Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 8.

J. G. Manning, The Last Pharaohs: Egypt under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. xvi + 264, incl. 18 black-and- white illustrations. ISBN 978-0-691-14262- 3. UK£27.95.

John Atkinson
School of Languages and Literatures, University of Cape Town

Manning, with numerous previous publications in the field of Ptolemaic studies to his credit, here plunges straight into the issues which he proposes to address, and dispenses with the customary historical survey of the Ptolemaic period. His brief historical introduction is entitled 'Egypt in the First Millennium BC’ (pp. 19-28), and picks up the story from the end of the New Kingdom, giving more space to Persian rule than to the period of Alexander and Ptolemy. This is appropriate as he identifies with the trend in scholarship over the last three decades to lay greater stress on Egyptian culture in the Ptolemaic era, and on Persian administrative practices (p. 2).

Manning takes issue with those who have assessed the Ptolemaic system from the viewpoint of modern European states. In Chapter 2, 'The Historical Understanding of the Ptolemaic State’ (pp. 29-54), he illustrates the continuing attraction for some historians of the inappropriate model of colonialism, as represented by the British Raj. Then in Chapter 3, 'Moving beyond Despotism’ (pp. 55-72), he argues that neither the despotic, nor the dirigiste model does justice to the portrayal of the Ptolemaic economy. He contests the idea that Ptolemaic Egypt was a failed state (pp. 64-66), and rejects the older application of 'stark dichotomies’ between Asiatic and Antique modes of production, or between modernizing Greek and passive Asian institutions. He likewise dismisses a fashion of the 1990s to apply the term apartheid to Ptolemaic Egypt, albeit in the limited sense of 'cultural genocide’ or de facto separation, for he notes the absence of 'ideological racism’ and the presence of evidence that makes nonsense of the idea of cultural genocide (p. 64; cf. 178 on the legal system).

Still it is difficult to make any generalisations about that system without using terminology that the modern reader would consider value-free. Manning would see the key to understanding how the Ptolemies established their authority and maintained it over three centuries as their ability to negotiate a working relationship with the different groups that made up that society. Thus he finds in the system ample evidence of state flexibility (p. 120), and stresses the importance of considering 'the dynamics between the state and local groups’ (p. 120). It is tempting to introduce clichés of the 'noughties’, but Manning is careful to aim for relatively neutral terminology and thus, for example, refers to 'key constituent groups’ (p. 77), where the flippant (or zealot) might substitute 'stake-holders’. His line is that greater emphasis can, and should be, placed now on the relationships between the king and Egyptian society because of the greater availability of 'demotic Egyptian and hieroglyphic texts . . . and archaeological material’ (p. 202).

He presents his book as 'a synthesis of what is an increasingly dominant paradigm in Ptolemaic studies that attempts to strike a balance between Egyptian and Greek culture and institutions, and between state aims and historical experience’(p. 5).

The introductory chapters on the broad issues of approach are relatively thin on evidential detail, but the shift in balance is well established by Chapter 4, 'Shaping a New State’ (pp. 73-116). Still, the level of direct analysis of source documents that are introduced ranges from adequate to minimal. Thus the reader gets some real sense of what the Milon archive contains and means (pp. 117-20); but while a photograph is offered of the inscription from Bir 'Iayyan attesting Rhodon as a toparch (p. 114), the only piece of the text translated is the specific reference to Rhodon. Then there is an Appendix giving Manning’s 'rough and ready and slightly abridged’ translation of 'the trial record of the property dispute held at the temple of Wepwawet in Asyut . . . 170 BC before the local laokritae-judges’ (pSiut 1, pp. 207-16). This last item is clearly a very valuable addition to the book, but though it is by far the longest source document in the volume it is not accompanied by a commentary, and is covered by only brief allusions in the text (pp. 135, 183 and 195). It must therefore be appreciated that this does not claim to be a source book with commentary.

Important to Manning’s case in Chapter 4 is his compelling argument that Ptolemais typified 'the "multi-ethnic" character of Ptolemaic foundations in Egypt’ (p. 112). He contests the notion that Ptolemais was a bastion of hellenism in southern Egypt, and argues that the purpose of its foundation was control, not hellenization (p. 110), establishing a 'royal area’ at a strategic spot, where there may have been a pre-Ptolemaic settlement, and in proximity to a significant Egyptian community.

Chapter 5, 'Creating a new Economic Order’ (pp. 117-64), is particularly worthwhile, with a good mix of theory, models, and historical examples. The sections on cities, and technology (pp. 157-63) are useful. The introduction of coinage and the Ptolemaic move to taxation by coinage are explained as part of 'the imposition of a larger political order’ (pp. 132f., cf., p. 206). As for 'the so-called price inflation’ that was marked in the reign of Ptolemy IV, Manning attributes it to 'multiple re-tariffings of the bronze coins against silver and coin’ (p. 158). The scale and escalation of the problem would seem to call for fuller treatment.

In Chapter 6, 'Order and Law’ (pp. 165- 201), Manning argues that the approach was to systematise and accommodate Egyptian legal traditions (p. 206), and where new rules were introduced they tended to be there to protect and facilitate revenue collection rather than to be developmental in intent. The distinct Greek and Egyptian legal systems naturally predominated according to the demographic profile of the community, but it appears that, just as in language there might be code- switching to suit the individual’s needs, so Egyptians would feel free to seek a remedy through whichever available system seemed more promising. Thus Manning rightly rejects the idea that there was anything like an apartheid juridical regime. Indeed the record of cases involving persons of different ethnic groups or status, and the interplay of different legal systems illustrated by the case brought by Hermias in 117 BC against an Egyptian family, foreshadow the pattern we see somewhat later and further north in the extraordinary archive of the Nabataean lady, Babatha.

In the context of the events in Egypt in February 2011, one might wish to see more comment on manifestations of resistance to rule by an alien autocrat -- ethnic assertions which ranged from overt revolt to 'industrial action', passive resistance and chauvinist literature including messianic prophecies[[1]] and revisionist history, as seen in the Alexander Romance. It would also be helpful to have more on the changes of attitude over time. Manning deals briefly with the issue of periodization (pp. 75-77), but, whereas that would suggest increasing resentment towards the Ptolemies, Manning dwells rather on the way that Egyptians were increasingly drawn into the state system, as was bound to happen with the growing need to have contracts, agreements and financial records in both Greek and Egyptian.[[2]] He assumes that most Egyptians’ attitude to the Ptolemies bordered on indifference (p. 203). Recent events might make one wonder. It also remains to ask how Egyptian attitudes were coloured by interaction, however limited, with other immigrant groups -- in particular with Jews.[[3]]

Quibbles would include the inaccuracy in dating Ptolemy’s assumption of the royal title to 306 (p. 86), the over-simplified organigrams, and a few omissions from the Bibliography, including Bresson (article on Naucratis signalled at p. 23, n. 11). But overall Manning’s book is a very useful addition to literature on Ptolemaic Egypt.


[[1]] There is a reference to The Oracle of the Potter and the Papyrus Jumilhac at p. 98. Various forms of resistance to the Ptolemies were well reviewed by S. K. Eddy, The King is Dead: Studies in the Near Eastern Resistance to Hellenism (Lincoln, Nebraska 1961), which is not included in Manning’s bibliography.

[[2]] The use of demotic was in decline by the second half of the second century BC (p. 193), giving way to Greek (p. 204).

[[3]] Perhaps xenophobic reaction to immigrants and Ptolemaic policies of making Egyptians feel secure in their traditional systems helped the Egyptians to retain a common identity as Egyptians.