Portraits of a Pharaoh: The Sesostris Tradition in Ancient Literature and Culture

Yvona Trnka-Amrhein

  Trnka-Amrhein, Yvona. "Portraits of a Pharaoh: The Sesostris Tradition in Ancient Literature and Culture." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Trnka-AmrheinY.Portraits_of_a_Pharaoh.2020.



When Greeks and Romans thought about Pharaonic Egypt, they would have named Sesostris as the land’s most iconic ruler. From his first appearance in Herodotus’ Histories to his afterlife in Byzantine historians, the Sesostris character played the roles of world-conqueror and Egyptian culture hero in Greek and Roman texts. Yet, while the Sesostris character was a creation of legend, he was based on three pharaohs of the Egyptian 12th Dynasty (Middle Kingdom c. 2030-1650 BCE) who inspired a literature of their own. My project is to study the various strands of Sesostris-literature, from its origin in the 12th Dynasty to the end of the Byzantine period. Since the tradition found a home in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine cultures, it was fundamentally multi-cultural. As such, it provides an unusual opportunity to study how a tradition moved from one culture to another. Since the tradition arose from a historical moment and developed in a variety of later historical and political contexts, it also allows us to examine how the line between fiction and history was negotiated in different situations.

My book thus comprises a series of case studies that seek to make interventions on key questions of inter-cultural interaction in the ancient world as well as the fictionalization and reception of history in the ancient world. In Chapter 1, I examine how the history and literature of the 12th Dynasty was received in later periods of Egyptian culture, especially the late period (beginning around 664 BCE). Chapter 2 considers how Egyptian historical texts were received by Greek and Roman historians such as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Tacitus. Chapters 3 and 4 explore how Sesostris is used in Ptolemaic Egyptian foundation narratives. I suggest that Sesostris can be used as an index to understand when Greek or Egyptian elements were deemed appropriate or useful in the multi-cultural society of Hellenistic Egypt and explore how the patterns of Greek foundation narratives were fused with Egyptian traditions of using the past to explain the present. In Chapter 5, I ask why messianic prophecies that were relevant to the specific politics of the Ptolemaic period were still being copied and read in Roman Imperial Egypt. I suggest that the presence of Sesostris in both the prophetic tradition and the “ruler novel” allows us to see how hopes for the return of Egyptian savior kings were constructed through narratives that activated ideas current in the magical tradition. Finally, I turn to Byzantine historians’ interest in Sesostris as a redeemed tyrant and as a character in The Alexander Romance. I use Sesostris as a case study to explore the Byzantine understanding of “ancient” history and further analyze the preference of Byzantine texts for more novelistic accounts of figures like Alexander and Sesostris that has been identified by other scholars. Throughout, my book considers how writing about Egyptian history was received in later periods, both within Egypt’s developing culture and between Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine cultures.

During my time at CHS I worked on the Hellenistic Sesostris tradition and its reception in the Roman imperial period. I used Sesostris to think through the range of strategies available for the production of Ptolemaic foundation stories: Greek, Egyptian, or Greco-Egyptian. I consider these categories from the perspective of both content and literary form, arguing that city foundation narratives are a particularly Greek import. While Egyptian literature has many accounts of the foundations of buildings and institutions, cities are eternal. Accounts of city foundation show that something is wrong in Egypt, for example Manetho’s account of the Hyksos foundation of Avaris. The story of Sesostris’ foundation of Colchis, as created by Herodotus, as well as the model of the traveling colonist, were, however, taken up in Ptolemaic Egypt with enthusiasm, as it helped Ptolemaic claims of cultural and political imperialism. This use of the Sesostris legend is particularly Greek-leaning. This can be helpfully contrasted with the role played by Sesostris in the fourth hymn by Isidorus of Narmouthis, inscribed on the gates of the local Isis temple. The poem lauds the temple’s founder, Sesostris’ son, and here it is Sesostris’ role as Egyptian pharaoh which augments his son’s status as an ideal builder-king. It is possible that Isidorus was drawing on Egyptian tradition for his hymn. This thus represents a more Egyptian-leaning foundation myth.

Sesostris is particularly useful for this inquiry since he existed in both Greek and Egyptian traditions before the Hellenistic period. There was a Greek Sesostris as (apparently) first instantiated by Herodotus and an Egyptian Sesostris who lived in the Egyptian literary and cultural tradition. While they were essentially the same figure and Herodotus likely derived his picture of Sesostris from Egyptian sources to some extent, the Greek and Egyptian Sesostris figures had separate lives within Greek and Egyptian cultures as Herodotus’ Egyptian pharaoh was received by the Greek tradition and the Egyptian tradition continued to develop on its own paths. Thus, for residents of the Ptolemaic Empire, Sesostris was available as a truly multi-cultural figure from the beginning. He was at home in Egyptian, Greek, and Greco-Egyptian culture, and no covert “double readings” were necessary when he appeared in a text. The Sesostris character was also a natural starting point around which new Greco-Egyptian forms could develop.

I argue that a Greco-Egyptian foundation story featuring Sesostris was produced in the early Ptolemaic period for the Alexandrian Serapis cult. I suggest that the Sesostris character allows us to piece together this story from the parts that have been transmitted in different ways by Tacitus, Plutarch, Clement of Alexandria, and The Alexander Romance. All of these sources date to the Roman imperial period, and I believe that this is a fundamental element in their reception of the Serapis cult foundation story. I suggest that Tacitus and Plutarch in particular (or the tradition they followed) removed the more Egyptian-leaning content from an original Sesostris-Serapis foundation story in order to make it less-Egyptian and thus more suitable as the foundation story for a popular Mediterranean cult. Clement and The Alexander Romance, as texts representing voices outside of the political and cultural center, preserved more Egyptian elements, such as Sesostris, and thus allow a different side of a potential Ptolemaic foundation myth to survive.

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