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Portraits of the Ptolemies

Portraits of the Ptolemies
Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs

In this book, Paul Edmund Stanwick undertakes the first complete study of Egyptian-style portraits of the Ptolemies.

January 2003
Active (available)
256 pages | 8 1/2 x 11 | 282 b&w illus., 6 tables |

As archaeologists recover the lost treasures of Alexandria, the modern world is marveling at the latter-day glory of ancient Egypt and the Greeks who ruled it from the ascension of Ptolemy I in 306 B.C. to the death of Cleopatra the Great in 30 B.C. The abundance and magnificence of royal sculptures from this period testify to the power of the Ptolemaic dynasty and its influence on Egyptian artistic traditions that even then were more than two thousand years old.

In this book, Paul Edmund Stanwick undertakes the first complete study of Egyptian-style portraits of the Ptolemies. Examining one hundred and fifty sculptures from the vantage points of literary evidence, archaeology, history, religion, and stylistic development, he fully explores how they meld Egyptian and Greek cultural traditions and evoke surrounding social developments and political events. To do this, he develops a "visual vocabulary" for reading royal portraiture and discusses how the portraits helped legitimate the Ptolemies and advance their ideology. Stanwick also sheds new light on the chronology of the sculptures, giving dates to many previously undated ones and showing that others belong outside the Ptolemaic period.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Definitions and conventions
  • Dynastic chronology
  • Chapter 1: A unique vantage point
  • Chapter 2: The priestly decrees
  • Chapter 3: "Conspicuous" and other places
  • Chapter 4: A visual vocabulary
  • Chapter 5: Ideology and the royal visage
  • Chapter 6: Chronology
  • Chapter 7: Powerful traditions, new dynamics
  • Chapter 8: A generation of innovators
  • Appendix A: Sculptors' studies or votives?
  • Appendix B: Questionable sculptures
  • Catalogue
  • Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Figures

Paul Edmund Stanwick is an independent scholar in New York City who holds a Ph.D. in art history and archaeology from New York University, Institute of Fine Arts.


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The Ptolemies of Egypt had a unique vantage point. From their fabled capital of Alexandria, these Greek rulers looked north to Greece, east to Asia, west to Rome, and south to Egypt. As beneficiaries of the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies were closely connected with the Hellenistic empires of the eastern Mediterranean, stretching in a broad sweep from Macedonia in northern Greece, through Turkey and the Near East, and to Egypt. In later years, the Ptolemies became alternatively allies or enemies of Rome and its charismatic leaders, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Octavian Augustus. As inheritors of one of the oldest civilizations, the Ptolemies joined a long line of pharaohs reaching back thousands of years. They governed a land of great antiquity, rich in monuments with a resolutely Egyptian character.

The forces that drew together Egypt, Rome, and Greece in the last centuries before the Common Era were fertile ground for the creation of a remarkable brand of royal portraiture. War, larger-than-life personalities, luxurious wealth, and grandiose religious beliefs were the key ingredients. Starting with the bold conquests of Alexander the Great, and ending with the crushing force of Rome, the Ptolemaic era was driven by armed conflict and its consequent political machinations and social upheavals. Royal portraiture takes on a strongly propagandistic nature, based on its use as a tool to further the aims of its sponsoring leaders. The Ptolemaic dynasty was one of distinguished individuals, who managed as a group to keep their grip on power longer than any preceding dynasty in Egypt, and whose names still linger with us today. Some of their sculptures dramatically reflect their powerful personas. One of the reasons the Ptolemies, and ultimately Rome, coveted Egypt was the wealth originating from its agrarian economy, its strategic location on trade routes, and its access to mineral resources. The lavish lifestyle that the Ptolemies enjoyed, and that the Romans vilified as decadent, financed a renewed output of colossal and ostentatious sculptures. Egypt's long-lasting focus on religion and the resultant economic and social clout of the native priests impressed many foreign visitors to the country. An elaborate native royal cult was developed for the benefit of the Greek rulers. Religious beliefs and practices shaped how royal images would look and where they would be placed.

The most distinctive aspect of Ptolemaic royal portraiture, however, was its blend of Egyptian and Greek cultures. The arrival of the Ptolemies fostered the creation of Greek buildings and sculptures on a large scale, one of the most pervasive foreign artistic intrusions during Egypt's millennia of history. Yet, the rulers also sponsored a major program of Egyptian temples and sculptures, which remain among the most enduring monuments in the country today. For sources of inspiration, Ptolemaic royal portraits could draw on the ideas of Greece, Rome, and Egypt itself. The complex political and social fabric of Italy and the eastern Mediterranean during Hellenistic times produced some of the most provocative marble and bronze portraits known from the ancient world. At the same time, Egypt possessed an enormous legacy extending from sculptures such as the Great Sphinx at Giza of the third millennium B.C. to the accomplished statues of the native pharaohs of Dynasty 30 in the fourth century B.C.

An Eventful 300 Years

Developments in Ptolemaic royal portraits were set against an eventful 300 years. The period was full of strife. There were wars with the neighboring Seleucid kingdom, bloody conflicts among royal siblings, and native Egyptian uprisings. It was also a time of significant achievement. The new city of Alexandria was founded and quickly became the most important center of the eastern Mediterranean, possessing the Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. For one of the few times in Egypt's history, women had highly visible governing roles. The political tactics and strong-arm maneuvers of the Cleopatras rank as some of the most daring and ruthless acts ever undertaken by rulers, of either gender.

The Ptolemaic Period began with a lively exuberance. Alexander the Great freed Egypt from oppressive Persian rule and founded Alexandria. A few decades later, one of Alexander's former generals declared himself sovereign of Egypt and became Ptolemy I. The ancient capital of Memphis, with its high-ranking native priests and rich, millennia-long history, retained a key role for the next three centuries, though it was quickly eclipsed by Alexandria, which emerged as an extraordinary metropolis. Ptolemy II built the famous library and embellished his court with influential writers and intellectuals from the Greek world. From the beginning, the rulers established a relationship with native priests, who had a dominant leadership role in the country. Ptolemy II founded the highly successful native cult honoring his wife and sister Arsinoe II. This powerful woman became an enduring model for subsequent queens. The Egyptian priest Manetho wrote his famous history of Egypt--in Greek for Greek readers--in these first years.

By the second half of the third century, there were signs that the early success was about to unravel. Ptolemy III built Alexandria's most honored temple, the Serapeum, and he extended Ptolemaic Egypt to its greatest geographic reach through military conquest and strategic alliance. His wife, Berenice II, was celebrated in the work of the Alexandrian poet Callimachus. During a campaign abroad, however, Ptolemy III was forced to return home in 245 B.C. to quell a native rebellion. His son, Ptolemy IV, triumphed against the Seleucid king Antiochus III at the Battle of Raphia in 217 B.C., but he was unable to overcome continuing internal unrest, which culminated in the declaration of an Egyptian counterpharaoh called Haronnophris in Thebes in 206 B.C. The rebellion was not suppressed for two decades.

Developments in the second century demonstrated both the powerful potential of the Ptolemaic dynasty and its tendency toward self-destruction. The century began with two boy-kings, Ptolemies V and VI. Ptolemy V married the Seleucid princess Cleopatra I, the first in a series of like-named queens. During his rule, Egypt lost most of its foreign possessions. The king was poisoned by his generals in 180 B.C., leaving the young Cleopatra I to serve as regent over the boy Ptolemy VI until she died a few years later. The teenaged Ptolemy VI's rule was threatened when the Seleucid King Antiochus IV invaded Egypt twice, in 170/169 B.C. and again in 168 B.C. Ptolemaic sovereignty was maintained only with the help of Rome, whose military might was beginning to cast a shadow over the eastern Mediterranean. Ptolemy VI married his sister, the formidable Cleopatra II. Their subsequent triple monarchy with rival-brother Ptolemy VIII soon dissolved into a conflict that initiated a long line of bitter intradynastic feuds. After partially restoring the tarnished fortunes of the Ptolemaic state, the mature Ptolemy VI died from wounds sustained in battle against the Seleucid King Alexander Balas.

The reign of Ptolemy VIII, one of the dynasty's longest, was also its most notorious. Nicknamed Physkon ("fat man" or "pot belly"), this king married his sister (and former sister-in-law) Cleopatra II and then his niece and stepdaughter Cleopatra III. The three shared the throne, alternating between proclamations of dynastic unity and highly public, vicious attacks against each other. During a civil war in 132-124 B.C., Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III fled to Cyprus, and Cleopatra II became sole ruler in Alexandria. In revenge, Ptolemy VIII murdered his son by Cleopatra II and sent the dismembered remains to his sister-wife, for delivery the night before her birthday. Despite these vicissitudes, the second century was a time of much temple building in Upper Egypt. Projects at Dendera, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae were initiated or continued. Like the early Ptolemies, those of the second century cultivated relations with the native priesthood, now with a more urgent need to forestall periodic intervals of native unrest. Another Egyptian counterpharaoh, Harsiese, arose in Thebes in 131/130 B.C.

Following the demise of Ptolemy VIII in 116 B.C., Cleopatra III became the dominant royal power for about fifteen years. The dead king's will left the Ptolemaic kingdom to her and the son of her choice. The queen initially selected Ptolemy IX, forcing him to divorce his first wife and later conspiring to have him sent into exile in 107 B.C. Cleopatra III then ruled with Ptolemy X until she was murdered at his behest in 101 B.C. She was enormously powerful and assumed many royal male prerogatives, including going to battle.

Egypt gradually slid into Rome's grasp during the final century of Ptolemaic rule. Roman intervention was needed to place Ptolemy XII on the throne, to reinstate him after his subjects drove him out of the country, and to settle the succession among his four children. Cleopatra VII brilliantly succeeded in her relationships with two of the most powerful Romans of her time, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and bore children by both of them. She had high aspirations for her son by Caesar, Ptolemy XV Caesarion.

Strong cultivation of relations with the native population continued under the last rulers. Ptolemy XII had an Egyptian-style coronation at Memphis in 76 B.C. Cleopatra VII was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn to speak Egyptian. In a final bid to secure the fortunes of the Ptolemaic kingdom, Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony fought Octavian at the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C. The couple's defeat marked the end of Ptolemaic rule.

Earlier Studies

The study of Egyptian-style, Ptolemaic royal portraiture has its roots in a chapter in Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing's seminal Denkmäler ägyptischer Sculptur, published in the early twentieth century. For the first time, this Egyptologist gathered together many sculptures and studied differences between purely Egyptian examples and those having Greek features. Since Bissing's work, no Egyptologist has attempted a comprehensive examination of Ptolemaic royal portraits, though some broad-based studies have analyzed selected sculptures. In 1960, the highly influential exhibition catalogue Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period, 700 B.C. to A.D. 100 dated a handful of Ptolemaic royal sculptures using a rigorous stylistic analysis. Now known as ESLP, the book argued for Greek influence on Egyptian sculptures, building on ideas from historians of Greek art. In 1988, Robert S. Bianchi's Cleopatra's Egypt critically reappraised the existing body of scholarship. This exhibition catalogue's polemical rejection of Greek influence on Egyptian sculpture was extreme, but it was instrumental in fostering a more balanced view of these interactions. Bianchi layered religious and historical information on top of stylistic analysis. In 1997, Jack Josephson published Egyptian Royal Sculpture of the Late Period, 400-246 B.C. He made significant progress in isolating portraits of Dynasty 30 and the early Ptolemaic Period, and clarified the dating of some works erroneously placed in the fourth century. During these decades, other scholars wrote articles on individual sculptures. H. W. Müller expanded on ESLP's stylistic analysis techniques, and Klaus Parlasca innovatively compared Greek- and Egyptian-style sculptures and used clay sealing portraits as an attribution tool.

Classicists have produced the most comprehensive studies of Ptolemaic royal portraits, approaching the material from a Greek rather than an Egyptian viewpoint. Helmut Kyrieleis's Bildnisse der Ptolemäer of 1975, which treated primarily marble portraits, was a breakthrough study in its scope, identification techniques, and ideas about Greek and Egyptian interaction. Stylistic and portrait analysis formed the core of the approach. Kyrieleis continues to publish important treatments, particularly in the promising and abundant field of clay sealing portraits. R. R. R. Smith dealt extensively with the Ptolemies in his 1988 book Hellenistic Royal Portraits, a far-reaching analysis that did much to define the purpose of portraiture, as well as to debunk a plethora of attributions. Smith generally eschewed stylistic analysis in favor of a sociopolitical approach based on the study of ancient texts.

Though the contributions of Classicists have been valuable, their perspective has led to an incomplete understanding of the Egyptian nature of the material. First and foremost, Egyptian-style portraits of the Ptolemies, even those with Greek features, remain strongly rooted in native conventions. The sculptures need to be viewed in this light. Furthermore, classicists have focused on the Egyptian portraits with Greek hair and faces, leaving the remaining majority of statues in obscurity. This analysis seeks to correct that imbalance.

An Expanded Methodology

The present study uses prior ones as a foundation, but seeks to expand the methodology with two important aims. First, it looks to develop an integrated approach spanning ancient texts, archaeological evidence, royal attributes, kingship ideology, and portrait and stylistic analysis. Second, it aims to construct an Egyptological framework for understanding sculptures that have been predominantly viewed from a Classicist perspective.

Succeeding chapters are arranged to build toward these goals. Chapter 2 examines the textual evidence of the priestly decrees such as the one on the Rosetta Stone, which is famed for its role in the modern decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. These texts are precise in defining why royal images should be created, where they should be placed, and how they should function. Chapter 3 uses archaeological information to critically reexamine assumptions about the physical context of Ptolemaic sculpture. New excavations in Alexandria and Canopus are providing increasing clarity on where royal statues were set up, particularly on how images in the capital may have differed from the other parts of Egypt. Statue types, poses, scale, material, attributes, and inscriptions are surveyed in Chapter 4 to understand how these contributed to the visual impact and meaning of royal imagery. The significance of Egyptian royal headdresses such as the double crown is studied in relationship to Greek additions, such as the cornucopia, the horn of plenty. Chapter 5 explores the Ptolemaic dynasty's ideological aims, as outlined in their Egyptian royal titularies and other sources, to determine how well they were integrated with royal portraits. Individual sculptures are examined to understand how they reflected the conceptions of their time, most importantly why "Greekness" was highlighted through the addition of Greek hair and faces. Chapter 6 establishes a chronological framework by gathering together Ptolemaic royal portraits, both Greek- and Egyptian-style, that can be dated by inscription, archaeological context, or comparative analysis. Previously established chronological points are reviewed and new ones introduced. Criteria for dating other portraits are established.

Chapter 7 comprises attributions of sculptures to specific rulers and time frames. This excerise was both rewarding and difficult. Unlike other periods in Egyptian royal portraiture, the Ptolemaic era is curiously susceptible to the scholarly inclusion of works from other eras, including the modern one. Estimating conservatively, about one-quarter of the Egyptian royal sculptures identified as Ptolemaic in current scholarly literature do not belong there, in my view. If one adds the opinions expressed in auction catalogs, the number rises to half! What is responsible for this astounding situation? First, there is a willingness to read oddities in a sculpture as the product of Egyptian and Greek cultural interactions rather than modern workmanship. Second, there is a related misunderstanding of the possible range of portraits and sculptural styles for the Ptolemaic Period. Though most scholarship to date has focused on assigning sculptures to individual rulers, progress has been slow. Attributions have suffered from a piecemeal approach and an uneven methodology.

This book seeks to rectify this state of affairs by questioning Ptolemaic dates for many sculptures, and by relating portraits to the sociopolitical and religious developments of their time. Ptolemaic royal sculptures are alternatively youthful/aged, trim/corpulent, and benign/forceful in support of a ruler's or the dynasty's ideological viewpoints. Stylistic analysis--a detailed examination of how eyes, mouth, body, and other features are sculptured--is employed, albeit with caution. There is much stylistic diversity in the Hellenistic era, suggesting that a clear, singular path of development should not be expected. Instead, there is a multilayered progression. Stylistic analysis is also useful in exposing sculptures that do not belong in the Ptolemaic Period, particularly modern imitations (Appendix B). The resulting series of attributions, though imperfect because of the incomplete state of our knowledge, nonetheless provides an increased clarity that can serve as the foundation for future research.

The final chapter takes a look at royal sculptors and stylistic trends of the Ptolemaic Period. Although textual sources give an impression of how the rulers and their priestly advisors viewed royal imagery, we have scant written evidence of what ideas and talents sculptors contributed. Nevertheless, their achievements are visible in preserved sculptures. Like the Ptolemies, the sculptors had a strong vantage point. They looked back to Egypt's long history of achievement and around them at the new ideas emerging from the Greek Hellenistic milieu. By combining elements of disparate cultures, these sculptors masterfully portrayed Greek kings who were Egyptian pharaohs.



“This study of Ptolemaic royal statuary will be an outstanding resource for scholars and of considerable interest to the general reader. As an Egyptological reference and as a model for the application of the methodology of art historical analysis, it should stand unchallenged for many years.... a work of encyclopedic breadth and impeccable scholarship.”
Jack A. Josephson, author of Egyptian Royal Sculpture of the Late Period, 400-246 B.C.