Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.07

Gregor Weber (ed.), Alexandreia und das ptolemäische Ägypten: Kulturbegegnungen in hellenistischer Zeit.   Berlin:  Verlag Antike, 2010.  Pp. 232.  ISBN 9783938032374.  € 49.90.  

Reviewed by M. Weiskopf (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Weber has edited an excellent, well-written collection of essays investigating the Ptolemaic era, a collection (whose origins lie in 2007/2008) indicative of the advances made in the field since the 1980s when the imprecise term "multicultural" was first used to placate the “politically correct.” Weber’s introduction (pp. 9-29) makes clear that one is investigating cultural interactions, Kulturbegegnungen: a plural. The cultures and interactions are never static, nor is there a single Leitkultur. Weber proposes the investigation of five Problembereiche that cut across disciplines: a. the concept of monarchy, in which the desire for dynastic unity led to the adaptation of the Egyptian concept of sibling marriage; b. the elite of the land, Egyptian and Greco-Macedonian maintaining their respective positions, but prosopographical details preclude assigning ethnics based on one’s name; c. religion, in which the Ptolemies were active patrons, but a clear division between divine worlds seems to have persisted; d. the situation in the chora, illuminated for the most part by papyrus-preserved “personal” histories; e. dislike of the Ptolemaic rule: the priesthood saw the Ptolemies as the bulwark against a Sintflut of chaos and anarchy; it remains difficult to assign specific reasons for others’ dissatisfaction. Weber ends with advice (p. 24): “Generalisierende Aussage in grosser Stil ueber die griechische Elite oder die Aegypter verbieten sich daher.”

Von Reden (pp. 30-54) offers an account of the economic transformation under the early members of the dynasty. Focus falls on coinage’s role as an instrument of power: a “Ptolemaic standard”, viable for Egypt alone, was gradually introduced, leading to the monetarization of the administration and the kingdom as a whole. Coinage and agricultural goods maintained a close relationship, each playing a major role in certain economic realms, the former replacing the latter as the ‘currency’ of the temple monopolies. The local elite expected payment in coin and became responsible in part for the management of the monetary supply.

Weber’s discussion of the Ptolemaic ruler cult (pp. 55-83) emphasizes the dynasty’s flexibility in their reactions to different groups’ perceptions (cf. pp. 34-35 for von Reden’s similar rejection of a stiff central Planwirtschaft). The dynast stepped into the role played by the Pharaohs as the one responsible for Egypt’s financial, administrative, and religious health, but the early Ptolemaic court officials remained predominantly Greco- Macedonian. Both the ruler cult (established by decree or private initiative) and the dynastic cult (celebrating an unbroken chain of ancestors) touched politics and religion. The former used the person of the king (and royal family) to hold together the Greco-Macedonian population, who themselves dated documents by regnal year, and holders of priesthoods. A good deal of leeway was left for the manner in which private individuals performed cultic honors (cf. pp. 69-71). In the latter, the Ptolemies never tied themselves by descent to the Pharaohs (Alexander began the chain) and left the Egyptians to decide on their own forms of cultic honors. Greek and Egyptian concepts did meld—but this was not imperial policy.

Pfeiffer’s contribution on the Rosetta Stone (pp. 84-108) places a similar emphasis on Ptolemaic flexibility while emphasizing continuities with Greek and Egyptian practices. The stone highlights the continued prominence of the Memphis and Theban priesthoods, but its text mirrors Hellenistic honorary inscriptions including instructions to display the decree at publicly accessible portions of all temples. A cult of the dynasty was present in each temple and the king regarded as a second-level god: since he needed the approval of the other gods to be among them, he was dependent upon them. Every Egyptian priest, in holding his office, became part of the clergy honoring the dynasty while remaining the earthly interpreter of all the gods’ wills. Pfeiffer is justified in his labeling the priesthood a pillar of the state.

Bergmann’s discussion of Sarapis (pp. 109-135) offers a clear treatment of the present state of investigation into the deity as well as intelligent suggestions. The god, who found little resonance among the general population, was tied closely to the royal house, thereby gaining the attention of palace functionaries who joined the king in fulfilling ritual responsibities. Bergmann accepts the view that Sarapis was in fact Osirapis, important at Memphis, the former capital, and that he was a form of Osiris specific to that city. Thus, Sarapis would have garnered additional priestly support for the new dynasty. The deity received special favor from Ptolemies III and IV, who viewed him as their protecting god. Bergmann also presents the possibility that the post-Ptolemaic “Potter’s Oracle” may contain echoes of an Egyptian “opposition” centering on the existence and the physical representation of Sarapis (pp. 130-131).

Schmidt’s contribution (pp. 136-159) on the Nekropolis (Strabo 17.1.10) examines burial architecture, the manner in which it mirrored the architecture of the living, and possible Egyptian influence (pp. 152-153). He also introduces the importance Vereine (associations) had for the social structure of Alexandria, the city of the "up-rooted." The Verein served as a binding force which found its expression in the afterlife in the form of common burial crypts, complete with meeting rooms for services and water-supplies (p. 147). Thus the Verein served as a substitute (extended) family for those whose origins lay scattered throughout the Hellenic world.

The final pieces discuss the literary scene in Alexandria. Männlein-Robert’s unusually titled contribution (pp.160- 186) offers strong arguments that Callimachus’ Aitia was an effort to construct for the Alexandrians a Hellenic identity by means of tying together a variety of existing Greek traditions for a population coming from many scattered locations. Just as the Ptolemies placed a pan-Hellenic emphasis on their rule, so Callimachus tried to transfer and shape a pan-Hellenic culture and identity for a new world, bridging the gap between the present, now located in Egypt, and the Greek past. I note that Callimachus’ efforts, as described by Männlein-Robert, parallel what we note from Schmidt’s study about the role of Vereine forming a replacement family/social structure.

Stanzel’s piece (pp.186-207) explains how Callimachus, Herodas, and Theocritus tried to make established forms of poetry meaningful for their own time (and Alexandrian location). Callimachus fits the spirit of Hipponax (p. 193) into Alexandria, his distaste reserved for his Museum colleagues as a group. Herodas directs his mimiambi towards a lower socio-economic level and uses his invective to express a general distaste for his characters (pp. 194-195), who are sometimes portrayed using Homeric echoes (pp. 197-200). Theocritus’ mimepoi reflect not just scenes from bucolic life, but city life as well, in one case the popularity of magic and witchcraft as means to overcome personal distress (pp. 202-205). The subjects treated by all three poets are ordinary, everyday affairs, writ large.

Weber and his colleagues have taken up a difficult topic for consideration, especially when so much about antiquity is lost. One can imagine the permutations of Kulturbegegnungen among the inhabitants listed at the top of page 10 and that the snarky comments about Egyptians made by Theocritus’ Praxinoa (pp. 55-56) were precisely those repeated in the chora by Egyptians about Greeks, and probably to the face of Ptolemaios in 160 (p. 21). I would like to propose that there is a ‘parallel world’ which one might consider as a means of seeing what sort of things could have happened, the world of the Indian Ocean and the South Asian diaspora in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one soberly investigated and chronicled by Thomas Metcalf.1 Perhaps more than imagine gaudens.

Table of Contents

Vorwort 7
Gregor Weber, Kulturbegegnungen in Alexandreia und im ptolemäischen Ägypten. Begriffe – Probleme – Perspektiven 9
Sitta von Reden, Kulturbegegnung und wirtschaftliche Transformation in den ersten Generationen ptolemäischer Herrschaft 30
Gregor Weber, Ungleichheiten, Integration oder Adaptation? Der ptolemäische Herrscher- und Dynastiekult in griechisch-makedonischer Perspektive 55
Stefan Pfeiffer, Das Dekret von Rosette. Die ägyptischen Priester und der Herrscherkult 84
Marianne Bergmann, Sarapis im 3. Jh. v.Chr. 109
Stefan Schmidt, Nekropolis – Grabarchitektur und Gesellschaft im hellenistischen Alexandreia 136
Irmgard Männlein-Robert, Zwischen Musen und Museion oder: Die poetische (Er-)Findung Griechenlands in den Aitien des Kallimachos 160
Karl-Heinz Stanzel, Neuer Wein in neuen Schläuchen? Kallimachos’ Iambik, die Mimepen Theokrits und die Mimiamben des Herodas 187


1.  Metcalf, Thomas, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920 Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008; An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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