Friday, April 8, 2011

The Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus: What Was It All About?

Like the reign of Ramesses II centuries earlier, the reign of Ptolemy II (Philadelphos or Philadelphus) was the high point of the three hundred-year long Ptolemaic dynasty. During that time, Alexandria was the richest jewel in their empire. Thanks to the ego of Philadelphos, the Ptolemaieia—but especially the Grand Procession—formed one of the most ostentatious spectacles the world has ever seen.

The details of the procession were taken from an account written by Kallixeinos of Rhodes, presumably as a person present at the Ptolemaieia festival. What was originally written by Kallixeinos was re-recorded from now-lost writings by Athenaeus of Naucratis in Egypt, a Greek rhetorician and grammarian, in the end of the second or beginning of the third century CE, but parts of the original work were missing in Athenaeus. Very little is known about Kallixeinos, including whether he actually lived at the time of the festival. The one reference that has much credibility states that he is from the island of Rhodes and is the son of Megakles and Priest of Athena Lindia. Even this may not prove it was the same person.

Not all scholars agree that the Grand Procession was held at the same time as the Ptolemaieia, or exactly when each was first held. I have taken what seems to be the most prevalent viewpoint, that they were related and held in about February 278 BCE. The League of Islanders stated that the Ptolemaieia was to be equal to an Olympiad.

Ptolemy II was the son of Ptolemy I who was an army general and member of the Royal Bodyguards of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy I established the famous Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt when he broke the power of the Egyptian priests and named himself pharaoh. In order to prove he was legitimate, he linked himself to the deified Alexander, just as pharaohs throughout Egyptian history had taken steps to prove their relationship to gods. However, with Ptolemy II, the link was not there, or at least very weak. At the time of the Ptolemaieia, it had been over 54 years since Alexander had “liberated” the country from the Persians and the memories of his importance were probably fading. The Greeks in Egypt, though numerous, were solely there as conquerors, administrators, and mercenaries with few or no ties to the working population of Egyptians. In fact, Alexandria itself was primarily a Greek city, and a very progressive one. If the Ptolemies were to rule with any credibility, the situation had to be rectified. With the Ptolemaieia, Ptolemy II brought Alexander back into the public consciousness and through his creative staging of the procession, linked himself back to the hero. In other words, the primary reason for the spectacle was strongly political. It legitimized Ptolemy II as a genuine Egyptian pharaoh.

There was, however, another political reason and message to be taken from this event. Between 280 and 279 BCE, Ptolemy II engaged in a short war with another of the diadochis’ successors, Antiochus I, head of the Seleucid Empire that extended as far east as India. Although the exact reason is unknown, it was likely that Ptolemy wanted to protect his interests in Cyprus and Syria. He won the short war, known as the Carian War (also the first part of the First Syrian War) which ended with a truce, as it appears he was surprised and impressed with the power and ability of Antiochus. With this as the backdrop to the Grand Procession and Ptolemaieia, the extended display of military might was no surprise. The message was obviously intended for the other successors of the diadochi, and that message was that the Ptolemies were a dynasty with which they should not trifle.

What was a real mystery, however, was who truly instigated the festival, Ptolemy or his sister Arsinoe II. It is known from existing sources, for example, that Ptolemy II was “a magnificent voluptuary with intellectual and artistic interests….averse from bodily exertions” and that Arsinoe was “a power whose goodwill many men in those days found it wise to conciliate,” she having done away with many “threats” to her or her brother’s power. She apparently came to her brother’s court some time around the Ptolemaieia and married him shortly after it, interestingly enough not long before the start of the Second Syrian War. Knowing that he never led his troops in battle and had no taste for it probably meant that Arsinoe was the one who pulled the strings of state.

More to come next time about the staging of the event.

  • Athenaeus of Naucratis. The deipnosophists, Volume I, Book V. Yonge, C.D. (Ed.). London: Henry G. Bohn. pp. 287-352. Retreived August 12, 2009, from
  • Bennett, C. (2008). Arsinoe II. Egyptian Royal Genealogy. Retrieved April 4, 2009 from
  • Bevan, E.R. (1927). The House of Ptolemy: A History of Egypt Under the Ptolemaic Dynasty. London: Methuen.
  • Lendering, J. (April 9, 2007). First Syrian War (Carian War; 280-279). Livius.Org. Retrieved March 16, 2010, from
  • Rice, E.E. (1983). The Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 209-210.
  • Tarn, W.W. (Nov.1928). Ptolemy II. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 14:3/4. pp. 246-260.


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