Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.04.41

J. G. Manning, The Last Pharaohs: Egypt under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC.   Princeton/Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2010.  Pp. xvi, 264.  ISBN 9780691142623.  $39.50.  

Reviewed by Timothy Howe, Saint Olaf College (

In The last pharaohs, J. G. Manning attempts to bring Ptolemaic Egypt, and the economic policies of the Ptolemaic state, out of isolation from other fields of ancient Mediterranean history. Often seen as "a place apart," especially by classicists focused on Greece and Rome, Ptolemaic Egypt has entered historical conversations tangentially, as a stage for wider Roman policy, for instance, or as a counterpoint to classical, polis civilization. Here, Manning is reacting against the scholarly tendency to assess the Hellenistic experience from the perspective of Greece.1 Using a social science models, Manning suggests that Ptolemaic Egypt be seen as an intentionally constructed hybrid of Greek and Egyptian elements, wherein Ptolemaic policies encouraged a fertile interaction of cultures and ideas, an interaction that produced complex native and immigrant responses, ranging from rejection to acceptance. By examining the Ptolemaic state from an Egyptian perspective, Manning seizes an opportunity to rethink terms like "hellenization" and "Hellenistic" and demonstrate how, by adopting a native Egyptian, pharaonic mode of governance, the Ptolemies fit their institutions into long-term Egyptian history. As Manning puts it, "This book offers a new perspective on the connections between Greek and Egyptian civilization, by trying to understand Egyptian civilization in its own terms, examining the manner in which the Ptolemies established themselves within Egyptian traditions, and the dynamic interactions between the two cultures during Ptolemaic rule" (205). And such a new perspective is now possible, Manning argues, because of the material uncovered in the past 100 years.2 Because of its rich literary records, Ptolemaic Egypt is at present the only well-documented state of the ancient world that allows such a quantitative approach.

Chapter 1, "Egypt in the first millennium," surveys Egyptian history in the 1st millennium BCE and illustrates that during the Saite Period (664-525 BCE), Persian rule (525-404 BCE), the period of hard-won independence (404-343 BCE), second Persian period (343-332 BCE), and the Macedonian conquest, the rulers of Egypt were actively constructing links with Late Bronze Age Egyptian greatness. In these efforts the native religious establishment was the key audience here, as Egyptian scribes and priests (especially in the semi-autonomous Thebaid) were highly influential as transmitters and interpreters of history. This religious elite, once accommodated, provided a foundation of political stability for the new rulers. The Ptolemies merely continued this centuries-old trend; Manning sees the Ptolemies as just another dynasty change for the Egyptians and argues that in all cases, Ptolemaic economic and legal actions were informed and shaped by the Egyptian past. However authoritarian the Ptolemaic state wished to be, it was always constrained by history and its need to maintain and expand its links with Egyptian traditions, institutions, and authorities.

Chapter 2 "The historical understanding of the Ptolemaic State," offers an historiographical analysis of the Ptolemaic system. Manning sees two main trends in Ptolemaic scholarship, the optimists who focus on the literary and cultural accomplishments of Alexandria, and the pessimists who point to over-exacting policies of the Ptolemaic fiscal system and its prioritization of the Greek language. This dichotomy arises, according to Manning, because the myopic focus on tax collection produces dualities of success/failure, opportunity/exploitation, Greek/Egyptian. Manning observes that the resulting attempts to characterize Ptolemaic rule through models of despotism, dirigisme, and colonialism have not adequately explained the social dynamics of the Ptolemaic system, especially in rural Egypt. These three prevailing models focus on the ruler and his close (usually Greek) elite, and as such downplay the negotiation between ruler and ruled on lower (or non Greek) levels. In addition, theses models are steeped in the modern colonial and post-colonial experiences and consequently both obscure ancient realities of Greek-Egyptian cooperation and elide the fact that the Ptolemies had no conscious policy of "hellenization." Manning contends that there were more factors than the king and his directives at play, and that there were limits on the king's ability to direct either the economy or social hierarchies, especially on the local levels, simply by the strength of his own will. The length of the king's reach depended wholly on the relationships he had constructed and negotiated. Hence, Manning seeks a bottom up, rather than top-down model, which stresses the gaps between local and central elites and the gaps between rule of consensus in the villages and authority that can be imposed from the top. By viewing the Ptolemaic period as an integrated part of Egyptian history, rather than the "Greek" phase of outsider rule over a native Egypt that many Classicists and Egyptologists impose, Manning distances his work from imperialist theory and can freely argue a case for Ptolemaic success.

Chapter 3, "Moving beyond despotism, economic planning, and state banditry," continues the historiographic theme by further distancing Ptolemaic Egypt from modern colonialism. Following the theoretical work of S. N. Eisenstadt on state identity, Manning suggests that the Ptolemaic system was a premodern "bureaucratic empire," whose aim was control of revenue, rather than control over people.3 In premodern states rulers act as bandits who establish themselves within a territory. By this definition, a successful ruler is one that defends his territory, guarantees social order, and collects taxes in some form. In such a bandit state, the ruler is constrained in his ability to gain revenue by lack of information about local resources and by the social groups that controlled access to such information. In Ptolemaic Egypt, the king's reach and access to information was restricted by important powerholders such as the priests, soldiers, and the literate class, both Egyptian and Greek.

Chapter 4, "Shaping a new state," addresses the question "What kept Ptolemaic Egypt together for so long?" by exploring the political relationships between the ruler and key social groups who served as "first adaptors" of the new state rules--the priests, soldiers, and literate classes identified in the previous chapter. In order to frame the discussion, Manning introduces the concept of "bargained incorporation," where the political economy is formed by a system of bargaining between ruler and invested constituent groups. In Ptolemaic Egypt this bargaining was a complex game between two ethnic groups, Greeks and Egyptians, in which no real victor emerges. For the Ptolemies there were two goals: mobilize support and mobilize revenue. This bargaining created a state designed to control - policing, rather than organizing - a large, ethnically mixed population. Manning sees four phases in the Ptolemaic takeover of Egypt: (1) Continuation of Persian state structure (323-305 BCE); (2) Equilibrium formation, and the building of a new, bureaucratic empire (305-220 BCE); (3) Institutional consolidation in Egypt (250-180 BCE); and (4) Rupture, reconsolidation, and the Roman takeover (217-30 BCE). In all of their negotiations the Ptolemies looked to the New Kingdom pharaohs, the great military conquerors, for inspiration and legitimization. Throughout every phase, Egyptian history was used to justify and to broadcast Ptolemaic rule. "The Ptolemies wrote their own history in an Egyptian medium in the same way as the Nubian pharaohs had done before them. In both cases, it was the royal actions of the New Kingdom pharaohs that were copied. It is no accident that the early Ptolemaic kings took New Kingdom pharaonic royal names as their throne names" (101).4

Chapter 5, "Creating a new economic order," considers the "Fiscal Sociology" of the Ptolemies, that is the interplay between generation of income (and its expenditure) and political authorities, the economy, and even society itself. Here, Manning reacts against a traditionalist view that the Ptolemaic economy was mercantilistic in an early modern sense. He argues that the Ptolemies did not have the control and power of modern (or early modern) mercantile states. The Ptolemies instead focused on revenue alone and attempted to control as much of the economy as they could. Unlike previous Egyptian regimes, which controlled labor, and taxed labor service, the Ptolemies controlled cash, and focused on raising revenue in hard currency. Thus new institutions such as banking, coinage, tax-farming, and the census were instituted to facilitate the new moneyed economy. And yet these new institutions only allowed for recapture of 12-14% of GDP. While the Ptolemies achieved greater revenue than their predecessors, the base bureaucratic system was itself ancient and by nature stifled economic growth--hence the low percentage of recapture. Unlike modern states, however, the Ptolemies did not desire growth; they merely wanted control over revenue.

Chapter 6, "Order and law," examines the connections between the king, society, law, and economy and illustrates how law is intimately linked to political revenue policy. Legal change followed social and economic change. Ptolemaic law, which comprised traditions constructed by both immigrant Greek and native Egyptian populations, continued to evolve under the dynamic pressures of royal legislation, the social norms and interests of constituent populations, and above all by the bureaucracy that adjudicated the law. Codification of laws as a means of creating political consensus and extending state control had a long history in Egypt, but was most systematically applied under the Ptolemies. As with the economic reforms discussed in the previous chapter, the king played a central, coordinating role, while leaving local and regional systems intact. The general aim was clarity and predictability.

Manning has produced a deep and meaningful study of the social and political relationships inherent in the Ptolemaic economy. One of the book's great strengths is its Egyptian focus. Manning places the Ptolemaic state firmly within the context of Egyptian, rather than Hellenic, history, within an Egyptian context of continuity, rather than a Greek context of disruption. He also avoids the all-too-common comparisons with modern states and their experiences with colonialism. Indeed, in the conclusions Manning reiterates that "we should eschew modern state analogies and treat the Ptolemies as a premodern state" (202). His thorough analysis certainly warrants such a conclusion and in this light perhaps a better subtitle for the book would have been Egypt under the Ptolemaic State,, rather than Egypt under the Ptolemies, since by "Ptolemies" Manning seems to mean "Ptolemaic State." Indeed, Manning is more concerned with Ptolemaic rule and the Ptolemaic state as a unit and offers only glimpses of specific policy details. As a result, individual rulers, and their particular political/economic/legal choices receive little direct analysis. Of course, the haphazard nature of the available evidence and the social models used lend themselves more easily to such broad analysis. And yet, one would have liked to see more attention given to the diachronic context and the markedly different phases (with their different economic and political goals) of Ptolemaic rule. But perhaps that is the next layer in understanding the Ptolemaic state that can now be built on the strong foundation Manning offers here.


1.   E.g. W. W. Tarn and G. T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization (3rd ed.) (London: Edward Arnold, 1952); M. Rostovtzeff, The social and economic history of the Hellenistic world (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941); M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (2nd ed.) (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1999); and P. Green, Alexander to Actium: the historical evolution of the Hellenistic age (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990).
2.   Manning brings in the increasingly more accessible demotic and hieroglyphic Egyptian texts to give a deeper understanding of political, social, legal, and economic relationships and consequently offers a more holistic, untidy, and more nuanced view of state activities than previous works. Classic studies of the Ptolemaic state economy such as E. R. Bevan, The house of Ptolemy: A history of Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemaic dynasty (Chicago: Ares, 1968 [1927]), C. Préaux, L'Economie royale des Lagides (Brussels: Editions de la Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élizabeth, 1939), and M. Rostovtzeff, A large estate in Egypt in the third century B.C.: A study in economic history (Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1922) relied primarily on Greek papyri and thus presented an unbalanced, Hellenized perspective of Ptolemaic economic behavior. Manning's earlier work Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: the structure of land tenure (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), analyzed Greek and Egyptian (demotic and hieroglyphic) documents unavailable to Préaux and Rostovtzeff, and offered a useful corrective on the subject of land tenure, just as the present work does for the economic system as a whole. Moreover, although recent studies such as Hölbl's History of the Ptolemaic Empire (trans. Tina Saavedra) (London: Routledge, 2001) do utilize the full range of evidence, only Manning uses social science models to illustrate Ptolemaic policy at all levels
3.   S. N. Eisenstadt, The political systems of empires (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1993).
4.   From an Alexander-source perspective, I argue much the same case for Ptolemaic continuity of New Kingdom historiographical themes and structure. T. Howe, "Alexander in India: Ptolemy as Near Eastern Historiographer," in T. Howe and J. Reames, ed., Macedonian Legacies: Studies in Ancient Macedonian History and Culture in Honor of Eugene N. Borza (Claremont, CA: Regina, 2008 [2009]), 215-234.

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