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Visitors to ancient Egypt: From Herodotus to Plutarch

Writing about Egypt from the outside goes all the way back to ancient times and often provides valuable insights into the country

David Tresilian , Tuesday 27 Apr 2021
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It was the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who said that Egypt is “the gift of the Nile,” an observation that is as true today as it was when he visited the country some 2,500 years ago.

One of the things that struck Herodotus most when he visited Egypt sometime in the 440s BCE was its rich agricultural land, a clear contrast to the generally poor and stony soil of Greece on the other side of the Mediterranean.

But Herodotus noticed much more about ancient Egypt than just its fertile soil and abundant water from the River Nile. In his famous Histories, possibly the first extended work of history ever written, he devotes a whole book to a description of Egypt and its people, producing an account that is as much a work of geography or ethnography as of history.

He includes a fair chunk of ancient Egyptian history, mostly about periods before the 26th-Dynasty pharaoh Psamtik III was defeated by the Persian king Cambyses at Pelusium in 525 BCE causing the country to fall under Persian rule.

The result is the earliest and probably the most comprehensive external view of ancient Egypt that has come down to us, providing much firsthand information about the country and its people in the mid-5th century BCE. The account would perhaps have been even more valuable had Herodotus, or a writer like him, somehow managed to visit ancient Egypt a thousand years before when the New Kingdom pharaohs were on the throne.

But the fact that he did so only during the Late Period in ancient Egypt’s history when it had fallen under Persian control is itself a reminder of the extraordinary antiquity and continuity of the country’s civilisation.

Herodotus lived during one of the most important periods of ancient Greek history and was a contemporary of writers and philosophers who are still revered today. Yet, he was a mere boy by ancient Egyptian standards. As he remarks in his account of the country, ancient Egypt was widely believed in ancient times to be the oldest civilisation in the world.

Its recorded history and its monuments, including the Great Pyramids at Giza, a visit to which Herodotus describes, were older than anything in the history of the ancient Greeks and were considerably older than the works of Homer or the story of the war between Greece and Troy.

This leads Herodotus to venture remarks that are still debated today. He points to the extraordinary self-containment of ancient Egyptian civilisation, for example, with the ancient Egyptians believing that their civilisation was self-created and owed nothing to African, Mediterranean, or Asian influences. They were fully aware of neighbouring civilisations, fighting wars against the Hittites in Asia Minor, quarrelling with Assyrian kings in what is now northern Iraq, and conquering much of what is now Sudan, but they did not believe they owed them anything that mattered.

Herodotus also says that ancient Greece had learned a lot from ancient Egypt, taking over much of ancient Egyptian religion, some aspects of ancient Egyptian statecraft, and a good deal of technological and mathematical, though perhaps not philosophical, thinking.

Perhaps it was this that led the British historian Martin Bernal to argue in his book Black Athena some years ago that the contributions of ancient Egyptian civilisation to ancient Greece had been overlooked in later ages or had possibly even been deliberately suppressed by writers wanting to give a wholly European character to ancient Greek civilisation.

Whether or not Bernal was right about this, Herodotus is certainly explicit about the debts that ancient Greece owed to ancient Egypt. He says, for example, that the ancient Greek pantheon of gods originally came from Egypt, with the Greeks simply giving the gods different names.

He says that the Greeks had adopted many of the practices of ancient Egyptian religion, including divination. They had taken over the ancient Egyptian calendar, and they stood in awe of ancient Egyptian exploits in engineering, the building of the Great Pyramids at Giza most obviously, but also the Nile to Red Sea Canal begun by the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Necho II and completed by the Persian king Darius the Great, and the temple complexes at Thebes.

Herodotus claims to have travelled widely in Egypt, as far south as Aswan, where he reports on border fortifications, and as far north as parts of the Delta and Lake Mareotis outside Alexandria. The city itself was of course founded later during the conquests of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. During his travels, he says he discussed aspects of ancient Egyptian history and religion with temple priests and was given information that he is tempted to sort into fact and fiction.

The priests “claim to be quite certain of dates,” Herodotus comments – they are discussing the ancient Egyptian king lists – “as they have always kept a careful written record of the passage of time.” Even so, sometimes even Herodotus, credulous by modern standards, can suspect they are elaborating native tales for foreign consumption. He must have made an easy target, probably appearing slightly lost despite his insistent questioning and always communicating through interpreters.

“Anyone may believe these Egyptian tales, if he is sufficiently credulous,” Herodotus says – he is recounting what the priests had to say about royal family life – “but I am keeping to the plan of my book, which is to record the traditions of the various nations just as I heard them related to me.”

PLUTARCH’S LIVES

A later visitor to ancient Egypt, this time in the late 1st century CE, was Plutarch, another ancient Greek historian, who is thought to have spent time in the country as part of a tour of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Perhaps he was in search of material for his famous life of Mark Antony, one of his “parallel lives” of famous figures from ancient Greek and Roman history. This recounts the story of the Roman general Antony, who, in Plutarch’s telling, threw away the chance to control the entire Roman world as a result of his love for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

On the whole, Plutarch condemns Antony for his irresponsibility, finding few redeeming qualities. He did not have the excuse of youth, he sternly points out, as Antony had been married twice before he met Cleopatra. Weak and suggestible where it most mattered, he allowed himself to be manipulated by Cleopatra, who inevitably betrayed him.  

At first sight, Antony and Cleopatra make an unlikely pair, but perhaps this is one important source of their later appeal, as they have of course been immortalised not only in one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, but also in a string of other works in European and other traditions. There is a famous verse drama by the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi entitled the Death of Cleopatra that was influenced by both Plutarch and Shakespeare.

What do we learn about ancient Egypt from Plutarch’s life of Antony? What first catches the eye is the emphasis on the country’s wealth, making it a magnet not only for potential Roman conquerors but also for a whole range of other foreign adventurers. While Plutarch does not admire Cleopatra, implying that her love for Antony was fraudulent, he has to admit that she was remarkably successful in keeping her throne and country intact, despite the envious glances of formidable foreign enemies.

Having outwitted the Roman general Julius Caesar, who had come to Egypt in pursuit of a former rival, and having also successfully removed local competitors to the country’s throne, Cleopatra identified in Antony a possible way of retaining Egypt’s independence. For that to happen, it was necessary not only to impress Antony, but also to ensnare him, and the best way of doing that was to identify and play upon his weaknesses.

In order to do so, Plutarch says, Cleopatra played a range of parts and appeared in a multitude of guises, altering her behaviour to suit Antony’s moods and her own underlying purposes and using techniques ranging from cajolery to blackmail to get her way. In this, she was helped by Antony’s native dullness and her own subtlety and quick-wittedness, necessary in order to survive.

She was, as many have pointed out, a kind of feminist figure, if by this it is meant that having reluctantly recognised the brute strength of Roman power she had to find indirect ways of combatting it, even if this could paradoxically mean falling in love with not one but two Roman generals. Julius Caesar and Mark Antony had both originally come to Egypt with the idea of looting the country very much in mind.  

In his account of Cleopatra, Plutarch includes some marvelous set pieces as well as much psychological observation, later exploited by Shakespeare in his very different account of the relationship between the two lovers. Broadly speaking, whereas Plutarch is tempted to write Antony off as deluded and Cleopatra as false, Shakespeare sees them both as ennobled by their relationship, with the world well lost in the pursuit of higher aims.

Among the set pieces, there is Plutarch’s account of Cleopatra’s first meeting with Antony at Cydnus in Asia Minor, where she appeared “in a barge with a poop of gold, its purple sails billowing in the wind, while her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of flutes.”

There is the moment when, as Antony’s nemesis Octavius is building his forces in Rome, Antony gathers “a huge multitude in the arena in Alexandria and had two thrones of gold, one for himself and one for Cleopatra, placed on a dais of silver… [and] proclaimed Cleopatra queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya, and Syria… and then proclaimed his own sons by Cleopatra to be kings of kings.”

Commenting on Cleopatra, perhaps with characteristic misogyny, Plutarch says that she was very much aware of Antony’s divided loyalties, “so she pretended to be consumed with the most passionate love for Antony… whenever Antony came near her, she would fix her eyes on him with a look of rapture, and whenever he left she would appear to languish and be on the verge of collapse.”

There is the moment, the night before the final battle with Roman forces laying siege to Alexandria, when “about the hour of midnight, when all was hushed and a mood of dejection and fear brooded over the whole city, a marvelous sound of music was heard, which seemed to come from a consort of instruments of every kind and voices chanting in harmony.” The god Dionysus, Plutarch says, “with whom Antony claimed kinship was abandoning him.”

While there is perhaps little directly about Egypt in Plutarch’s account of Antony, such nuggets tell us much about how the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra was remembered in the later Mediterranean world.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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