BMCR 2022.02.29

Corpus of Ptolemaic inscriptions. Volume 1, Alexandria and the Delta (Nos. 1-206)

, , , , , Corpus of Ptolemaic inscriptions. Volume 1, Alexandria and the Delta (Nos. 1-206). Part I: Greek, bilingual, and trilingual inscriptions from Egypt. Oxford studies in ancient documents. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 576. ISBN 9780198860495 $155.00.

The new Corpus of Ptolemaic Inscriptions (CPI seems to be the editors’ suggested abbreviation) takes up a project begun in the 1950s by Peter Fraser. Fraser spent three decades working on and off on a collection of inscriptions from the Ptolemaic Empire, including overseas possessions. On his death in 2007 he left behind a mass of notes, photographs, squeezes, and other material he had been compiling for this project, which was overwhelmed by his Ptolemaic Alexandria and other research, notably the monumental Lexicon of Greek Personal Names.

The editors have now burrowed into this treasure-house, which is housed at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents at Oxford, and published the first of a projected three volumes of texts from Ptolemaic Egypt. There are several collections of some of the same material—notably Étienne Bernand’s Inscriptions grecques d’Alexandrie ptolémaïque (Cairo: IFAO, 2001), abbreviated as I. Alex. Ptol., and André Bernand’s massive Le Delta égyptien d’après les textes grecs (Cairo: IFAO, 1970), I. Delta—and many inscriptions scattered in periodical publications of easier or harder access. But the CPI will become the new standard edition for its contents, thanks to Fraser’s work, the thoroughness and scrupulousness of the editors, and the wise decision to include documents in Egyptian, both hieroglyphic and Demotic, alongside the Greek texts.

The CPI is organized geographically. The first and longest section, comprising 83 texts, covers Alexandria itself; another 123 come from sites across the Delta; Memphis is the southernmost site embraced in the collection. References to numbers higher than 206 indicate that the editors have completed the collection of all inscriptions that will ultimately appear in the two subsequent volumes. Each site is identified by its ancient name (if known), its modern name, its geographic coordinates, its entry in the Trismegistos geographic database, and its entry in the Pleiades database. Lemmata for each inscription follow the standard epigraphic practice of giving (if known) location, description, dimensions, layout of the text, letter height, provenance, date, previous editions, and the most important secondary bibliography; the Trismegistos number for each heads the lemma. Uniquely, of course, the lemmata also include a reference to the Fraser archive. When available photographs of the stones are included. The text and a translation—very helpful for scholars without knowledge of Egyptian, whose translations are owed to Rachel Mairs, sometimes adapted from others’—and a commentary of greater or lesser length make up the body of each entry. A comprehensive list of abbreviations covers pp. xix-xxvii. The introduction (pp. 1-20) explains the origins of the CPI and the principles of publication; brief discussions of the Ptolemaic dynasty, chronology (with a table of rulers), dynastic titles, the Egyptian and Alexandrian calendars, officials’ titles, and metrics, provide a very helpful introduction to matters crucial for understanding the texts. A very informative table of letter-forms in chronological order for the more important inscriptions (pp. 13-16) elucidates both the value and the pitfalls of relying on lettering for dating. Lastly, the introduction gives an explanation of the structure of the lemmata and layout of the texts. The volume ends with a concordance (pp. 487-497) and an extensive bibliography (pp. 499-539). There is no index; presumably this will follow in the last of the three projected volumes.

The CPI includes both the famous and the obscure. The most famous surely by far is the Rosetta Stone (126), which provided the key to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Partial versions of the Greek text are found in 122 from Leontopolis and 413 from Elephantine. The editors have abjured any commentary on this text, which has been the subject of extensive scholarship that can be traced through the citations in the lemma. The well-known Canopus Decree of March 7, 238, perhaps most often consulted in the Greek version of OGIS 1, 56, in which Egyptian priests honor Ptolemy III Euergetes, appears here in three copies, 119 from Tanis, 129 from Kom el-Hisn, and 176 from Tell Basta. (Three further copies exist: 369 from El-Kab, 377 from Karnak, and 573 [Greek only] from Cairo.) The differences among the texts, both in the two Egyptian and Greek versions on a single stele, and between copies set up in different places, can be traced easily. The Raphia Decree (144, November 15-December 14, 217 BCE; another version, 190, comes from Memphis), whose longest version is the Demotic, deploys “traditional pharaonic terminology” (including a cartouche around Antiochos III’s name) and provides “both a supplement and counterpoint” (p.  347) to Polybios 5, 68-85. The decree celebrates Ptolemy IV’s victory in the Fourth Syrian War, a crucial turning point in Ptolemaic history—the Theban Revolt that followed ten years later, which has often been attributed to dissatisfaction of the troops who won at Raphia and a general revulsion at Ptolemaic rule (it has sometimes been described, anachronistically, as a “nationalist” revolt), has recently been set in the context of volcanic eruptions that disrupted the Nile flood.[1] Another very important inscription, whose readable text is only the hieroglyphic, appears as 103, a massive stele bearing a long text honoring Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, Kleopatra II, and Kleopatra III, of 118 BCE. The text is an edict, composed to adhere to Egyptian practice, and probably originating with local clergy. The 49-line 113 preserves several decrees in honor of one Paris, a landowner belonging to an association of landowners (τῆι τῶν γεούχων συνόδωι) at Psenamosis (modern Kom Tukla). Paris has donated to the association a plot of unworked land for a gymnasium and a building, oikos, and a sum of money to subvene feasts. He refused to be paid for the land, despite the association’s willingness. The editors are surely right to see the members of this group as well-to-do landowners, some at least absentee, due to references to Alexandria and the term geouchos used to refer to them; the term also appears in the short dedication in 135 from El-Mahalla el-Kubra. The edict of Ptolemy X that grants asylia to the Temple of Horus (183, April 4, 96 BCE) includes a new hieroglyphic text. A single word—the name Alexander—marks the dedication by the conqueror of Egypt at Memphis (186).

It is impossible within the framework of a short review to note every inscription, even every important one; different readers will focus on different texts. I note just a few that caught my eye. Evidence for the institutional structure of the Alexandrian gymnasium comes especially from 49 (see also 4), a list of 14 μέλλακες, “youths,” honoring Hermes and Herakles. Many of their names are Makedonian. In 55, a recent discovery, we have mention of [τὸ] κοινὸν τῶν Τραλέων Θ̣ραικῶν καὶ τῶν παραγενομένων [ἀπ]ὸ τῆς Λιβύης Μασύλ[ω]ν καὶ [τῶ]ν τούτοις προσκειμένων [κα]ὶ Περσῶν καὶ Κυπρί[ων τῶ]ν συν<σ>τρατευομένων, important new information about the makeup of the Royal Guard. Marcus Antonius is honored in 60 by his “table companion” (parasitos), one Aphrodisios; the epithet amimetos applied here to Antonius clearly echoes Plutarch’s “Society of Immortal Livers” described in his biography (Ant. 28, 2). The allusion in the metrical epitaph 62 to Kaunos in Karia as having “burned away your flesh in raging fire” (Καῦνος ἐπεὶ μαλερῶι σάρκας ἔδευσε πυρί) is taken by the editors as a reference to the endemic malaria in this swampy town. It is possible—but far from certain—that the Lykiskos, father of Lykos from Priene who died in battle (99) may be attested at Priene (I. Priene2 354.481, reading ὁ τόπος Λυκισ vac). A fascinating set of instructions about how to read a sundial is preserved from Mareia on a rather beat-up but readable stele (106). It may be associated with a sundial now in the Alexandria Museum. The editors have provided a splendid and clear explanation of these instructions laid out in the text. An important testimony to the impact of Greek culture in Ptolemaic Egypt comes from a statue group (192) of eleven poets and philosophers, of whom only the labels of Pindar, Protagoras, and Plato survive. At another end of the cultural milieu, a Kretan dream interpreter advertises his mandate from “the god”—whoever that may be (196); note, though, for what it may be worth, Artemidoros, Onirocriticon 3, 13: “If a god should promise to manifest, a priest would be the diviner (mantis).” Finally, a delightful epitaph laments the murder of a cobra, who threatens from the underworld revenge by his descendants on the murderer and his progeny (203).

A companion volume of essays, The Epigraphy of Ptolemaic Egypt, edited by Alan Bowman and Charles Crowther (Oxford: Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, 2020), contains complementary specialized studies by the editors and several other specialists.

This rapid survey can only give a very sketchy sense of the richness of the CPI. While it contains no inedita, CPI performs a welcome and necessary task by bringing under one cover the more than 200 inscriptions that fall under the remit of the volume. The next two, which one hopes will appear in due time, will fill out our bookshelves with a complete corpus of material central to the historical, religious, social, and cultural study of Egypt from the conquest of Alexander the Great to the end of the dynasty with the suicide of Kleopatra VII. Given the complexity of editing and printing a book with transliterated hieroglyphic and Demotic, and Greek, the price is within the reach of most academic libraries and academics. My own bookshelves groan with very expensive copies of collections of Greek inscriptions from Egypt, many of which I had to find used, and I still do not have a complete collection. The CPI will relieve our dependence (in the first instance, of course; for certain research purposes it will still be necessary to consult this raft of material) on obscure, rare books and access to rich and highly specialized research libraries. For most scholars interested in Ptolemaic Egypt, however, the CPI will provide “one-stop shopping” for access to the richness of the epigraphic legacy of one of the most important successor kingdoms—and a clear sense of the complex interplay of indigenous Egyptian cultural and political conventions expressed in hieroglyphic and Demotic practices with the Greek epigraphic tradition the Ptolemies and their people brought with them.


[1] Joseph G. Manning, Francis Ludlow, Alexander R. Stine, William R. Boos, Michael Sigl, and Jennifer R. Marlon, “Volcanic Suppression of Summer Nile Flooding Triggers Revolt and Constrains Interstate Conflict in Ancient Egypt,” Nature Communications 8.1 (2017) 1-9. For a comprehensive study of Egyptian revolts, see Anne-Emmanuelle Veïsse, Les “révoltes égyptiennes.” Recherches sur les troubles intérieurs en Égypte du règne de Ptolémée III à la conquête romaine (Leuven: Peeters, 2004).