Alexander, The Ptolemies, and Egypt

Levi, P.  1990.  “The Rise of Macedon.”  In The Cultural Atlas of the World: The Greek World, 169-191.

Robins, G.  2008.  “The Final Flowering.”  In The Art of Ancient Egypt, Revised Edition, 231-251.

18 thoughts on “Alexander, The Ptolemies, and Egypt

  1. What about Macedonian society and political structures allowed Macedon to obtain military superiority over the old city-states of Greece?

    • According to Levi (1990, 177), Macedonia was “politically backward,” which allowed “feudal levies to gain superior tactics and discipline,” thus creating an army that was well-trained and more than a match for anyone. The court and the principal cities of the kingdom were Greek and wealthy, but there was a tribal basis for the society that pushed beyond the sophisticated Greek political structures (Levi 1990, 176). Philip II, “a ruler of genius and utter unscrupulousness,” pushed his kingdom to exploit its geographical position (Levi 1990,177). Macedonian society and political structures pushed this advantage by forming a powerful army, leaving the Greek city-states no match for this kingdom.

  2. How did Alexander’s conquests shape the cultural and visual landscape of the Kingdoms that arose in the wake of his death?

    • “The power structure of the world had altered and utterly irreversibly” due to all of Alexander’s conquests. Contact between Asia and the Mediterranean increased allowing various empires became more aware of one another. The conquest of Persia led to an accumulation of wealth, and after Alexander’s death it circulated throughout the Greek world. And it was clear that rich merchants and rich farmers would control the landscape of the ancient world. All over Greece civil wars erupted due to the unequal spread of wealth. However, while Alexandrian ships continued to navigate China, they also began to head toward Britain and Southeast Asia to continue expansion.

    • The Ptolemies blended the firmly-established Egyptian artistic tradition of their ruling predecessors in with the Greek stylistic vocabulary by executing well-known Egyptian motifs through the Greek aesthetic–namely through attention to proportion and heightened realism. This can be best seen in Ptolemaic statues. For example, Figure 289 in the Robins article is a statue of a female wearing the iconic Egyptian headdress and is very compact and solid apart from her left foot that is stepping forward. Her proportions are elongated and and there is an emphasis on her female figure–the wet drapery technique of Greek artists is in full effect here. This demonstrates a move towards more realistic representation of the human form after the Greek tradition. Her rendering with arms by the sides and one foot stepping forward is very close to the rendering of Greek kouroi in the Archaic period. All in all, the Ptolemies adopt Egyptian artistic typologies and blend them with the Greek tradition through the implementation of the Greek aesthetic and rendering techniques.

    • Ptolemaic art appears to be more Egyptian; it follows earlier Egyptian principles of art. The Temples built by the Ptolemies continue in the traditional Egyptian style of the late period. They utilize hypostyle halls, entrance pylons, open courts, and dark sanctuaries, all organized on a central axis (Robins, 235). Ptolemaic reliefs also largely follow traditional Egyptian principles of two-dimensional art. These reliefs employ registers, baselines, and composite human figures; there is no attempt to render depth through foreshortening, a Hellenistic characteristic (Robins, 237).

      It seems to me that the Ptolemies would largely leave artistic tradition unchanged as a way to associate themselves with their newly conquered people group. By utilizing traditional style, motifs, and proportions they in a way connect themselves to previous rulers who built temples and decorated them with reliefs. It appears that the Ptolemies utilized this strategy to become seen as traditional Egyptian rulers to their newly conquered kingdom.

    • Ptolemaic art is definitely more Egyptian. From what I have gathered from the readings this was necessary. Ptolemy basically self-declared himself as the leader of Egypt, naming himself as the successor of the Pharaohs after the death of Alexander the Great. The only way for him to do this and to gain the trust of the Egyptian people was to follow the tradition the Egyptians held so dear. This meant incorporating Egyptian values and traditions into the art. While most of the art had some tie back to Greece, as it technically was under Greece’s rule, most of the decorating, adaptations and in-corporations were Egyptian. Ptolemies had to face rebellions from those wishing to remove themselves from Greece’s rule and so to further gain the trust of the people the Ptolemaic Pharaohs incorporated their images into Egyptian style art in Egyptian style clothing. This furthered the heavily Egyptian-ness of the art.

    • The Ptolemies blended the firmly-established Egyptian artistic tradition of their ruling predecessors in with the Greek stylistic vocabulary by executing well-known Egyptian motifs through the Greek aesthetic–namely through attention to proportion and heightened realism. This can be best seen in Ptolemaic statues. For example, Figure 289 in the Robins article is a statue of a female wearing the iconic Egyptian headdress and is very compact and solid apart from her left foot that is stepping forward. Her proportions are elongated and and there is an emphasis on her female figure–the wet drapery technique of Greek artists is in full effect here. This demonstrates a move towards more realistic representation of the human form after the Greek tradition. Her rendering with arms by the sides and one foot stepping forward is very close to the rendering of Greek kouroi in the Archaic period. All in all, the Ptolemies adopt Egyptian artistic typologies and blend them with the Greek tradition through the implementation of the Greek aesthetic and rendering techniques.

      • Oops, I meant to put this under the fourth question. It’s not letting me delete it so I’ll just post it under there, too.

    • Though some notable developments in the Egyptian canon emerged during the Ptolemaic period, Robins advises against attributing this development entirely to ‘outside’, or ethnically non-Egyptian influence (251). She writes that though Egypt remained under foreign rule, “the images employed in its decoration and the ways of treating them remained essentially Egyptian” (251). Nevertheless, as with any culture, art of the Ptolemaic period can be categorized upon several new characteristics, some of which may have been influenced by Hellenistic art, including “high, smoothly rounded and heavily modeled relief style” (251). Ptolemaic block statues took on a more elongated style, and tended to be “taller in relation to their width and depth than earlier examples” (237). Some statues of men remained in a traditional idealized style, while others developed a more convincing realism, showing “lines and wrinkles on the face” (247).

  3. Why do you believe that the Ptolemies were interested in adopting and adapting Egyptian conventions of representation rather than employing a strictly Greek visual language in their art?

    • From the Robins reading I got the sense that the Ptolemies were interested in solidifying their power and legitimacy through art and construction projects. The article stated many times that the Ptolemies didn’t engage in the Egyptian festivals or practices of worship, but curiously they, built, rebuilt, and maintained the Egyptian temples, in the 26th through 30th dynasty style. I think this was a conscious decision to visually communicate power and leadership to the Egyptian people. The Ptolemies could certainly have imposed their own visual language on the Egyptians, but this type of change could have created social unrest, disinterest, and disloyalty among the people. Instead the Ptolemies used the existing iconography and blended it with an emphasis on writing to create a predominantly Egyptian standard of imperial art. In addition to the political benefits, the materials and labor available were quite different in Egypt. The resources available would have impacted they type of art and architecture that could be created.

      • I think Jenna brings up a really good point here. Since the article starts out by saying that “the cultural and political interests of the Ptolemies were focused outside Egypt,” it would make sense to think that the possibility of social unrest was not worth the effort. Additionally, Robbins explains that the Egyptian culture and tradition were not terribly important to the new dynasty. This seems pretty clear. Adding on to Jenna’s idea of communicating power in this way, it may have been a method to reassure the Egyptians that regardless of the new leader, Egypt was still in good hands. (Actually, this reminded me a bit of The Sound of Music when the music festival is allowed to continue to assure Austrians that their country has not changed.) However, the part about the hierarchy within the family tomb belonging to high priest of Thoth Petosiris made me think perhaps that, although the Ptolemies did not wish to go through the trouble of converting all culture and art to the Hellenistic style, they did have a slightly hidden agenda to at least ensure the implication of Greek cultural dominance. Still, this case is more the exception than the rule, since most other art does not necessarily show a Greek dominance.

        If the Ptolemies WERE thinking in this manner (that they didn’t need to bother with complete cultural conversion), why? If they placed such great importance on this area, why would they not want to display great influence? Did this not matter since the only qualifications for being “Greek” were the Greek language and the Greek gods? Does this have anything to do with the fact that the Greeks have been adopting/adapting from Egypt all along anyway, and thus clearly had some appreciation for their culture? Is this a comment more on the strength of Egyptian culture than on the strength of Greek influence? I suspect I am missing something quite major in my reasoning/questioning, but I am not sure what that might be.

    • With Ptolemy claiming kingship over Egypt so abruptly, even after overthrowing the dreadful Persian ruler of Egypt, the act of completely scraping years of Egyptian religion, architecture and canon in lieu of Greek artistic traditions would most definitely have upset the Egyptian people and caused great unrest and rioting. I agree that an acceptance and perpetuation of Egyptian canon and tradition would have benefited the new rule in gaining the people’s confidence and support if they felt that their culture was not immediately threatened. The multitude of monuments and construction projects the Ptolemies engaged in with Egyptian standards was a conscious political decision that developed a link between the traditional pharaohs of the Early Period and the reign of the Ptolemies, creating a sense of legitimacy and continuity.

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