Cover image for The gift of the Nile : hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander
The gift of the Nile : hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander
Vasunia, Phiroze, 1966-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Berkeley : University of California Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xiv, 346 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm.
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DT61 .V36 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The Egyptians mesmerized the ancient Greeks for scores of years. The Greek literature and art of the classical period are especially thick with representations of Egypt and Egyptians. Yet despite numerous firsthand contacts with Egypt, Greek writers constructed their own Egypt, one that differed in significant ways from actual Egyptian history, society, and culture. Informed by recent work on orientalism and colonialism, this book unravels the significance of these misrepresentations of Egypt in the Greek cultural imagination in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E.

Looking in particular at issues of identity, otherness, and cultural anxiety, Phiroze Vasunia shows how Greek authors constructed an image of Egypt that reflected their own attitudes and prejudices about Greece itself. He focuses his discussion on Aeschylus Suppliants; Book 2 of Herodotus; Euripides' Helen; Plato's Phaedrus, Timaeus, and Critias; and Isocrates' Busiris. Reconstructing the history of the bias that informed these writings, Vasunia shows that Egypt in these works was shaped in relation to Greek institutions, values, and ideas on such subjects as gender and sexuality, death, writing, and political and ethnic identity. This study traces the tendentiousness of Greek representations by introducing comparative Egyptian material, thus interrogating the Greek texts and authors from a cross-cultural perspective. A final chapter also considers the invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great and shows how he exploited and revised the discursive tradition in his conquest of the country.

Firmly and knowledgeably rooted in classical studies and the ancient sources, this study takes a broad look at the issue of cross-cultural exchange in antiquity by framing it within the perspective of contemporary cultural studies. In addition, this provocative and original work shows how Greek writers made possible literary Europe's most persistent and adaptable obsession: the barbarian.

Author Notes

Phiroze Vasunia is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Contact with Egypt is one of the principal themes of archaic and classical Greek cultural history. Evidence of that contact and its influence can be found in the writings of most Greek authors and numerous types of Greek art. By providing the first comprehensive account in English of the Greek discourse on Egypt, Vasunia (classics, Univ. of Southern California) fills a major gap in classical scholarship in seven lucid and jargon-free chapters tracing the discourse from Aeschylus to Alexander the Great. The author highlights Athenian sexual fantasies about Egyptian men in Aeschylus' Suppliants; Herodotus' innovative treatment of Egyptian space and time in his Egyptian logos; the conflict between Greek and Egyptian theories of writing; and mythical views of Egypt in Isocrates' Busiris and Plato's Atlantis stories. Among the few weaknesses in this excellent study, two stand out: the anachronistic assimilation of ancient Greeks to the category of "European" and the exaggeration of the significance of Hegelian ideas for the practice as opposed to the philosophy of history. This fine study well illustrates the application of relevant literary theory to classical texts, and belongs in the libraries of all universities. S. M. Burstein California State University, Los Angeles

Table of Contents

Editor's Foreword
Chronology of Ancient Egypt Introduction Framing the Issues Sources--and a Blueprint Historical Background
1 The Tragic Egyptian Splitting the Danaids Egypt as Locus for Male Fertility Blackness and Death Marrying the Egyptians Doubles in Helen To Die For
2 Space and Otherness The Pharaoh's Space Mapping Egypt Symmetry and Inversion The Traveler's Eye Egyptian Space
3 In an Antique Land Absolute History The Legacies of the Past Egypt and the Trojan War Egyptian Time In an Antique Land
4 Writing Egyptian Writing Graphomania The Tyrant's Writ The Gods of Writing Plato's Grammatology Egyptian Writing Writing and Control
5 Reading Isocrates' Busiris Busiris the Egyptian Reading Isocrates' Speech The Paradox of Parody Isocrates, Plato, Athens
6 Plato's Egyptian Story A Graphic History From Isocrates to Crantor Athens and Atlantis
7 Alexander's Conquest and the Force of Tradition Greeks and Macedonians Homer and Alexander Herodotus and Alexander Aristotle and Alexander The Conquest of Egypt
Appendix: Fragmentary Greek Historians on Egypt, to 332 B.C.E.
Illustrations follow pagep. xxx