BMCR 2007.07.27

Settlements of the Ptolemies. City Foundations and New Settlement in the Hellenistic World. Studia Hellenistica 43

, Settlements of the Ptolemies. City Foundations and New Settlement in the Hellenistic World. Studia Hellenistica 43. Leuven: Peeters, 2006. 249. €59.00 (pb).

Katja Mueller’s monograph is a most welcome and dense work that approaches the topic of Ptolemaic strategy for implanting and fostering settlements through the analysis of papyrological, epigraphical, and archeological material derived from all the regions that had been under Ptolemaic rule. This, however, is often filtered and interpreted through a methodology borrowed from Geographical Studies, with which the expected audience may not be familiar. The book is certainly very informative, informed, and interesting, but it claims the undivided attention of the reader at all times.

This work is articulated in four chapters followed by three brief, potentially useful appendices. Among them, the third stands out with its list of the settlements discussed in the main text, accompanied by a few additional pieces of information on them.

The first chapter is, I believe, the richest in content and expertise. Mueller employs her knowledge of Demotic to talk about and unravel problematic questions pertaining to toponyms of settlements in Egypt. She stresses that documents reveal not only effective bilingualism but also multiculturalism. The author focuses on how locals dealt with dynastic toponyms, not in order to understand the ethnic composition of a foundation, but to grasp the way in which the urban environment coped with the new developments and foundation-patterns. Settlements always had an Egyptian name in addition to the Greek one; when new settlements were created, locals would provide an Egyptian name immediately. Mueller also asserts that dynastic names employed in forging toponyms in Demotic were treated as any other loan word, and that this often represents the only way we have to confirm that the Greek and Egyptian toponyms really referred to the same place. Egyptian toponyms pre-existing Greek settlement are attested, for example Alexandria-Rakote, but the author warns the reader against drawing easy conclusions on the continuity of life of any given settlement.

The subsequent chapter relies strongly on archeological evidence from the available surveys. The author is extremely fond of this archeological method, which, she claims, allows evaluation of the settlements before and after the Ptolemies acted upon the various areas. The data thus collected should help to understand the impact that the activity of Ptolemaic kings had on the landscape. The chapter’s exposition is arranged geographically and provides evidence that the Ptolemaic strategy took into account the different, pre-existing backgrounds and frameworks of each region under their control. An interesting example is that of Aetolia, where, even if no settlement was founded, two poleis were still named after royal family members. Mueller interprets this as an expression of the vertical relationship from the bottom up of the subject towards the kings. In other words, the Aetolians acknowledged a form of Ptolemaic patronage through toponyms, even if they had never been directly under their control. Finally, the author stresses again that the Ptolemies founded new settlements fully respecting the pre-existing framework of settlement pattern, and, she adds, they focused mainly on low-density areas in order to build a network essential to affirm their control and power. The available survey data, however, is not that copious. I assume that the results here presented are provisory and will need a revision in the future.

Mueller dedicates the long, third chapter to the question of the typology of Ptolemaic settlements. The common view is that the Ptolemies were not extremely active founders with only three real, Greek-type poleis on their record. This work, however, convincingly argues for a very hectic activity, which, as mentioned above, paid special attention to local realities and thus created different types of settlements. In other words, instead of self-governing units, the Ptolemies prompted the creation of differently sized settlements dependent on a central administration and, following this pattern, they founded a very high number of new, atypical (from a Greek perspective) settlements. To corroborate her theory, the author defines the modes of urban planning and administration, which further clarify the specificity of Egyptian settlements and the Ptolemaic attention for diversity. A brief overview of both Egyptian and Greek conceptions and examples of city planning serve to reach the conclusion that both were in use; the choice of one method over the other depended on the official in charge at any given time and place. A section on administration follows and this is, in my opinion, slightly more controversial. The author is always very attentive in defining the ethnicity of the different aspects of a new foundation, but, when it comes to administration, she qualifies administrative traits normally attested in continental Greece as typically Egyptian. An example could be the widespread use of cardinal points to establish property and administrative units. In addition, the so-called amphoda, which Mueller associates with the early Roman phase, can be found already in Asia Minor and, to a lesser extent, are mentioned in Attic epigraphic material. It would be worth exploring the existing connections and differences. Her investigation extends then to the physical and socio-economic differentiations made in the foundation process. The first point entails a study of the urbanistic arrangements of the few poleis founded by the Ptolemies, from which the author draws an interesting picture where Greek cities still tried to adapt their form and settings to the local reality. The treatment of socio-economic differentiation, however, seems a little oversimplified. Mueller makes a clear-cut distinction between military and civilian settlements but the document she quotes in support of her argument may suggest a different scenario.1 One last, very interesting point concerns ethnicity and the challenge these foundations had to face to accommodate settlers from different backgrounds. The problem, which was common to new settlements all over the areas ruled by Hellenistic kings, is treated in passing, but the author stressed at the outset that with her work she meant to lay the foundation for future research rather than answering hurriedly all questions.

The fourth and last chapter is dedicated to the Ptolemaic colonization process intended both as an historical and a geographical phenomenon as well as a socially significant occurrence. The author organizes this last part into two sections: the first follows a geographical organization and tries to disprove the normally accepted theory according to which most of the new Ptolemaic settlements were founded within a short period of time, under Ptolemy II. The author analyses the surviving evidence in order to support her claim that explorations and foundations started already under Ptolemy I and continued well into the third century when they were halted and new migrations were mostly restricted to Egypt. The second part of the chapter treats the problem of migration and considers its temporal, spatial, but also human components, i.e. who was migrating and how they were received. The author does not support the traditional view according to which settlers were almost exclusively military men, but tries to demonstrate that Egypt received a “multicultural mix”. Her statement is based on a survey of ethnic designations and on the assumption that most of the new settlers, especially moving within Egypt itself, were locals. Mueller stresses that Ptolemaic migration was not only a Greek business or at least not as much as we are often lead to believe. One last section deals with the financial aspect of migration. Then, just as today, moving entailed a substantial financial effort on behalf of the settlers; the question that the author poses with brilliant pragmatism is, “Who paid?”. Sources seem to indicate that the passage for military men was paid by Ptolemaic authorities. Not so for civilians who did not receive direct financial help, but apparently were provided with contributions in kind. The author concludes her research by stressing the existence of two types of immigrations contributing to the development of the Ptolemaic Egypt, long-distance and short-scale, the first of which continued into the third century B.C., while the second lasted a little longer but ended up in the riots and upheavals which contributed to the end of the Ptolemaic rule.

If I were to identify a unifying concept in this work, it could be summarized very well by Mueller’s words: “Overall they (the Ptolemies) worked through difference towards unification”.2 In this monograph, the Ptolemies are portrayed as founders and explorers, kings attentive to the local realities and the cultural differences of the people settled in their territories. In order to accommodate these differences, they created many and different types of settlements, which were all meant to reinforce their presence in the territories and create the network necessary to support their power.

This monograph gives an important contribution to the study of Hellenistic History by sketching the attitude of one of the most important ruling dynasties towards central phenomena like migration, repopulation and urban planning, and explorations. The main merit of the author is, I believe, to foster debate on a vital topic through an interesting work. The book is well edited and has many handy charts and maps. It is dense, useful reading.


1. Mueller, p. 134, quotes and translates SB XXIV 15974.

2. See Mueller, p. 84.