Petronius Secundus, Prefect of Egypt, at the Colossi of Memnon

The “Colossi of Memnon” at Luxor in Egypt were a recognised tourist sight in antiquity, because one of them made a “singing” noise at dawn.  Few will be aware that the lower portions of the statues are covered with ancient graffiti and inscriptions.

Among these, I learn from David Blocker, is an inscription by “Petronius”.  This is not the literary author, Petronius Arbiter, but rather the prefect of Egypt under Domitian, Petronius Secundus.  The inscription is as follows:

Imp(eratore) Domitiano
Caesare Aug(usto) German(ico) XVI c(onsule)
T(itus) Petronius Secundus pr(aefectus) Aeg(ypti)
audit Memnonem hora I pr(idie) Idus Mart(ias)
et honoravit eum versibus Graecis
infra scriptis:
φθέγξαο Λατοΐδα, σὸν γὰρ μέρος ὧδε κάθηται,
Μέμνων ἀκτεῖσιν βαλλόμενος πυρίναις.
curante T(ito) Attio Musa prae[f](ecto) coh(ortis) II
Thebaeor(um).

I.e.

When the emperor Domitian Caesar Augustus Germanicus was consul for the 16th time, T. Petronius Secundus, prefect of Egypt, heard Memnon at the first hour on the day before the Ides of March, and honoured him with the Greek verses written below:

“You sent forth your song, O Memnon, because a part of you is seated here, when the son of Latona struck you with his brilliant rays.”

This work carried out by T. Attius Musa, Prefect of the 2nd cohort of Thebans.[1]

The date is 92 AD.  The graffito makes clear that it was the action of the sun that caused the sound.

Early travellers drew and published pictures of the statues and the graffiti, the latter often recorded very inaccurately.  Some tweets of these can be found here, although not ours.  French translations of the inscriptions can be found online here.

The statues themselves are actually of Amenophis III, and originally stood in front of his now-vanished mortuary temple.  But an earthquake damaged one of them.  After this, at dawn, the statue vibrated and gave out this peculiar noise.  The noise ceased after Septimius Severus had the statue repaired in the 3rd century AD.

memnon

  1. [1]The inscription is CIL III 37 = ILS 8759d = Bernand Memnon 13.  André et Étienne Bernand, Les Inscriptions grecques et latines du colosse de Memnon, Bibliothèque d’étude de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale, vol. 31, Paris (1960).  The inscriptions are online here.  The item is 217995, IGR I,5 1198.

10 thoughts on “Petronius Secundus, Prefect of Egypt, at the Colossi of Memnon

  1. Roger, I see you don’t like people hotlinking Wikipedia articles, I will keep it in mind for future comments.
    Anyway, for those interested, three alternative sources with some more infos about the Colossi:
    https://books.google.com/books?id=MUC8uPq-Wd8C&pg=PA22 (New Scientist, September 6th 1984)
    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ara_Avagyan/publication/236960355_Archaeoseismological_studies_at_the_temple_of_Amenhotep_III_Luxor_Egypt/links/02e7e52bff62f05faf000000.pdf (“Archaeoseismological studies at the temple of Amenhotep III, Luxor, Egypt” by Arkadi Karakhanyan, Ara Avagyan, Hourig Sourouzian)
    https://www.wmf.org/project/mortuary-temple-amenhotep-iii

  2. Very interesting, thank you!

    Glad I caught the Wikipedia quotations while they were there, though – I had been wondering if the “because a part of you is seated here” suggested some sort of reliquary of a part of Memnon himself, but the Wikipedia set me straight – but I don’t know I’d have thought to have recourse to it directly, on my own! (I’d somehow gotten the idea that the statue was cunningly designed that way, and ‘sang’ from its mouth…, till Septimus Severus with misguided good intentions ‘fixed’ it.)

  3. The reason I removed the Wikipedia material is that Wikipedia isn’t reliable. You’d need to research it yourself to know whether you were “set straight” or misled.

  4. Well, quite! I’m always something close to pleasantly surprised when Wikipedia lucidly helps one to check the sources – yet, it often does! No luck so far scanning the different language Wikipedia articles to see just where to look for what Pausanias says (or is reputed to say?) about the statue, though, alas…

  5. In this case, the English Wikipedia article, “Colossi of Memnon”, has an External Link to Bill Thayer’s transcription of the 1932 Loeb Strabo Geography Book XVII where 46 includes “the upper parts of the other, from the seat up, fell when an earthquake took place, so it is said.”

  6. @David Llewellyn Dodds, the text from Pausanias is available here: http://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias1C.html
    The pertaining quotation reads like this:
    [1.42.1] XLII. The Megarians have another citadel, which is named after Alcathous. As you ascend this citadel you see on the right the tomb of Megareus, who at the time of the Cretan invasion came as an ally from Onchestus. There is also shown a hearth of the gods called Prodomeis (Builders before). They say that Alcathous was the first to sacrifice to them, at the time when he was about to begin the building of the wall.
    [1.42.2] Near this hearth is a stone, on which they say Apollo laid his lyre when he was helping Alcathous in the building. I am confirmed in my view that the Megarians used to be tributary to the Athenians by the fact that Alcathous appears to have sent his daughter Periboea with Theseus to Crete in payment of the tribute. On the occasion of his building the wall, the Megarians say, Apollo helped him and placed his lyre on the stone; and if you happen to hit it with a pebble it sounds just as a lyre does when struck.
    [1.42.3] This made me marvel, but the colossus in Egypt made me marvel far more than anything else. In Egyptian Thebes, on crossing the Nile to the so called Pipes, I saw a statue, still sitting, which gave out a sound. The many call it Memnon, who they say from Aethiopia overran Egypt and as far as Susa. The Thebans, however, say that it is a statue, not of Memnon, but of a native named Phamenoph, and I have heard some say that it is Sesostris. This statue was broken in two by Cambyses, and at the present day from head to middle it is thrown down; but the rest is seated, and every day at the rising of the sun it makes a noise, and the sound one could best liken to that of a harp or lyre when a string has been broken.
    (Description of Greece I, 42, 1-3, translated by W. H. S. Jones)

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