Stanley M. Burstein

Stanley M. Burstein, Professor Emeritus of History, California State University, Los Angeles: “The Hellenistic Fringe Revisited:  The Case of Meroe”


Relations with Nubia are one of the principal themes of the history of Pharaonic Egypt. By contrast, Nubia occupies little space in histories of Ptolemaic Egypt. As Hellenistic historians are all too aware, problems in Ptolemaic history are largely a problem of sources, and that is true in this case. The literary sources on which the political history of Ptolemaic Egypt depends are almost completely silent concerning Nubia not only because of their fragmentary character but also, and more importantly, because of their focus on relations between Egypt and its Mediterranean and Near Eastern neighbors. As a result, one gets the impression that contact between Ptolemaic Egypt and Nubia was infrequent and that Egypt’s southern frontier was of relatively minor concern to the Ptolemaic government.

Non-literary texts—epigraphic and papyrological—tell a different story, however.  They provide not only evidence of conflict between Egypt and Nubia during the reigns of Ptolemy I, Ptolemy II, Ptolemy IV, and Ptolemy V, but also of significant Ptolemaic involvement in Nubian affairs that lasted for almost three quarters of a century.  Archaeological evidence, moreover, much of it recently discovered, attests to intense cultural contact between Egypt and the principal Nubian state, the kingdom of Kush.

While the initial impetus for conflict between Ptolemaic Egypt and the kingdom of Kush was contention over control of Lower Nubia and its important gold mines, continued involvement in Nubian affairs during the reigns of Ptolemy II and his successors was a byproduct of their efforts to find a secure source of war elephants to offset their Seleucid rivals’ access to reliable sources of Indian elephants. The results of this sustained Ptolemaic activity in Nubia were threefold: (1) significant political change in the Kushite monarchy, (2) intensification of cultural influence—both Egyptian and Greek—from Ptolemaic Egypt in Nubia, and (3) major improvements in Greek knowledge of the geography and anthropology of the Upper Nile Valley.  The purpose of this paper is to reconsider the course and nature of political and cultural relations between Ptolemaic Egypt and Kush during the third century BC on the basis of recent discoveries and scholarship concerning the sources for Hellenistic Nubia.

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