EGYPT iii. Relations in the Seleucid and Parthian periods



iii. Relations in the Seleucid and Parthian periods

This period began with the advent of the Seleucid dynasty in Syria (312 B.C.E.) and ended with the Sasanian occupation of Egypt (618/19-28 C.E.). After the successes of Alexander the Great (q.v.) in Asia Minor, Syria, and Phoenicia the Persian satrap of Egypt, Mazaces, declined to put up a strong resistance and surrendered his satrapy to the Macedonian conqueror in 332 B.C.E. (Arrian, Anabasis 3.1; Berve, II, pp. 245-46). Some of the Persians and Jews mentioned in documents from Ptolemaic Egypt may have been descended from the former Achaemenid occupation forces and their civilian relations (Harmatta; Bresciani, pp. 147-53; Fraser, 1972, I, p. 58; see i, above). It is certain that the speedy surrender of the Persian satrap, the bloodless occupation of Egypt by the Macedonian army, and, above all, Alexander’s accession as great king of the Persian empire precluded wide-ranging retribution against the Persian garrisons in Egypt. Alexander’s son (by the Iranian princess Roxane) Alexander IV and half-brother Philip III Arrhidaeus ruled jointly after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.E.; the Egyptian satrapy remained part of the empire under the Macedonian Ptolemy. Elimination of Alexander’s family in 312 B.C.E. and the dismemberment of his empire opened the way for creation of separate Hellenistic states; Ptolemy assumed the title “king” in 305 B.C.E.

The Seleucid period. Traditional Egyptian hostility toward Persians and, more generally, toward invaders from the northeast revived as relations between the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Asia deteriorated. In a series of “Syrian” wars during the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.E. the Ptolemies suffered several defeats, but they were sometimes able to invade Seleucid territory and even to penetrate as far as Mesopotamia and Persia. In the first century B.C.E. cooperation between the Roman triumvir Mark Antony and the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra VII culminated in a plan to establish their son Alexander Helios as ruler of Armenia, Media, and the Parthian territories (announced at Alexandria in 34 B.C.E.; cf. Plutarch, Antony, 54). Their defeat, first at Actium and finally at Alexandria (in 31 and 30 B.C.E. repectively), precluded realization of this scheme (for relations between Ptolemies and Seleucids in the context of Roman history, cf. Will).

Conflict with the Seleucids created a unique opportunity for cooperation between the Ptolemies and the Egyptian clergy. According to texts celebrating Ptolemaic victories, among the booty brought back to Egypt were statues and holy objects that had been carried away by the Persians (Kienitz, p. 107 n. 5; cf. W. Dittenberger, I, no. 54 [Figure 1]; Thissen, pp. 15-19). Persian hostility to the Egyptian cults is a recurrent theme in the literature of Ptolemaic Egypt (Lloyd; Redford, pp. 276-96). Nonetheless, Persian influences had not completely disappeared. For example, Achaemenid traditions lived on in early Ptolemaic art (Parlasca; Pfrommer, esp. pp. 152 ff.).

It remains difficult, however, to ascertain the proportion of ethnic Persians who survived the transition from Achaemenid to Hellenistic rule in Egypt or who came to that country after the conquest by Alexander. In particular the Persai tēs epigonēs (Persians of the succession) in Egypt present an intricate problem. This group is often mentioned in Greco-Roman papyri, but its origin and status are highly controversial among modern researchers. According to the explanation given by P. W. Pestman (Boswinkel and Pestman, pp. 56-63), the term Persēs may originally have referred to ethnic origin. Papyri from the initial phase of Ptolemaic Egypt are very rare, however, and the Persai are not well documented for that period. Until the end of the 2nd century B.C.E. Persēs indicated a social status, a special relationship with the Ptolemaic army, similar to that of the more elite Makedōn, a term that also did not refer to ethnic character. In the 2nd century many people who were certainly ethnic Greeks or Egyptians were categorized as Persai. The addition of tēs epigonēs refers to children of such pseudo-Persians. They were probably expected to “succeed” their fathers in the Ptolemaic army. The wives and daughters of such Persai were called Persinai, although they clearly belonged to Greek or Egyptian population groups. Toward the end of the 2nd century B.C.E. Persēs tēs epigonēs took on a new, purely legal meaning in the papyri, designating a category of debtors, a meaning that remained current until the end of the 2nd century C.E. At that time the term went out of use, and neither ethnic nor military status played a role in the designation Persēs. This entire hypothesis has, however, recently been challenged by Claude Vandersleyen, who doubts that in the second stage the term referred in any way to army service (for new evidence, see Devauchelle; for the parallel ethnic designation Elymaia, see Clarysse; for critical surveys, see Huyse, 1991, pp. 312-15; Kramer, pp. 69-73). Both Pestman and Vandersleyen agree that no ethnic Persian is attested as Persēs tēs epigonēs in middle or late Ptolemaic Egypt.

The corpus of Persian names in the Greek documents of Egypt compiled by Philip Huyse (1990) yields a rich harvest of names from Ptolemaic, Roman, and Byzantine times. It suggests the survival of some ethnic Persians in early Ptolemaic Egypt and the subsequent permanence of Persian onomastic traditions (see iii, below),

Although relations between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies were often strained, there were periods of peaceful coexistence, offering opportunities for commercial transactions between Egypt and western Asia. Direct connections between the Egyptian Red Sea ports and India developed during the last phase of Ptolemaic rule and became a regular feature after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C.E. (Sidebotham; Harrauer and Sijpesteijn; Casson). Some of the trade between Egypt and the east must have been conducted via overland routes through Parthian territory and regions controlled by the Palmyrenes and Nabateans (Johnson, pp. 335-54). This hypothesis is supported by a famous passage in a speech by the Greek orator Dio Chrysostomus to the people of Alexandria (early 2nd century C.E.), in which he mentioned Syrian, Arab, Bactrian, Scythian, and Persian visitors to the city in the context of its wide range of commercial links (32.37-38, 32.40). That such a level of commercial contact between Egypt and western Asia existed during the Ptolemaic period may be doubted, but it should be noted that Cleopatra was said to have been able to communicate with Medes and Parthians in their native languages (Plutarch, Antony, 27). Among isolated testimony to a Persian presence in Ptolemaic Egypt the epitaph of Dioscorides for the slave Euphrates, who, if the epitaph is not a fiction, may actually have existed, is one of the most characteristic: “Burn not Euphrates, nor defile Fire for me, I am a Persian as my fathers were, a Persian of pure stock, yea, master: to defile Fire is for us bitterer than cruel death. But wrap me up and lay me in the ground, washing not my corpse; I worship rivers also, master” (Paton, 7.162; cf. Fraser, 1972, I, pp. 279-80, II, pp. 435 n. 742, 436 n. 745 ). On the other hand, ancient authors provided some famous but very dubious information on the cult of the Egyptian god Serapis in Babylonia at the time of Alexander the Great and in Syrian Seleucia at the time of Ptolemy III, in the mid-3rd century B.C.E. (Tacitus, Historiae 4.84; cf. Fauth, pp. 198-99). The indisputable evidence of a Greek inscription of the period 281-61 B.C.E. from the region of Gorgān, southeast of the Caspian Sea, includes mention of the god Serapis in a semiofficial context (Robert, pp. 85-91; Fraser, 1967, pp. 29 ff.).

The Parthian period. The role of Palmyra as a commercial link between Roman Egypt and the Middle East has already been mentioned. The Palmyrenes also traveled through the Red Sea and on caravan routes through the Egyptian eastern desert to the Nile valley, especially to the town of Koptos/Qift. Evidence from there indicates the presence of both Palmyrene traders and soldiers, the latter in the service of the Roman army (Schwartz; Bernand, pp. 151-263; Bingen). The paramount influence of the Palmyrenes in all of western Asia is dramatically clear from their short occupation of Egypt in C.E. 270-71. Along with eastern traders and goods, eastern religions penetrated Egypt, especially from the 3rd century C.E. onward. The most important eastern contribution was Manicheism, well attested in late antiquity (Böhlig). Despite strong opposition from both pagan (Diocletian) and Christian Roman authorities, Manicheism spread widely in Egypt, as attested by a large number of Coptic Manichean texts (q.v.) and others in Greek, including the famous Cologne Mani-codex (q.v.), a biography of Mani (cf. Koenen and Römer). Mithraism was formerly thought to be conspicuously absent from Roman Egypt, but a Greek papyrus fragment of a Mithraic catechism, probably dating from the 4th century C.E., has recently been discovered (Brashear).

In general, the end of the rival Hellenistic monarchies and the incorporation of both Egypt and most of western Asia into the Roman empire facilitated contacts between these regions. Relations between western and eastern Asia were further developed by the direct sea link between Egypt and India. Palmyrene traders and escorts played a crucial role in the commerce between Egypt and the east, despite tensions between the Roman empire and the Parthians and later the Sasanians. A steady flow of eastern products and ideas (especially Manicheism) had already reached the Nile valley and Alexandria long before Sasanian troops occupied Egypt in 618/19.

Bibliography (for cited works not found in this bibliography and for abbreviations here, see “Short References.”):

A. Bernand, Les portes du désert, Paris, 1984.

H. Berve, Das Alexanderreich auf prosopographischer Grundlage, 2 vols., Munich, 1926.

J. Bingen, “Une dédicace de marchands palmyréniens à Coptos,” Chronique d’Égypte 59, 1984, pp. 355-58.

A. Böhlig, “Manichaeism,” in A. S. Atiya, ed., The Coptic Encyclopedia V, New York, 1991, pp. 1519-23.

E. Boswinkel and P. W. Pestman, Les archives privées de Dionysios, fils de Kephalas, Leiden, 1982. W. M. Brashear, A Mithraic Catechism from Egypt , Vienna, 1992.

E. Bresciani, “La satrapia d’Egitto,” Studi classici e orientali 7, 1958, pp. 132-88.

L. Casson, “P. Vindob. G 40822 and the Shipping of Goods from India,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 23, 1986, pp. 73-79.

W. Clarysse, “Two New Ethnics in Ptolemaic Papyri,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 92, 1992, pp. 232-34.

D. Devauchelle, “Un perse dans l’Égypte ptolémaïque,” Revue d’Égyptologie 39, 1988, p. 208.

W. Dittenberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae, 2 vols., Leipzig, 1903-05.

W. Fauth, P. Cornelius Tacitus. Die Historien. Kommentar IV, Heidelberg, 1976.

P. M. Fraser, “Current Problems Concerning the Early History of the Cult of Sarapis,” Opuscula Atheniensia 7, Lund, 1967, pp. 23-45.

Idem, Ptolemaic Alexandria, 3 vols., Oxford, 1972.

J. Harmatta, “Irano-Aramaica (Zur Geschichte des frühhellenistischen Judentums in Ägypten),” AAASH 7, 1959, pp. 337-409.

H. Harrauer and P. J. Sijpesteijn, “Ein neues Dokument zu Roms Indienhandel, P. Vindob. G 40822,” Anz. der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil.-hist. Kl 122, 1986, pp. 124-55.

P. Huyse, Iranische Namen in den griechischen Dokumenten Ägyptens, Iranisches Personen-namenbuch V/6a, 1990.

Idem, “Die Perser in Ägypten. Ein onomastischer Beitrag zu ihrer Erforschung,” in H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg and A. Kuhrt, eds., Achaemenid History VI. Asia Minor and Egypt. Old Cultures in a New Empire, Leiden, 1991, pp. 311-20.

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B. Kramer, Das Vertragsregister von Theogenis (P. Vindob. G. 40618), Corpus Papyrorum Raineri 17, Griechische Texte 13, Textbd., Vienna, 1991.

A. B. Lloyd, “Nationalist Propaganda in Ptolemaic Egypt,” Historia 31, 1982, pp. 33-55.

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W. R. Paton, ed. and tr., The Greek Anthology … II, Cambridge, Mass., 1917, p. 91.

M. Pfrommer, Studien zu alexandrinischer und grossgriechischer Toreutik frühhellenistischer Zeit, Berlin, 1987.

D. B. Redford, Pharaonic King-Lists, Annals and Day-Books. A Contribution to the Study of the Egyptian Sense of History, Mississauga, Ont., Canada, 1986.

L. Robert, Hellenica. Recueil d’épigraphie, de numismatique et d’antiquités grecques XI-XII, Paris, 1960.

J. Schwartz, “L’empire romain, l’Égypte, et le commerce oriental,” Annales 15, 1960, pp. 18-44.

S. E. Sidebotham, Roman Economic Policy in the Erythra Thalassa, 30 B.C.-A.D. 217, Leiden, 1986.

H.-J. Thissen, Studien zum Raphiadekret, Meisenheim am Glan, Germany, 1966.

C. Vandersleyen, “Suggestion sur l’origine des Persai, tēs epigonēs,” Proceedings of the XVIII International Congress of Papyrology II, Athens, 1988, p. 191-201.

E. Will, Histoire politique du monde hellénistique (323-30 av. J.-C.), 2nd ed., 2 vols., 1979-82.

(Heinz Heinen)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: December 9, 2011

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Vol. VIII, Fasc. 3, pp. 250-252

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Heinz Heinen, “EGYPT iii. Relations in the Seleucid and Parthian periods,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, VIII/3, pp. 250-252, available online at (accessed on 30 December 2012).