A few thoughts about Late Hellenistic Egypt

A few weeks ago I was in a bar with a friend of mine, a diplomatic/US and the World historian. In the course of our conversation, we stumbled onto late-Hellenistic Egypt and Cleopatra, a topic I was to give a lecture on to my advisor’s class. I mentioned Egypt’s relative weakness and, in my opinion, unimportance in the first century BCE. He was taken aback by the way I dismissed Egypt, noting the glamor, the wealth, the prestige, and the grain. I shrugged and alluded to Augustan propaganda and the work of another diplomatic historian slated to take up a post here at the university in the fall.

Before I expand on these thoughts, I should lay my biases on the table. I don’t like Ptolemy (#teamSeleucus) and Egypt itself holds minimal allure for me. Certain issues do, certainly, but I have limited interest in the poetry, the technology and bureaucratic apparatus of the state, or even the dynastic intrigue and incest. Some of this disinterest is my dislike of Ptolemy, some of it is my contrarian streak in that Ptolemaic Egypt gets a ton of attention because there is evidence for it, not necessarily because it is inherently interesting. Yes, it has its place and I am grudgingly grateful for their diligence in appropriating literary works. But Egypt, with all its potential is not “all that,” so to speak.

The potential is the key here. Egypt is comparatively defensible as an entity compared to the other Hellenistic kingdoms, the Nile is potentially prosperous in agricultural products, and Alexandria is well situated for trade in the Mediterranean. But by the first century BCE, the Ptolemies were not capitalizing on this potential. There were problems collecting taxes, as well as droughts (despite the Nile’s reputation, this did happen at times–the story of Joseph comes to mind). There were also local rebellions with a variety of causes and Egypt lacked a native military infrastructure, so the kingdom relied on mercenaries. Add in dynastic intrigue–exiles, assassinations, and children aspiring to rule in the place of their parents– and this is not a situation conducive to exploiting the potential.

But what about the scene of Antony cutting off Rome’s grain supply? Rome did get grain from Egypt–one figure gives ⅓ of the total imports came from the Nile. “Rome” used more Egyptian grain than that, too, but the Urbs Roma usually imported most of its grain from North Africa and Sicily. Without looking into it too deeply, I would more equate Egyptian grain to Middle Eastern oil. The US doesn’t get much oil from the Middle East, but it needs oil from the region for two things: military use and price regulation. The US needs x amount of oil in the system or else the price will rise prohibitively and the US needs to supply troops in the Middle East and Europe where it is more cost-effective to purchase it locally. Rome did locally supply troops as best it was able, including legions along the northern frontier raising cattle for meat and leather and republican armies requisitioned supplies (or accepted gifts, same thing) from client kingdoms, including Egypt. By the same token, Rome needed to keep grain prices to remain stable in the Mediterranean, particularly since Urbs Roma was not the only large city that needed to import grain, so the halt of the Egyptian supply could cause a catastrophic economic ripple effect, but not necessarily because people in Rome were starving from the outset.

The last piece of this puzzle is Octavian. the master manipulator portrayed his war against Antony as a war of salvation against a powerful, extravagant other that could threaten rome. Sicily and Africa had also both suffered during the decades of civil war, so the grain supply was not as abundant in the 30s as it was at other times. Of course, Octavian had every reason to exaggerate the wealth and threat of Egypt, its corrupting influence on Antony, and the dire consequences of the grain supply in order to justify his war against Antony. Actium and the rest of the campaign were only as close as they were because they predominantly pitted Octavian’s Roman legions against Antony’s Roman legions. Egypt provided troops, sure, but Roman forces had defeated the Egyptian mercenaries in at least two invasions in the past decades and Egypt’s territory had only approached the boundaries of the early Ptolemies because Antony had given territory back to Cleopatra (and usually left the Roman tax farmers in place). Antony may have intended this to be a permanent restoration and to create a series of client kingdoms ruled by his and Cleopatra’s children, but the power still flowed from Rome. Egypt had enough potential that Octavian was prudent to take it for himself, but in the first century BCE the myth of Ptolemaic Egypt created by the early Ptolemies and encouraged by Octavian far outpaced Egypt’s actual position in the Mediterranean system.

Assorted Links

  1. A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical-An op-ed in the New York Times that suggests that while nobody likes to be criticized, having these flaws is part of what it is to be human, and that real criticism is not petty putdowns, but thoughtful response.
  2. Ira Glass: By the BookAn interview in the Sunday Book Review with Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life.” He says that he would like to meet Edgar Allen Poe, but “I don’t have a question, but dude just seems like he could use a hug.”
  3. Siberian princess reveals her 2,500 year old tattoos-From the Siberian Times, an ancient mummy is being returned to the Altai Republic. Research and tests on her body reveal significant tattoos. There is a local movement to prevent further archeological digs in the area, particularly since the mound where this mummy was found is a sacred burial ground (though the ethnic group in antiquity is not at all related to the present inhabitants).
  4. Yemen: Days of Reckoning– A feature in National Geographic that examines the massive upheaval that is taking place in Yemen.
  5. Roman Frontiers-A feature in National Geographic that looks at the limes or boundaries of the Roman Empire. It charts a rather standard line on most of the issues here (except Hadrian’s beard), though the claims that the frontier strategy could not withstand a large, determined foe, is misleading since it seems that the Roman opponents around the time that the frontiers collapsed were actually weaker than Roman enemies of earlier times, but the Romans were proportionally even weaker. The article offers the Roman walls as a comparison to some of the wall-building today, but the lack of ability and lack of space for the author to actually grapple with the socio-political and economic causes for Roman decline makes the comparison superficial. There probably are comparisons to be drawn, but a deeper understanding and explanation of both the Roman frontiers and the modern situations (including intent, maintenance, and determination about keeping the walls impermeable) is needed before the comparison can really work.
  6. America’s Worst Historians-Via Jonathan Jones, a story in Salon about plagarism and the perpetuation of histories that lack rigorous standards, but are popular because of the ease of reading and catchy premises.
  7. Alcohol Apartheid: The New Turkish Laws that Segregate Drinkers– An article in the Atlantic about some new laws in Istanbul that seek to make certain neighborhoods in the city “dry,” thereby segregating drinkers to certain areas rather than tolerating a mixture of secular and religious groups (and tourists) that, in some ways, defines Istanbul.
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Democracy, republicanism and war

Are democracies inherently flawed when it comes to running a war? Does a strong executive (to use the modern terminology) make the running of a war more efficient, if not always more successful?

Thucydides would say so, and indeed he lays the blame for Athenian defeat mostly at the hands on the demagogues, who were non-aristocrats who became leaders. Lincoln and Roosevelt would also say so, and both took extraordinary steps to suspend basic liberties in light of wars, intending to relinquish their hold once the crisis passed. Romans would agree, having two consuls run the war efforts, but when times became most critical they nominated a dictator to take over all power for six months and completely direct the war effort. Napoleon would agree, Han Solo would agree, and every president since Vietnam would agree, the list goes on.

The virtue of having a sole, or very small group of leaders does not guarantee success in a war, and in some instances the virtue of having one person in command of the overall strategy could guarantee defeat, but there is not the fickle aspect of democracy and there is a time when one person needs to step to the fore and expedite the process.

Historical narrative, largely a created phenomenon

There is only so much complication that the human mind can comprehend; once complexity reaches a certain level, one that is different for each person, the ability to perceive the interplay amongst each component disappears. In books, movies and TV shows, this results in a limited number of main protagonists and antagonists. If the scope is not contained, then the story feels disjointed and convoluted to the audience.

The same is true in the study of history and in particular ancient history. Rome is a simple example; there is Rome and the “others.” The intricacies of the Roman state may be infinitely complicated, deep and full of characters pulling for one agenda or another, but when it comes to identifying a period as a historical one that can be covered in a continuous narrative, Rome is the ultimate. In fact, Rome is so much of a historical era that it is written in three or more eras: the republic, the empire and the fall. Of course each of those eras can be further broken down into smaller narratives, but such is always the case.

The nature of “Greece” makes even this level of narrative more difficult as nearly every city was a polis and each polis was an autonomous state. This has not stopped historians from covering the so-called Golden Age as a historical narrative, but they tend to actually be covering Athens and Sparta, with other city states such as Corinth, Thebes and Megara appearing as side, rather than main, characters. There is some justification for this decision, largely resting in the dearth of information from most Greek city states and the undeniable preeminence of Athens and Sparta. This said, it is still an artificial creation.

This brief introduction in the creation of historical periods and narratives leads up to the Hellenistic Age, called because it saw the spread of Greek-ish (as Hellenistic implies) culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of Asia. Loosely this period is defined from Alexander’s death until the advent of Rome, but when precisely it ends it difficult to say. This seems a solid block of time that could well be considered for a narrative, yet almost every historical book on the age covers three narratives, one-third of the whole narrative or only covers it in topical format. My proposition is that this stems from there being three main Hellenistic Kingdoms, each with their own peculiarities and issues. Then there are the Greek city states and two further Kingdom’s of sorts, one the Attalid state in Pergamum and the other the city state of Syracuse. All in all, the Hellenistic age is complex, but even with several thorough books on many of these issues, most scholarship and writing is set on avoiding the other end of the spectrum, which is to say that all three Hellenistic kingdoms were the same and therefore can be painted with one brush.

Security vs Stability

In the post-Soviet world we live in, borders are largely static. The borders of the United States, for example, have been set since World War II; The borders of the United Kingdom have been consistent since then, Britain for longer. Since the second world war, the borders of all Western Europe have been stable. In the last 20 years much of the rest of the world has had the same happen. Sure, Kosovo has demanded independence, Russia is claiming Georgian provinces, Chechnya and Tibet would like to be independent and there are some other border and sovereignty disputes, but there is no concept that the only way to maintain stability for a nation is to dominate the world around. Static borders are considered important for sovereignty and to demarcate boundaries for defense, not a sign of weakness.

In antiquity static defense was weakness. If a state had to react instead of forcing others to react, then it was weak. Lycurgus knew this when he made his third law: to make war on all neighbors, but none too frequently. Sparta was a pristine land that was almost never violated for hundreds of years, but more than intrinsic fear of the unbeatable warriors, Sparta was largely inviolate because they spent all of their time attacking others instead.

Such was the case with Athens, a paradox, wherein it was routinely invaded by land and considered weak because of it, but strong because it could go on the offensive via sea. Such was the case in Macedonia where the strength of the state was reckoned by the ability to expand into its neighbors, culminating with Alexander’s sweep across Asia. And such was the case with Rome where Hadrian received derision because of his decision to cease expansion and lay down firm, physical borders (including the wall that bears his name).

Perhaps today the equivalent to this physical domination of others being the route to safety is the mobilization of economic power to subdue troublesome nations in the form of sanctions and by the maxim of Lycurgus as applied to US foreign policy post World Wars.

The Tapestry of History.

There is safety in simplicity. In limits. In boundaries.

There is safety in precision and detail.

There is mortal danger those traits too.

Aside from Thucydides, upon whom I could dwell ad nauseum, the two historians for whom I have the most respect and desire to emulate are Livy and Edward Gibbon. Whatever their faults, whatever their own limitations, both sought to see the broad picture. Both were undaunted by the enormity of their respective projects. Where other historians may blanch at the corners cut to achieve a unified vision and at the scope involved, I imagine that these two would, perhaps, view the historical ventures of today as too limited, too inconsequential to be of value.

Livy spent much of his life writing his history entitled Ab Urbe Condite, or From the Founding of the City. The story opens with his profession that he would rather dwell in the glorious past than the troubled present and that this pursuit is his passion; Livy, the first self-professed history nerd dedicated his life to this project because he loved it—and he loved Rome. The single-minded goal in this treatise was to prove that Rome was the greatest nation to ever exist.

Gibbon wrote about the opposite end of the Roman experience: the collapse into the middle ages, yes, but also into the “modern world.” In fact, Gibbon wrote so much on the topic that most editions today are abridged and it takes a daring soul to actually read the full text (Livy has no such problem, in part because most of his work is absent). The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whether abridged or in full, takes the reader through over a thousand years of Roman history, with examination of people, religion, government, and other causes throughout. While sticklers will be quick to point out that Gibbon was biased rather thoroughly himself, any pragmatist would be quick to point out that there is no such thing as an objective historian and that it is actually the core duty of the historian to judge that which has come before, both in the events and in what was written.

Neither the start of, nor the end of the Roman Empire is what I wish to spend my life studying and it is not what Livy and Gibbon were saying that I admire, it is how they sought to say it. Individual events, details and nuances have their value to history, but as clarification and elaboration upon a greater whole. From this logic, the ideal history must be entitled “The Concise History of Human Existence, a summation.” Of course this concept is too much for even the greatest of human minds to conceive and would therefore be broken down into subunits that would form the larger picture.

In the interest of practicality my suggested history should never be written. It would not further scholarship, but would only serve to entangle those writing it. At the same time historians should not be afraid of challenges, of using a wide-angle lens and of using scholarship on the particulars to draw together the larger themes into the grand tapestry of history.

Classes

First, I have been remiss in posting just because I have had a lot going on in life, almost none of which pertains to my study of history, but I hope to rectify this by writing about various things I pick up, mostly from the books I am currently reading.

Second, I have been designing classes for almost a year now, in effect just picking topics I am interested in knowing more about or that would make an interesting class or that I would like to teach.

The first class I made was with a fellowship from Brandeis University in which I designed a course on the fall of the Roman Empire, tracing it from the mid 200’s until 1400, largely with the help of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I think I did well and could find myself teaching it if called upon, but it was not my favorite subject.

The second class that I decided upon was a class on classical eduction. It is designed as a freshman seminar (for Brandeis students, think USEM), wherein it looks at the classical tradition, why it is important and makes people think about requirements and what they want to do. In part I chose to do this because of one book I read, and in part it is because I think I would have benefited from a course about it. At present the course is about 1/3 set and I need to find some of the additional books I lined up for it.

The second class I am currently working on is one that I only thought of today. It is still in the brainstorming phase, but I am thinking it would be on scandals in the ancient world and going against cultural norms. Like I said, I don’t have anything on paper yet, but I was thinking about selecting a number of scandalous situations and the characters involved and then going from there. The list so far includes The Queen of Bythinia, Alcibiades (his divorce and other scandalous behavior), Agrippina and Nero (Nero’s boat designed to collapse and kill her), and Procopius’ secret history.