Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.10.01

Jean Bingen, Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture. Edited with an Introduction by Roger S. Bagnall.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2007.  Pp. (xx+) 305.  ISBN 10: 0-520-25142-3.  ISBN 13: 978-0-520-25142-7.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by John Bauschatz, The University of Arizona (
Word count: 3120 words

[Articles included in the volume are listed at the end of the review.]

In Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture, a collection of previously published short essays by Jean Bingen (hereafter B), translated and edited by Roger Bagnall, a broad cross section of the work of one of the foremost twentieth-century papyrologists and historians of Hellenistic Egypt is for the first time made accessible to an English-speaking audience.1 The book highlights B's role as a catalyst for change and revision in the study of Hellenistic Egypt throughout a long and distinguished career, and takes as its focus a number of case studies on subjects as diverse as Thracian immigrants to Egypt and Roman traditions about Cleopatra, loosely grouped into four thematic sections. Though much of the material presented here is now a few decades old, the synthesis is welcome and illuminating and provides the reader with a clear picture of Hellenistic Egypt as a unique bicultural society. In this book, ancient historians, classicists, papyrologists, Egyptologists and students of the Hellenistic world will find ample food for thought as well as impetus for careful reconsideration of their own views on Ptolemaic Egypt.

Both B, in his foreword (pp. xix-xx), and Bagnall, in his introduction ("Jean Bingen and the Currents of Ptolemaic History," pp. 1-12), stress a need for reevaluation and reassessment as a driving force behind the creation of this volume. B underlines the importance for the historian of constantly returning to the sources for Hellenistic Egypt and reconsidering the work of earlier scholars, especially as scholarship tends to be colored by the times in which it is produced. Bagnall expands on this theme, providing the reader with an introduction to the history of European scholarship on Ptolemaic Egypt, which, through the Word War II era, was strongly influenced by the political landscape. Bagnall sees B and a number of other scholars as trailblazers in the postwar scholarly world, men and women who dedicated their careers to careful reassessment of primary sources and the inherited interpretations of these sources. Towards the end of the introduction, he notes a few of the themes that have characterized B's work over the years and resurface again and again in the present volume: the essentially improvised character of the Ptolemaic economy; the nature of power in a Hellenistic state; the dependence of the Ptolemies on Macedonian immigrants to fill important administrative positions; and the weaknesses of the Ptolemaic state, chief among these a perpetual shortage of manpower.

As noted, the book is organized into four thematically grouped sections. It begins with several studies on the monarchy (chapters 1-5; pp. 13-79). There follow sections on the Greek population in Egypt (chapters 6-12; pp. 81-154), the Ptolemaic economy (chapters 13-15; pp. 155-212) and interactions between Greeks and Egyptians (chapters 16-19; pp. 213-278) before the conclusion (pp. 279-289). Each chapter derives from a paper, article or book chapter written by B between 1970 and 1999. Bagnall provides a list of the original publications (pp. vii-viii; see the Appendix to this review for a version of this list), as well as a list of illustrations (pp. ix-x), a glossary (pp. xi-xv; very helpful) and three maps: "The Eastern Mediterranean in the Hellenistic Period" (p. xvi), "Hellenistic Egypt" (p. xvii) and "The Fayyum (Arsinoite nome)" (p. xviii). Following the conclusion Bagnall appends a bibliography (pp. 290-298), a general index (pp. 299-302) and an index of passages discussed (p. 303).

Part I, "The Monarchy" (pp. 13-79, chapters 1-5), highlights select Ptolemaic kings and queens. In chapter 1, "Ptolemy I and the Quest for Legitimacy" (pp. 15-30), B develops two of the main strategies of Ptolemy I for the establishment of his new kingdom: the adaptation of the model of the ruler presented by Alexander and the creation of Alexandria as a major new Greek cultural center. Chapter 2, "Ptolemy III and Philae: Snapshot of a Reign, a Temple and a Cult" (pp. 31-43), has a quite different focus: OGIS 61 (= I.Philae I 4), an inscription on the naos of Ptolemy II Philadelphus at Philae dating to 245/244 B.C.2 B reedits the text and demonstrates that the inscription reveals an attempt to highlight ties within the royal family at the beginning of the reign of Ptolemy III. Part I concludes with three chapters on Cleopatra VII (i.e., the famous one). In chapter 3, "Cleopatra, the Diadem and the Image" (pp. 44-56), B provides a historical sketch of the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty. His purpose is to caution his readers about the inherited traditions about Cleopatra, from the Roman period all the way through Black Athena and the recent spate of Cleopatra biographies.3 As B sees it, the reign of Cleopatra likely did not represent a breach with the traditional royal behavior of the Ptolemies. She filled all the functions of king, both political and religious, and promoted her son Caesarion on temples and in titulature as the young king and her successor. In chapters 4 ("Cleopatra VII Philopatris" [pp. 57-62]) and 5 ("The Dynastic Politics of Cleopatra VII" [pp. 63-79]), B analyzes the documentary data for Cleopatra's reign, primarily the royal titulature and the associated formulae used for dating documents, to see what they tell us about her dynastic policy. A major concern here is working out the chronology of the reigns of Ptolemy XII, Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra herself. But B also dwells at length on the status and position of Cleopatra's children with Caesar and Marc Antony, as well as her place as a Ptolemaic queen in a rapidly changing eastern Mediterranean landscape.

In Part II ("The Greeks," chapters 6-12, pp. 81-154), B turns his attention to the Greek population of Ptolemaic Egypt. The first two chapters feature parallel case studies on immigrant groups from the Greek mainland, beginning with immigrants from Thrace (chapter 6, "The Thracians in Ptolemaic Egypt," pp. 83-93). Here B suggests that the Thracians in Hellenistic Egypt, far from constituting the bottom rung of the Ptolemaic social ladder, were in fact among the better off of the cleruchs, the Ptolemaic soldiers who were given plots of land (cleruchies) in return for their military service. In the next chapter (7: "Ptolemaic Papyri and the Achaean Diaspora in Hellenistic Egypt," pp. 94-103), B turns to the Achaeans, for whom the evidence is especially thin, but extensive enough for B to conclude that the Achaeans in Ptolemaic Egypt, like the Thracians and other groups designated with Greek ethnics, appear to have integrated themselves relatively easily into the cleruchic system. Chapter 8 ("Greek Presence and the Ptolemaic Rural Setting," pp. 104-113) has as its focus the physical manipulation and reorganization of the Ptolemaic countryside. B observes that while many Greeks owned cleruchies, few of them actually lived on them or farmed them, leaving these tasks to local Egyptians and thereby guaranteeing that rural Egypt remained predominantly Egyptian throughout the Ptolemaic period. B searches for the location of Greek settlement in the following chapter (9, "The Urban Milieu in the Egyptian Countryside during the Ptolemaic Period," pp. 114-121). From the third century B.C. on, Greeks seem to have settled in a more or less permanent manner in the provincial capitals of Egypt, the nome metropoleis, which B calls "catalyst[s] in economic, cultural or political exchanges" (p. 117). Chapter 10 ("Kerkeosiris and its Greeks in the Second Century," pp. 122-131) returns us to the Egyptian countryside. Here B draws on the rich second century B.C. documentation from the village of Kerkeosiris and observes that even in those cases where a Greek landowner is said to be the cultivator of his own allotment (γεωργὸς αὐτός), it is not always the case that he himself cultivated or even lived on the land. In chapter 11 ("The Cavalry Settlers of the Herakleopolite in the First Century," pp. 132-140), B compares the second century B.C. documents from Kerkeosiris and some first century B.C. papyri from the Herakleopolite nome. In the latter, B finds evidence of a gradual change in the status of cavalry cleruchs: by the end of the first century B.C., this group seems to have established a certain degree of autonomy as well as a kind of hereditary possession of its allotments. Lastly, in chapter 12 ("Two Royal Ordinances of the First Century and the Alexandrians," pp. 141-154), we catch a glimpse of the Greek population of Alexandria. B analyzes C.Ord.Ptol. 75-76, a double decree issued in 41 B.C. by Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XV Caesar in response to the complaints of some Alexandrian citizen farmers who had requested protection against illegal and excessive taxation. In the first decree, Cleopatra confirmed the special rights of the Alexandrians to exemption from certain taxes and appended the second decree to stress that the edict be carried out: a clear indication that the petitioners were important people.

The three essays collected in Part III ("The Royal Economy," pp. 155-212) all have as their focus aspects of the Ptolemaic financial system. The first of these (chapter 13, "The Revenue Laws Papyrus: Greek Tradition and Hellenistic Adaptation," 157-188), contains some of B's earliest reflections on the so-called Revenue Laws of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. B produces a revised set of generalizations about this seminal text. Among the important conclusions are the following: that the Laws are, in fact, not any sort of code, but rather a compilation of official documents; that the text of the Laws as we have it derives from two separate papyrus rolls, not one; and that the regulations and procedures mandated in the Laws, though fundamentally Greek, were nevertheless laid out over a thoroughly Egyptian framework. In chapter 14 ("The Structural Tensions of Ptolemaic Society," pp. 189-205), B identifies some of the socioeconomic stressors that operated on Ptolemaic society. He examines three sets of documents scattered throughout the time and space of Ptolemaic rule: the famous Zenon archive of the third century B.C.; P.Tebt. I 5, a late second century B.C. collection of royal ordinances; and a collection of first century B.C. Herakleopolite papyri. B sees a common thread running through these documents: the perpetual frustration of profit seeking Greek migrants who regularly lacked access to arable land. He concludes that the instabilities inherent in the Ptolemaic economic system prevented any evolution in economic and agricultural thought that might have helped alleviate this problem of land access. In chapter 15 ("The Third-Century Land-Leases from Tholthis," pp. 206-212), B considers the leasing and subletting of cleruchies, a subject also touched upon in chapters 8-10. In a group of leases and receipts for rent drawn up at Tholthis in the Oxyrhynchite nome, we see lessees who did not work the land themselves, but rather served as middlemen who put land into the hands of Egyptians.

In the final section of the book (Part IV, "Greeks and Egyptians," pp. 213-278), B considers the interactions between Greeks and Egyptians in the Ptolemaic state. In chapter 16 ("Greek Economy and Egyptian Society in the Third Century," pp. 215-228) he examines some of the consequences of the introduction of Greek economic forms--especially a monetized Greek economy--on the indigenous population. B reveals a number of difficulties that arose as a consequence of the synthesis, and ultimately concludes that the new constraints imposed on the Egyptians meant for them a greater dependence on the Greeks, though the native population retained its prominence in agriculture. Chapter 17 ("Greeks and Egyptians According to PSI V 502," pp. 229-239) highlights an early incidence of contact between Greeks and Egyptians under the Ptolemies. PSI V 502 (256 B.C.), an official letter, shows evidence of a fundamental divide between the Greek managers of a royal estate and its Egyptian labor force. The latter seem to have fled the land rather than come face to face with a set of decidedly foreign ideas about crop estimates and taxation. In chapter 18 ("Graeco-Roman Egypt and the Question of Cultural Interactions," pp. 240-255), B posits the coexistence in Ptolemaic Egypt of two fundamentally different complex cultures: a dominant Greek minority and a subject Egyptian majority. Neither the Greeks nor the Egyptians ever formed a completely homogeneous community, but the two groups had fundamentally different structures and dynamics, as well as a lack of interest in each other and in abandoning their own cultural characteristics. In the final chapter (19, "Normality and Distinctiveness in the Epigraphy of Greek and Roman Egypt," pp. 256-278), B surveys some of the characteristics of Greco-Roman inscriptions in Egypt. He describes a number of types of documents unique to Greco-Roman Egypt, among these proskynêmata and trilingual priestly decrees, but his main focus is a series of first century B.C. decrees concerning asylum in temples. Contrary to the common interpretation, which sees these documents as the proclamations of a weak king gradually compelled to concede more and more power to the Egyptian clergy, B argues that the texts reveal a powerful monarchy whose intervention eventually became necessary in order to uphold the traditional grant of asylum in temples.

On the whole, B's book is a success. There are some problems with the collection, but they are the same sorts of problems that often pop up in books of this sort and do not seriously undermine the work as a whole. As the reader of this review may have noticed already, repetition of material is sometimes an issue. This is especially true in chapters 3-5 and 8-10, where in each case a topic (Cleopatra VII and land tenure, respectively) receives treatment in three successive essays, though from only slightly different angles in each essay. The book might have benefited from some additional pruning in both of these areas, though it is admittedly difficult to say which of the three essays ought to have been edited or eliminated in each case. In addition, the fact that the essays collected here were written over a period of some thirty years and prepared for a host of journals, international conferences and edited volumes with different focuses and/or readerships contributes to an overall lack of internal cohesion. Bagnall has done a nice job of threading the individual pieces together, and the thematic organization of the book is on the whole quite appropriate, but in the end, the volume remains a clear patchwork. Lastly, some readers may be deceived by the title of the book and the quote from J. G. Manning on the back cover, which seem to promise a general survey of Hellenistic Egyptian society.4 Such readers will be disappointed to find that in reality, B's book is a series of often very narrowly focused case studies in each of the four subject areas mentioned in the title and not at all a survey of Hellenistic Egyptian society.

Again, though, these are minor gripes. We should be grateful to B and Bagnall for Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture, a book that will doubtless prove encouraging and inspirational reading for future generations of scholars of Hellenistic Egypt. B shines forth from these pages as a trailblazer and a revisionist, a man well deserving of the title "most distinguished living historian of Hellenistic Egypt" bequeathed on the back cover. One hopes that this first collection of some of his most important works will not be the last.

Appendix: Original sources of chapters (from B, pp. vii-viii):

Chapter 1, "Ptolemy I and the Quest for Legitimacy" (pp. 15-30) = "Ptolémée Ier Sôter ou la quête de la légitimité," BAB 5 ser. 74 (1988): 34-51.

Chapter 2, "Ptolemy III and Philae: Snapshot of a Reign, a Temple and a Cult" (pp. 31-43) = "I.Philae I 4, un moment d'un règne, d'un temple et d'un culte," Akten des 21. Internationalen Papyrologenkongresses (Archiv für Papyrusforschung, Beiheft 3, Leipzig, 1997): 88-97.

Chapter 3, "Cleopatra, the Diadem and the Image" (pp. 44-56) = "Cléopâtre: l'image et le diadème," BAB 6 ser. 7 (1996): 235-248.

Chapter 4, "Cleopatra VII Philopatris" (pp. 57-62) = "Cléopâtre VII Philopatris," CE 74 (1999): 118-123.

Chapter 5, "The Dynastic Politics of Cleopatra VII" (pp. 63-79) = "La politique dynastique de Cléopâtre VII," CRAI (1999): 49-66.

Chapter 6, "The Thracians in Ptolemaic Egypt" (pp. 83-93) = "Les Thraces en Égypte ptolémaïque," Pulpudeva, Semaines Philoppopolitaines de l'histoire et de la culture thrace 4 (Sofia, 1983): 72-79.

Chapter 7, "Ptolemaic Papyri and the Achaean Diaspora in Hellenistic Egypt," (pp. 94-103) = "Les papyrus ptolémaïques et la diaspora achaienne," Archaia Achaia kai Eleia: Anakoinoseis kata to Proto Diethnes Sumposio (= Meletemata 13, Athens, 1991): 61-65.

Chapter 8, "Greek Presence and the Ptolemaic Rural Setting" (pp. 104-113) = "Présence grecque et milieu rural ptolémaïque," in M. I. Finley, ed., Problèmes de la terre en Grèce ancienne (Paris and The Hague, 1973): 215-222.

Chapter 9, "The Urban Milieu in the Egyptian Countryside during the Ptolemaic Period" (pp. 114-121) = "Le milieu urbain dans la chôra égyptienne à l'époque ptolémaïque," Proceedings of the XIV International Congress of Papyrologists (London, 1975): 367-373.

Chapter 10, "Kerkeosiris and its Greeks in the Second Century" (pp. 122-131) = "Kerkéosiris et ses Grecs au IIe siècle avant notre ère," Actes du XVe Congrès International de Papyrologie IV (Brussels, 1979): 87-94.

Chapter 11, "The Cavalry Settlers of the Herakleopolite in the First Century" (pp. 132-140) = "Les cavaliers catoeques de l'Héracléopolite au Ier siècle," Egypt and the Hellenistic World (= Studia Hellenistica 27, Leuven, 1983): 1-11.

Chapter 12, "Two Royal Ordinances of the First Century and the Alexandrians" (pp. 141-154) = "Les ordonnances royales C.Ord.Ptol. 75-76 (Héracléopolis, 41 avant J.-C.)," CE 70 (1995): 206-218.

Chapter 13, "The Revenue Laws Papyrus: Greek Tradition and Hellenistic Adaptation" (pp. 157-188) = "Le papyrus Revenue Laws: tradition grecque et adaptation hellénistique," Rheinische-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vorträge G 231 (Opladen, 1978).

Chapter 14, "The Structural Tensions of Ptolemaic Society" (pp. 189-205) = "Les tensions structurelles de la société ptolémaïque," Atti del XVII Congresso Internazionale di Papirologia III (Naples, 1984): 921-937.

Chapter 15, "The Third-Century Land-Leases from Tholthis" (pp. 206-212) = "The third-century B.C. land-leases from Tholthis," ICS 3 (1978): 74-80.

Chapter 16, "Greek Economy and Egyptian Society in the Third Century" (pp. 215-228) = "Économie grecque et société égyptienne au IIIe siècle," in H. Maehler and V. M. Strocka, eds., Das ptolemäische Ägypten (Mainz am Rhein, 1978): 211-219.

Chapter 17, "Greeks and Egyptians According to PSI V 502" (pp. 229-239) = "Grecs et Égyptiens d'après PSI 502," Proceedings of the Twelfth International Congress of Papyrology (Toronto, 1970): 35-40.

Chapter 18, "Graeco-Roman Egypt and the Question of Cultural Interactions" (pp. 240-255) = "L'Égypte gréco-romaine et la problématique des interactions culturelles," Proceedings of the XVI International Congress of Papyrology (Chico, 1981): 3-18.

Chapter 19, "Normality and Distinctiveness in the Epigraphy of Greek and Roman Egypt" (pp. 256-278) = "Normalité et spécificité de l'épigraphie grecque et romaine de l'Égypte," in L. Criscuolo and G. Geraci, eds., Egitto e storia antica dall'ellenismo all'età araba (Bologna, 1989): 15-35.


1.   All abbreviations for editions of papyri mentioned in this review are after John F. Oates, Roger S. Bagnall, et al., Checklist of Greek, Latin, Demotic and Coptic Papyri, Ostraca and Tablets, September, 2007.
2.   OGIS = Orientis graeci inscriptiones selectae, W. Dittenberger, ed. 2 vols. Leipzig, 1903-1905. I.Philae = Les inscriptions grecques de Philae, A. Bernand and E. Bernand, eds. 2 vols. Paris, 1969.
3.   M. Bernal, Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization. 3 vols. London, 1987.
4.   As Manning puts it, B's book is "[t]he most comprehensive account of the economy, society, and culture of Hellenistic Egypt available in English."

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