Jennifer Carrington

Jennifer Carrington (Cornell University):  “Sight-Seeing and State-Branding: Egyptian Cultural Heritage in Ptolemaic Diplomacy”


Key pieces of evidence from the third to the first century BCE attest to the coordination of Egyptian travel for foreign diplomats by the Ptolemaic state. Documentary papyri (P. Lond. VII 1973; P. Tebt. I 33) record the bureaucratic organization of excursions for foreign ambassadors to see notable monuments. Literary accounts (Diod. Sic. 33.28b.1-3; Suet. Iul. 52.1; Plut. Luc. 2.5-6) relate attempts by Ptolemaic rulers to impress Roman diplomats with sight-seeing tours and cultural attractions. This evidence has previously been studied within a Roman framework of tourism (Adams 2007; Rutherford 2012) or as part of a Roman literary discourse on Eastern luxury (Ager 2005), but no study has addressed the objectives of the Ptolemaic state in the organization of these visits.

This paper argues that the Ptolemaic dynasty engaged in a new diplomatic strategy that leveraged the historical and cultural landscape of ancient Egypt as a form of political capital. A close analysis of the sources indicates that the Ptolemaic state promoted both the monuments of Alexandria as well as pharaonic sites in Memphis and the Fayum. This strategy did not simply showcase tryphe; it actively encouraged an association with the pharaonic Egyptian past on the international Hellenistic stage. Through the display of cultural heritage, the Ptolemies attempted to promote positive associations from earlier Greek conceptions of Egypt, such as antiquity, strength, wealth, scholarship, and popular cults. Moreover, the strategy enrolled a broader section of the population of Egypt in the diplomatic process, as bureaucratic officials, cultural performers, site guides, and religious practitioners became integral to the state’s political display.

The use of ancient cultural heritage for diplomacy can act as a form of ‘branding’ for a state (Neumann 2013) and has been noted also in modern nations such as Greece, Mexico, and Egypt.  Greater attention to this Ptolemaic strategy in Hellenistic diplomacy allows for fruitful comparison.  The exhibition of the Egyptian landscape represented a new practice in Egyptian diplomacy, but one which embraced Egyptian traditions and cultural heritage as the fitting background of the Ptolemaic state.


Adams, Colin. 2007. ‘Travel Narrows the Mind’: Cultural Tourism in Graeco-Roman Egypt. In Adams, C. & J. Roy (eds.) Travel, Geography and Culture in Ancient Greece and the Near East, 161-184. Oxford: Oxbow.

Ager, Sheila L. 2005. Familiarity Breeds: Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty. JHS 125: 1-34.

Neumann, Iver. 2013. Diplomatic Sites: A Critical Enquiry. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rutherford, Ian. 2012. Travel and Pilgrimage. In Riggs, C. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt, 701-716. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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