How We Lost the Library of Alexandria

There are a couple of persistent myths floating around about how the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. One says that it was burned down by Julius Caesar in the first century BCE, the other that it was destroyed by Christians in the fourth century CE. Both of these stories are wrong. That’s not what happened to the Library. The actual history is instructive, especially now.

The story begins with the foundation of the Library itself. After the death of Alexander the Great, his followers fell into a fifty-year struggle for control of his empire. When the dust settled, three major successor states founded by Alexander’s generals controlled most of the eastern Mediterranean and the old Persian Empire: the descendants of Antigonus in Macedonia, the descendants of Seleucus in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the descendants of Ptolemy in Egypt. Other, smaller, states, some of them also led by former officers of Alexander’s army, filled the edges and the gaps in between the Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic kingdoms.

Ptolemy and his dynasty ruled from Alexandria, the new city founded at the westernmost mouth of the Nile by Alexander during his campaign. The Ptolemies and their court made up a small Greco-Macedonian elite ruling over a vast and ancient land whose people had a strong sense of cultural identity and a long history of resistance to foreign rule. The Ptolemies faced two major problems in ruling their kingdom: competing against the other successor states, and asserting control over the native population of Egypt.

A large part of the challenge in both cases came down to questions of culture. The Ptolemies needed to attract skilled administrators and mercenary soldiers to staff their bureaucracy and enforce their rule, but they were competing with all the other successor kingdoms who wanted the same people for the same reasons. One way of drawing desirable recruits to Alexandria was to demonstrate the richness and refinement of the Ptolemaic court. At the same time, maintaining order in Egypt meant reaching some degree of accommodation with members of the native elite who could keep the peasants in line. To Egyptian nobles who were proud of their own history and culture, the Ptolemies had to show that they were worthy partners who could live up to the standards of culture and sophistication Egyptians expected from their kings.

The Ptolemies’ propaganda approached these challenges in many different ways, but the Library was one important part of their cultural program. Under royal patronage, the Library amassed the largest collection of literary works in Greek assembled anywhere in the Mediterranean. In doing so, it projected the Ptolemies’ cultural sophistication in the common language of the eastern Mediterranean world. It was one of the institutions that made the city of Alexandria noteworthy and demonstrated the Ptolemaic kings’ power and wealth.

The Library of Alexandria was not created as a benevolent or altruistic center of knowledge. It was as much a part of power politics as the king’s mercenary army, and it could be as ruthless in its operations. Ships arriving in Alexandria were reportedly ransacked for any texts the Library might be lacking. The Library borrowed the official texts of winning dramas from the Athenian state archives, then kept the originals and returned cheap copies. The collection was only accessible by royal permission; it was not a place for the public.

Maintaining such a large collection required a dedicated staff of both specialist curators and laborers. Adding new texts to the collection took a lot of work to prepare the papyrus scrolls on which they were recorded and house them safely, but just maintaining the collection was a major job in itself. Papyrus scrolls are not permanent; they break down over time, even in the best conditions. Every text in the Library had to be periodically recopied as the old scrolls decayed. All of this work was funded by the Ptolemaic kings, for whom the Library was an important prop to their power.

In the mid-first century BCE, Julius Caesar fought a campaign in Alexandria against the reigning king Ptolemy XIV in support of his sister Cleopatra, who would go on to rule as the last Ptolemaic monarch. During the fighting, Caesar’s troops set fire to some of the ships in the port. The fire spread to some dockside buildings, including warehouses that held papyrus intended for the Library. The exact extent of the fire is unclear. While some ancient sources report that the Library itself suffered damage, it is clear that the most of the collection was unharmed, and the loss was largely of materials, not finished texts.

Decades later, after Cleopatra was killed and Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire, however, the Library went into decline. The later Ptolemaic kings had been less enthusiastic in their support of the Library than the earlier kings had been, and by the first century BCE the Library was already a diminished institution. With no Ptolemaic dynasty to prop up, it no longer served a purpose. Some Roman emperors showed an interest in the Library, but most had no desire to keep supporting an institution that rivaled their own propaganda works in Rome. Without money to pay for upkeep and repairs, to pay the salaries of librarians and workers, the Library of Alexandria faded away. Support from the local elite kept some of the collection intact, some part of which remained active as a much smaller, provincial version of its former self through the third century CE.

Just how long this reduced version of the Library continued on is unclear. The third century was a time of widespread violence and unrest in the Roman world, and Alexandria had always been a rowdy city prone to riots. The growing community of Christians in Alexandria sometimes participated in these upheavals, but they were far from the only ones. In one famous incident, an attack by pagans sparked a Christian counterattack which wrecked a Neoplatonist school, but there is no record that any books were kept there. Whatever was left of the collection may well have suffered in the violence of the times, but by then the Library-with-a-capital-L was a thing of the distant past.

There is a lesson for us in the end of the Library of Alexandria, but it is not one about the brutishness of Caesar or the violence of early Christians. What doomed the Library was not some act of willful destruction but the slow decay that comes on when there is not enough money to keep basic operations going. In these days when we all find our budgets stretched tight, it is important to remember how much the cultural institutions we depend on also depend on us.

As many people have noted recently, the covid-19 pandemic isn’t the apocalypse we expected. We like to imagine that great things end in cataclysm, not in the slow grinding down of underfunded institutions. We prefer the bang to the whimper. But just like the Library of Alexandria, the establishments we rely on—be they local libraries, theater companies, independent bookstores, niche comics publishers, or anything else—will not be destroyed by invaders or violent mobs. They will wear away by inertia and neglect. Now is the time to show your support, in whatever ways you can manage, to the things that make your life brighter, richer, and fuller.

Image: A modern artist’s interpretation of the Library of Alexandria via Wikimedia (19th c.; engraving; by O. Von Corven)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Making a Mark

Some things never change. For instance, there will always be people who feel the need to leave their mark wherever they go. The graffiti in this image comes from the temple of Isis, originally located on the island of Philae in the Nile River in southern Egypt (since moved to the nearby island of Agilkia because of the damming of the Nile). The temple to Isis and other buildings were constructed at Philae by pharaohs in Egypt’s Late Period, between the eighth and fourth centuries BCE, and the Macedonian Ptolemaic kings who ruled Egypt between 323 and 30 BCE continued to build there. During this period, Philae marked the southern boundary of Egypt. Garrisons of soldiers were stationed there, and it was also a site of pilgrimage not just for Egyptians but for people from the larger Mediterranean world as well as from farther up the Nile in Africa. Under Roman rule, Philae continued to be an important religious site, and soldiers were stationed at a frontier post nearby.

Many people came to Philae for many reasons, and the temple is filled with inscriptions left by visitors. This one, for example, was carved in honor of the Nubian sun god Mandulis. A companion inscription dates the graffiti to 394 CE, which makes this the last known hieroglyphic inscription carved in ancient Egypt.

Inscription of Esmet-Akhom, photograph by A. Parrot via Wikimedia (Philae; 394 CE; inscription in stone; by Nesmeterakhem)

Later tourists got in on the action, too, like Bauerhorst and Brehm, two European visitors who left their marks in 1851.

Insciptions by Bauerhorst and Brehm, photograph by Michael Brehm2 via Wikimedia (Philae; 1851 CE; inscription in stone)

This one may look like it comes from the Roman period, but B. Mure is not a Roman name. It may have been left by Benoit Mure, a French homeopath who traveled in Egypt in the mid-1800s promoting homeopathy.

Inscription of B. Mure with addition, photograph by Ad Meskens via Wikimedia (Philae; c. 1850 CE; inscription in stone)

Another thing you can always count on is smartasses. After Mure left his mark at Philae, whenever that was, someone else came along and added a Latin inscription stultus est, “is an idiot” below his name.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Alexander and the Sea Monsters

Sea monsters prevented Alexander from building Alexandria. He took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he saw. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of Alexandria.

– Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-‘Ibar

Translated by Franz Rosenthal

This wild tale about the foundation of Alexandria is cited by the 14th-century North African historian Ibn Khaldun as an example of the ludicrous fictions that some earlier historians had filled their histories with but that had no place in the kind of scientific, rational history he set out to write.

The story as Ibn Khaldun relates it seem to go back to a legend in the Alexander Romance, a highly fictionalized account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns, about a large snake that frightened the workers who were building the city of Alexandria on the coast of Egypt until Alexander had the snake caught and killed. Over centuries of retelling, the hunt for one big snake turned into a struggle against terrible sea monsters.

The story of Alexander and the sea monsters is fiction, not history, as Ibn Khaldun rightly points out, but what a story it is! Wood and glass submarines! Ancient kaiju! Tactical deployment of art! How has no one made a movie out of this already?

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Petosiris: Being Roman-Egyptian

We often think of hyphenated identities as a particularly modern thing: Italian-American, African-Caribbean, etc. Not far from where I grew up you could go to a Franco-American heritage festival in the summer and see people walking around in t-shirts that said “Made in America with Irish Parts.” The idea that our identities can contain several distinct strands woven together is a familiar one to us, but not one we often apply to the past.

But look at this wall painting from the tomb of Petosiris, a local official in the Kharga Oasis in the western desert of Egypt. Petosiris lived during the second century CE, a time when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. In his tomb, Petosiris took care to present himself as both Egyptian and Roman.

Wall painting from the tomb of Petosiris, photograph by Roland Unger via Wikimedia (Kharga Oasis; 2nd c. CE; fresco)

The large figure standing on the left is Petosiris himself (the damage to his face may have been done by Christians or Muslims in later centuries who mistakenly thought the image represented a pagan god). Petosiris’ name is Egyptian, but his image is painted in a typically Roman style, he wears a Roman tunic and toga, and he carries a scroll, a symbol of role as a local official for the Roman state. At the same time, he is twice the size of the other two figures in the scene, a characteristic of Egyptian art in which size was often used to indicate social status.

The other two figures are presenting Petosiris with offerings of bread and wine. The one on the left is painted in a Roman style, partially turned toward the viewer and painted with varying shading to suggest a three-dimensional image. He carries a tray of bread and pours wine from a jug into the ground. The figure on the right is painted in classic Egyptian style, clearly outlined and standing in a stylized two-dimensional posture. He offers a jug of wine and several loaves of bread on a tray. The rest of the space is filled up with a Roman-style grapevine and text in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In this image, Petosiris proclaims an identity that is both Egyptian and Roman. We cannot be sure how he understood the combination of those identities. Did he think of himself as an Egyptian who could dress up as Roman when the occasion called for it? Or as a Roman who showed respect to the customs of his Egyptian ancestors? Or as a Roman-Egyptian, fully embracing both parts of his identity? While we cannot say for sure, it is clear that he wanted to be memorialized in his tomb as someone who could be, in some senses, both Egyptian and Roman. For Petosiris, there was a value in asserting both these parts of his identity.

Where there was one such person, there must have been many more who have not left us evidence of their identities. Clearly the local market in the oasis supported artists who could paint in either Roman or Egyptian style, as their clients requested. Kharga was a small, sleepy backwater far from the busy market towns and great harbor cities of the Mediterranean. If even in Kharga there was a demand to be able to assert a complex identity, we can only imagine how complicated the lives of people in Alexandria, Carthage, or Rome must have been.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

The Curious Case of Cambyses and the Apis Bull

The Persian king Cambyses has a bad reputation. He has come down in Western histories as a prototypical mad emperor: arrogant, violent, and contemptuous. The centerpiece of this narrative is his treatment of the Egyptian Apis bull, but the evidence does not match up with the stories that have come down to us.

Cambyses ruled the Persian Empire from 530 to 522 BCE. Under his rule, Persia expanded westward to conquer Egypt. Egypt was a valuable prize for Persia, phenomenally rich and well organized, with strong trade connections to the larger Mediterranean and Africa. The Persian conquest of Egypt went swiftly and easily. Holding the territory was another matter.

The Persian Empire was the largest empire in the world, indeed the largest empire that had ever existed up that that point in world history. Persia owed a large part of its success to a policy of cultural accommodation. Conquered peoples were left alone to follow their own cultures, speak their own languages, and worship their own gods; Persian culture was not imposed on them. Persian kings took steps to ensure continuity of local traditions and present themselves according to local ideals and expectations.

Cambyses followed this same policy in Egypt. He officially ruled as pharaoh under the Egyptian name Mesutire and he carried on the traditional religious and military activities of Egyptian kingship. Among those activities was providing for the Apis bull.

Egyptians believed that an aspect of the god Ptah came to Earth in the shape of a black bull, known as Apis. Apis was cared for in a special temple and lived a life of luxury. When one Apis bull died, it was believed that the spirit of Ptah was born again in another calf, somewhere in Egypt. The death of an Apis bull was therefore an occasion of important ritual: the old bull became identified with the spirit of the god Osiris and had to be mummified and ceremonially interred, meanwhile the hunt was on up and down the Nile for the next calf to be born with the proper signs. Since the new Apis bull could not be born until after the previous one’s death, properly recording and commemorating the event was crucial. The finding of the new Apis was also the occasion for a major religious festival, which was joyously celebrated throughout Egypt.

An Apis bull died during Cambyses’ time in Egypt. The precise timing of its death and the ceremonies for its burial are not entirely clear, but it was given a full and proper burial under Cambyses’ authority, as attested by the inscription on its sarcophagus:

Horus, Uniter of the Two Lands, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever! He has made a fine monument for his father Apis-Osiris with a great granite sarcophagus, dedicated by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever, in perpetuity and prosperity, full of health and joy, as King of Upper and Lower Egypt eternally!

Translation by Amélie Kuhrt, The Persian Empire (London: Routledge, 2007) 4.13

The cult of the Apis bull was closely connected to kingship in Egypt and this inscription shows Cambyses fully engaged in his role as Egyptian pharaoh. He associates himself with the royal falcon god Horus and shows filial deference to both the sun god Re and to the spirit of the dead Apis bull. Whatever Cambyses may have personally believed, he was making sure that his public behavior was irreproachable as a king of Egypt.

Which makes it strange to turn back to the Greek sources and find a dramatically different account of Cambyses and the Apis bull:

When Cambyses returned to Memphis [after an unsuccessful military campaign in the south], Apis (whom the Greeks call Epaphus) appeared in Egypt. When Apis appears, the Egyptians at once don their best clothes and hold a celebration. Seeing this, Cambyses was convinced that they were celebrating his misfortunes, so he summoned the rulers of Memphis. When they came before him he demanded to know why the Egyptians were behaving in this way, which they had not done before, just when he was returning having lost so much of his army. They answered that a god had appeared, one who only came to them after long stretches of time, and that it was the custom for all Egyptians to rejoice on such an occasion. Cambyses replied that they were lying and he put them to death for it.

He next summoned the priests, who told him the same thing. He replied that if a tame god had come to Egypt, he would know about it. He then ordered the priests to bring Apis before him, so they fetched him. Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow which then cannot become pregnant again. The Egyptians say that a ray of light from heaven strikes the cow, and this is how Apis is conceived. The calf called Apis has these signs: he is black with a white triangular mark between his eyes and the shape of an eagle on his back, the hairs of his tail are double, and there is a beetle-shaped mark under his tongue.

When the priests led Apis in, Cambyses—who was a little disturbed in the head—drew his dagger and stabbed Apis, aiming for the belly but hitting the thigh. Laughing, he said to the priests: “Are these your gods, fools, of flesh and blood who can feel the bite of iron? This is a fitting god for Egyptians, but I will teach you to make a laughingstock of me!” Saying this, he ordered the priests whipped and any other Egyptians celebrating to be killed. So the festival ended and the priests were punished. Apis lay in the temple wasting away from the blow to his thigh. When he had died of the wound, the priests buried him in secret without Cambyses’ knowledge.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.27-29

My own translation

How did Cambyses go from a king properly honoring Apis to a tyrant mocking and killing him? The answer is: Egyptian resistance.

No matter how much Cambyses tried to behave like a traditional Egyptian pharaoh, he wasn’t one. Egypt had a strong sense of national culture, with a strain of isolationism. There were also internal conflicts within Egypt that the Persians did not manage with much success. Over time, as resentment against Persian rule built up, the memory of Cambyses the conqueror was adapted to suit Egyptians’ attitudes towards contemporary Persians. By the time Herodotus was traveling in Egypt asking questions about history—about a century after Cambyses—popular opinion had thoroughly rewritten the king’s reputation.

Herodotus and other Greek and Roman historians had no idea about Cambyses’ actual behavior in Egypt, and their own anti-Persian prejudices inclined them to accept any negative story about a Persian king. Thus Cambyses the arrogant bull-stabber became a fixture of Western history, even though he was only ever a figment of lurid anti-Persian rumor.

Image: Funerary stela for an Apis bull, photograph by Rama via Wikimedia (found Serapeum of Saqqara, currently Louvre; 643 BC; painted limestone

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Race in Antiquity: Skin Color in Art

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In these posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 4: Skin Color in Art

In the previous post, we looked at how Greeks and Romans wrote about skin color. Today we look at how they represented it in art.

In looking at how ancient artists handled skin color, we have to begin by recognizing that not all ancient artworks have come down to us intact or preserving their original colors. We must especially shake off the association of ancient art with gleaming white marble. Marble was favored for sculpture in the ancient Mediterranean because the stone is slightly translucent and it reacts to light in a way similar to human skin, but marble statues were not usually left white. They were painted, often in bright colors which have faded or disappeared entirely after thousands of years of exposure. To get a more accurate sense of how ancient artists represented skin color, we have to choose our sources carefully and look for types of artwork that hold color better over time or that have been protected from exposure.

Although people of the ancient Mediterranean were aware that human skin tones could vary widely, they did not attach the same meaning to this variation that we tend to today. Since skin color was not a primary way of marking ethnic identity, artists could use it to convey other meanings, or simply for decorative effect.

It was a widespread custom in the ancient Mediterranean to use skin color as an indicator of gender. Men were often portrayed with dark reddish-brown skin, women with pale yellow-white skin. This artistic convention reflects a conventional ideology in which the socially acceptable activities for men were agriculture and war, outdoor occupations which exposed them to the sun. Women were similarly expected to stay indoors, working in the home and preserving their pale skin. For a man to be pale suggested that he worked indoors at trades that, though necessary for society, were less prestigious. Similarly, for a woman to appear dark-skinned suggested that she had to work outside the home, implying that her household was not rich enough to be self-sustaining. When patrons directed artists to depict them with conventional skin colors, they were responding to the social pressure to look their best. We cannot assume that artworks like these represent the actual appearance of their subjects.

Funerary statues of Rahotep and Nofret via Wikimedia (Egyptian Museum, Cairo; c. 2500 BCE; painted limestone)
Portrait of a couple from Pompeii via Wikimedia (Pompeii, currently Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; 1st c. CE; fresco)


Skin color could also be used to indicate other features of identity. Darker skin, for instance, was associated with age, lighter skin with youth. Children were often depicted with light-colored skin, regardless of gender. In this portrait of the family of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, Septimius’ skin is distinctly darker than his wife Julia Domna’s, but their son Caracalla’s skin is even a little paler than his mother’s. (Their other son Geta’s face was obliterated in antiquity after Caracalla became emperor and assassinated his brother).

Portrait of Septimius Severus and family, photograph by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro via Wikimedia (currently Altes Museum, Berlin; c. 200 CE; painted panel)


The degree to which skin color was emphasized as a feature in art also varied between cultures and across time. These two examples of Etruscan tomb art from Tarquinia show how much variation there could be even within the same community. While both follow the dark men / light women pattern (gender is also marked by differences in clothing, hair style, and activity) one makes the distinction very stark and schematic while the other is much more subtle.

Banquet scene from the Tomb of the Leopards, photograph by AlMare via Wikimedia (Tarquinia; 480-450 BCE; fresco)
Banquet scene from the Tomb of the Shields via classconnection (Tarquinia; c. 340 BCE; fresco)


In many cases, the skin color of human figures in ancient art is dictated by the choice of medium more than by a desire to convey any message. The two sides of this vase, for instance, present similar scenes, the hero Heracles at a feast, in opposite color schemes.

“Bilingual” vase, composite of photographs via Wikimedia (Vulci, currently Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin; 520-510 BCE; pottery; believed to be by Andokides Painter)


This statue of the Tetrarchs, four emperors who governed the Roman Empire in a short-lived experiment in joint rule, is carved out of porphyry, a very hard stone with a dark purple hue. This stone was chosen for several reasons, partly because of the traditional association of purple with imperial power and partly because the dense, hard stone suggested the strength of the institution the joint rulers were trying to create. A realistic depiction of skin tone was not a priority.

Tetrarchs statue, photograph by Nino Barbieri via Wikimedia (currently St. Mark’s Square, Venice; early 4th c. CE; porphyry)


When depicting beings beyond the human realm, skin color could carry many other meanings. The Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris, was traditionally depicted with green skin, symbolic of regrowth and new life. In these wall paintings, the green-skinned Osiris appears in two different scenes in the company of other gods.

Wall paintings from the tomb of Horemheb, photograph be Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Wikimedia (Valley of the Kings; c. 1292 BCE; fresco)


Similarly, the Etruscan god Charu, who was responsible for guiding the souls of the dead into the afterlife, was typically shown with blue skin, representing decaying flesh.

Charu from the François Tomb, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Vulci; c. 330 BCE; fresco)

Sometimes ancient artists used skin color to indicate ethnicity in ways that are easy for us to recognize, such as this vase representing two women’s faces. The light-skinned woman’s features, such as her pointed nose, thin lips, and wavy hair, suggest that she is meant to be of European descent while the black-skinned woman has features characteristic of a sub-Saharan African origin, such as a flat nose, fuller lips, and tightly coiled hair.

Janiform aryballos, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (from Greece, currently Louvre; 520-510 BCE; pottery)


In other cases, we cannot be entirely sure what the skin color in ancient art is meant to convey. This fresco from Minoan Knossos depicts bull leapers in distinctly different skin tones, but it is difficult to be sure what significance, if any, that difference has. It may be meant to show differences in gender, although the figures’ similar proportions, clothing, and hair do not confirm it. It might be intended to indicate people of different ethnic origins. Alternatively, it could be simply for aesthetic variation. We do not know enough about Minoan culture and its conventions for representing ethnicity, gender, and other identities in art to be certain.

Bull leaping fresco (restored), photograph by Nikater via Wikimedia (Knossos; 1550-1450 BCE; fresco)


As with literary descriptions of skin color, we have to approach ancient artistic representations with a cautious awareness of how far removed we are from the cultures that created them. The artists who made these images and the patrons who commissioned them did not share many of our basic assumptions about what skin color means and how it should be represented. Their cultural context was unlike ours and they created their works to communicate with other people of their place and time, not to send time capsules to us millennia later. It is not enough for us to stroll through museums or flip through the pages of art books looking for faces that look the way we think people of different ethnic origins ought to look.

Ancient art is not a representative snapshot of ancient demographics. Art represents what people consider important, not necessarily the reality of the world they live in. In a world in which privilege, power, and identity were not wrapped up with race in the same way they are today, the representation of race in art was much less of a priority. Just because ancient artists, like ancient writers, often chose not to depict skin color as a defining mark of ethnic identity does not mean that they did not live surrounded by people of all different hues with ancestries spanning the globe. As with how we read literature, we have to learn to read ancient art in new ways if we are to make sense of it as evidence for the diversity of ancient Mediterranean societies.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rosetta Stone Online in 3D

The British Museum has made a 3D-scan of the Rosetta Stone and released it for exploration, download, and sharing. The model is available at the museum’s Sketchfab site:

Sketchfab British Museum Rosetta Stone Screencap
Screencap of the Rosetta Stone 3D model by the British Museum at Sketchfab

I just love the effort museums and libraries are making to bring their collections online. Providing 3D models is another step in making the collections relevant to the 21st century life.

Visit The British Museum at Sketchfab for additional 3D models—over 200 at this writing!

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Nitocris’ Vengeance

Here’s a story told by the Greek historian Herodotus about an ancient queen of Egypt, as told to him by the Egyptian priests he was interviewing about their country’s history:

The priests read out from a papyrus scroll the names of three-hundred and thirty kings. In all these generations there were eighteen Ethiopians and one Egyptian woman; the rest were Egyptian men. The woman’s name was Nitocris… They said that she avenged her brother. The Egyptians had killed him when he was their king and then given the kingship to her, so she slaughtered many Egyptians by a trick to avenge him. She had an underground chamber built and invited those Egyptians whom she knew to be most guilty of her brother’s death on the pretense of an inaugural feast, although she was actually planning something else. As they were feasting, she had the river let in to flood the chamber through a great hidden channel.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.100

My own translation

Like Herodotus’ other stories about Egypt, this shows an interesting mix of actual historical knowledge with folklore, probably both Egyptian and Greek.

It is very difficult to verify the number of kings Herodotus’ interviewees listed for him. Earlier Egyptian records of kings have survived only in very fragmentary forms and later writings about Egyptian history, even those by Egyptians, tended to rely on Herodotus. When Egyptian dynasties recorded the reigns of their kings, they had as much incentive as an other politicians to exaggerate some things and erase others. When Herodotus was traveling in Egypt, the country was under Persian rule and not particularly happy about it. The priests that Herodotus talked to had their own reasons to encourage a certain view of Egyptian history.

Nevertheless, in rough terms, 330 is a reasonable estimate of the number of kings who had ruled in Egypt over 3,000 years. The priests’ count also includes a number of “Ethiopian” kings, who correspond to the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, when Egypt was conquered and ruled by Nubians for about a hundred years between the mid-eighth and mid-seventh centuries BCE.

That leaves Nitocris herself. The name may be a garbled form of a very early king who had otherwise been forgotten about by Herodotus’ time. We now know from ancient inscriptions that more than one woman ruled Egypt, whether as regents for their sons or as pharaoh themselves. The most famous of these female pharaohs is Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1478 to 1458 BCE, just over a thousand years before Herodotus visited Egypt. The “underground chamber” mentioned in the story may be a distorted recollection of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, which was built partially into the side of a cliff and which is surrounded by the underground tombs of later pharaohs who chose to be buried at the same site (now known as the Valley of the Kings).

Hatshepsut’s successor, Thuthmosis III, had her name stricken from monuments and her public statues destroyed—not necessarily out of any personal animosity, but simply because the existence of a female predecessor may have threatened the legitimacy of his own and his descendants’ reign. The erasure of her public memory, though, may have opened room for some of the more outlandish and dramatic elements of her legend to grow (and may explain the loss of her name).

At the same time, the themes of family chaos, murder, and revenge that run through this story are very much in tune with Greek mythology. Whether Herodotus invented them or the priests enlivened the tale, they seem calculated to appeal to a Greek audience. There may well be some of both: the priests may have adapted their native oral tradition to better suit their Greek interviewer, while Herodotus may have amplified the familiar elements of the story as he retold the story for his Greek readers.

It may best for us to see the story of Nitocris as a kind of collaborative Greco-Egyptian historical fiction.

Image: Portrait statue of Hatshepsut, photograph by Rob Koopman via Wikimedia (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden; granite; c. 1450 BCE)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Keep Out

The image above is a papyrus sign found near an ancient temple complex at Saqqara, Egypt. The original is 36 cm (a little more than a foot) wide. The text is in Greek and reads:

By order of Peukestes:

No entry.

This is a sacred enclosure.

My own translation

What does this sign mean and why was it posted in Greek somewhere near an Egyptian temple?

The name Peukestes helps us towards an answer. There is one important Peukestes we know from the sources with a connection to Egypt. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt with his Greek and Macedonian army. The Egyptian people had lived unhappily under the rule of the Persian empire for generations and they greeted the newcomers as liberators. When Alexander moved on the next year to continue his conquest of Persia, he left Egypt under the charge of two of his commanders, Balakros and Peukestes. (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander 3.5.5)

The Greeks and Macedonians of Alexander’s army had Egyptian good will on their side and they did not want to lose it. At the same time, Egypt and its great monuments were a source of endless fascination to foreign visitors in antiquity, just as much as today, and not all foreigners knew how to behave with respect. Centuries earlier, Greek mercenaries in the service of the Egyptian pharaohs had carved graffiti into the stones of ancient temples. Balakros and Peukestes, trying to hold onto a valuable province through the turmoil of liberation, certainly did not want any of that going on.

The sign was probably originally posted outside of the temple complex at Saqqara as a warning to any Greek troops indulging in a bit of sight-seeing that they had better be on their best behavior, including staying out of places that were sacred to their Egyptian friends.

Multicultural and cross-religious encounters are nothing new in the world. People have been thinking about the problem of how to get along peacefully with those whose ways of life are different from ours for thousands of years. Respecting other peoples’ religious traditions isn’t just polite, it’s sound policy.

Reference for the papyrus: Eric G. Turner, “A Commander-in-Chief’s Order from Saqqara,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 60 (1974): 239-42.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Bad Day at the Office, 257 BCE

Being in middle management sucks. You’re stuck between unreasonable bosses and uncooperative workers. If you’ve ever been in that position, you might have some sympathy with Panakestor, the overseer of a farm in Ptolemaic Egypt some of whose daily correspondence has been preserved on papyrus in the desert climate.

Between 323 and 30 BCE, Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies, descendants of one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Ruling from Alexandria on the coast, the Greek-speaking Ptolemies depended on a large class of local administrators and subordinates to deal with the Egyptian-speaking population. Some of these subordinates were immigrants from Greece or other regions around the Aegean Sea; others were native Egyptians who saw opportunities working for the new regime. Panakestor was a Carian, from southwestern Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). He oversaw an estate near a town called Philadelphia belonging to Apollonius, a big shot in Alexandria who owned many such estates around Egypt.

The original agreement between Apollonius and the Egyptian farmers who worked his land was simple: at harvest time, they would hand over one third of their crop as rent and keep two thirds for themselves. In 257, however, Apollonius decided he wanted to change the system, even though it was very late in the season and almost harvest time anyway. Now he wanted the farmers to estimate the value of their crop at the beginning of the growing season and pay a portion of that as rent up front. This new arrangement would be good for Apollonius as he could guarantee his income, but if the crops failed the whole risk would be on the farmers.

Apollonius sent out a message ordering Panakestor to put the new system in place. Panakestor did his best, but soon wrote back explaining that things were not going well. Apollonius then sent out an impatient second memo:

[To Panakestor] from Apollonius. I was astounded at your negligence that you have written nothing, either about the estimation or about the harvest of the grain. Write to me now how each matter stands.

– PSI (Papiri della Societa Italiana) 5.502

(My own translations)

Panakestor wrote back giving fuller details of the problem. His letter also survives:

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