Life in Hellenistic Egypt

From the lecture series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Hellenistic Egypt was very different from the Egypt of the earlier times. The pharaoh still ruled in Egypt, though he spoke in Greek. It was still a highly bureaucratized society, although the Greeks were in charge. So, how do we know so much about Hellenistic Egypt?

The painting shows the city of Alexandria in the 18th century.
Alexandria was an important city in Hellenistic Egypt and it was still an important city in Byzantine times and remained so until the Arab conquest in the 7th century A.D. (Image: Luigi Mayer/Public domain)

The Use of Papyri in Hellenistic Egypt

We know more about daily life in Hellenistic Egypt than we do about any other part of the ancient Greek world at any other time. That’s because it has yielded tens of thousands of papyri comprising birth certificates, death certificates, contracts, leases, wills, receipts, marriage contracts, lists of various kinds, complaints to officials, tax returns, lawsuits, divorce decrees, and so on.

Hellenistic papyri bring us as close to another culture as we can possibly get in the age before photography. We learn about the social, legal, cultural, and economic life of the Greeks living in Egypt, as well as that of native Egyptians, who were forced to adapt to the Greek way of life. We learn of such day-to-day occurrences as a slave girl getting mugged on her way home, of a Greek woman being scalded in the bath by an inattentive attendant, and so on.

Papyri were used for writing in Egypt from about 3200 B.C. onward. They were the commonest writing material in the ancient world. The reason why they have survived in such large quantity in Egypt, however, is because of the dry soil.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Landmarks in the Ancient city of Alexandria

To understand the importance of Alexandria in Hellenistic Egypt, one would have to imagine taking a walking tour of the city during the reign of the Pharaoh Ptolemy II, around 250 B.C. The first place to visit is the lighthouse, known as the Pharos. It’s named after the small offshore island called Pharos, on which it stands.

This is a drawing of the lighthouse Pharos in Alexandria by German archaeologist Prof. H. Thiersch.
Pharos, the lighthouse was a symbol of Alexandria’s enormous prestige. (Image: Prof. Hermann Thiersch (1874–1939)/Public domain)

The height of the lighthouse is 350 feet—it is the tallest man-made structure that has ever been made. A fire keeps perpetually blazing at the top of the lighthouse. Its purpose is to guide ships to the port, rather than to warn them of danger.

That majestic avenue that runs down the middle of the city is nearly 100 feet broad. It’s known as the Canopic Way and it’s named for the town of Canopus in the Nile Delta. The Canopic Way cuts through the agora, which lies at the center of the city. The agora is the commercial, religious, and, political heart of the city. Adjoining the agora, is the library and the MouseionMouseion means “the shrine of the Muses”. The library contains over 700,000 rolls. It’s by far the best collection of papyri rolls anywhere in the Mediterranean.

The royal palaces, gardens and Alexander’s mausoleum lie in the northeastern sector of the city. The southwest district of Alexandria city is inhabited by the Egyptians. A grandiose temple of the native Egyptian God Sarapis is the hallmark of the place.

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The Games and Parades in Alexandria

Ptolemy II organized Iso-Olympic Ptolemaia in the honor of his father, Ptolemy I Soter in 279 B.C. “Iso-Olympic” means equal in status to the Olympic Games. The event outdid anything ever staged at Olympia. We know of the Ptolemaia in considerable detail because a Greek writer called Athenaeus, who wrote an antiquarian book called Philosophers at Dinner, describes it minutely.

The parades were a regular feature of the social life in Alexandria. These helped to break up the monotony of daily life. In the parade, one could see numerous floats, each pulled by 600 men, supporting giant statues of the gods, as well as statues of Alexander the Great and of Ptolemy I. There were elephants, antelopes, leopards, camels. Not just this, the parade also featured 57, 000 infantry and 23,200 cavalry. Incidentally, James Evans, the historian, has estimated the expenses incurred to arrange this parade, and it has worked out to be approximately $79 million U.S. dollars in today’s money.

It is so ironical that Alexander who laid the foundation of Alexandria did not survive to see the glory of the city. Alexandria flourished during the Hellenistic period and remained an important city in the world even when the Arabs conquered the area in the 7th century A.D.

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Common Questions about Life in Hellenistic Egypt

Q: What was Pharos in the ancient city of Alexandria ?

Pharos was the name of a lighthouse in the ancient city of Alexandria.

Q: Who organized Iso-Olympic Ptolemaia in Alexandria?

Ptolemy II organized Iso-Olympic Ptolemaia in the honor of his father, Ptolemy I Soter in Alexandria in 279 B.C. He organized the games .

Q: Where was the temple of Sarapis located in Alexandria?

The grandiose temple of Sarapis, the native Egyptian god, was located in the southwest district of Alexandria city.

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