The Eagle and the Owl: Athenian Legacies in Early Ptolemaic Alexandria

Davide Amendola

Citation with persistent identifier: Amendola, Davide. “The Eagle and the Owl: Athenian Legacies in Early Ptolemaic Alexandria.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019).


The reception of the Athenian model and its impact throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond have increasingly become the focus of recent scholarship. My project proposes to carry out a thorough reconsideration of the history of Ptolemaic Egypt through a close examination of political and ideological reuses of the Athenian past, as they emerge clearly from a number of sources and media. In particular, by exploring issues related to institutional, religious and cultural history, it tackles the question of how the Ptolemies shaped and reacted to Classical Athens’ democratic traditions soon after the establishment of their kingdom in 305 BC, when Ptolemy I assumed the title of pharaoh. The significance of this research, which entails a diverse range of evidence (from papyrus fragments of documents and ancient writers to epigraphic evidence; from archaeological material to modern historiography of the ancient world), consists, therefore, in its contribution to the understanding of the historical complexity of post-Classical civilization while casting new light on the processes through which the Hellenistic Greeks dynamically engaged with their Athenian forerunners, as well as on the ways in which Greek political discourse and identity developed in the post-Alexander world.


1. There has recently been an upsurge of scholarly interest in diversifying our understanding of Hellenistic responses to the complex historical legacy of Classical Athens [Canevaro & Gray 2018]. My research project investigates how the Athenian model became a key political and cultural resource in Ptolemaic Egypt by attempting to understand in what ways and through what media the Lagids engaged therewith.

In the period between the rise of the Ptolemaic kingdom (305 BC) and the conclusion of the so-called Chremonidean War (269/8–262/3 BC), the contacts between Athens and Alexandria became ever stronger [Habicht 2006, esp. 85–113, 143–167; O’Neil 2008; Osborne 2012, 20–50; Luraghi 2018, esp. 22–27, 30–41]. With the restoration of democracy by Demetrius Poliorcetes in 307/6 BC [Bayliss 2011, esp. 94–128], the politician and philosopher Demetrius of Phalerum, who had ruled the city for ten years on behalf of Cassander [Habicht 2006, 71–84; Faraguna 2016], escaped to Egypt to take shelter at the court of Ptolemy I [Cic. Fin. 5.19.53–54; Hermipp. FGrHistCont 1026 F 75 apud D.L. 5.78-79; Plu. Mor. 601F: see Fraser 1972, I, 114–115; Tracy 1995, 49–51; Paschidis 2008, A4, esp. 64], while, after the victory of Poliorcetes’ son Antigonus Gonatas in 263/2 BC, the two leading Athenian statesmen Chremonides and Glaucon [Paschidis 2008, A55–56, 162–170; Rosamilia 2018, esp. 282–294] left the city altogether to serve as πάρεδροι καὶ σύμβουλοι of Ptolemy II [Teles fr. III Fuentes González] and the Atthidographer Philochorus was executed by Antigonus because of his allegiance to Philadelphus [Suid. 441 s.v. Φιλόχορος Adler = FGrHist 328 T 1]. The first two Ptolemies provided military aid and diplomatic support to the city on various occasions. For instance, when late in 288/7 BC the Athenian general Olympiodorus ousted Poliorcetes’ garrison from the Hill of the Muses [Osborne 2012, 36–50], it was Ptolemy’s plenipotentiary Sostratus of Cnidus who negotiated the agreement between the two [Meeus 2015, esp. 152–161], and in the years following the city’s liberation the Ptolemaic naval commander Zenon and the nauarch Philocles, King of Sidon, were both honored by the demos [IG II3 863, 286/5 BC, and IG II3 868, c. 286 BC (cf. IG II2 3425), respectively]. Moreover, successful diplomatic exchanges with the court at Alexandria took place in the same time span [Habicht 1992, esp. 70–71], including those recorded in the famous biographical decree in honor of Callias of Sphettos [IG II3 911, 270/69 BC, ll. 32–43], the mission led by Callias’ brother Phaedrus in 296/5 BC [IG II3 985, 259/8 BC (?), ll. 28–30] and the embassy whose implementation was proposed by Demosthenes’ nephew Demochares of Leuconoe [Ps.-Plu. Mor. 851E].

Despite Rudolf Pfeiffer’s famous claim to the contrary [Pfeiffer 1968, 87–104; cf. Luraghi 2017, 202, n. 80], the contacts between fourth-century Athens and Alexandria were extensive. Yet the question of a Peripatetic influence upon the formation of the Alexandrian Library has somehow monopolized scholarly discourse, leading many to understand those contacts in vague cultural terms [cf. Erskine 1995; Canfora 1999; Bagnall 2002, esp. 350–351; Murray 2008; Thompson 2008]. However, archaeological evidence attesting to the intrusion of traditional symbols of Athenian identity into the baggage of Ptolemaic iconography of power, such as the representation of Athena Promachos on tetradrachms of Ptolemy I [Pfrommer 1999, 49; Lorber 2011, 304–306; Ghisellini 2012, 274–275], as well as the erection in the heart of the Palaces area – perhaps in connection with the Alexandrian Τυχαῖον [McKenzie & Reyes 2013] – of an altar with δωδεκάθεον probably recalling the Altar of the Twelve Gods in the Athenian Agora [Ghisellini 1999], seems to suggest that this relationship was more complex than is usually recognized.

In recent research the assumption that Alexandria’s civic institutions were closely modeled on those of Athens has been gaining traction, and parallels in the system of civic laws and regulations of both cities have been hinted at by several scholars [e.g. Delia 1991, 5; Whitehorne 2001, 25], an impression sharpened by the fact that, according to a passage of the Acta Athenodori [P.Oxy. XVIII 2177 (MP3 2231; LDAB 42: c. 200-250 CE), fr. I, col. i, ll. 12-18], the Alexandrians applied and enjoyed Athenian nomoi. An attempt to argue this has been undertaken, for instance, by Sandra Gambetti, who, in her book on the Alexandrian riots of 38 CE [Gambetti 2009], has tried to explain the events which occurred on that occasion through what is known of Athenian laws of the late Classical period. At first glance, such an approach might be hindered by the fact that Ptolemaic Alexandria was not a democracy, and one wonders, therefore, how the Athenian legacy could flourish there.

2. My research centers on three main aspects of the relationship between Athens and early Ptolemaic Alexandria: institutions, religion and cultural influences. For the first point, building on the assumption that, as one of the three Greek cities of Egypt together with Naucratis and Ptolemais ἡ Ἑρμείου [Schubart 1910; Martín Hernández 2001; Huss 2011, esp. 15–28], Alexandria possessed a political machinery made up of a citizen-body [Fraser 1972, I, 38–92], a βουλή [El-Abbadi 1993], an ἐκκλησία [I.Alex.Ptol. 40: see also Jouguet 1948], a board of magistrates [cf. e.g. Burkhalter 2004; Rodriguez 2009] and a civic law code [Velissaropoulos 1981], I address the question as to what extent the role of traditionally democratic organs of government can be elucidated for the early Ptolemaic period, before they were overshadowed by the development of crown administration. The research also deals with the controversial issue of a possible overlapping between Athenian law and what is set out in the mid-third century BC roll of Dikaiomata (P.Hal. 1, Bechtel et al. 1913: TM 5876), which contains materials excerpted by an advocate from the Alexandrian law code [cf. Amundsen 1958; Mélèze Modrzejewski 2013]. Concerning the second point, one of the main goals of the project is to define more clearly the relationship between Alexandrian Eleusis and its Attic counterpart [Satyr. F 28–29 Schorn and perhaps Posidipp. 20 AB: cf. e.g. Schorn 2004, 465–468; McKenzie 2007, 41, 67–68], all the more so since an Athenian from the priestly caste of the Eumolpidae, Timotheus, appears to have contributed to the establishment of the cult of Sarapis [Tac. Hist. 4.83.2–4; Plu. Mor. 362A], in whose honor Demetrius wrote paeans during his stay at court [D.L. 5.76: see e.g. Mikalson 1998, 180–181; Coppola 2006]. Moreover, if Ptolemy II actually established some Alexandrian customs and cult practices κατὰ μίμησιν τῶν Ἀθηνῶν [Σ Call. Cer. 1 Pfeiffer], the attempt to assess the reliability of this information against the background of specific cases also assumes vital importance [cf. e.g. Fraser 1972, I, 189–301; Quaegebeur 1983; Perpillou-Thomas 1993; Kahil 1996; Dunand 2007]. Regarding the third point, I intend to examine the question of the circulation of Attic oratory and local history (Atthides) in Hellenistic Egypt in an attempt to readdress the controversial issue of the formation of some oratorical corpora (mainly those of Hyperides, Demades and Demosthenes) within the context of the early Hellenistic reception of the Athenian past, as well as to explain whether there could be any connection between the extensive use of Atthidographers made by Callimachus and his pupils, especially Istros [Hollis 1992; Benedetto 2011], and the emergence of the belief that Athens was a colony from Egypt [Costa 2010; Roberto 2010].

3. The research undertaken as a CHS Fellow (Fall 2018) has focused on the first stage of this project by tackling the question of the initial shaping of Alexandria’s civic and political institutions. In this respect, special attention has been paid to two early Ptolemaic papyri, P.Hibeh I 28 [MP3 2570.1; TM 65668] and SB VI 9559 [TM 5788], both dating to the turn of the first and second quarters of the third century BC, which were extracted from mummy cartonnages found in the necropolis of Ἀγκυρῶν πόλις in the Heracleopolite nome (mummy 97 and mummy A, respectively). If the latter is so fragmentarily preserved that nothing more can be said about it than that it mentions a γυναικονόμος in connection with an act of registration in the citizen body, the former, besides describing a process of phratry admission which possibly mirrors the rituals performed on the occasion of the Athenian festival of Apaturia, depicts the organization of an unnamed polis as structured around three different sets of criss-crossing civic subdivisions forming a pyramidal system [cf. Murray 1990; Murray 2000]:

[…] (in order that) they may not be ignorant of what has been done and written affecting them […] to the phratries and be recognized by the members of the phratries, let them sacrifice, and let 2 phratries from a tribe associate each day. For since there are 5 tribes, and in each tribe 12 demes, and in the deme 12 phratries, it follows that there will be 60 demes and 720 phratries; and as the year consists of 360 days it will result that 2 of the 720 phratries will […] each day […] (tr. B. P. Grenfell & A. S. Hunt)

By following in the footsteps of Stephanie West [West 1981], I argue that it is worth considering the possibility that P.Hibeh I 28, instead of belonging either to a Ptolemaic edict aimed at regulating the constitution of one of the three Greek cities of Egypt or to a literary work containing an extended quotation of a municipal law (as happens, for instance, in a passage of Satyrus’ treatise On the Demes of Alexandria), might rather display constitutional theorizing, though rooted, in my view, in a philosophical tradition far different from that underpinning Plato’s Laws. I speculate, therefore, that P.Hibeh I 28 and SB VI 9559 possibly originate from Demetrius’ stay at the Ptolemaic court at the beginning of the third century BC, when he advised the king on the Alexandrian law code [Ael. VH 3.17 = Demetr. F 40 SOD: see e.g. Williams 1987, 90–92; Haake 2007, 66]. My hypothesis rests on four main points:

  1. that the correspondence between constitutional issues and a calendar based on a 360-day year was exploited not only by Plato in his provisions for Magnesia [e.g. Lg. 756b-e, 758b, 771b], but also by Aristotle for describing the original tribal organization of Athens in the lost initial section of the Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία [Arist. Ath. F 2 Chambers apud Lex.Patm. 152, s.v. γεννῆται];
  2. that officers known as gynaikonomoi were part of the constitutional apparatus of Athens during the government of Demetrius of Phalerum [e.g. Ogden 2002], who might easily have introduced them to Alexandria;
  3. that the text preserved by P.Hibeh I 28 was probably composed at the very beginning of the third century BC, since the most recent papyrus among those extracted from the same cartonnage dates to 251 BC (SB XIV 11308) and, unlike documents (which were immediately discarded once they became out of date), literary texts could last even for half a century before entering the recycling process;
  4. that the papyrus material used in making up most of the mummy cartonnages found at Hibeh was probably obtained from a collection of rolls specialized in Peripatetic philosophy, logic and rhetoric [Daris 1995, esp. 1126–1129], which contained, among others, such works as Theoprastus’ De aqua (P.Hibeh I 16, mummy A), the Rhetoric to Alexander (P.Hibeh I 26, mummy A), a treatise Περὶ λέξεως (P.Hibeh II 183, mummy A), an ethnographical fragment (P.Hibeh II 185, mummy A), an agricultural manual to be plausibly connected with Theophrastus’ Historia plantarum (P.Hibeh II 187, mummy A) and perhaps a fragment of the fourth-century BC physician Diocles of Carystus (P.Hibeh II 190, mummy A).

4. This research offers the matchless opportunity to work with a very wide range of evidence (especially literary, epigraphical, papyrological, numismatic and archaeological), its aim being that of setting new standards for the integrated study of Hellenistic political and cultural history. For the investigation of the post-Alexander world has long been characterized by a paradox: on the one hand, much scholarship has attempted to rescue it from narratives of decline, stressing, for instance, the continuity of the polis culture; on the other hand, despite such a focus on this sort of continued vitality, a great divide remains between historians of the Classical and Hellenistic ages of Greek history in the approach and prioritization of particular source materials. If the work of the former is characterized by cross-fertilization of historiographical, oratorical, philosophical and epigraphical texts, the approach of the latter remains by and large stone- or papyrus-centric. The result is that cultural history is often sidelined and kept separate from political and institutional history [cf. Treves 1955, esp. 12–13], while the examination of authors, cultural movements and debates is marred by “a series of fundamentally paratactic studies” [Luraghi 2017, 180].

The significance of my principal research question, namely the existence of a strong interconnection between Athens and early Ptolemaic Egypt, lies in two main assumptions: first, that the influence of Classical Athens’ religious, political and cultural systems on the early Lagid kingdom by a number of different vectors represents the first moment when the Athenian model went, as it were, global; second, that analyzing the complex processes of transmission and reinvention of Classical Athens’ cultural and political heritage that took place at the Alexandrian court and, therefore, clarifying the ways in which one of the major Hellenistic monarchies responded to and refashioned templates stemming from the quintessentially democratic city-state lead us to provide an interdisciplinary reassessment of the impact of Athenian democratic traditions in multi-ethnic and multicultural societies [e.g. Johnson 1992]. From this standpoint, Ptolemaic Alexandria is a striking case in point, illuminating how post-Classical Greek identity developed when confronted with both known and new civilizations [cf. Momigliano 1975].

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