You are here

Ägyptens späte Blüte: Die Römer am Nil

Ägyptens späte Blüte: Die Römer am Nil

By Katja Lembke. With contributions by Cäcilia Fluck and Günter Vittmann. Pp. 131, b&w figs. 49, color figs. 149, drawings 26. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2004. €41. ISBN 3-8053-3276-9 (cloth).


Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt has been well served by recent publications in Philipp von Zabern’s Bildbände zur Archäologie series, with volumes by Pfrommer (Alexandria, im Schatten der Pyramiden [1999]) and Hölbl (Altägypten im römischen Reich. Der römischen Pharao und seine Tempel. 3 vols. [2000–2004]). Willeitner’s Die ägyptischen Oasen. Städte, Tempel und Gräber in der Libyschen Wüste (2003) highlighted a variety of Roman sites, and Egypt’s potent infl uence abroad is seen in Bommas’ Heiligtum und Mysterium. Griechenland und seine ägyptischen Gottheiten (2005). Targeted at a lay public (“pleasurable reading for everyone who’s interested in history,” as the publisher’s advertising has it) but one that can also absorb a good deal of information, these handsome books provide excellent introductory material for students. And they are exceptionally well illustrated, so that they offer rewarding browsing even for those who might not make their way through a German text in detail.

Among the authors of these recent Bildbände, Lembke and her collaborators have had perhaps the most difficult task, in disentangling and describing what is characteristic of Roman Egypt rather than an ongoing manifestation of the mixed Hellenic and Egyptian culture developed from the foundation of the Ptolemaic dynasty onward. Dated events and complete innovations are not problematic, nor are the changes in administrative structure after Octavian’s conquest in 30 B.C.E. and again in the early fourth century C.E. (both well covered here). But defining social and cultural change is more difficult. The painted shroud (Berlin ÄM inv. 11651, fig. 99) epitomizes this problem in a small but signifi cant way: the method of commemoration, embodying a personalized portrait, is an introduction of the Roman period, but the commemorated man is flanked by members of the Egyptian funerary pantheon, Osiris and Anubis, in traditional guise. He himself is shown as a citizen of the Greek east—not wearing a “Roman toga” (with all the implications of status that would carry) but wearing his Greek mantle in the style of a contabulated toga (with all the implications that might be read into that. B. Borg has analyzed this clothing style in Mumienporträts [Mainz 1996] 164–66).

The authors have eschewed a straightforward historical trot through the period, adopting instead a thematic approach in which they are scrupulous in flagging the continuity as well as the new cast of Roman developments. Much recent work (including doctoral theses not easily available to all readers) is cited in the text, indicating that this is a growth area in Roman studies and in Egyptian archaeology—some compensation for the neglect shown by earlier generations of excavators, whose sights were firmly fixed on the pharaonic material. Lembke neatly epitomizes this bias with the sorry tale (59) of Honroth’s 10-day campaign in the extensive Graeco-Roman cemetery at Tuna el-Gebel, in pursuit of the 18th Dynasty and Pharaoh Akhenaten.

The bulk of the volume is the work of Lembke. Two opening sections (a historical outline, characterizing the major players and episodes, and a survey of Rome’s love-hate reception of Egypt) set the background for the following examinations of Roman Egypt itself: society and daily life, religion, funerary practices, and the “fringe” areas of the oases, the mineral-rich Eastern Desert and conservative Upper Egypt. The world of knowledge embraced by epigraphy and papyrology—scripts, literature, documentary material, and the structure and workings of the administration of Roman Egypt—is presented by Vittmann in a detailed but admirably clear chapter that provides the newcomer with an excellent introduction accompanied by a comprehensive selection of illustrations, including those oftcited markers, the latest extant hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions. Vittmann’s concluding remarks on the administrative changes of the fourth century lead appropriately into the final section, where Fluck surveys late antiquity and the transition to Christianity. The greater amount of historical exposition provided for this complex picture is perhaps inevitable, and there is a strong emphasis on monastic archaeology, though Fluck’s expert knowledge of the material culture is attested in the illustrations of textiles and everyday objects.

The excellent photographs throughout include material not previously so well illustrated in color, such as the painted tombs at Tuna el-Gebel, and some not so familiar sites, among them the Serapeum and temple at Tihna el-Gebel (Akoris/Tenis) and the monastery at Deir Abu Fana. Even the endpapers make a contribution here, reproducing the splendid plates of the ruined Roman arch at el-Qasr in the Bahariya Oasis, originally published in 1826 by the traveler Frédéric Cailliaud. In this context, the principal author seems a little severe in her judgment that, as in the Nile Valley, the archaeological evidence provided by the oases is mostly confined to cemeteries and shrines rather than settlements. Certainly the Dakhla Oasis, the area with which the reviewer is most familiar, is punctuated by the ruins of settlements that flourished through the Roman period. Two of them are currently being investigated, the Late Roman town at Amheida (ancient Trimithis) (excavation began in 2004, but an initial survey was reported in 1979; see Columbia University Excavations at Amheida, [January 20, 2007]) and the village of Kellis (67–9), but the references in notes 145 and 146 need updating beyond 1992, for there have been annual reports since then in the Bulletin of the Australian Centre for Egyptology and 14 volumes of the Dakhleh Oasis Project Monographs [Oxford] with further excavation reports and editions of the rich array of written material from that site.

The book is rounded off with an extensive bibliography, helpfully divided by topic, plus ample supporting notes to the text. The emphasis is understandably on publications in German, but key works in English, French, and Italian are also cited as appropriate, and the following handful of additions (some certainly published too late for inclusion) is intended to offer complementary matter rather than imply lacunae. The Musée du Louvre exhibition catalogue Porphyre (Paris 2003) provides a useful addition to the note on imperial porphyry (83 n. 162). For late antiquity, true, there is more evidence for monastic than ordinary life, but Wilfong’s Women of Jeme (Ann Arbor 2002) brings alive a community in a way that has not previously been attempted, and the useful section on Gnosticism and Manichaeism (103–4) cites the recently recovered literature related to the latter but not the Nag Hammadi library, which has been of sufficient public interest to have generated popular editions of Gnostic texts in translation. The questions of culture, identity, and choice posed particularly by funerary material (51–65, and see above) have recently been explored by Riggs in The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt (Oxford 2005), which addresses several of the points perceptively raised by Lembke here (such as the identifi cation of the figures flanking the doorway in Tomb 21 at Tuna el-Gebel [61–3] and the representation of the goddess Nut in the Soter group coffins [65]).

Published contemporaneously with this Zabern book, Egypt from Alexander to the Copts (R.S. Bagnall and D.W. Rathbone, eds. [London 2004]) offers a more Baedeker-like experience, with briskly informative trips around the major sites. These two publications complement each other rather well, and testify to the fact that Roman Egypt is now an object of public, not just academic, interest thanks to the newsworthy discoveries made by underwater archaeology at Alexandria and a spate of exhibitions (notably those focusing on mummy portraits; see the Totenkult bibliography in this book [125]).

Lembke and her colleagues have more than lived up to the standard of this picture-book series in supplying an authoritative and wideranging introduction to Roman Egypt for all kinds of readers.

Helen Whitehouse
Department of Antiquities
Ashmolean Museum
Oxford OX1 2PH
United Kingdom

Book Review of Ägyptens späte Blüte: Die Römer am Nil, by Katja Lembke

Reviewed by Helen Whitehouse

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 2 (April 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1112.Whitehouse

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <fa> <span> <i>
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.