Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.11.03

Friedhelm Hoffmann, Martina Minas-Nerpel, Stefan Pfeiffer (ed.), Die dreisprachige Stele des C. Cornelius Gallus. Übersetzung und Kommentar. Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete 9.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2009.  Pp. viii, 225.  ISBN 9783110201208.  $108.00.  

Reviewed by Giovanni Geraci, University of Bologna (

Table of Contents

This important book is the result of a joint multi-year project undertaken since 2000 in the framework of the activities of the Forschungszentrum Griechisch-Römischen Ägypten der Universität Trier by Martina Minas Nerpel (now Swansea University) and Stefan Pfeiffer (Trier University), later joined by Friedhelm Hoffman (Würzburg University).

The trilingual (in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Latin, Greek) inscription of the stele has been reviewed, collated and checked with both the original and its squeezes and photographs. The main outcome is not only a new transcription, translation and commentary of the document, but a very weighty issue in historical perspective: the three texts are not simple translations of one another, but three sometimes very different ways to represent the same events or concepts respectively to Egyptian, Roman, Greek ears and mentalities, and through their iconographic, linguistic and textual traditions.

The Gallus stele, sometimes called victory stele, was placed at the temple of Isis in Philae, near the traditional border between Egypt and Nubia, on 16 April 29 B.C. by the first prefect of Egypt, some eight months after the constitution of the new Roman province, to commemorate the conquest of the southern part of the country, the defeat of some native insurrections and the securing of the Nubian border. Its content has been wrongly considered for a long time as a proof of the insolent attitude of Gallus towards Octavian and as one of the possible causes of his downfall, which occurred only some three years after the erection of the stele and also—what is more—after the renewal, in 27 B.C., of Gallus as prefect of the same province!

This new edition frames the document in its right context, under historical, archaeological, and textual points of view.

The Introduction begins with a brief sketch of the scholarly research on the inscription and traces a good outline of the personality, career and life of Cornelius Gallus.1 The second part of the Introduction is devoted to the description of the stele (discovered in front of the temple of Augustus at Philae, where it has been reused in the foundations of an altar, vertically cut in two parts, with 8 cm lost in the middle of each line), its archaelogical context and the theories about its original placement.

The following chapter is of chief importance in resolving the long-standing problem of who is the horseman fighting against an enemy soldier, reproduced in the upper part of the stone. A very accurate analysis of horsemen representations in Greek and Roman contexts and in Egyptian ones, their respective meanings and the new readings of the hieroglyphic inscription placed over his head lead to the conclusion that the horseman is Gallus himself awarded with a title similar to that used in the Satrap stele to designate someone who acts as a representative of the king in charge. Gallus is said to be «chosen» or an «agent» of the new ruler of the country who is named in the cartouche with the new designation in Egyptian documents «Romaios».

The two following chapters are devoted to the study, transcription, translation and commentary of the hieroglyphic inscription and of the Latin and Greek redactions of it. The first part of the analysis of the hieroglyphic portion is devoted to a very thorough survey of its palaeography and language. Of primary importance is the line by line commentary that follows, reconstructing the ways the Egyptian priests used to represent Gallus' powers and enterprises and his relationship with the gods of Upper Egypt, Philae and the territory of northern Nubia surrounding the first Nile cataract. Very clear and well done is the summary table at p. 117.

The chief issue is the conclusion that the hieroglyphic text is radically different from the other two and is in no way to be considered as a literal translation of the Latin original, but a free rendering composed by the temple priests as a kind of cento. This was made by trying to adjust traditional Egyptian concepts or expressions or representations to the new historical and institutional situations and events, in order not to lose the ancestral meaning of this kind of text for the Egyptians. Therefore completely meaningless are the many efforts made to find out from this document Gallus' (or Octavian's) conceptions of the ruling power in Egypt and their differences from Roman administrative and political thought. Neither Gallus nor Octavian henceforth is to be regarded as the author or the inspirer of the hieroglyphic text of the stele.

The last chapter of the book deals with the Latin and Greek inscriptions, underlining the elegant literary structure of the Latin text that might suggest it was written by Gallus himself. The strict comparison between the corresponding Latin and Greek expressions employed in the stele displays sometimes different ways to represent things and concepts to two different kinds of readers and audience.

The commentary, very rich, balanced and up-to-date, deals with many much debated subjects, discussed in a line by line treatment. These include the way in which the nature of Gallus' powers as first prefect of Egypt are described and his view of Octavian's authority; his crushing of the Thebaid's rebellion and his conquest of the region and its chief towns in a few days; his military expedition in Nubia marching south beyond the first Nile cataract to secure the Lower Nubian border; his meeting near Philae with the envoys of the king of the Ethiopians where his acceptance under Roman protection was negotiated; and finally his thank-offering to the ancestral gods and helper Nile, its function and meaning.2

Many particular historical and stylistic points emerge from this thorough analysis together with the conclusion that the tone and phrasing of both linguistic versions of the inscription, though somewhat boastful and revealing some exaggerations and laudatory self-assertions, is fairly typical for this kind of text and for a military chief and governor who was proud to be the first man put in charge of a new province, and also for his close friendship with the winner of the civil wars and the conqueror of the Ptolemaic kingdom. In short there is no trace in them of institutional disloyalty.

The book is enriched by many useful and detailed indexes very precious to the reader (references to the words in the inscriptions; literary, epigraphic, archaeological and papyrological sources; topics: personal names, gods, place names, general), a wide and up-to-date bibliography and an appendix of images of the stele.

This is an outstanding and completely reliable work on one of the most important documentary sources on the beginnings of Roman rule in Egypt.


1.   On his birthplace it is now useful to refer to D. Faoro, “Sull'origo e sugli esordi politici di Cornelio Gallo,” Forum Iulii, 31, 2007, pp. 27-38. Also on the downfall of the prefect there is a nice Italian book written by F. Rohr Vio, Le voci del dissenso. Ottaviano Augusto e i suoi oppositori, Padova, 2000. The office of praefectus fabrum held by Gallus before being appointed prefect of Egypt -- as attested by the Vatican obelisk (on which see also C. Salvaterra, “Forum Iulium nell'iscrizione di C. Cornelio Gallo sull'obelisco Vaticano,” Aegyptus, 67, 1987, pp. 171-181) – is since 1955 to be understood as an aide-de-camp (A.D.C.) of the commander-in-chief, who can fully act as his representative in case of absence (J. Suohlati, The Junior Officers of the Roman Army in the Republican Period, Helsinki, 1955, pp. 206-207). It would have been interesting, in the economy of this book, to see its strict relationship with the title conferred to Gallus in the following months when appointed to run the new province, if we bear in mind the words of John Richardson: «The assignment of a provincia marked out an area of military responsibility, and as such was not an act of annexation but an act of war» (J.S. Richardson, Hispaniae, Cambridge, 1986, p. 178).
2.   In addition, in the discussion of the installation of a native ruler in the territory above the cataract, constituted as a special administrative unit and a vassal buffer zone in a new large Triakontaschoinos toparchy, we find a renewed checking of the reading of this very difficult passage on the stone.

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