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Epistles on Granite: Ptolemaic Authority and the Superlative at Philae

Patricia Butz

This paper deals with the phenomenon of three letters in Greek inscribed on a single monument reflecting the series of correspondence between King Ptolemy VIII Euergetes, together with Queens Cleopatra II-III, and the priesthood of the Temple of Isis at Philae in the last quarter of the second century BCE. The monument in question was a granite pedestal base supporting an obelisk inscribed in hieroglyphs located originally in front of the temple. The base carried a fourth inscription, also in hieroglyphs, making it bilingual as opposed to the obelisk. Even for the Hellenistic period, with the increased potential of epistolary epigraphy as a royal and dynastic political tool, this example stands out.

Content-wise, the letters concern issues of financial difficulty at Philae, affecting the temple’s ability to perform its required ritual duties, brought about by excessive governmental presence felt at the site in the form of numerous visiting officials, their accommodations, and ensuing regulatory measures. The delicacy but seriousness of this complaint manifests in the physical layout of the correspondence: the letters are arranged hierarchically rather than chronologically with the royal documents above the priestly. Significantly, the latter are engraved rather than painted and gilded, potentially making them more accessible to the viewer on two counts: location and legibility of the cut inscription. A. Bernand refers to the ensemble as “un dossier de ‘prostagma’” (La Prose sur la pierre dans l’Égypte héllenistique et romane, 1992, 62). Whether there is actual mixing of genres in the grouping is one aspect to be addressed; the why and how of the public display another, especially since the letters must have originated on papyrus (P. Stanwick, Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs, 2010, 26). Lastly, the terminology epiphanestatos topos, important for epigraphy, will be considered for the deliberate placement of this monument, even in its modern-day relocation in England, in order to maximize its public reception.

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Epistolary Epigraphy

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