BMCR 2008.01.18

Zwischen König und Karikatur. Das Bild Ptolemaios’ VIII. im Spannungsfeld der Überlieferung. Münchener Beiträge zur Papyrusforschung und antiken Rechtsgeschichte 97

, Zwischen König und Karikatur : das Bild Ptolemaios' VIII. im Spannungsfeld der Überlieferung. Münchener Beiträge zur Papyrusforschung und antiken Rechtsgeschichte, 97. Heft. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2007. vii, 306 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9783406559495. €74.00.

Although there are innumerable treatments of the life of Cleopatra the Great, few books take other individual Ptolemaic rulers as their exclusive subject. In his volume, Peter Nadig writes about Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II (reigned in Egypt, 170-163, 145-116 B.C.), one of the longest ruling and most notorious of the Ptolemies. As the subtitle of the book suggests (“Between King and Caricature”), one of Nadig’s goals is to critically examine the veracity of the caricatured image that comes across in the Greek and Roman sources on the king. Among other things, these ancient authors call him Physkon, which can be translated as “pot belly” or “fatso.” Athenaeus, for example, comments that the king’s belly was so large that it was difficult to measure.1 These authors also emphasize the king’s acts of cruelty, ruthlessness, and extravagance. Diodorus Siculus notes that Ptolemy VIII killed his son born by his sister-wife and then sent the dismembered remains to her.2

Nadig wants to look beyond the possible biases of the ancient authors and seek other means to judge the nature and effectiveness of Ptolemy VIII’s rule. To do this, Nadig collects data from contemporary, self-representational sources (“Selbstzeugnisse und amtlichen Verlautbarungen”), which the king himself or his advisors would have formulated. These include the king’s fragmentary memoir ( Hypomnemata), titulatures and epithets, decrees, portraits (glyptic as well as in the round), and building programs. Nadig takes an interdisciplinary and multicultural approach, integrating information from history, archaeology, and Egyptology as well as placing Greek and Latin texts beside Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic sources. The result is a handy reference to the life of a ruler who deserves more attention for the significant events and developments of his reign and for the effects they had on the subsequent history of Egypt.

The book begins with a review of the history of the scholarship on Ptolemy VIII and a summary of what is known of his life (Chapter 1). Here, Nadig covers familiar ground: Ptolemy VIII’s battles for power with his siblings, his alliance with Rome, and his triple regency/marriage with his sister and niece. The next five chapters comprehensively collect, document, and analyze information on self-representational sources, beginning with a discussion of the fragments of the king’s memoir known from Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (Chapter 2), and concluding with representations of the king on coins, reliefs, and elsewhere (Chapter 6). Chapters 7 and 8 recount information from ancient authors, starting with Polybius. Four appendices at the back and copious tables in the text present information and bibliography in an easy-to-scan format. For example, Appendix 4 lists the components of the ruler’s temple-building program.

Nadig’s data collection is diligent and he presents different points of view as needed. In the discussion on portraits in the round (pp. 127-130), for instance, he focuses on the three portrait heads (all uninscribed) about which there is much scholarly agreement on attribution to Ptolemy VIII, and he details pro and con arguments. The only significant documentary omission in the book (likely due to the recent timing of discovery) is the colossal Egyptian stele of Ptolemy VIII found at Herakleion and inscribed with hieroglyphic and Greek texts. The stele will be the subject of an upcoming monograph by Christophe Thiers.3

The crux of the author’s contribution comes in the final chapter (9), in which he summarizes and interprets the information gathered in the book. The results do not fundamentally alter the view of Ptolemy VIII, but instead refine and amplify how we can regard him. In general, I would agree with Nadig’s conclusions.

Nadig shows that the self-representational sources present Ptolemy VIII in a less negative light than the ancient authors. These sources, which give information about Ptolemy VIII’s actions within Egypt, indicate a strong relationship with the native population, perhaps stronger than that of his predecessors, as demonstrated by the king’s various benefactions, extensive sponsorship of native temple building, and appointment of native Egyptians to top administrative posts. These deeds gave tangible proof to support the king’s choice of the Euergetes (“benefactor”) epithet. The king’s actions helped ensure loyalty and, indeed, Egyptians aided him in his dynastic struggles against his sister and native usurpers. As Nadig points out, if we had only this self-representational information (and not the negative reviews of Greek and Roman authors), then we would have a much different view of Ptolemy VIII today. Yet, we do have the views of these authors and there is nothing in the self-representational category strong enough to refute or overcome the negative perceptions.

Above all, Nadig comments on the king’s enormous lust for power and his ability to maintain it in the face of numerous internal and external threats. The king ruled for over 50 years despite bloody conflicts with his sister-wife Cleopatra II, native rebellion, and growing Roman influence. Nevertheless, though he sees Ptolemy VIII as a shrewd ruler who could realistically assess and manage his kingdom’s situation, Nadig tags the king as more of a reactor than an aggressor. Indeed, unlike the ambitious military efforts of preceding and following Ptolemies to expand the influence of Egypt, Ptolemy VIII launched no major external offensives. Ptolemaic troops also withdrew from their last bases in the Aegean (Methana, Thera, and Itanos) during his reign.4 Indeed, this lack of demonstrable military prowess likely contributed to negative assessments of the king by ancient commentators.

Less convincing is Nadig’s casting of Ptolemy VIII as a partial victim to his circumstances: the younger brother to the popular (and positively viewed) Ptolemy VI and a Hellenistic ruler at a time when these kingdoms were gradually losing ground to Rome, both physically and ideologically. It is a hallmark of a successful ruler to triumph over adverse circumstances and improve the fortunes of his or her kingdom. It would be hard to argue that Ptolemaic Egypt was a more powerful or improved kingdom as a result of Ptolemy VIII’s rule. In fact, one could see him as the progenitor of a series of deleterious intradynastic squabbles that persisted to the time of Cleopatra the Great and helped bring Ptolemaic Egypt to its ultimate demise.

On balance, this is a well researched and careful study. The publication has strong value as a sourcebook and analytical resource for the rule of Ptolemy VIII.


1. Athenaeus 12.549d-e.

2. Diodorus 34/35.14.

3. Preliminary discussion: Franck Goddio and Manfred Clauss, eds., Egypt’s Sunken Treasures (Munich and New York, 2006), 182-185, 421, cat. no. 119. Thiers’ monograph will be part of the new series from the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology.

4. Werner Huss, Ägypten in hellenistischer Zeit: 332-30 v. Chr. (Munich, 2001), 603-604.