Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.04.23

Paul McKechnie, Philippe Guillaume (ed.), Ptolemy II Philadelphus and His World. Mnemosyne Supplements 300.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. xv, 488.  ISBN 9789004170896.  €152.00; $225.00.  

Reviewed by Lucia Criscuolo, Alma Mater Università di Bologna (

Table of contents

The volume offers the proceedings of a conference which took place in Auckland in July 2005, with two later additions, by S. Burstein and S. Pfeiffer. The topic chosen by Paul McKechnie and Bridget Buxton was strikingly new, as stressed in the preface: despite the importance of the character and the strategic leading position kept by Ptolemy II in the political chessboard of the second generation of Alexander's successors, no monographs have been dedicated to him until now. Moreover, as the title reminds us, Ptolemy Philadelphus was also the protagonist of the remarkable period of building up and developing that exceptional cultural centre which made Alexandria the capital of the Mediterranean for at least two centuries. The conference and consequently the proceedings were conceived under the sign of interdisciplinarity, as the editor McKechnie declares in the Introduction, the aim being to look for and find out the different "facets of the gem", Philadelphus's world, a paradigm of the multiculturalism which represented and included the main features of the Hellenistic world.

The result of such an enterprise is uneven, though the intention of balancing the issues is well expressed by the subdivision into five chapters named by the districts of Alexandria, from Alpha to Epsilon. So after a first chapter Alpha, consisting of O. Murray's general article on "Ptolemaic Royal Patronage", chapter Beta presents 5 articles on political and economic issues which aim to describe the main aspects of Philadelphus's policy. The results are sometimes disappointing. After an updating survey by Thompson on some of the economic and fiscal reforms adopted by Ptolemy II, Marquaille's attempt to make a synthesis of Philadelphus's foreign policy (pp. 39-64) is not always successful. Her approach of interpreting it as the "deliberate fusion between his (scil. Ptolemy II) pragmata and his basileia" (p. 42), could be a good formula, but there is, e.g., no mention at all of Sicily and Rome, except for the embassy of 273 in the final Chronology. Even the definition of a 'foreign policy' may be debatable (as she rightly seems to consider, p.39), so while we wait for the publication of her thesis, cited but not available to us, some expressions, such as "the province of Syria" (p. 43), seem misleading when used with reference to a kingdom which was not limited simply to the territory of Egypt; some statements leave the reader not convinced, as at p. 52: commenting Theocritus's mention of 'bellicose Carians' she writes "it most certainly refers to the Alexandrian daily experience of living in a military state, extravagantly emphasised in the Great Procession...", while some of the readers would simply remember Homer's words. On the other hand the two articles by Adams and Trundle (respectively on the relations between Ptolemy II and Pyrrhus and on OGIS I 266, which is in fact a document from the Attalid new kingdom,) do not shed any special new light on the subject. Perhaps some of the authors of the second chapter had difficulties in obtaining updated bibliography; nevertheless it is amazing not to find, particularly in McNeil's article on the Chremonidean war, any mention of the French bibliography on Peithidemos's archonship (especially D. Knoepfler, Les kryptoi du stratège Épicharès à Rhamnonte et le début de la guerre de Chrémonidès, BCH 117, 1993, 327-341, whose date, 268, is adopted also in the third updated edition of Habicht's work on Hellenistic Athens, Athènes hellénistique, Paris 2000).

The third chapter, perhaps the most eclectic, presents a re-proposition by Bernal of his notorious theory on the African roots of the Greek civilization, this time under the perspective of the Egyptian origin of the Eleusinian mysteries, concluded by the apodictic remark "The best analogy for the Macedonian rule of Egypt is that of the Japanese rule over much of China in the Second World War. The conquerors knew that much of their culture derived from the conquered but they were conceived not only that they were superior in power and morality but that in some ineffable way they had preserved the ancient culture better than those who had created" (p.134). Besides, Burstein, in his article on Philadelphus's policy in Nubia, emphasises the political and military dimension of Philadelphus's interests toward South Egypt expressed by the hunting expeditions which according to him, and I think, with some exaggeration, were "perhaps the largest and most complex project ever undertaken by the Ptolemies" (p. 146). Mori finds in Philadelphus's diplomacy a model and an inspiration for Apollonius's Alcinous in the Argonautica. Kloner focuses on the archaeological evidence from the little town of Maresha, in Idumea, now in Israel, as an example of the transformations that the Greek domination imposed on the local, or anyway not-Greek, population of this area: his analysis and description of the necropolis could nevertheless have mentioned the recent restorations that have perhaps heavily modified the inscriptions, so that not all the texts that he comments on are legible on the walls of the tombs anymore: for example the text cited on p. 174 ΙΠΠΟ ΛΙΒΑΝΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΙΠΠΙΚΟΥ now is on the wall ΙΠΠΟΣ ΛΙΒΑΝΟΥ ΙΠΠ... ΝΟΥ. On the other hand, the short survey by Salmenkivi on early Ptolemaic Herakleopolis Magna, in Egypt, is based on papyrological documents but the results are concentrated on a narrow historical and social space, and also the papyri dated to Philadelphus's reign from Herakleopolis do not allow much more than the author makes of them.

Chapter Delta is clearly devoted to the relations between Philadelphus and the Jews, that is mainly to the enterprise of the Septuagint. Here some of the contributors (Cook, McKechnie) have taken inspiration from the recent book of S. Honigman, The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria: a Study on the Narrative of the Letter of Aristeas, London and New York, 2003. J. Cook, who in the meantime has published his book on Septuagint and Reception, Brill, Leiden-Boston 2009, concentrates again on Proverbs in the Septuagint and the Letter of Aristeas (abbreviated as B.Ar, which, by the way, is not immediately clear to many readers and is not listed in the Abbreviations, and neither is MT for Masoretic Text). I am not competent in this kind of study, but I have found very suggestive the idea, put forward in McKechnie's paper, that Philadelphus could appear in the Letter of Aristeas not only as a new pharaoh but also as a new Moses (p. 244). Guillaume deals with the important function that Alexandrian Jewish scholars had in selecting the historical books of the Bible, even if the so called Alexandrian Canon was not to be accepted in the Hebrew Canon; their work was encouraged and supported by Philadelphus, so it must be considered one of his merits.

The last chapter is mainly dedicated to Egyptian cultural and religious influence on the Lagid kingship. Quack analyses some of the innovative aspects in the two most famous Egyptian stelai of Ptolemy II's reign, the Mendes stele and the Pithom stele, stressing that most novelties derive precisely from the Greek intervention and the need to find ritual and political solutions to the new situation produced by the Macedonian conquest. As often (I remember sometimes what our late colleague Quaegebeur used to say), Egyptologists are less inclined to see Egyptian influence on the Greek conqueror than Classicists, and I tend to agree with them. On the other hand, Buraselis' paper focuses again on the sibling marriage of Ptolemy II with his sister Arsinoe (a sort of 'basso continuo' in the volume, like the problem of the date of Arsinoe's death): despite the useful updating on the subject, there cannot be true novelty in the historical interpretation of it, and different positions are still permissible, I am afraid. Strictly Egyptological, the article by Vinson is on a Demotic literary text about Isis, the First Tale of Setne: his conclusions tend to see novelties and renewals in the tale as the responses of the local culture to the "new cultural and intellectual developments in Hellenistic Egypt" (p. 350) and are, in a way, the counterpart of the more common positions that consider a prevailing influence of Egypt on Greece and tend to ignore the opposite.

The 'secret' life at Ptolemy II's court is examined in detail by Ogden: he again counts, after Cameron, Ptolemy's mistresses, focusing on Bilistiche considered also as the mother of Ptolemy of Ephesus: again, in my opinion, there is room for different readings of the sources. The last article by Pfeiffer on Sarapis cult, which was promoted by Ptolemy I, but expanded from his son's reign, underlines mainly the connection between it and the ruler cult especially in the Egyptian countryside.

Very useful are the general index, which includes also modern authors, and that of all the passages cited. But it is an odd criterion, and certainly not helpful for checking, to order the Bibliography not only by alphabetical order of the authors, but also of the titles (so looking for an article published by a scholar in 2000 it happens to find it after another published in 2005), when the citations in the book are in Harvard style, by year of publication.

I have found some mistakes:

p. 74, n.41 and pp.76-77, nn. 49 and 51: for Habicht read Meritt as author of The Athenian Year;

p. 419: the article attributed to Criscuolo, "Considerazioni generali sull'epiteto φιλαδελφος nelle dinastie ellenistiche e sulla sua applicazione nella titolatura degli ultimi seleucidi" is by Federicomaria Muccioli, not by me (but I have missed the citation in the text);

p. 425: the article by Robert B. Gozzoli, Continuité et changement dans les inscriptions royales égyptiennes du Ier millénaire av. J.-C. Quelques examples, in Michel Baud et Nicolas Grimal (eds.) Événement, récit, histoire officielle. L'écriture et l'histoire dans les monarchies antique. Actes du colloque du Collège de France 24-25 juin 2002 (Études d'Égyptologie 3), Paris 2003, 209-245, is missing here and in the General Index, though it is quoted (Gozzoli, 2003) by Quack on p. 286;

p. 429: Richard Hunter's works have been recorded under four mentions of the author, instead of one; the same has happened to P.W. Pestman at p. 439;

p. 432: the book "Hellenistic Queens", listed under Launey, shoud be cancelled here because is by Macurdy (and correctly listed under this author).

A last general observation, which of course refers not only to this volume (but see in the Bibliography for instance the works by Barnes, Christensen, Gaudard, Hicks, Marquaille, Marrinan): I would propose to all of us not to quote dissertations which are not generally available either on line or in print without special permission. It is very upsetting not to be able to check what is referred to in a citation. By the way, there are countries, such as Italy, in which there are hundreds of doctoral dissertations which are virtually unverifiable, though a copy must be deposited in the National Library of Rome and of Florence.

The volume is on the whole very interesting and in part useful. The attempt to give an interdisciplinary overview on Ptolemy II and his time is only partially successful, mainly because it has been too difficult to create a true coordination among the different contributions and also because, I think, there are still too many prejudices on Ptolemy's personality: there is still too much work to do, but this is the right way.

What is missing will probably allow further reflections, what is available will certainly arouse further discussions.

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