Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.62

W.V. Harris, G. Ruffini, Ancient Alexandria between Egypt and Greece. Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition, vol. XXVI.   Leiden:  Brill, 2004.  Pp. 296.  ISBN 90-04-14105-7.  €75.00.  

Reviewed by Marjorie Susan Venit, University of Maryland (
Word count: 2521 words

This volume publishes the fruits of a conference held at Columbia University in October, 2002, its thirteen chapters representing all but four of the papers delivered with an additional essay by Susan Stephens.

In the time that has passed since that conference, at least two further primarily Anglophone congresses on Alexandria have been held -- one at the University of Aarhus in May 2004, the other at Oxford in December 2004 (each of which intends to publish its papers) -- while the papers from a third, earlier Anglophone conference at King's College, London have recently appeared in print as Alexandria, Real and Imagined (eds. A. Hirst and M. Silk; Ashgate, 2004). The volume under review thus constitutes part of the ongoing resurgence of scholarly interest in ancient Alexandria that began in the early 1990s, but it also adds an Anglophonic American face to what has been (with the exception of the 1993 J. Paul Getty conference at Malibu1) a primarily European phenomenon.

The volume's title, however, is somewhat misleading if it is construed as the central theme of the collection of essays rather than as merely a descriptor of the city itself. Relatively few of the contributions pertain specifically to the interaction between Egyptians and Greeks in Alexandria, or to the intersection in Alexandria of Egyptian and Greek ideas, ways of life, or modes of representation, and a few of the essays do not relate directly to Alexandria at all. Nevertheless, by removing the restraint implied by the title (as I read it), the conference organizers have encouraged the dissemination of ideas, interpretations, methodologies, and materials that would otherwise have been lost had the narrower topic been strictly enforced.

The essays range throughout the landscape of disciplines that interlink to illuminate the ancient world -- from literary studies to demographic ones, from art-historical to historical to religious studies and beyond. They are arranged, when possible, in chronological order, and I have followed the volume's organization in setting out a short synopsis of each of the contributions.

In one of the two (the second by Giovanni Ruffini) theoretically modeled studies, "Creating a Metropolis: A Comparative Demographic Perspective," Walter Scheidel seeks to chart the growth of Alexandria's population using models based on early modern European cities, Tokugawa Japan, and ancient Rome and tentatively concludes that "Alexandria grew fairly rapidly for a limited amount of time, probably between the 320s and the second half of the third century BCE" and then had a "secondary modest upswing under Roman rule" (21). Scheidel notes that archaeological evidence is not yet fully helpful in determining the size of the city (though the rejection of Hoepfner's reconstruction -- correctly considered "controversial" by Scheidel -- which places the Alabaster Tomb outside the eastern city wall and the acceptance of Empereur's observations on the increased surface area of the city -- which Scheidel cites (23) -- does add further support to the Edo model that the author arrives at). So far as the ethnic make-up of the city is concerned, Scheidel might add the evidence from inscribed Hadra hydria.

Self-presentation -- that is, self-representation in textual and visual media and in ceremony and performance -- of indigenous Egyptians and Hellenistic elites primarily in the Egyptian chora is the subject of John Baines' study "Egyptian Elite Self-Presentation in the context of Ptolemaic Rule." Baines documents the relatively slight Hellenic references in Egyptian temples, which contrast with the strong Egyptianizing content of the sarcophagus of the (probable) Hellenistic elite Dioskourides, the mixed stylistic content of the tomb of the ethnically Egyptian Petosiris and the intersection of styles in statues of both ethnic Greeks and Egyptians. He demonstrates that the fluidity of identity-defining elements in self-presentation probably reflects the complex identities of the elites who "may have moved into and out of 'Egyptian' and 'Greek'... identities" as those "lower down the social order" (55) could not.

The recently published epigrams of the Hellenistic poet Posidippus, who imagined Egypt "not as Egyptian but as Macedonian and Greek" (63) provide the impetus for the essay, "Posidippus' Poetry Book: Where Macedon Meets Egypt" by Susan Stephens, who analyzes the content of the new poems and re-evaluates the poet's place in literary history. The roll is dated to the last quarter of the third century BCE and contains at least 116 epigrams. Stevens proposes that the newly discovered poems were constructed to "showcase the Ptolemies as heirs of Alexander" (71) and, by examining the arrangement of the epigrams (it appears that the beginning of the roll is preserved in the cartonnage that incorporated the papyrus pieces), she concludes that the roll celebrated the world of the Ptolemies -- its kings and queens, the diverse population that constructed it, and the elements of ritual and magic that made it work.

Building on his previous work, Nicola Bonacasa continues to contest the perhaps more commonly held view that rejects the primacy of an Alexandrian school of art in the Hellenistic period, as well as that putative school's influence on the wider world.2 In his essay, "Realismo ed eclettismo nell'arte alessandrina," Bonacasa revisits the framework constructed by Ibrahim Noshy, but especially that of his own mentor, Achille Adriani, in order to demonstrate the "autonomous character" of Alexandrian art within the greater Hellenistic world and its influence on Egypt and beyond in the Graeco-Roman period and later. To that end, he focuses on realism, specifically that of genre figures, and eclecticism (a mixed style based on fourth-century Praxitelean and Skopaic models with an Egyptian component), including that seen in portraiture, which is treated more fully by R.R.R. Smith and Bernard Bothmer,3 among others. Bonacasa concludes that in Graeco-Roman Egypt classicism was reinterpreted and transmitted to the Roman world.

Fabienne Burkhalter illuminates both the role of the Alexandrian hierothytai and the topography of ancient Alexandria in her contribution, "Les hiérothytes alexandrins: une magistrature grecque dans la capital lagide." She challenges the prevailing interpretations of the office -- as signifying Greek priests or Egyptian temple notaries -- and determines that Alexandrian hierothytai were, instead, magistrates of Greek origin, who functioned like attorneys to set up marriage contracts that included the accurate disposition of property. Although the office is only firmly attested in Egypt in the Augustan period, the author's chance find of a mutilated papyrus in the archives of Columbia University suggests its presence as early as the latter part of the third century BCE. She further suggests that the hierothysion that held the official records was in the insula (plintheia) in Alexandria called the Patrika and speculates (on the model of Messene and the possible findspot of the Alexandrian Altar of the Twelve Gods) that the Patrika was near the palace, between the gymnasium and the theater.

Livia Capponi ("The Oikos of Alexandria") examines a group of Roman papyri in order to shed light on the term 'oikos' (normally construed as 'household') when applied to the city of Alexandria. She determines that 'oikos' can not only indicate a private estate, but can also designate land held by kings and queens, by financial institutions, and by the city (or the inhabitants) of Alexandria itself. Furthermore, the institution of the oikos was not limited to Greek land-holdings: traditional Egyptian temples also had their own oikoi. Capponi determines that at least through the Flavian period, citizens of Alexandria leased land through the institution of the oikos throughout Egypt. She further proposes that a change in the institution that permitted the oikos of Alexandria to acquire lands once held by the royal household occurred upon the death of Ptolemy Auletes, the father of Cleopatra VII, and through the intervention of Julius Caesar.

In "Portrayals of the Wise and Virtuous in Alexandrian Jewish Works: Jews' Perceptions of Themselves and Others" Ellen Birnbaum explores the self-perception of Alexandria's Jewish population and their view of the other inhabitants of the city. She restricts her study to the qualities of wisdom and virtue and her textual sources to the Letter of Aristeas, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the works of Philo and determines that each document yields a different portrayal of Jews in relation to the dominant culture. The Letter of Aristeas incorporates the Jewish Diaspora fantasy (a trope), portraying Jews as superior to non-Jews and recognized as such by other Alexandrians. By contrast, in the Wisdom of Solomon the wise and the virtuous are loyal Jews, and Egyptians are seen as a "'a nation of oppressors'" (144). Philo, like the others, sees Jews as wise and virtuous but, insofar as non-Jews are concerned, limits that quality to those who inhabited the past and dwelt in lands far from Alexandria. Concluding, Birnbaum suggests that the difference in views, specifically that between the Letter of Aristeas and the other two sources, reflects the social and political circumstances that Jews encountered at the time when each document was composed.

Citing literary testimony and papyrological evidence, Mohammed Abd-el-Ghani considers the movement of Egyptians from Middle Egypt to Alexandria and Greek Alexandrians to Middle Egypt in his article "Alexandria and Middle Egypt: Some Aspects of Social and Economic Contacts under Roman Rule." Basing his conclusion on a small sample, he ascertains that in the first two centuries of Roman rule, Middle Egyptians took up residence in Alexandria as artisans, businessmen, and military men and visited the city for festivals, especially that of Serapis. In their turn, Alexandrians held land in Middle Egypt, invested in Middle Egypt by lending money to Middle Egyptians, and came to Middle Egypt as craftsmen (though, in the case of the weaver, he mentions it might be argued that the Alexandrian is native Egyptian [rather than a Greek as implied], since he is contracted to teach weaving "'in the sitting position'," a position necessitated by the Egyptian horizontal loom). In the third century, Abd-el-Ghani argues, the stature of Alexandrians in the chora declined as Alexandria (and Alexandrians) lost privileged status.

Heinrich von Staden's interest in Greek medical texts leads to "Galen's Alexandria," a discussion of the second-century CE physician's response to Alexandria, which he visited in the early 150s. Von Staden suggests that the young Galen's reasons for setting out for Alexandria included the city's well-deserved reputation for anatomical studies, but concludes that by the time of Galen's arrival, this reputation was rather based on earlier Hellenistic teachings than on any contemporary school of anatomy. Along the way to this conclusion, however, von Staden delights us with Galen's observations on all things medical in Alexandria, including the exoticism of the Alexandrian diet, the efficacy of its drugs, the application -- so to speak -- of asps as humane executioners (and not only for Cleopatra), and the unique use of skeletons to further knowledge about the human body. In his conclusion, which states that anatomy did not flourish as an important component of Alexandrian teaching in the second century of our era, Von Staden demonstrates the tenuousness of the connection to the city of important anatomists long taken as Alexandrian.

In "Hellenism and Opposition to Christianity in Alexandria," Christopher Haas investigates the retention of pagan religion in the late-antique city. Differentiating between expressions of state and popular religion, Haas interrogates the more elusive popular sources in order to neutralize the accounts of early church historians who focused on temples as evidence for (or the destruction of temples as evidence against) perpetuation of pagan worship. He concludes that, whereas Egyptian beliefs survived, Hellenism, at least as it is applied to Alexandrian religion practices by fourth and fifth-century polytheists, is a fiction perpetrated by Alexandrian intellectuals. A minor dissenting quibble: Although I agree that evidence from tombs constitutes the best material evidence for popular religious practices and that tombs increasingly show a culturally mixed iconography, I am unclear as to why Haas seems to imply that because the paintings from Kom el-Shoqafa's Persephone Tomb 2 depict belief in the afterlife, they indicate a specifically Egyptian belief. Surely with all the mystery cults active throughout the Mediterranean world by the second-century, belief in the afterlife is no longer unique to Egypt.

Mona Haggag also considers popular religion in late antique Egypt with her publication of two wax groups ("Some Unpublished Wax Figurines from Upper Egypt"), dated by the pot under which they were found to between the fourth and seventh centuries CE. The first group depicts a bound woman, -- with a concavity in place of her abdomen -- in concert with an oversized jackal (Haggag says that the jackal is "crouching on [the] woman" [231], but the 'group' seems to be composed of two independent pieces, and Haggag provides no explicit evidence for their connection); the second shows a jackal biting the neck of a supine ithyphallic male. Haggag provides parallels for the wax figures' purpose for "aggressive" magic and concludes that the use of magic did not end with the official recognition of Christianity in Egypt, but persisted as a popular means of effecting change for centuries after Christianity's acceptance.

In his contribution, "Late Antique Pagan Networks from Athens to the Thebaid," Giovanni Ruffini, one of the conveners of the conference, introduces students of antiquity to the quantitative method of social network analysis (popularized in Six Degrees of Separation) in order to assess the connection of the intellectual pagan communities in late-antique Alexandria, Athens, and Upper Egypt and to test the application of the method to the problem of the breakup of the community of pagan scholars in the 480s. He lucidly sets out the method of approach, well known to sociologists and anthropologists (he says), and convincingly argues its value for late-antique prosopograpical studies. Ruffini's use of social network analysis allows him to conclude that the connection was strongest between Alexandrian and Athenian intellectuals and that the suppositions formerly postulated for the dissolution of the community might be rethought.

In "The Island of the Pharos in Myth and History," Mostafa el-Abbadi offers insight into the varied myths surrounding the Island of the Pharos and its Old Man of the Sea, Proteus, from the island's introduction in myth by Homer to other Greek authors, who place Helen with Proteus in Egypt, through its dismissal from the account of Proteus by Virgil. He suggests that the story changed -- the Island of the Pharos, Homer's home of Proteus, magnifying into the entire land of Egypt with the later authors and Proteus taking on the aspect of the king of Egypt -- "possibly to suit new political and intellectual attitudes of mind" (262). Continuing with the function of myth, the author suggests that the different versions of Alexandria's foundation -- the Romance, in which Alexander visits Siwa to have Ammon identify him as his son and proclaim that he is to found a city, and Plutarch's account, in which Alexander recalls Homer's story in a dream -- were constructed for different audiences, the first Egyptian (because the story follows a similar one inscribed on the walls of Hatshepsut's funerary temple), the second Greek.

In short, Ancient Alexandria between Egypt and Greece has something for all students of the greater Hellenistic world and, given the broad range of disciplines it touches on, it should also find a wide audience among scholars working in other fields.


1.   Published as Alexandria and Alexandrianism: Papers delivered at a symposium organized by The J.Paul Getty Museum and by The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities and held at the Museum April 22-25, 1993 (ed. Kenneth Hamma). Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996.
2.   A position held, he says, among others, by Andrew Stewart (see "The Alexandrian Style: A Mirage?" in: Alexandria and Alexandrianism [Malibu 1996] 231-43) and Robert Bianchi (see "Pharaonic Egyptian Elements in the Decorative Arts of Alexandria during the Hellenistic and Roman Periods," ibid., 191-202).
3.   R.R.R. Smith, "Ptolemaic Portraits: Alexandrian Types, Egyptian Versions," ibid., 203-213 and Bernard Bothmer, "Hellenistic Elements in Egyptian Sculpture of the Ptolemaic Period," ibid., 215-230.

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