Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How Effective was the Design of Ptolemy's Grand Procession?

If the entire event was considered to be the Ptolemaieia, then it resembled closely what was known to occur in similar events in ancient Greece, notably other Panhellenic events such as the Olympics in Olympia, the Pythian Games in Delphi, the Isthmian Games in Corinth, and the Panathenaeia in Athens. They all incorporated athletics, performing art, at least one procession, and feasts. The difference? This Ptolemaieia appears to have been the most grandiose, although it was the first of what was to be a series of events held every four years so was probably more elaborate. Nevertheless, the design was noteworthy for three reasons.

First, the procession was, from historical records, arguably the longest up to that point in time in physical and temporal length anywhere in the world. Although we do not know for sure the procession’s route, we do know that similar Greek processions usually ended up at the place of worship for the principle god. Logic would dictate that this was the Serapeum in Alexandria which just happened to be right next door to the stadium at that time. We know that the procession went through the stadium because Kallixeinos tells us. The start point would have to be a location that was capable of marshalling the huge numbers of “floats,” animals, slaves, entertainers, and soldiers. Although such a location is not known for sure, it has been suggested that the army was garrisoned just outside the palace grounds in the northeast corner of Alexandria. Because the garrison was probably of substantial size and very secure, it would have been a logical gathering spot. It would also have been logical for Ptolemy to want to show off the grandeur of his city and have the procession pass as many of the city’s features and sites as possible. He would thus have chosen the widest and most impressive boulevards as the route. From this information, I have created a likely route for the procession of about 5 km in blue in the figure below, leading from the army barracks, south along the Boulevard Argeus, west onto Meson Pedion, then south down the Boulevard Serapis to the stadium.

Suggested Route of Grand Procession of Ptolemy II (in blue)

By using the city’s streets in this manner, Ptolemy obtained the maximum exposure possible for the procession.

Second, the extensive use of symbolism in the parade elements and their arrangement in the procession was nothing short of brilliant. Even today, most parades are not designed with such a carefully crafted goal in mind, but are a rather loose accumulation of impressive images with little overall substance. The Grand Procession had its end purpose in mind from the very beginning. Like a staged performance, it began slowly and built to its impressive conclusion with the appearance of statues of Dionysus, Alexander, and Ptolemy I that linked them to Ptolemy II. Whether the famous catafalque of Alexander the Great was part of the Grand Procession is my own educated guess, although others have speculated similarly. The surviving text by Kallixeinos and Athenaeus does not state this at any point. However, simply from the pure logic of the situation, this must surely be a possibility. First, it is known that there are several missing parts (lacuna) of—and several inconsistencies in—the original text, whether parts written by Kallixeinos or parts written by Athenaeus centuries later. Second, the description of the final part of the Grand Procession that includes a statue of Alexander seems almost anti-climactic without something more. That something more would logically be the sarcophagus. Lastly, the appearance of the sarcophagus would be the real proof—and a much more convincing proof than a statue—to legitimize the royal lineage from Alexander down to Ptolemy II.

The last reason for the success of the procession was that Ptolemy pulled out all the stops in exhibiting the achievements of Alexandrian science and arts which, at that time, were the most advanced in the world. In addition, he added surprise and novelty, not unlike what good event designers of today use. For example, the giant mechanical statue of Nysa that independently stood up and poured milk, the cart with a wine press, and the magnificent oversized statues and symbols all attest to the ingenuity of the thinkers in the museion of Alexandria. If there was any unsuccessful attribute of the procession it was one of excess, Ptolemy’s arrogant pride in not knowing when enough gold and possessions were enough.


  • Andronicus, M. (2003). Athletics and Education. In Koursi, M. (Ed.). The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. Athens: Ekdotike Hellados S.A. pp. 43-79.
  • Davis, H.T. (1957). Alexandria, the Golden City: Volume I—The City of the Ptolemies. Evanston, IL: The Principia Press of Illinois, Inc.
  • Saunders, N.J. (2006). Alexander's Tomb: The Two-Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conquerer. Basic Books.
  • Thompson, D.J. (1997). Philadelphus’ Procession: Dynastic Power in a Mediterranean Context. In Mooren, L. (Ed.). Politics, Administration and Society in the Hellenistic and Roman World: Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Bertinoro 19-24 July 1997. Leuven: Peeters. Studia Hellenistica; 35. pp. 365-388.

1 comment:

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