BMCR 2003.09.25

Lancia, diadema e porpora. Il re e la regalità ellenistica. Seconda edizione rinnovata e ampliata con una Appendice documentaria. Studi Ellenistici, 14

, Studi ellenistici. Biblioteca di studi antichi ; 48, 54, 64, 70-71, 73-74, 78. Pisa: Giardini Editori e Stampatori, 2003. volumes 1-8; 9, part 1; 12-28, 30 ; in 17 : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm + 1 suppl.. ISBN 8842702781 EUR 125.00 (pb).

This is the second edition of a study first published by Virgilio (hereafter V.) in 1999, developing a previous essay published in “I Greci. Storia, Cultura, Arte, Società”, 2/III, Torino 1998. Compared to the first edition, there are substantial additions: the text itself is appreciably enlarged (more than 30 pages, mostly in the fourth and fifth chapters, the core of the book); there have been added a 60-page Appendix with documents, a complete, updated and vast General Bibliography,1 and an improved and more detailed Index (Ancient sources: authors, inscriptions, papyri, names and relevant subjects, documents); the already conspicuous iconographic apparatus has been enriched with 25 new photos.2

As the three symbols of the title suggest, the purpose of this monograph is to explore the main aspects of Hellenistic royalty, both in its theoretical elaboration and in its actual manifestation, here mainly the diplomatic relations with other kingdoms and cities, and the administration of the king’s “spear-conquered” territories. V. states clearly in the Preface that the army and the fiscus will be treated not systematically but as revealing the royal ideology; the same could apply to the treatment of the cross-cultural aspects of ruler-cult or royal self-representation — an issue to which more attention has been paid in recent years. Although the author is concerned with general issues, touching all the main Hellenistic kingdoms — and some minor too, like Commagene — the bulk of the documentation relates to the Seleucid and Attalid dynasties.3

The impressive and useful Appendix contains mainly epigraphical material (among 34 documents the only papyrus is P.Oxy. 2465). All the documents are presented in a critical edition, with bibliography, and a translation into Italian; the iconographical apparatus provides, in addition, photographs of many of the inscriptions, or of their squeezes. Conveniently V. added internal references to the text where the documents are discussed. The Appendix is articulated in three sections:

I. Greek versions of the edicts of king Asoka.

II. Honours and royal cults: it contains, among other material, some Ptolemaic decrees, the Ilion decrees for Seleucus I and for Antiochus I, various inscriptions dealing with the cult of Laodike (among them, a copy of a king’s epistle from the Teheran Museum), documents related to the cult of Apollonis, and the inscription from the hierothesion of Arsameia.

III. Royal acts, administration, functionaries. This section contains 18 documents, mainly related to the Seleucid and Attalid kingdoms, among them the Labraunda-Mylasa dossier.

The book is organised in five chapters plus an epilogue.

I. “Libertà per i Greci, monarchia per i ‘barbari’ “. The first chapter functions as an introduction to the rest of the volume; it explores briefly the relationship between the political system of the classical POLIS and the evolving concept of BASILEIA, first linked with barbarian empires, then explored by philosophers and rhetors as an ideal political concept.

II. “Alexander rex”. Another slim chapter, which transfers the focus of the reader from the national and “constitutional” system of the Macedonian monarchy to Alexander’s new concept of global empire and divine Graeco-Oriental monarchy.

III. “Re ideale e re reale”. Along with the work of Hecataeus on Egypt, V. presents a survey of what remains of the numerous Hellenistic monographs περὶ βασιλείας, and explores the complex relationship between philosophers and kings from the fourth century onwards. None of these treaties can be linked with the Alexandrian court; the image of an ideal Ptolemaic king is dramatically limited here to the letter of Aristeas.4 Both Greeks and theirs neighbours were making an effort to represent themselves to other cultures in a philosophically-enhanced manner: to be compared with Greek philosophy (known as far as Ai Kanhoum-Alexandria Oxiana5) is the ideal of the wise king elaborated by Indo-Greek monarchs, best represented by the Buddhist dialogue “The Questions of King Milinda” (II-I BC) and by the documents relating the conversion of king Asoka (III BC) some of which have been found near Kandahar (now at the National Museum of Kabul, still in good condition), on the boundaries of the Seleucid Empire.

If the ideal representation of the king may shift, according to the character of the monarch, between a νόμος ἔμψυχος (Architas) and a “prestigious servitude” (Antigonos Gonatas), there is a general ideological agreement that royalty is first gained, and then maintained, by right of conquest, whose symbol is the spear: all the possessions of the diadochoi are δορίκτητος χώρα.6 The image of the king armed with a spear is familiar from many statues and coins, but the only pictorial representation of this concept is to be found in the Boscoreale frescoes, a Roman copy of a Macedonian work, possibly commissioned by Antigonos Gonatas, and portraying a δορίκτητος Asia. A complete set of reproductions of the Boscoreale paintings is conveniently offered by Plates 15-21.

IV. “Il re dio presente”. V. explores the origins and the development of the Graeco-Macedonian ruler cult in its two main aspects: dynastic cult and city cult. He presents in detail the divine honours bestowed by the Athenians first on Demetrius and then on the Attalids, ending with Mithridates IV (I BC). The civic cult of the Ptolemies is treated very briefly, while more examples are given for the Attalids and the Seleucids, including the honours given to queens (Laodike and Apollonis).7 As for the dynastic cult, the main evidence analysed for the Ptolemies is the epigraphical documents of the Egyptian priestly synods. The Seleucid dynastic cult is fully attested from the reign of Antiochus III onwards, of which several epigraphical documents are left (e.g. the letter to Zeuxi, from Pamukçu in Mysia; the epigraphic dossier from Hefzibah, Palestine).

V. “Gli affari e gli amici del re”. In the Hellenistic age the State is τὰ πράγματα of the king, that is the personal possession and the private business of the king. But to administer such an impressive economic and bureaucratic entity the monarch needed a big family of “friends” and “relatives”, that is loyal collaborators ready to help him. The personal relationship between the king and his φίλοι and fictitious συγγενεῖς was gradually institutionalised in a court hierarchy a few decades after Alexander’s death. This chapter, though, is not meant to offer insight into the internal mechanisms of the court, but rather an analysis of the role of φίλοι as an interface between the king and his territory — in particular the cities and the local temple communities. Again, the report on the Ptolemies is very brief, while there is plenty of documentation about the administration of the huge Seleucid kingdom. Attention is paid to the management of the χώρα βασιλικὴ,8 with many epigraphical examples from Macedonia, Pergamon and the Seleucid kingdom. A key role in the military control and agricultural development of the territory was played by the κατοικίαι (colonies): this is well attested by Seleucid and Attalid documents (e.g. the big epigraphic dossier on Eumenes II, doc. n. 30).

The relationship of the Hellenistic king with religious institutions was a delicate one: generally it was based on mutual respect since in countries like Egypt or the vast Babylonian areas controlled by Seleucids the support of the priestly class was fundamental for a ruler to gain the loyalty of the local subjects. Nevertheless, V. notes that in the Seleucid kingdom, wherever there was the need to mediate conflicts between temple possessions and πόλεις, it seems that the king favoured the control of the city over the temple, that is, of the Hellenic political system over the old local theocracy (see the dossier of Mylasa-Labraunda, and the inscription of Ikaros), or else he tried to integrate the local cultures with the Greek one (dossier of Baitokaike, Syria). Not all these diplomatic liaisons were successful, as it is shown by the clash between Antiochus IV and the temple of Jerusalem. A particularly good relationship, which lasted many decades and defied even the power of the Romans, was that of the Attalids with the Temple of Pessinunte in Galatia.

In the Epilogue V. observes that, in spite of the sharp judgement expressed on the Hellenistic monarchies by Polybius, certainly influenced firstly by his belonging to a Greek league and then from the austere morality of the Roman Republic, in the long run the ideal of Hellenistic kingship exerted a powerful fascination for the Romans, as is revealed by later Republican sources (the busts of Hellenistic kings in the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum; possibly the Roman copies of the Galatian monument of Attalus I, a gift from Mithridates of Pergamum to Caesar as victor over the Celts). Antony’s metamorphosis into an Dionysiac Oriental king closes the Republican era; but the refined tastes and the “domestic” virtues of Attalid Pergamon also provided a lasting model from Augustus to Hadrian.

V.’s work provides a rich and useful general picture of Hellenistic politics and administration from IV to I century BC., and could offer a good starting point for research to postgraduate students in Ancient History who can read Italian. It should be recommended also for its pervasive use of epigraphy and for its huge bibliography. There are, however, some substantial limitations that reflect the author’s own research interests. Since the book is not meant to be a systematic and comprehensive account of the Hellenistic kingdoms, it must be repeated that the author’s main interest is not in the Ptolemies, who are portrayed here in a rather sketchy manner;9 consequently, documentary evidence in this study is represented mostly by inscriptions and very rarely by papyri. The author has also chosen to derive evidence for Hellenistic royal self-representation only from historical documents (direct or indirect sources) or philosophical works, while strictly literary evidence, as provided, e.g., by Alexandrian court poetry, has somehow been passed over.10 One of the strengths of the volume is the massive photographic dossier (unfortunately in black and white), including not only ancient iconographical sources like royal portraits in marble and on coins, but also medieval and later projections of Hellenistic royalty (like the seventeenth century paintings of Palazzo Pitti or the ascending Alexander king from the Otranto cathedral mosaic). Valuable also are the photos and squeezes of many inscriptions from the dossier, some of which are not easily available.


1. One should only note that adopting in the notes the Harvard reference system would have make the reading easier.

2. To be precise nos. 26, 27, 30, 37-40, 44-49 (in place of the old no. 37), 50, 55, 56, 58, 61-67.

3. V. is also the author of the monograph Gli Attalidi di Pergamo. Fama, Eredità, Memoria, published in 1993 in the same series.

4. On the Letter of Aristeas and Hellenistic kingship see now S. Honigman, “Homer and the Septuagint: the function of the king and the Library in the letter of Aristeas,” presented at the colloquium organised by the AHRB Greek Bible Project “Representations of Monarchy in Hellenistic Culture”, Oxford 24-26 March 2003, and her forthcoming book on the subject.

5. Sayings of Klearchos, no. 12/01/01 in Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten, hrsg. von R. Merkelbach, J.Stauber, Band 3: Der ‘Ferne Osten’ und das Landesinnere bis zum Tauros, Munich/Leipzig 2001.

6. Here there is a strong temptation for a philologist to add an update from the “New Posidippos”, that is Epigram 36 A.-B. (C. Austin and G. Bastianini, Posidippi Pellaei quae supersunt omnia, Milan 2002). It is meant to accompany an ex-voto from a Macedonian girl to the deified queen Arsinoe Philadelphos, who appeared to her in a dream holding a spear and a shield, and sweating after military toil. Could this disprove Burstein and Hazzard’s view that Arsinoe had no part in the military and diplomatic decisions of her brother, with particular reference to the Chremonidean War? Cf. G. Bastianini, C. Gallazzi, C. Austin, Posidippo di Pella. Epigrammi (P. Mil.Vogl. 309), (Papiri dell’Università degli Studi di Milano VIII), Milano 2001, comm. pp. 130-152.

7. V. provides a lot of interesting evidence on ruler cult for queens. It would perhaps have been worth referring to recent gender studies on the different roles played by male and female ruler in the Hellenistic royal couple, such as J. Roy, The Masculinity of the Hellenistic King, in When Men were Men: Masculinity, Power and Identity in Classical Antiquity, ed. L. Foxhall, J. Salmon, London – New York 1998, 111-135; I. Savalli Lestrade, Il ruolo pubblico delle regine ellenistiche, in Ἱστορίη. Studi offerti dagli allievi a G. Nenci in occasione del suo settantesimo compleanno, ed. S. Alessandrì, Lecce 1994, 415-432.

8. See now C. Mileta, The King and His Land: Some Remarks on the Royal Area ( βασιλικὴ χώρα) of Hellenistic Asia Minor, in The Hellenistic World: New Perspectives, ed. by D. Ogden, London 2002, 157-175.

9. The bibliography on Ptolemaic royalty and propaganda is immense and ever growing. For a survey see the excellent G. Hölbl, Geschichte des Ptolemäerreiches. Politik, Ideologie und religiöse Kultur von Alexander dem Große bis zu römischen Eroberung, Darmstadt 1994, now translated into English as A History of the Ptolemaic Empire, London and New York 2001.

10. One must at least cite the fundamental G. Weber, Dichtung und Höfische Gesellschaft. Die Rezeption von Zeitgeschichte am Hof der ersten drei Ptolemäer, Hermes Einzelschriften 62, Stuttgart 1993.