BMCR 2018.12.34

Ptolemy I and the Transformation of Egypt, 404-282 BCE. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 415

, , Ptolemy I and the Transformation of Egypt, 404-282 BCE. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 415. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. x, 247. ISBN 9789004366961. €110,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book is a collection of essays presented at a 2011 conference at Macquarie University, where the overall theme was the transformation of Egypt during the fourth century. As Paul McKechnie notes in his introduction, the common view that the reign of the Ptolemies was a new and unique event in the history of Egypt has prevented much-needed analysis, especially of the continuity with the immediately preceding Persian period: “Alexander and his successor Ptolemy maintained vital features of the Thirtieth Dynasty settlement while simultaneously building an innovative settler society on foundations derived from their Macedonian heritage” (5). The essays collected here look at the transformation from several different angles.

In chapter 1, Dorothy Thompson argues that much of the success of the Ptolemaic Dynasty was due to the rule of Ptolemy I, who was able to continue the useful practices of previous dynasties, such as utilizing indigenous administrators, while also adding new policies as a foreign, but resident, pharaoh. She provides an overview of the Ptolemaic takeover of Egypt, which sets the stage for the rest of the works in the volume. Thompson also purposefully draws attention to the variety of sources that can be used to study the Ptolemies, from monuments to coins and texts. In chapter 2, Paul McKechnie emphasizes the military aspect of the transition, surveying the primary sources that detail the Persian effort to regain the province under Artaxerxes II and III, and then highlighting examples of the conquest of Egypt under Alexander and Ptolemy I. In highlighting these sources, his goal is to prove that the fourth century was defined by “the fight for Egypt,” and, that in winning the fight, Ptolemy initiated the “Greek millennium” (27).1

The middle three chapters examine transition as seen in the calendar, coinage, and temples, respectively. Chris Bennett begins chapter 3 by providing a brief but informative overview of the Egyptian, Greek, and Macedonian calendars. He then argues that Ptolemy I utilized the Macedonian calendar in Egypt but allowed the Egyptian bureaucracy to retain the separate use of the Egyptian. Soter’s decision to base the Egyptian tax year on the Macedonian regnal year, Bennett reasons, was the impetus for calendar reform under Ptolemy II that would eventually see the Macedonian calendar absorbed into the Egyptian.

In the fourth chapter, Henry Colburn focuses on numismatics, contending that the monetization of the Egyptian economy by Ptolemy I was politically motivated, in that Soter wanted to institute a royal coinage that moved economic dependence from the temples to the pharaoh and court at Alexandria. He explores some of the developments the early Ptolemies made to Egyptian monetary structures that, for instance, undermined temple coinage production and allowed the Ptolemies to institute a regulated trimetallic system in place of the irregular use of imitation Athenian coins, silver bullion, and Hacksilber of the previous century. He provides a thorough overview of fourth-century Egyptian hoard data to show that Athenian tetradrachms, including the Greek-made coins that entered into Egypt and subsequent Egyptian imitations, were used as both coins and bullion in the payment-in-kind economy of Late Period Egypt. He also wades into the debate surrounding the production of imitation Athenian Owl coins to offer an argument that, prior to the Ptolemaic reforms, coins in Egypt were used primarily for storing wealth.2 He presents both of these arguments to support his concluding point that the Ptolemaic economic reforms were targeted at “institutions that promoted alternatives to the normal Greek practice of using coins exclusively as money” (109). Most importantly, this chapter offers a succinct and easy to follow description of the Egyptian economic system, including staple finance, wealth finance, and the development of Egyptian monetary structures, from the New Kingdom and Late Period into the early fourth century. While several monographs on the development of Egyptian coinage have been produced,3 this chapter is unique in that it attempts to situate those coinage advancements within the macro-view of Egyptian economic developments.

Chapter 5, by Martina Minas-Nerpel, surveys stylistic changes to Egyptian temples during the fourth century. She begins with a clarifying synopsis of the place of the temple within Egyptian society. The main body of the chapter is organized into short summaries, similar to encyclopedia entries, of important temple sites from the Thirtieth Dynasty, followed by a brief overview of temple building from Alexander to Ptolemy I. The listing of Thirtieth Dynasty temple sites is well-organized by region and thoroughly researched, as shown by her extensive bibliography. Minas-Nerpel concludes by summarizing some of the main stylistic changes from the Pharaonic period into the Greco-Roman in order to explicate her main argument: that the Ptolemaic temple style developed based on the structures of the Thirtieth Dynasty. While this section would have benefitted from stating that main argument at the beginning of the chapter, rather than at the end, it should be considered a principal source for those looking for a clear listing of Late Egyptian temple sites.

The final two chapters of the volume attempt reevaluations of two well-researched topics, the Satrap Stele and the perceived separation between Egyptian and Greek ethnic communities. In chapter 6, Boyo Ockinga analyzes the language used on the Satrap Stele in order to reassess Ptolemy I’s position at the time of its creation, and he convincingly argues that, although the stele was erected before Soter officially assumed the role of pharaoh, the language used reflects a royal phraseology that would have been recognized as such by his Egyptian subjects. This chapter provides a thorough examination of an invaluable early Ptolemaic document. As McKechnie notes in the introduction, this reassessment offers a “more detailed linguistic and historical examination than [the stele] has received before” (4).

The last chapter, by Thomas Landvatter, addresses the persistent debate surrounding the social and cultural separation between native Egyptians and Greek immigrants.4 He argues that a high degree of intermingling between ethnic groups was unavoidable, and he supports this by investigating mortuary practices, claiming that burial evidence, as an intentional deposit, is a more accurate reflection of cultural interaction, than evidence based on the chance survival of everyday material culture, such as the remains of a public or domestic space. He makes the important point that arguments against ethnic interactions are often based on misinterpretations of material culture and ideas of acculturation. Landvatter focuses on the cemetery of Shatby in Alexandria and analyzes cremations, inhumations, burial assemblages, and funerary architecture. He concludes that, since cremations can be seen as a rejection of Egyptian cultural practices, their decreased use over time demonstrates a steady acclimatization to Egyptian culture, especially when those decreasing numbers are viewed against the wider social system of funerary behavior. He also posits that, while this specific study of the small Shatby cemetery cannot be conclusive for Egypt as a whole, it can provide a useful model for expanded future studies.

Because of the thorough use of varied types of evidence and up-to-date bibliographies, these essays undoubtedly have an important place in current scholarship. Each of the chapters, taken individually, could be beneficial to scholars studying specific aspects of early Ptolemaic Egypt. Since most of the articles are on specialized topics, however, they are most valuable to those studying the same specified areas, rather than those looking for a clear argument of comprehensive Hellenistic transition and transformation. Accordingly, as a unified, thematic treatment of transformation, the book falls short. Although there are minor comparisons made in some of the essays to either the Persian period in Egypt, the Macedonian Greek tradition, or other areas of the Hellenistic world, few overarching comparisons are accentuated to anything other than the Thirtieth Dynasty, contrary to what one would expect after reading the introduction, which stressed that “nearly all writers [have made] 323 into Year One in a way which has closed down analytical possibilities rather than opening them up” (1). It is clear from his preface, introduction, and chapter in the volume, that McKechnie wanted to emphasize the transition from the Persian period, but the other essays do not focus on that transition as much as his portions of the work would indicate they should. These two issues are minor oversights, since a lack of strict thematic continuity is a common issue with books based on conference proceedings, but they are worth mentioning since the work was presented in the introduction as having an overarching focus on both much-needed comparative analysis and the transition from Persian to Ptolemaic Egypt.

Although this book would certainly have benefitted from a conclusion that drew together the themes and comparisons promised in the introduction, it is a useful and important piece of scholarship. While readers should be aware that they will not find a cohesive narrative of transformation focusing on Ptolemy I, as the title would indicate, nor a focus on the transition from Persian Egypt, as the introduction would imply, this book should be considered a useful resource for scholars studying the early Hellenistic period, especially those seeking more specified information on early Ptolemaic calendars, coinage, temples, burial practices, and the Satrap Stele. In fact, the availability of a work that brings together such varied research and different viewpoints on transition is a boon to any Ptolemaic scholar.

Authors and Titles

Dorothy J. Thompson: Ptolemy I in Egypt: Continuity and Change (6-26)
Paul McKechnie: The Greek Wars: The Fight for Egypt (27-45)
Chris Bennett: Soter and the Calendars (46-69)
Henry Colburn: The Role of Coinage in the Political Economy of Fourth Century Egypt (70-119)
Martina Minas-Nerpel: Pharaoh and Temple Building in the Fourth Century BCE (121-165)
Boyo Ockinga: The Satrap Stele of Ptolemy: A Reassessment (166-198)
Thomas Landvatter: Identity and Cross-cultural Interactions in Early Ptolemaic Alexandria: Cremation in Context (200-230)


1. Here McKechnie is drawing from the works of both Naphtali Lewis, Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt (2001), and J. G. Manning, The Last Pharaohs (2010).

2. While he argues that the imitation Owls were used primarily as wealth objects, Colburn also notes that other arguments put forth for their use, such as paying mercenaries, cannot be discounted (92-3). See also, Peter van Alfen, “Mechanisms for the Imitation of Athenian Coinage” Revue belge de numismatique et de sigillographie 157 (2011): 55-93.

3. For examples of monographs on Hellenistic and Egyptian coinage, see Peter Thonemann, The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources (2015), Otto Mørkholm, Early Hellenistic Coinage: from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamaea (1991), and R. A. Hazzard, Ptolemaic Coins: An Introduction for Collectors (2015). Catherine Lorber’s chapter, “The Coinage of the Ptolemies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (2012), is also a useful introduction to the coinage of the Ptolemies.

4. Landvatter notes that Ian Moyer, in the introduction to his work Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism (2011), provides a good historiographical overview of the debate. Landvatter also provides several examples of sources arguing for ethnic separation, including one of the originating arguments in Peter Fraser’s Ptolemaic Alexandria (1977), and for cultural intermingling, such as R. K. Ritner’s “Implicit Models of Cross-Cultural Interactions” in Life in a Multi-Cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond (1992).