BMCR 2000.11.01

Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra. History and Society under the Ptolemies (= L’Egypte au temps de Cléopâtre, transl. by D. Lorton)

, Egypt in the age of Cleopatra : history and society under the Ptolemies. Cornell paperbacks.. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. vii, 226 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0801435978 $17.95 (pb).

Few names from antiquity resonate like that of Cleopatra: those four seductive syllables mesmerize us as dramatically they did her contemporaries. A simple search for Cleopatra on WorldCat yields 4282 references. RLIN returns only 2619 records, but RLIN seemingly omits such treasures as a Red Skelton video in which “Red plays a Roman slave named nauseous [sic], the only man in the world not in love with the siren of the Nile …,” a story entitled Rhymes and Times of Cleo-cat-ra (with apologies to Cleopatra), and a book whose subject I would rather not speculate about called Clinton and Cleopatra. Cleopatra is an icon. Cleopatra sells.

Given the marketability of Cleopatra’s name, it is not entirely surprising that Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra (the only title to appear on either the cover or the half-title page and the focus emphasized by the blurb on the back cover) is so named even though it is not actually about Cleopatra. Nor does it focus on the historical era that the reign of Cleopatra VII defined. Rather, the book is intended as an introduction to the last two centuries of Ptolemaic rule from the period of Ptolemy V (204-180) to that of Cleopatra VII, a span of time coinciding, as the author frequently points out, with seven queens named Cleopatra.

Yet, that said, this book is not meant as a conventional history of that period. Its expressed purpose is to provide a social history of Egypt’s internal affairs, independent of the perspective given by Greek and Latin authors. To this end Chauveau effectively uses papyri, both Greek and Demotic, to underscore his points. He quotes one letter, for example, that describes a Greek mother’s delight at her son’s study of “Egyptian writing” which seems to have gotten him a post in a school that relied on Egyptian medical texts, and C interprets this document to point up Greek dependence on Egyptian medical knowledge in the Chora, which persisted in spite of the Hippocratic influence on the royal court.

C.’s initial intention to write about the period of Cleopatra VII was thwarted, however, precisely because of his primary sources, for “… the hazards of preservation have made the age of the great Cleopatra one of those less blessed with papyrus archives …” (p. 3). He therefore enlarged his scope to recognize the last two centuries BCE, yet these chronological boundaries are also difficult to maintain. Although the attitude of “native” Egyptians toward their Greek rulers might have changed dramatically because of the battle of Raphia in 217 (for which Egyptians were armed and in whose victory they became cognizant of their power) as C. asserts, the entire period of Ptolemaic rule nevertheless remains a cohesive phase in Egyptian history as reading through this book makes clear. C. notes that a consideration of the entire Ptolemaic dynasty would have proved too vast an undertaking but, given the book’s generalized treatment, on the one hand, and the necessity to place the last two centuries of Ptolemaic rule in context by relying on the earlier century, on the other, he might have been better served by doing precisely that.

The first three chapters are introductory. Chapter 1, entitled “Historical Perspective,” gives a very brief overview of the political and dynastic history of Egypt from its conquest by Alexander until its conquest by Octavian. The second chapter, “Greek Pharaohs and their Subjects,” describes Ptolemaic kingship — the complex intra-familial relationships that marked the dynasty and the relation of the system to its Greek subjects, Egyptian subjects, and the Egyptian religious system. Chapter 3, “Cities and Countryside,” sketches the geography of Egypt, taking the reader on a tour beginning in Alexandria and continuing through the Delta and up the Nile to Aswan. As the citations attest, these chapters rely almost exclusively on secondary sources, and the rare primary sources cited are almost invariably those Greek and Roman writers that C. essays to avoid. The most original and provocative contribution of these chapters (p. 50; p. 57), an interpretation that C. has argued elsewhere,1 is his identification of the name Rhakotis as a Hellenized form of the Egyptian Ra-qed meaning “construction site,” a term he believes was employed by those Egyptians building Alexandria. The word, then, was later misapplied by Greek and Roman authors, who erroneously imagined it referred to an earlier Egyptian settlement on the future site of the Ptolemaic capital. If C.’s etymology is correct, his revision puts to rest the scholarly discussion of whether Rhakotis was a settlement of second or first millennium BCE date and the concurrent problems either placement raises.

The meat of the book is Chapters 4 through 8 in which C. focuses on social aspects of Egypt under Ptolemaic rule, rather than on the political history or geography of the land. Chapter 4 “Economy and Society,” treats the economic administration of the Ptolemaic dynasty, touching on its hierarchical organization, taxation, coinage, law, and its effect on agriculture and the peasantry that lived off the land. Chapter 5, “Priests and Temples,” discusses religion and temple administration, incorporating at length the biography of “Ptolemaios, the recluse,” who lived in an annex in the Serapeum of Memphis in the second century BCE. Chapter 6, “Living on the Death of Others,” primarily treats the administrators of the dead and of necropolises, the choachytai and others, and Chapter 7, “Soldiers and Peasants,” those strata of society. The final chapter before the brief conclusion, “Two Languages, Two Cultures, Three Writing Systems,” argues for a coexistence of “culture” in Ptolemaic Egypt “like two completely partitioned worlds, two nearly incompatible modes of expression and thought that could by chance be practiced by the same individuals but could not really be blended together” (p. 189). None of these chapters is strictly limited to the time period that the book sets out to address, and the “Conclusion” further extends the book’s chronological range as it looks forward to changes brought about by the advent of Roman rule.

Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra seems aimed at a general audience. The often breezy writing, short sub-sections with their sometimes pithy (although invariably relevant) titles, the pictures that intersperse the text (added, I should think, for the translated edition, since the objects are housed almost exclusively in American museums), the lack of a bibliography, and the rarely encountered citations most of which refer to secondary sources, appear intended to make the book attractive to a general constituency. Nevertheless the book’s organization into short sub-sections (many of which are unnecessary and merely break the flow of the narrative), compounded by the specificity imparted by its papyrological sources, produces a series of snapshots. Some are crisp and balanced (like the teacher in the medical college of “Phaloubes, the specialist in enemas” [p. 177]); some are overly exposed (like the long section on “Ptolemaios, the recluse”); some are some slightly out of focus; and all too many have their subjects skittering out of the frame just when you’ve released the shutter (like the all too brief glance at laws differentiating between Greeks and Egyptians, laws that pertain to both, and the culminating single paragraph treating laws relating to women). The general audience that appears to be the beneficiary of this book will almost certainly come away with a very uneven picture of Ptolemaic Egypt and its people.

This focus on accessibility leads to further consequences that remove this volume from consideration as a scholarly source but that also bring it into question it as a completely satisfactory general resource. The most critical, to my mind, are the unsubstantiated (and often hyperbolic) statements, opinions, and interpretations that constitute much of the book. Some are merely irritating, but some bias the evidence. C.’s antipathy to the Ptolemies, for example, is evident throughout; he continually and gratuitously refers to the biological connection between the ruling king and queen, implying a salaciousness that panders to a modern audience (“The young Cleopatra [Cleopatra III] did not give up hope, though, and some years later, she was quick to marry her uncle and stepfather!” [p. 31]). Other statements are even more questionable historically, however, as for example, C.’s illustration of a divine titular assumed by Cleopatra III (wife of Ptolemy VIII, “her uncle and stepfather”) as representative of the depreciating value of the monarchy, an example that disregards the earlier assimilation of Isis by Arsinoe, wife of Ptolemy II, at the very height of Ptolemaic power. Coupled with this general overstatement is an underlying imprecision of language, which is in no way the fault of the translator. C., for example, who divides much of his discussion between Greeks and Egyptians, never truly defines how he differentiates between the two in this complex society, where people of different ethnic ancestry often spoke and wrote the same language, took similar names, intermarried, and lived similar lives. In addition, either the ethical necessity to refer to Cleopatra VII in a book with her name in the title or a desire to use her as a unifying theme (or both) leads to chronological ellipses such as one in which the assessment that “Cleopatra’s Egypt had a large population and was undoubtedly the most densely populated land in the ancient world” (p. 55) appears to be based on population estimates for Egypt in 229 BCE, a date not only outside the temporal range this book purportedly addresses but one almost two full centuries before Cleopatra VII’s reign. I am not clear what population estimate was used for the rest of the ancient world.

C. is at his best when dealing with texts and specifically — especially for those of us who do not read Egyptian texts — when treating derivations of words, and these discussions form the most satisfying parts of the book. Nevertheless, as an unremitting text person, he exhibits little feel for material remains, as he makes clear both implicitly (by ignoring them) and explicitly (by including, for example, Alexandria’s “cemeteries that are not very evocative” [p. 58] and the Alexandrian Serapeum’s “shapeless visages” [p. 61]). In his description of Alexandria in Chapter 3 he passes over the recent archaeological evidence unearthed by his French colleagues2 and, in his assessment of Naukratis, he ignores evidence for the continued importance of the trading port provided by the recent American excavations.3

Cornell University Press has been translating books with broad appeal by eminent European Egyptologists (Erik Hornung and Serge Saurernon, for example) into English for the past twenty years, and recently Lorton, the translator of Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra, has translated at least three of these. Lorton notes that “for decades there has been no fresh history of the Ptolemaic period in English …” and, with the exception of the treatment of the period in Alan K. Bowman’s Egypt after the Pharaohs (Berkeley: California University Press, 1989), this is indeed the case. For this reason alone, Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra becomes a must-have book. Nevertheless, by the time that this review is in print Günther Hölbl’s History of the Ptolemaic Empire (London: Routledge, 2000) should be available. It will be interesting to compare the two.


1. M. Chauveau, “Alexandrie et Rhakôtis: Le Point de vue des Égyptiens,” Cahiers de la villa Kérylos (Beaulieu-sur-mer) no. 9 (Paris 1999).

2. For example J.-Y. Empereur, “Alexandria: the underwater site near Qaitbay Fort,” Egyptian Archaeology 8 (1996) 7-10.

3. See, for example, W.D.E. Coulson, Ancient Naukratis. Vol. II. The Survey at Naukratis and Environs. Part I. The Survey at Naukratis. Oxford: Oxbow Monograph 60, 1996, esp. p. 14.