Twilight of the Gods: Economic Power in Ptolemaic Egypt


Dr. Joe Manning, Stanford University, received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and has published variously on topics related to the economy of Egypt during the Ptolemaic period, including
Land Transactions in Ptolemaic Egypt

Dr. Manning opened his lecture with a brief overview of Egypt during the Ptolemaic and late periods, and addressing "why study the Ptolemaic period?", "why is it fascinating?". He also commented that University of California, Berkeley is a growing center of papyrology, a branch of Egyptology, in the U.S. so a fitting venue for a discussion of the Ptolemaic period. A rich collection of papyri from Tebtunis is housed at Berkeley at the Bancroft Library.

The Ptolemies ushered in a "resurrection" of Egyptian culture, and serious exploitation of Egypt, what Dr. Manning characterized as the "beginning of modern Egypt". Due to extensive and rich written material from the Ptolemaic period, it is the first period in Egyptian history in which we can study government and state workings, how the king related to the local governmental structure and economy, in depth.

Dr. Manning reviewed for the audience the fall of Egypt and the death of Alexander, followed by the transition of power to Ptolemy, called Sotar, who had been one of Alexander's generals. Discussing the general model of an ancient agrarian state, Dr. Manning postulated as to how an outsider like Ptolemy would go about successfully governing a land like Egypt. Reviewing the hierarchy of officials in Ptolemaic Egypt, [Greek elite, regional officials, military, Egyptian priests, local officials and scribes, and finally locally insulated communities], Dr. Manning noted that choosing to work within the hierarchy rather than changing it was a major factor in the success of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Additionally, the Ptolemies elected to build in the Delta, and in Upper Egypt below Thebes [Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Elephantine, Philae], but did not disturb the operations at the great temples and religious shrines at Thebes. In effect, they were not considered important to the regime, from a "governmental" stand point. They founded a new capital at Alexandria that did not have the pharaonic connotations associated with Memphis or Thebes. They also learned about Egypt through the priests, thus gaining the support of the priesthood.

Though little known and only slightly researched, the Ptolemies founded and built a city south of Abydos, called Ptolemais. It came into existence about the same time Alexandria was founded and being built. The city was the southern most Greek city in the Ancient world. It had a Greek city structure, and acted as the "southern capital". Diodorus describes it as having 100,000 inhabitants. Dr. Manning suggested that it probably had a population closer to 50,000, but even that number describes a large city in the ancient world. Ptolemy founded the city and settled Greek administrators there. This governmental structure presumably saw to the building of the new temples below Thebes. Strangely, the city has never been excavated and never published.

In the Delta, new cities were appearing Tebtunis, for example, and the Faiyum was being developed and expanded through major land reclamation projects. It has been estimated that the arable land available was trebled during the Ptolemaic period. 137 Greek villages are estimated to have existed in the Faiyum. Many of the papyri we have from the Ptolemaic period come from the Faiyum villages, having been used to stuff mummies, or as foundations in the creation of cartonnage mummy cases. Most papyri written in Demotic have come from the Faiyum as well. By the 7th Century BC, Demotic was the business language for the Egyptian mercantile strata of the population.

Most of these documents have proved to be records of various legal transactions. Dr. Manning postulated that the records office perhaps cleared their outdated files every few years and discarded or sold off the documents, written on papyrus, which were then reused by the embalmers. 

A unique feature of Egypt - unlike other ancient states - is that the Nile Valley is 600 miles long and 14-15 miles wide. The population is effectively "captured" by the state. The Ptolemies faced the same problems in governing that the Pharaohs had faced. The Pharaohs used and supported the priesthoods, who in turn supported the state, and they ran Egypt the "old-fashioned" way, through basin irrigation which was regulated and taxed by the state.

To refresh the audience's memories, Dr. Manning showed us a table of rulers during the Ptolemaic period:
Macedonian kings
Alexander the Great     through 332 BC
Alexander IV through Satrapal governors     310/09 BC 

Satraps     309 BC-305 BC
Ptolemaic flowering
Ptolemy I - Ptolemy III     304 BC-221 BC
Ptolemaic decline

Ptolemy IV - Cleopatra VII     221 BC-30 AD

Some have argued that kingship was weak after the reign of Ptolemy III due to difficulties controlling Alexandria - a city, at that point, of 500,000 people, and by far the largest city in the ancient world. 300-400 tons of grain per day was necessary to feed the city's population. Over time, taxation, agricultural control, and the economy were controlled locally and run by local agents of the state who were licensed by the king to function locally. Dr. Manning argued that all these indications point to an economy that was going well, even if the king was having his troubles controlling Alexandria. Land taxes were being collected, harvest taxes were ensuring adequate grain to feed the capital and reclamation of land in the Faiyum was adding to the harvest every year.

In Alexandria, under Ptolemy II, a four day Grand Processing, celebrating wealth, control, power and Alexander's conquest of India, and ending with a military march which, itself, is reputed to have taken 4 hours to pass by, thus substantiating the regime and portraying the Ptolemies as legitimate successors to Alexander. Locally the kings functioned as Pharaohs, supporting the temples and powerful priesthoods. By 260 BC the temple at Edfu had been erected to the god Horus - significantly the God of Kingship. Edfu is at the juncture of the important trade route from the new city of Berenike on the Red Sea coast, which was being used to import war elephants into Egypt from Africa and India. A population of Greek traders and officials were regulating the elephant traffic along with an important temple.

Alexandria was an amazing and fantastic ceremonial city. Trade made Alexandria and the Ptolemies rich. However, there are almost continual riots in Alexandria from 250 BC on, which proved ever more difficult for the kings to control. Many documents survive about getting the local literate class loyal to the regime, and ensuring that soldiers are loyal to the regime as well. One means the Ptolemies used to try to gain this loyalty was the establishment of the god, Serapis - a redesigned god, conceptually based on the old god Apis. Alexander had made peace with the priesthood immediately after conquering Egypt. The Ptolemies, wisely, were also very sensitive to the role played by the Egyptian temples and priesthoods. Priestly households were protected from harassment by the military. On temple walls, the Ptolemaic kings are represented as Egyptians, even though it is known that they never actually wore Egyptian style clothing. Thus, it might be asked, "why did the Greeks go to such lengths to portray themselves as Egyptians?" Clearly, they had to position themselves to run Egypt effectively. The best way to do that was to be "more Egyptian than the Egyptians".

We actually know very little about the Delta during Ptolemaic Egypt, and we have little from Alexandria. From Upper Egypt, however, we have much more that is really important to the Ptolemies, which they exploited differently than they did the other parts of Egypt. There is little cultivatable land in much of Upper Egypt so the temples had to have lands elsewhere to sustain them, such as in the Faiyum. The Xenon Archive, a document which provides a model for a state run by high level officials in Alexandria, includes a "manual" for reclaiming land. It reports that at the Faiyum, crops in 235 BCE, include: Sown in wheat [Durham rather than emmer, which was on the decline] - 74.6%, Sown in barley -14.5%, Sown in oil crops, beans and grasses - 11%.

The grand temples at Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae were built and supported by the king to confirm his legitimacy to rule. He supported the priesthood, who in turn supported him. The temples were being funded locally, not from the central government, but as the dynasty grew weaker and the economy was no longer organized around the temple economy, the temples began to decline, By 168 BC, Egypt was effectively in Roman hands, even though a Ptolemy was on the throne until 30 BC. In summary, Dr. Manning noted that: 1) the Ptolemies wanted to tax whatever they could, 2) Edfu temple seems to stand for the Ptolemaic kings, and 3) The Faiyum, the Delta, and Egypt south of Thebes were what were important to the Ptolemies. Thebes wasn't important to the state. It was just a "bunch of troublesome priesthoods".

Nancy Corbin

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