Following the death of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt in great splendor for almost three hundred years. Though of Greek blood, the Ptolemies adopted many of the customs and styles of ancient Egyptian culture, sometimes blending these with classical Greek influences. Outside of their Hellenistic capital at Alexandria, these kings of Egypt frequently portrayed themselves in art like the Pharaohs of old. This majestic head, probably depicting Ptolemy II (reigned ca.283-246 B.C.), is a superb example of this Egyptianizing style, reminiscent of works from the Golden Age of the New Kingdom. Only the naturalistic curves of the cheeks betray the Greek influence. We can imagine this sculpture once standing in some ancient Pharonic temple, glowing in the light of torches, impressing all who stood before it with its regal power, as it still awes its audience today
Ptolemy II Philadelphus, which means “Brother/Sister-loving,” was the second ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, son of Ptolemy I and Berenike I. His construction efforts included that of building the canal that linked the Nile to the Gulf of Suez made possible by his implementation of finance reforms. He was married to his full sister Arsinoe II. He also began a tradition of a four-yearly celebration to honor his father. It was intended to have a status equal to the Olympic games. Ptolemy II also sought to complete his father’s vision of making Alexandria the cultural capital of the Greek world including completing the Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to the “Letter of Aristeas”, Ptolemy II requested seventy Jewish scholars come from Jerusalem to translate the Pentateuch into a Greek version to be placed into the Great Library collection, further enhancing the cultural wealth of the city. He died on January 29, 246 B.C.
The pharaoh is depicted wearing an unstriated nemes-headcloth with a relatively wide forehead band ending at the sides of the head in front of the ears in characteristic tabs. A uraeus, the tail of which is designed as a horizontally aligned Figure-8, rests in placed on the nemes in such a way that the bottom of its hood slightly overlaps the top of that band. The hieroglyphically designed, almond-shaped eyes are set at an angle to the horizontal plane of the face and are framed by plastically rendered eye lids, the upper overlapping the lower and trailing off to the side. These eyes are set into fairly deep sockets, the inner corners of which form almost right-angle depressions at their juncture with the bridge of the nose.
These stylistic details are in and of themselves sufficient evidence for placing our portrait into the late fourth or early third century BC. It belongs to a series of stylistically similar portraits, such as one in Alexandria and a second in Brooklyn which have been identified as images of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BC). The reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus witnessed the creation of Alexandria’s Pharos, or Lighthouse, which was counted among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He also promoted learning in that city’s great library and to that end is credited with sponsoring the seventy rabbis who translated the Old Testament in Greek for the very first time. He married his sister, Arsinoe II, who dispatched the first delegation of ambassadors from Egypt to Rome, and whom he later deified upon her death.
For the style of these portraits in general and for the head in Alexandria, The Graeco-Roman Museum 23048, see, both P. Stanwick, Portraits of the Ptolemies (Austin 2002), number A34; and for the bust in Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Museum of Art 37.37E, Sally-Ann Ashton, Ptolemaic Royal Sculpture from Egypt (Oxford 2001), pages 82-83, catalogue number 3.
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