Memphis under the Ptolemies 
by Dorothy Thompson.
Princeton, 342 pp., $37.50, February 1989, 0 691 03593 8
Show More
Show More

In 332 BC, in the course of conquering the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great took over Egypt. In the Empire’s subsequent dismemberment by his Macedonian generals, one of them, called Ptolemy, established himself as master of Egypt, founding a dynasty which lasted for three centuries until the defeat of Cleopatra (VII) and the Roman annexation of Egypt in 30 BC. The early Ptolemies encouraged a major influx of Greek and Macedonian soldiers and civilians, who made Egypt their home. Two civilisations met head-on, and their interaction should make a splendid subject for historians, especially historians of cultural, social, religious and economic matters. Fortunately – and unusually – Egypt provides evidence to fuel detailed research.

For most of the Graeco-Roman world we have little but the extant writings of upper-class literati, whose narrow concern was political and military history, the doings of a small ruling élite. Such accounts survive for the Ptolemaic dynasty, chronicling the intrigues and scandals of court history with sufficient luridness to beget an unmemorable television series. From Egypt alone, however, we also have, in addition to Greek inscriptions on stone and graffiti on monuments, a considerable body of documentary evidence consisting of texts written on papyrus, the paper of Ancient Egypt, and others on ostraka (potsherds), which include all kinds of private and public documents and literary works. Excited by these riches, historians all too easily forget their limitations. Papyri come from a very few sites where ancient abandonment and subsequent desiccation have permitted their survival. Most are written in Greek, the language of the dominant minority and hence of government and administration in Ptolemaic (and Roman) Egypt. Only gradually are the few scholars competent to do it publishing the surviving papyrological texts of Ptolemaic date written in demotic, a form of Egyptian, and the many inscriptions, mostly dedicatory or funerary, in hieroglyphic or demotic.

Such documents are most useful when they can be grouped into ‘archives’ on the basis of common references to one or more people. One of the first papyrological archives from Ptolemaic Egypt to be recognised and studied, and by far the largest, is the archive of Zenon, who was manager of the third-century grace-and-favour estate of Apollonios, dioiketes (a sort of finance minister) of Ptolemy II Philadelphos. Most of its two thousand or so documents relate to the running of this estate, located around the village of Philadelphia in the Fayum, which appears to have been a key part in a great scheme of agricultural development. The size and subject of the archive, the alluring possibility of tracing responsibility back from Zenon via Apollonios to the King himself, reinforced by the inclusion within the archive of a few texts which do directly concern royal finances, have made the archive the touchstone for historical interpretation of Ptolemaic Egypt. The long-established orthodoxy is that the Greek settlers and their leaders were culturally and economically dynamic and innovative, even aggressive and exploitative in their attitude to the inert native population. An interpretation which has a somewhat familiar colonial ring to it. Against this paragon of the third century as an era throughout Egypt of Greek-led prosperity and success, the political narrative of the second and first centuries makes sorry reading. Under feckless and depraved monarchs the Greek élite lose their confidence and energy; a resurgence of the Egyptian spirit produces royal concessions to the native temples and priests of Lower Egypt in attempts to buy loyalty, and to periodic revolts in Upper Egypt. Finally the Romans take over and whip everyone back into line.

It may be that this overview is broadly correct, but it is only just beginning to be put to the test. And the test comes from study of other documents, preferably archives, of different date and provenance from the Zenon archive, and including Egyptian texts, all put, wherever possible, in their archaeological context. This is the background to Thompson’s study, a novel and ambitious synthesis of archaeological and of both Greek and Egyptian epigraphic and papyrological evidence, a scholarly work quite demanding of its readers (translated texts are sadly sparse, presumably for economy of length). The aim is to use Memphis as a test-case for the cultural, religious and economic interaction of Greeks and Egyptians. The first three chapters review the size and physical aspect of the city, insofar as they are recoverable from the now exiguous archaeological traces, the ethnic composition of its population, which apart from Egyptians and Greeks contained Phoenician, Carian, Jewish and Idumaean communities, and its economic life. There follow four chapters on the temples, cults and priests of Memphis, which examine cult practices and practitioners, the attitude to them of the Ptolemaic rulers, and the social and economic position and personal experiences of two groups of individuals whose lives centred on the temples. The last chapter gives a brief Roman epilogue.

The heart of the book is the four chapters on religious life in Memphis, for the simple reason that this is the area where the evidence bunches. The mid-19th-century excavation of the burial vaults of the Apis bulls, we are told, brought to light around seven thousand dedicatory stelae in hieroglyphic and demotic, to this day not all fully or reliably published, and there are other inscriptions, graffiti and miscellaneous sources, some in Greek, which illuminate that particular cult. From the temple precinct of Anoubis, centre of their profession, comes an archive of papyri, mostly in demotic, which concerns the affairs of five generations of an Egyptian family of undertakers. Another archive, mostly in Greek, tells us about the circle of Ptolemaios, a Macedonian who was tied by some kind of religious obligation to live in the temple of Astarte within the Serapeum, and we have a contemporary demotic archive on ostraka of Hor, an Egyptian priest who had migrated from Sebennytos in the Delta to serve in the ibis cult of Thoth. From some of the documents in these archives, supplemented by others from outside Memphis, such as the Canopus and the Rosetta decrees, a corpus of evidence can be collated which illustrates the attitude of the Ptolemies to the Memphite cults and their treatment of them.

It emerges from Thompson’s study that there was a basic toleration and even mutual respect between Greeks, other immigrants and Egyptians for each others’ religions. Insofar as these religions were polytheistic and doctrinally undogmatic, syncretism was superficially easy. Ptah, the great creator god of Memphis, and his son Imhotep could be worshipped by Greeks as Hephaistos and Asklepios respectively, and the Phoenician goddess Astarte, who had two pre-Ptolemaic temples at Memphis, could be identified with Aphrodite. It is, however, dubious whether there was much religious fusion. Incubation in temples was practised by both Egyptians and Greeks, and both had a general interest in dreams and their interpretation – records of the dreams of Ptolemaios and his friends and of Hor occur in their archives. It is difficult to tell, however, whether beliefs and practices traditional to both groups just happened to coincide here, or whether they cross-fertilised. The shop-sign of a Greek dream-interpreter portrays the Apis bull, but perhaps this was merely because of the location of his business; the legend is in Greek and proclaims him a Cretan, which may imply a purely Greek clientele. And how can we tell what went through the minds of Greeks watching ceremonies of the Apis cult? If we think of Protestants watching a spectacular Catholic festal procession we might postulate a range of reactions from piety through curiosity and incredulity to repugnance.

The Serapeum complex encapsulates the problem. The deity Serapis was a Ptolemaic remodelling on Greek lines of the existing Egyptian combination of Apis and Osiris as Osorapis. The so-called Serapeum at Memphis resulted from Ptolemaic development of an earlier complex, centred on the cult of Apis, but including shrines to Bes, the lioness Sachmet, Isis and the Phoenician goddess Astarte. By the main entrance were two chapels: one Egyptian, containing a cult statue of the Apis bull, and the other Greek, in Corinthian style, which was the centre for the temple lamp-tenders, a Greek innovation – traditional Egyptian cult did not use lamps. Past these chapels ran a paved way adorned on both sides with statues of Dionysos, to whom the Greeks assimilated Osiris and who was a favourite deity of the Ptolemies. At its beginning, facing the main entrance, was a semicircle of 11 seated statues of Greek poets and philosophers, including Homer, Pindar and Pythagoras. The Greek-style temple and statuary surely struck native worshippers as foreign impositions, both functionally and aesthetically (Thompson elsewhere remarks on the lack of cross-influence between locally-produced Greek and Egyptian sculpture). The 11 figures in particular, so prominently placed, were a bizarrely discordant symbol of triumphant Hellenism. All the evidence suggests that the temple personnel remained exclusively Egyptian: did Egyptians undertake to tend lamps à la grecque as a result of religious fusion or in order to preserve their monopoly of priestly functions? Clearly Greeks visited the Serapeum for religious reasons as well as tourism. But most were transient, and the Macedonian recluse Ptolemaios, passing his life in religious detention there, seems to have been a lonely oddity. This may explain his persecution, even if exaggerated in his petitions, by the Egyptian personnel. He was, like Homer, an alien intruder.

From Alexander the Great down to Cleopatra VII Thompson traces an almost unbroken record of royal patronage of the main Memphite cults. This was, however, little more than dutiful tolerance. Whatever their record of building activities and gifts, no Ptolemy restored the temple lands confiscated under Ptolemy I in poor return for an annual grant from the King. More striking is the first certain traditional crowning – at Memphis of Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 197, a precedent followed by his successors and capped by Ptolemy IX Soter II’s jubilee re-crowning in 86. A unique series of decrees from the reign of Ptolemy V records synods of Egyptian priests meeting and receiving privileges from him. But is it justified to call these grants ‘concessions’ and to take them as signs of royal weakness? In 270 Ptolemy II Philadelphos had deified his sister-wife Arsinoe II and decreed that a cult statue of her be placed next to the main cult statue in every Egyptian temple. In 238 Ptolemy III Euergetes had similarly deified his daughter Berenike, and added a cult of himself and his consort, to maintain which he had created a new fifth division of the Egyptian priesthood. Ptolemy IV Philopator’s victory celebrations at Memphis after Raphia and Ptolemy V’s coronation (if it was the first) might rather be seen as further steps in this hijacking of the Egyptian temples. The trouble is that no text tells us what Ptolemy V and his successors thought they were doing: perhaps the role-model of peacetime pharaoh was simply more attractive than that of Macedonian warrior-king. Equally, to say that the Memphite priests had adopted a policy of co-operation, from which they gained in contrast to their unreliable Theban counterparts, may be misleading. Memphis was too close to Alexandria to risk non-co-operation, and gratitude and loyalty were at best skin-deep: on his second invasion of Egypt in 168 Antiochus IV of Syria was apparently crowned King of Egypt at Memphis, which implies a lack of even passive resistance.

On a humbler level, the general picture of society in Ptolemaic Memphis is one of coexistence rather than a blending of the different ethnic groups. Hellenising tendencies in their lifestyle appear only in one branch of the family of undertakers and only by the first century BC. The continuity of Egyptian customs and legal practice, especially for marital and inheritance arrangements, stands out from this archive, as it does from the early second-century demotic archive of a family of necropolis lectors at Siut in Upper Egypt. Also noteworthy is the immense written documentation spawned by these contractual arrangements, and the family’s careful preservation of it: literacy and bureaucracy were not a Greek preserve. As regards economic matters, most of the relevant chapter is based on texts from the Zenon archive, and its shadow has tinged interpretation of the rest. One slave-staffed textile workshop owned by Apollonios, and the assumption that Egyptian craftsmen worked as individuals, do not make a convincing argument for Greek economic dynamism and innovation. Because he sold porridge and dealt in clothes Ptolemaios is held up as an example of ‘the Hellenistic man of affairs’. But this whingeing recipient of free housing and a temple dole on the age-old Egyptian system would hardly have felt comfortable in Thatcher’s Britain. Conversely we might, if we knew more about them than their names, attribute considerable economic enterprise to the specialised artisans (including a woman silversmith) and retailers in Memphis, most of whom had Egyptian names, not to mention Zidl, an Arabian importer of myrrh and perfumes. Essentially, Ptolemaic Memphis was a consumer city, a military and fiscal centre, a provider of administrative and religious services; yet clearly these functions also stimulated small productive enterprise, well brought out in Thompson’s image of a ‘bazaar economy’.

In the end, one wonders whether Memphis was a bit of a freak. A third of the city area, we are told, was devoted to temple enclosures, and the largest single business in the city was probably the business of death. Certainly the extant evidence privileges this side of the city’s life. Being equally particularistic, it cannot in itself provide a counterweight or antidote to the Zenon archive. However, Thompson’s path-breaking synthesis of the various types of evidence, and the issues and questions which she draws out of this, show that what we need is more studies of this type for as wide a range of places, periods and backgrounds as possible.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences