D'nasty Family Affair: Peculiar Ptolemaic Pharaohs
The ancient Egyptians are one of the most fascinating human civilizations. Their unique archetypal culture dazzles all who encounter it. A fun way to get immersed into the sands of ancient Egyptian life is by reading books that cover historical accounts and fictional tales. Some of my favorite novels are female reiterations of significate historical Egyptian women. Pictured below are three books on prominent female leaders from various Egyptian dynasties.
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Ancient "Egyptian" Female Leaders
(18th Dynasty) 1478/9 – 1458 BC
by Kara Cooney
(18th Dynasty) 1370 – 1330 BC
(Ptolemaic Dynasty) 51 – 30 BC
Cleopatra: A Life
by Stacy Schiff
We associate Cleopatra as an iconic Egyptian figure but to be completely transparent she is technically not a traditional "Egyptian" ruler. To be more specific she was a descendent of a Macedonian Greek royal dynasty which ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Ancient Egypt. The reign of Cleopatra VII signified the end of the Hellenic Era while also ushering in the start of a Roman Empire. This was a distinguished time in history that saw massive change to power and culture. Let's dive deeper into the dynasty that brought the end to ancient Greek and Egyptian power.
The Hellenistic period is outlined by two major military conquests that start and ended this unique era in antiquity. The conquest that launched the Hellenistic period was the Macedonian invasion of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great. This conquest was deliberate and was executed in a rapid manner by the ingenious leadership of the young Alexander the Great (334-323BC). Alexander left behind a legacy that was praised and worshipped throughout the Hellenistic world. This Greco-Macedonian era came to an end in 30 BC by the Roman takeover of the Hellenistic world. The Romans conquest was long-drawn; it started in the late 3rd century and ended in 30 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty overthrow at the battle of Actium. This was a battle fought between the last Egyptian Pharaoh / Ptolemaic monarch Cleopatra VII and Julius Caesars nephew Octavian. Since the conception of the Hellenistic period, the social dynamic has been a “succession of empires”. After the death of Alexander, his empire was divided into several dynasties. They were fragmented amongst elite members who were Alexanders war comrades. The three most notable dynasties were the Antigonids, Seleucids and Ptolemies. This blog entry will focus on the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled the region of Egypt and were the inhabitants of one of antiquates most renowned cities; Alexandria. Alexandria by the mid third century B.C. was the greatest city in the Greek world. In Stacy Schiff’s novel Cleopatra: A Life, she supports Bells claim of Alexandria being the greatest city in the Greek world and she compares the atmosphere of ancient Alexandria to that of modern day Paris.
Alexandria was a diverse city whose inhabitants consisted of multiple cultural groups from the Hellenistic world: Macedonians, Greeks, Egyptians, Phrygians and Jews.  These divergent cultures lived amongst each other but did not merge into one dominate hybrid culture. Johnson states that the Greek and Egyptians coexisted and had superficial influence on one another. The events of the years following the death of Alexander were inspired by his legacy and the Ptolemies claimed him as part of their foundation and source to their divine status. The Hellenistic monarchs had their own idiosyncratic styles but the Ptolemies differentiated amongst all other monarchs of their time; this is due to their approach on divine kingship. The objective of this blog is to identify the Ptolemies success in changing the nature of divine kingship in the ancient world through persuasion in ancestral pride and power.
The persuasion tactics the Ptolemies used was a common practice in other Hellenistic kingdoms. Pàmias identifies the persuasion tactics used by royal Hellenistic authorities as forms of “ideological propaganda” for legitimization of dominion over non-Greek populations. These tactics would be performed through the validation of divine association, cultural investment, and processions. Alexander the Great was a trend setter for majority of the Hellenistic practices. Since Alexander underwent a divinization, other monarchies shadowed with similar divine honors. Ptolemies established cults to honor individual monarchs along with dynastic cults in homage to the ancestors and present living kings. Along with shadowing Alexander, the Ptolemies of Egypt also constituted Alexander as the founder of their dynasty. This is a form of legitimization for the Ptolemaic subjects to worship them as living gods; since the ruling monarchs are affiliated with Alexander. The Ptolemies made their ancestral pride stem from Alexander the Great and adopted specific aspects of his life to bridge more connections to the god-like man and legitimize Ptolemaic motives. An example of a specific aspect of Alexanders life that the Ptolemies adopted was the worship Dionysus. Dionysus has significant meaning to Alexander. The Ptolemies adoption of Dionysian worship influenced their future behaviours and beliefs. The Ptolemies claimed ancestry to the Dionysus to help solidify their connection with Alexander the Great. Alexander was identified as the “New Dionysus”. Alexander has ancestral roots that stem from the divine grape vines of Dionysus. Dionysus is the main god of the Northern Aegean area and Macedonia; it is also rumored that Olympias (Alexanders mother) was once caught in bed with a serpent (Dionysus) by Philip.
This claim would spark the rumor that Alexander was the son of the god and prompt the Ptolemies in wanting to shape a conniving connection to the god in order to inflate the Ptolemaic family pride. Based off the Ptolemies geographic location they had to ensure that everyone understood their significance and importance in society. In Hdt. 2.42 he states that “for no gods are worshipped by all Egyptians in common except Isis and Osiris, who they say is Dionysus”. The other non-Greek inhabitants could still relate to the Ptolemy propaganda and symbolism. The Ptolemy’s invested money in ensuring that Alexander was preserved and praised throughout their kingdom. A coin minted by Ptolemy for Alexander is adorned with ivy-wreath which in Greek iconography characterises Dionysus. The Ptolemies also staged a procession in honor of Ptolemy I along with boosting the worship of Dionysus adventures in India which emulated the conquest of Alexander the Great. These public displays of propaganda in the form of celebration aided the populous minds in believing that their monarchs where from a divine ancestry. The procession also put emphasises the Ptolemaic association with Alexander the Great. This procession was not only for legitimization of their connection to the god and Alexander but was also a display of the kingdom’s wealth and ambitions of Ptolemaic rule. The Ptolemies are not known for being humble; one could attribute their opulence and behaviour to the characteristics of Dionysus. From Ptolemy I procession in the early third century to Cleopatra VII luxurious boat cruise with Julius Caesar to display Egypt’s wealth in 47 BC, the Ptolemies did not hide their proud hubris. The dynastic propaganda that the Ptolemies displayed accentuated euergetism (doing good deeds) through their generosity and beneficence. The Ptolemies were proud of their wealth and put in extreme efforts to flaunt it.
(Tap image to learn more about Ptolemaic coinage)
When one looks at their coinage it displays their obesity from living a lavish life style. They would associate themselves with symbols that are intended to display wealth, for example the Ptolemaic cornucopia symbolizes abundance and wealth. The Ptolemies ensured that everyone knew of their wealth and reaped the benefits of their fertile land. Some may say that they enjoyed their luxurious life too much and Polybius (5.34) denounced their decadence and hubris as the catalyst to their ruin. No other monarch in the Hellenistic world exhibited their wealth like the Ptolemies; their hubristic attitude on their ancestry and Dionysiac lifestyle of wealth are factors in why they revolutionized the nature of divine kingship.
The sole purpose of propaganda is to gain manipulative power over people; the Ptolemies conducted a convincing exhibition for subjects to believe in the divine kingship. The Ptolemies lived like gods, indulging in the luxuries of an elite life. The lineage to Alexander and Dionysus was not enough for the Ptolemies to guarantee a divine title, they went one step further. The unique manner that separates the Ptolemies from the rest of Hellenistic world is the practice of incest. Incest was viewed as taboo and was not accepted by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks viewed this an impure, defiling and repugnant towards the gods. There was no Greek term at the time for incest, so it would be referred to as “gamos asebês” which translates to impious marriage. The Ptolemies link the inter-family marriages to that of the gods. In a poem by Theokritos’ Idyll 17, he compares the sibling loving marriage of Ptolemy and Arsinoë to that of Zeus and Hera. Although it is linked to the most respected gods of the Greek pantheon, people still did not approve of this practice. One can say that the Ptolemies took the “divine kingship” title too far. The Ptolemies embodied all aspects of divinity, all the way down to the incest. They took their self image seriously; if people spoke in poor nature of their actions, then like the gods they would inflict punishment upon the slanderous accusers. An example of Ptolemaic divine justice and power is when a poet by the name of Sotades wrote an ill mannerly comedic blurb on the taboo marriage. The poet stated to the Ptolemies that “you’re shoving your prick into an unholy hole”. The Ptolemies took self-image very seriously and hunted Sotades down. Once found they put the poet into a jar (possibly an amphora) and threw him into the ocean to sleep with Poseidon's fishes. To have absolute power in their kingdom, the Ptolemies did not tolerate distortion of self-image. The royal family of Alexandria revered themselves as “special” people who do not behave in a mundane or common manner.
This was part of their rationality to practice incest, it was the practice of gods and they were the living embodiment of divinity on earth. Incest harbored a special power that only gods could partake in and the Ptolemies were considered gods of their time, so they followed the notions of the divine. This taboo Ptolemaic practiced, possessed a notion of powerful creativity that breached the boundaries between civilization and chaotic forces. Incest channeled the cosmic drama of the gods, which is a form of absolute power. Up until Ptolemy V, all predeceasing Ptolemaic kings did not identify themselves directly as gods but Ptolemy V changed the dynasty with his egyptianization of royal identity. He is the first of the Ptolemies to identify as an Egyptian character and document the establishment of a new Greco-Egyptian culture. The native Egyptian population was growing during the reign of Ptolemy V and to gain their support he adopted the Egyptian customs and addressed himself a Pharaoh. Now the Ptolemies not only have ancestry to the Greek pantheon of gods and Alexander the Great, they expanded their divinity to a new assemblage of primordial beings. Ptolemies began to add new family tree branches to tie their lineage to the Egyptian pantheon of gods.
In Egyptian culture the Pharaoh was the living embodiment of Horus and when he died, he would become Osiris. The Ptolemies were finding new innovative ways to legitimize divine status in the Hellenistic world. Of all Ptolemies who ruled in their 300-year reign, only Cleopatra VII the last of Ptolemies was the first to learn Egyptian. Cleopatra VII was the perfect ending to dynasty as sumptuous as the Ptolemies. Not only was she a force to recon with but she performed the best amongst all Ptolemies in her nature of divine kingship in the ancient world through persuasion in ancestral pride and power. Cleopatra VII ensured that she knew the native languages and more. She erected temples in honor to her father and children in relation to Egyptian gods. Everything she did related to divinity in some manner, whether she was relating Julius Caesar to Osiris and their son Caesarion to Horus or being deemed the living embodiment of Aphrodite/Isis along side her second Roman lover Mark Anthony as the New Dionysus. Cleopatra VII did what no other Ptolemy accomplished, she immortalized herself in society without the practice of taboo incest or the over use of hubris.
The Ptolemies subtly used propaganda to link their ancestry to Alexander the Great and gods like Dionysus, Isis, Osiris, Horus, Zeus and Hera. As the years passed the Ptolemies evolved as their kingdom transformed, like Ptolemy V egyptization of the royal family. Every king had a different self-perception which altered the way they wanted to view themselves as divine status. We have identified that the Hellenistic monarchs of the Ptolemaic dynasty had their own idiosyncratic styles. The Ptolemies differentiated from other monarchs due to their taboo approach on divine kingship. The Ptolemies successfully changed the nature of divine kingship in the ancient world through their propaganda in legitimizing their lineage to gods and Alexander the Great. The practiced impermissible marriage methods only suitable for the gods, along with the establishing of a new Greco-Egyptian culture. The Ptolemies where able to captivate the ancient world and changed the concept of divine kingship with there luxurious lifestyle and opulent pride.
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