Ptolemys’ Grandeur


Bust of Ptolemy I Soter.



An important innovation under Ptolemy I and II was the building of their great lighthouse on Pharos island; the word ‘Pharos’ survived in Greek, Latin and the romance languages with the simple meaning of lighthouse. It was immediately classed as one of the great wonders of the world, along with the Colossus of Rhodes, of which more shortly: both these monuments proclaimed the glory of the cities where they stood, but also emphasized how that glory was founded in significant measure upon trade. The lighthouse formed part of the early plans for Alexandria; work on the structure began in 297 BC and building lasted until 283. In part it was built out of necessity: shoals lay close to shore, invisible at night and hard to track by day. It was essential to make approaches to Alexandria safer if the city were to achieve its potential as a centre for trade across the Mediterranean. The massive structure the Ptolemies commissioned stood 135 metres (440 feet) above the waves; the building was constructed on three levels, the lowest part square tapering upwards to a platform on which stood an octagonal tower crowned by a circular colonnade, with a massive statue of Zeus at the very top. Great mirrors cast a light many miles out to sea – forty miles, at a reasonable guess. How the lighthouse was illuminated is a mystery. For, even though parts of the structure were re-used in the much smaller but impressive Mamluk fortress that was constructed on the site in the late fifteenth century, and even though sizeable fragments of the lighthouse have now been exposed by underwater excavations, the exact appearance and manner of operation of the Pharos remain elusive.

The building of the lighthouse and indeed of Alexandria was possible only because the Ptolemies had gained control of massive resources. Their achievement lay not just in capitalizing on those resources, but in magnifying them as Alexandria developed its trade. In fact some observers insisted that the wealth of Alexandria was derived at least as much from the Egyptian hinterland as from the Mediterranean: the geographer Strabo opined that ‘the imports to the city by way of the canals greatly exceed those by sea, so that the lake harbour was far richer than that on the sea’, though he was writing several centuries after the golden age of Ptolemy I and II, at the start of the first century AD.12 The city looked two ways, linking Egypt to the Mediterranean as never before; and links beyond the Mediterranean – through the Red Sea to India – ensured Alexandria’s role as the prime entrepôt between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, which it would maintain with only occasional interruptions for two millennia. The Ptolemies possessed an acute sense of how to sustain the vigour of the Alexandrian, and Egyptian, economy. They knew that command of the sea routes did not simply depend on Alexandria. They worked hard to bring the cities of Phoenicia under their control, at the price of conflict with their rivals the Seleucids. If they were to maintain an effective fleet they would need to extend their political control far from Egypt, into lands rich in timber: Cyprus, Lebanon and southern Anatolia; equally, without such a fleet they would not be able to hold these lands. A naval race began, and not just the size of the Egyptian and Syrian fleets grew, but the size of their ships. In the fourth century both sides could sometimes mobilize over 300 ships, and the Phoenician shipyards transformed the cedars of Lebanon into a substantial fleet for the Seleucid kings; under Ptolemy II a fleet of 336 warships included 224 quadriremes, triremes and smaller vessels, but it also included many monster ships – 17 quinquiremes and still larger ships identified by the supposed number of oarsmen on each bank: 5 ‘sixes’, 37 ‘sevens’, 30 ‘nines’, 14 ‘elevens’, and so on up to 2 great ‘thirties’. Later, Ptolemy IV Philopator (d. 204) would build a ‘forty’, which may have been a massive catamaran.14 Whether these names really reflect the number of rowers, or were simply a way of indicating ‘even larger than the last large ship’, is a moot point. The ‘forty’ of Ptolemy IV never entered battle, and was probably not fit to do so; on the other hand, it amply displayed the wealth and magnificence of the Greek Pharaohs of Egypt. Its length was over 130 metres, its width over 16 metres, and it is said to have been crewed by 4,000 oarsmen and over 3,000 marines and auxiliary crewmen. Simply providing food and water for such a ship would have necessitated a small fleet of supply boats. Yet massive size was not all about display. A ship’s ram of the second century BC found underwater near Atlit in Israel is 2¼ metres long and weighs 465 kilograms.

In addition to timber for the fleet, the Ptolemies needed to find sources of gold, silver, tin and iron, the last of which had been strangely neglected in Egypt during the long centuries when Hittites, Philistines, Greeks and Carthaginians enthusiastically made weapons and implements out of iron. Maybe this was because the soil of Egypt was so tractable after the Nile floods that there was little call for heavy ploughs shod with iron. On the other hand, there did exist a flourishing metal industry, and exports of gold, silver and bronze plate became one of the strengths of Alexandria, along with the export of textiles, pottery and – a particular speciality – glass. Papyrus was another Egyptian speciality that had been in demand in neighbouring lands since the era of Wenamun, in the eleventh century BC; now, Egyptian papyrus was ever more widely diffused across the Mediterranean. One of the most enthusiastic markets for these goods was Carthage, which used the Ptolemaic weight standard for its coins; Carthage was valuable to the Ptolemies because Spanish and Sardinian silver was funnelled through the city. There were also close relations with Rhodes, which in the third century BC was as important a hub of trade as Alexandria. Alexandria thus established itself as one of the major business centres of the entire Mediterranean; its strength rested not just on the extraordinary achievements of the early Ptolemies, but also in the way it rapidly became integrated into the Hellenistic trade network.

One of King Ptolemy II’s administrators, named Apollonios, appears in a series of papyri from the Egyptian desert. Among them is a ship’s manifest of the middle of the third century BC, recording a cargo sent to Apollonios’ household from Syria to Alexandria, and it provides rich evidence of the variety of goods that were being traded: nuts from the Black Sea, always a favourite on Mediterranean trade routes; cheese from Chios; olive oil, figs, honey, sponges and wool. There was also wild boar meat, venison and goat’s meat aboard. But what filled most of the hull was wine – 138 amphorae and 6 half-amphorae of ordinary wine, and 5 amphorae plus 15 half-amphorae of sweet dessert wine. This commerce was carefully and accurately taxed. The Ptolemies inherited from the Pharaohs a tight system of control of trade that they had no intention of relaxing. Ships arrived at designated ports and their cargoes were closely examined. It was an ancient system of commercial taxation that continued under the Romans, Byzantines and Arabs: ad valorem taxes, representing a percentage of the estimated value of the cargo, sometimes as much as 50 per cent (on wine and oil), sometimes merely a third or a quarter; taxes were levied not just at the ports but at internal customs stations along the Nile, as goods moved up to Alexandria. Although this forced up the price of goods by the time they reached the quayside at Alexandria, demand for Egyptian grain and other products was generally so strong that these goods could still find purchasers in the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, the Alexandrians profited handsomely from their role as middlemen in the trade linking the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. Although in the past, at Naukratis and elsewhere, Greek merchants had been able to tap into this trade, the scale of contact was now vastly enlarged. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were three of the prized items carried up the Red Sea. In 270/269 Ptolemy II Philadelphos reopened a canal that linked the Nile Delta with the lakes to the west of Sinai (now traversed by the Suez Canal), and created a maritime route into the Red Sea. Indian goods became familiar in Alexandria, while the Ptolemies profited from access to African and Indian elephants for their army. An Egyptian papyrus lists the cargo of a vessel named the Hermapollo, which had arrived from India carrying 60 cases of spikenard, 5 tons of general spices, and 235 tons of ivory and ebony. The great Mediterranean spice trade had been founded, and Alexandria would remain its most important centre even beyond the opening of the Cape route to the Indies by the Portuguese at the end of the fifteenth century.

The product that came to dominate the business of Alexandria was, however, grain. This was partly so that the city itself could be fed. Channels had been constructed linking Lake Mareotis, behind Alexandria, to the Nile Delta, so access to grain was unproblematic. But the Ptolemies were well aware that there was always room on the international markets for grain; Athens might look to the Bosphorus for supplies, but Rhodes was keen to buy Egyptian wheat for itself and for its many trading partners. The Ptolemies found themselves in an exceptionally strong position because they inherited a regime according to which most of the land in Egypt was the possession of Pharaoh. They were thus able to charge the peasants a steep rent and to demand as much as half of what was produced, for the fertility of the soil after the Nile floods did not make such demands entirely unreasonable. New opportunities arose on the export market: a series of invasions of the Black Sea region, by Celtic and Scythian tribes, was endangering the sources and supply route on which Athens and other Greek cities had been relying for food. Seeing a chance of enriching themselves from the grain trade, the Ptolemies worked hard to increase the quality and quantity of grain production. They also extended the areas under cultivation and encouraged the use of iron implements as a way of improving efficiency and yields: ‘so extensive a use of iron in Egyptian agriculture almost amounted to a revolution’. Irrigation was improved, and among the contraptions used to water the land appeared the Archimedes screw, still favoured by Egyptian fellahin, and known in those days as the kochlias, or ‘snail’. The Persians had introduced a new type of wheat, superior to traditional Egyptian varieties, and the advantages of this were seized upon while Alexander was still alive. The cultivation of vines was greatly extended on the shores opposite Alexandria, and some good wines were apparently produced; more important, perhaps, was the development of an oil industry, since before the Ptolemies olive trees had not been widespread in Egypt. In doing all this, the Ptolemies laid the foundations of a new prosperity that would last until the Byzantine period.

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