Ogden 1999: 67Â±116).
But in the third century at first the succession ran smoothly. Ptolemy II ruled
together with his father before taking over completely. His reign ran from 285 and
he continued his father’s work in shaping the new system. Indeed, given the survival
of cartonnage, it is from his reign that details emerge of many institutions which may
well have preceded his reign. In his policies, as already for his father, the interrelated
issues of defence, revenue-raising and wider administrative control take their place
beside cultural issues affecting the mixed and varied population of his kingdom,
which are highlighted in this early period.
The supply of soldiers was a problem for all Hellenistic monarchs. The success of
Ptolemy I’s innovatory policy of settling soldiers on the land was proved in 306, when
Ptolemaic soldiers, defeated on Cyprus by Demetrios, preferred to desert back home
to Egypt rather than accept good pay from the victor (Diod. 20.47.4). Cavalrymen
were endowed with plots of 100 or 80 arouras (27.5 or 22 hectares), infantrymen
with smaller plots. For others, billets were provided in the homes of Egyptians,
accompanied often by tension and trouble, as in this memorandum (Sel.Pap.II 413
We find that several of the houses in Krokodeilon polis which were earlier used for
housing troops have had their roofs demolished by their owners; likewise, altars have
been built against their doors to prevent their use as billets . . .
Settlement was concentrated in the Fayum, where the combination of expertise of
Macedonian drainage and Egyptian irrigation engineers resulted in widespread reclamation and a new garden province for Egypt (D. J. Thompson 1999a). The royal
input to this development project is marked in the names of the area. Egypt was
traditionally divided into nomes and the Fayum, earlier known as the Marsh, under
Ptolemy II was renamed the Arsinoite nome after his sister and wife. More than one
108 Dorothy J. Thompson
village in the region was called Arsinoe; Philadelphia was named for her, and under
Ptolemy III Euergetes (the Benefactor) the nome capital Krokodeilon polis became
Ptolemais Euergetis. Here, as elsewhere, new royal names were marked upon the
landscape of Egypt; the new settlers generally flourished. It is also from this exceptional area that much of the Ptolemaic cartonnage derives, presenting a somewhat
Population registers from the period show that settler families were larger, more
complex and certainly better endowed than those of Egyptian peasants who were
their neighbours (D. J. Thompson 2002). In the second century the system of
allotments (kleÃƒroi) was extended to the Egyptian infantrymen recruited for the
Fourth Syrian war. Land grants became smaller as time went on with the development
of other forms of recruiting and retaining the loyalty of the army. From the reign of
Ptolemy VI, the introduction of politeumata provided a new source of identity for
different (often army) communities; starting in the same reign and continuing under
his brother, a series of new urban foundations with dynastic names (Philometoris,
Kleopatra, Euergetis) served as garrison points especially in the south (Kramer 1997;
Heinen 1997). As in other policy areas, over time approaches to the problem might
differ; the basic concern with defence remained.
The wealth of the crown depended to a large degree on the success of agricultural
production. As new areas, like the Fayum, were brought under cultivation, so new
crops were introduced. Naked durum wheat proved popular and eventually supplanted the traditional husked emmer-wheat; bread took over from porridge as a
standard food. Some experiments, like the cabbage from Rhodes that turned bitter
(Athen. 9.369f.), were not altogether successful but, as with new breeds of animals
(sheep from Euboia, pigs from Sicily), the introduction of vines, olives, and other
cash crops will have had a significant impact on the agricultural scene of Egypt (D. J.
Thompson 1999b). They also proved an important source of revenue and, whilst
rents and taxes on cereal crops were charged and levied in kind, those on orchards and
vines came in cash. For an important new feature of the Ptolemaic system was that it
was now monetarized, with taxes collected in cash as well as in kind.
In the Fayum, most land was nominally `royal land’, belonging to the king. Some
land was ceded to cleruchs and temples (`cleruchic’ and `sacred land’); on this only
smaller taxes were charged. On most of the land, however, the crown levied rents and
taxes, which regularly amounted to over half annual production. In the southern Nile
valley, in contrast, a similar level of charge in the form of a harvest tax (Vandorpe
2000b) was made on the cultivated area of what was there labelled `private land’.
Such land could be bought or sold; it often belonged to temples but was subject still
to royal taxation. This prerogative of levying charges on all the land of Egypt and the
high level of these illustrate well the overriding power of the monarchy. The resulting
revenue enabled Egypt to become engaged in Aegean-wide politics Â± she even ran a
garrison in Attica during the Chremonidean war (268Â±266) Â± and to wage a series of
wars against her closest rivals, the Seleukids, with whom she struggled for control of
Palestine and the Gaza strip, in antiquity known as Hollow Syria (Koile Syria).
Behind the levy of land rents lay the operation of the land survey. From 258,
a demotic ostrakon found in the Karnak temple at Thebes records an order made
when the pharaoh (Ptolemy II) was away at Daphne, involved in the Second Syrian
The Ptolemies and Egypt 109
A survey of Egypt was ordered, specifying field by field their irrigation possibilities, their
location, their quality, their arable portions, their relation to the property of the protector gods, their (common) borders with the fields of the benefices themselves and of
the royal fields, specifying area by area the size of the parcels and vineyards, noting when
the fields of the area are dry Â± likewise the pastures Â± and the water channels, the fields
that are free and vacant, the high fields, and the fields that are (artificially) irrigated, their
basins and the embankments that are ploughed and cultivated, specifying orchard by
orchard the trees with their fruits, the gardens, the high fields and the low parcels, their
footpaths, the list of leased parcels with their equipment, the decisions concerning the
price in connection with them, the emoluments of the priests, the emoluments of the
dependents of the reigning king, and, in addition, their taxes, the total of the expenditures for the welfare of Egypt and its sublime freedom, of its cities and of its temples.
(Burstein 97; Zauzich 1984)
Drawn up at village level, passed on up the administrative hierarchy through the royal
scribe of the nome to the dioikeÃƒteÃƒs, or chief financial minister of the country, annual
land surveys prepared once the flood had subsided were supplemented in early spring
by surveys of crops in the fields. Each year, in theory at least, the crown could reckon
how great the income would be. The bureaucratic structures and scribal work
involved come clearly through the texts (Verhoogt 1998).
Land revenues, however, did not suffice to meet the needs of the state, and under
the Ptolemies, perhaps for the first time in Egypt, a poll-tax was introduced in the
form of the salt-tax. Earlier, records of the country’s population were compiled to
register the manpower available for corveÃ‚e labour, both for special tasks and for
regular annual work on the irrigation ditches and dikes. Known mainly from the
third century, the salt-tax was a low level tax that was charged on men and women
alike; women paid a lower rate and over the course of the third century the general
rate was lowered more than once (Clarysse and Thompson 1995). The salt-tax
was charged and collected in cash; such a pervasive charge played a significant
part in progressive monetization. The registers of taxpayers, organized on a household basis as also by tax-category and occupation, provide details of household
composition and structure (Bagnall and Frier 1994; D. J. Thompson 1997 and
2002). Tax-collection was a complex business, an interesting mix of public and
private which is typical of much of the Ptolemaic system. Taxes were farmed out
to the highest bidder, with solid guarantees required before any contract was
issued. It was state collectors, however, who played a major role in collection
on the ground. Greek financial structures were thus added to the existing system
of state control (von Reden 2001). The same amalgam of interests may be found
in other aspects of the system. The state gave Â± in grants, for instance, made to
temples Â± and it collected; others were financially responsible for any potential
State involvement was pervasive in most economic aspects of Egypt. In agriculture,
a crop schedule detailed the crops that were to be sown (P.Yale 36.2Â±3 [232 BC];
P.Tebt. III 703.57Â±60 [c. 242 BC], translated Austin 253 and 256). The cultivation
and exploitation of oil crops were centrally controlled at every stage (BD 114 [259
BC]; Bingen 1978a); textile production was closely watched, and some other forms of
production were subjected to monopoly control (PreÃ‚aux 1939: 93Â±116; Bingen
110 Dorothy J. Thompson
1978a). All was carefully watched by an army of officials, who in turn were carefully
controlled (P.Tebt. III 703, trans as Burstein 101, extracts):
During your tours of inspection, try to encourage each individual . . . . The sowing of the
nome in accordance with the plan for planting is to be one of your prime concerns . . . . It
is your responsibility that the designated provisions are transported to Alexandria. . . . Go
also to the weaving sheds . . . and take special care that the looms are in operation….
Conduct an audit also of the revenues, village by village…. Make a list of the royal
houses and of the gardens associated with them. . . . Take particular care that no fraud
occur or any other wrongful act . . . . (Thus) you will create security in the countryside
and increase the revenues significantly. . . . You should behave well and be upright in your
duties, not getting involved with bad company, avoid any involvement in corruption,
believe that if you are not accused of such things, you will merit promotion, keep this
memorandum to hand and write concerning each matter as required.
These short extracts from a long exhortatory memorandum spell out the royal
ideology; as is clear from a mound of complaints, the practice was often different.
The fact that all was written down enables us to trace some of the conflicting
pressures involved at different levels of such a bureaucratic system (D. J. Crawford
Where did the Ptolemies find the men to run their administration and how did they
keep them loyal? Figures are always uncertain but new data from the Fayum suggest
that immigrants represented a small percentage of the population, perhaps 10Â±15 per
cent overall, unevenly distributed with a heavy concentration in Alexandria and
Lower Egypt (P.Count 1 [254Â±231 BC]; D. J. Thompson 2001: 312). The use,
therefore, of existing personnel was essential, and the hieroglyphic evidence of
Egyptian sarcophagi and statues allows us to trace some of those involved (D. J.
Thompson 1992: 44Â±5). So do the papyri themselves since in the early generations
demotic was still used alongside Greek, and Greek itself is on occasion written with
the Egyptian rush (not the Greek pen) allowing us to identify Egyptian scribes at
work (Tait 1988). Language too is a give-away; Egyptian scribes did not always write
good Greek (Clarysse 1993). Such an open, non-exclusive approach on the part of
the new rulers to those already in post may have been inevitable. Nevertheless, this
was typical of the Ptolemaic approach to rule. Native law-codes and courts were also
left in place; such an approach was no doubt important in winning support.
In some ways, however, an active policy of hellenization can be charted. In
Alexandria, the Library and the Museum (Erskine 1995) formed the physical embodiment of a royal policy of patronage in which Greek language and literature were
privileged (Hunter, this volume). Throughout the countryside, an active encouragement of Greek schooling can be traced in the numbers of teachers in post and in the
salt-tax remission that they shared with coaches, actors and victorious athletes. The
survival and spread of Greek literary works is witness to the speed and success of this
policy (Clarysse 1983; LDAB). At the same time, the willingness of some Egyptians
to `go Greek’, take on Greek names and adopt Greek ways (the acquisition, for
instance, of household slaves) is a not uncommon reaction to a new controlling
power. Moreover, the third-century status of `tax-Hellene’ also brought some financial benefits to its holders (D. J. Thompson 2001: 307).
The Ptolemies and Egypt 111
3 Ptolemies and Temples
Running the administration, the levy of rents and taxes, economic concerns and
matters of law and order form the regular stuff of government. In Egypt, two further
factors need consideration: the age-old power of the temples and the related role of
the Ptolemies themselves, the new rulers of Egypt. The temples were major landholders with developed economic institutions as well as centres of cult, and no
resident ruler could afford to antagonize the gods of Egypt. Traditionally, the
pharaoh formed a key link between the gods and his people. Relations with the
temples took many different forms. Already as satrap, Ptolemy I had restored some
possessions to Delta temples (HoÃˆlbl 2001: 3) though, as becomes clear later on,
`restoration’ might be a somewhat relative term in respect to control of land. Royal
rulings regulated the way that the temples were financed. In 263 the tax (apomoira)
on vineyards and orchards was designated for the new cult of Arsinoe, the sister-wife
of Ptolemy II, who had been introduced as a temple-sharing goddess to all Egyptian
temples (Koenen 1993: 66Â±9; Clarysse and Vandorpe 1998; Chaniotis, this volume).
As with other temple income, this was first collected and checked by crown officials
and only later passed on to the temple. In the second century a grant orsyntaxis is
known which paid for the costs of cult and was administered by pharaoh’s agents
within the temple. Meanwhile the temples enjoyed the freedom of running themselves, but always within the overarching framework of the royal administration.
From Memphis, the former capital of the country, the gravestones of the high
priests of Ptah provide a lineage to set besides that of the Ptolemies. Over the three
centuries of Ptolemaic rule, there were 13 high priests of Ptah to match the reigns of
13 Ptolemaic dynasts (D. J. Crawford 1980). The life histories of these priests, at least
in the first century, testify to their close relations with the court at Alexandria; the
exchange of state visits between ruler and high priest underlines the intimate involvement of these two authorities (D. J. Thompson 1988: 106Â±54). The royal coronation
Â± Egyptian style Â± of the king took place in the temple of Ptah, at least from the reign
of Ptolemy V, and possibly even earlier.
At a national level it was for royal coronations and other major events that the
priests from all Egypt came together. In 196 the priestly representatives, who had
gathered to celebrate the recent coronation of Ptolemy V, produced the encyclical we
know as the Rosetta decree, famous for the role it played in the decipherment of
hieroglyphs (Parkinson 1999; Greek version,OGIS 90). As in the `Kanopos decree’ of
238 (OGIS 56), the priests present themselves as enjoying a reciprocal relationship
with the crown in terms of mutual benefits (BD 164Â±5; Austin 222; 227). With a
heavy overlay of Egyptianizing imagery, the decree that the priests record has a basic
form that is Greek:
King Ptolemy. . . has conferred benefits in many ways on the temples and their staffs and
on those subject to his rule, as he is a god from a god and goddess just as Horus, the son
of Isis and Osiris, the defender of his father Osiris; (and) being in matters concerning the
gods benevolently inclined, he has assigned to the temples revenues in money and
grain .. . . With good fortune, it has been resolved by the priests of all the temples in
the land that [all] honours belonging to King Ptolemy, the eternal, beloved of Ptah, god
Epiphanes Eucharistos, and likewise those of his parents, the gods Philopatores and those
112 Dorothy J. Thompson
of his grandparents, the gods Euergetai [and] those of the gods Philadelphoi and those
of the gods Soteres, shall be increased greatly. . . (Clarysse 2000a)
[and so on.]
Good relations were crucial and, in all important respects, each understood the
other. The decree was set up bilingually in three scripts: in hieroglyphs, the ancient
script of Egypt, in demotic, its more cursive form, and in Greek, the language of the
new rulers. The honours granted the king were those of Egyptian religion, of statues,
crowns and statue cult, and the annual celebration of his birthday and the day of his
4 The Ptolemaic Monarchy
Of the major Hellenistic kingdoms, Egypt was the most subject to monarchic rule.
With only three full Greek cities (Alexandria, Naukratis in the Delta and Ptolemais in
the south), it was through a centralized administration that the Ptolemies ruled.
Initiatives came as royal decrees but the king’s physical presence, accompanied by
his family, was important to his people (Clarysse 2000b: 39Â±40). In the mid second
century, for instance, the king was regularly present in the old Egyptian capital of
Memphis for 1 Thoth, the start of the new year, and times of both trouble and
triumph were marked by royal progresses up and down the Nile. Religious festivals,
the inauguration of a temple, the installation of a sacred bull, were times of celebration in Egyptian cultic life. Royal participation helped to reinforce the monarchy (for
Ptolemy I as pharaoh, figure 7.2).
There was a Greek background too to monarchy. Since Xenophon’s study of the
education of the Persian king Cyrus, the Cyropaedia, treatises on kingship had
entered literary production. Plutarch records the advice given to Ptolemy I to acquire
such studies on kingship; they contained advice that even a king’s best friend would
hesitate to give him (Mor. 189d). The king surely had many friends; the title of
`friend’ became an official one for trusted courtiers and, as elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, the system was soon broadened out with `first friends’, `relatives of the
king’ and other such ranks defined in a court hierarchy (Mooren 1977; Herman
1997). Those who ran the royal administration were fitted into this honorific structure.
The pharaoh’s image was also important. Here too the Ptolemies conformed to a
more general pattern discussed elsewhere in this volume (cf. Ma in chapter 11). The
use of royal epithets started with Ptolemy I, who was also known as Soter (Saviour).
As though echoing this epithet it was, according to the poet Poseidippos, a statue of
Zeus Soter that topped the Pharos, the great lighthouse of Alexandria. Later kings
(with their queens) adopted similar epithets: Ptolemy II Philadelphos (sister-loving),
Ptolemy III Euergetes (benefactor), Ptolemy IV Philopator (father-loving), Ptolemy
V Epiphanes (made manifest), and so on. Such epithets certainly carried divine
connotations for their holders though not yet full divine status. For Ptolemaic
kings and queens, that came in other ways.
In Alexandria the foundation of a cult to Alexander provided through its priest a
new way of dating the years (`in the reign of Ptolemy, in the priesthood of Menelaos
son of Lagos for the fifth year’ is how 284 was marked in one text (P.Hib. I 84a.1Â±2);
The Ptolemies and Egypt 113
Figure 7.2 Ptolemy I: Macedonian Pharaoh.# British Museum, London
as Soter’s brother, Menelaos was a worthy holder of the post (Clarysse and Van der
Veken 1983: 4) ). In 272/271 the cult, as Theoi Adelphoi (brother/sister gods), of
the ruling sovereign and his queen (Ptolemy Philadelphos and Queen Arsinoe) was
added to that of Alexander as, in time, was that of successive kings and queens. By the
reign of Ptolemy IV what had now become a true dynastic cult was granted its own
cult quarters in Alexandria: the SeÃƒma or SoÃƒma, where the mummified remains of
Alexander and the Ptolemies were on display. In the same reign, a similar cult was
initiated in the south at Ptolemais, where Soter, as that city’s founder, took the place
of Alexander. Regularly employed in the dating formula for all legal contracts and
official texts, the dynastic priesthood together with related priestesses for Ptolemaic
queens offered a role for the sons and daughters of prominent families in both
Alexandria and Ptolemais. Centred in these two cities, this was a Greek dynastic cult.
In the Egyptian temples, royal cult was somewhat different. Already in the Luxor
temple, Alexander had been shown on temple walls as pharaoh offering cult to the
local god, but it was Arsinoe, sister-wife of Ptolemy II, who was the first of the
Ptolemies to be introduced to Egyptian temples, as a temple-sharing goddess worshipped alongside the cult of the main divinity (HoÃˆlbl 2001: 85, 101Â±3). The
114 Dorothy J. Thompson
innovation proved a great success and was followed by successive kings and, particularly, queens (Quaegebeur 1988; 1989). Indeed, the royal names of Arsinoe and
Berenike entered the otherwise exclusively Egyptian nomenclature of priestly families.
Ruler cult can play an important role in binding a kingdom together. So it was with
the Ptolemies. Images were produced, of different materials and size to suit the
pockets of those who bought them; they enjoyed wide circulation. Royal oaths played
a part in formal undertakings; sacrifices to the rulers would form the start to any
senior official’s day. When kings are divine, they enjoy an added strength and
authority. As priests and, simultaneously, as gods, the Ptolemies enjoyed an embedded position within Egyptian society.
5 The Troubled Second Century
In a land survey from Edfu south of Thebes, year 16 of Ptolemy IV Philopator (207/
206) was a defining year (P.Haun.inv. 417); as recorded on the temple walls of the
great temple of Horus there, in that year `ignorant rebels’ interrupted the building
works. In Thebes, no taxes were paid to the royal bank from September 207 until
192/191. In effect, there was civil war in the region, as the old centre of Thebes and
much of the south came under the control of rebel pharaohs, first Haronnophris
(205Â±199) and then Chaonnophris (199Â±192/191) (Pestman 1995). Their very
names carry meaning: `Horus is Osiris’ and `Osiris still lives’. The powerful gods of
Egypt backed these new pharaohs in their control of Upper Egypt. The knot that tied
the two lands was loosed; the land of the white crown, the realm of the bee, was lost
to Ptolemy, who now held Lower Egypt only, land of the red crown, realm of the
This was a hard time for Egypt and its people. Trouble at court compounded that
in the south. In Alexandria, a palace coup had resulted in the death (in 204) of
Ptolemy IV and his more popular queen, Arsinoe III. Ptolemy V was merely a
youngster under the control of more sinister figures at the court. With the south in
revolt, the young king came under attack from the east and along the Phoenician
coast. The battle of Panion on the edge of the Golan Heights in 200 brought an end
to Ptolemaic control of the area. It was in this troubled period that the king
celebrated, first, his coming of age in Alexandria and then, on 27 November 197,
his coronation as pharaoh in Memphis. This royal coronation was the occasion for the
priestly convention that resulted in the Rosetta decree (OGIS 90).
It was not until 186 that, somewhere further to the south, Chaonnophris was
finally defeated by Komanos, general of Ptolemy V. The effects of the rebellion were
felt for many generations. One resulting dispute over a house in Thebes, appropriated
in the time of the `trouble’ under Ptolemy V, was still before the courts in 125. The
case was finally thrown out in 117, some 88 years after the complainant’s father had
left town to fight (UPZ II 160Â±2 P.Tor.Choach. nos. 11Â±12). In times of trouble,
property was rarely secure; deeds might be lost or burnt, and general insecurities and
local conflicts came to the surface (SB V 8033 [182 BC]; VIII 9681 [175Â±169 BC]).
Some thirty years later Antiochos IV of Syria took advantage of further internal
unrest, this time among the two sons of Ptolemy V. He invaded Egypt in two
successive years (170/168) and was crowned king at Memphis. It was a rough time
for Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII, who despite an uneasy coalition found that many
The Ptolemies and Egypt 115
important Egyptians joined the Syrian cause (P.KoÃˆln IV 186). The Syrian king only
left the country when Rome intervened. In an encounter at Eleusis outside Alexandria, the Roman envoy handed Antiochos an ultimatum and drew a circle round him
on the ground. He should agree to Roman terms, leaving Egypt by a given date,
before he stepped out of the circle. The king complied (McGing, this volume, section
1, Diod. 31.1Â±2; Polyb. 29.27; Ray 1976: 127).
Trouble, however, continued and in their joint rule the two sons of Ptolemy V were
far from reconciled. Shortly after, a further revolt was raised by one Dionysios
Petosarapis (Diod. 31.15). This time, trouble started at court with a prominent
military man. Dionysios is described by Diodoros, our only source for these events,
as a `friend’ of the king, as well as an individual with a good military record. His
second name Â± `gift of Sarapis’ Â± may have been adopted when he went into rebellion.
Dionysios sought to exploit the rivalry of the kings and, in doing so, he involved
the Alexandrian populace. There was a demonstration in the stadium Â± a favourite
place for such events Â± and Dionysios sought to establish the younger Ptolemy VIII
in place of his older brother, Ptolemy VI. The two kings refused to be used, though
some 4000 soldiers still rose to support Dionysios. He fled to the eastern suburb of
Eleusis where he was defeated. Plunging naked into the river, he swam across and
retreated to the Egyptians whom he incited to revolt. Many indeed came to join him
and documents from the period bear testimony to the widespread nature of the
ensuing upheaval. Attacks were made on local temples Â± this was no straightforward
Greek/Egyptian conflict Â± existing enmities played out (McGing 1997).
There was still more trouble in the Thebaid. In the countryside more generally
dissident elements took advantage of the situation to forcibly eject homeowners, burn
records, or pursue personal vendettas (Chrest.Wilck 9.31Â±6 [165 BC]); UPZ I 19.6Â±9
[163 BC]). From Memphis the loss of burial stelae for Apis bulls and high priests of
Ptah in this period is just one sign of these troubled times. In Pathyris no taxes were
paid in the years 168Â±165 (Vandorpe 2000a: 406). For the same three years, the
priests failed to chant the titulature of the king following the `invasion of the Mede’,
as Antiochos is termed in an Egyptian graffito from Elephantine (Vittmann 1997:
264). No eponymous priests are known in Alexandria from 169 to 165 (Clarysse and
Van der Veken 1983: 26); chanting only recommenced at the end of year 5, in late
September 165. There can be no clearer statement of the loss of Ptolemaic control.
As is often the case in wartime, those not directly involved suffered the most, as
illustrated by Isias in the letter to her husband quoted on p. 71 above. Bad times led
to high prices and life was hard for Hephaistion’s wife, child and mother. As if to
reinforce the plea for her husband’s return, Isias appends her own signature to the
letter (Cribiore 2001: 91). The explanation for these and later troubles is normally
presented in terms of growing native unrest. The Achaian historian Polybios is
responsible for this emphasis when he comments on the effects of the battle of
Raphia, the engagement in which Ptolemy IV Philopator had finally won the Fourth
Syrian War (219Â±217) and recovered Hollow Syria:
The king just mentioned, in arming the Egyptians for the war against Antiochos, was
pursuing a policy which was expedient in present circumstances but out of line for the
future. For the Egyptians were elated by the success at Raphia and could no longer
endure to take orders, but looked out for a leader and a figurehead, thinking they were
116 Dorothy J. Thompson
well able to maintain themselves as an independent power. In this they finally succeeded
not long afterwards. (Polyb. 5.107.1Â±3; Austin 225)
Polybios later describes the ensuing struggles not as a regular war with pitched
battles, naval encounters, sieges and events worthy of note but rather as characterized
by mutual savagery and general lawlessness (Polyb. 14.12.3Â±4). How far can his
analysis be accepted?
Polybios, deported to Rome after the battle of Pydna in 168 and an admirer of that
city’s power, perhaps visited Egypt sometime later as part of a Roman embassy
(Walbank 1979b); he is likely to have thought long and hard about Egypt which
was still an independent power. He sees events in military terms, with a tension
existing between those who give and those who receive orders. The latter of course
were Egyptians, and though these might be called `ignorant’ or `impious’ rebels (as
on the temple walls at Edfu or in the Rosetta decree) or, more often, simply natives
(enchoÃƒrioi), it is only in the revolt of Thebes with its native pharaohs that any real
ethnic element or secessionist movement can be traced. Even then Upper Egypt was
far from united. Whereas in some more recent accounts a nationalist Egyptian agenda
has been stressed, it is notable that contemporary descriptions are rather made in
terms of `trouble’ or `upset’ (taracheÃƒ) or of non-dealing (ameixia). Rebellion, as so
often, took many different forms; it is not easy to disentangle the different strands or
different groups who were involved within the population (Pestman 1995; McGing
Despite attempts to deal with the troubles (UPZ I 110; 163), from this date, as
already seen at Eleusis, a new power enters the picture. In the continuing struggles, it
is to Rome that Ptolemies increasingly flee in hope of restoration Â± Ptolemy VI, VIII
and, most disastrously, XII all made that journey. Rome was now an ever-present
force. In Alexandria problems continued at court, affecting the rest of the kingdom.
On the death of his elder brother in 145, Ptolemy VIII took over the throne and also,
as queen, his brother’s widow, Kleopatra II, who was also their sister. Not long after,
he took as second queen his niece, Kleopatra III, the daughter of his existing wife.
This dynamite exploded in a civil war between the two queens (132Â±130). In middle
Egypt, surveys of the Arsinoite and Herakleopolite nomes record land as being from
`before year 39′ (132/131) and `after year 40′ (131/130), but still in year 43 (128/
127) the eponymous priests are listed not, as usually, `in Alexandria’ but rather in `the
camp of the king’ (BGU III 993.ii.6Â±7). Kings in trouble needed their priests to
endorse their rule with chanting. Ptolemy VIII eventually came out on top and the
two queens were reconciled, but the insecurity of rule and latent splits within the
kingdom had once again been revealed: Alexandria and the countryside, different
groups within the capital, Greeks and Egyptians, Upper and Lower Egypt. The
hostile reaction of some Egyptians to what was still seen as foreign rule Â± the rule
of the `girdle-bearers’ (one of the many forms of paramilitary police) with their `city
by the sea’, can be found in the Potter’s oracle, an apocalyptic text which foretells
destruction to the Greeks and their rule upheld by force; in age-old eastern imagery,
the gods of Egypt would return home together with their statues (P.Rainer G.19 813
in Koenen 1968: 200Â±9, cf. Burstein 106).
On the death of Ptolemy VIII in 116, the power of his younger widow over the
succession of her two sons, Ptolemy IX Soter and Ptolemy X Alexander, again
The Ptolemies and Egypt 117
brought civil war to Egypt. Succession to the throne remained a flash point. So too
did the south, particularly Thebes, eventually destroyed by Ptolemy IX after another
fierce uprising in 88. The historically valuable cache of some hundreds of priestly
statues buried beneath a court in the Karnak temple (de Meulenaere 1995: 83Â±4)
may belong to this sack of the city when, in the words of Pausanias (1.9.5), the king
`did such damage that there was nothing left to remind the Thebans of their former
prosperity’. Pausanias reflects the Alexandrian view. Thebes in practice recovered,
with the support of its well-established Greco-Egyptian families (OGIS 186 (62 BC);
194 (39 BC), translated Burstein 110Â±11). It was to revolt again in the early years of
6 Egypt and Rome
Following the troubles under Ptolemies VIII Euergetes II, IX Soter and X Alexander,
Rome was an ever-present player in the period. Ptolemies now visited Rome; Roman
senators in turn came to Egypt. It was to the north-west and no longer Seleukid Asia
that the focus had turned. Yet Egypt was the last of the Hellenistic kingdoms to fall to
Rome, and her ability to avoid an earlier takeover must to some degree reflect
Ptolemaic success as much as Roman unwillingness to get embroiled in actual control
of this rich province.
It was indeed the wealth of Egypt which was noted by visiting Romans. When
Scipio Aemilianus visited the country with a Roman embassy in 140/139, the visitors
were horrified by the lavishness of Ptolemaic hospitality but impressed by the natural
resources of Egypt, particularly the flood of the Nile; all it lacked was rulers worthy of
their kingdom (Diod. 33.28b.1Â±3; Athen. 12.549 dÂ±e).
Two features of the later period of Ptolemaic rule reflect growing weakness at the
centre. Egypt and her key territories of Cyrene and Cyprus no longer formed an
entity. In 163, for instance, Ptolemy VI Philometor controlled Egypt and Cyprus
while his brother Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II ruled Cyrene; in 107 there was a threeway split, with Ptolemy X Alexander I in Egypt, Ptolemy IX Soter II in Cyprus and
Ptolemy Apion in Cyrene. Such a division of territory and interests was not to Egypt’s
A second feature which marks the period is the practice pioneered in Egypt of
leaving a kingdom to Rome. The first example came in 155, when Ptolemy VIII
(from Cyrene) made a conditional legacy to Rome of `his rightful kingdom’ should he
die a childless death (SEG 9.7). Such a bid for Rome’s support was perhaps a form of
insurance policy against attack from his brother; it was never put into effect. Others,
however, followed suit Â± Attalos III of Pergamon in 133 and Ptolemy Apion, who on
his death in 96 willed Cyrene to Rome. Finally, in 87 Ptolemy X Alexander left Egypt
to Rome (Badian 1967). Rome only took the legacy up in 58, when eventually she
annexed Cyprus (only). Egypt proper remained intact. When Ptolemy XII Auletes
died in 51, he failed to leave Rome his kingdom outright; it was simply left under the
guardianship of that power.
Rome, however, was not a power to go away, and in the last generations of
Ptolemaic Egypt domestic developments and policies became increasingly subordinated to that power. Ejected by his subjects from his throne when Rome took Cyprus
over, Ptolemy XII used up all the surplus of his wealthy kingdom and promised much
118 Dorothy J. Thompson
more in his efforts at restoration. Figures in ancient sources are notoriously unreliable
but Cicero is claimed to have reported an annual income from Egypt of some 12,000
talents (Strabo 17.1.13). Half of that sum was earlier promised by Auletes to Pompey
and Caesar for his recognition as friend and ally of Rome, and when eventually the
governor of Syria moved to put him back in power his bribe stood at 10,000 talents.
The last thirty years of Ptolemaic rule were a difficult time for Egypt and Kleopatra
VII who, inheriting her father’s debts and an encumbered throne, was obliged
seriously to devalue the currency and even, after Actium, to plunder the temples
(Dio 51.5.4Â±5). Earlier, under Ptolemy II, it had been high officials who were
granted gift-estates and other privileges. In these final years, it was Antony’s general
Publius Canidius who received preferential treatment:
We have allowed to Publius Canidius and his heirs annually to export 10,000 artabas of
wheat c. 400,000 litres and to import 5000 Koan amphoras of wine, free of tax levied by
anyone and of any other charge whatsoever. And we have also granted him to
be untouched in respect of all the lands that he holds in the countryside. He is to be
given exemption for the present and future both from charges for the regular government account and for that of me and my children . . .
is the start of a royal order from 33 which records this (van Minnen 2000). Egypt’s
agricultural wealth was now in others’ hands. So soon was the rest of Kleopatra’s
kingdom. As victor at Actium, Octavian took Alexandria on 3 August 30. When
invited, the new ruler refused to visit the Apis bull (Dio 51.16.5, 17.4Â±5). Conciliation was not the Roman way. Kleopatra died soon after, a self-inflicted royal death
from a cobra’s fangs, but Caesar’s son Ptolemy XV, her designated heir, was not to
succeed her. The Romans had come to stay.
The period is well served both by general studies and by collections of (mainly
papyrological) sources in translation which provide an introduction to the possibilities and problems of this form of historical evidence, cf. Bagnall 1995. Will 1979Â±82
is a detailed political study of the whole period, not just of Egypt, cf. Green 1990,
Shipley 2000. Bowman 1986, with good illustrations, introduces Egypt also in the
Roman period. Turner 1984 and D. J. Thompson 1994a treat the Ptolemies only, as
does A. Lloyd 2000, with an emphasis on the Egyptian side which is shared by the
best general coverage, HoÃˆlbl 2001. Huss 2001 (in German) is the fullest of recent
studies, reasonably conventional in coverage; his renumbering of the later Ptolemies
is likely to prove problematic. Of the source books, Austin 1981, Bagnall and Derow
2004, Burstein 1985 and Rowlandson 1998 (on women) are all probably the best
collections. On papyri, see Erskine, this volume, section 5 with further reading there.
For historiographical essays, see Samuel 1989 (Greek in outlook) or Burstein 1996a
(wider coverage). Individual cities are studied by Fraser 1972 (Alexandria), D. J.
Thompson 1988 (Memphis) and Vleeming 1995 (Thebes). For economic history
PreÃ‚aux 1939 remains fundamental; see also, D. J. Thompson 1997, Clarysse and
The Ptolemies and Egypt 119
Vandorpe 1998, on taxation, Bingen forthcoming, on this and much else, von Reden
2001 on monetization, and MÃ¹rkholm 1991, on coinage. For social history, Lewis
1986 is a lively study of papyrological archives. On education and literacy, see Ray
1994, D. J. Thompson 1994b, Cribiore 1996 and 2001, and T. Morgan 1998; on
ethnicity, Clarysse 1998 and D. J. Thompson 2001; on culture, Koenen 1993; for
Egyptian literature, Lichtheim 1980. Several edited collections include key studies:
Maehler and Strocka 1978, Criscuolo and Geraci 1989, Johnson 1992 and Green
1993. The catalogues of recent exhibitions provide an important visual record of the
mix of Greek and Egyptian that characterizes Ptolemaic Egypt: Bianchi et al. 1988,
La gloire d’Alexandrie 1998, Clarysse and Willems 2000 and Walker and Higgs
2001, all with introductory pieces. Finally, Baines and MaÃ‚lek 1980 is an invaluable
120 Dorothy J. Thompson
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