Comparing the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires in Freiburg (2)

The second day of Comparing the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires in Freiburg continued the standards of the first day.


Edfu Temple

First up were Gilles Gorre and Philippe Clancier delivering a joint paper. Their question: if there were temple elites with significant local political power in both Egypt and Babylonia at the start of the Hellenistic period, how did their fates differ? Their answer: both kingdoms initially integrated temple elites into their administration. In Babylonia, however, the Seleucids eventually stripped the temples of their local political role in favour of Greek-style civic structures, leaving the temple with only a religious role. In Egypt, this did not happen; on the contrary, the political role of the temple elites grew more and more institutionalised. Corre and Clancier argued that this difference resulted from the different relationships between temple and community in Egypt and Babylonia. In Babylonia, the temple priests were a closed elite – people outside the priestly class (such as the newly rich and the non-Babylonians) were shut out and therefore did not benefit from close relations between king and priest.1 In Egypt, there was apparently much more space for the regular people within the temple and a much greater willingness to incorporate new local elites into the temple priesthood. In other words, the Egyptian temples had deeper, more flexible roots in their communities. I wondered whether the apparently much tighter links between Egyptian temples also had a part to play in this dynamic.

In the second panel, on settlement policy, Rachel Mairs led off with a tour through the “Hellenistic Far East” (Afghanistan and central Asia), guided by the question of what evidence would be sufficient to identify a Seleucid settlement in a world where little excavation has taken place, continuity of settlement is the rule, and literary evidence is a couple of confused notes in late Greek and Latin sources. A new settlement might be established within the ruined walls of an older settlement (as at Samarkhand) and were it not for particularly good pottery evidence, we would never know. Mairs concluded with an interesting point: the creation and maintenance of these settlements required sustained effort from the Seleucid kings and a few short-lived attempts under the first two kings they just weren’t willing or weren’t able to make that effort.


Christelle Fischer-Bovet spoke about settlement in what she dubbed the “Hellenistic Far South”: Upper Egypt, Nubia, and the Red Sea. She says that, although the Ptolemies engaged in the same policy of Greek city foundation as the Seleucids in other areas (e.g. Cilicia), in Egypt the distinction between the city as political community (polis) and the city as urban conglomeration (astu) was very fuzzy – both were dmj to the Egyptians. Slowly, the Ptolemies and the Egyptians reinvented the concept of city foundation for their own purposes, with priests and officials framing their urban renewal projects as city foundations and Ptolemy IX declaring renovations to the temple at Elephantine to be a refoundation of the city. Question time was entirely derailed when a prominent academic responded to this paper with “I have one word for you: elephants.”2

After a difficult lunch in which my order of “Bitte, ein… tofu, keine fleisch, keine fleisch” turned into a plate of beef, the conference retrned to priests and their efforts to pretend that their Macedonian kings, who spoke only Greek, lived in Greek cities, and mostly employed Greeks as officials were totally authentic Pharaohs/Sharru.

205px-rosetta_stoneStefan Pfeiffer took up Egypt, using the priestly decrees on the Canopus decree and the Rosetta stone to investigate how priests papered over the Ptolemaic kings’ failures to live up to the superhuman Pharaonic model. His first case was the failure of Ptolemy III to avert famine – a sign that the gods had withdrawn their favour. The priests took advantage of the situation to get grants of land and new temples from the king. In return they praised him effusively for buying in grain to alieviate the famine from overseas, “at a rather expensive rate.” By providing food directly, they declared, Ptolemy had superceded the Nile itself and therefore deserved cult. A second problem was the Ptolemies ongoing war with the Upper Egyptian rebels, which was the opposite of the smiting of foreign enemies which was meant to be Pharaoh’s favourite pastime. The priests declared that this was ok, that the rebels were impious agents of Set and that Ptolemy was Horus and therefore deserved cult. So the (Memphite) priests were playing about with tradition in order to ensure that it always ended up favouring the king. It wasn’t clear who they were going to all this effort for: the populus? the gods? their own guilty consciences?

Hilmar Klinkott asked whether it was possible to see the same process in Seleucid Babylonia, using the Borsippa Cylinder, the Astronomical Diaries and some other cuneiform texts. He found quite a few examples of the Seleucids playing the Babylonian king, but the evidence is nowhere near as full as the Egyptian context. There is a question, I think, about the degree to which the Babylonians (who had not had a king for a century and a half before Alexander the Great) had a very clear idea of the role a proper Babylonian king ought to play in their day to day lives and their foundational ideas about the universe. It is striking that the Seleucid kings’ Babylonian kingly acts seem to be limited to participation in very important ceremonies like the re-foundation of temples and the New Year festival.

Peter Eich finished the day by offering Roman Asia Minor as a potential object of comparative study when trying to think abut the relations between empires and local elites. His central point was the variety of different experiences of different elites and the many different ad hoc causes of imperial interventions in the local sphere. This was a well-made point, but I found his absolute refusal to generalise a bit disappointing. Focussing on the particular local interactions in Sagalassos provides excellent evidence for one local response to imperial power, but at least sometimes, I want to be able to compare different imperial powers’ overall approaches to the local.

I should also mention that Freiburg is stunningly beautiful; as I discovered after the end of the business when I accidentally climbed up a small wooded mountain to a two hundred year old Badenisch fortress while looking for a cash machine. Here’s a picture from the spot I ended up by, taken by someone else, who was sensible enough to bring a camera with them to Germany:


It’s pretty nice, but it needs a cash machine

1. Does this explanation also work to explain the disorder in Jerusalem leading up to the Maccabean Revolt?

2. I’m certainly not one to talk since I never seem to manage to ask a question that gets the kind of answer I’m expecting, but I’ve seen the “I’ve got one word for you…” question a number of times now and it never fails to completely flummox everyone. Don’t do it.


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