Ptolemy (IV) Philopator Charging on Horseback

Horse and Egyptian Ptolemaic king charging from Maspéro

Ptolemy (IV) Philopator charging
Cairo Museum, Photo by E. Brugsch in Maspéro2

Sheshank from Dover clipartAs a Greek king of Egypt from 221-203 BC, Ptolemy IV Philopator may have led a debauched life, but he distinguished himself at the battle at Raphia in 217 BCE, memorialized on the dark granite Raphia Stele, otherwise known as the Decree of Memphis.1 A photo of a section of an incised carving on that stele published by Maspéro 2 exemplifies that military exploit. The king advances on horseback in full Egyptian regalia, identified by his cartouches over the horse's head. Behind him stands his sister wife Arsinoe III, but this abbreviated view excludes her. A winged sun disc borders the rounded top of the stele, also out of our view; below the image of Ptolemy and on the thick side, inscriptions in two languages in three scripts contribute to scholars' understanding of hieroglyphs like the Rosetta Stone's three scripts.

Sheshank from Dover clipartKing Ptolemy sits tall, astride a horse charging on hind legs, attacking Antiochus III3 whose image is lost to the broken part but the text describes his vanquishing maneuver. The royal crown adds to the king's stature, the tall double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt reminiscent of an earlier ruler's portrait icon that sets off these paragraphs. Appropriating the tradition of Egyptian pharaohs, Ptolemy here poises to smite his enemy, but instead of striding towards captured enemies held by the hair or aiming an arrow from his advancing chariot he thrusts a spear in cavalry position astride a horse. His right arm raises a weapon or sceptre. The long diagonal line represents a spear aimed at his enemy, adroitly held by his left hand that also manages the reins.

Horse and Egyptian Ptolemaic king charging on the Pithom Stele II

Ptolemy IV Philopator charging on the Pithom Stele II. Cairo Museum. (Sketch after photo in Ashton6)

Sheshank from Dover clipartThe Raphia victory scene on the sandstone Pithom Stele II,4 although abraded, displays enough detail to make out Ptolemy IV mounted on a slightly rearing horse as the king thrusts his long spear with his raised right arm towards a kneeling captive whose arms are bound behind him. A god behind the captive pushes him toward the king while reaching out to hand Ptolemy something indistinguishable in his right hand and a sickle sword in his left hand. Both stelea present variants on the traditional gruesome Egyptian iconography depicting the pharaoh triumphant over his foes, only in this stele the king wears Macedonian armor.5 The scene is entirely Egyptian and the text below the lunette gives the hieroglyphic script.

Sheshank from Dover clipartEither a braided mane or a neck covering adorns the horses' arched necks. Some sort of neck strap appears above the wither and a rein clearly curves from the bridle on the Raphia stele. Ambiguity in the images hints at a saddle cloth but no stirrups. Ptolemy's mounts represent the classical horse as glorified on temple walls all over Egypt in pharaonic times ever since the New Kingdom. Not only courageous, this horse is fine boned, with arched neck, long level croup and elevated tail. This elegant breed type continues in Egyptian Arabian horse bloodstock today.

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NOTES:

  1. Wikipedia, Raphia Decree, found in 1902 at the site of ancient Memphis; a stela of dark granite engraved with hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Greek.
  2. Gaston Maspéro, Art In Egypt 1912, p. 260 erroneously labeled Ptolomy Euergetes charging. Photo E. Brugsch. Cairo Museum.
  3. Andrew Smith, Attalus website
  4. E.A. Wallis Budge, The Rosetta Stone, Dover Publications, 1989 reproduction of 1929 original, p. 296.
  5. Günther Hölbl, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire 2001 / 2010 digital preview.
  6. Sally-Ann Ashton, Ptolemaic Royal Sculpture from Egypt: the Greek and Egyptian Traditions and their Interaction, King's College London, Submitted for the examination of the degree of Ph.D, May 1999, p. 171.

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