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Bill Thayer

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Chapter III
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.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Ch. IV § 2


The People, The Cities, The Court

§ 1. Egyptians and Greeks

When Ptolemy II died, eighty-six years had passed since the coming of Alexander to Egypt. Ptolemaic Egypt had by this time taken the shape it was to have, with minor modifications, till the coming of Julius Caesar. Egypt had ceased to be "for the Egyptians." The population at the end of the Ptolemaic period seems to have been about seven or eight millions; it was probably at least as large under Ptolemy II. The old people of the land, who still no doubt formed the bulk of it, were a subject people, who went on cultivating the rich fields of the Nile in the ancient way for their new lords. Multitudes of strangers from all the lands near the Eastern Mediterranean had swarmed into the country, to settle or to trade. The fellahîn were mostly native Egyptians, but now, instead of the country houses of the Egyptian nobles which had been seen in olden days, the great estates belonged to Greeks. Perhaps there were Egyptian families which kept alive a memory that they were descended from princes, but, if so, they counted for very little in the world now. Any Egyptian who aspired to rise learnt Greek, put on a Greek dress, and took service at the Greek court or under some Greek government official. Sometimes he kept his Egyptian name; sometimes he took a Greek name; sometimes he had both an Egyptian and a Greek name. We never hear under the Ptolemies of any native lay aristocracy.​1 The poorer Egyptians continued to talk their old language in a later form, on its way to become the Coptic of Christian Egypt, 600 years later. The old warrior caste of Egyptians, whom the  p80 Greeks in their tongue called machimoi ("fighting men"), continued to exist, as we shall see, distinct from the ordinary fellahîn, and were employed for some purposes — though at present, it would seem, mainly as non-combatants — in the Ptolemaic forces. Only in one way did the old Egypt continue to make an imposing appearance — in the department of religion. Many of the huge temples, built by the kings of the past, were still standing among the palms, and the traditional ritual was carried on in them, in the old language, to the old gods, by bodies of priests, with white linen robes and shaven heads, as they are shown on the Pharaonic monuments. The divine animals — bulls and rams and crocodiles — were still fed and worshipped. It was the priesthood, mainly confined to particular priestly families, which now constituted the only native aristocracy there was. It was to them in the prestige of their office, their corporate wealth, and their sacred learning, that the common people looked as their national guides and leaders. Greek-speaking Egyptians were probably employed quite largely in the lower posts of the government administration, though not, till under the later Ptolemies, in the higher ones. Perhaps the highest posts of all (such as the post of dioiketes) were even then reserved for Greeks, but an Egyptian could in the 1st century B.C. become Governor-General (epistrategos) of the Thebaid. Under the early Ptolemies, Egyptians are not found in such high station. If Rehm is right in supposing that the Tachōs son of Gongylus, who in a Milesian inscription appears as stephanēphoros for the year 262‑261, was an Egyptian representing the Ptolemaic power in that city,​2 we should certainly  p81 have under Ptolemy II an Egyptian holding a relatively high command.

Near Hermopolis is the elaborately decorated tomb of an Egyptian priest, Petosiris, who seems to have held the office of chief priest in the temple of Khmunu (Hermes) at Hermopolis during the last days of Persian rule, and to have lived well on into the reign of Ptolemy I. The decorations of the tomb are interesting as showing how strong already at this date the Greek influence was in the circles to which Petosiris belonged. The artist has tried to treat a Greek motive — the gathering of the family round the tomb — in the style of a Greek bas-relief. Many of the figures taking part in the processions represented on the walls of the tomb are in Greek dress.​3 The same monument gives us pictures of contemporary Egyptians. The ordinary Egyptian fellahîn of the Ptolemaic period no longer went naked with a single loin-cloth, as they are shown on Pharaonic monuments, but wore a loose tunic,  p82 like the fellah of to‑day, girt up and falling to the knees.4

Of the aliens who had come to settle upon Egypt, the ruling race, the Graeco-Macedonians, were the most important element. They were partly spread as allotment-holders over the country, forming social groups, in the country towns and villages, side by side with the native population, partly gathered in the three Greek cities — the old Naucratis, founded before 600 B.C. (in the interval of Egyptian independence after the expulsion of the Assyrians and before the coming of the Persians), and the two new cities, Alexandria by the sea, and Ptolemais in Upper Egypt. Alexander and his Seleucid successors were great as the founders of Greek cities all over their dominions; Greek culture was so much bound up with the life of the city-state that any king who wanted to present himself to the world as a genuine champion of Hellenism had to do something in this direction, but the king of Egypt, whilst he was as ambitious as any to shine as a Hellene, would find Greek cities, with their republican tradition and aspirations to independence, inconvenient elements in a country which lent itself, as no other did, to bureaucratic centralization. The Ptolemies therefore limited the number of Greek city-states in Egypt to those three — Alexandria, Ptolemais,  p83 Naucratis. Outside Egypt, as we have seen, they had Greek cities under their dominion — the old Greek cities in the Cyrenaica, in Cyprus, on the coasts and islands of the Aegean — but in Egypt no more than the three. There were indeed country towns with names such as Ptolemais, Arsinoe, and Berenice, in which Greek communities existed with a certain social life; there were similar groups of Greeks in many of the old Egyptian towns, but they were not communities with the political forms of a city-state. Yet if they had no place of political assembly, they would have their gymnasium, the essential sign of Hellenism, serving something of the purpose of a university for the young men. Far up the Nile at Ombi we find in 136‑135 B.C. a gymnasium of the local Greeks, which passes resolutions and corresponds with the king. And in 123 B.C., when there is trouble in Upper Egypt between the towns of Crocodilopolis and Hermonthis, the negotiators sent from Crocodilopolis are the young men attached to the gymnasium, who, according to the Greek tradition, eat bread and salt with the negotiators from the other town.5

The distinction between Greeks and Macedonians, who together formed the privileged class, seems now to have been without practical importance. Men of Macedonian origin continued throughout Ptolemaic times to describe themselves officially as "Macedonian," but they were to all intents and purposes Greeks.​6 Even before Alexander, so far as the Macedonians had had any literary education, it had been Greek education; their names were largely Greek, and their royal house claimed to be of Greek descent. And the Macedonians scattered over the Nearer East after Alexander, in close association with Greek colonists, probably soon forgot Macedonian, and came to talk the ordinary "common" Greek of the Hellenistic world. A large number of the papyri discovered in Egypt were written by people calling themselves Macedonians, but no one has ever found a papyrus in the Macedonian language.

As against the native Egyptians, the Greeks felt themselves the representatives of a higher civilization. And yet they were, as  p84 has been said, impressed by the antiquity and mysterious regularity of the Egyptian tradition. They were curious to know something about it. Only, their curiosity was easily satisfied. No Greek savant, so far as we know, ever took the trouble to learn to read hieroglyphics or to study the records engraved in stone, or written on papyrus, at first hand. The Greeks in Egypt did sometimes learn Egyptian, as we may see by a papyrus of the 2d century B.C., a letter written in Greek by a mother to her son — presumably a Greek family — in which she congratulates him on the fact that he is learning "Egyptian letters" (Αἰγύπτια γράμματα); but his object is not, we find, historical research, it is the hope of securing a post as teacher in a school for Egyptian children, and so providing for his old age.​7 All that Greeks knew about Egyptian antiquity was what Egyptians chose to tell them. The Greek historian, Hecataeus of Abdera, was in Egypt in the days of the first  p85 Ptolemy, and travelled up the Nile as far as Thebes to gather material for his History of Egypt (Αἰγυπτιακά). He was specially interested in Egyptian religion, and his informants may have been Egyptian priests or the bilingual native guides who served the needs of Greek tourists. What Diodorus tells us about Egypt in his First Book is largely taken from the work of Hecataeus. No doubt Hecataeus learnt from his informants a good deal that was true, as well as a good deal that was invented in order to present an idealized picture of ancient Egypt to the Greek. Hecataeus gave Greek readers what they wanted — something in literary form which seemed plausible, which pleasantly impressed their imaginations and made them feel that they understood Egypt; they were untroubled by the modern researcher's demand for rigorous documentary verification. Sometimes Egyptians themselves took up the pen to write about their country and their people for Greeks. An Egyptian of the priestly caste, Manetho, wrote a history of Egypt in Greek,​a with the encouragement apparently of the first Ptolemy. Manetho really had some knowledge of the ancient records, and what he wrote was largely based upon them, though he brought in a certain amount of Egyptian popular legend. It is, however, to his credit that we find him — in one connexion, at any rate — specially pointing out that what he is giving is legend, and not something taken from the documents.​8 The history of Manetho was much the fullest and most authentic history of ancient Egypt which the Greeks and Romans ever possessed. The work has now perished, but the considerable fragments of it, preserved by Josephus and other writers, gave Europe almost all the substantial information it had about ancient Egypt till the 19th century, when scholars discovered the key to the old Egyptian writing. "If we estimate aright the spirit of the Alexandria of that day, we shall not hesitate to say that Manetho's dry enumeration of early dynasties of gods and kings stood no chance in popularity against Hecataeus' agreeable romancing. Possibly the high priest, who is cited as one of Ptolemy's religious advisers, made an honest attempt to counteract the uncritical rubbish which was talked at the Museum concerning the earlier history of his country. In  p86 its day his work was a failure, though centuries later Jews and Christians in their controversies raked it out of oblivion" (M.).

No modern country in which a European race bears rule over a more numerous native race is quite like Ptolemaic Egypt. South Africa so far resembles it, that the European race there too has settled in the country as its permanent home, a minority amongst a native population, but the situation is different in so far as the natives of South Africa are primitive people, not, like the Egyptians, representatives of an ancient civilization of which the European immigrants stood in a certain awe. In that respect, India seems more analogous to Ptolemaic Egypt, but India again is unlike in the other respect — that the Europeans have not settled in the country as their permanent home, but are only a transient community of officials and soldiers and merchants. And there were two important regards in which the relation between European and native in Ptolemaic Egypt differed from the relation between European and native to‑day. In the first place, although the Greeks and Macedonians held themselves the superior type of humanity, the ordinary Greek or Macedonian settler (it may have been otherwise with the great families) had no horror of intermarriage with Egyptian women.​9 Since the Greeks and Macedonians largely came into the country as soldiers, the men amongst them must have been very much more numerous than women. Many of them, we know from the papyri, had European wives, but the supply of European wives can hardly have gone round. Many Greeks and Macedonians married natives. From this continual mixture of blood, the racial difference in Ptolemaic Egypt grew less and less with succeeding generations. Large numbers of people later on who called themselves Greeks were mainly Egyptian in blood.​b In the three Greek cities, indeed, it was probably illegal for the members of the citizen-body to contact marriages with natives, and the citizens of these cities may be thought of as retaining their pure Hellenic stock through the Ptolemaic period. But it was otherwise with the multitude of Greeks resident in Egypt, who did not belong to the citizen-body of one of the three cities, whether they were domiciled in the cities or had their homes in some Egyptian town or village.

From about 150 B.C. it becomes common in the papyri to  p87 find people who bear both a Greek and an Egyptian name. For instance, we find at the end of the 2nd century a Greek called Dryton, whose daughters (no doubt by an Egyptian mother) in one papyrus have Greek names, in another have Egyptian names side by side with their Greek names, and in a third their Egyptian names only.​10 A Hermocles has three sons, of whom the eldest is called Heraclides and the two others have the Egyptian names of Nechutes and Psechons. In a list of Greek cultivators (about 112 B.C.) we find Harmiysis son of Harmiysis, Harphaesis son of Petosiris, etc.​11 Probably few Greeks of pure blood took Egyptian names. On the other hand, many pure Egyptians may have assumed Greek names. In any case it becomes impossible after the middle of the 2d century to tell by the name alone whether a man or woman is Greek or Egyptian.

The distinction between the higher stratum of Greeks and lower stratum of natives did not cease, but it became more a matter of culture and tradition than of physical race. A family which had Greek names (even if it had Egyptian names as well), which talked and wrote Greek and had learnt something of Greek literature, which followed the Greek tradition in manners, would count as belonging to the privileged race; those who talked Egyptian and lived in the native way would count as belonging to the subject race. If Ptolemaic rule in Egypt had gone on, the difference between Greek and Egyptian might gradually have faded away. As we shall see, the native element asserted itself more under the later kings of the companion than under the first Ptolemies. But with Roman rule the process came to an end, and the native Egyptian-speaking mass was thrust again definitely into a subject position beneath Greeks and Romans.

The other great difference between the relation of Greek to Egyptian in Ptolemaic Egypt and relation of "white man" to "native" to‑day is in the sphere of religion. Modern European civilization has not been shaped by the Hellenic tradition alone; it has been all shaped by Christianity, and there an element has come into it which was quite absent from the mind of ancient Greeks. The Greek's religion made none of the exclusive claims made by Christianity — or by the parent of Christianity, the Hebrew religion, which the Ptolemaic Greek did have continually presented to his eyes. There was nothing in the Greek's  p88 religion to make him regard the Egyptian religion as heathenish or as idolatrous or as a religion essentially inferior to his own. On the contrary, he was very much impressed by its mysteriousness and its immense antiquity, though to the Romans, and perhaps to some Greeks, the worship of animals or of semi-animal gods seemed ridiculous. The divine power was, to the mind of the ancient Greek, something so vague and incalculable that some barbarian religious rite, even if you did not see the reason of it, might bring you good luck. It was just as well, as a matter of prudence, to propitiate any god in whom your neighbours believed, especially if you were living in the place where he had been worshipped for countless generations. The mixed Greco-Egyptian race which sprang up through intermarriage would absorb a good deal of popular Egyptian religion through the Egyptian mothers. The awe felt towards Egyptian religion was quite compatible with a brief in the superiority of Greek culture for all ordinary purposes of the world and values of life. A papyrus from the Fayûm of the middle of the 3rd century B.C. shows us the daughters of a Greek father from Cyrene, Demetrius, and an Egyptian mother, Thasis, dedicating a shrine to the Egyptian hippopotamus-goddess Thuēris.​12 The daughters have both Greek and Egyptian names. At a still earlier date (285‑284) in the reign of the first Ptolemy, we find a Greek woman at Elephantine, Callista of Temnos, using as her seal a scarab with the Egyptian god Thoth engraved upon it in the figure of an ape.13

The Egyptian feast of rejoicing on Athyr 20, showing forth, after the days of mourning, the joy of the goddess Isis at the recovery of the body of Osiris, was kept by Greeks as early as the reign of Ptolemy II, even in such high quarters as the entourage of Apollonius the dioiketes, whose office was closed for the occasion.14

The mixture of religions was furthered by the fact that the Greeks very commonly identified the Egyptian gods with gods of their own — Amen was Zeus, Ptah was Hephaistos, Horus was Apollo, and so on — and very often when they used the Greek name they meant an Egyptian god. Sometimes both Egyptian names (in a Grecized form) and Greek names are given side by side.​15 Hence when we find a dedication in Greek to Asklepios, it may be really addressed to the old  p89 Egyptian who was architect of king Zeser (about 4940 B.C.) and whom the Egyptians had called Imhotep.​16 The worship of the men of old time as gods — Imhotep, Amenhotep (the ancient sage of the time of king Amenhotep III, 1414 B.C.), king Amenemhat III (3427‑3381 B.C.) — was seemingly a new development of the Egyptian religion under the Ptolemies, and was perhaps directly due to Greek influence upon the Egyptians.

What Greeks of higher education learnt about the Egyptian religion from Hellenized Egyptians was often, no doubt, especially dressed up in a manner to make the Greek find in it a profound wisdom. Old crude mythology and primitive ritual was interpreted as embodying Greek philosophic ideas;​17 Greek and Egyptian ideas were jumbled up together in a strange amalgam, very much as Theosophy to‑day dresses up bits of Hinduism for Europeans by amalgamating them with ideas borrowed from Christianity or from modern science. And if we want to realize how the Ptolemaic Greeks could both feel their superiority, as Greeks, to the native Egyptians, and at the same time do homage to the Egyptian religion, we might try to imagine what the difference would be to‑day in India, if the English, instead of professing for the most part the Christian religion, professed Theosophy, made offerings on occasion to Hindu deities, and set up for worship in their houses lingams and images of Ganesh.18

But if the Greek was ready on occasion to worship an Egyptian god, he did not cease in Egypt to worship his own gods, even outside Alexandria, Ptolemais, and Naucratis. Where any number of Greeks were living together as a community, they may well anywhere in Egypt have put up their little temple to Zeus or Apollo or Demeter or Aphrodite or any other deity of their people, and worshipped with Greek rites.​19 Or it was open to individual Greeks to erect shrines on the land they occupied to any god they pleased.

 p90  One thing probably new to Egypt, which came in with the Greek population, were those voluntary associations with the cult of some deity as the ostensible object, though serving really the purposes of a convivial club or trade guild, which sprang up everywhere, in the times after Alexander, over the Greek world, called thiasoi or synodoi. It was a mark of Hellenic influence upon the native population, that amongst them, too, such associations began to be formed, centring in the cult of Egyptian gods — Osiris, Isis, Anubis, Chnubis-Ammon, or some local deity. Sometimes the worship of the association was addressed to the deified king, as in the case of the association of Basilistai near Syene (2d century B.C.) or the Philobasilistai (end of 2nd century) of whom we hear in some papyri.​20 Rubensohn supposes that all our notices refer to one association of Basilistai, established in the kingdom. It seems to me more likely that the name of Basilistai was taken by any association which wished to display its loyalty by making the king the object of its cult, or the king and queen, in combination, it might be, with other deities chosen by the association. By doing so, the association might hope to secure the favour of a suspicious government.

The Author's Notes:

1 The Egyptian titles referred to by Mahaffy (History, p162) as still used in 108 B.C., "Scribe of the Double House," etc., belong to the members of a priestly family. They are no evidence for a lay "Egyptian peerage."

2 Das Delphinion in Milet, p264. The name Tachōs is that of an Egyptian king in the 4th century, but Gongylus is not an Egyptian (p81)name, and Greeks were occasionally given names of foreign potentates (e.g. there is a Greek tyrant Psammetichus), so that we cannot build much on Rehm's conjecture.

3 Lefebvre, Le Tombeau de Pétosiris (Cairo, 1924).

4 Lefebvre, op. cit. p33.

5 Wilcken, Archiv, V (1913), pp410‑416. Cf. Archiv, VI p389.

6 Ptolemy the katochos in the 2nd century B.C. always describes himself as Makedōn, but he is assaulted by the Egyptians "because he is a Greek, Hellēn."

7 Wilcken, Chrest. I.136.

8 In his account of the origin of the Jews (Joseph c. Apion, I § 105).

9 Sir F. Petrie points to the Dutch in Java as presenting a parallel. They have, he says, no race prejudice.

10 Otto, I p2, note.

11 Tebtunis, I.247.

12 Wilcken, Chrest. I No. 51.

13 Elephant. pp9, 13.

14 Wilcken, U. d. Pt. I p452.

15 OGI No. 111.

16 The Egyptians of Ptolemaic times pronounced the name in some way which the Greeks transcribed as Imūthes.

17 P. D. Scott-Moncrieff, J. H. S. XXIX (1909), pp79 ff.

18 On the subject of the relation of Greeks and Egyptians generally, see Wilcken, "Hellenen und Barbaren" (Neue Jahrbücher für d. klass. Alt., 1906), pp468 ff.; H. I. Bell, "Hellenic Culture in Egypt," J. E. A. VIII (1922), pp139 ff.; Jouget, "Les Lagides et les Indigènes Egyptiens," Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire (1923), p433 ff. See also article, "Graeco-Egyptian Religion," by J. G. Milne, in Hastings' Ency. of Rel. and Ethics.

19 Wilcken, Grundzüge, I p96.

20 Otto, I pp125 ff.; Spiegelberg, Cat. général d. Ant. Egypt., 1908.

Thayer's Notes:

a A complete English translation of Manetho's History of Egypt is onsite.

b Here the best modern analogy is with Mexicans, who tend to think of themselves as Hispanos, but are of mostly Native American ancestry.

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