CHS 2020 Spring Fellows | Yvona Trnka-Amrhein

Portraits of a Pharaoh and an Illustrated Narrative Papyrus

When Greeks and Romans thought about Pharaonic Egypt, they would have named Sesostris as the land’s most iconic ruler. From his first appearance in Herodotus’ Histories to his afterlife in Byzantine historians, the Sesostris character played the roles of world-conqueror and Egyptian culture hero in Greek and Roman texts. Yet, while the Sesostris character was a creation of legend, he was based on three pharaohs of the Egyptian 12th Dynasty (Middle Kingdom c. 2030-1650 BCE) who inspired a literature of their own. My project at CHS is to study the various strands of Sesostris-literature, from its origin in the 12th Dynasty to the end of the Byzantine period. Since the tradition found a home in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine cultures, it was fundamentally multi-cultural. As such, it provides an unusual opportunity to study how one tradition moves from one culture to another. Since the tradition arose from a historical moment and developed in a variety of later historical and political contexts, it also allows us to examine how the line between fiction and history was negotiated in different situations.

My project is based on five case studies that seek to make interventions on key questions of inter-cultural interaction in the ancient world as well as the fictionalization of history in the ancient world. First, I look at Egyptian texts of the 12th Dynasty and how two types of narrative that were to flourish in Egyptian literature—the controversial “Königsnovelle” and the apocalyptic prophecy—developed around the Sesostris character. Second, I consider how these genres may have been received by Greek and Roman historians such as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus and Tacitus. Third, I explore how Sesostris is used in Ptolemaic Egyptian foundation narratives. I suggest that Sesostris can be used as an index to understand when Greek or Egyptian elements were deemed appropriate or useful in the multi-cultural society of Hellenistic Egypt. Fourth, I consider Greek texts from Roman Imperial Egypt in which elements of the Königsnovelle, the apocalyptic prophecy, and the Greek novelistic biography combine such as The Sesonchosis Novel and The Alexander Romance. I ask why these texts were so popular and how they may have been connected to ethnic identity and nationalism in Roman Imperial Egypt. Finally, I turn to Byzantine historians’ interest in Sesostris as a redeemed tyrant and as a character in The Alexander Romance. I use Sesostris as a case study to explore the Byzantine understanding of “ancient” history and the preference of Byzantine texts for more novelistic accounts of figures like Alexander and Sesostris. At CHS I am focusing mostly on my case studies on Greco-Roman historiography and Hellenistic foundation narratives.

In addition to my Sesostris project, I am also using my time at CHS to work on a joint project with fellow Rob Cioffi. We are finishing the first edition of an exciting illustrated narrative papyrus that is held in the Bibliothéque national de France. One of only five illustrated Greek literary papyri currently known, this text may preserve an account of a trial before Roman officials. Whether it is part of the Christian martyr acts or the so-called Acts of the Pagan Martyrs is a question we hope to answer this semester!

I am so grateful for my time at the CHS, and I am excited to make major strides on both my projects!

Yvona Trnka-Amrhein

Yvona Trnka-Amrhein (PhD Harvard University) is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research focuses on the ancient novel, biography, and papyrology, and her project at the CHS is to complete her book on the legend of Pharaoh Sesostris. This project contextualizes the fragmentary Sesonchosis Novel as part of a multifaceted tradition that crossed genres, cultures, and eras. In addition, she is interested in Hellenistic poetry, hymns, prophecy, automata, and the relationship between Greek and Egyptian literature.