Comparing the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires in Freiburg

Currently, I am in Freiburg for a conference entitled Comparing the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires, because I’m keen on comparative history and keen to see the latest in Hellenistic research. For each topic there are two speakers; one Ptolemaicist and one Seleucidologist. It’s only day one (of three), but the standard has already been very high and my excitement has led to this blog post.


Alexandria (modern aerial photo) from

Capital cities was the topic of the first two speakers. Sitta von Reden opened, talking about Alexandria of Egypt and stressing the capital city as a “place and an idea,” defined by the city’s relationships to other things and by the relationships between its parts.  In particular, she pointed to its role as the point that linked the Ptolemaic dynasty to the legacy of Alexander the Great. She also stessed Alexandria and the royal palace in particular as a meeting point in which Greek, Cycladic, Egyptian etc elements were brought together under the king – using a pretty poem about a fountain of many different kinds of stone in Queen Arsinoe’s garden (P. Cairo 65445, 140-5). Alexandria was thus a statement about the Ptolemaic realm – a harmonious, prosperous, luxurious world empire in miniature for its supporters;1 a rebellious, decadent, and diseased mess to its detractors.


Von Reden had the problem of defining a “capital city” in the ancient world; Rolf Strootman who was discussing Seleucid capitals had the additional challenge of locating one, since the Seleucid kings were very mobile, with palaces in many cities, but no clear centre. Nevertheless, he identified three “royal cities”: Seleucia on the Tigris, Seleucia in Pieria, and Antioch,2 chosing to focus on the latter two. Stories about these focussed on links to mainland Greece and the Greek mythical past. These, he argued, were created as part of a continual competition with the Ptolemies, intended to make the Seleucid kingdom attractive to Greeks elsewhere – so that experts would join the royal court and Greek states would support the Seleucids rather than the Ptolemies and (later) the Romans. Seleucia in Pieria and Antioch were sea-side billboard advertisements for the power and prosperity of the Seleucid dynasty.


Louvre bust of Antiochos III (probably) from wiki

In the second section, Ralf von den Hoff performed double duty, dealing with the portraiture of both the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings. He was able to draw out the different traditions of depiction in each of the kingdoms: for the Ptolemies an abiding interest in Ptolemy I, a focus on luxury, wealth and relaxation (almost to the point of corpulence), and extensive use of divine imagery; for the Seleucids, a stress on the reigning king, usually presented as calm, detached and in control (almost morose). He demonstrated a close connection between depictions of the Ptolemies on coins and statues (down to the arrangement of the curls of the kings’ hair!) which led him to support the idea of an official model for depictions of the kings.3 He also argued that imitation of Alexander in Seleucid imagery was a two stage process, starting only very late under Antiochos IV (175-164) but intensifying only when the Seleucid empire descended into civil war and the rival claimants to the throne sought to establish their legitimacy by extravagant and ultimately unsubstantiated invocations of the world-conqueror.

The final two speakers looked at local contexts. Benjamin Wieland used inscriptions to investigate the autonomy of Cypriot cities under the Ptolemies. His point was that honorific inscriptions issued by the cities reveal and emphasise the existence of a civic sphere which was separate from the Ptolemaic king and his government, but simultaneously keen to demonstrate its co-operation with the king. His showpiece was SEG 57.1744, in which the city of Kourion demonstrates its agency by issuing an honorific decree for Kallikles of Alexandria, but honours him as a royal official, for his services to the king – the implication being that anything beneficial to the king is beneficial to the city.4 Discussion in question time centred on how impressive the autonomy thus presented really was; I think Wieland’s point in response was that the sustained public effort to present autonomy is significant in and of itself.5

Boris Chrubasik then stepped up with a paper on semi-autonomous priest-dynasts (the Teukrids of Olba, Korris of Labraunda, and the somewhat better known Maccabees of Jerusalem) and their surprising enthusiasm for memorialising their close personal connections to the Seleucid monarchy even as that monarchy destroyed itself in vicious civil war. He argued that the reason for this was that the priest-dynasts found the support of the king a useful tool in establishing their authority locally, against the competing claims of nearby cities and other claimants to their priestly office, just as they had since the beginning of the dynasty and saw no reason to stop just because the actual power of the king had declined.6 They still derived the benefits from a relationship with the king, it was simply that the king no longer got as much in return as he once had. The interesting thing with the dynamics described in both of these papers is that the epigraphic and historiographic evidence they leave behind seems to look much the same in situations were royal power was very strongly exerted and situations where it was non-existent.

Finally Dorothy Thompson presented a response to the preceding papers in which she noted the near absence of non-Greeks from the discussion thus far. I wonder if this is a result of the comparative exercise, which has been framed as an exercise in the comparison of apples and oranges,7 rather than of apples and motorised rocking-chairs. That is, since the comparison has been justified by the fact that the Seleucids and Ptolemies are similar and the most obviously similar points are the variations on their shared Greek heritage rather than their means of interacting with the very different non-Greek cultures under their control, speakers have ended up focussing on the former. But perhaps Thompson’s concerns will be met tomorrow.



1. I was reminded of Klaus Zimmermann’s chapter “Eratosthenes’ Chlamys-shaped world,” which argued that Eratosthenes’ claim the continents of the world are shaped like the military cape (chlamys) worn by the Ptolemaic kings is connected to ideas about the Ptolemies as world-rulers. Plutarch says that Alexandria too was shaped like a military cloak (Alex. 26.6).

2. The first two are so named in Babylonian and Greek sources.

3. This fits with the emphasis in epigraphic records of synods of Egyptian priests, like the Karnak Decree and Memhpis decree, on how the king should be depicted in statue form. Could this be connected to the idea of the twt ankh, which (apparently, per Kozloff 1996 in Alexandria and Alexandrianism) required a consistent individualistic depiction of the Pharaoh and thus a potential result of the Ptolemies’ engagement with the Pharaonic role?

4. I thought of Ben Raynor’s work on cities in Macedon and expect that the two of them would have very interesting and intelligent conversations.

5. One audience member made reference to the former Communist bloc – I think his point was that the form of the USSR’s interactions with, say, Hungary and Cuba were conducted as international relations in similar ways, but the reality of the two relationships were very different. But both had some independence and the idea that both were independent states was central to the USSR’s international presence.

6. David Barritt would presumably have thought of kings, bishops and Slavs looking to the Pope to legitimise their regimes despite (or even because of) the Popes’ lack of political power. I thought of Muslim dynasties claiming to rule in the name of Abbasid caliph in the ninth century CE and the Hekatomnids’ willingness to present themselves as Persian satraps.

7. Apples and Oranges — A Comparison


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