Hellenistic kings

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Inge Nielsen, Hellenistic Palaces: Tradition and Renewal


The king’s position was necessarily reflected in his appearance and conduct, i.e. his charisma, his majesty (semnotes), his life-style, etc. His dignity was supported partly through the display of ceremonial luxury (tryphe), embracing the palaces in which he lived, the state he kept up, the religious feasts he arranged, and so on,29 and partly through the display of regal qualities such as piety, philanthropy, and hospitality. These different aspects of the king’s role are reflected in his titles: soter, epiphanes, euergetes, mirroring his semi-divine status, and thus used particularly often by kings of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties. Finally, his role as patron of the arts and sciences was of great importance. [...]

Also the king’s insignia and royal effects made an important contribution to his prestige. [...] Thus we know from Diodorus, describing the scene of the empty throne after Alexander’s death, that diadem, sceptre and crown, as well as other insignia, undoubtedly including a baldaquin over the throne, were among the king’s regalia, and some of the same elements are seen on the coins.33 In connection with the death of Antiochus IV, the diadem, mantle, and signet ring are mentioned as symbols of the royal power.34

As far as the king’s attire is concerned, the main dress was the Macedonian uniform of chlamys, boots, and broad-brimmed hat, worn for both hunting and campaigning.35 But for official and ceremonial purposes, such as audiences, sacrifices, and processions, the royal dress was used. This consisted of a fine purple robe or mantle, perhaps not unlike the ones known from the Persian court reliefs and described in the sources, as well as a white diadem and a signet ring.36 [...]

The king exercised political, religious, military, judicial, executive, and legislative powers; from these, the pseudo-Pythagorean “Diotogenes” gives a priority: “The duties of the king are threefold: military leadership, the dispensation of justice, and the cult of the gods”. He, like many others, equates the king with “Animate Law” (nomos empsychos).39 C. Préaux, in her definition of these royal duties, operates with three headings: (1) warrior and protector, (2) provider and guarantor of fertility; and (3) magician and judge.40

All these powers gave the king a full diary: his everyday duties thus crystallized themselves into the conduct of business through correspondence, receptions and audiences, councils, the holding of law courts, the worship of the gods, and royal banquets. It was to him that the bureaucracy was ultimately responsible. In turbulent times, he had to lead the army and defend his kingdom.

To help the king to manage all these duties, there was a large contingent of people at his disposal. The composition of the royal court seems to have been more or less the same, no matter which Hellenistic monarchy is concerned, although the number of members might differ considerably. In part the court consisted of a group with specialized functions related to the king’s official duties and to ceremonial; this group of course included the royal guard. Important also was the group of Friends (philoi, hetairoi) who acted as the king’s confidants and counsellors, participated in audiences, banquets and drinking-parties, and had various other functions as well (for example ambassadorial duties). In Macedonia, the nomination of a “King’s Friend” was, as mentioned above, a prerogative of the local aristocracy, initially at least (see n. 26), while in the personal kingdoms, these people were chosen by the king himself. Finally, “intellectuals”, including scholars, artists, writers, philosophers, and doctors, were also present at the court.41 The only fixed requirement was that these courtiers be of Greek or Macedonian stock.

Inge Nielsen, Hellenistic Palaces: Tradition and Renewal
(Studies in Hellenistic Civilization, Vol. V, pp. 16-18.
Aarhus University Press, 1999)


29 For the notion of tryphe and the ambiguous attitude of the Greek authors towards this phenomenon, see Athen. 12.510-550; Plut. Demetr. 41-42. Cf. Wallace-Hadrill 1982, 33ff. One is reminded of Xenophon’s description of the means which Cyrus the Younger used to enhance his majesty (Cyr. 8.1.40-41, 8.3.1-23).

33 Diod. 18.60-61. A similar empty throne, of gold and ivory, with the king’s insignia placed on it, is mentioned in Callixenus’ description of the procession of Ptolemy II (Athen. 5.202b).

34 I Macc. 6.15.

35 See Plut. Ant. 54.3-4, Demetr. 49.

36 For this robe of Median or Persian origin, see Xen. Cyr. 8.1.40-41; Athen. 12.525c-d (cit. Democritus). For the Hellenistic royal robe, see Polyb. 26.1; Plut. Mor. 486a. Cf. Bikerman 1938, 32f.

39 Diotogenes Apud Stob. Ecl. 4.7.62. He was only one of many philosophers who reflected on the nature and types of kingship from the 4th cent. BC onwards. Cf. the classic article by Goodenough, 1928, and, cautioning against some of his results, Wallace-Hadrill 1982, 33ff.

40 Préaux 1978, vol. I, 183ff. For the attitude of contemporaneous and later ancient authors to royalty and the “correct” behaviour of a monarch, see Wallace-Hadrill 1982, 33ff, with earlier literature.

41 For the triple grouping, see Le Bohec 1987.


Bikerman, E.:Institutions des Séleucides. Paris, 1938.
Goodenough, E. R.:The political philosophy of Hellenistic kingship. Yale Classical Studies 1, 1928, pp. 55-102.
Le Bohec, S.:L’entourage royal a la cour des Antigonides. In: Le Systeme Palatial en Orient, en Grece at a Rome, Leiden, 1987, pp. 314-27.
Préaux, Cl.:Le monde Hellénistique, de la mort d’Alexandre a la conquete romaine de la Gréce. La Gréce et l’Orient (323-146 av. J.-C.), vols. 1-2. Paris, 1978.
Wallace-Hadrill, A.:Civilis Princeps: between citizen and king. JRS 72, 1982, pp. 32-48.



Some paragraphs are shortened. The original numbering of the footnotes is preserved. Only sources cited in the excerpt are listed in the bibliography.