BMCR 2001.06.11

A History of the Ptolemaic Empire. Translated by Tina Saavedra

, History of the Ptolemaic empire. London: Routledge, (2003 printing). xxxvi, 373 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0415201454 $31.99 (pb).

W.L. Strack’s Dynastie der Ptolemäer from 1897 was long outdated when in 1994 the Austrian Egyptologist Günther Hölbl (hereafter H.) published the first general study in German of the history of the Ptolemies, who basically ruled Egypt and other territories in the Eastern Mediterranean from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 until Cleopatra’s suicide in 30 BC.1 This book was also the most updated major study on the issue since Bevan’s House of Ptolemy from 1928 since it encompasses the research that has been done since then. So during the past seven years H. has been one of the most relied upon handy-references on the Ptolemaic Kingdom.2 With its excellent translation into English by Tina Saavedra, Hölbl’s important book will become the most relevant guide on the Ptolemies in that language, and thus accessible to a far larger audience. Since a second edition in German is not foreseeable, the author has therefore taken the opportunity to correct some errors and “to improve the text by incorporating the latest scholarly views of the last six years” and adding a bibliographical supplement. Indeed, the present book can be regarded as a “revised and upgraded edition” (p. xiv) and it may therefore be safely advised to use it for future reference.

H. has structured his work into three main parts: I The beginning and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic rule, II Change and decline of the Hellenistic state of the Ptolemies, and III The Ptolemaic kingdom under the shadow of Roman power. Each of these parts is divided into three subchapters of which the first two deal with the political history while the third embraces the development of royal ideology, religion and sacred or divine kingship (the religious and ideological history is in addition to the political history the main theme of H.’s book, as is implied by the subtitle of the German edition). For a practical overview I will give a cursory summary of these nine subchapters:

Chapter 1 covers the time from the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great till the end of the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (306-283/2 BC) which basically formed the foundations of the Ptolemaic empire (p. 9-34).

Chapter 2 deals with the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282-246 BC) and Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-222/1 BC) where the dominance and influence of the dynasty reached its peak (p. 35-76) and its expansion briefly exceeded that of Egypt under Thutmosis III (c. 1479-1425 BC).

Chapter 3 (p. 77-123) outlines the development of the royal ideology from Alexander the Great till Ptolemy III. It is basically concerned with the complex system of unifying two different types of ruler, the Hellenistic basileus and the Egyptian pharaoh, as well as the search for a new identity. Here the most important step was the formation of the dynastic cult, which established eponymous priesthoods for Alexander the Great and at this stage for individual deceased queens. The famous priestly decree of Canopus, which celebrated the benefactions of Ptolemy III and Berenike II and also shaped the cult of the Ptolemies in the Egyptian environment, receives its own section (p. 105-112).

The decline set in after the rule of Ptolemy III. The years from the accession of Ptolemy IV Philopator (222/1-204 BC) until the joint-rule of the three siblings Ptolemy VI, Ptolemy VIII, and Cleopatra II (170/169-163 BC which marked a turning point in the fate of the Ptolemaic kingdom, are the subject of chapter 4 (p. 127-152). Weakness of the government in Alexandria in the time of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (294-181 BC) had resulted in the end of Ptolemaic hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the loss of its foreign territories in Thrace, Anatolia and Syria contributed to the dynasty’s decline. During the Sixth Syrian War the Ptolemies even requested help from Rome against the invasion of their uncle Antiochos IV. This resulted in the first diplomatic intervention by Rome on Egyptian territory, when its envoy Popillius Laenas forced Antiochos’ withdrawal from Egypt and Cyprus. From then on Ptolemaic affairs became increasingly dependent on Roman mediation.

Chapter 5 covers the domestic resistance inside Egypt under the Ptolemies, when during the last years of Ptolemy IV Philopator a Pharaonic state was established in Thebes. Two rebel leaders, Herwennefer (206-200 BC) and Anchwennefer (200-186) ruled as the last indigenous kings. This uprising coincided with the territorial losses of the realm (p. 153-159).

Chapter 6 summarizes the Egyptian building policies of Ptolemy IV Philopator and Ptolemy V Epiphanes. A whole subchapter is devoted to the priestly decrees that are extant from this period and how the Ptolemies were worshipped by the Egyptian cults (p. 160-177).

The decline of the Ptolemaic dynasty from the resumption of the joint rule of Ptolemy VI, Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II in 168 BC until the lynching of Ptolemy XI in 80 BC is the theme of chapter 7 (p. 181-221). The irreconcilable rift between the brothers Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII resulted in the division of the kingdom. The latter was made king of Cyrene, where he ruled until his older brothers death in 145. H. basically follows the current view that there was no son of Ptolemy VI, generally referred to as Ptolemy VII (Neos Philopator) who was crowned as co-ruler and briefly was king after his father’s death before being murdered by his uncle Ptolemy VIII, when he took over the realm. Despite this fact H. maintains, however, the traditional numbering of the Ptolemies, which was originally fixed by W. Otto and H. Bengtson in 1938, when they identified the divinity Neos Philopator in the ruler-cult with a son of Ptolemy VI.3 Both the existence and the identity of a Ptolemy VII, who died in 145, has recently been challenged.4

The last period of the political history of the Ptolemies, the reigns of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos (80-51) and Cleopatra VII (51-30), are outlined in chapter 8 (p. 222-256). The closing point is the conquest of Egypt by Octavian and the fate of the descendants of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, the last of which, Ptolemy of Mauretania, was executed in AD 40 on the orders of Caligula.

The concluding chapter describes the development of the religious culture from Ptolemy VI to Cleopatra. Here the golden age of temple building under Ptolemy VI and VIII, the Ptolemaic kingship and the Egyptian priesthoods, the decline of the offices of the eponymous priests, and the divine rule under Cleopatra VII are the main themes. This chapter is followed by an epilogue which summarizes the “Fundamentals of the development of the Ptolemaic kingdom”. Added to that are an Appendix with an overview of the events discussed in this book charted into three sections according to political events, history of ideology and religion, and the construction of temples in Egypt, as well as three stemmas on the Ptolemaic family; one of which shows their marital links to the Seleukid dynasty. An index of people and gods, geographic and general terms precede three maps (Eastern Mediterranean, Ptolemaic Egypt and Alexandria).

There are some minor flaws in the English edition, which however do not diminish my deep appreciation of H.’s important contribution. In the abbreviation and reference section starting with page xvi the three German terms for AR = Altes Reich (Old Kingdom), MR = Mittleres Reich (Middle Kingdom) and NR = Neues Reich (= New Kingdom) and a few other explanatory details in brackets overlooked in the translation.5 For the German edition it is very helpful that Hölbl gives references to German translations of Egyptian texts of the Ptolemaic period. Two works by G. Röder may be singled out here.6 For the English edition, however, it might perhaps been more practical to have added also references to available English renditions of those texts. The bibliographical supplement contains only a selection of literature on the Ptolemaic empire from 1990 to 1999 and unfortunately omits a few important studies that ought to have been included.7

Hölbl shows a remarkable grasp of the classical authors, as well as all the other relevant sources. His main strength lies, however, in the incorporation of the Egyptological evidence, to which he gives a far greater coverage than previous writers who have written handbooks on this epoch. One of the major advantages of the English edition of Hölbl’s Ptolemaic Empire in contrast to the original German version is its easy-to-use format. The German H. has all the notes as endnotes at the end of the complete text, but since there are no page headlines in the entire book which indicate e.g. the chapters or from which pages the notes are, it is also extremely awkward to handle. It requires some thumbing back and forth till one gets to the right notes. This thankfully has been eliminated by Routledge. Not only are there page headlines, but the endnotes are conveniently placed after the respective chapters, which makes using the English H. very swift affair. The same can be said about the family trees and the maps. In fact I personally use this edition now when I need to look something up.


1. G. Hölbl, Geschichte des Ptolemäerreiches. Politik, Ideologie und religiöse Kultur von Alexander dem Grossen bis zur römischen Eroberung, Darmstadt (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft) 1994.

2. As for the German language, it will be supplemented by the forthcoming major handbook by Werner Huss: Ägypten in hellenistischer Zeit. 332 – 30 v. Chr., München (C.H. Beck) 2001.

3. W.Otto/H. Bengtson, Zur Geschichte des Niedergang des Ptolemäerreiches. Ein Beitrag zur Regierungszeit des 8. und 9. Ptolemäers, München 1938, 25, 110-112.

4. The discussion was started by M. Chauveau, ‘Un été 145’, BIFAO 90 (1990), 135-168; ibid., ‘Un été 145 (Postscriptum)’, BIFAO 91 (1991), 129-134. He has now published a brief article in RdE 51 (2000) 257-261, where he sums up the discussion with all references to the previous literature and the interesting evidence of P. Köln VIII, 350. Based on Chauveau W. Huss has already suggested a new numbering of the kings in his study “Der makedonische König und die ägyptischen Priester. Studien zur Geschichte des ptolemaiischen Ägypten” Stuttgart (Steiner) 1994, and continues to do so in his new book mentioned in note 2. Ptolemy VIII thus becomes Ptolemy VII, while the numbers of his successors are changed accordingly. Against this cf. H. Heinen, ‘Der Sohn des 6. Ptolemäers im Sommer 145. Zur Frage nach Ptolemaios VII. Neos Philopator und zur Zählung der Ptolemäerkönige’, in: Akten des 21. Internationalen Papyrologenkongresses, Berlin, 13.-19.8.1995; ed. B. Kramer et al., Archiv für Papyrusforschung Beiheft 3, Stuttgart-Leipzig 1997. 449-460.

5. Cf. e.g. on p. xix the entry for Cleopatra’s Egypt (1988) where the mention of the German edition is partly untranslated. One may doubt whether the reference in the square bracket is useful in H.’s English edition.

6. G. Röder, Die Ägyptische Götterwelt, Zürich 1959; and Orakel und Naturverehrung im Alten Ägypten, Zürich 1960. Both titles have recently been reprinted for a wider German audience.

7. This goes especially for B.C. McGing, ‘Revolt Egyptian Style. Internal Opposition to Ptolemaic Rule’, Archiv für Papyrusforschung 43/2 (1997) 273-314.