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Research project: Philo of Alexandria and the Memory of Ptolemaic Rule

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History has not been kind to the memory of the Ptolemaic monarchy (305-30 BCE). Against this background, the Alexandrian Jew Philo (c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE) offers an alternative, ‘insider’ view from Egypt.

He writes just a few decades after the death of the last of the Ptolemaic rulers, Cleopatra VII and her son Ptolemy XV Caesarion (30 BCE). Current scholarship rightly emphasizes the importance of Philo’s Roman context, though his attitude towards Roman rule – whether positive or negative – remains a matter of real debate. As regards his evaluation of Ptolemaic rulers, however, Philo does not promote the dominant negative tradition of the Augustan propaganda against Cleopatra VII and her predecessors.

In his reflections on the rise and fall of great empires, Philo gives special prominence to the passing of the ‘house of the Ptolemies’ as a world power worthy of memory. Philo also writes with great pride of ‘our Alexandria’ and its magnificent monuments, many of which had been constructed under the great Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 282-246 BCE). With regard to this Ptolemy, Philo greatly enhances earlier Jewish traditions of praise for this monarch. In his biography of Moses, Philo introduces Ptolemy II as an outstanding representative of non-Jewish admiration for the teachings of Moses. In his patronage of the translation of the books of Moses into Greek, Ptolemy II is (so Philo) the greatest of all kings for undertaking this task of ‘universal benefit’. Philo’s reflections on the king’s (posthumous) epithet, Philadelphus’ (sibling loving), avoids any reference to its original connection with the king’s marriage to his sister Arsinoe, and focuses instead on Ptolemy’s outstanding benefactions to the human world. Even to the present day, claims Philo, ‘after so many generations, Ptolemy’s fame is sung for the many proofs and memorials of his greatness of mind’ (Philo, Moses 2.29). Of all the great ‘Philadelphian’ monuments, the greatest (Philo insists) is the translation of the Torah.

In his emphasis on the exceptional distinction of this king among all monarchs, Philo expands a theme already present in the Letter of Aristeas (a Jewish composition, and a rare example of a substantial prose work from Ptolemaic Egypt); but, in important respects, Philo’s extreme praise for Ptolemy echoes in particular the words of Theocritus, working at the court of Ptolemy II, ‘But of men let Ptolemy be named in first place, at the end and in the middle, for he is the best of men’.

Overall, Philo’s works reveal a striking absence of negative comments about the recently defunct Ptolemaic dynasty, an absence that is particularly remarkable in the wider context of Augustan propaganda against Cleopatra VII and her family, and the prevalence of negative traditions about, or erasure of the memory of the Ptolemies. Philo’s evaluation of Ptolemaic rulers is rooted in earlier Jewish traditions as well as in a positive memory of the realities of Jewish life under Ptolemaic rule.

The Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies for 2015-16 funded the project

‘Israel in Egypt’. Convened by Professor Alison Salvesen (Oxford) and Professor Sarah Pearce (Southampton), together with Professor Miriam Frenkel (Hebrew University, Jerusalem). The project funded a team of more than 10 international scholars for a 6-month period, culminating in a two-day conference at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (20-21 June 2016).  The project findings will be published as an edited volume incorporating twenty-four studies: Israel in Egypt: the Land of Egypt as Concept and Reality for Jews in Antiquity and the Early Medieval Period (ed. Alison Salvesen, Sarah Pearce and Miriam Frenkel, with the assistance of Daniel Crowther; Leiden: Brill, 2020).

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