The Legend of the Egyptian Coronation of Alexander the Great

Andrew Monson

Institute of Archaeology, University College London

The image of Alexander the Great and his welcome into Egypt has inspired legends since antiquity. The Greek and Egyptian representations of his conquest, and the Persian conquest before him, conform to narrative structures that relay unique cultural and personal experiences. Historical problems, such as determining the events during Alexander’s brief stay in Egypt (331 BC), must be resolved by interpreting such documents with these experiences in mind. One aim of the present inquiry is to frame the literary and epigraphical sources surrounding Alexander’s Egyptian coronation within their cultural and ideological context.

Since it provides the most complete narrative of events, the classical tradition inspires the image of Alexander as a liberator of Egypt, welcomed and crowned for ending Persian rule. For example, the Latin historian Quintus Curtius writes: "The Egyptians, hostile of old to the power of the Persians - for they believed they had been governed avariciously and arrogantly - had taken courage at the prospect of Alexander’s coming. ... Therefore a vast multitude assembled at Pelusium, where they thought that Alexander would enter the country."1 However, Egyptian evidence suggests a different view of how at least the local elite might have reacted to Macedonian rule. Some were hostile while others preferred to collaborate and assimilate the new regime with pharaonic traditions. The legendary Egyptian coronation would have taken place during this period of transitional authority, where native traditions and imperial demands were juxtaposed and never fully reconciled.

The Greek narrative known as the Alexander Romance of Pseudo-Callisthenes opens our discussion about Alexander’s Egyptian coronation. An Alexandrian author compiled the story between the second and fourth century AD out of earlier narratives. Most importantly, it provides the only ancient reference to Alexander being crowned in Memphis by the high priest of Ptah. However, the text is also significant because it carries the theme of liberation by a prophesied king who will restore Egyptian rule to a legitimate successor of the native dynasty.

The first thirty-four chapters of Book I are united by the tale of Nectanebo, the last Egyptian pharaoh.2 According to the account, Nectanebo was a powerful king of Egypt who was able to defeat his enemies by magic until his own gods joined the barbarians of the East, forcing him to abandon his kingdom and flee to Macedonia. The Egyptians received an oracle that their king would come again to subdue the Persians as a young man. Winning the trust of Queen Olympias as a prophetic advisor, he fathered her son Alexander by entering her bed deceitfully dressed as the god Ammon. Knowing the child’s divine birth, King Philip tolerated this infidelity and raised him as a son. When in a quarrel Alexander mortally wounded Nectanebo, the Egyptian revealed himself as his father. After succeeding Philip as king, Alexander set out to conquer the world. Chapter thirty-four records his reception in Memphis:

Alexander took his armies and hurried on to Egypt. When he arrived at the city of Memphis, the Egyptians enthroned him as king of Egypt on the throne of Hephaistos [i.e. Ptah]. In Memphis Alexander saw a tall statue of black stone with the following inscription on the pedestal. "This king who has fled will come again to Egypt, not in age but in youth, and our enemy the Persians he shall subject to us." Alexander asked whose statue this was and the prophets told him: "This statue is that of the last king of Egypt, Nektanebos. When the Persians were coming to devastate Egypt, he saw by his magical powers the gods of Egypt guiding the armies of the enemy towards us, Egypt being destroyed by them. He then realized their impending betrayal and fled. But when we conducted a search for him and inquired of the gods where our king, Nektanebos, had fled to, they gave us this response. ‘This king who has fled will come again to Egypt, not in age but in youth, and your enemy the Persians he shall subject to you.’" When Alexander heard this, he leapt onto the statue and embraced it, saying: "This is my father - I am his son."3

Alan Lloyd has argued that the tale of Nectanebo fathering Alexander the Great derives ultimately from Egyptian propaganda.4 He claims that the legend reconciles foreign rule with native traditions by inserting an Egyptian who manipulates the Macedonian queen and engenders the next ruler of Egypt. However, the predominance of Greek elements in the narrative is significant and should not be overlooked. Besides the familiar episodes that recur from Alexander’s life such as the taming of Bucephalus and the quarrel of Philip and Olympias, it has been suggested that the magical powers of Nectanebo II were a Greek invention.5 Given the compilation of sources in the Alexander Romance, it would not be surprising if Egyptian elements influenced the essentially Greek or Hellenized narrative.

The flight of Egypt’s last native pharaoh and the installation of a foreign regime was an important theme for the Egyptian priests in the Ptolemaic period. A recently published Demotic fragment dated on palaeographical evidence to the first or second century AD preserves part of the so-called Dream of Nectanebo.6 According to a Greek version of the second century BC, Nectanebo learned in a dream that Onouris, the god who had protected Egypt from invasion, was dissatisfied with the work on his temple. Thus, Nectanebo ordered the best carver of hieroglyphs to finish the work but this man was distracted by a beautiful woman. Though nothing more of the tale survives it has been suggested that the carver never finished his work and Onouris abandoned Nectanebo to the Persians.7 There was little doubt before the recent publication of the Demotic fragment that the Greek version was copied from a direct translation of an Egyptian original. However, the fragment demonstrates that the story of Nectanebo II continued to be read and recopied even into the Roman period.

Nectanebo II also figures in an early Ptolemaic Egyptian source, the Demotic Chronicle, which records oracles and their explanations by an Egyptian priest regarding the last native pharaohs and their foreign successors.8 Where the first fully extant column begins, the author presents a list of native kings ruling after the initial Persian occupation ended. Claiming that the "ruling king" is Tachos, the father of Nectanebo II, he narrates later events as prophecies.9 In column four, each king, listed in order from the rule of the Persians, is given with a few details about his reign. After an unnamed king (Nectanebo II) had reigned for 18 years, the author "prophesies" a return of the Persians, who will take the homes of the Egyptians and bring misfortune.10 However, the author prophesies another king who will come from Herakleopolis to rule after the Persians and the Greeks.

It is noteworthy that the king list in the Demotic Chronicle fails to mention any specific ruler of the Persians or the Greeks, but resumes with details about the Egyptian who will come from Herakleopolis. Treated as collectives, the foreign rulers of Egypt were not regarded with the same interest as Egyptian kings. The obscurity of the Greek references has caused debate as to whether they indicate the same level of animosity found in the Persian references.11 Nevertheless, contrary to both Persians and Greeks, the ruler from Herakleopolis will arise with acclaim at the behest of the god Harsaphes, coinciding with an opening of the temples and gifts being brought for the gods.12 The author even describes details of his rebellion against the Greeks, including, receiving a titulary, gathering followers, arming them, and appearing with the crown as ruler.13

When one compares such Demotic oracular literature with the Alexander Romance, the cultural and ideological differences outshine the apparent similarities of theme and content. According to the Alexander Romance, Alexander orders the Egyptians to pay him the tribute they had paid the Persians: "not so that I may collect it for my own treasury, but rather so that I may spend it on your city, the Egyptian Alexandria." Delighted, the Egyptians offer him money for this and accompany him as he sets forth from Egypt.14 In contrast, the Potter’s Oracle of the second century BC predicts the destruction of Alexandria, the fall of Ptolemaic Egypt, and the rise of a savior king.15 The persistence of oracles of destruction and the memory of Nectanebo II in Egyptian literature suggests that the foundation of the legend of Alexander’s Egyptian coronation is a Greek cultural construction.

The Demotic Chronicle, contrary to the Alexander Romance, describes the rulers of Egypt within an Egyptian ideological framework. Alan Lloyd argues that, whereas earlier Egyptian texts often assume that pharaoh’s legitimacy comes ex officio, the author of the Demotic Chronicle endeavors to judge individual rulers according to their actions.16 Similarly, John Baines has suggested that the kingship in the first millennium BC became increasingly "secular" and even culturally alien to native Egyptians in response to repeated foreign conquest. Thus, the theory of kingship emerging in the Demotic Chronicle places more emphasis on the king as a man and his obligations to the gods than on his divine status.17 Care for the gods and temples, a proper titulary, adherence to the law, and protection from foreign rule, are some of the criteria by which the author judges the king. The Greeks will be replaced by the man from Herakleopolis, presumably for some deficiency in this respect.18

The absence of specific Persian and Greek rulers from the list suggests a certain amount of uniformity to the author’s regard for this period of foreign domination. Janet Johnson notes that the author treats Persians more harshly than Greeks. She writes: "This is perhaps to be explained by the fact that the Ptolemies were essentially kings of Egypt. Their prime concern, for all their foreign dealings, was with Egypt, the welfare of which was identical with their own."19 Regardless of whether this may be true for the Ptolemies, it highlights a problem with the narrative of liberation when applied to the conquests of Alexander. Greek sources for Alexander - colorfully illustrated in the conqueror’s brazen demand for tribute in the Alexander Romance - stress that Egypt was valued for its strategic military and economic position in the wider realm of Macedonian conquest. Thus, Alexander, like the Persians, would be at a disadvantage in fulfilling the role of an Egyptian pharaoh, if not by his being "foreign" per se, then by providing for the Greeks, conducting campaigns, and managing an empire.

If Alexander could not rely on every Egyptian to welcome him as a liberator, he still had to rely on some members of the local elite in order to rule effectively. While not for Alexander, an autobiographical inscription of a "collaborator" does survive for the first Persian invasion of Cambyses. Dated to about 519 BC, at the beginning of the reign of Darius, Udjahorresnet’s inscription records the high positions he held both during the Thirtieth Dynasty and under the Persians.20 Elevated to his position in the Persian court for drawing up the titulary of Cambyses, Udjahorresnet boasts that by his agency Cambyses removed the Persians from the temple of Neith in Sais and made offerings to the goddess. The inscription never mentions a coronation of Cambyses but does suggest that the Persian king visited the temple himself to honor the goddess and sponsored its festivals. The inscription is laden with religious vocabulary that depicts Cambyses according to the role of pharaoh in maintaining the divine order.21 The religious policy adopted by Cambyses anticipates Alexander, who likewise must have relied on those who could benefit themselves and their temple by collaboration.22

Extending the comparison of Cambyses with Alexander, it shows that both conquerors found enemies in Egypt who were hostile to their imposition. Herodotus relates Cambyses’ murder of the Apis bull and persecution of the Egyptians for celebrating the Apis festival after his military defeat in Nubia.23 Cambyses’ reduction of revenues for many temples, recorded on the verso of the Demotic Chronicle, is commonly thought to have angered the Egyptian priests who fabricated this propaganda. Their sentiments highlight the tension that underlies Udjahorresnet’s testimony of collaboration, which can only demonstrate Cambyses’ legitimacy for a privileged minority.24 Considering our reliance on Greek sources, evidence for dissatisfaction with the Persians is more plentiful than for dissatisfaction with Alexander. However, Arrian mentions the fiscal demands on the country under Alexander’s appointed official, Cleomenes.25

That Egyptians despised the Persians and welcomed Alexander to the throne appears exaggerated in light of the biographical inscription of another collaborator. The so-called Naples Stele records the shifting loyalty of Sam-taoui-tef-nekht.26 After holding high positions under Nectanebo II, Sam-taoui-tef-nekht enjoyed the affection of the Persian king Artaxerxes III who appointed him as high priest of Sakhmet, a position which, he tells us, his uncle had held previously. Serving in the court of Darius III, he may have been present at the decisive battle of Gaugamela.27 Addressing the god Harsaphes, he says: "Then, you protected me during the conflict with the Greeks, when you repulsed the Asiatics. There a million men died at my side without anyone lifting an arm against me."28 According to his inscription, Sam-taoui-tef-nekht managed to return safely to Heracleopolis in Egypt by the order and protection of the god Harsaphes to whom the entire inscription was dedicated.

This Egyptian’s testimony of Egypt under three dynasties - Egyptian, Persian, and Greek - demonstrates the tensions between traditional values and expedient circumstances that are inherent in transitional authority. A narrative may serve to conceal such tensions in the creation of a plot that simplifies complex relationships into an intelligible representation that appeals to its audience.29 Such a technique is evident in biographical narratives as well as literary and historical narratives. The author of the Naples Stele tries to represent his collaboration in religious terms. Tresson writes: "Un récit détaillé des protections, que lui avait soi-disant accordée Harsaphès, ne pouvait, certes, que servir ses desseins. En effet, honoré de tant de faveurs divines, il devenait, aux yeux des dévots d’Héracléopolis, un personnage digne de tout respect et il obtenait, ainsi, l’oubli des actes de sa vie passée."30 Similarly, Lloyd identifies the conceptual structure of a mythological narrative in the inscription of Udjahorresnet that bestows legitimacy on the rule of Cambyses through the harmony the latter achieves with the divine order by his beneficent deeds.31 This narrative alleviates the tension implied in Udjahorresnet’s collaboration by stressing his agency in leading Cambyses to this harmony.

The coronation of Alexander the Great is an event that appears in a narrative context, namely, the restoration of legitimate kingship in Egypt. It is a narrative that has been revived by modern historians, most recently by Günther Hölbl when he writes: "The Ptolemies followed Alexander’s example inasmuch as they, like him, chose to be crowned in Memphis. Thus, from the beginning, a relationship of co-operation existed between the priesthoods of Memphis and the Ptolemaic royal house; the high priest of Ptah who carried out the rite of coronation represented the Egyptian priesthoods as a whole."32 However, any theory of liberation or rejuvenation underestimates the continuity between Alexander and his Persian predecessors with respect to religious policy and administration.33 The biographical inscriptions of Udjahorresnet and Sam-taoui-tef-nekht demonstrate that Egyptians held positions of influence in the Persian court and that Persian kings cultivated their relationship with the temples. The Demotic Chronicle and the frequent rebellions in the Ptolemaic period suggest that Macedonian rule faced discontent similar to that of the Persians. Therefore, it would be problematic to characterize the attitude of the Egyptian priesthoods as a whole.

Attempting to understand the Egyptian coronation of Alexander depends on fitting the event into a logical narrative that is based on reliable evidence. Using the Alexander Romance as an historical source for the coronation is beset with problems over interpreting its narrative content. Historians such as Wilcken suggested that a coronation could be inferred from a ruler’s possession of a titulary. However, Burstein has demonstrated that such an association must be regarded with skepticism since the titulary of Alexander exhibits considerable variation. Uncrowned kings who possessed a titulary are attested, including the Argead kings, Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV, who held nominal power after Alexander’s death, as well as the Roman emperors.34 Moreover, the references to creating a titulary in the Inscription of Udjahorresnet and in the Demotic Chronicle are not connected with a coronation. The first Greek king in Egypt for whom there is evidence of a coronation is Ptolemy V Epiphanes and it is during a period of considerable social unrest.35

A sudden rejuvenation of pharaonic traditions coinciding with Alexander’s liberation of Egypt from Persian oppression does not fully explain the tension and continuity inherent in this period of transitional authority. The narrative of liberation has led historians to accept unjustifiably the historical basis of Alexander’s Egyptian coronation in the Alexander Romance. An alternative formulation, suggested here, represents Alexander as the inheritor of the Persian empire and his conquest of Egypt as the transition of power from the Achaemenid to the Argead dynasty. According to this view, a tension of loyalties is resolved for certain Egyptians by constructing a narrative that justifies collaboration or hostility. The Alexander Romance and the more sensational Alexander historians ignore these tensions when they present the Egyptians as willing supporters of Alexander’s campaign.36 Therefore, the Egyptian coronation of Alexander the Great must remain legendary until there is better evidence that establishes a place for it within our understanding of Egyptian society.



1 Quintus Curtius 4.7.1-2. trans. John C. Rolfe.

2 Chapter thirty-five moves abruptly to the east where Alexander’s exploits are narrated in a series of fictitious letters that differ remarkably from the earlier sections. For the date and structure of these early elements, see R. Merkelbach, Die Quellen des griechischen Alexanderromans. (Munich, 1954); L.L. Gunderson, "Early Elements in the Alexander Romance" in Ancient Macedonia ed. B. Laourdas and Ch. Makaronas. (Thessaloniki, 1970) 353-374.

3 Ps.-Call. I.34. trans. K. Dowden in Collected Ancient Greek Novels. ed. B.P. Reardon. (Berkeley, 1989) 654-735.

4 Alan B. Lloyd, "Nationalist Propaganda in Ptolemaic Egypt," 31 Historia (1982) 46-50.

5 B.E. Perry, "The Egyptian Legend of Nectanebus," 97 Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. (1966) 330.

6 Kim Ryholt, "A Demotic Version of Nectanbo’s Dream (P.Carlsberg 562)" 122 ZPE (1997) 197-200. The Greek papyrus is published in Wilcken, Urkunden der Ptolemäerzeit 1. (Berlin, 1927) 364-374.

7 Perry (1966) 332.

8 P.Bibliothèque Nationale 215 in Paris; publication and translation in W. Spiegelberg, Die Sogenannte Demotische Chronik. (Leipzig, 1914). On the palaeographical considerations suggesting an early Ptolemaic date, see p. 4.

9 2/1-6.

10 4/1-23.

11 For example, an oracle mentions young men who "stand upon the road with their chins in their hands" to which the author relates the Greeks coming to Egypt, ruling for a long time (6/19-20). Spiegelberg identifies it an expression of mourning (1914) 21 n. 8; cf. Alan B. Lloyd, "Nationalist Propaganda in Ptolemaic Egypt" 31 Historia (1982) 33-55, esp. 42; for a more skeptical view of whether the author is anti-Greek see, Janet H. Johnson, "Is the Demotic Chronicle and Anti-Greek Tract?" in Grammata Demotika eds. Thissen and Zauzich. (Würzburg, 1984) 107-124.

12 3/1-3. Lloyd (1982) 42.

13 3/7-10. Johnson suggests that this might have been written in support of a rebellion in progress or could more likely have been intended to prepare one in the future (1984) 113-4.

14 Ps.-Call. I.34.

15 Ludwig Koenen, "Prophezeiungen des ‘Töpfers’," 2 ZPE (1968) 178-209; "The Prophecies of a Potter: a Prophecy of World Renewal Becomes an Apocalypse," 7 Proceedings of the Twelfth International Congress of Papyrology. (1970) 249-254.

16 Alan B. Lloyd, "Nationalist Propaganda" (1982) 43.

17 John Baines, "Kingship, Definitions of Culture, and Legitimation" in Ancient Egyptian Kingship eds. David O’Connor and David P. Silverman. (Leiden, 1995) 37-8.

18 Janet H. Johnson, "The Demotic Chronicle as a Statement of a Theory of Kingship," 8 JSSEA (1983) 72.

19 Johnson (1984) 123.

20 Publication and translation in G. Posener, La Première Domination Perse en Égypte. (Cairo, 1936).

21 Alan B. Lloyd, "The Inscription of Udjahorresnet: a Collaborator’s Testament" 68 JEA (1982) 166-180, esp. 170-173.

22 This may explain the construction of the bark shrine in the temple of Luxor under Alexander; see, Mahmud Abd El-Raziq, Die Darstellungen und Texte des Sanktuars Alexanders des Grossen im Temple von Luxor. (Mainz, 1994).

23 Herodotus 3.29.1.

24 Pierre Briant, Histoire de l’Empire Perse (Fayard: Paris, 1996) 70-1. Briant suggests that the financial cuts may have been directed at those temples unwilling to "legitimate" Persian power (71). He also adds: "il serait excessif et illusoire de postuler que l’opinion et la conduite d’Udjahorresnet doivent être généralisées. Que la propagande "légitimiste" de Cambyse ait été menée avec constance et habileté est une chose; qu’elle ait suscité adhésions et sympathies unanime en est une autre" (70).

25 Arrian 3.5.4; cf. S.M. Burstein, "Alexander in Egypt: Continuity or Change," AncHist VIII (1994) 381-387, esp. 385.

26 Publication and translation in M. Paul Tresson, "La stèle de Naples," 30 BIFAO (1931) 369-391.

27 Tresson (1931) 390-1; cf. Lloyd "Inscription of Ujdahorresnet" (1982) 178 n. 41; and J. J. Clère, "Une statuette du fils aîné du roi Nectanabô," 6 RdÉ (1951), 153.

28 Translated here from Tresson (1931) 383: "Puis, tu me protégeas durant le combat des Grecs, quand tu repoussas les Asiatiques. Ceux-là tuèrent un million de gens à mes cotés, sans que personne levât le bras contre moi."

29 David Carr, "Narrative and the Real World: An Argument for Continuity," in History and Theory ed. Brian Fay et al. (Blackwell: Oxford, 1998) 137-152.

30 Tresson (1931) 391.

31 Lloyd, "Inscription of Udjahorresnet" (1982) 167ff.

32 Günther Hölbl, History of the Ptolemaic Empire. (Routledge: London, 2001) 78.

33 Burstein (1994) 381-387.

34 S.M. Burstein, "Pharaoh Alexander: a scholarly myth," 22 AncSoc (1991) 139-145.

35 Dorothy J. Thompson, Memphis Under the Ptolemies. (Princeton, 1988) 118.

36 The most reliable classical account, Arrian, does not say that the Egyptians welcomed Alexander, only that the Persian satrap surrendered Egypt without a battle (3.1.2).

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