Beginnings Solon in Egypt Plato in Egypt The Sea Peoples How old was Egypt?

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For the ancient Greeks, the great civilisation of Egypt, with its storied history and hoary past, held an irresistible appeal.


Egypt features heavily in a select number of Greek myths as a numinous and magical place.

  • perhaps the earliest Greek known to have connections with Egypt, Io was the daughter of a king of Argos who travelled to Egypt via a circuitous route in the form of a cow after Zeus' lusting after her invoked Hera's jealousy. Once there, she married the king and became the mother of Epaphus, who founded a dynasty there. Perseus and Heracles were among their descendants.
  • Epaphus founded a brief dynasty of rulers, culminating in Aegyptus and Danaus, with the latter fleeing Egypt for Argos after his 50 daughters were involved in a plot to kill Aegyptus' 50 sons.
  • a descendant of Danaus, Perseus, flew over Egypt when transporting the head of Medusa from Libya, being recognised by the people of Khemmis as a kinsman.
  • the great Heracles visited Egypt during his labours, removing the tyrannical Busiris, a son of Poseidon and Epaphus' daughter Lysianassa, from power.
  • Menelaus and his wife Helen, the cause of the Trojan War, were also associated with Egypt. The Odyssey has Menelaus learn of the fates of Odysseus and himself from Proteus, the "Old Man of the Sea," on an island off the northern coast of Egypt, while other stories suggest that Helen had been in Egypt throughout the conflict, with only a phantom in her form in Troy.

While there is evidence of connections between the Mycenaean states of Greece and the New Kingdom rulers of Egypt, sustained contact between the two sides of the Mediterranean only really took off again in around the 8th century BC, when the Greeks were once more looking to the seas for new lands to colonise and trade with.

  • noting Diodorus' hailing of one "Bocchoris," identified with the ephemeral minor pharaoh Bakenranef, who was based at Saïs, as a sage [1.65.1] and significant lawgiver [1.79; 1.94.5], Robin Lane Fox proposes that some Greeks enjoyed a close relationship with this ruler. Bakenranef was, in all likelihood, an ancestor of Psamtik I, the founder of the later Saïte rulers. It should be noted, however, that Herodotus apparently knows nothing of this man.
  • Herodotus' account of Egypt's history is rightly considered as being highly inaccurate, with his list of rulers only being accurate from the end of the 25th dynasty and into the 26th (which began with Psamtik I).
  • Psamtik's reign saw the foundation of the Greek colony of Naucratis in Egypt, which became a major tourist hub for Greeks seeking to experience the wonders of the ancient host land.

It is highly likely that Odysseus' cover story, which he gives to Eumaeus when he is back on Ithaca, reflects these early piratical endeavours and the Egyptians' tendencies to hire Greek (and Carian) mercenaries.


Herodotus synchronises Solon's travels to Egypt with the time of Amasis of the 26th dynasty. In fact, Herodotus can be read as refering to two journeys (or a subsequent addition to Solon's laws after his return: -

Amasis is said to have made a law ordering every Egyptian declare his occupation to the district governors on an annual basis on pain of death, which Solon emulated in Athens [2.177.2].

After extracting pledges from the Athenians that they would abide by his laws for ten years, Solon departs for Egypt to visit Amasis, before subsequently visiting Croesus in Sardis.


The transmission of the story of Athens and Atlantis involves Solon hearing it from the college of priests in the city of Saïs, capital of Bakenranef and later the 26th dynasty pharaohs. Later sources give different accounts of Solon's (and other Greeks') interactions with the priests, with a number of names bandied about: -

According to Plutarch in his Life of Solon [26.1], Solon "spent some time in studies with Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis of Saïs, who were very learned priests," from whom he learned of Atlantis.

The same author, in his On Isis and Osiris [10.1], reiterates the association between Solon and this Sonchis, whilst adding that Pythagoras was instructed by Oinouphis of Heliopolis and Eudoxus (a Greek who was in the service of various Ptolemaic rulers) from Chonouphis of Memphis.


As luck would have it, the name given by Proclus, "Pateneit" (P3-di-Nt) was common during the Saïte period, appearing for example on an ushabti dating from the reign of Amasis. The individual commemorated, Padineith or Pedineith, was the son of Psamtik, a court dignitary, and Tadubaste, and served as the major-domo to the God's Wife of Amun Ankhnesneferibre. Ankhnesneferibre was the daughter of Psamtik II and sister of the deposed pharaoh Wahibre, and it is likely that Padineith was installed by Amasis as a means to regulate and control Ankhnesneferibre's activities, as Barbara Watterson suggests. He died in around 545 BC and was succeeded by his son Shoshenq, who was likely named in honour of his predecessor Shoshenq son of Harsiese, who served during the early years of Ankhnesneferibre's long reign (she held the position from 586 BC until the Persian overthrow of Psamtik III in 525 BC). It may be suggested that the names Pateneit and Sonchis (perhaps a contraction of Sesonchis, i.e. Shoshenq) were associated with legends about Solon's visit to Egypt in antiquity.

However, it must also be borne in mind that this Padineith was based not in Saïs but Thebes and did not, as far as we know, serve as a priest.


There are also traditions which suggest that Plato himself may have spent time in Egypt, though they are problematic.

  • one tradition suggests that, during his time there, Plato supported himself through engaging in the olive oil trade, which, given his rather sniffy aristocrat's attitude to merchants, does not seem to compute.
  • another has him visiting with Euripides, the great tragedian, who died towards the end of the 5th century, when Plato was still a young man in Athens. Thus, like the evidence for Solon in Egypt, the material suggesting Plato went there is highly dubious.
  • a third depends upon the reading of a passage from Proclus' Commentary, which mentions someone (usually identified with Crantor, a member of the Academy founded by Plato from around Alexander the Great's time) seeking and finding corroboration for Solon's account of Atlantis there. Alan Cameron identifies this seeker with none other than Plato.


Plato was writing during the 62-year period in which Egypt enjoyed freedom from Persian rule. 360 BC, about the time the finishing touches were being put on the Timaeus and Critias, saw the accession of the Black Land's last native pharaoh, Snedjemibre Setepenanhur Nakhthorheb, better known as Nectanebo II.

  • Egypt had regained its freedom in 404 BC when Amenirdisu or, in Greek, Amyrtaeus of Sais, who had led a guerilla war in the Delta for some years, was left unharassed due to a civil war in the Persian Empire.
  • Amyrtaeus seems to have concluded an alliance with Sparta which was inherited by his successor Nefaarud (Nepherites) I, who overthrew him in about 398 BC. As a consequence of this, Sparta, under Agesilaus II, invaded Asia Minor, occupying the Persians, who thus left Egypt unmolested.
  • after Agesilaus was recalled by his co-king Agesipolis I in response to Athens, Thebes, Corinth and Argos forming an anti-Spartan coalition, the pharaoh Hakor (Achoris) concluded an alliance with Athens (as well as Athens' ally Evagoras of Cyprus) in 389 BC. The assistance of the Athenians, led by Chabrias, would prove invaluable in the repulsion of the Persians between 385 and 383 BC.
  • Chabrias was recalled in 379, after the Greeks and Persians made peace, and the Persians launched another invasion of Egypt in 373 BC, featuring a Greek contingent led by Iphicrates - an Athenian!
  • this invasion was, however, foiled in the Delta and western parts of the Persian Empire fell into anarchy a few years later during the Satraps' Revolt. In an attempt to capitalise on the situation, the victorious pharaoh, Nakhtnebef (Nectanebo I) planned to extend his borders eastward. The expedition took place in 360 BC during the reign of his son Djedhor (Teos), who had recalled both Chabrias and Agesilaus, though Teos' brother Tjahapimu - who had been charged with governing the country in the king's absence - revolted, offering the throne to his son Nectanebo II, then on campaign with his uncle.
  • while Chabrias remained loyal to Teos, Agesilaus supported Nectanebo, leaving Teos friendless when Chabrias was recalled to Athens, whereupon Teos sought asylum at the Persian court, a cruel irony given the likelihood that the Persians had incited Tjahapimu's revolt against him.

Depiction of the Peleset from Medinet Habu


During the latter part of the New Kingdom, a powerful new antagonist emerged in the west in the form of the R'bw (Libu, hence "Libyans"), who would eventually conquer Egypt during the formative years of the first millennium BC. The rise of the Libyans as a significant foe coincides with the emergence of a variety of shadowy peoples known collectively as the "Sea Peoples."

The term "Sea Peoples" is applied to members of a total of nine or ten groups who appear in Egyptian records dating to between the 14th & 10th centuries BC. In rough chronological order of their first appearances, the individual groups, along with common identifications where given, are as follows: -

  • the Denyen or Danuna, often assumed to be the Danaans of the Iliad and the later inhabitants of Adana in Anatolia
  • the Sherden or Shardana, who gave their name to Sardinia
  • the Karkiša, known in Classical sources as the Carians
  • the Lukka, well-known foes of the Hittites better known as the Lycians
  • the Eqwesh, likely the Aḫḫiyawa of the Hittite sources and Homer's Achaeans
  • the Peleset, who lend their names to the great Biblical foes of the Israelites, the Philistines, as well as the Syro-Hittite state of Palistin
  • the Shekelesh, probably the Sicels of Classical Sicily
  • the Teresh
  • the Tjekker, the Teucri of north-western Anatolia
  • the Weshesh

Aggressive activities by one or more of these groups are recorded as early as the Amarna period [EA 38], and the great pharaoh Ramsses II faced an attack by a group of Sherden in his second year: -

[T]he unruly Sherden whom no one had ever known how to combat, they came boldly sailing in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them.

Captured Sherden from the raid were subsequently incorporated into the Egyptian military as Ramsses' personal bodyguard, and served with distinction at Kadesh against the Hittites, who numbered the Karkiša, Lukka and Drdny among their allies. The Karkiša and Lukka were, as noted, known to the later Greeks as Carians and Lycians, whilst the Drdny are Homer's Dardanoi. The Sea Peoples' first major concerted effort to invade Egypt would come in the reign of Ramsses' son and eventual successor Merneptah.


The wretched, fallen chief of Libya, Meryey, son of Ded, has fallen upon the country of Tehenu with his bowmen - Sherden, Shekelesh, Ekwesh, Lukka, Teresh, taking the best of every warrior and every man of war of his country. He has brought his wife and his children - leaders of the camp, and he has reached the western boundary in the fields of Perire.

The most significant event of Merneptah's reign was his victory over a coalition of Sea Peoples acting in concert with the Libu, led by the chief Merey or Meryey. The most striking aspect of Merneptah's description states that Merey had "fallen upon the country of Tehenu with his bowmen." Tehenu, or Tjehenu, along with the slightly later term Temehu was the generic Egyptian name for their western neighbour with a pedigree dating back to the dawn of dynastic history, and Merneptah's description suggests that the Libu, first attested during the reign of his father, along with the Meshwesh (who first appear during the 18th dynasty), originated further to the west. Furthermore, the "Ekwesh, Teresh, Lukka, Sherden, Shekelesh" are described as "northerners coming from all lands," who could have been interpreted by a later Greek writer as being associated with the Etruscans (Tyrsenoi, i.e. Teresh), which Plato states was, like Libya, under the sway of Atlantis, Sardinians and Siculi.

There are problems with this theory, however. The Lukka remain transparently the inhabitants of Lycia, whilst it is difficult to imagine a later Greek hearing the name of the Eqwesh without being reminded of the Achaeans of legend. Additionally, none of the people mentioned in the Great Karnak Inscription or elsewhere coincide with the names of Poseidon's ten sons, nor is Athens mentioned as providing leadership or assistance.


The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands, All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: "Our plans will succeed!"

Possibly more cataclysmic were the events which marked the final collapse of the Bronze Age trading system throughout the Aegean and Near East. The Mycenaean civilisation, the Hittite Empire and Ugarit collapsed and, in many areas, material culture and political life grew increasingly impoverished. Egypt survived - barely - thanks in no small part to two major victories against the Sea Peoples: a naval battle in the Nile Delta, and another on land at Djahy. Nevertheless, by the end of the 20th Dynasty, the Levant was in the hands of the various Sea Peoples, and Egypt as a major player in the Levant was a busted flush. The Peleset settled the strip of coast around the five cities of Gaza, Ekron, Gath, Ashkelon and Ashdod, emerging as implacable foes of the nascent Israelite kingdom, and may well have bequeathed their name to a state further to the north around Tel Tayinat, whilst the Tjekker settled at Dor according to the account of Wenamun, writing at the transition between the 20th and 21st Dynasties. Additionally, the Israelite tribe of Dan, whose most renowned member was the preternaturally-strong Samson, have been posited as originating as a settlement of the Denyen, though this idea is disputed. Furthermore, the Onomasticon of Amenope places a number of these groups in the Levant. Trude and Moshe Dothan write: -

It was evident from the "Onomasticon of Amenope" that three Sea Peoples had occupied the coast of Canaan: the Philistines in the south, the Shiqalaya at least as far north as Dor, and the Shardana even farther north, although the boundaries of the latter two were uncertain.

Of course, judging by the lands that Ramsses places the activities of the Sea Peoples prior to their arrival in Egypt, the major focus for this conflict was in the Levant. Additionally, the roll-call of Sea People groups involved contains, in the Denyen, a name with Homeric resonances (the Danaans). As such, there appears to be little here per se to suggest that Ramsses' account of the Sea Peoples specifically could be an influence on Plato.

One final point to note is that positing a connection between the Sea Peoples and the depredations of Atlantis requires significant reworking of the time spans given by Plato. Such gymnastics are, I believe, contrary to the point that Plato was trying to make, namely that his primitive Athens was older than the Egyptian civilisation.


One final Egyptian question which concerns us is the age of Egyptian civilisation. Plato, of course, claims that Saïs was founded a thousand years after the early Athens, in around 8600 BC, whereas modern scholarship dates the rise of dynastic Egypt as a unified kingdom to a little before 3000 BC. The ancient Greeks, however, had differing views about the age of the great Nile kingdom.


Writing in Ptolemaic Egypt a short while after Plato, Manetho, a native Egyptian priest hailing from Sebennytos, is to be credited with the modern concept of Egyptian "dynasties." His Aegyptiaca furnishes details of thirty-one of them prior to the assumption of the Egyptian crown by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, and, while we do not have his actual writings, they were used extensively by early chronographers, with particularly complete renderings found in the works of Africanus and Eusebius. Based on the surviving dates, as given by Peter Lundström on, and treating each king as reigning sequentially (as we know was not the case in reality), we reach dates of between c.5800 and 5000 BC for the accession of "Menes," the putative founder of the Egyptian kingdom. This would place the events detailed in the Timaeus-Critias in the time of the predecessors of this first human king, details of whose reigns appear in both the Turin Canon and some notices of Manetho. The Armenian Version of Eusebius lists a dynasty of gods ending with Bydis or Bites ruling for 13,900 years (which are understood as months); then demigods for 1255 years; a third dynasty, probably Memphite, for 1817 years; thirty kings of Memphis for 1790 years; ten kings of This for 350 years; and Spirits of the Dead and Demigods for 5813 years.


More relevant perhaps to our discussion is Herodotus, who claims to have witnessed Memphite priests read out the names of 330 kings from a papyrus roll [2.100]. More specifically, he mentions a lineage of 341 generations between the first king and Sethos, a priest of Hephaestus most likely based on Shabaka or Shebitku of the 25th dynasty. Herodotus thus calculates the span of Egyptian history to extend more than 11,340 years based upon his calculation of three generations per century [2.142]. He also knows of three generations of gods, the oldest seeming to be the Ogdoad, who bore the "Twelve" 17,000 years before Amasis [2.43]. The "Twelve" then gave rise to the third generation 2,000 years later [2.145]. These latter notices accord reasonably well with Manetho, but Herodotus overextends the reigns of the human rulers (if indeed the "first king" is Menes). Plato, for his part, later claims that there are images in Egypt which are literally 10,000 years old [Laws 2.656e-657a].

Sir Graham