A giant copy of the Rosetta Stone greats visitors to the Place des Écritures at Figeac, France. This monument by Joseph Kosuth pays homage to the birthplace of Jean-François Champollion, who published the first translation of the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphs in 1822.
The importance of the famous Rosetta Stone to Egyptology and the study of the ancient world cannot be overestimated. This iconic artefact, discovered in 1799, bearing inscriptions in Greek, Demotic (the language of ordinary Egyptians) and hieroglyphic languages, was the key to deciphering and translating the baffling Egyptian hieroglyphs that decorate tombs and temples.
The Rosetta Stone, a granodiorite commemorative stone measuring 114.4 cm high, 72.3 cm wide and 27.93 cm thick, weighs some 760 kg (1676 lb.) and was discovered by Pierre-François Bouchard, a French soldier, during Napoleon Bonaparte's Egyptian expedition in 1799.
Recognising implicit value of its trilingual inscription to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the discovery sparked immediate excitement; it was most likely the means of understanding Egypt's ancient past. Lithographic and plaster cast copies were made and began to circulate, many of which found their way to the museums of France.
Back in Egypt, things were going from bad to worse for the French. Nelson and the British Navy had already sunk the French fleet and armed insurrections against the French erupted throughout Egypt. In 1801, Napoleon was forced to quit the country altogether and the Rosetta Stone fell into the hands of the British army, who shipped it to London.
However, it wasn't until 1824 that the hieroglyphics on the Stone were finally deciphered and published. The breakthrough came in Paris by Jean-François Champollion, a language expert and a professor of history at Grenoble University. It took him two years, but by comparing the three sets of writing on the stone faces, Champollion decoded the mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was the breakthrough that provided the key to unlocking the door to the history and mystery of ancient Egypt.
But, was the Rosetta Stone's place in the history of ancient Egypt itself? What was its context?
RECORD OF HISTORY
In fact, what the Rosetta stone revealed about life in Egypt under the country's Ptolemy rulers is almost as fascinating as its more contemporary narrative.
The Rosetta Stone comes from a time in Ptolemaic Egypt's history in which the Ptolemaic regime (323 bc to 31 bc) went into decline, eventually to be overthrown by the Romans. The conquests of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great changed the political landscape of both ancient Greece and the wider Near East on a massive scale. No longer would the city-state rule. The autocratic successors to Alexander would control vast stretches of territory through centralised bureaucracies linking the cities as never before. Those cities would henceforth become thriving cosmopolitan hubs of long-distance commerce and cultural exchange.
The greatest of all of such cities was Alexandria in northern Egypt. Founded by Alexander himself on an earlier settlement, from the outset it was perfectly designed and located to be a great city as the capital of Alexander's Egypt. With its deep harbours and its situation between Lake Mareotis in the Nile delta and the Mediterranean Sea the metropolis was a link between Africa, Asia and Europe. Little wonder, when building began there, that Alexander's soothsayer, Aristander, predicted that the city would "abound in resources and would sustain men of every nation."
When Alexander died in 323 bc, his four generals carved up his conquests, which stretched from Greece to India. Ptolemy I, the son of Lagus, took control of Egypt, establishing a dynasty there known as the Ptolemies. From the beginning, Ptolemy wanted to make his kingdom the world's finest, with Alexandria as its capital. It was there that learning and the arts would find a home; its library, containing some 490,000 volumes, was the largest in the ancient world. There too, a museum and university were founded and the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint). A nearby island, Pharos, would in time be linked to the mainland and on it the greatest of all the ancient lighthouses, the Pharos light, which would guide merchant and naval vessels into the city's two great harbours.
Ptolemy (and his Ptolemaic successors) didn't interfere with the way of life of common Egyptians, despite declaring himself to be the Pharaoh (albeit a Macedonian one). But as Pharaoh, Ptolemy I was directly responsible for the sustenance of his Egyptian subjects, so he made certain that farming along the Nile was carried out efficiently and effectively in order to keep them fed.
However, despite this somewhat idyllic picture, the reality was quite different. Papyri written by ordinary Egyptians reveal that most of the Nile's grain and other products, were never to be used by the Egyptians themselves but was directed to Alexandria for export around the Mediterranean. From the profits, the Ptolemaic regime enriched itself, using much of the income to maintain an exclusively Greco-Macedonian army of mercenaries who kept control of the country. The Egyptians themselves were barred from this army, so they would never get a taste of power or the means to throw off their Ptolemaic overlords. And with the system in place and functioning, it would have seemed to the first of the Ptolemies that their dynasty was unassailable.
In less than a century, Ptolemy IV Philopater would become king. He was a weak ruler and his court lacked unity and direction. With the king preferring self-indulgence to fixing his crumbling society, the economy and his army of mercenaries, his power began to decline.
Meanwhile, to the north, a second empire spawned by Alexander, the Seleucids with Antiochus III at its head, mobilised, looking to expand the realm from its centre in Antioch in Syria. In 217 bc, Antiochus marched on Palestine, an area ruled by the Ptolemies, with his well-trained army of some 60,000 men. Ptolemy was roused from his carousing. Since his own army numbered only 30,000 soldiers, the king dispensed with custom and enlisted another 20,000 native Egyptians to meet the Seleucid king. With his enlarged army prepared, Ptolemy marched north and met Antiochus at Raphia, near today's Gaza in Palestine. In the battle that ensued, Ptolemy's army, incredibly, emerged victorious, thanks largely to the ability of his generals and the bravery and training of the native Egyptian contingent.
The battle of Raphia proved to be pivotal in the Egyptian history about to be made. For as the Greek historian Polybius expressed it, "they [the Egyptians] were elated by the success at Raphia and could no longer endure to take orders, but looked out for a figure to lead them, as they believed they were now able to fend for themselves" (History, 5. 107. 1-3).
Also, native Egyptian discontent had been brewing for some time. The Rainer Papyrus records how that for some years, the Egyptians had hated the city of Alexandria; they felt it to be a foreign city imposing its harsh will upon them and they looked forward to a day when their Egyptian gods would will that its fame as a "sustainer of men from every nation" be made a thing of the past. But until Raphia, the subservient Egyptians had not the means to capitalise on their suppressed sentiment and rid themselves of the Macedonian king and capital.
Now that thousands of Egyptians had been armed and trained to fight, their grievances could be solved through the powerful voice of civil war. This, together with the drying up of the Ptolemies' foreign trade markets, which had caused a sharp rise in taxation and inflation, created a critical mass and the Egyptian resentment exploded in an open rebellion. First, it was a guerrilla insurgency, but then turned into all-out warfare led by Egyptian priests. It was successful, such that the entire Upper Egypt area gained independence, once more ruled by a native Pharaoh.
BEGINNING OF THE END
The loss of the strategic and productive Upper Egypt region further weakened the Ptolemies' power, with revenues and resources drying up. This meant that even fewer mercenaries could be employed. Taxes and inflation rocketed. But that only firmed the resolve of the Egyptians to rule themselves. When in 204 bc Ptolemy IV died, his successor to the throne, Ptolemy V, was still a boy. Family and courtiers, who were interested only in themselves, dominated his early rule and not the plight of their adopted country. Eventually the regime was forced to surrender Palestine to Antiochus III, when he again appeared there at the head of a large army.
But as Ptolemy V grew older, he learned how to rule effectively, and also how to restore peace to the country. The key, as he saw it, was to repair relations with the highly influential Egyptian priesthood, who held sway over the minds and hearts of all Egyptians. The priesthood, too, saw advantages in reconciling with the king. With Antiochus on the horizon with his army, the priests decided on the devil they knew and in 196 bc Ptolemy V and the Egyptian priesthood compromised and a reconciliation was achieved: the Ptolemies would continue to rule, but only on behalf of their native Egyptian subjects; taxes would be reduced and debts to the crown forgiven; the Egyptian priesthood would be given access to funds to use at its discretion, thus replenishing the temple coffers; and produce from the Nile farming was given them, alleviating the hunger of the priests, who were given greater autonomy.
And so, it came about that in order to celebrate this event, that on the 27th March 196 bc, commemorative inscriptions were set up in every Egyptian temple, each written in Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphs. And it is one of these that is the Rosetta Stone as we have it today, containing the declaration of the reforms.
The Rosetta Stone records how Ptolemy V, who it describes as "the young one, who has received royalty from his father, the lord of crowns, whose glory is great, who established Egypt and is pious towards the gods" (lines 1, 2), provided "many benefits to the temples" and to all "those who dwell in them and all the subjects in his kingdom" (lines 9, 10). Those benefits included the restoration and decoration of numerous temples across Egypt, as well as the upholding of "the privileges of the temples and of Egypt in accordance with the laws" (line 33). In return for all this, Ptolemy was awarded great honours by the Egyptian Priesthood. As the Rosetta Stone records, "the priests of all the temples throughout the land have resolved to increase greatly the [honours] existing [in the temples] for King Ptolemy the everlasting, beloved of Ptah, God Manifest and Beneficent" (lines 36-38). Among those honours were that statues of Ptolemy V be set up in every Egyptian temple alongside these commemorative inscriptions, (line 54) and that those statues be worshipped three times a day by temple priests as possessing the same status as any Egyptian god (lines 39, 40). Ptolemy's birthday and accession day were also to be celebrated as festivals (lines 46-48).
MORE THAN A MONUMENT
In a way, then, the Rosetta Stone is also a monument to cooperation between ruler and subject. But it is also a pointer to lost opportunity. To many Egyptians, Ptolemy's overtures were too little and too late. The nationalist movement remained and Ptolemaic power continued to decline due to its arrogance, inciting further unrest that would continue until the Romans arrived. Such arrogance is testified in the fact the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn to speak Egyptian was Cleopatra VII, who was the very last of the Ptolemaic rulers. The Ptolemies were completely out of touch with concerns and plight of ordinary Egyptians.
The importance of the Rosetta Stone itself to ancient Egypt is in what it said, which was considerable. And for the historian, it gives a context against which the Ptolemaic dynasty could be judged: while Ptolemy V was able to compromise, his successors, with the possible exception of Cleopatra VII, were neither willing nor able to seek that common ground that might have united the country and preserved them as its rulers. Consequently, the regime continued to decline until it fell to the Romans in 31 bc, when Octavian, the nephew and heir of Julius Caesar, defeated Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. Octavian would go on to become Rome's first emperor, more commonly known to us as Caesar Augustus, and he would keep Egypt in his own power for his own special use. Such was its strategic importance to him and to Rome.
The Stone in it time was a key to civil rule and life, and in our time a key to unlocking that life and history. It stands today behind glass in the British Museum, a solid testament to history.