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Ch. IV § 2
This webpage reproduces part of
The House of Ptolemy

by E. R. Bevan

published by Methuen Publishing, London,

The text is in the public domain.

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Ch. IV § 4


The People, The Cities, The Court

p109 § 3. Non-Greek Foreigners

The Greeks (including the Macedonians) formed far the largest element in the alien population which swarmed into Egypt under the Ptolemies, but we have seen that the Ptolemaic armies contained also a strong proportion of other Balkan peoples (Thracians, Illyrians) and a good number of Asiatics. In Asia Minor Hellenization had already gone so far that in these days Mysians, Carians, and Lycians might almost count as Greeks, and, no doubt, ordinarily spoke and wrote in Greek. The Gauls from Asia Minor who were brought into Egypt as soldiers would be more distinctly barbarians.63 In their settlements in Asia Minor they continued to speak their Welsh tongue till Roman times.

There were a certain number of Persians, or men called Persian in virtue of their ancestry. Two things are generally admitted: (1) that a large number of the people who are described as "Persians" in the papyri were such only by a fiction, though this is questioned by Pringsheim; (2) that there were at the beginning of Ptolemaic rule a number of real Persians in Egypt — remains of the Persian garrison of the country, found there by Alexander. Most of these Persian soldiers and their descendants may have served in Ptolemy's army, and formed a category which was afterwards fictitiously extended to non-Persians. By far the largest number of "Persians" mentioned have Greek or Egyptian names, but a few have Iranian names,64 and although a non-Greek might easily have a Greek name, it would be uncommon for a non-Persian to have a Persian name. The disproportionately large number of the "Persians" mentioned amongst soldiers and soldiers' children in Ptolemaic Egypt, and their continuance as a distinct class in Roman times, would by itself lead one to suspect a legal fiction. We have definite evidence of fictitious nationalities being assumed in the 2nd century B.C. About p110145 we find a man who is at one time a "Macedonian," at another time a "Cretan"; and we have one "Persian" in 115, who had become a "Mysian" in 103. The explanation offered by Lesquier connects these spurious nationalities with the politeumata which are known to have existed in the case of certain races. Soldiers who belonged to the same foreign race formed sometimes in the Ptolemaic realm a voluntary association called a politeuma, with a kind of communal life. Besides the politeuma of Idumaeans, already referred to, we have a politeuma of Cretans, and a politeuma of Boeotians.65 It may be, Lesquier suggests, that soldiers of other races later on got admitted to such associations and assumed fictitiously, while they belonged toº it, the nationality of Idumaeans or Cretans, or whatever it might be; and it may be that there was a politeuma of Persians, by which Persian nationality came to have the fictitious extension which we find. We do definitely meet with people who are described as "Jews, Persians of the epigone,"66 and we have noted a "Persian" trooper serving under Tubias in the Ammonite country whose father has the Jewish name of Ananias. But, as against Lesquier's theory, we have no evidence of the existence of a Persian politeuma, and the theory would not account for the extraordinary frequency of these "Persians." Later studies point to the fictitious Persian nationality being connected with certain legal disabilities attaching to Persians in Ptolemaic Egypt. It looks as if a Persian debtor had not the same protection from summary arrest which a European had. If so, a man or woman hard put to it to borrow money might fictitiously assume Persian nationality in order to give a creditor a better guarantee.67 Why Persians should have been put in this position of inferiority is a problem. Woess has conjectured that it was because they had violated temples in the days of Persian rule, and were therefore now denied the privileges of sanctuary. Pringsheim's suggest seems to me much more probable — that it was in order to emphasize the fact that those who had been the ruling caste in Egypt were so no longer. In any case, if the Persian entered the army, his inferiority of status came to an end; a Persian soldier seems to stand on the same footing as a Macedonian or Greek soldier. The question of these "Persians" is, p111however, still obscure. It is a difficulty that one should find a "Persian" the son of Ananias as far back as 259‑8 B.C. Fictitious nationalities in other cases do not seem to appear till the 2nd century.

Arab nomads of the eastern desert penetrated in small bodies into the cultivated land of the Nile then, as they do to‑day. The Greeks called all the land on the eastern side of the Nile "Arabia," and villages were really to be found here and there with a population of Arabs who had exchanged the life of tent-dwellers for that of settled agriculturists. We hear, at any rate, of one such village, Poïs, in the Memphite nome, two of whose inhabitants send on September 20, 152 B.C., a letter to a friend.68 The letter is in Greek; it had to be written for the two Arabs by the young Macedonian Apollonius, the Arabs being even unable apparently to subscribe it. Apollonius writes their names as Myrullas and Chalbas, the first probably, and the second certainly, Semitic. A century earlier we hear of Arabs farther west, in the Fayûm, organized under a leader of their own, and working mainly as herdsmen on the dorea of Apollonius the dioiketes; but these Arabs bear Greek and Egyptian names.

The largest foreign element after the Greek was the Jewish. At the time of the Christian era the Jews in Egypt had come to number about a million out of a total population of about seven and a half millions. We think of the Jews to‑day as pre-eminently financiers and traders. But in those days they had not yet any special reputation in that line. The Jews of Alexandria were, no doubt, like the Greeks of Alexandria, engaged in various kinds of trade and industry, but large numbers of the Jews in Egypt had been imported as soldiers. The Maccabean revolt and the wars of the Hasmonaean kings proved how formidable the Jews could be as fighters. The Elephantine Aramaic papyri have shown us Jewish soldiers of the Persian king established near the first cataract long before Alexander came to Egypt. Perhaps semi-paganized Jewish communities of this type had been absorbed, and ceased to exist as a separate people, before the end of the Persian period, but it seems likely that Ptolemy I found a Jewish element still existing in Egypt when he took over the country. Sir Flinders Petrie refers to a Jewish tomb, opposite Oxyrhyncus, discovered in 1922, with a long Aramaic inscription, belonging to the middle of p112the 5th century (The Jews in Egypt, p27). In any case, when Palestine had been united to their kingdom by the Ptolemies, a fresh stream of immigration from Judaea to Egypt naturally followed. It was not only voluntary immigration. Regarding the Jews as good material for his army, Ptolemy I had transported masses of them to Egypt — 100,000, according to Pseudo-Aristeas, who says that he put 30,000 of them "in the garrisons" — settled them, we may perhaps understand, like the Greeks and Macedonians, on the land. Inscriptions and papyri give us traces of this Jewish population in the country towns of Egypt throughout the Ptolemaic period.69 The language of the Egyptian Jews was Greek; after a generation or two immigrants from Palestine forgot their Semitic speech.70 Their Hebrew scriptures they knew only in the Greek translation, which we call the Septuagint because, according to the legend, the translation had been made by the Seventy Translators under Ptolemy II. Since the Seventy Translators were held to have been themselves miraculously inspired, there was no need for the Egyptian Jews to concern themselves with the original Hebrew. As a matter of fact, the translation of the Old Testament was made, bit by bit, in Egypt during the last three centuries before the Christian era. According to the first form of the legend, it was not the Old Testament as a whole, but only the five books of the Law which were translated by the Seventy, and it is likely that a Greek version of the Law really was required by the Egyptian Jews as early as the reign of Ptolemy II. In the p113latter times of the dynasty it made an important difference to any one who ruled Egypt, or aspired to rule it, if he had the Jews on his side.

Whether the Jews at Alexandria were, or were not, included in the citizen-body of Alexandrines is, as has been said, a debated question.71 It seems really to resolve itself into a question of terms — what is meant by "citizenship" — the Jews plainly had certain peculiar privileges, on the strength of which they might claim to count as Alexandrine citizens, whilst they lacked other ordinary characteristics of citizenship, the absence of which might justify the Greek Alexandrines in denying them the name. As a community in Alexandria, they had a measure of self-government not conceded to any other community within a Greek city-state. Their chief in early Roman times (and perhaps in Ptolemaic times) had the title of genarches72 or ethnarches.73 In Roman times the government of the community was vested in a senate (gerusia), and this, too, may go back to the earlier period. The archontes seem to have been a committee of the senate. But the only title for the rulers of the community for which we have documentary evidence in the Ptolemaic period is that of Elders (presbyteroi).74

The Jewish quarter, Delta, adjoined the palace quarter on the north-east and reached down to the sea. In so far as it lay beyond the harbour, it might be spoken of by enemies of the Jews contemptuously, as an out‑of-the‑way wretched sort of place, whilst the Jews might retort that its sea-front and its proximity to the royal palace made it pleasant and honourable.75 It was not a ghetto, inasmuch as there was no compulsion upon the Jews to live in the Delta quarter; many, as a matter of fact, lived in other parts of the city. But the Delta quarter was mainly inhabited by Jews, who had gathered there by choice, as they do in certain districts of London to‑day.

There were naturally a number of synagogues in Alexandria for a community so large. The principal synagogue p114was in Roman times one of the most impressive in the Empire, a magnificent building in the style of a Greek basilica, described with pride in the Talmud, so large that the voice of the officiating minister could not reach the more distant part of the congregation, and a man had to be stationed half-way down the building with a flag, to signal the moments for saying Amen. But we have in Ptolemaic times the mention of synagogues at Alexandria — one built on behalf of the famous Cleopatra and Ptolemy Caesar "to the Great God who heareth," by a certain Alypus, a rich member, no doubt, of the Jewish community.76

All these peoples will have brought with them to Egypt the cult of their national gods. There is mention in the papyri of a cult of the Syrian goddess,77 and of a cult of the Phoenician Adonis.78 An inscription shows us a priest dedicating a shrine to the Phrygian Agdistis.79 A temple of Mithras, built, no doubt, by Persians, is found in the Fayûm in the 3rd century B.C.80 We find a cult of the Thracian rider-god, Heron, established in the Fayûm, and semi-Egyptianized.81

The Author's Notes:

63 Sir F. Petrie calls attention to the large proportion of Thracians and Gauls shown in the Alexandrine epitaphs. Cf. his Social Life in Ancient Egypt, p197.

64 Terridates, Petrie, II.30 (reign of Euergetes I); Arsaces, Grenfell, I.12, l. 32 (148 B.C.). Harpalus, son of Arsames (238 B.C.); Neroutsos, L'ancienne Alex., p114; Mithrodates, Smyly, Gurob 22.

65 Bull. Alex., No. 19, p119.

66 Hamburg, 2; B. G. U. 1134.

67 F. Pringsheim in Zeitsch. d. Savigny-Stiftung, vol. XLIV (1924), pp396 ff.; J. G. Tait in Archiv, VII (1924), 175 f.

68 Wilcken, U. d. Pt., No. 72.

69 Synagogue at Athribis, OGI No. 96, cf. No. 101; at Magodla, Lille, II No. 35; at Schedia, OGI II No. 726; at Xenephyris in the Fayûm, Preisigke, No. 5862; at Kerkeosiris (Tebtunis, No. 86); Asylia granted to synagogues, OGI No. 129, Chrest., No. 54; Jews at Psenyris in the Fayûm, Chrest., No. 55; Jews who pay land-tax (i.e. are agriculturists), or pay money into the bank (i.e. are tax-farmers); Wilcken, Ostr. pp523 ff., cf. Chrest., No. 261, where correction is given of the view in Ostr.; a Jew who steals a horse (the reading of the name as Danoulos was wrong; the writer of the papyrus says, "whose name I do not know," Chrest., No. 57); Jewish soldiers in the Ptolemaic army; Breccia, Bull. Alex., 1902, pp48 ff.; Hibeh, No. 96; Petrie, III No. 21g, l. 12; an officer, B. C. H. XXVI (1902), p454; a general, Archiv, I pp48 ff.; Jewish inscriptions on the temple of Pan in Thebaid, OGI Nos. 73, 74; Samaritans in Egypt, see Schürer, III pp24 f.

70 Yet there were Jews at Thebes about 200 B.C. whose transactions with each other were drawn up in Aramaic. "An Aramaic Papyrus from Egypt," Proceedings of the Soc. of Bibl. Archeol. XXIX (1907), pp260 ff.

71 That they had citizen-rights has been maintained by Schürer (III p79) and by J. Juster, Les Juifs dans l'Empire Romain; on the other side see Wilcken, Zum Alexandrinischen Antisemitismus, and H. I. Bell, Jews and Christians in Egypt (British Museum, 1924). In the latter monograph references will be found to further literature on the subject.

72 Philo, in Flacc. § 74.

73 Joseph., Arch. XIV § 117.

74 Pseudo-Aristeas, § 310.

75 Joseph., c. Apion, II § 33 ff.

76 OGI II No. 742. Other mentions of synagogues in Alexandria: Accordi, in Stud. Scuola Pap. Milano, III p24; Inscr. graec. ad res Roman. pertin. I No. 1077. For the Jews in Egypt generally, see Sir F. Petrie, Status of the Jews in Egypt (1922); Modona, in Aegyptus, II pp253 ff.; III pp19 ff.

77 Magd. 2, Chrest., No. 101.

78 Petrie, III p32.

79 OGI 28.5.

80 Smyly, Gurob, No. 22 (cf. Archiv, VII pp71, 72).

81 Lefebvre, Annales, XX (1920), pp238 ff.; XXI p163. For possible Buddhist festivals at Memphis, see p155.

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