Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.45
Ian S. Moyer, Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 347. ISBN 9780521765510. $110.00.
Reviewed by Phiroze Vasunia, University of Reading
“O Egypt, Egypt, of your pious deeds only stories will survive, and they will be incredible to your children.” Ian Moyer’s book is a first-rate analysis of the relationship between Egypt and Hellenism; it moves significantly beyond the historical positivism, the binary framework of Greek/barbarian, and the colonialist assumptions of older scholarship. Moyer considers four sources closely—Herodotus, Manetho, the Delian Sarapis aretalogy, and Thessalus (who composed a treatise De virtutibus herbarumin the first or second century CE)—to each of which he devotes a chapter. The book is ostensibly about meetings between Greeks and Egyptian priests, the latter group typified by the figure who looks “mysterious and austere, dressed in white linen, head shaved, wise in the ways of magic and divination… known since Herodotus as a fount of ancient wisdom”. But the device is a launching-point for a series of investigations into the encounters of Egyptians and Greeks over many centuries. Moyer is a learned and skilled reader of the texts, and there is much to hail in the publication of this erudite, sophisticated, and thoughtful volume.
Moyer is sensitive to the history of scholarship on his topic and he elucidates its politics with acuity, but is nonetheless wary, and weary, of talking about Black Athena; his own book tries to shift discussion away from questions of influence to interaction. His work is focussed on Herodotus and the long Hellenistic period, and, with a few exceptions, he does not discuss the same ancient and modern sources as Bernal does. Yet, paradoxically, one consequence of Moyer’s book is that it reaffirms in detail the extent to which Egyptians and Greeks were in contact with each other, in the Hellenistic period and earlier. Another distinctive feature of Moyer’s book is his attention to nineteenth-century interpreters, especially Johann Gustav Droysen, and in this respect he can be said to follow in the footsteps of Bernal, who so sensationally levelled charges of racism and anti-Semitism against influential German scholars of the same period. Moyer is less interested than Bernal in figures such as Karl Otfried Müller, however, and he delineates instead how nineteenth-century scholars such as Droysen laid the foundations for many of the received opinions of the twentieth century on the subject of Hellenistic Egypt.
Moyer locates Droysen’s writings within modern colonial contexts and he shows how nineteenth-century and twentieth-century frameworks have affected the object of his own study. This is a helpful discussion since European scholarship on Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt developed significantly during a period of aggressive European colonialism and imperialism, in Egypt and other parts of the world. Of some modern treatments of Ptolemaic Egypt, Moyer writes, “The histories of Ptolemaic Egypt that I have been describing are histories of a colonizing power. They are not histories of Egypt, but histories of Hellenism in Egypt. They assume the voice of the colonizer.” Moyer lays bare the colonial and neo-colonial assumptions of earlier scholars and effectively replaces their critiques with new suggestions for thinking about the relationship between Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. His own voice is trenchant and unsparing, and at one point, he uses the expression “theoretical apartheid” to refer to the view, held by some critics, that Greek and Egyptian cultures coexisted separately in Ptolemaic Egypt. After “Decolonizing Ptolemaic Egypt” (Roger Bagnall, 1997) and “Recolonising Egypt” (Alan Bowman, 2002), Moyer’s book offers not a deconstruction of postcolonial interpretations but rather a reconfiguration of the relationship between Egyptians and Greeks as “dialogical and transactional”. Moyer emphasizes the dialogic and two-sided nature of the encounter between Greece and Egypt and words such as “dialogic”, “exchange”, “interactions”, and “transactional processes” occur frequently in the book. As such, the volume is a highly intelligent contribution to the newer understanding of Hellenistic Egypt that has emerged over the last decades and it adroitly develops the arguments of the many brilliant Demotists and Hellenists who are responsible for giving us this newer picture.
Where classical scholars frequently leave out Egyptians and Egyptian voices from their analyses of Herodotus’ second book or of Hellenistic literature, Moyer regularly introduces Egyptian texts into the discussion. Readers of his influential article “Herodotus and an Egyptian Mirage”, which forms the basis of chapter 1, will recall the approach and its merits. The discussion turns on the passage in Herodotus 2.143 where Hecateus encounters Egyptian priests who trace their genealogy back through 345 wooden statues (each image is called a piromis). In his chapter, Moyer examines the Egyptian antecedents of the word piromis and seeks to draw out other voices in Herodotus; he finds that the historian’s text shows an “awareness of and dialogue with a specific and pressing Late Egyptian idea of human history”. He does not characterize the work as entirely self-reflexive or ethnocentric but supposes that the historian’s scaffolding permits us “to recognize the voices of the Egyptian priests, and other non- Greek ‘informants’”. The Greek text thus presents us with “a truly dialectical moment in which Herodotus’ encounter with the historicity of another civilization resulted in one of the earliest discourses on the nature of history and of historical time in the Western tradition”. I am a more sceptical reader of Herodotus than Moyer in this regard, and I am not fully convinced of the “dialectical” nature of the moments that he describes. Nevertheless, I remain impressed by the theoretical frame with which he structures his argument, the wide-ranging learning he brings to bear on his exploration, the familiarity with the Greek and Egyptian sources on which he draws, and the dexterity with which he explains the implications of a small passage in Herodotus.
The other chapters of the book focus on authors and texts that will be less familiar than Herodotus to most readers. Moyer manages to contextualize the sources evocatively and he is clear about the wider significance of his argument in each case. His chapter on Manetho’s Aegyptiaca sees the work not as “the result of Greek colonization of a Egyptian historical consciousness” but as an “indigenous attempt both to make explicit the proper historical role of the Egyptian pharaoh, and also to teach the Ptolemies and other Greeks at court to read Egyptian history in an Egyptian fashion”. For Moyer, Manetho’s text “belongs not to a stemma of Greek histories and historians, but to the discursive context that also produced the Canopus Decree, the Rosetta Stone, and other trilingual monuments”. Far from imitating Herodotus or Hecateus of Abdera, Manetho is “writing back” to Greek historians by deconstructing and then reassembling their narratives according to his own chronologies.
Moyer’s chapters on the Delian Sarapis aretalogy and Thessalus are brilliantly realized; these chapters constitute the second and, for me at least, the more compelling half of the book. In Moyer’s analysis, the conflict described in the Delian inscription (a text and translation are provided in the book) helps us better understand the hybridity and syncretism of the Egyptian cults on Delos. Syncretism does not simply mean that the cults were Hellenized so as to make them more appealing to Hellenic or Hellenized worshippers. The Greekness of Apollonios’ and Maiistas’ hymn does not foreclose an appeal to Egyptian identity or legitimacy, and indeed on Moyer’s reading the text appears to be drawing on both Greek and Egyptian myths to strengthen its case. “The text, with its stories of dream commands and its evocation of Osirian myth, adapts traditional narratives of royal piety and legitimate succession to explain the favored status and authority of a lineage (or ‘dynasty’) of Egyptian priests in a place of diaspora where their position was guaranteed neither by king nor by social hierarchy—a place where they received their orders and their offices through a direct connection to the gods themselves.” In this scenario, syncretism was a constant negotiation, “an ongoing problem of social and political affiliations and the consequences of those affiliations for the structure of religious authority”. Or, to follow Moyer and quote Bruce Lincoln, “Syncretism … is the product of a tense, contradictory and unstable field or conflictual engagement, in which every signifier is a site of encounter, maneuver, advance, retreat and negotiation …” It is precisely the sense of syncretism as a phenomenon marked by strategy and manipulation that Moyer manages to convey in his exploration of the Delian Sarapis aretalogy.
The book’s last chapter adapts the arguments of Franz Cumont, whose continuing importance for the study of Hellenistic religions is underlined by this study, and places the priestly figure of Thessalus in a cultural location between Egypt and Rome. Moyer accepts that the narrative “reveals historical connections between Egyptian traditions of scribal and ritual practice and the so-called ‘magical’ and ‘occult’ practices of such texts as the Hermetica or the Greek and Demotic magical papyri”. He shows how Thessalus’ story (which is one of the earliest Greek or Latin representations of an Egyptian priest as a source of magical wisdom) participates in wider Mediterranean traditions about Egyptian priests as purveyors of esoteric learning; at the same time, he demonstrates how the Greek Thessalus insinuates “himself into Egyptian traditions of priestly knowledge and into the role of priest himself” by re-animating the narratives of the priest Petosiris and the king Nechepso. Thessalus appears as a priest who flaunts his access to authentically Egyptian magical knowledge and who uses secrecy “to enhance his own status and that of his treatise”. If Thessalus enjoys a privileged grasp of Egyptian magic, he exploits his access and is involved “in repackaging the Egyptian wisdom of Nechepso for consumption in the wider world of the Roman empire”. Thessalus’ actions are thus part of a strategy of survival in a world dominated by Rome, some of whose inhabitants placed a high premium on the traditions of antique Egypt. For Moyer, the text “provides evidence of the changing modes of religious practice and authority that some Egyptian priests adopted under the social and economic pressures of Roman rule in Egypt”. He is a perceptive reader of the text and he shrewdly writes of “creative interactions and exchanges” rather than “Greek forgeries” or fakes in describing Hellenistic works such as Thessalus’ treatise. Moyer appears to vacillate between treating Thessalus as a historical writer and as a literary character in a fictional text, but in general he offers a sensitive new historicist interpretation that turns a seemingly arcane text into an important cultural document.
Moyer describes his book as “a history in fragments” and he does not offer sweeping conclusions about the Egypto- Greek or Egypto-Greek-Roman encounter over seven or eight centuries. The incidents described in each of the case studies are mostly small in scale, but the book manages to say something greater and shows how cross-cultural contact profoundly changed the life and thought of people in the ancient Mediterranean. It clears up scholarly obfuscations about Egyptian priests and Hellenistic Egypt and carefully reframes hoary stereotypes about the land of hieroglyphs as “the very womb of wizardry, of ghost lore, of ensorcellment, of scarabed spells and runes” (as Montague Summers once put it). Of course, readers will find points of occasional disagreement and will dissent from the odd interpretation. Not all cross-cultural texts are as “dialogical” as they appear. Moyer seems to be ensorcelled by terms such as “historicity” and “transactional” and uses them when precise explanations would have been more appropriate. I was brought up short by the suggestion that Thessalus could be compared to a “dealer in oriental carpets”. But overall the chapters are focused and well-written and add up to a clear, engaging, and lucid study. Everyone who writes about cross-cultural interaction in the ancient Mediterranean should read this terrific book.