BMCR 2003.06.43

Seeing Double. Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria. Hellenistic Culture and Society, 37

, Seeing double : intercultural poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria. Hellenistic culture and society ; 37. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xvi, 292 pages).. ISBN 9780520927384. $65.00.

During the last decade scholars have gradually begun to consider the other face of Helikon when they are confronted with Greek literature. In a multicultural world presented by the media as a clash of primary colours, their task is to perceive shades. Hellenic civilization spread for centuries from Gibraltar to Afghanistan, soaking into local cultures, leaving its mark on the territory, adapting itself to new environments. Hellenistic literature is mostly an expression of travelling Greeks, displaced Greeks, half-Greeks, Hellenized non-Greeks. Crossing cultures involves a question of identity: a new identity for Greeks, who just two centuries before were defining themselves against an undifferentiated background of “barbarians”, and also a new identity for the conquered civilisations, sharing their cultures with a Hellenic minority.

An awareness of these facts should induce scholars of the ancient world, who are used to working separately (historians, philologists, papyrologists, anthropologists), to join forces and combine their talents in order to produce a picture of that complex society. This is happening in a particularly successful way in the case of Egypt. S. Stephens (hereafter S.) acknowledges her debt to scholars (like Merkelbach, Bing, Koenen) who opened an “untrodden path”, taking into consideration, when analysing Ptolemaic literature, also its Egyptian environment.

From the IV-III century BC the Hellenic ideal of the king as benefactor was easily superimposed on the pharaonic mat (principle of harmony and order over the forces of evil) maintained by the good monarch. During three centuries of Ptolemaic domination the cross-cultural exchange became more and more evident: no wonder we find plenty of Egyptian traditions reinterpreted in later literary productions, such as the Alexander Romance. The main point of S’s book, though, is the assumption that already in the III century BC Alexandrian poetae docti, who were active participants in the debate on the nature and self-representation of royalty, were aware to some extent of Egyptian royal ideology and literary and religious culture. They incorporated Egyptian ideas and symbolism in their works, primarily intended for a Greek audience, in order to “explore the dimensions of Ptolemaic kingship”, which was at that time balanced between old Hellenic models of autocracy and the oldest royal theology of the conquered country. This was not so easy: although the Graeco-Macedonian and Egyptian cultures had started slowly to blend in everyday life, there always remained marked incompatibilities between them, such as the different perceptions of the Greek mind (insisting on binary alternatives) and of the Egyptian mind (where opposite concepts can coexist).1 S. suspects that apparent logical contradictions in passages in Hellenistic poetry dealing with royalty may underline some Egyptian category of thought, whereby two symbolic realms can be simultaneously active. Her book is devoted to analysing some of these passages in order to uncover Egyptian imagery, ideology and categorisations lurking behind Greek expressions.

After a short introduction, the book is divided into five chapters: the opening (“Conceptualizing Egypt”) and the closing ones (“The Two Lands”) framing a group of three chapters devoted to three major Alexandrian poets, Callimachus, Theocritus and Apollonius.

In the first chapter, S. elaborates and expands on Vasunia’s study2 of Greek perceptions of Egyptian culture and civilisation, introducing the main concepts of Egyptian royal ideology and cosmology.

The second chapter, devoted to Callimachus, is complementary to another interesting contribution by S., mostly on the Aetia.3 Two programmatic poems are discussed, the Hymn to Zeus (with a more detailed analysis) and the Hymn to Delos. The first, written probably for the accession of Philadelphus to the throne, is a symphony full of enigmatic variations: some motives may sound familiar to Egyptologists, like the formula “at evening he accomplishes what he thinks of in the morning”, paralleled in many pharaonic inscriptions; but not all the possible Egyptian references are so evident. “What constitutes ‘truth’ or ‘lies’ may differ fundamentally with one’s cultural perspective: a Greek ‘lie’ can be an Egyptian ‘truth’ and vice-versa” (p. 113). References to cosmogonic myths are intertwined, in both cultures, with myths of sovereignty: in this hymn, Arcadia is made to resemble Egypt as a primordial landscape; moreover, the events taking place at the birth of the god find numerous parallels in Egyptian cosmology.4

In the third chapter S. focuses on two Theocritean compositions, the Heracliscus (Idyll 24) and the Encomium of Ptolemy (Idyll 17). The first is possibly contemporary with Callimachus’ Hymn to Zeus: similar notes, echoing Egyptian mythology, are struck in the two poems, such as the precocity of the newborn, the early struggle with the forces of evil, the prediction of future greatness. The Encomium is opposed to the Hymn to Zeus in its traditional Greek distinction between Zeus the god and Ptolemy the king. Its strong emphasis on the feminine side of the family,5 however, is not a Greek trait. Other concepts of Idyll 17 are significant in both cultures: vivifying unguents; likeness of the son to the father and to the gods; good use of riches; harmony produced by the behaviour of the king. Egyptian ideals reverberate in well established Greek political thought.6

Apollonius is the focus of the fourth chapter, probably the most fascinating one. Epic enhances the significance of the present by creating a key to read it, an heroic past. In the case of conquerors, an aetiological epic “creates the illusion … not of intrusion, but of return” (p. 188). Alexandria in the III century BC was already a melting pot of different Greek ethnicities and of many other cultures, each possessing its own symbolic world, its myths and its imagination of the monarchy. Therefore, Apollonius creates for the Ptolemies a past characterised by cultural heterogeneity. In his epic, though, the encounter and the fight with “the Other” are puzzling since the categories of Greek and Barbarian are often blurred; Jason, so different from his Homeric models, is presented like Horus, not only because he confronts chthonic powers, but also for his main assets: sheen, beauty, youth and (magic) protection by females. S. analyses in detail the story of the clod given to Euphemus, ancestor of the Cyrenean royal house: Apollonius models the foundation of Alexandria on the one of Cyrene, creating a myth for Ptolemaic rule in North Africa. In the last book of the Argonautica echoes of traditional pharaonic themes are much more frequent and striking: S. lists at least nine parallels between the return voyage of the Argonauts and the Egyptian voyage of the sun in the realm of the night.7

The “Two Lands” of the final chapter are the parallel worlds of Greek culture, set mainly in Alexandria, and of Egyptian culture, with its sacred base in Memphis (later, more strongly, in Thebes). Since Soter the Ptolemies had created a strong bond with the highest echelons of Egyptian priesthood and adopted for the sake of their local subjects most of the pharaonic behaviour and iconography. On the other hand, if Egyptian religion was a pervasive presence everywhere, including Alexandria, many festivals in the capital remained exquisitely Greek, conceived as a manifestation of Ptolemaic power for the benefit of their Greek subjects and allies.8 The old picture of a “bicephalous monarchy”, where two ideological worlds existed side by side with no contact, should in any case be challenged. Osmosis certainly occurred early on in the figurative arts;9 archaeology and papyrology show that some “Greeks” (mostly in II-I BC) had mainly Egyptian families, bore two names, Egyptian and Greek, and participated in the rites and traditions of both cultures; some Egyptians enjoyed positions of prestige already under Ptolemy Soter.10 The picture drawn by S. is generally very convincing. One should consider, however, that in spite of the compelling power of Egyptian civilization, or because of it, a certain degree of separation between cultures was probably felt desirable by the Ptolemaic government in order to preserve the cultural identity of the dominant Greek minority (the gymnasium class) from being absorbed into the Egyptian one within a few generations:11 as far as we know from papyri, the Ptolemies never encouraged the learning of local language and literature in Greek schools. “Cultural plurality” seems the result of a natural process not of a programme fostered by the court. Ambiguity and intertextuality are defining marks of Hellenistic poetry, and this could easily be approved by patron kings. As has been remarked in recent scholarship, the part played in royal “propaganda” by poetae docti was negligible, as consensus among both Greek and Egyptian subjects was solicited by other, less subtle and ambiguous, means.

What can we expect the audience to have understood of the multi-layered Graeco-Egyptian patterns of Alexandrian poetry? Of course, it is difficult even to assess how many of the subtle allusions to earlier Greek poetry could have been perceived by the very same audience, composed not only of fellow literati and the royal family, but also of members of the army and of the bureaucracy, courtiers of various ranks, foreign guests and ambassadors, and Egyptian dignitaries:12 everyone had a different degree of exposure to Greek and Egyptian literary cultures. S. rightly suspects some interplay and mutual influence between literature and the language of official documents, in both Greek and Egyptian (p. 140):13 studies of the ownership of literary papyri and of prosopography confirm that the administrative class and the literary world were very close to each other in Alexandria and in the most Hellenized areas of the chora. S. argues that the oral or figurative medium could have been sufficient to convey Egyptian symbolism and mythology to anyone living in the country: “Given the ubiquity of such ideas in Egyptian culture it is inconceivable that Apollonius and his Alexandrian audience could have been unaware of them” (pp. 220-221); “Callimachus is writing for a Greek-speaking audience … that … could not have been unaware of the mythology of Egyptian kingship and its attendant ideology” (p. 113). This is indeed slippery ground from the methodological point of view: lacking evidence, we are entitled to assume only that some learned intellectuals at the court of the Ptolemies felt drawn by their own curiosity to investigate Egyptian symbolism. The three major poets discussed in the book behave differently in their lusus with Egyptian concepts: some imagery is just skin-deep, other passages betray a deeper assimilation of the local culture.

To conclude. This is an excellent contribution to the evaluation of the culture and poetry of Ptolemaic Egypt. The idea that to decodify a Hellenistic piece takes more than allusions to Greek poetry is fruitful and worthy of further exploration. Most of S.’s innovative readings of well-known Alexandrian texts are convincing and ingenious, and her challenge should be taken up by more traditional scholars of Hellenistic poetry. The book should also be warmly recommended to historians, Egyptologists, Coptologists and papyrologists, without whom a full understanding of Graeco-Egyptian civilisation would be impossible; this book is an implicit invitation to them to cooperate more with classical philologists, to prevent the risks of knowledge being separated between specialised fields.14 In recent years excellent results have been reached thanks to comparisons between Greek and Demotic documents and literature,15 but more work remains to be done. S.’s analysis provides a model for a similar approach to other, “minor” Alexandrian works and authors. The same kind of study would also be welcome for other Hellenistic monarchies, as soon as local sources become more widely available.16


1. E.g. for Egyptians the king is both son of god and son of a human being (cf. the motif of the double/ambiguous paternity in Theocritus’ Idyll 24 and in the Alexander Romance). On the binary logic of the Greeks, and the “both/and” logic of the Egyptians see D.L. Selden, “Alibis”, CA 17.2 (1998), 289-412 (esp. pp. 350-351).

2. P. Vasunia, The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander, Berkeley and Los Angeles 2002.

3. “Egyptian Callimachus”, in Callimaque (Entretiens Fondation Hardt XL) Genève 2002, pp. 235-270.

4. “Callimachus experiments with constructing a parallel cosmology for his Greek-Egyptian king in which ostensibly he sets out to move from a primordial Greek landscape (Arcadia) via traditional Greek theogonic material to arrive in Egypt and the court of a human king. But the trajectory is not linear. Callimachus locates Zeus’s birth in an originary Greek landscape that betrays an uncanny resemblance to the Nile, but as the newborn approaches Egypt via Crete, he becomes progressively more human until, at the end of the poem, elements of his discrete identity pass over to Ptolemy” (p. 113).

5. Quite the opposite to the constant celebration of his father, Ptolemy I Soter, which was the main feature of Philadelphos’ self-representation in the Greek world: see R.A. Hazzard, Imagination of a Monarchy: Studies in Ptolemaic Propaganda, Toronto 2000.

6. It has been argued that Ptolemaic royal endogamy should be seen only as an “overtly Egyptian practice” (p. 242): see E.D. Carney, PP 232-237 (1987), 420-439; L. Criscuolo, Aegyptus 70 (1990), 89-96; E.G. Turner, “Ptolemaic Egypt”, in Cambridge Ancient History, VII 1, Cambridge 1984, 118-174 (esp. pp. 136-138). According to Hazzard 2000, the main concern of Philadelphos in marrying his sister was not to conform to pharaonic habits but to reunify around himself the family descended from the “Theoi Soteres”.

7. Cf. M.C. Astour, Hellenosemitica: An Ethnic and Cultural Study in West Semitic Impact on Mycenaean Greece, Leiden 1967, who devoted many pages to the Semitic influences on the Argonautic mythology (pp. 113ff.: the cosmogonic cycle of Thera-Anaphe: pp. 276ff.: Jason and the Bird-Heroes).

8. See Hazzard 2000, pp. 57-79, about the Grand Procession described by Kallixeinos. F. Caspari, Hermes 68 (1933), 400-414 was the first to recognise in Alexander’s initiatives the model for Hellenistic public processions and staged feasts. On the Greek propagandistic aspects of the Grand Procession see also E.E. Rice, The Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus, Oxford 1983, esp. pp. 102-110, 191; F. Dunand, “Les associations dionysiaques au service du pouvoir lagide (IIIe s.av. J.-C.)”, in L’Association dionysiaque dans les societés anciennes, Paris 1986, pp. 85-103; C. Wikander, Op.Ath. 19 (1992), 143-150; J. Köhler, Pompai: Untersuchungen zur hellenistischen Festkultur, Frankfurt am Main 1996, pp. 35ff.; F.W. Walbank, SCI 15 (1996), 119-130; A. Chaniotis, Pallas 47 (1997), 219-259.

9. See e.g. the papers by Bianchi, Bothmer, Kozloff and Smith in: Alexandria and Alexandrinism, Malibu 1996; H. Maehler, “Alessandria, il Museo e la questione dell’identità culturale”, RAL s.9, v. 14 (2003), forthcoming. The tomb of Petosiris at Touna el-Gebel (III BC) could have been a Graeco-Egyptian hybrid (É. Bernand, Inscriptions Grecques d’Hermoupolis Magna et de sa nécropole, Le Caire 1999, pp. 113ff.).

10. G. Hölbl, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire, London and New York, 2001, p. 27.

11. Significant is the feeling of isolation among Egyptians of Ptolemy, katochos in the Memphite Serapeion, in the II century BC. Lewis, Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt, Oxford 1986, pp. 84-87). S.’s picture, otherwise widely shared, seems less convincing in two points: 1) documentary evidence is lacking for the possibility that some “Hellenes” in the gymnasium class may already have been fully Egyptian in III BC (p. 241); 2) it is stated (pp. 249-250) that the Ptolemies also managed to acquire for the Library Egyptian, Persian and Jewish texts, whose translation they solicited, and that “Manaetho and other less familiar writings on Egypt must have been included” in the Library (note 43 p. 250). Again, evidence is dramatically lacking: the possibility that the Alexandrian Library contained foreign texts from the beginning is not wrong in principle, but it is not sustained by reliable sources: we have only the very late Epiphanius, Eusebius, Tzetzes (cf. R. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship. From the Beginning to the End of the Hellenistic Age, Oxford 1968, pp. 98-102). The main corpus of books acquired was Greek, and authors chosen for collection in the Library remained a fundamental part of the Greek education until the Arab conquest and beyond (for the Library and the Museum as Greek institutions with the function of identity marker see Maehler 2003, cit. n. 2, esp. pp. 4-5, 9).

12. According to Selden, “Alibis”, p. 348, among the audience of the Lock of Berenice there could also have been “Greek-reading Egyptians such as Manetho, Hor of Sebennytus, Psentais III, or Nero’s tutor Chaeremon, all of whom served as Egyptian priests”. Greek-speaking Egyptians were also relevant in the life of towns and villages, like Isidorus, priest of Isis and loyal partisan of Ptolemy IX Soter II, author of the hymns of Medinet-Madi (V.F. Vanderlip, The Four Greek Hymns of Isidorus and the Cult of Isis, Toronto 1972).

13. The same can happen later in encomiastic pieces such as Suppl.Hell. 982, see S. Barbantani, Aevum Antiquum 11 (1998), esp. pp. 285-289, 300-305, 318.

14. See the caveat of R. Hunter in the discussion of Stephens 2002, pp. 265-266 (quoted above in n. 3): changes over time in both cultures, Greek and Egyptian, should be taken into account when studying mutual influences.

15. Many contributions in this field by W. Clarysse; see also M. Minas’ recent work, Die Hieroglyphischen Ahnenrehien der Ptolemäischen Könige, Mainz a.Rh. 2000. Cf. the parallels between Greek novels and demotic sources in I. Rutherford, JHS 120 (2000), 106-121.

16. For the Seleucids, see e.g. G. Del Monte, Testi dalla Babilonia ellenistica, 2 volls., Pisa 1997 and 2000.