Of all of the cities of the ancient world, none fires the imagination more than the city of Alexandria. This Egyptian city was the capital of cunningly ruthless and occasionally sexually perverse rulers, and the site of architectural marvels such as the Pharos Lighthouse, which the ancients ranked among their Seven Wonders. The birthplace of library science, philosophical exegeses, and early Christianity, Alexandria and her citizens laid and developed the cultural norms that defined the foundation of Western Civilization.
In order to understand the Queen of the Mediter-ranean Sea, it is necessary to travel back in time across the centuries to Egypt’s Dynasty XXVI (664-525 BCE), the epoch of the so-called Saite Renaissance. At that time the city-states of ancient Greece were reaping the benefits of the efforts of earlier generations of Hellenic merchant marines and navies whose ships had searched for both raw materials and suitable areas to colonize. Enthralled by what they had encountered in their trav-els, and captivated by the antiquity of Egypt and the splendor of her monuments, these Greeks of the Archaic Period began to imitate pharaonic norms at home. So it was, for example, that tyrants such as Polycrates of Samos, erected yet another huge peripteral temple in the sacred precinct of his patron goddess Hera. This temple’s lofty forest of columns was a Samian interpretation of such colonnaded halls as those found in the enormous pharaonic complex at Karnak. The huge kouros, or standing nude male statue, recently discovered on Samos, was likewise a Hellenic emulation of the colos-sal statues the ancient Egyptians had perennially erected in front of their temples’ pyla, or gateways. The Egyptians, for their part, looked askance at these entrepreneurial Greeks. They feared their military forces, but admired their mercantile skills. In order, therefore, to monitor their activity, the pharaohs of the Saite Period relegated the activities of all Greeks to the Delta city of Naucratis. This sequestering of the Greeks in a bustling entrepot did not prevent the ancient Egyptians themselves from admiring aspects of Greek culture. The remarkable figure of a lion felling a cervid [see below, fig. 1] (in Vienna) is a Saite reinterpretation of the theme of the lion triumphing over a bull. This scene figures prominently in the subject matter of contemporary Greece’s poros pediments, particularly those from Athens. The peaceful co-existence of Egypt, and the Greek city-states which fostered such cultural exchanges, was soon shattered by the imperialistic aspirations of an emerging Persia as Cambyses, King of Kings, invad-ed and conquered Egypt in 525 BCE. Darius I, his suc-cessor, gained control of the Ionian coast, over which the Samians had earlier exercised a degree of control, and turned his attention to the Greek mainland. His campaigns against the Greeks are the subject of base betrayal and heroic triumph and need not be rehearsed here, save to mention that the glorious Athenian-led Hellenic forces at Marathon in 490 BCE so eroded Persia’s military standing that the Egyptians were soon after able to revolt and gain their independence. The geo-political stage had now been set as Greek and Egyptian alike regarded the Persian as a mortal enemy.
Alexander, the Conqueror
The history of the fourth century BCE.may, therefore, be regarded in terms of the complex military and political dialectics that charac-terized the foreign policies not only of the Greek city-states, but also of Egypt and Persia. Taking advantage of the Greek city-states’ weakened military, which was brought about in no small part by the devastating effects of the internecine Peloponnesian Wars, the Hellenes stood by hopelessly, watching a resurgent Persian Empire rebuild. Meanwhile, Egypt enjoyed a period of independence and prosperity during Dynasty XXX under their last native pharaoh, Nectanebo ” (360-342 BCE) [po 7, fig. 2]. That independence was short-lived, for in 342 BCE Artaterxes III re-conquered Egypt to add to his ever-expanding list of satrapies, or provinces. Persian intervention in the Greek mainland was a very real possibility.
It was into this world that Philip 11, the Hellenic king of Greek Macedonia, was born. Bold, brash, and brave, Philip ” succeeded in doing what no other Greek before him had been able to achieve. By means of a brilliant reorganization of tac-tics and armaments, Philip eventually defeated virtually each Greek city-state in turn. His son Alexander’s (356-323 BCE) own life and military career were to change the face of the ancient world forever. Bolder and brasher than Philip 11, and so confident in his abilities as a general and warrior that he often led his men into battle at the head of a charge without wearing a helmet [po 7, fig. 3], Alexander in battle always seemed to be divinely protected from death.
The assassination of Philip II at his capital of Aegae, as he walked to the theater on the morning of his daughter’s marriage, catapulted Alexander onto the Macedonian throne. Alexander wasted no time in mustering his forces and, after performing solemn rites and obligatory prayers at the city of Dion, marched against the Persians. Landing in Asia Minor he waged one battle after another, marching and conquering. No force could withstand his advance. After having defeated the Persians at the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE, Alexander allowed the Persians in retreat to escape without immediately pursuing their forces. He turned his attention instead to the south, knowing full well that if he could secure the entire coast of the Eastern Mediterranean from the Black Sea to Egypt, he would deprive the Persians of lumber and wheat, thereby eroding their ability to offer serious resistance to his superior Macedonian troops. After overcoming the tenacious forces of the city of Tyre, Alexander was able to march into Egypt with-out loosing an arrow. There are indications that he had already concluded a secret pact with the Per-sian governor, whereby in exchange for handing over the country to the Hellene, he would be free to enjoy the life style to which he, as governor of one of Persia’s richest satraps, had become accustomed. Alexander entered Egypt in triumph. He celebrat-ed the ancient rituals associated with the sacred Apis bull at Memphis but, more importantly, studied the geography of his empire. He desired to create a port, far removed from the Persian sphere of influence, yet in proximity to the harbors of the Greek city-states. To that end, he purposefully founded Alexandria in 332/331 BCE at the extreme western boundary of his realm, with the intention that it would replace Naucratis as Egypt’s maritime port. The city was laid out in a grid pattern with streets intersect-ing wide boulevards at right angles. Its perimeter was shaped like a Macedonian cloak to emphasize its Greek, as opposed to pharaonic, character. And in fact, so Greek in nature was Alexandria to become that during the Roman Imperial Period the city was known as Alexandria CE Aegyptum (Alexandria bordering upon Egypt). Alexander also embarked on a perilous pilgrimage over the trackless desert sands to visit the Temple of Amun in the remote oasis of Siwa. There he was hailed as the son of Amun. A coin with the image of Alexander the Great on its obverse [fig. 4 on this page], minted posthumously, depicts the Hellene with an elephant headdress to which had been added ram’s horns of Amun. Although he might be regarded with respect by the Hellenes as the son of Zeus, that god held no political currency among the peoples of the East over whom Alexander was now ruling. In order to gain legitimacy in their eyes, he had to position himself as the scion of a venerable deity, and Amun, the state god of Egypt, fit the bill perfectly. Alexander then departed Egypt in order to pursue his campaigns against the Persians. Alexander died of fever with attendant complica-tions at Babylon on the banks of the Euphrates River, and his body was mummified in accordance with Egyptian traditions. As his generals vied with one another for control of his vast empire, Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, himself a Macedonian Greek, arrest-ed the funeral cortege en route to Greece and diverted the mortal remains of Alexander, under armed guard, to Egypt. There they were first interred in a tomb at Memphis before being reverentially exhumed and transferred to a mausoleum in Alexandria. That tomb, the Sema, which every ancient source explicitly states was located in this city, may yet remain somewhere under the streets or basements of Alexandria, waiting to be discovered. Ptolemy ruled Egypt first as regent for successive members of Alexander’s immediate family, but ultimately declared himself pharaoh in 305/4 BCE, thereby inaugurating the Ptolemaic dynasty, named in his honor. His descen-dants were to rule Egypt until the death by suicide of his last blood descendant, Cleopatra the Great.
The Ancient Egyptian Heritage
The Egypt ruled by the Macedonian Greek Ptolemies has been aptly described as consisting of two societies -the native Egyptian and the immigrant Greek. Because the Ptolemies wished to be perceived as the legitimate successors of the pharaohs of old, they curried favor with local priests by funding the erection of their temples; these had become enclaves for the perpetuation of traditionally Egyptian works of art. So successful were the Ptolemies in this regard that, to an un-trained eye, there appears to be little if any difference between the art created during the fourth century BCE before the arrival of Alexander the Great’ into Egypt, and that created in the years following Ptolemy’s declaration of becoming pharaoh. Practically imperceptible differences can be ap-preciated by comparing a sandstone temple relief created during the reign of Nectanebo 11 [below, fig. 5] to a second inscribed for Ptolemy VIII Euergetes 11 and his consort, Cleopatra II [po 10, fig. 6]. One notices in both reliefs how the artists have adhered to the typical ancient Egyptian canon for the depic-tion of the human body, which relies on rotated planes in order to achieve visual clarity. To that end, the faces of all the figures are shown in profile, whereas the eyes are rendered frontally. The pro-truding chin is a characteristic of this particular canon. The same schema have been applied to the rendering of the torsos and feet. Although there have been some scholars who would attribute the perceived corpulence of the female figures in these two representations to Greek influence, the true artis-tic antecedents for such full-figured women, which can only be described as an ancient Egyptian ideal of feminine beauty, are to be found, for example, in the statues of the Ramesside Period of Dynasty XIX. These characteristics of the female figure are most observable in the statues of Queen Nofertari that decorate the Lesser Temple at Abu Simbel. What betrays the hand of the ancient Egyptian artist is the horizontal position of the exposed breast, which does not respond to the forces of gravity in the way that breasts on contemporary Hellenistic Greek sculp-tures do, as well as the extraordinarily long length of the arm. Such long, disarticulated limbs into which biceps, elbows, and wrists coalesce into one mini-mally rendered cylindrical form are characteristics of ancient Egyptian art of all periods. It is precisely this love of minimal ism and styliza-tion that impels many collectors of modern art to collect at least a few examples of ancient Egyptian art. The aesthetics of modern and ancient Egyptian are in many ways complimentary. As this discussion reveals, ancient Egyptian art during the Ptolemaic Period remained impervious to Hellenistic Greek influences.
Temples and Cults
Priesthoods of the pharaonic cults served in temples such as those at Dendera and Edfu. These temples are unanimously regarded by Egyptologists as being the best preserved temples. Their members were responsible for maintaining the traditional Egyptian cults throughout the Ptolemaic period, as they continued to perform millennia-old rituals in honor of the Nile Valley’s myriad deities, many of whom were often worshipped in animal form, as a stele from Armant reveals [po 11, fig. 7]. Despite their posturing as pharaohs, and their funding of and depiction participating in rituals associated with animal cults, the Ptolemies as Greeks and the Romans after them were appalled by such zooalatry [po 10, fig. 8]. In an effort, therefore, to maintain their cultural identity, the ancient Egyptians of the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods did all in their power to foster and maintain such cults.
Despite their repugnance for these deities in animal form, the Hellenes in Alexandria and in other Greek enclaves within Egypt proper were as infatuated with other cultural aspects of ancient Egypt as were their forebearers of the Archaic Period. This is nowhere more evident than in their adoption and adaptation of many outward forms of Egypt’s culturallegacy, particularly in the sphere of religion, as revealed by a discussion of the god Serapis. When Alexander the Great arrived at Rhakotis, the fishing village on which the city of Alexandria was eventually to rise, he found the inhabitants worshipping a composite deity whose name the Greeks pronounced as Serapis. Under the early Ptolemies, worship of Serapis was fostered because his cult combined features of death and resurrection common to the Greek god Hades and the Egyptian Osiris. As a result, the Greek artists in Alexandriawere given the task of creating a cult image of this newly embraced deity. The task was accomplished, it is traditionally maintained, by Bryaxis, whose cult statue of the god is evoked in the illustration [below, fig. 9]. Despite the emphasis given to his cult by the Ptolemies, Serapis never gained favor with the Egyptians, but his cult was extremely popular during the Roman Period when temples to Serapis in lands out side of Egypt were often the largest religious buildings in their respective cities. In the sphere of religion, the deceased Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt were often posthumously associat ed by their successors with Egyptian deities. The most famous of these associations revolved around the person of Arsinoe 11, one of history’s unsung heroines who could serve as a role model for the women’s movement [po 12, fig. 10]. Realizing that she could not accede to the throne of Egypt because the heir was her older brother, Ptolemy 11, Arsinoe embarked upon a remarkable career, acquiring wealth and lands as a result of the deaths of a series of successive husbands (in which she had no part). In the end she returned to Egypt, wealthy and wise, and forced her brother to repudiate his wife in order to marry her. Scandalmongers notwithstanding, this consanguineous marriage appears to have been asexual because it produced no issue, but it did solidify the prestige, power, and wealth of the Ptolemaic dynasty. So grateful was he to his sister that Ptolemy 11 inaugurated a cult which celebrated her divinity while Arsinoe 11 was still alive. The divine Arsinoe is depicted in the guise of an Egyptian goddess in many of her relief representations. The adherence to traditional religious practices by members of the Egyptian priesthood, and the construction and funding of traditional temples by the Ptolemies, helped to maintain the predominately agrarian way of life for the chiefly agrarian population of Egypt. Thereby, the work and wealth of the Egyptian people was principally channeled into Alexandria for the benefit of the Ptolemies and their Greek subjects.
The New Athens of the Ptolemies
Life in Alexandria during the Ptolemaic Period revolved around trade flowing into and out of the double harbor for which the Pharos, or Lighthouse, served as a beacon. The Ptolemies used part of their funds to enhance the city architecturally, as can be seen in the construction of the new Sema, in which not only the mortal remains of Alexander the Great but also of those the Ptolemies were enshrined. These moneys also funded activities in the Palace and were spent on both the Library and Mouseion, a think tank in which the leading scholars, philosophers, scientists, physicians, men of letters, and perhaps even artists were maintained at state expense in order to pursue their respective academic or artistic interests.
Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth with amazing accuracy, as Alexandrian physicians pioneered cardiology by correctly identifying the role of the heart in the body’s circulatory system and correlating its beats in a healthy person to harmonic, musical melodies and erratic beats with cacophony. Science was placed into the service of art as the astronomer Conon discovered a new star in the heavens which was immediately associated with a lock of hair belonging to the Ptolemaic queen Berenice II [po 13, fig. 11], all the strands of which were immediately woven into a masterful poem by the court poet Callimachus.
Such philanthropy is an expression of one facet of the character the Greek god Dionysos [po 13, fig. 12], whose cult remained popular in Alexandria until the end of the Roman Imperial Period. The reason for its popularity can be attributed to the fact that Dionysos came to represent luxury for the ancients, and excess. But excessive lUxury was a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it allowed the Ptolemies to be excessively generous in the funding of those institutions just mentioned -the Library and Mouseion. As a result, they spent more money on these cultural institutions than any other ancient dynasty ever did on any similar complex devoted to intellectual exercise.
On the other hand, excessive lUxury .did lead to decadence as suggested in the Baker Dancer [po 14, fig. 13]. The figure is almost completely enveloped by her mantle and depicted frozen in time as she executes a gyrating movement to the accompaniment of her crata/a, or castinet-like clapper evoking the exotic, sensuous world often associated with Alexandria. These associations are also present in the face of a hauntingly evocative queen, perhaps to be identified as Cleopatra 11 [po 14, fig. 14], universally regarded as one of the most aesthetically accomplished works to have survived in Alexandria. The face with its sensual lips is turned to one side and contrasted with the corkscrew locks of the coiffure covered by a short kind of scarf.
This glorious chapter of Ptolemaic Alexandria ends with the tragic death of Cleopatra VII, the last Macedonian Greek ruler of Egypt. Because her story is related in another article on pages 16 t019, we wish to concentrate on events subsequent to the death of Mark Antony [po 15, fig. 15] and Cleopatra’s suicide. Their demise enabled the Roman Octavian, who was later to become the first emperor of Rome as Augustus, to gain possession of Egypt. But Octavian was so fearful of another rival to his throne emerging from Egypt that he forbade anyone to travel to or visit Egypt without first having obtained a visa issued by him personally.
This restriction was to have severe consequences for native Egyptians because it was accompanied by a desire to funnel all the wealth of Egypt into the coffers of Rome. Whereas the Ptolemies taxed the population for their own benefit, these rulers did continue to fund temples and foster tradition. The Roman emperors, however, as absentee landlords, had no vested interest in the land and its people. Over time they imposed an onerous tax on the nation, the revenues of which did not benefit the country at all. The Roman emperors enjoyed the benefits of such revenues and often chose to depict themselves aI’egyptienne in works created in classical idioms by artists not trained in ancient Egypt’s traditional workshops. The results are often humorous, as here where a Roman emperor [po 15, fig. 16] is portrayed wearing a kilt which is too short, as well as an exceptionally rounded nemes-headdress.
Such posturing drew some Roman emperors into closer relationships with some of Egypt’s priests, who realized that their own lot was better served by kowtowing to those emperors. In my view, the complicity of some of the higher-ranking members of the Egyptian priesthoods with Roman emperors and members of their courts, combined with the excessive rate of taxation, served to distance the agrarian population of Egypt from their priests and from their rulers. Neither the spiritual nor the material needs of their congregations were being addressed. Recent studies of Roman Egypt even reveal that there was a point in time when literacy among that agrarian sector of society was so low as to be non-existent. The Egyptians could no longer read or write in their native language! These events were unfolding as Christianity was beginning to take root. It is, therefore, quite easy to understand why the majority of the Egyptians would gravitate toward this new religion. As the Christian population multiplied and their members began to occupy important secular positions after the enactment of the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, Egyptian Christians systematically attempted to close down all pagan institutions. These eventually included the great temple of Serapis in Alexandria. Throughout this period, civil unrest and armed insurrection were the order of the day; the armies of the Roman Emperor Aurelian having earlier invaded the city in 273 CE in order to quell violent disturbances associated with the rebellious plans of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. In time, a Christian could taunt one of the last pagans of Egypt with the challenge to point out the location of the tomb of Alexander the Great, knowing full well that the Sema had already disappeared from view.
By Dr. Robert Steven Bianchi
Ph.D. in Egyptian, Greek and Roman Art from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.