One thing you need to know about Ptolemaic Egypt was that—much like its historical mascot Cleopatra—the Ptolemys had as much Egyptian blood as the British Royal family, which is to say, none at all. Thanks to extravagant Hollywood portrayals, Cleopatra and her family have been misconstrued as being pure-blooded Egyptian royalty. However, they were anything but pure. Cleopatra and her brothers descended from 300 years of inbreeding, often conducted through sibling marriages that ensured the Ptolemaic dynasty would stay purely Ptolemaic. And though Cleopatra's story has been beaten into the ground by every medium in existence, there is some hope for you, the historical fiction writer, once you discover the plethora of great dramatic material for a historical fiction setting found in the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Beginning in 305 BCE, the dynasty's first ruler was former Macedonian General Ptolemy turned king after inheriting Egypt after the premature death of Alexander the Great. The legendary conqueror's death left his empire to his generals since Alexander had no legitimate heirs. A chaotic land grab ensued amongst the generals. Ptolemy was fortunate to end up with the verdurous and copious Nile delta in Egypt.
Despite being as Greek as a gyro smothered in tzatziki sauce, Ptolemy I publicly embraced Egyptian culture while simultaneously injecting his Hellenistic culture across the Nile delta. These factors allowed two very different cultures to mix, thus creating a Greco-Egyptian society.
As you can probably deduce, Ptolemy brought along more than just his Macedonian family to Egypt--his reign also attracted other Greeks eager to trade with the now extraordinarily Greco-friendly Nile delta. For example, the Ptolemies referred to themselves as pharaohs. They even erected massive sculptures portraying themselves as Egyptian pharaohs to greet newcomers to the harbor of Alexandria. After docking and entering the city, you would notice how the Greek language had interjected itself into the ruling classes of Ptolemaic Egypt. And to appease the common Egyptian folk, the Ptolemies maintained the polytheistic religion of Egypt, especially cults that revolved around popular deities like Isis, her brother Osiris the god of the underworld, and her son Horus. They even created a half-Egyptian and half-Greek god named Serapis to help bring the two polarizing religions together. If that effort was not enough, the Ptolemies often tried to ensure their popularity with their non-Greek subjects by building temples for Egyptian gods. However, the architecture inevitably evolved into a Hellenistic style. In addition to the architecture, their art also reflected the mixture of cultures. Amongst the collections of Ptolemaic Egyptian art, one can find busts of royalty dressed in the headdress of a pharaoh but bearing the curly hair and facial features of a Greek. Fashion also gradually became more Hellenized, though the style always carried an inherent Egyptian flare.
THE END OF AN ERA
Even though she was a cunning ruler, Cleopatra’s schemes were not enough to prevent the rapid rise of Rome and its eminent dominance of the ancient Mediterranean for the next 500 years. The end also marked what historian Dr. Roger S. Bagnall called: "...a world we've lost." He went on to explain that:
"Up until the 19th century, imperial states were more likely to tolerate diversity among conquered populations," he said. Of course, he acknowledged that the Persians, Greeks, Romans, English, Spanish and Ottoman empires were out for themselves, and could be harsh. But I very much feel that the cosmopolitan Hellenistic culture was comfortable with diversity in its surroundings."
A WRITER'S PARADISE
The conquest of Alexander the Great bookends the Ptolemaic period and the famous downfall of its last queen, Cleopatra, with the middle facets often skimmed over in favor of the flashier historical events. But just because the meat of the Ptolemaic dynasty is often overlooked, that does not mean it lacks fiction potential. On the contrary, Egypt's brief time under Greek supremacy was a unique time in history that warrants some attention from the popular history community. In other words, historical fiction writers should be all over this era, like Ken Follett and medieval castles.
Historical fiction is more often than fixated on idyllic historical settings. (or in a catastrophic environment like WW2). In either extreme, the historical setting is well known to the public. Whether it be Tudor England or Regency England, the common denominator is the easily accessible crutch of familiarity. On the other hand, Ptolemaic Egypt can beat the cliches and offer readers a fresh world that is neither entirely Greek nor fully Egyptian. The legally enforced mixture of two vastly different cultures is reminiscent of stories like Pocahontas.
There are many unique storylines and ideas you can draw from Ptolemy Egypt. In its vast harbors, libraries, and Greco-Egyptian temples, we find a vibrant trading center where ancients from all across the Mediterranean make pit stops, where they'd find a city teeming with multiculturalism.
But how did people cope with having their culture blend with another? Imagine being a Greek or an Egyptian native seeing your culture blend with the customs of a foreign culture. Or, perhaps, a Greek falling in love with an Egyptian?
When Ptolemy and his Greek ruling class took over Egypt, they instituted a socio-economic system restricting indigenous Egyptians from ever reaching aristocratic status. For a writer, this is a great opportunity to develop a story rich with class-suppression-fueled drama. Sprinkle in some forbidden romance, and you have the recipe for a potential bestseller. And these are only some of the more obvious suggestions. If you are creative enough and willing to conduct a significant amount of research, the possibilities are endless.
TIPS FOR RESEARCHING
Many books already discuss Cleopatra and her reign as the final Ptolemy. However, very few of those books delve into the historicity of what it was like living in Ptolemaic Egypt. One book that is particularly helpful on the latter subject--in a birds-eye view at least--is Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society under the Ptolemies by Michel Chaveau. The book can be found on Amazon and details how Egyptian society developed under the Ptolemies, mainly through the study of funerary customs.
Suppose you're looking to obtain a source on languages. In that case, Oxford provides you with their Corpus of Ptolemaic Inscriptions Volume 1, Alexandria and the Delta (Nos. 1-206): Part I: Greek, Bilingual, and Trilingual Inscriptions from Egypt. And suppose you want more details on how Greek immigrants acclimated to Egypt. In that case, Oxford also offers you Gymnasia and Greek Identity in Ptolemaic Egypt, which explains how the gymnasia was implemented under the Ptolemies.
Some of the most interesting historical fiction books I've read over the years have taken place in eras or places I would never have thought of historically. Those books allowed me to step into the shoes of people living in an obscure zone in history, forcing me to never look at a particular event, such as WW2, the same way ever again.
And if Ptolemaic Egypt isn't for you, then look for those gems hidden away in the crevices of history's most cataclysmic events. Think of the Monuments Men, for example. Though it is not a historical fiction novel, Monuments Men shows us a different perspective on World War 2 and teaches you about a whole facet of the war you've probably never heard of before. And isn't that what historical fiction is supposed to be about?
HFC Blog Writer