Domination and Legitimacy in Hellenistic Monarchy: some remarks, part 2

Antiochus I rose to the throne in the east from a relatively established position; in fact, he had been co-ruler since 292, eleven years before the assassination of his father. This was an innovation in the light of experience (Shipley 2000: 287), an intelligent strategy to avoid the division of the kingdom because of lack of legitimacy. In Egypt, Ptolemy II, who may have been inciting a revolt involving parts of the Seleucid kingdom at the time of Seleucus’ death, was also promoted to the status of co-ruler by his father in 285. Before the second generation of Hellenistic kings, both Seleucus I and Ptolemy I tried to make themselves appear as much like Alexander as possible. For example their portraits show many features in common, such as “the strong neck; strong round chin; wrinkles down from the corners of the mouth; which among other traits are responsible for the severe expression of the faces; deeply sunken eyes under strong brows, slanting down; protruding lower part of the forehead; curly hairstyle” (Fleischer 1996: 30).That does not mean that the first kings were not concerned about getting the assent of the ruled, which was  Ptolemy I’s strategy for creating a new brand of kingship rooted in a Greek context: the ruler or dynastic cult (Lloyd 2011: 92).

Seleucus I and Ptolemy I borrowed many traits from Alexander’s portrait  although they transposed them to a later age); the next generations of early Hellenistic kings would connect both with their ancestors (and by extension with Alexander) through the dynastic cult and with the type of ruler portrayed in local traditions. It is interesting to note that coin portraits of Ptolemy III (246-222/1 BC) and Seleucus II (246-226 BC) do not bear the same traits their ancestors did; instead of representing strength or tension, they are now shown with reserve, quietness and distance, traits that could be connected with the type of ruler portrayed in Egypt or Mesopotamia (Fleischer 1996: 31).

Inherited charisma implies that new rulers are legitimized by descent, so for a number of generations such a heritage was accompanied by a more consistent effort to fit in with local traditions. It is important to stress that an understanding with the local elites was fundamental to create a “new” and effective political body, in which a Greek/Macedonian elite was trying to survive. Lloyd (2002: 117) showed that a more a traditional historiographical approach to Hellenistic Egypt characterized its administration as a “highly centralized organization in which power was resolutely and systematically confined to the Graeco-Macedonian elite whilst the indigenous ruling classes were firmly subordinated to their foreign masters”. This is a notion inherited from the European experience of colonialism and models developed since that time, but it was also “powerfully reinforced by an undue concentration on Greek papyri from a very atypical area, i.e. – the Fayum, taking little account of the demotic evidence and even less of the hieroglyphic material”. A more cautious approach, less focused on Greek papyri, would reveal, as Manning demonstrated, a system of control more “informal rather than centralized and regionally variable rather than uniform throughout Egypt” (Manning 1997: 101; Lloyd 2002: 117).

Thus it seems reasonable to assume that many Egyptian elite families were still in existence in Hellenistic times and that their political aspirations would have remained “as powerful as ever as they took account of the new political and even social environment created by foreign conquest.” (Lloyd 2002: 118). It was then fundamental for a Ptolemaic king, as for most of the Hellenistic kings, to come to terms with local elites, since the need to deal with still confident and powerful elite families to assure stability and legitimacy would be a constant concern in territories that were formerly part of the Macedonian empire. The poems written by the Syracusan Theocritus (ca. 273 BC), very active at the Alexandrian court under the reign of Ptolemy II, are a good example of such a strategy. Composed under royal patronage, this official court poetry aimed to legitimize Philadelphus as both a Greek/Macedonian and an Egyptian ruler by merging Greek mythological and Egyptian conceptions of kingship. According to M. Heerink (2010: 402), who advocates the idea presented above, Theocritus not only associates Philadelphus with Zeus and the demigods but also “engages in several systematic ways of interpretatio Graeca of Egyptian pharaonic ideology”.

An understanding with local elites and some sort of connection to more ancient traditions were also concerns of the Seleucid kings, as Antiochus’ attempt to identify with the ancient monarchy of Babylon and its traditions (268 BC) testifies:

I am Antiochus, the great king, the legitimate king, the king of the world, king of Babylon, king of all countries, the caretaker of the temples Esagila and Ezida, the first (-born) son of King Seleucus, the Macedonian, king of Babylon. […] O Nebo, lofty son, (most) wise among the gods, splendid (and) worthy of all praise, first-born son of Marduk, child of Erua, the queen who fashioned all creation, do look friendly (upon me) and may – upon your lofty command which is never revoked – the overthrow of the country of my enemy, the fulfillment of (all) my wishes against my foes, constant predominance, a kingdom (ruled) in justice (to all), an orderly government, years of happiness, enough progeny be your permanent gift to the (joint) kingship of Antiochus and his son, King Seleucus!

When you, Prince Nebo… enter – under jubilant rejoicings – Ezida… may… my days (on earth) be long, my years many, my throne firm, my rule lasting… May (only words of) favour be on your sacred lips with regard to me, and may I personally conquer (all) the countries from sunrise to sunset, gather their tribute and bring it (home) for the perfection of Esagila and Ezida.

O Nebo, foremost son, when you enter Ezida, the (only) true temple, may there be on your lips (words of) favour for Antiochus, the king of all countries, for Seleucus, the king his son (and) for Stratonice, his consort, the queen.

(Austin 2006: no. 166; with omissions)

The source quoted is the cylinder of Antiochus I, also known as the Borsippa cylinder. Found in 1880 at the site of Birs Nimrud (ancient Borsippa) near Babylon, it has vast significance for Seleucid history. As stated by Kuhrt and Sherwin-White (1991: 71; 85), it is part of a tradition specific to Mesopotamiam culture (i.e. object and text combined as the physical representation of a socio-political institution) and illustrates among other things “the manipulation of traditional Babylonian forms and development of Achaemenid imperial ones by the Seleucids and what this involved in terms of their participation”. The cylinder of Antiochus I might also be the earliest historiographical text to show a Seleucid king identifying with the monarchical tradition of Babylon, to judge by the deliberately archaic script and its combination with such “new” elements as the ethno-dynastic appellation (e.g. the epithet ‘Macedonian’) and the reference to Stratonice the queen. Mentions of queens are, by the way, an unusual element even in Greek tradition, so it must be ascribed to Hellenistic royal practices.

Both cases (Ptolemy’s and Antiochus’) illustrate an important part of the process that allowed the creation of a Hellenistic dynasty in a world of self-proclaimed kingships: the introduction of a legitimate domination that could prevail for more than one generation through inheritable charisma (since there are no legal or traditional grounds) and identification with some local traditions. It is worth stressing that Hellenistic kings made efforts to identify with local traditions by rebuilding temples, favoring local cities and immersing themselves in ancient monarchical traditions, but they did not emerge in a traditional way.



FLEISCHER, R. (1996),“Hellenistic Royal Iconography on Coins”, in P. Bilde / T. Engberg-Pedersen / L. Hannestad / J. Zahle (eds.), Aspects of Hellenistic kingship, Aarhus; Oakville, CT, 28-40.

KUHRT, A. / SHERWIN-WHITE, S. (1993), From Samarkhand to Sardis: a new approach to the Seleucid Empire, Berkeley.

LLOYD, A. (2002), “The Egyptian Elite in the early Ptolemaic period: some hieroglyphic evidence”, in D. Ogden (ed.), The Hellenistic World: new perspectives, Swansea, 117-136.

______. (2011). “From satrapy to Hellenistic kingdom: the case of Egypt”, in L. Llewellyn-Jones and A. Erskine, Creating a Hellenistic world, Swansea, 83-105.

MANNING, J. (1997), The Hauswaldt Papyri. A Family Archive from Edfu in the Ptolemaic period. Demotische Studien, Vol. 12, Würzbu.

SHIPLEY, G. (2000), “The Seleukid kingdom and Pergamon”, in G. Shipley, The Greek world after Alexander, 323-30 BC, London; New York, 271-325.