Egypt in Italy.

I’m reading Peter Thonemann’s TLS review of what sounds like a delightful (if ridiculously expensive) book, Molly Swetnam-Burland’s Egypt in Italy: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture, and I had to pass on this section for obvious reasons:

A nice example of creative Roman adaptation of Egyptian material culture comes from the south Italian city of Beneventum. Here, in the late 80s AD, a local civic benefactor called Rutilius Lupus commissioned two brand new obelisks of Egyptian granite, probably to adorn the city’s own lavish temple to Isis. In most respects, the dedicatory inscriptions on these obelisks are conventional enough: they record Lupus’s status as a legatus Augusti (“envoy of the Emperor”), and include a prayer to Isis for the health and happiness of the reigning Emperor Domitian. More startling is the fact that these inscriptions are written not in Latin, but in perfect Egyptian hieroglyphic script, complete with ingenious Egyptian paraphrases of technical Latin terms (legatus Augusti becomes “he who runs back and forth for the emperor”). Lupus had clearly gone to some trouble to produce a monument of the highest possible authenticity.

How many people in Rome (let alone Beneventum) could actually read hieroglyphs is another matter. The Romans were fascinated by the hieroglyphic script, and at least some Roman antiquarians made serious efforts to master it. The late Roman historian Ammianus quotes a complete Greek translation of the hieroglyphic inscription on the Circus Maximus obelisk, attributing it to an otherwise unknown figure called “Hermapion”. In a brilliant recent article, Amin Benaissa has shown that this mysterious Hermapion must in fact be the well-known scholar Apion of Alexandria, who lived in Rome during the early Julio-Claudian period and who wrote a monumental encyclopedia, the Aegyptiaca, on the history, geography, religion and customs of Egypt.

Apion’s translation of the Circus Maximus obelisk-inscription is an odd mixture of creative intelligence and outrageous muddle. The Egyptian titulature of Ramesses II, “Horus, powerful bull, son of Seth, golden Horus, chosen by Re”, is rendered by Apion as “powerful Apollo, son of Helios, bright-shining, chosen by Helios”. The Greco-Roman gods Apollo and Helios (“Sun”) are perfectly plausible equivalents for the Egyptian deities Horus and Re (the Egyptian sun god). Apion seems to have been baffled by the hieroglyphic sign for “Seth”, and so simply adds another reference to Helios. As Swetnam-Burland nicely puts it, “The act of translation here is twofold, both linguistic and cultural, translating the words of the Egyptian language while transforming their meaning into terms readers standing outside Egyptian culture could understand”.

It had never occurred to me that some Romans knew Egyptian, but of course they did. The whole review is worth reading; it starts with a point that had never occurred to me, that the Romans would have found it “very peculiar” that the British brought home so little from the Raj:

Two centuries of British rule in India ended up leaving virtually no mark on the architecture and material culture of the imperial mother country. Victorian London built no mosques or Hindu temples to cater for ardent English Indophiles; no looted statues of Shiva or Buddha were set up on The Mall to commemorate the capture of Lucknow or the Younghusband expedition.

An exception is the startling “Islamo-Palladian” Sezincote House in Gloucestershire.


  1. Trond Engen says

    <Greeek sculptor (dictating)>: “legatus Augusti”
    <Graeco-Egyptian scribe>: What’s that?
    <Sculptor>: It means the emperor’s errand-boy
    <Scribe>: Yeah, but what does he do?
    <Sculptor>: What do you think? Running back and forth for the emperor,
    <Scribe:>: Oh, I like that!

  2. Another exception is the Brighton Royal Pavilion “built in the Indo-Saracenic style prevalent in India for most of the 19th century.”

    And a lot of at least Indian-influenced architecture in other colonies such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

  3. Yes, the review mentions it, just before the last bit I quoted:

    The reason why Sezincote looks so outlandish to modern eyes is simply that there is nothing quite like this anywhere else in England. (The Royal Pavilion at Brighton, built a decade or so later, is an exception: the Prince Regent was blown away by Sezincote, and wanted one of his own.)

  4. marie-lucie says

    The provincial government building in Victoria, BC, Canada is supposed to show Indian influence too. Before Canada was declared a united country in 1967, British Columbia was a separate “province” answering directly to the British Crown. A fair number of Victoria’s inhabitants descend from British civil servants and military or naval officers who retired in the city after years of service in India, finding Victoria a more congenial place than England or Scotland in which to maintain the colonial culture they were accustomed to.

  5. 1867, surely.

  6. “Asian” population of Great Britain – now three million – is the direct, if somewhat delayed, result of the British rule in India.

    Mosques, Hindu and Sikh temples can be found everywhere in the UK these days.

  7. It’s no surprise that the sign for Seth was a stumbling block. Seth retained his role in iconography as guardian of the solar barque and in formal royal titles for more than a millennium after his cult had essentially disappeared and his role in mythology had become purely villainous. He was so little a part of religious worship by late Egyptian times that we don’t even know for sure what animal he was.

  8. JC: Oops! of course it was 1867. 1967 was the centenary.

  9. Marie-Lucie, John Cowan: while Canada was born in 1867, British Columbia only became a province in 1871 (the sixth: Prince Edward Island had become the fifth province the previous year, and Canada in 1867 had four provinces: Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia). Also, before 1866 Victoria had been the capital of Vancouver island only, as it and what is today the coastal mainland of British Columbia were separate colonies.

    Indeed, there exists a movement today seeking to make Vancouver Island Canada’s eleventh province, and I recall a founder of this movement pointing out that Vancouver Island, because of its early connections with other British possessions in the Pacific, had a history unlike that of most Canadian provinces: Marie-Lucie’s point about South Asian architectural influence upon the provincial legislative building exemplifies this historical specificity nicely.

  10. Etienne, you are right, I had forgotten that Vancouver Island had been its own colony until it was joined to the newly formed BC, which is why the capital is in Victoria (on the island), not Vancouver as could be expected from the size difference of the two cities. But I didn’t know that some islanders want to be on their own. Vancouver Island is certainly bigger than Prince Edward Island which is its own province!

  11. Greg Pandatshang says

    It’s interesting that the received opinion is that Western civilization begins with Greece-and-Rome, with Greece the elder of the two. And yet Greek civilization famously has Egyptian antecedents. The claim could equally well be that Western civilization begins with Egypt, Greece, and Rome, with Egypt the firstborn.

    For instance, Poe’s “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome”. It would seem out of place if he added a mention of Egypt as well.

  12. It’s because (classical) Greek and Latin remained known and readable languages. Egyptian did not.

  13. It’s not quite the same thing, but Woking Mosque was built in 1889:,_Woking

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Greek civilization famously has Egyptian antecedents.

    In what respects?

  15. The claim could equally well be that Western civilization begins with Egypt, Greece, and Rome, with Egypt the firstborn.

    Except that leaves out the Mesopotamian/Levantine antecedents, which were if anything more important to Greek civilization.

  16. Two centuries of British rule in India ended up leaving virtually no mark on the architecture and material culture of the imperial mother country…An exception is the startling “Islamo-Palladian” Sezincote House in Gloucestershire.

    And the Brighton Pavilion, as noted. So, two. And the Durbar Room at Osborne. And there are quite a few others in Britain (from pavilions to tea-rooms) in Indo-Saracenic or Moorish Revival styles.

    And he doesn’t just say “architecture”, where there admittedly aren’t many examples in Britain (though a lot more than he lists; there are also a lot built by the British elsewhere in the Empire, such as Malaya and Singapore); he also says “material culture”, which is utter rubbish. Victorian material culture, especially textiles and clothing, was deeply influenced by India, as half an hour in the V&A will tell you.

    no looted statues of Shiva or Buddha were set up on The Mall to commemorate the capture of Lucknow or the Younghusband expedition.

    Kind of impressive that the author’s never heard of Cleopatra’s Needle. It’s right there on the Embankment.

    And, really, he’s arguing “isn’t it weird that the Victorian British never looted any statues?” Not only has he never heard of the Needle, he’s never heard of the British Museum! (True, they didn’t put them up on the Mall. Sensible. Victorian London’s air wouldn’t have done them much good.)

  17. Religion also played a big part – Roman emperors introduced Egyptian cult of goddess Isis throughout the empire and it became very popular.

    It was displaced later on by another imported cult from the other side of Sinai desert.

    So, was Egypt alien to Romans?

    About as alien as Palestine to medieval Christendom, I’d say.

  18. The Brighton Pavilion was the first building that came to my mind, but of course there are all sorts of buildings and other objects and decorative motifs that appeared subsequently, including the V&A itself and the internal courtyard of the former India Office (now a wing of the Foreign Office, in Whitehall). I’m guessing many more examples might be found listed under Orientalism (Leighton House’s Arab Court for example). As Ant C said, there is a lot of colonial-era Indian-influenced architecture all over the far East, also in the former French Indochina. And then there’s the architecture of British India, all the way through Lutyens’ Delhi. I mean, it goes back & forth, dunnit? There are the bungalows, from Hindi “बंगला” (baṅgala), meaning ‘Bengali’, used for a house in the Bengal style, built for Brits, and now found everywhere from Scotland to Australia & NZ. And Veranda: whether the word originated in Bengal or is from Sanskrit or Portuguese or whatever, the form of an enclosed inside-outside space protected from sun & insects came to England, and thence its colonies like Australia & America, from India. Far from ‘leaving virtually no mark on the architecture and material culture’ of Britain, the subject is VAST.

    I’m guessing there’s also a colonial and maybe a pre-colonial architectural link between Egypt (French-, British- and earlier) and India, but I know nothing about it.

  19. ajay, not to needle you, but the Needle is of course Egyptian not Indian.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    About as alien as Palestine to medieval Christendom, I’d say.

    Hm. Don’t know about that. The Augustan propaganda against Cleopatra makes much of her fundamental un-Romanness, and consequent corruption of that pure Roman Mark Anthony; and you get things like this from Juvenal (Satires XV):

    O sanctas gentes, quibus haec nascuntur in hortis
    Numina! lanatis animalibus abstinet omnis
    Mensa, nefas illic fetum iugulare capellae;
    Carnibus humanis vesci licet …

    O, holy nation, in whose gardens these gods grow! Every meal shuns sheep; there it’s a sin to kill a kid … Feeding on human flesh is fine…

    I don’t think the popularity of Isis means that Egypt wasn’t at the same time felt to be alien. After all, Cybele was pretty popular in her day too. Exoticism can be a selling point for gods and goddesses. California Buddhism has many predecessors …

  21. About as alien as Palestine to medieval Christendom, I’d say.

    Hm. Don’t know about that.

    No, I think that’s a reasonable analogy. If anything, Egypt was somewhat less alien to the Romans, because it was (from the time of Augustus onward) continuously a part of the Empire, and a major source of Rome’s grain.

    Medieval Europeans didn’t think of people living in Palestine as “just like us”, but they didn’t think of Palestine as someplace exotically alien the way they might have about Ethiopia or India (which they tended to confuse). Some of them would even travel there.

    Augustus had, of course, strong political motivation for making the Egyptians seem as “non-Roman” as possible: his rival Marc Antony had teamed up with Cleopatra. But at least half a dozen later Roman Emperors visited Egypt, sometimes founding temples; several had themselve depicted as pharaohs, or participated in public festivals carrying icons of Egyptian gods.

  22. Wasn’t Palestine a European colony in 1098-1291?

  23. No, it was a set of independent entities with their own rulers; Baldwin IV was King of Jerusalem in his own right, not dependent on any European rulers (formally, that is; of course he needed help from the mother country).

  24. colonial settler state then

  25. colonial settler state then

    Well, if we ignore for the moment the anachronism of trying to apply terms devised for 18th-20th C states to the Middle Ages, then: No.

    Classical “colonial settler states” (e.g., North American British colonies, Australia, etc.) start as subordinate colonies of the parent empire and proceed by trying to create a culture, economy, and polity completely separate from the locals, who are typically pushed to the margins, expelled, and/or exterminated.

    The Crusader states in the Levant were independent right from the start, as Language Hat pointed out. Perhaps more to the point, aside from an initial round of massacres, the (predominately) Frankish rulers very quickly came to various accommodations with the local Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other inhabitants. Actual Western European immigration remained quite limited, and things basically fell into a variation on the traditional “foreign conquering aristocracy rules over local peasants” pattern.

    Of course, if you want I suppose you could still call this a “colonial settler state”, but then you have to call all sort of other things that, too: Visigothic Spain, Islamic Spain, various part of Islamic North Africa, Anglo-Saxon England, England under the Danelaw, Norman England, Islamic Sicily, Norman Sicily, the Kingdom of Hungary, etc., etc.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Augustus had, of course, strong political motivation for making the Egyptians seem as “non-Roman” as possible

    Very true; but (like Juvenal’s satire) the propaganda wouldn’t have had any traction if there hadn’t been a prejudice there to build on in the first place.

  27. “Ajay, not to needle you, but the Needle is of course Egyptian not Indian.”

    True. But the article mentioned the Younghusband Expedition, which was to Tibet, not India.

  28. Definitions aside, the point I am trying to make is that the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 12th century was neither foreign nor alien for the French (or for the English for that matter).

    Probably felt more like immigrating from Britain to America today.

    The ruling elite of Crusader states – the only important people there – spoke same language as the English or French aristocracy, professed same religion, followed same laws and customs and everyone had family and relatives back in the old country.

  29. “California Buddhism has many predecessors …”


    Pure Land Buddhism has been in California since the 19th century and it’s no more foreign than Mormonism or Russian Orthodoxy, both of which arrived later. Or Lutheranism, for that matter.

  30. David Eddyshaw says


    I should have written “California Zen” (and indeed was going to correct my original post, but my editing window expired while I was swithering about something else.)

    I have (incidentally) no animus whatsoever against genuine Western adherents of Buddhism, only against half-baked dilettanti professing a cartoon version of the real thing. This is a phenomenon not confined to Buddhism …

  31. Anyone interested in the appropriation of ancient Egypt should find Erik Iverson’s “The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition” and Okasha El Daly’s “Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings.” The translation of Ancient Egyptian writing has a long, weird history that could fuel an entire academic field of its own.

  32. @Jim, the first Mormons arrived in California in 1846 from Brooklyn. They were present long enough to set up a newspaper, a school, and a farming colony before moving to Salt Lake in 1848. The first California LDS colonization from Utah occurred in 1851.

    The links you provide indicate that Pure Land Buddhism appeared in the late 1800s.

  33. As in all things LDS, the business of convenient historical omission is part and parcel of their raison d’etre. The Wikipedia article is no different.

    In 1849, Brigham Young writes to Elder Sam Brannan in San Francisco, “the Lord is willing you should accumulate the rich treasures of the Earth and the good things of time in abundance; but should you withhold (from tithing), when the Lord says give, your hope and pleasing prospects will be blasted in an hour, you think not of, and no arm to save.”

    “You go back and tell Brigham,” said Brannan, “that I’ll give up the Lord’s money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord!”

    The Mormons may have missed out on the riches of California’s Gold Rush but they’ve made up for lost opportunities since.

  34. David Marjanović says

    “You go back and tell Brigham,” said Brannan, “that I’ll give up the Lord’s money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord!”

    Ooh, burn.


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