BMCR 2022.02.04

La splendeur des dieux: quatre études iconographiques sur l’hellénisme égyptien

, La splendeur des dieux: quatre études iconographiques sur l'hellénisme égyptien. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world, 193. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. 1341 (2 vols.). ISBN 9789004428911. €275,00.

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

This two-volume book discusses the changes which took place in the iconography of traditional Egyptian gods during Early Imperial Roman rule. It is built around a case study, namely the inclusion of the traditional Greek symbol of the radiant crown—originally related to Helios and Apollo—into Egyptian iconography. This case study is, however, analyzed within the wider context of the entire process of Hellenization in Egypt.

The first volume is divided into seven chapters.

The first chapter is conceptual and the most abstract. After debunking the false premise of an immutable and monolithic Egyptian culture, it addresses the question of how to define the phenomenon of Hellenization in Egypt. Beginning with the Bronze Age it gathers all the evidence of pre-Hellenistic contacts between Egypt and the Aegean, then advances through the Iron Age and the “Saite Renaissance”, and ends with the eras of the Macedonian and Roman conquests.

This chapter also approaches the issue of how Egypt interacted with the Mediterranean prior to the Hellenistic age. It was only during the 26th (Saite) Dynasty that Egypt mobilized efforts towards becoming a maritime power in the region, relying in large part on the use of (mostly) Greek mercenaries. The offering of gifts by the pharaoh to Greek sanctuaries at Rhodes is also considered evidence for Saite “Hellenophilia” by Herodotus and Diodorus. The Saite dynasty promoted the first native efforts towards a Mediterranean-oriented civilization, but it was only under colonial rule—first Macedonian, then Roman—that Egypt became fully integrated into the Mediterranean world.

Roman rule over Egypt upheld the Macedonian policy of temple building and restoration. However, Roman authority did not tolerate the political and economic strengthening of the priestly class, as the Ptolemaic rulers had.[1] Hence, under Roman rule, the Egyptian priesthood was deprived of all its political relevance, and transformed from a heterogeneous elite into a unified clergy under the authority of a Roman nominee. On the other hand, under the Romans, Egyptian priests regained their ritual function of keepers of “normality”, i.e., paying honors to a pharaoh: every Roman princeps was portrayed as a divine ruler, i.e. a pharaoh, in the temple iconography.

While chapter one shows how fluid cultural identity in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt could be, the following chapter deals with visual literacy in Egypt. Specifically, it highlights the symbolic importance of iconography for Egyptian religion, on the basis that only the small Egyptian priestly elite was truly literate. The chapter uses iconographic analysis of selected innovations as a “mirror” for studying cultural transformations in Graeco-Roman Egypt, arguing that styles, themes, their associations, and referents are instruments of a particular world vision. The wearing of a “radiant crown” is then introduced as a new representation of traditional Egyptian gods, and treated as a localized instance of a wider tendency whereby Hellenistic monarchs underwent a process of “solarization” across the Eastern Mediterranean, so that Greek religious iconography was shaped by Hellenistic royal ideology.

The second chapter continues with a thorough discussion of Eastern Mediterranean solar cults. When that phenomenon first occurred in Egypt, it affected only the private sphere. As posited by Marshall Sahlins, cultural transformations start at the pragmatics of social interactions, and then gradually permeate the dimension of institutional discourses of identity. Everyday activities, due to its dynamic and unpredictable nature, are particularly sensitive to adaptations, modifications and innovations of a symbolic system, affecting directly a group’s self-awareness—called by Sahlins an “empirical risk”.[2] On the other hand, when an institutional discourse of identity loses too much contact with the quotidian reality, it must promote updates in its own symbolic universe in order to keep its legitimacy as a normative discourse.

The transformation of the religious iconography from Hellenistic times onwards was thus a revolutionary innovation, connected to a dramatic reformulation of the Egyptian symbolic universe, as can be seen by comparison to the New Kingdom. In particular, modifications to how a god is represented by the iconography imply a theological modification of that god’s nature, for a cult image was regarded as the physical being of a god, and so could not be changed without a theological justification. This means, so the chapter argues, that any god who receives the new attribute of a radiant crown is being ascribed a new theological dimension.

The question addressed in the third chapter is how Egyptians dealt with the reception, interpretation, and translation of a Hellenistic Greek-Roman iconography. Tallet starts with an analysis of the Greek symbolism of the radiant crown in the iconography of Helios and Apollo, encompassing a temporal span from Homeric Greece to the Hellenistic Mediterranean. This analysis involves discussion of the syncretism between Greek and non-Greek solar gods and the appropriation of solar gods by Hellenistic royal ideology—and later the imperial cult. As for wider society, the chapter argues that centuries of Macedonian rule promoted institutional syncretism in Egypt, while centuries of hybridity and everyday social interactions diluted the feeling of otherness among Greeks and Egyptians. The society of Roman Egypt, then, was heir to experiences of Mediterranean Hellenistic syncretism, and so capable of taking part proactively in negotiations of cross-cultural symbolism.

Chapter four addresses the question of how Egyptian theology assimilated the radiant crown into its new visual rhetoric. It starts with an analysis of the cult of Isis and Sarapis, discussing how the gods were popular outside Egypt (as attested in their theology and imagery).[3] When those gods are assimilated into the Roman imperial pantheon, they undergo a new syncretic update of nature and iconography. The strengthening of Sarapis in the Fayum area could be the direct consequence of the settlement of Roman veterans in Karanis, which Plutarch tells us hosted the Eleusinian mysteries. There, the pair Isis-Persephone and Sarapis-Hades created a precedent for iconographic bilingualism. So, the representations of Sarapis with a radiant crown could imply the victory of life over death. In that case, the crown would be equivalent with the wedjat-eye and the uraei cobras found in Egyptian funerary contexts. So, this “resemantization” of Sarapis, implies at least “some” degree of controlled iconographic assimilation by Egyptians.

The fifth chapter addresses other religious iconographic transformations, starting in the 2nd century CE. The image of the god clad in armor is treated as an innovation associated with royal Ptolemaic ideology and which then assimilated into the imperial Roman cult. The new syncretic form of Horus assimilates elements from the hero cult of Dioscuri in Naucratis. The triumphant god is depicted on horseback, showing his protective nature by spearing Typhon. Such an image is inspired by the traditional Egyptian scene of the “smiting pharaoh”, in which a victorious king executes one or more prisoners, and thereby represents the vanquishing of Chaos. The Dioscuri cult in the Fayum further testifies to the popularity of Hellenistic iconographic innovation, as they are portrayed on horseback. Since that new iconography was particularly frequent in the vicinity of Roman garrisons, it is fair to assume its intended audience was more receptive to the idea of warrior-like idols on horseback. Another iconographic innovation—presenting the god in frontal perspective on reliefs—may be linked to a transformations in personal piety, with strong private cults fostering individual and direct contact with the god. In that case, the radiant crown could be the mark an epiphany. The chapter also examines similar cases regarding Soknopaios, Souchos, Heron, and Mandulis.

The sixth chapter presents Tallet’s overall thesis that it was a matter of survival for Egyptian traditions to reach new worshippers of Egyptian religion. The most logical choice would be to target new adepts among the military, as they were the most influential group in Egypt at the time. The production of Graeco-Roman hymns shows the participation of Egyptian theologians, and reflects their concern with retaining the monopoly over symbolic access to their gods. It also suggests that, even if the syncretic Zeus-Helios-Megas-Sarapis had imperial propaganda as its main political aim, there was a significant ‘Egyptian’ role in its creation.

The conclusion of the final chapter is that the new visual rhetoric aimed to assure the survival of Egyptian religious tradition. The assimilation of innovations into traditional Egyptian religious iconography involved a theological evaluation. The interplay of private cult, imperial cult, Ptolemaic royal ideology, and Egyptian theology, resulted in the incorporation of new iconography into the visual discourse of Egyptian religion, and Egyptian priests were active participants in that process.

The second volume is an appendix, featuring a catalogue of images, plates, charts, lists of names, and bibliography. A special attention must be given to its impressive catalogue, subdivided into four tematic sections: Greek gods; Isis, Sarapis and Harpocrates; traditional Egyptian gods; and two samples of bronze radiant crowns.

 The book puts forward an interesting thesis, which is well defended with textual evidence. Tallet defines “Hellenistic Egypt” as a cultural construction, the result of a symbolic negotiation in everyday praxis during a dynamic and unpredictable time. She understands the innovative iconography of traditional Egyptian gods as the product of a symbolic negotiation of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian perspectives of Egyptian religion.

The work succeeds in its goal of presenting Hellenization as a vibrant process, rather than a passive assimilation of Greek culture. While that premise was already widespread in general terms by the end of the 20th century, thanks to transdisciplinary approaches,[4] this book’s iconographic analysis makes it really innovative, and opens a new field for research. It challenges and deconstructs Graeco-Roman and Modern-Orientalist stereotypes of Ancient Egyptian culture and religion in a most instructive way.

All the chapters are well constructed, with reading concomitantly easy and pleasant. The work contains a rich variety of textual and iconographic sources. Those sources are well explored in the argumentation, producing the necessary support for the book’s thesis, though it would have been helpful to draw more on the iconography of Roman coins.

In sum, this work promotes a welcome dialogue between Classical Studies and Egyptology, and there is a meaningful interdisciplinary dialogue with anthropology on how the dynamics of everyday life generate cultural updates, transforming the boundaries between identity and alterity. Its interdisciplinary approach and breadth of sources widen the scope of the debate about cultural identity in Hellenistic Egypt.

Volume 193/1-2 chapters

Volume 1
Table des illustrations
1. Un hellénisme égyptien? Problèmes et perspectives
2. La matière vive de l’histoire: sources et méthode
3. Les dieux voyageurs: réceptions d’une image grecque en Égypte
4. Les rayons d’Isis et de Sarapis: lumière et mystères
5. Une révolucion iconographique: relectures du dieu héritier égyptien
6. Répliques. Quelques exemples d’opérations sacerdotales
7. Conclusion: Boussole
Volume 2
Catalogue des sources iconographiques
A Divinités d’origine grecque
B Isis, Sarapis et Harpocrate
C Couronnes indépendentes
Références bibliographiques
Noms de divinités, héros et entités divines
Noms de lieux et de peuples
Noms d’auteurs anciens


[1] For a more detailed study on the heterogeneous and fragmentary condition of the Egyptian priests as a political group during the Ptolemaic period, see: Werner Huss. Der makedonische König und die ägyptischen Priester. Studien zur Geschichte des ptolemäischen Ägypten. Historia Einzelschriften 85. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1994.

[2] Marshall Sahlins. Islands of History. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985.

[3] It would be interesting to add to that debate: Ludwig David Morenz. Transmediterrane Kulturkontakte in der Römerzeit: von Altägyptischem in der römischen Tempelwelt und Griechisch-Römischem in der ägyptischen Tempelwelt. Themenhefte aus dem Ägyptischen Museum Bonn, 2. Berlin: EB Verlag, 2017.

[4] For some ground-breaking works espousing that approach, see: Garth Fowden. The Hermetic Hermes: An historical approach to de Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986; Wendy Helleman.Hellenization Revisited: Shaping a Christian Reponse Within the Greco-Roman World. Lanham: University Press of America, 1994; and David Frankfurter. Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.