4/16/10 - greek democracy fails

In today's excerpt - in the aftermath of the failure of Athenian democracy, Greece came to be ruled again by kings, and when the greatest of these kings, Alexander the Great, accompanied by his childhood friend Ptolemy, extended his conquests to Egypt, he took the titles of the Pharaohs and along with it their concept of deifying the king:

By Homer's day Egypt was well known to the Greek world. ... Egypt came to be seen not only as a source for riches but for all knowledge, as early Greek intellectuals such as Thales were said to have learned their ideas from Egyptian sources. ... By the Classical period there was a steady stream of
Greek visitors to the country, of which Herodotos was the most famous. ...

So it is perhaps no surprise that Alexander the Great, accompanied by two of Cleopatra's ancestors, would [conquer] Egypt. But perhaps more significant for the future was Alexander's assumption of the religious titles and honors of the Egyptian king (and pharaoh). ... Association with Egyptian cult and royalty also gave Alexander access to the concept of deification of the ruler, something alien to the Greek world. ... Greek leaders had long been bestowed with quasi-divine honors in recognition of their services, but Alexander, a unique personality, became essentially a god. This concept of divine monarchy would continue into Cleopatra's day and affect the self-image of the Roman emperors.

Another significant accomplishment of Alexander's [was] laying out a new city, to be named Alexandria, one of many such foundations that he would make. He designated the grid for the city himself and located its major building sites, and Alexandria was formally founded on 7 April 331 B.C. Recording the events was his close companion, [childhood friend] and Cleopatra's ancestor, Ptolemy I.

Eight years later, at the end of 323 B.C., Ptolemy was back in Egypt. Alexander had died at Babylon in the summer, leaving no provisions for governance of his realm, and the 40-year-long struggle of his successors was under way. In the assignment of territory after Alexander's death, Ptolemy had received Egypt as his satrapy—the Persian administrative model was still in use—but soon he began to act as if he were an independent ruler. ... Shortly thereafter he engineered the major coup of his career, bringing the body of Alexander to Egypt and eventually enshrining it in a monumental tomb at Alexandria, creating a royal burial precinct that would be part of the palace compound. As
the successor to Alexander, Ptolemy could acquire his divine attributes for himself, both those connected to the personality of his predecessor and those obtained through ancient Egyptian ruler cult. Ptolemy thus had a status that none of the other successors could ever claim, and this passed to his descendants. By 305 B.C. he was calling himself king and in the following year was crowned as Egyptian pharoah.

Monarchy, which had lost favor in the Greek world in the sixth century B.C, had been rejuvenated through the personality of Alexander. The failure of the Classical city-states to create stable governments had discredited the more broadly based systems such as democracy, and from at least the time of Plato political theorists had seen monarchy, of a proper sort, as the best form of government. Alexander's personal charisma had restored faith in monarchy—assisted, perhaps, by his association with the outstanding political theorist of his era, Aristotle—and after Alexander's death many of the successors adopted the title of 'king.'


Duane W. Roller


Cleopatra: A Biography


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2010 by Oxford University Press


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