Manetho

Manetho was an Egyptian historian and priest from Sebennytos, active during the third century BC and wrote Aegyptiaca – the History of Egypt.

Manetho has long been of great interest to Egyptologists, and Aegyptiaca has helped establishing the chronology of the pharaohs. The concept of dynasties—the grouping of a sequence of rulers based on family—originated with Aegyptiaca, and is still in use to this day.

Aegyptiaca

Manetho composed his History of Egypt in three volumes, melding material from priestly records and popular narratives. He would certainly have had access to sacred archives encompassing all periods of the history of Egypt, as well as traditions, legends and a multitude of other narratives and chronicles.

The original Aegyptiaca was lost in antiquity, and in the centuries after Aegyptiaca was produced, it was replaced by Epitomes (summaries) from rivalling advocates of Jewish, Egyptian, and Greek history, that saw each side trying to establish the truth—according to their point of view. These epitomes would only have contained the outlines and details deemed significant. The extent to which the epitomes preserve Manetho's original writing is unclear. Scribal errors and outright alterations and other mutilations likely ocurred, to further one of the competing agendas. Furthermore, each new copy undoubtedly introduced some perversion of the original, whether by design or ignorance. It is clear that none of the authors whose texts survive had access to the original Aegyptiaca, but rather pirported reproductions. Since we only have indirect knowledge of Manetho, chances are that errors multiplied as each new duplicate was created, which can be clearly seen by the differences quoted by the later authors.

The Jewish historian Josephus quoted Manetho in his Contra Apionem, almost four centuries after Aegyptiaca was composed, and even acknowledged that he did not have access to the original Aegyptiaca. This is significant, as his quotations can not be genuine Manetho, but citations from excerpts from an already distorted epitome. It is evident that there were many versions of the epitome, but whether they had a common ancestor is unclear. Comparing the content of their texts reveals that more than a century later, the Christian chronographer Sextus Julius Africanus used a different epitome from Josephus, and a century later, Eusebius of Caesarea used yet another version. Eusebius was in turn preserved by St. Jerome 75 years later in his Latin translation, and also by an Armenian translation two centuries later. The possibility of outright forgeries cannot even be assessed.

A thousand years after Manetho wrote Aegyptiaca, Syncellus recognized the similarities between Eusebius and Africanus, and quoted extensively from them in his work, Ecloga Chronographica. There are clear indications that the redactors of the epitome(s) distorted the content of Aegyptiaca, as summations were misinterpreted as dynasties, and unexpected variations in the specific names and reign lengths of the kings are abundant.

Fragments of Manetho survive as quotations in other ancient manuscripts — for a detailed listing, see Berossos and Manetho. The importance of Manetho cannot be understated as it was—and to some extent still is—the primary source for the chronology of the pharaohs. When Champollion discovered the Turin king list, his first reaction was to compare the list of kings to Manetho’s.

King lists

The king-lists were inscribed on the walls of a sacred room, making offerings to celebrated ancestors. The purpose of these lists was not to make a necessarily accurate chronological list of historical kings but to celebrate revered ancestors for religious or political reasons. Seti I deliberately excluded Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and Hatshepsut on his king-list at Abydos as their reigns were considered illegitimate and had to be erased from memory.

Manetho could not have based his history on the inscribed Abydos, Karnak, or Saqqara king-list, as they differ from each other and only name selected kings, and cannot be relied upon as historical sources. His source was most likely something similar to the Turin king list, with detailed accounts from the time of the Gods, all the way up to the third century BC. The only criteria for these accounts seems to have been that they once had ruled the kingdom. As a priest, Manetho would have had access to practically all written records in Egypt.

Manetho gave only one name for each ruler, despite that they used up to five official names. The transcribed names were not chosen consistently from the same name type, the reason why is a mystery, and probably had sources unknown to us. In some cases, a transcription is possible, in other, consonants switched places for unknown reasons, maybe due to transcription errors by redactors of an epitome.

In many cases, the names of the pharaohs, as transcribed by Manetho, are still in use to this day, and were preferred until original king lists were uncovered and corroborated. The use of the original names for the pharaohs is still in its infancy.

Contents of Aegyptiaca

  • Vol. 1   Dyn. 1-11 : Reign of the gods and spirits to the historical kings.
  • Vol. 2   Dyn. 12–19 : From Middle Kingdom, Hyksos invasion and expulsion, to the New Kingdom.
  • Vol. 3   Dyn. 20-31 : From collapse of the New Kingdom, Persian invasions, to Macedonian rule.

Transmission of Manetho

The sources of Manetho can be found in The Chronicle by Syncellus, written around 808-810. Unfortunately, the original is lost and only copies exist. The Chronicle was unknown until Manuscript A was discovered around 1600, and published by Scaliger in 1606. Scaliger only included selected passages, and half a century later, in 1652, Jacob Goar published the first complete edition of Syncellus. A few years later, Manuscript B was discovered, but remained unknown and unpublished for many years. In 1829, Dindorf used this second manuscript to correct readings in Goar's edition. It remained the standard edition until the Mosshammer edition was published in 1983.
Both A and B are complete copies, and were derived from a common ancestor. There are a few other incomplete copies of Syncellus, but A and B are the only ones that contain the texts of Manetho (via Africanus and Eusebius).

Simplified, here's how Aegyptiaca reached us:

Transmission of Aegyptiaca of Manetho

The Chronicle of Syncellus manuscripts

Cat. no. (MSS)NotesLocationGallica
ACodex Parisinus Graecus 1711Complete text.Paris: Bibliothéque NationaleView 🔍
BCodex Parisinus Graecus 1764Complete text, superior to A.Paris: Bibliothéque NationaleView 🔍

Bibliography

  • Adler, W. and Tuffin, P.. The Chronography of George Synkellos. (Oxford: 2002)
  • Barclay, John M. G. Against Apion (vol. 10 of Flavius Josephus: translantion and commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2007)
  • Dindorf, W.. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae. (Bonn: 1829)
  • Goar, J.. Georgii Monachi quondam Syncelli Chronographia. (Paris: 1652)
  • Mosshammer, A. A.. Georgii Syncelli Ecloga Chronographica. (Leipzig: 1984)
  • Scaliger, J. J.. Thesaurus Temporum. (Leiden: 1606)
  • Waddell, W. G.. Manetho. (Cambridge, Mass;London: 1940, Ed. 1964)
  • Verbrugghe, G. P. & Wickersham, J. M.. Berossos and Manetho, introduced and translated. (Ann Arbor: 1996)
End of page
Ancient historians
Terms & information

Epitome – Manetho’s original Aegyptiaca was lost in antiquity, and in the following centuries, it was replaced by Epitomes (summaries) by rivalling advocates of Jewish, Egyptian, and Greek history that saw each side trying to establish the truth according to their point of view.

Vorlage – German for prototype or template, a prior version of a manuscript, in this case an earlier version of the canon.

Recto and verso – Recto is the front side and verso is the back side of a written or printed text.

Cartouche – oval band enclosing a pharaohs name

Hieratic – cursive form of hieroglyphic script

Dynasty – a sequence of rulers from the same family, from Greek dynasteia (δυναστεια)

OK – Old Kingdom

MK – Middle Kingdom

NK – New Kingdom

SIP – Second Intermediate Period

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