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Ch. IV § 4
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 § 6


The People, The Cities, The Court

 p118  § 5. The Court

The court of Ptolemy II can hardly have been second to any in magnificence — organized, like any other monarchic court, in a hierarchy of functionaries from the holders of high offices, such as the Chief Huntsman (archikynēgos), the Chief Seneschal (archedeatros), the Chief Physician (archiatros), the Chief Cupbearers (archioinochooi), to the grooms and porters and sweepers. Yet the magnificence would have been controlled by the Greek artistic tradition; Ptolemy's house would have been definitely the house of a great Greek, not that of a barbarian sultan, similar in type to the house of a rich Athenian, only larger and more splendid. Even when in its inner character, with the régime of eunuchs, it became Orientalized, its externals would have remained Greek.88 Its costumes would not have shown the artificial extravagance  p119 of either the older Oriental courts, Egyptian or Persian, or of the court of Versailles in the 18th century — no stiffened and arbitrarily cut apparel which fantastically misrepresented the human body — but the simplicity of Greek dress, either showing the human form as it is, or covering it with garments which adapted themselves to it easily in the beauty of natural folds. For the men, at any rate, no elaborate head-dresses, tiaras, or turbans, or conventional wigs, but at most a band, such as a Greek victor in the games tied about his head (a diadema) or a wreath imitating leaves in gold. Even the special head-dress which distinguished the king in these Hellenistic courts, after Alexander, was not a crown in our sense, but such a band of ribbon — such a "diadem." Only in richness of material, in colour — Tyrian purple of the first quality — in exquisiteness of embroidery, the dress of a king or a courtier would be distinguished from the dress of an ordinary Greek citizen. The royal dress for great occasions of state, however, was the Macedonian military array, a modification of the uniform worn by officers in the Hellenistic armies — a felt hat with wide brims called a kausia, the small oblong mantle called a chlamys, and the high-laced boots (krepīdes). It was just the dress of the Macedonian country gentleman glorified, and this again was really a form of the dress which Greeks generally wore for country pursuits, for hunting or travelling. The king's state chlamys would, of course, be of special splendour; we are told that the chlamys of Demetrius Poliorcetes had embroidered upon it the sun and moon and principal stars. When the king wore the kausia, the diadem was tied round the crown of it, its ends hanging behind. No doubt, like the Ptolemies themselves, the courtiers at Alexandria would all be clean-shaven. That was the general custom of the Greek world after Alexander — and had been adopted by the Roman aristocracy in the last century B.C. — till beards came into fashion again under the Emperor Hadrian.

The architecture and furniture of the palace must be thought of as Greek. The wall-paintings of Pompeii, the idyllic bas-reliefs of the Hellenistic age, should be in our mind when we picture it, not the remains of Pharaonic buildings. The colonnades from which the Ptolemies looked out over the Alexandrian harbour, with its forest of masts under the brilliant Egyptian sun, were almost certainly composed of classical columns, Corinthian or Ionic, not of the massive  p120 columns with lotus-bud or palm-tree capitals characteristic of old Egypt. The language of the court was, of course, Greek. When the last Cleopatra learnt the language of her native subjects,89 it was thought as remarkable a thing as Queen Victoria learning Hindustani. In the inner circle of the royal family it seems as if the Macedonian language was kept up to some extent, as a matter of pride — somewhat as the Emperors of Austria used the Viennese dialect in familiar intercourse, though High German was the official language of the Austrian state. The gods from whom the house of Ptolemy claimed to be descended were Herakles and Dionysos.90 The Egyptian priests, in the hieroglyphics they inscribed on the temples, might go on describing the king of Egypt as the son of Ra, but the Ptolemies did not understand Egyptian, or, if they knew the Egyptian formulas in a translation, they were content to let the Egyptians offer homage to them in the native way.

Should we have seen no sign of native Egypt in the palace at Alexandria — nothing to tell us, if we were suddenly transported there, that we were in Egypt and not in the palace of one of the first Caesars at Rome? It is probable that there would be things to show us we were in Egypt. Amongst the crowd of courtiers in Greek dress, the soldiers in Macedonian uniform, there would often, no doubt, mingle the figure of an Egyptian priest with his shaven crown and white linen robe, come to Alexandria to get Ptolemy's favour for his temple, or complain of some encroachment by Greek officials upon  p121 the privileges of the clergy. Except priests, Egyptians of the richer class would probably now dress as Greeks — at any rate, any who had posts at court or in government service — and be indistinguishable from Greeks but for their darker complexions. And whilst the décor of the palace and other Greek houses at Alexandria was predominantly Greek, Egyptian motives were, no doubt, here and there worked in. We meet with them in later Greek art, and they must have come in by way of Alexandria — sphinxes, but not quite the old Egyptian sphinxes, transformed by the more realistic art of the Hellenes, figures of Isis with the sistrum, but  p122 no longer according to the stiff Egyptian convention — more realistic and sometimes, it must be said, rather vulgar.91

When the Ptolemaic court was set up as an institution of aliens in an environment with which they had no ancestral connection, it could not rest, as monarchic courts have generally rested, upon a hereditary aristocracy. Nobility at this court was only a nobility of official rank conferred on individuals by the king's favour. The old territorial aristocracy of Macedonia, from which Alexander had chosen his marshals, had been mingled with too many other elements in the countries governed by his successors to go on existing there as a class. Perhaps at the court of the first Ptolemy, members of noble Macedonian families still had special influence and prestige, but the bureaucratic hierarchy of Egypt had  p123 soon to be constructed out of any Greek elements which came to hand — clever adventurers from any Greek city, Hellenized Carians and Lycians. In course of time, no doubt, certain Greek families, settled in Egypt, would acquire particular prestige when men in high official posts had secured similar posts for their sons, and their sons for their grandsons.

Rostovtzeff points out the case of the family of Chrysermus.92 Chrysermus, son of Heraclitus, a member of the citizen-body of Alexandria, is exegetes, President of the Physicians, and epistates of the Museum under Ptolemy III. His son, called Ptolemy, is employed in the diplomatic service under Ptolemy IV. The sons of this Ptolemy and one of his grandsons are found going as ambassadors to Delphi in 188 and 185 B.C., under Ptolemy V.

One institution of the old Macedonian kingdom, kept up by the Ptolemies in Egypt, as in other Hellenistic courts of those days, must have given social prestige to a certain number of families — the practice of bringing up a picked number of boys at court in attendance on sovereign and in close association with the boys of the royal family.93 They were called paides basilikoi, and in after-life a man who, as a member of this corps, had been the comrade in boyhood of the man now on the throne, might describe himself as the king's syntrophos. An analogous number of girls seem to have been brought up with the little princesses of the royal house. Possibly the title of tropheus ("nurturer") of the king, which we find borne by certain men at the Ptolemaic court (as at other Hellenistic courts), means that the person in question had had charge of this corps of boys, together with the direction of the little prince, who was now king.94

Whilst Alexandria was the ordinary residence of the court, it moved with the king when he visited other places in Egypt. Later Ptolemies are found residing for short periods in Memphis. On certain festive occasions the court seems to  p124 have moved from Alexandria to Canopus. A Zeno papyrus mentions the court being at Canopus for the king's birthday, and Wilcken has pointed out that the meeting of the Egyptian priests at Canopus, when they passed the Decree of Canopus (237 B.C.), may have been connected with their being obliged to come down to the sea annually to do homage to the king on his birthday.95

The Author's Notes:

88 Even in 5th-century Athens the household of a rich man like Callias included eunuch slaves (Plato, Protagoras, 314C).

89 How wide the popular delusion is, which imagines Cleopatra to have been an Egyptian, and the tradition of the Ptolemaic court to have been like that of the Pharaohs, is shown by the fact that even some one so fully abreast with the ordinary standard of general knowledge as Mr. Bernard Shaw proceeds upon it in his fantasia, Caesar and Cleopatra. It is as if a dramatist in a future age represented the court of the Viceroy at Delhi as that of an Indian rajah, or brought the President of the United States upon the stage as a Red Indian chief with tomahawk and feathers.

90 Satyrus (F. H. G. III p165) gives the family tree, as officially concocted. According to this, the descent of the Ptolemies from Herakles and Dionysos was through Arsinoe, the mother of Ptolemy I, whose ancestry branched off from the ancestry of the old Macedonian royal house (as given by Diodorus, VII.15). At what point in the ascent the family trees of Ptolemy and Alexander the Great coalesced is uncertain, since there seems to be a lacuna in the text. Since the old royal house was descended from Herakles, and Deianira, the wife of Herakles, was a daughter of Dionysos, the Ptolemies made out in this way their own divine origin.

91 Wilcken, U. d. Pt. I p29; W. Weber, Die Ägyptisch-griech. Terrakolten; Scott-Moncrieff, J. H. S. XXIX (1909), pp79‑90.

92 Large Estate, p44.

93 A similar institution existed in Pharaonic Egypt (see Sir F. Petrie, Ancient Egypt, 1924, p119), and also in ancient Persia. The old Macedonian court may have borrowed the custom from the Persians, but it might easily start independently in any monarchic state.

94 Apollodorus, Annales, 1908, p236; Helenus, OGI 256. I see no ground for Deissmann's assertion that the term syntrophos came to be given as a title to those who had not really been brought up at court.

95 Archiv. VI p395.

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