Thursday, January 22, 2015


Christelle Fischer-Bovet, Army and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt. Armies of the Ancient World. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xxv, 447. ISBN 9781107007758. $125.00.

Reviewed by Paul Johstono, The Citadel (

Version at BMCR home site


One would scarcely have imagined a decade ago that the first volume in a Cambridge series titled Armies of the Ancient World (edited by Nick Sekunda) would be devoted to the Ptolemies. But so this is, and is most welcome since it has been more than a century since the last major work devoted to the army of Ptolemaic Egypt, and is the first in English.1 Army and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt, developed from Fischer-Bovet's dissertation of the same title (Stanford 2008, advised by J. G. Manning), is evidence of renewed interest in the Ptolemaic kingdom and a significant contribution to its historiography. Recent works, with their more extensive use of demotic evidence, have emphasized the negotiated, multicultural elements within Ptolemaic institutions and have demonstrated continuities with the Late Period and Roman eras, thereby reconfiguring the popular narrative of Ptolemaic decline to highlight Egyptian agency and acculturation.2 Fischer-Bovet's work advances these historiographical trends through an institutional and social history of the Ptolemaic army in Hellenistic Egypt. An "era of crisis" from 220-160 BC provoked meaningful institutional reforms. These lessened the coercive and increased the interactive functions of the Ptolemaic army, turning it in the late period (160-30 BC) into "an engine of socio-economic and cultural integration" for Greeks and Egyptians (366).

The work is divided into three parts, with an introduction, eight main chapters, and a conclusion. Part I is preceded by the introduction and a chapter ("The army in Late Period Egypt, 664-332 BC"15-34) that emphasizes Hellenistic continuities with Saite and Persian Egypt, including the provision of military allotments to some soldiers, the presence and significance of Greek soldiers in the Late Period, and the continued role of Libyan and Egyptian soldiers into the Ptolemaic period. Rather than discarding existing institutions to start from scratch, the Ptolemies adapted them to their own purposes and personnel.

Part I, "On the Structure and Role of the Army," comprises three topical chapters, the first devoted to the political, military, and structural challenges to the army, the next to the organization of the army, and the last to the changing ethnic composition of, and significance of ethnic identity within, the army. Each chapter covers early, crisis-era, and late developments in Egypt. Chapter 3, "Military challenges faced by the Ptolemies: power, money, crisis, and reform" (49-115), provides an analytical overview of Ptolemaic military history and calculates the cost of the Ptolemaic army and navy. Chapter 4, "Military organization and hierarchy" (116-59), and Chapter 5, "Military recruitment and ethnic composition" (160-95), address Ptolemaic military institutions and personnel, and their change over time. In these sections, Fischer-Bovet's use of documentary evidence, engagement with historiography, and analytical discussion are consistently stronger in the latter eras of Ptolemaic history.

Chapter 3 is significant for laying out the first of the book's two big arguments. Fischer-Bovet posits that military demobilization explains the advent of the era of crisis. She begins with "the paradox of impossible demobilization" (67); that is, demobilization was financially necessary for Hellenistic states, but impossible because warfare was endemic, as kings pursued legitimizing victories and budget-balancing plunder.3 Ptolemy III found demobilization suddenly possible after the Third Syrian War, as he, victorious, left the Seleucids beset by rebellion and infighting. He devoted much of his reign to expanding the cleruchy, a class of soldiers settled on large allotments in Egypt. When the Seleucids recovered, the cleruchic system failed to provide well-trained soldiers (45, 81-3), compelling Ptolemy IV's advisors to take the radical move of arming Egyptians as heavy infantry. Although Ptolemy won the ensuing war, he gained little in the way of plunder or prestige. When the army was demobilized at war's end, a spiral of military mutiny and popular unrest ensued that imperiled the Ptolemaic dynasty.4

This argument has many moving pieces, but several elements merit attention. Were demobilization and the cleruchy exceptional? Fischer-Bovet follows Aperghis in describing a robust Seleucid standing army, although Aperghis' position has been criticized and ignores the more complete evidence from Macedonia, which demonstrates that, aside from guard contingents, most non-mercenaries were mobilized and demobilized between campaigns.5 It is not clear that any significant portion of the cleruchs were settled under Ptolemy III, nor that the Ptolemaic soldier was "less well trained" (86) compared to the Seleucid. The Ptolemies were, after all, victorious at Raphia. Military training receives little attention in the text aside from repeated assertions that soldiers were poorly trained: kleroi may have distracted from military readiness (199); gymnasia may have played a role in training (283). Finally, while suggestions of "praetorianism" and sedition after Raphia (89-91) rest on inconclusive evidence, Fischer-Bovet is surely correct in concluding that "deterioration in [officers' and soldiers'] situation"—whether from demobilization or other factors—"opened the way to collaboration and alliance with the lower strata of the population" in contesting the distribution of lands, rights, and privileges in Egypt during the era of crisis (92).

In Part II, Fischer-Bovet discusses the economic status and social networks of Ptolemaic military personnel. Chapter 6, "Settling soldiers" (199-237), functions to situate the soldiering population within Egypt as a local elite, who maintained, even at lower ranks, an enviable socioeconomic position. What has traditionally been seen as the deterioration and demilitarization of the cleruchy in the late eras, Fischer-Bovet describes as "leveling" that produced shared experiences between descendants of immigrants and locally-recruited soldiers while preserving the desirability of military service (215-221, Table 6.3). Fischer-Bovet's cogent analysis of the social history of the altered settlement system skirts the military implications: if most cavalrymen received halved allotments, and many infantry and police were added to the settler cavalry, was the cavalry massively enlarged, the burden of military service substantially lightened, or the amount of cleruchic land substantially reduced? Chapter 7, "Soldiers and officers in the Egyptian countryside" (238-300) depicts military institutions, particularly through the actions of late era social networks, as avenues for social mobility and means to amplify individual agency. Intermarriage became increasingly common (247-50), while demographic realities and military priorities encouraged the recruitment of Africans. Military service provided opportunities for Egyptians, Libyans, and Nubians to avail themselves of a flexible form of Hellenization, evident in the abundance of dual Greek and Egyptian names. Fischer-Bovet argues convincingly that Hellenizing Egyptians and Graeco-Egyptians participated in gymnasia and other soldiers' associations (280-90) in an army marked by "interaction" and "hybridization" (279).

Part III complements Part II by investigating military interactions with Egyptian priesthoods and temples, which appear regularly as themes in earlier chapters. Chapter 8, "Priests in the army: a politico-ideological explanation" (303-328), tracks the elevated number and status of officer-priests in the late era. These men, coming from predominantly Egyptian backgrounds, are particularly representative of the local elites incorporated into the Hellenizing military milieu during the second century. In chapter 9, "The army and Egyptian temple-building" (329-361), Fischer-Bovet argues that military euergetism toward temples both reflected and furthered the integrative mission of the late Ptolemaic army. The evidence for patronage of temples by soldiers' associations, officers, and units is, from the era of crisis on, considerable, particularly in the Thebaid. Soldiers often occupied Egyptian sacred spaces, but the benefactions directed toward temples by the military shifted the interaction from coercive occupation to collaborative social investment (333-335). The work ends with a short conclusion and two appendices that compile examples of soldier euergetism toward temples and all known officer-priests.

Parts II and III advance the book's second major argument: that army life in the late era forged an inclusive, multicultural elite committed to and capable of securing Egypt for Ptolemaic rule. Drawing from Peter Turchin's theories of elites' roles in population ecology, Fischer-Bovet argues that the incorporation of elite Egyptian families in the military milieu placed "a more diverse portion of the population at the core of the state" (236) which not only figured prominently in the pacification of unrest, but also galvanized social and cultural interventions by the military aristocracy, enhancing the legitimacy and stability of Ptolemaic authority.6

In summary, Army and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt offers a wide-ranging analysis of Ptolemaic military institutions, particularly as a social vehicle for stability and integrative activity. It features a comprehensive bibliography, numerous sources in translation, several helpful maps, charts, and diagrams, and thorough indices. In these pages Fischer-Bovet has undertaken thoughtful interventions in dozens of smaller historiographical and papyrological debates, many of which contribute to her interpretation of Ptolemaic history from the era of crisis on. As one might surmise from the title, Fischer-Bovet is not particularly concerned with traditional military history. Her work demonstrates a conviction that the Ptolemaic military is particularly remarkable for its role in stimulating interaction between Greeks and Egyptians. Readers looking for a discussion of traditional military historical topics—campaigns, tactics, training, logistics, engineering, and the like—may be disappointed. Ultimately, this work should function as a significant reference for historians and papyrologists. Her argument for the social significance of the later Ptolemaic army, suggesting that in the military milieu acculturation progressed further and faster than generally recognized, should stimulate further work and new ways of interpreting military institutions, not only in Egypt but in other parts of the ancient world as well.


1.   Other books have dealt with aspects of the Ptolemaic military, e.g., J. Lesquier Les Institutions Militaires de l'Égypte sous les Lagides (Paris 1911), F. Uebel, Die Kleruchen Ägyptens unter den ersten sechs Ptolemäern (Berlin 1968), E. Van't Dack Ptolemaica selecta: études sur l'armée et l'administration lagides (Leiden 1988), N. Sekunda Hellenistic Infantry Reforms (Lodz 2001), and very recently, S. Scheuble-Reiter Die katöken-reiter im ptolemäischen Ägypten (Munich 2013).
2.   e.g., W. Huss, Ägypten in hellenistischer Zeit 332-30 v. Chr (Munich 2001); J.G. Manning, The Last Pharaohs (Princeton 2010); A. Monson, From the Ptolemies to the Romans (Cambridge 2012).
3.   Figure 3-1 on p.50 helpfully illustrates this situation. This phase of the argument owes much to M. M. Austin, "Hellenistic Kings, War, and the Economy" CQ 36.2 (1986) 450-66, and A. M. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate Warfare, and the Rise of Rome (Berkeley 2006). The argument for the financial desirability of, or imperative for, demobilization relies on fiscal calculations developed from those in G. Aperghis, The Seleukid Royal Economy (Cambridge 2004).
4.   The model employed for soldier unrest is the Mercenary War at Carthage following defeat in the First Punic War (91-2).
5.   Aperghis' view (see n.3) was criticized by Ma in his review in Hermathena 182 (2007) 182-8. L. Capdetrey, in Le pouvoir séleucide (Rennes 2007), suggests a complex model with elements resembling Achaemenid and Macedonian recruitment institutions. For the Macedonian model, see M. Hatzopoulos, L'organization de l'armée macédonienne sous les Antigonides (Athens 2001).
6.   P. Turchin, History Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall (Princeton 2003) is her main source. Turchin and Koroyatev, "Population Dynamics and Internal Warfare: A Reconsideration" Social Evolution and History 5.2 (2006) 112-47 is relevant for any interested party.

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