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First visit of legates from Alexandria in Rome

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Ptolemy II Philadelphos, initiator of the first Ptolemaic-Roman contacts
Ptolemy II Philadelphos, initiator of the first Ptolemaic-Roman contacts

The common history of Rome and Egypt is associated primarily with the period of the late Republic, when Cleopatra became involved with the life of Caesar, then Mark Antony. The moment when Egypt is incorporated into the structures of the Roman administration is also discussed quite often. However, the first contact between Rome and Egypt is rarely mentioned. It is hard to trust the sources that were written for many years after establishing an official, closer relationship between Rome and the Ptolemy ruling in Egypt.

Titus Livius was the first to mention this:

An alliance was established with Ptolemy, the king of Egypt.

Titus Livius, Periochae, XIV

This passage, however, does not come from the book History , which would have been completely preserved. Probably Livius wrote a bit more about it in lost accounts because it is believed that later authors describing this event were using his message. From the writer in the 4th century CE Eutropius retains a slightly broader message:

In the consulate of C. Fabius Licinius and C. Claudius Canina (AUC 461), envoys sent from Alexandria by Ptolemy came to Rome for the first time and received from the Romans the friendship that they sought.

Eutropius, Breviarium ab Urbe condita, II 15

Thanks to Eutropius (2nd century CE), we can date the establishment of Ptolemaic-Roman relations for 273 BCE. According to his message, Ptolemy took the first step in this direction, directing his emissaries from Alexandria to Rome. But what were the reasons? This, in turn, presents Cassius Dio in Roman History as follows:

Moreover, upon learning that Pyrrhus had been soundly defeated and that the Romans were increasing in power, the Egyptian king Ptolemy Philadelphus sent gifts to them and established an alliance. The Romans sent ambassadors to him in turn, since they were favourably impressed by his engaging in this action despite the great distance separating them. When those ambassadors received magnificent gifts from him and bequeathed them to the state, however, they refused to accept them.

Cassius Dio, Roman history, X 41

Cassius Dio combines the establishment of these contacts with the growing importance of Rome on the international stage. Defeating Pyrrhus was a signal that Roman expansion could go beyond the Apennine Peninsula. It is difficult to find in these short accounts specific reasons why Egypt may have wanted to establish closer contact with Rome. Ptolemy at that time was even involved in the dispute with Antiochus III, and Rome in comparison with him was not in the eyes of the Hellenistic rulers any special force. On Ptolemy, however, the impression could have been made by defeating Pyrrhus, who was well known in the ancient world. Perhaps in this establishment of diplomatic relations with a foreign country, there were no deeper motivations. Ptolemy II undertook many such activities; he even maintained contacts with India. However, there is a hypothesis mentioning economic motivations. Perhaps the goal of the Ptolemy was to find another trading partner, but there is no source from the 3rd century BCE for this matter.

It is doubtful that a treaty on legal force was concluded at that time. Already the words in the sources such as: societas – arrangement/covenant (in Livy’s, or rather by the creator of the abstracts of his book) and amicitia – friendship (in Eutropius’) can raise doubts as to the nature of the relationship that has been initiated. The year 273 BCE is therefore considered the first establishment of the Ptolemy-Rome relationship. The visit of the Alexandrian legates indicates the initiation of this undertaking on the part of Egypt. She did not remain unanswered because Rome later directed his envoys to Alexandria.

Author: Aneta Bąk
Sources
  • R. Westall, Rome and ptolemaic Egypt: initial contacts [w:] Aegyptiaca et Coptica. Studi in onore di Sergio Pernigotti, red. P. Buzi, D. Picchi, M. Zecchi, Oxford 2011.
  • Eutropius, Breviarium ab Urbe condita, II, online: https://www.thelatinlibrary.com/eutropius/eutropius2.shtml [access: 2 VI 2020]
  • Cassius Dio, Roman history t. 1, przeł. i oprac. W. Madyda, Wrocław – Warszawa – Kraków 1967.
  • Titus Livius, Periochae, XIV, online: https://www.thelatinlibrary.com/livy/liv.per14.shtml [dostęp: 2 VI 2020]
  • Source of photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ptolemy_II_MAN_Napoli_Inv5600.jpg

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