BMCR 2002.08.32

The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander. Classics and Contemporary Thought, 8

Phiroze Vasunia, The gift of the Nile : hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander. Classics and contemporary thought ; 8. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. xiv, 346 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0520228200 $45.00.

In the past decade, considerable scholarly attention has focused on the evidence for ancient traditions regarding Greek indebtedness to Egypt. Attention has focused especially on the texts adduced by Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (= BA) texts which Bernal used to support his hypothesis of an “Ancient Model” of early, “massive” contacts between Egypt and Greece.1 Phiroze Vasunia’s The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander, while not explicitly conceived as a response to Bernal, remains in a very real sense just that. Vasunia examines many of the same texts as Bernal, but from a different perspective. The avowed goal of his book is “to examine a particular case of ethnocentrism which is localized to the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., to inquire into its methods and its grammar, and to investigate the factors that motivated it, the ideologies that sustained it, and the real and sometimes devastating uses to which it could be put by Greeks” (17).

In focusing only on what the ancient Greek texts on Egypt tell us about the Greeks, Vasunia heeds the advice of Edith Hall, who argued against Bernal that Greek traditions on contacts between Greece, Egypt, and the Levant cannot and should not be used as evidence for historical realities in the Bronze Age. Rather, Greek depictions of “Others”, including Egypt and Egyptians, should be read only for what they can tell us about the contemporary ethnic world view of the ancient Greeks themselves.2

Like Bernal, Vasunia insists that Greek discourse on Egypt is the source of many contemporary themes that can be traced back through the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment (17-18). But with the exception of a useful, though brief, summary of the historical relations between Greece and Egypt during the Egyptian Late Period from 664-332 B.C.E. (20-29), Vasunia uses historical materials primarily as a ‘reality check’ for his broader interpretation (19-20), and is “less concerned than Bernal with establishing historical facts” as such, and instead focuses on “representation, rhetoric, and the politics of literature” (17).

A few examples can illuminate some critical differences in the approaches of these two scholars to the question of how to read Greek texts on Egypt. For Vasunia, Isocrates’ Busiris, a text to which Bernal devoted several pages (BA I, 103-108) and Vasunia an entire chapter (“Reading Isocrates Busiris,” 183-215), rather than affirming a tradition of Greek cultural indebtedness to Egypt, “is largely orthodox in its reinscription of the other…[perpetuating] the cultural stereotype of Egyptians as xenophobic and inclined to human sacrifice” (200). Both Bernal and Vasunia read the speech against its contemporary fourth-century political and intellectual context and specifically link it to Isocrates’ rivalry with Plato. But Bernal, while admitting that the speech was on one level a rhetorical tour de force, insists that “to be convincing, the speech had to appeal to conventional wisdom” on the cultural indebtedness of Greece to Egypt (BA I, 103). Vasunia places much more emphasis on genre (an area that Bernal was criticized for slighting), arguing that one cannot read Busiris without taking into account the complex nature of its parody that “takes a fixed tradition and reasserts it, though in the guise reversing or altering it” (207). So, contra Bernal, Vasunia’s Isocrates emerges as no unqualified admirer of Busiris and/or Egyptian traditions.

Or, in another example, to Vasunia’s question “Why do both Plato and Isocrates appear so ready to say that Greek philosophers and wise men such as Solon and Pythagoras visited Egypt?” (229), Bernal would respond because they, in fact, visited Egypt (BA I, 108). Not so, says Vasunia, who eschews the historical question (229, 242; cf. 232, 234) and prefers to focus on what these stories say about the “cultural anxieties” of fourth-century Greeks for whom “to discover one’s wisdom along the shores of the Nile is not only to make Egypt a theatre where one may represent oneself to one’s own, but also to betray the anxious symptoms of a lack” (242).

But the difference between the treatments of many of the same texts by the two authors goes much deeper. As befits a book published in a series that “seeks to establish connections between specialized research on Greco-Roman antiquity and broader inquiry in the humanities, arts, and social sciences” (vii), Vasunia applies contemporary post-colonial criticism to ancient literature using a teleological scheme that posits “a relationship between knowledge and power” (11), the “claim of discourse driving Empire” (249). In this view, “European study of non-European cultures has led to colonial hegemony and political control … discourses that seem the most benign can come to have a crucial influence on mechanisms of authority and command” (12). This means that Vasunia reads fourth and fifth century Greek texts on Egypt not simply as reflections of contemporary concerns but as harbingers of future events. For Bernal, myth preserved the long-forgotten tracks of real historical events in the past. But in Vasunia’s post-colonial reading, cultural myths pave the way for real historical events in the future, in this case the fourth-century conquest and subjugation of Egypt by Alexander the Great in the name of Hellenism, an event that, for Vasunia, is “a tangible and material realization” of the politics that informed Greek representations of Egypt in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. (248, cf. 248-49, 287). In this view, no matter how heterogenous these texts on Egypt are, they contain common elements that “recur and intersect across the works of authors,” much like British writings on India from 1600-1800 (9-10). According to Vasunia, “no Greek reference to Egypt in the years before Alexander is innocent of this gross fact…, however sentimental the reference may appear, however distant it may seem from Alexander’s invasion and the subsequent rule by the Ptolemies” (6). While acknowledging the possibility of anachronism and “genuine differences” between the classical Greek world and the age of modern imperialism, Vasunia claims that “taken together, Herodotus, Homer, Aristotle, and other Greeks were a defining part of the ideological background that shaped Alexander’s conquest of Egypt” (12, cf. 32).

The structure of Vasunia’s book parallels its “teleological” thesis. A series of chapters on major prooftexts for his argument — Aeschylus’ Suppliants; Euripides’ Helen; Herodotus Book II; Isocrates Busiris; and passages from Plato’s Phaedrus, Timaeus, and Critias — culminates in a final chapter on Alexander’s conquest and occupation of Egypt. The book also includes a useful appendix of translated fragments from Greek historians on Egypt from Hecataeus (ca. 500 B.C.E.) through 332 B.C.E. and a rich, well chosen bibliography.

Each chapter applies post-colonial theory to specific ancient texts, with varying degrees of success. For example, in Chapter One on “The Tragic Egyptian,” Vasunia argues that Aeschylus’ Suppliants and Euripides’ Helen configure “issues of erotics, desire, and race…in relation to death” (12), in anticipation of Edward Said’s characterization of the western view of the Orient as hypersexual and fecund ( Orientalism, epigraph 33, and discussion 35-36). Egyptian males in the Suppliants and Helen are portrayed as hypersexed suitors pursuing a deadly marriage with the Egyptian Danaids or the Greek Helen in two tragedies that stereotypically identify Egypt with death and depict the aggressive desire of male Egyptians as deadly. By Vasunia’s reading, in the discourse of Athenian tragedy, “the way to preserve the social polity and to prevent ethnic contamination is to make abhorrent the union between these men and women” (74).

There is little to quarrel with in Vasunia’s argument that Athenian drama uses Egyptian men as “vehicles for the exploration and realization of Greek men’s covert desires”(38), but his attempt to distinguish his two Egyptian tragedies from the entire corpus of Athenian tragedy is not entirely persuasive. Vasunia’s tragic Egyptian weddings may be a matter of the ethnic tail wagging the dog of gender, piggybacking on the more universal Greek idea of sex and marriage as fraught with mortal danger, especially for women. As for Egypt as a sign for alterity in tragedy, Vasunia himself points out that of the extant tragedies only the Helen has Egypt as its setting (59 n.68), and in the tragic theater one need look no farther abroad than Thebes for the “Other” city in which Athenian social conflicts and repressed psychosexual desires can be acted out.3 Although apparently sensitive to these problems, Vasunia’s suggested solutions are unsatisfying. For example, Aeschylus’ Suppliants is distinguished from some of the other plays which conflate marriage with death for the female “insofar as it dramatizes in detail the events that lead to a wedding and the married life rather than the experiences of individuals who are already married” (54). What of tragic brides such as Iphigenia and Antigone, to name but a few?

A major strength of Vasunia’s methodology lies in his practice of interrogating Greek texts from a cross-cultural perspective, introducing comparative Egyptian material to present illuminating contrasts between the historical reality of Egypt in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. and the Greek representations of Egypt from the same period. Vasunia does well to remind us again and again that the period of Persian rule that saw the most intense interaction of Greeks with Egypt is for various reasons remarkably absent in the Greek texts (e.g., 7, 244). In more specific examples, the author reminds us that although tragedy forecloses any possibility of a union between Greek and Egyptian, in fact mixed unions between Egyptians and Greeks were occurring in Egyptian towns such as Naucratis (34); a discussion of the political conceptualization of Greek space in Herodotus is offset by an illuminating treatment of the Egyptians’ conceptualization of their own space with the pharaoh’s architectural projects seen not as a Herodotean “transgression and violation” but as an “extension and replication” of natural boundaries (103-109); a section on Egyptian time argues for a more “complicated and interesting” ancient Egyptian approach to their own history than that suggested by Herodotus’ presentation of Egyptian temporality as “flat and static” in contrast to the dynamism of Greek time (126-127).

The same practice produces what is perhaps the most illuminating section of the book, an extended comparison between Greek (Platonic) and Egyptian conceptions of the written word in Chapter IV “Writing Egyptian Writing” (151-182). Here Vasunia shows that although Plato uses the Egyptian story of Theuth ( Phaedrus 274c-275b) to express his own anxieties about writing, in reality, Egyptian notions of orality and writing were radically different from the Platonic view. The Platonic view of language and meaning as distinct entities with the consequent danger of distortions between words and ideas contrasts with the Egyptian notion of “‘direct signification’ where the congruence between signs and things was maintained” (174-75). Subverting another Platonic distinction, he argues, is the Egyptian belief that the spoken word is often an extension of the written word, coterminous with writing, rather than an alternative to it (171). Furthermore, the nature of Egyptian monumental inscriptions subvert the Herodotean identification of writing and autocracy by often co-opting the reader into enacting the role of king and identifying with him. “Thus, where Greek sources point to tyrannical power, the Egyptian inscriptions do not quite correspond to the Greek implications of tyranny… The subjectivity enacted here is neither fully democratic, nor fully autocratic, but it indicates a self-identification on the part of the reader that the Greek sources fail adequately to grasp” (172).

Vasunia’s two chapters on Herodotus’ representation of Egyptian space and time impressively demonstrate this author’s deftness in laying bare the political implications of seemingly neutral abstractions and going beyond the “simple binarism” implicit in notions of self and other. In Vasunia’s fascinating discussion, Herodotus’ narrative with its series of Egyptian rulers who alter the country’s landscape framing space “to a geometrical design” and investing it “with the power of kings” (81) and thereby enslaving its inhabitants is read against the “larger ethnographic differentiation where the despotism and tyranny of barbarian lands stands in contrast to the freedom and openness of many Greek city-states” (77). In a subsequent chapter he argues that Herodotus represents Egyptian temporality as ancient and static so as to offer a contrast to his Athenian readers with the “present-oriented temporality of the Athenian democracy” and thus to construct an implicit contrast between two political systems: democracy and autocracy (112).

Vasunia’s book is brilliant and exciting, but his fidelity to the post-colonial mantra that “Empire follows Art” (11) too often seems excessive. So, for example, Herodotus sets Egypt under a masterful “all-encompassing panoptic gaze” presented in a discourse that serves “to naturalize the space of Egypt by flattening and denuding it” in a landscape “measured, packaged, quantified, stripped of its inhabitants, and lacking any aesthetic flavor” (101-103). Measuring the length and breadth of its space, the authoritative voice of Herodotus dominates the space and time of the country while putting it on display, winning the trust of his reader by quoting Egyptian archives, referring to interviews, invoking sources in a variety of ways, using a “rhetoric of mastery” that sets the author as the authoritative translator and observer of a non-Greek culture for his Greek reader (100-101; cf. 13) and which parallels the mastery over space and time that he ascribes to the pharaohs in his narrative (103, 13). By these stringent standards, almost every act of writing is an act of imperialism and even the most innocent Baedeker, not to speak of Vasunia’s own text, commits a “rhetoric of domination” over its subject. Perhaps the only difference is that most authors will not have an Alexander or Napoleon as yet unborn waiting in the wings to actualize their rhetoric, if indeed writing has as much power as post-colonial critics would impute.

Although Vasunia promises “not to reduce all my observations to the charge of ethnocentrism” (9) of which all ancient texts are guilty, his bottom line can be just that. For example, Isocrates’ Busiris is “a text that seldom troubles to grasp the realities of contemporary Egypt, that treats and handles ethnocentrism as if it were anti-ethnocentrism, that reeks of both condescension and arrogance, that retards rather than advances ethnic understanding, and that ultimately takes for granted the most pernicious of cultural stereotypes” (215). Plato’s use of Egypt as a vehicle for his own beliefs about language is tendentious and ethnocentric (181). Furthermore, Plato, like Hegel, is Eurocentric and his philosophical use of Egypt is a “strategy” for the containment of the older civilization (246). More generally, the Greek texts are faulted for “their failure to arrive at a sympathetic understanding of the otherness of Egyptian culture on its own terms,” as symptomized by “the neglect of Greek intellectuals to learn foreign languages” (182).4 In short, “the Greek treatment of Egypt is both deceptive and self-serving” (244).

Pronouncements such as these leave the reader wondering if Vasunia is perhaps asking too much of these ancient texts, judging them by modern sensibilities. We are not helped by the fact that Vasunia never explicitly lays out how an alternative text could or should read, while writing as if such an alternative were possible in antiquity. Was there a better, more ‘moral’ way for a writer like Herodotus to tell his readers about the Egyptians than to measure, count, and interview Egyptian priests? And if so what was it? Vasunia’s ancient Greeks are imperialists, his ancient Egyptian colonized subjects, long before Alexander set foot on the shores of Egypt.

Indeed, Vasunia’s own account of the motives and actions of Alexander in Egypt seems to undercut his thesis to some extent. It is asking a lot of a reader to accept an argument in which a historical event is anticipated by two hundred years of disparate texts without worrying about the “post hoc propter hoc” fallacy: Alexander conquered many peoples other than the Egyptians. Pace Vasunia, it is extraordinarily difficult to make a persuasive case for the extent to which Alexander’s invasion of Egypt was driven by his exposure to the Greek discourse on Egypt. In Alexander’s case, in fact, western Asia, the site of his hero Achilles’ exploits and of the more recent Persian Wars, seems, if anywhere, a more likely site for the intersection of literature and empire. Alexander’s detour to the South in the midst of his Persian campaign can be explained either by strategic reasons (Peter Green) or ideological motives (Vasunia) or both. His conquest of the country is a fact. But even Vasunia’s account of Alexander’s actions in Egypt ranges over the familiar terrain of the sensitivity and respect shown by Alexander to native Egyptian traditions (266), his foundation of a heterogeneous Alexandria, and his intellectual curiosity engendered by centuries of Greek speculation about the source of the Nile and the causes of its annual flooding. Surely, if the impetus for this conquest was Greek discourse on Egypt, this same discourse must be given its due in the conqueror’s remarkably sympathetic brand of imperialism in Egypt and his respectful treatment of the Egyptians. And so we are left with the question of how “pernicious” or “devastating” Greek discourse on Egypt actually was.

As for style, again recalling Bernal, Vasunia’s closely argued book goes down like a dense chocolate cake: so rich in ideas as to cause indigestion unless taken in small monitored portions, but certainly tempting. On occasion, the author gets carried away by his own rhetoric to the detriment of his argument and to the distress of his reader.5 In summary, Vasunia’s post-colonial theoretical engine drives a book that is at the same time exciting, brilliant, ideologically determined, and (sometimes) just plain wrongheaded.


1. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985 (New Brunswick, New Jersey 1987).

2. Edith Hall, “When is a Myth not a Myth? Bernal’s Ancient Model,” Arethusa 25.1 (1992) 181-201.

3. Froma I. Zeitlin, “Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama,” 130-167 in Nothing to Do with Dionysus? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, edited by J. J. Winkler and F. I. Zeitlin (Princeton 1990).

4. On one exception, see Ken Mayer, “Themistocles, Plutarch, and the Voice of the Other,” 297-304 in Plutarch y la Historia. Actas del V. Simposio Espangnol sobre Plutarch (Zaragoza 1997).

5. For example, in a discussion of Herodotus’ use of symmetry and inversion Vasunia writes: “While this approach [‘global binarism’] has some explanatory power, it is not enough to say that Herodotus’ spatializing discourse works to principles of symmetry and inversion. Interpreting Herodotus’ text in this way is useful to the degree that it lets us see some of his structuring technique but such an interpretation would inevitably lead us to a totalizing reading that would subsume all of the text within a dyad and would contravene an analysis the purpose of which is to examine the constitutive elements of a spatializing discourse. Without entering into the intentional fallacy, we can also state that in attributing this system to Herodotus’ text, we are coming close to repeating a rhetorical and thematic signification constructed by the author himself, and hence that we are subject to the manipulation of the text. Our notion that Herodotus uses a system of symmetry and inversion may be itself the mechanical elaboration of a controlling Herodotean trope. If the text does not begin to deconstruct at this point, at least the complications associated with these statements can easily be multiplied, and impel us into deep aporia” (98).