Bilistiche (fl. 268–264 BCE)
Bilistiche (fl. 268–264 bce)
Winner of two Olympic chariot races and mistress of Ptolemy II, king of Egypt. Name variations: Belestiche, Belistiche, Blistiche. Pronunciation: Bee-lee-STEE-kay. Birth date unknown; various sources list her birthplace as Argos, the coast of Macedonia, or in an unspecified "barbarian" region; died before 246 bce in Canopus (modern-day Maadie); daughter of an otherwise unknown Philo; one of the mistresses of Ptolemy II, king of Egypt.
Owner of winning four-colt chariot at the Olympic games (268 bce) and of the victorious two-colt chariot in the games (264 bce); was processional basket-bearer in Alexandria (251–250 bce); was deified after her death and worshipped as "Aphrodite Bilistiche."
Following the premature death of Alexander the Great in 323 bce, his vast empire was divided among his Macedonian generals. Ptolemy I "Soter" founded the Greek dynasty that was to rule Egypt until the suicide of Cleopatra VII in 30 bce. He and his son Ptolemy II (308–246) laid the foundations of a dazzling new center of Greek culture in their capital, Alexandria. The most famous monuments of their reigns were the "Museum," an institution for scholarly research at state expense; the enormous royal library, comprising perhaps 700,000 volumes at its destruction; and the towering lighthouse on the island of Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. By the reign of the younger Ptolemy, the Greek court in Egypt had become a haven for poets and artists from the older centers of Greek culture.
The official cultivation of the traditional Hellenic arts was not the only innovation of the Alexandrine court, however. The population of the Ptolemaic domain was overwhelmingly Egyptian, mindful heirs of a cultural tradition thousands of years old, and the influence of certain native habits and viewpoints was sure to affect the outlook of the minority newcomers to some degree. Evidence of such influence is strongest in the religious and political aspects of the regime. Ptolemy II introduced a system of dynastic cult in order to firmly establish his primacy in the land. To the rest of the Greek world, one of the most repugnant aspects of this policy was the marriage of Ptolemy II to his sister Arsinoe II between 279 and 274 (whence his epithet Philadelphus, "sister-lover"). As a further affront to more traditional sensibilities, the ruling brother and sister were also worshipped as "The Sibling Gods." It is not certain, however, to what extent the marriage went beyond political expediency. The modern historian Edwyn Bevan suggests that at the death of Arsinoe in 258, Ptolemy may have only "sincerely mourned the loss of her strong directing intelligence. For the rest, he had many mistresses to amuse him." Indeed, Athenaeus, a Graeco-Egyptian author writing some four centuries after the reign, finds occasion to list a fair number of the more famous of them.
For us moderns, it is Bilistiche, the mistress whom Athenaeus records as, "of high repute, deriving her ancestry from the Atreidae" (the family of Agamemnon and Menelaus of Trojan War fame) who is both the most interesting and best known, despite the paucity of information available on her career and personality. Her name occurs incidentally in a number of later Greek authors besides Athenaeus (including Clement of Alexandria, Pausanius, and Plutarch), and in a couple of papyrus fragments discovered in Egypt only within the last couple of centuries. In addition to their variations on the spelling of her name, these authors are not in agreement over her origin and ethnicity. "Bilistiche" is an odd name, as it does not "sound" Greek. Thus the claim that she was not only of Greek, but also royal, ancestry might be seen as an effort to dignify her humble beginnings in order to maintain the glory of her paramour; such an opinion is probably behind Plutarch's bitter contention that she was a barbarian. Modern scholarly consensus as represented by Alan Cameron, however, maintains that the name is purely Macedonian, and Pausanius' assertion that she came from "the seaboard of Macedonia" may thus be as close to the truth of her origins as we can get.
And, by God, Bilistiche—was she not a barbarian wench bought in the market-place, whom now the Alexandrians worship in temples and sanctuaries, having been consecrated by the love of the king "Bilistiche, Goddess of Love"?
We know nothing about how Bilistiche first came to Ptolemy II's attention, but by 268 bce, the year that we first hear of her activities, she must have been already very close to the king's heart. In July or August of that year, she won her first Olympic victory in the four-colt chariot race, a feat which does not necessarily indicate athletic prowess, but the fact that she had access to the large sums of money required to sponsor such an event. Indeed, there is absolutely no evidence that Bilistiche or any other woman actually drove a team into victory at the Olympic games. Yet women were not exempted from second-party sponsorship of teams and charioteers, a practice which became common at the Olympics because of the great expense of the equestrian events. In fact, before Bilistiche, we have on record the names of another female victor in the four-colt event, Cynisca , and a female victor in the two-colt event, Euryleonis ; soon after Bilistiche, anotherz female, Berenice II of Cyrene (c. 273–221 bce), is recorded as a victor in the four-colt event. The fact that all three of these other women came from royal stock (the first two were members of the Spartan royal family, the latter was a Ptolemaic queen) may suggest that Bilistiche was employing her wealth in this way in order to assert her regal pretensions. On the other hand, the note that she enjoyed another win at the next festival in 264 (this time in the newly introduced two-colt chariot event) could indicate a genuine enthusiasm for the track. H.A. Harris says that victors in the equestrian races were entitled to erect monuments which might represent horses, chariot, charioteer, and even the owner, but none connected with Bilistiche survive.
Fresh information on minor antique personalities rarely surfaces, but recently an interesting literary footnote relating to Bilistiche's role as royal hetaira and Olympic victor has been opened by Alan Cameron. Ptolemy II's court attracted the talents of many Greek poets; indeed, the school known as "Alexandrian," famed for its extreme elegance, polish, and learning, had its beginnings during the reigns of the first two Ptolemies. Among the duties of the court poets would fall the composition of celebratory epigrams or elegies on the occasion of athletic victories. Bilistiche's chariot win would have been a prime opportunity for a poet to flatter the courtesan and king, and it is hard to imagine that no one took it. In fact, we do have the title of a poem "On Bilistiche" by a contemporary called Sotades, but its contents are unknown. Cameron's contribution is in the domain of interpretation. A four-line poem which he ascribes to Posidippus had been traditionally viewed as one of a ribald genre which exploit, in the delicate words of A.S.F. Gow, "the equation between amatory and equestrian exercises." Cameron points out several features of the poem which indicate the real (rather than the figurative) victory of a woman rider, marking Bilistiche as the likely subject. If this interpretation is correct, the brief poem neatly memorializes the courtesan in two of the passions for which she was famous, and in a risqué mode typical of the elegant society in which she moved.
Bilistiche's interesting role in the religious life of the city is the last aspect of her career into which we have any insight, and it is founded on only two notices. The less informative of the two is based on a papyrus fragment which indicates that she was chosen kanephoros, or ritual basket-bearer in the sacred procession of a religious festival, in 251 or 250 bce. Sarah B. Pomeroy suggests that Bilistiche must have been at least 30 years old at this point, which is well beyond the age of virginity, a usual requisite for thekanephoroi in other Greek states. This is likely another honor due at least in part to her privilege as a royal mistress. As the courtesan of a god, however, her religious distinction was to be increased much further. Not only was Bilistiche appointed to an eponymous priesthood (i.e. the presiding role in the administration of her own cult) during her lifetime, but after her death she was worshipped in a number of Alexandrian temples and shrines as "Bilistiche-Aphrodite," apparently an incarnation of the traditional Greek goddess of love in the idealized person of the beloved courtesan. This was certainly a mark of the especial esteem in which Ptolemy held his favorite, but it also indicates the process of consolidation by which the king was attempting to bring both religious and political activity in the state under his human and divine sovereignty. It is interesting to note that one of his other mistresses, while not idealized as the divinity of sexual love per se, was chosen as the model for statues depicting the divinity "Philadelphia," or the incestuous marriage bond of the king and queen; the very notion shows just how far the strands of personal and private, family and romantic, love were enmeshed in his rule.
Bilistiche's ancient testimonials bear witness not only to her prowess as a lover, but also to her standing as a woman willing to take advantage of the new freedoms open to her sex in the Hellenistic monarchies. Despite our lack of information about her personality, her Olympic triumphs, and her literary persona, even the papyrus fragments that note two loans from her personal coffers in 239–38 hint at an individual will at work in the history. Nothing of her tomb on the promontory of Rhacotis or of her shrines has survived, and until relatively recently scholarship has focused little attention on a woman who in her lifetime was associated with one of the most powerful men in the world. The work of scholars like Cameron and Pomeroy has done something to salvage a shadow of her contemporary grandness; in our day, she will be remembered as more than simply a member of a large harem.
Athenaeus. The Deinosophists: Books XIII–XIV. 653b. Edited and translated by Charles Burton Gulick. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 113 and 217.
Bevan, Edwyn. The House of Ptolemy: A History of Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty. London: Methuen, 1927 (reprinted, Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1968).
Cameron, Alan. Callimachus and his Critics. Chapter IX.2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Clement of Alexandria. "The Exhortation to the Greeks" in Clement of Alexandria. Edited and translated by G.W. Butterworth. London: William Heinemann, 1939, pp. 107–109.
Harris, Harold Arthur. Sport in Greece and Rome. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972.
Pausanias. Description of Greece. Volume II: Books III-V. Edited and translated by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod. London: William Heinemann, 1960. p. 425.
Plutarch. Dialogue sur L'Amour (Eroticos). Edited with a French translation by Robert Flaceliere. Paris: Société d'Édition Les Belles Lettres, 1953, p. 58–59.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Women in Hellenistic Egypt: from Alexander to Cleopatra. NY: Schocken Books, 1984.
Harris, H.A. Greek Athletes and Athletics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.
Peter H. O'Brien , Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts