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“I have known uncertainty: a state unknown to the Greeks”*…

 

Octadrachm, reverse: jugate portrait Ptolemy I and Berenice I, Alexandria, 260–240 BCE

The Ptolemies who ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries, from about 320 to 31 BCE, had a difficult dual part to play: that of Hellenistic monarchs, in the mold of Alexander the Great, and, simultaneously, Egyptian pharaohs. The founding father of their line, Ptolemy I Soter (“Savior”), a Macedonian general in Alexander’s army of conquest, secured rule over Egypt amid the confusion following his king’s death, crowned himself monarch in 306 BCE. But he bequeathed to his heirs—the fourteen other Ptolemies who would succeed him, not to mention several Cleopatras—a difficult demographic and geopolitical position. The Ptolemies’ palace complex, staffed by a European elite, stood in Alexandria, one of the world’s original Green Zones, a Greek-style city founded on a strongly fortified isthmus facing the Mediterranean. To the south, nearly cut off by the vast marshes of Lake Mareotis, lived most of their Egyptian subjects. Some scholars have reckoned the country’s ratio of Egyptians to Greco-Macedonians at ten to one…

Find out how the Greeks did it at “When the Greeks Ruled Egypt.” (Spoiler alert:  it involved respect for and tolerance of Egyptian religious and social beliefs.  Genghis Khan operated in a similar fashion; more modern empires, not so much…)

* Jorge Luis Borges

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As we go native, we might spare a thought for Aristophanes; he died on this date in 386 BCE (or so many scholars deduce; the exact date has not been documented).  A poet and dramatist, Aristophanes– whose works are the sole surviving examples of what is known as “Old Comedy”– is widely known as as “the Father of Comedy.”  His eleven surviving plays essentially laid the foundation for satire as we know it, and have a significance that goes beyond this artistic value: Aristophanes acute observations of classical Athens are perhaps as important as historical documents as the writings of Thucydides.  They had impact in their own time, as well.  His powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries; Plato singled out Aristophanes’ play The Clouds as slander that contributed to the trial and subsequent condemning to death of Socrates (although other satirical playwrights had also caricatured the philosopher). His second play, The Babylonians (now lost), was sufficiently scathing to be denounced by the demagogue Cleon as a slander against the Athenian polis.  Aristophanes survived The Peloponnesian War, two oligarchic revolutions, and two democratic restorations– evidence that he was not himself actively involved in politics; rather, an objective “commentator.”  In this, he agreed with Socrates (as “reported” by Plato in The Apology): “he who will fight for the right, if he would live even for a brief space, must have a private station and not a public one.”

Illustration from a bust found near Tusculum (likely altogether imaginary, as Aristophanes was reportedly bald)

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Written by LW

November 11, 2014 at 1:01 am

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