Comparing the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires (3)

The third and last day of Comparing the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires in Freiburg came to an end today. Fortunately, it looks like the comparison will be continued in the form of quite an important book, for which the organisers and speakers appear to have quite ambitious plans. This is entirely in keeping with the ambition which the speakers displayed in today’s papers.

Anne-Emmanuelle Veïsse and Sylvie Honigman started the day’s proceedings with a joint paper on disorder, revolts and riots. They argued that the different responses to and results of the Great Theban Revolt against the Ptolemies and the Maccabeean Revolt against the Seleucids reflect fundamental differences in the two dynasties’ approach to empire and willingess to countenance “indirect rule” over parts of their realms. The Ptolemies would never negotiate with terrorists; the Seleucids were willng to cut a deal so long as their overlordship was recognised. A related difference was seen in urban riots: the Alexandrians mostly rioted in protest to affronts to their monarchs; the Syrian cities rioted in order to overthrow theirs.1 All of this seemed to suggest that the Ptolemies had built a much strong dynastic consciousness and implanted that consciousness much more deeply in their subjects.


Seleucid “semi-autonomous” coin from Apamea with the date (ΓΞΡ = 163 SE = 149 BC)

Paul Kosmin and Ian Moyer compared Seleucid and Ptolemaic efforts to take control of conquer time itself. Kosmin, who has been working on Seleucid time since he finished with Seleucid space, opened. The Seleucids marked time using a continuous count of years, like our own Anno Domini system. They seem to have been the first people ever to do this. Kosmin argues that this year system (and a number of other things) marked out the foundation of the Seleucid empire in 311 BC (that is, the Seleucid Year One), as an entirely new era of human history. Everything after it was closely associated to the present, while the period before it was marked off as a coherent and completed past time, which might be idealised, escaped into, or ignored, but was definitively separated from the present. Time was presented as linear, not cyclical. To this innovation, he attributes a multitude of things: the invention of apocalyptic literature, the shift in Hebrew religious literature from prophecy to exegesis, and increased willingness to abandon traditions.

Ian Moyer’s task was to discuss whether the Ptolemies did anything similar with their own time. His paper examined calendar systems, the invention of the concept of the Egyptian “dynasty”, Egyptian numerology, the Demotic Chronicle, the Oracle of the Potter and more. In the process, he was able to identify some evidence concordant with Kosmin’s Seleucid findings, especially the marking off of the Ptolemies as a separate and novel age, but he also found this interacting with a much greater degree of cyclicalism, in which the reign of Pharaoh is repeated over and over again for ever. There was an awful lot in these two broadbrush papers, which essentially argue that the Ptolemies and Seleucids dramatically altered the way that people viewed their past and their present. The room clamoured with questions and lunch had to be delayed.

g4927rzThe final panel was two speakers on the nature of “politeumata” in Ptolemaic Egypt (with no comparison). Patrick Sänger outlined his reconstruction of what these are in light of the recently published collection of papyri from the Jewish politeuma of Herakleopolis.1 He makes them a group of people based in a given area (but not limited to it) defined by their ethnicity (Jewish, Idumaean, Phrygian, Boeotian, etc) and governed by elected officials who mirrored those of other Ptolemaic sub-divisions and had close links to the friends of the king. He identifies a military role as garrisons/reserve forces, but also an ideological one: the emphasis of Ptolemaic rule over a vast array of different peoples. Sänger was followed by Ole Johannsen, who discussed the meaning of the “ethnicity” of these politeumata, as a categorisation defined from outside and as a self-designation of the people in the group, in a theoretically rich paper.

John Ma was given the final word. His “Conclusions and Further Perspectives” ranged from Elephantine to Tenedos, from his youthful cycling adventures to the contemporary publications of Peter Thonemann. Six major terms requiring definition were identified.2 At one point he simplified things by offering a bullet point list of the major themes of the conference, which contained twenty two separate items. How do we take discourse seriously without being naive? Is it enough to put case studies next to each other and invite the audience/reader to draw conclusions (as many of the conference speakers did) or is it necessary for the speakers to identify the points of difference/similarity explicitly and attempt to explain them (as Corre & Clancier, Veisse & Honigman and to some extent Kosmin and Moyer did)? But his main question was why to compare at all – “what’s the pay-off?”

Then he dropped the mic and walked off stage.

Now it may be that the pay-off, in the promised book, will be in the form of more of the explanatory comparison. But for the moment, I think its worth saying that I, at least, have found the mere juxtaposition of Seleukid and Ptolemaic themes brightly enlightening. It has been very exciting to see people trying to construct broad generalisations about the kingdoms and to see people finding the questions raised by one empire relevant to the other (like the papers on ideas about time) and it was interesting also to see where the attempt to do this didn’t really work (as in the Pfeiffer-Klinkott papers). Christopher Tuplin, the eminent Achaemenid historian, has been in the audience and basically all of his questions have begun “when I think about this in the Achaemenid context…” and led to interesting Achaemenid places.3 I think that significant similarities and differences have been brought into focus. It has seemed to me, for instance, that the impact of the Egyptians on the Ptolemies and their state was far far greater than the influence of the Babylonians on the Seleucids, that the Ptolemies created a much stronger dynastic identity, and that the presence of the Seleucids on the local level was (apparently) much more irregular and extraordinary than the Ptolemies. A big question throughout the conference was whether the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms were in fact the same sort of thing at all – several times it was suggested that the former was an “empire” while the latter was a “state” (which possessed an empire at some points) without (as John Ma noted) ever defining these terms in detail. Given that studies of the Hellenistic have tended to lump the two together since at least the time of Bevan, these suggestions of fundamental difference seem welcome.

There are some issues, to be fair. We’ve repeatedly been reminded over the course of the three days just how different the evidence for the two realms is. When talking about settlement policy, Rachel Mairs emphasised the difficulty of determining whether Alexandria in the Caucasus and other cities ever even existed, while Christelle Fischer-Bovet casually mentioned the exact date on which Ptolemy IX refounded Elephantine. In some cases it is not at all clear whether the difference in the evidence is an accident of survival or a sign of significant difference – while it appeared clear that the Seleucid temple elites were less involved than their Egyptian counterparts in the political life of their communities and their kingdom, that picture might be significantly different if we had significant temple papyri from Babylonia rather than just cuneiform documents.


Philip V of Macedon: notable for his absence from the week’s proceedings.

A second problem is that, while the comparative exercise has drawn out lots of interesting contrasts between the two kingdoms, there isn’t all that much context for what those differences mean with only two data-points; it’s not just a matter of which of the two kingdoms is more weird; it is a matter of what needs special explanation. If the two kingdoms differ in their attitudes to rebellion, for instance, and one constructs an argument about the special factors leading to the Ptolemaic attitude, it may be a problem if that attitude turns out to be very similar to the Antigonid one: the theory should have been explaining the Seleucids. The decision to focus on just the Seleucids and Ptolemies in this conference probably reflects an effort to make the data manageable, but also reflects the tendency for the focus of Hellenistic studies to move ever further east and concentrate ever more on “Greek+” – the contexts in which Greek culture combines and interacts with the non-Greek. If this Greek+ is to be what unites the subject, though, I think it is essential to keep Hellenistic Greece4 in the mix. More efforts at sustained comparative work, like this conference, seem the best way to achieve this and the only way forward if the increasingly disparate study of the Hellenistic world is to be kept together.

1. P.Polit.Iud. (texts online at The image at right is from

2. Including, gratifyingly, “negotiation” which has often felt to me like a very empty term.

3. They have also tended to be statements.

4. Including Sicily, of course.


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