052 - Fig1

PHRC052 : Dedication to King Ptolemy II and Arsinoe Philadelphos, Rhakotis, Alexandria - Egypt (270-246 BC) Dedication

This altar of King Ptolemy II and Arsinoe Philadelphos, discovered on the hill of Rhakotis in Alexandria, is the biggest preserved altar of ruler cults from throughout the Ptolemaic empire. The dedicatory formula points to a date 270-246, while the reference to the dynastic predecessors as the Theoi Soteres (rather than simply Soteres) may further narrow the chronological limits down to the last years of Ptolemy II’s reign (c. 260-246). The altar was part of a small temple, which was later destroyed to leave space to Ptolemy III’s Serapeum. It is plausible that the Rhakotis hill already hosted a cult of Sarapis under Ptolemy II and that the ruling couple was honoured in a section of this shrine, which later underwent a major process of monumentalization on the initative of Euergetes.

Permanent ID http://s.phrc.it/phrc052


Photo 1: Photo of the altar, from Grimm 1998, Fig. 83a
Photo 2: E. Feichter, Watercolor of a decorated altar of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe Philadelphos, 1901.

Current location

Alexandria, Graeco-Roman Museum
Inv. 56


Object Type: Altar
Hollow rectangular altar made of two blocks. The open top has roughened edges, which are likely to have originally held another element, perhaps a metal fire-pan. The altar was originally covered with stucco and decorated with red and blue kymatia representing flower garlands. The structure is well preserved, but the colours have almost entirely vanished after the altar was unearthed.
Material: Limestone
Height: 65 cm
Width (including mouldings): 72-75 cm; Thickness of the walls: 11 cm
Length (including mouldings: 71-75 cm


The text was originally composed of three red painted lines, only the first of which is still clearly legible. The following lines have almost completely faded and only a few letters are still visible. However, the full dedication has been reconstructed on the basis of a watercolour sketch made by E. Fiechter immediately after the discovery. Line 1 is slightly bigger and is placed very high on the altar's shaft, right below the moulding. Lines 2 and 3 are close to each other and occupy the space respectively above and below the jonction between the two blocks.
Elegant writing of the reign of Ptolemy II; slight thickening at the end of hastae, without apices. A with straight crossbar; Π with shorter right vertical; Σ, M and N with almost parallel outer strokes; particularly for Σ, this detail comforts the hypothesis of a date after 260 BC, discussed below on the basis of the formulary.
Letter height between 2,8-3 cm (in line 1, except for omicron, which is 2 cm), and 1,5 cm (Ω, line 3).


Date: Between 270 and 246 BC
Justification: Formulary
Provenance: Found in Alexandria during the excavations by Schreiber in February 1901 on the site of the Serapeum, NE of the later temple of Ptolemy III, near the so-called Pompey's pillar (Sabottka 2008, 50-66).


Text constituted from: Breccia 1911 (I.Musée d'Alexandrie), no. 6.

Other editions: Schreiber 1903, p. 251-252; OGIS II 725; SB V 8921; Strack 1906, p. 126, no. 1; Grimm 1983, p. 71 (SEG XXXIV 1351); I.Alex.Ptol. 8; CPI I 34.

See also: on the altar, Yavis 1949, 203; Burr Thompson 1973, p. 70; Fraser 1972, II, p. 385-386, n. 367; Grimm 1983, p. 70-73; McKenzie et al. 2004, p. 84; Pfeiffer 2008, 400; Sabottka 2008, 57-64; Caneva 2013, p. 295-197; Caneva 2014a, p. 105-106, no. 2; Caneva 2014a, p. 147-148, 156. For a possible date c. 260-246 BC, Caneva - Bricault 2019, 8-9; Caneva 2020c, p. 145.

Images: I.Alex.Ptol., Pl. 3, Fig. 8 (photo and drawing); Grimm 1983, Tf. VIII 2 (Fiechter's watercolour sketch).

Further bibliography: on the Rhakotis Serapeum, see in particular McKenzie et al. 2004; Sabottka 2008; Bricault 2013, 219-223. On the cult of Sarapis under the early Ptolemies, see also Pfeiffer 2008; Caneva 2018, 97-101; Savvopoulos 2000, 77-83.

Online record: PHI; TM 6414


Βασιλέως Πτολεμαί[ου]
[καὶ Ἀρσινόης Φιλαδέλφου]
Θ[ε]ῶ[ν Σωτήρων]


Schreiber and I.Alex.Ptol. publish the text without square brackets.

Line 3: [Ἀδελφῶν] Fraser.


(J. Dechevez)
Of King Ptolemy and of Arsinoe Philadelphos, (children) of the Theoi Soteres.


(S. Caneva)
Di re Tolemeo e di Arsinoe Philadelphos, (figli) dei Theoi Soteres.


(J. Dechevez)
Du roi Ptolémée et d'Arsinoé Philadelphos, (enfants) des Theoi Soteres.


Large altars inscribed with the names of Ptolemaic rulers are depicted on various Alexandrian oinochoai (Burr Thompson 1973; Caneva 2014a, p. 104-108). However, at an archaeological level, this altar from Rhakotis is the sole known specimen of large dimensions, in contrast to the numerous specimens of small and portable altars that have been found throughout the Ptolemaic empire. The structure is made of two blocks with mouldings and a deep hollow, which has delivered traces of ashes, probably fallen from a metal fire-pan that has not been preserved (on this type of altars, see Yavis 1949, 128-129, 203; Patera 2010, p. 234). The altar was big enough to host animal sacrifices and was part of a roofed shrine, as proved by the traces of stucco and paint used for the decoration, which were not thought to be exposed to rain. Moreover, the altar was discovered together with the remains of a wall and of mosaics decorating the floor of the room in which it was erected (see Sabottka 2008, p. 56 and p. 62-63)

While the dedication to ‘King Ptolemy II and Arsinoe Philadelphos’ points to the years 270-246 (see commentary to PHRC 005 and 051; the latter, a miniature altar also from Alexandria, bears the same formula), the use of the genitive ‘(children) of the Theoi Soteres’ may help us narrow down the chronological limits of the dedication. The compound epiclesis Theoi Soteres is much rarer than the simple Soteres. If we exclude a problematic reference in the statue base I.Varsovie 50 (CPI II 323), which is probably to be dated to the early 1st cent. (Caneva 2019b, 184-185; contra, Crowther 2020, 259-263, reinstating a date under Ptolemy I), the denomination Theoi Soteres mainly appears in the royal oath formula documented in papyri dated to the last 15 years of Ptolemy II (260-246 BC; Caneva - Bricault 2019, 8-9; Caneva 2020c, p. 145). This late chronology arguably finds further support in the rendering of Σ with parallel outer strokes on our altar, which may point to a later date in contrast to the diverging outer strokes of Σ in most dedications concerning Arsinoe Philadelphos.

The altar of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe Philadelphos was sanded when the temple that hosted it was destroyed in order to make space to Ptolemy III’s Serapeum. This spatial correspondence has raised the question of whether this temple was already a place of cult of Sarapis, perhaps together with other deities, before the erection of the large complex erected by Euergetes. The first known traces of cults of Sarapis on the Rhakotis hill seem indeed to date as early as the reigns of Ptolemy I and II (see Borgeaud - Volokhine 2000, p. 58 n. 92; recently Savvopoulos 2020, 77-79) and various shrines were dedicated to this and other related deities by high-ranking members of the society of Alexandria under Ptolemy II (Pfeiffer 2008; Bricault 2013, 91-92). It is therefore plausible that under Ptolemy II, a cult space was dedicated to the dynastic couple in association with a cult of Sarapis; the latter underwent a process of monumentalization on the initiative of Euergetes. On the other hand, the identification of this shrine with the temenos of the Theoi Adelphoi celebrated by Herondas (Mim. 1.30; Grimm 1983, p. 73) has failed to convince (Sabottka 2008, p. 61-62). The sanctuary of Isis and of the Theoi Adelphoi, mentioned as the meeting place of the priestly synodos of 243/2 BC (Alexandria decree, Pfeiffer 2020, p. 78-89, no. 13) is perhaps a better match for Herondas’ shrine.

Julien Dechevez, Stefano Caneva, on 01.06.2021
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Travocial - Social Travel & Storytelling Practicalities of Hellenistic Ruler Cults
Marie Curie PISCOPIA project no. PISC14IGRU, University of Padova (2015-2017)
FNRS project no. 98368 (2017-2020)
Stefano Caneva
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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Commission, Seventh Framework Programme, under Grant Agreement n° 600376 (2015-2017), and from the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS), Belgium (2017-2020).
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