Africa: Greek and Roman Perspectives from Homer to Apuleius

4. Imperialism: The Persians and Alexander the Great

Foreign rule next came from the east. The Persians, under Cambyses II, invaded Egypt in 525 BCE. Persian rule in Egypt was not continuous: there was a period of Egyptian revolt, but Artaxerxes III re-established Persian control in 343 BCE. Persian rule in Egypt corresponds to the twenty-seventh and thirty-first dynasties.

Alexander was another external ruler for Egypt, but he was also seen as a liberator of Egypt from Persian rule. Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies, transformed Egypt into a Hellenistic kingdom and established Alexandria as the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean world.

4.1 Cambyses II in Egypt

Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus reflect a tradition hostile to the rule of Cambyses II in Egypt. Hostility toward an occupying enemy is understandable, but it is also worth noting that the Greeks were enemies of the Persians and this relationship could be motive enough for accusing Cambyses of abusing his power. There is no independent evidence for the incidents Herodotus relates (Cambyses desecrating the Pharaoh Amasis’ body and killing the Apis bull). Diodorus credits Darius son of Hystaspes, Cambyses’ successor, with respecting Egyptian culture.

4.1.1 Herodotus Histories 3.16 (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

Cambyses abuses the corpse of the pharaoh Amasis.

Cambyses left Memphis and went to the city of Sais, where he accomplished his wish. For next he went into the house of Amasis and immediately ordered the corpse of Amasis to be carried out from his tomb. When this was done, he ordered his men to whip it and pull out its hair and stab it and maltreat it in every other way. When they tired of doing these things (for the body was mummified and it held together and did not fall apart), Cambyses ordered his men to burn it, which was an unholy command. For the Persians consider fire to be a god. Burning corpses is lawful for neither people. For the Persians, it is for the reason mentioned: that it is not just to give the corpse of a person to a god. For the Egyptians, it is the belief that fire is animate and is a beast that consumes everything it catches and when it is full of food, it dies together with that which it eats. It is not customary for them to give the corpse to wild animals and because of this they mummify the body so that it may not be eaten by worms while it lies. Thus Cambyses commanded them to do things customary to neither people. The Egyptians, however, say that it was not Amasis who suffered these things, but some other one of the Egyptians who was the same age as Amasis and whom the Persians maltreated believing that they were maltreating Amasis. For they say that Amasis, having learned from an oracle the things that were to happen to him after his death, avoided these things by burying a dead man (the one who was whipped) in his own tomb near the door and telling his son to place him in the innermost corner of the tomb. These commands of Amasis about the tomb and the man do not seem to me to have happened and the Egyptians wrongly believe them.

4.1.2 Herodotus Histories 3.26, excerpt (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

4.1.3 Herodotus Histories 3.27 (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

4.1.4 Diodorus Siculus Library of History 1.95.4–5 (60–30 BCE; Greek)

Cambyses’ successor Darius had a better reputation.

A sixth man said to have established laws for the Egyptians is Darius, father of Xerxes. For he hated the transgressions against the sanctuaries of Egypt perpetrated by his predecessor Cambyses and he wanted to lead a decent and god-loving life. In Egypt, he kept company with the priests themselves and participated in the study of theology and of the deeds recorded in their sacred books. When he learned from these books the high-mindedness of the ancient kings and the goodwill they showed toward those they ruled, he modeled his life on theirs. Because of this, he received such honor that he alone of all the kings was addressed by the Egyptians as a living god. When he died, he received honors equal to those who ruled Egypt most lawfully long ago.

4.2 Alexander the Great Arrives

The Persian thirty-first dynasty ended when Alexander the Great added Egypt to his empire. Alexander arrived in Egypt in late 332 BCE. He founded the city of Alexandria and expanded the territory Egypt controlled up the Syrtes. He also visited the Oracle of Ammon at Siwah.

4.2.1 Quintus Curtius Rufus History of Alexander 4.7.1–5 (1st c. CE; Latin)

4.2.2 Diodorus Siculus Library of History 17.52 (60–30 BCE; Greek)

Diodorus describes the founding of Alexandria. Alexander planned the city, but left to continue his campaigns before it was built. He would return only after his death.

Having decided to found a great city, Alexander ordered the men he left behind with this responsibility to build the city halfway between the marsh and the sea. He measured the site, carefully divided the city, and named it Alexandria after himself. The city was most opportunely located near the harbor of Pharos and was skillfully oriented so that it breathed with the Etesian winds, which blow across the great sea and cool the air in the city. Thus, he provided comfort and health for the residents. He also made surrounding walls that were a wonder both in size and strength. Since it is between the marsh and the sea, the city has only two approaches from the land, both of which are narrow and easy to defend. Resembling a cloak in shape, it has a great avenue that almost cuts the city in half and that is remarkable for its size and attractiveness. For it has a length of forty stadia from gate to gate and it is a plethron [7] wide. The whole is enhanced by rich facades of houses and temples. Alexander ordered that a palace be built, a wonder in size and mass. Not only Alexander, but also those who ruled Egypt after him down to the present time almost all expanded the palace with expensive additions. On the whole, the city has received such benefactions in later times that in the eyes of many it is considered the pre-eminent city of the known world. Indeed, in beauty, size, wealth, and luxury, it greatly exceeds other cities. The size of its population also exceeds that of other cities. When we were in Egypt, the census-keepers said that there were over 300,000 free residents and that the king received more than 6,000 talents in revenue from the whole country. King Alexander appointed some of his friends to oversee the construction of Alexandria and, after settling affairs in Egypt, returned with his troops to Syria.

4.3 The Oracle at Siwah

In February of 331 BCE, Alexander the Great traveled 250 miles from Alexandria westward into the Libyan desert to consult the oracle at Siwah. Some of our sources are vague about what Alexander asked and what the oracle answered, but they agree that Alexander was happy with what he learned. Following his visit, Alexander began to appear in portraits with the ram’s horns of Ammon, lending credence to reports that he had come to believe that Ammon was part of his divine parentage.

4.3.1 Pausanias Description of Greece 9.16.1 (c. 160 CE; Greek)

4.3.2 Strabo Geography 17.1.43 (7 BCE–23 CE; Greek)

4.3.3 Arrian Anabasis of Alexander 3.3 (c. 160 CE; Greek)

Arrian gives some details of the journey to Siwah.

And so Alexander went to Ammon for this knowledge so that he might know more exactly [his own origin], or at least so he could say he knew. He went along the coast as far as Paraetonium through a desert, which is not, however, completely without water, a journey of about 1600 stadia, as Aristobulus says. From here, he turned inland, where the oracle of Ammon was. The road is lonely, dry, and for the most part sand. But for Alexander there was much water from the sky and this was credited to divine intervention. Likewise, the following: whenever a south wind blows in that land, it piles sand extensively over the road and all signs of the road are hidden and it is not possible to see where one must go in the sand, just as at sea, because there are no landmarks along the road, neither mountain, nor tree, nor fixed hills rising up, by which travelers might discern the way as sailors do by the stars. Thus Alexander’s army wandered and the leaders were unsure of the way. Ptolemy son of Lagus says that two snakes went in front of the army making a sound and Alexander ordered the leaders to follow them trusting in the divine sign. He claims that the snakes went before them on the road to the oracle and back again. But Aristobulus, the better source on this, holds that two ravens flying in front of the army were Alexander’s leaders.

4.3.4 Diodorus Siculus Library of History 17.50–51, excerpts (60–30 BCE; Greek)

Diodorus creates a detailed discussion between Alexander and the oracle.

The Ammonians live in villages and in the middle of these rises an acropolis fortified with triple walls. The innermost wall encircles the palace of the ancient rulers. The next contains the women’s courtyard and houses for their wives, children and relatives, as well as guard-houses for the lookouts plus the god’s shrine and sacred spring, the water of which confers holiness upon offerings to the god. The third wall surrounds the spearmen’s quarters and guard-houses for the king’s bodyguard. … The statue of the god is covered with emeralds and other costly stones and its oracular responses are peculiar to it. For it is carried around on a golden ship by eighty priests and they, carrying the god on their shoulders, go forward wherever the impetus of the god leads their path. A multitude of maidens and women follow them singing hymns along the whole path and praising the god with an ancestral ode.

51. When the priests led Alexander into the temple and he looked upon the god, an aged prophet approached him and said, “rejoice, child, and consider this address as from the god as well.” And Alexander received it, saying, “I accept, father, and from now on I will be called yours. But tell me if you grant to me the sovereignty over the whole earth.” The priest entered the inner sanctum and the men lifting the god were moved by certain prescribed vocalizations. The prophet proclaimed definitively that the god granted Alexander’s request. Alexander replied, “Finally, Divine One, reveal to me whether I have exacted revenge from all my father’s murderers, or have some eluded me?” The prophet proclaimed auspiciously that no one is strong enough to conspire against the one who begot Alexander, but that all those who murdered Philip have received retribution. The prophet added that the magnitude of Alexander’s success in his undertakings will be the proof of his divine parentage, for while he was formerly undefeated, from now on he will be invincible. Alexander, delighted with the prophecies, returned to Egypt after honoring the god with magnificent offerings.

4.4 Alexander’s Final Resting Place

4.4.1 Diodorus Siculus Library of History 18.28 (60–30 BCE; Greek)

Diodorus details Ptolemy’s strategy.

The covered carriage was outfitted in such a way and was so much more befitting a great man when seen than when described that it attracted many spectators by its widespread reputation. For in every city it went through, the whole population came to meet it and escorted it onwards and their pleasure in beholding it was limitless. In addition to begin magnificent, the carriage was escorted by a crowd of road workers and craftsmen, as well as by soldiers. After Arrhidaeus [17] had spent almost two years preparing the vehicle, he accompanied the king’s body from Babylon to Egypt. Ptolemy, honoring Alexander, went with his army as far as Syria and, after receiving the body, thought that it merited careful consideration. He decided for the time being not to escort it to Ammon, but to put it in the city Alexander himself had founded, which was essentially the most renowned city in the known world. He prepared a sacred precinct worthy in size and layout of Alexander’s reputation. He established Alexander in this precinct and honored him with the kind of sacrifices made to heroes and with games befitting a great man. In return, he received great recompense not only from men but also from the gods. Men, because of his beneficence and noble-mindedness, came from everywhere to Alexandria and eagerly offered themselves for military service, even though the royal army was about to attack Ptolemy and the dangers were clear and great. Nevertheless, they all willingly put his safety before their own. The gods, because of his courage and fairness toward all his friends, contrary to expectation, saved him from the greatest dangers.

4.5 The Ptolemies

After Alexander’s death, Perdiccas, serving as regent for Arrhidaeus, appointed Ptolemy as satrap of Egypt. After Ptolemy diverted Alexander’s body to Alexandria, however, Perdiccas, who had seized power in Macedon, invaded Egypt in 321 BCE. When the invasion faltered, Perdiccas was killed by some of his men who preferred to end the conflict with Ptolemy.

4.5.1 Diodorus Siculus Library of History 18.33–36, excerpts (60–30 BCE; Greek)

Ptolemy proves himself superior to Perdiccas as a leader. In Diodorus’ account, the Nile itself seems to favor Ptolemy, adding to the legitimacy of his claim to Egypt. [19]

33. … After learning of Eumenes’ victory, Perdiccas was greatly emboldened to embark on a campaign against Egypt. He approached the Nile and set up camp not far from the city of Pelusium. When he tried his hand at cleaning out an old canal, the river boisterously rushed forth and destroyed his work. Many of his friends left him and went over to Ptolemy. For Perdiccas was murderous and stripped the authority from other commanders, wishing in general to rule all by force. Ptolemy, o the other hand, was beneficent and fair and granted all his commanders freedom of speech. In addition, he had taken control of all the most strategic locations in Egypt with impressive garrisons and equipped them well with every type of weapon and all other supplies. Because of this, he had an advantage in the majority of his undertakings, since many people were positively inclined toward him and were ready to take risks on his behalf. Perdiccas, to compensate for his shortcomings, called together the commanders and offering some of them gifts, some of them promises, and all of them pleasant company urged them on toward the impending dangers. …

The troops of Ptolemy and Perdiccas engage in a battle and Perdiccas is unable to breech the walls of Ptolemy’s fort. Perdiccas gives up the siege and returns to his camp.

They moved out at night, making a secret march to the place opposite Memphis, where the Nile splits and there is an island able to safely accommodate the encampment of a sizable military force. To this island he transferred his army with difficulty because of the depth of the river. …

35. Perdiccas observed the unfavorable conditions in the river and placed his elephants on the left side of the river to absorb the force of the current and soften the flow. He stationed horsemen on the right side to catch those being carried away by the river and bring them safely to the other side. Something unique and contrary to expectation occurred during this crossing. While the first men crossed safely, those who crossed after them encountered great dangers. For the river without any apparent reason became much deeper, their whole bodies sank, and they were unable to save themselves. When they sought the reason for this increased depth, the truth did not emerge from reasoning. Some said that in some upstream location a previously closed canal was opened and mixed with the river, making the ford deeper. Others say that rain upstream increased the size of the Nile. It was neither of these; rather it happened that the first crossing of the ford was safer since the sand at the crossing point was untouched, but in the other crossings of those who went before—horses and elephants and even the infantry—the sand was stirred up by their feet, moved by the current, and carried downstream. Because of this, the place was hollowed out and the crossing became deeper in the middle of the river. …

36. More than 2,000 men perished, among whom were some outstanding commanders, the majority became opposed to Perdiccas. Ptolemy, however, burned the bodies of those who fell on his side of the river and, after conducting funeral rites, sent their bones to their family and friends. After these events, the Macedonians with Perdiccas became much more angry with him and turned their favor towards Ptolemy. When night fell, the encampment was full of weeping and grief, since so many men had perished senselessly without the blows of war. Of these, no fewer than 1,000 had become food for wild animals. Therefore, many of the leaders came together and spoke out against Perdiccas and the whole phalanx of infantry, estranged from him, made their sentiments clear with threatening shouts. Because of this, about one hundred of the leaders first revolted, of whom the best known was Pithon, who had subdued the Greeks when they revolted and who was the foremost of Alexander’s companions in excellence and fame. After this, some of the cavalry, being of one mind, went to the tent of Perdiccas and in a crowd fell upon and killed Perdiccas. The next day there was an assembly and Ptolemy came and greeted the Macedonians. He spoke on his own behalf and, since they were low on necessities, he brought plenty of grain for the soldiers and furnished the encampment with other supplies. Although he received great applause and was able to take on the role of king due to the goodwill of the majority, he did not seize the opportunity since he owed gratitude to Pithon and Arrhidaeus, he helped them establish authority over the whole empire. …

4.5.2 Athenaeus Sophists at Dinner 5.27–33, excerpts (early 3rd c. CE; Greek)

Athenaeus describes the Egyptian wealth that came under the control of the Ptolemies.

31. Next came four-cubit-long tables, on which were carried many lavishly crafted representations worth seeing. Among these was Semele’s bedroom, in which some characters wore tunics woven with gold thread and decorated with gemstones. … On another four-wheeled cart, which held “The Return of Dionysus from India,” Dionysus, twelve cubits high, lay on an elephant and wore a purple garment and a ivy and grape leaf crown made of gold. He held in his hands a gold thyrsus-spear and wore sandals with gold straps. In front of him on the elephant’s neck sat a Satyr five cubits long, wearing a pine wreath made of gold. With his right hand, he gestured with a goat horn made of gold. The elephant was adorned with gold and around its neck was an ivy wreath made of gold. …


[ back ] 1. Today, the region is northern Sudan and southern Egypt. Greek and Roman authors refer to the Kushites as Ethiopians.

[ back ] 2. Russman 2001:116.

[ back ] 3. I.e. the people living near the oracle of Ammon at Siwah.

[ back ] 4. “Oasis” here refers to the oasis at Khargeh.

[ back ] 5. Asheri, Lloyd, and Corcella 2007 ad 3.27–29

[ back ] 6. Amyntas was a Macedonian who had fled to join the Persians, for whom he commanded Greek mercenaries. After the Persian defeat at Issus, Amyntas again fled, this time to Egypt, where he pretended to have been sent by Darius. He joined an Egyptian uprising against the Persians, but was killed (Heckel 2009:23–24).

[ back ] 7. One hundred feet.

[ back ] 8. Fage 1979:132.

[ back ] 9. Cawthorne 2004:45.

[ back ] 10. Lane Fox 1986:202.

[ back ] 11. Vasunia 2001:274.

[ back ] 12. The region Pausanias is discussing is Boeotia, in northern Greece. This is the region in which Thebes, Pindar’s home city, is located.

[ back ] 13. Callisthenes was a Greek historian who served as Alexander’s official historian and accompanied him on his campaigns. Callisthenes’ writings do not survive but ancient historians whose accounts are extant relied on Callisthenes as a source.

[ back ] 14. Danaus: son of a mythical king of Egypt; he fled Egypt and eventually became king of Argos in Greece.

[ back ] 15. The Nasamonians were a nomadic tribe from Libya.

[ back ] 16. Magill 1998(I):951.

[ back ] 17. Arrhidaeus was a son of Philip II of Macedon. As Alexander’s half-brother, he was next in line for the throne when Alexander died, although he was mentally disabled. Although he held the title of king, he was controlled by the regent Perdiccas.

[ back ] 18. On Cleopatra, see Jones 2006.

[ back ] 19. On rivers portrayed as helping or hindering human endeavors, see Jones 2005:27–30, 64–69.

[ back ] 20. I.e. named after Venus.

[ back ] 21. Ptolemy II married his sister Arsinoe. Their parents were Ptolemy I and Berenice.

[ back ] 22. The Ptolemaia was a festival held every four years and begun by Ptolemy II in 278 BCE.

[ back ] 23. A festival like the Ptolemaia was likely to include athletic competitions.

[ back ] 24. Macedonian worshippers of Dionysus accompanied by snakes may evoke the Macedonian origins of the Ptolemaic dynasty through reference to Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. She is described as engaging in ecstatic worship of Dionysus and snake-handling (Plutarch Life of Alexander 2; Carney 2006:98).

[ back ] 25. Pheasants.

[ back ] 26. Ptolemy II was so interested in exotic animals, that he had a zoo (Diodorus Siculus Library of History 3.36.3).

[ back ] 27. Arete ‘excellence’.