Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Manetho: History of Egypt (ca 250 BC)

In the year 332 BC, Alexander of Macedon led a Greek army in the successful conquest of Egypt. The following year he ordered the construction of a city he named after himself. Then he left Egypt and never returned.

Ptolemy, a leader in Alexander’s army, made himself ruler of Egypt following Alexander’s death in 323. He made Alexandria the capital of Egypt and paid for the construction of a library there. It soon became the largest and most important library in all of Olympia.

Ptolemy 2nd (ruled 285-246 BC) paid as many as fifty scholars to work at the library. One remarkable work made possible by Ptolemy’s patronage was the Septuagint, a translation of Jewish Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek, published around 250. Another important work, also written in Greek and published at the same time, was the History of Egypt by a man named Manetho.

Manetho was born into an Egyptian family living in the city of Sebennytos on the Damietta branch of the Nile River. As an adult, Manetho worked at the major temple in the city of Heliopolis (near Memphis). As a priest, Manetho would have benefited from the extensive historical records preserved in that temple.

He wrote several books but his most important work was his History of Egypt. He may have written this to provide a native Egyptian response to the otherwise authoritative history of Egypt written by the Greek author Herodotus around 440 BC.

In his History, Manetho is the first writer to use the term “dynasty.” Manetho used “dynasty” to mean a group of rulers who come from the same family or rule from the same city. Manetho divided the rulers of Egypt into thirty dynasties. His division continues to shape the writing of Egyptian history to this day. The names he listed for pharaohs, such as Menes (for Narmer) and Cheops (for Khufu), are often still preferred to more authentic alternatives because of their greater familiarity.

No copy of Manetho’s original History survives. We know of it only from summaries written centuries later. The two oldest surviving summaries were written by Sextus Julius Africanus around AD 225 and by Eusebius about 100 years later.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.