Egypt in Greco-Roman History and Fiction *

Article excerpt

This article sketches Greek and Roman views towards the ancient Egyptians as a prelude to examining the metaphorical resonance of Egypt in the fiction of the imperial period of ancient literature. Both the Greeks and the Romans wrote about Egypt as a way of dealing with certain anxieties and issues in their own cultures. Egypt is portrayed as the terrifying "other" of Greco-Roman culture and at the same time celebrated as an ancient site of mystery and rebirth. In the ancient novels, this ambivalence is exploited in order to make statements about contemporary relationships and realities.


In the current political and intellectual context it is not necessary to explain that the portrait created by one people, such as the Greeks or Romans, of another, such as Egypt, is likely to be a "construction" more than a "representation." In his 1971 survey of the subject, C. Froidefond characterized Greek views of Egypt as a "mirage," an imaginative vision that had as much to do with who the Greeks were as it had with who the Egyptians were. (1) Edward Said's 1978 landmark work on orientalism traced how that Egyptian mirage developed and endured over the years in response to Europe's own evolving identity, and his book made a strong case for what has become a key idea in cultural studies: Power follows knowledge, and the seemingly objective and scientific study of other cultures is often an accessory to the crimes committed by empires in the name of civilization. (2) The enormous--and often nasty--controversy that swirled around the publication of Martin Bernal's Black Athena, with its accusation of racism in the conduct of European historiography, particularly in the treatment of the relationship between Europe and Egypt, has dealt a devastating blow to the pose of objectivity in the conduct of scholarship. (3) Despite this controversy, or perhaps because of it, the peculiar position of Egypt in the imaginations of the Greeks and Romans and its role in the classical world continue to be a subject of the greatest interest. I wish to contribute to this discussion by looking at the role Egypt plays in the so-called Greek romances, prose narratives of love and adventure that were composed during the Roman empire. I will begin by selectively sketching ideas about Egypt in Greek and Roman letters as a context for my remarks. (4)

Greek Views of Egypt

References to Egypt occur in practically every classical author, but it would not be correct to say that Egypt was "central" to the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, marginality is paradoxically central to classical views of Egypt. (5) The most important classical source on Egypt is Herodotus' account in a long digression from his discussion of the Persian Wars, a digression that takes up the entire second book of the Histories. Herodotus' many factual errors have long been recognized, such as his incorrect dating of the pyramid builders by a thousand years, but these are the least of his faults. A. B. Lloyd, who has written the most thorough commentary on Herodotus' Egyptian account, concludes that Herodotus "presents a view of Egypt's past which shows no genuine understanding of Egyptian history. Everything has been uncompromisingly customized for Greek consumption and cast unequivocally into a Greek mould." (6) Indeed, as Francois Hartog has argued, Egypt was one of many "barbarian" countries whose customs were often defined by the Greek historian as an inversion of Greek customs: "The Egyptians seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind." (7) However, since barbarians in Herodotus tend to be not only inversions of Greece but also set in contrasting relation to one another, shifting and inconsistent alignments sometimes emerge. For example, Hartog takes the Scythians as an example of the "mirror" of Herodotus, in which they are negative reflections of everything Greek. Nevertheless, these same Scythians become increasingly "Greek-like" when they are contrasted to the Amazons, in order to convey the otherness of the Amazons to his Greek audience. …