You’ve all been taught the name Philadelphia comes from Greek meaning “City of Brotherly Love.” That’s mostly true. What you haven’t been taught is the long, fascinating history behind the name. As it turns out, the name Philadelphia ultimately comes from a nickname given to an ancient Greek ruler of Egypt who gained notoriety for marrying his own full sister. The “brotherly love” in the name originally referred to literal incest.
The origin of the epithet Philadelphos
Ptolemaios II was an ancient Greek king who ruled Egypt from March 282 BC to January 246 BC. He was the son of Ptolemaios I Soter, who was one of Alexander the Great’s generals and a member of the Diadochoi, the group of Alexander’s companions who divided up his empire after his death. After Alexander’s death, Ptolemaios I had claimed Egypt as his territory and Ptolemaios II had succeeded him as king of Egypt after his death.
At some point between 279 and 274 BC, Ptolemaios II married his own full sister Arsinoë II. Marriages between siblings were normal for the Egyptian pharaohs, so Ptolemaios II’s native Egyptian subjects weren’t terribly surprised. The Greeks living Ptolemaios II’s kingdom, though, were absolutely shocked and scandalized because, among the Greeks, marriage between full siblings was seen as deeply morally wrong—even for kings.
As I previously mentioned in this article I published last week, the Greek poet Sotades of Maroneia famously wrote a palindromic epigram mocking Ptolemaios II’s incestuous marriage. The epigram has been preserved in the original Greek through quotation by the later Greek writer Ploutarchos of Chaironeia (lived c. 46 – c. 120 AD) in his treatise On the Education of Children. Here it is:
“εἰς οὐχ ὁσίην τρυμαλιὴν τὸ κέντρον ὠθεῖς.”
Here is my own English translation of it:
“You are shoving your dick into a hole that is not holy.”
Because Ptolemaios II literally married his own sister, people applied to him the epithet Φιλάδελφος (Philádelphos), meaning “the Sibling-Lover,” derived from the Greek epsilon-contract verb φιλέω (philéō), meaning “to love,” and the second-declension noun ἀδελφός (adelphós), meaning “sibling.”
Apart from marrying his sister, Ptolemaios II Philadelphos was generally known for being a very good king. His reign was long and extraordinarily prosperous. He was also an important patron of the Library of Alexandria and the Mouseion, the temple of the Muses associated with it that functioned as a research institution.
Over the course of his reign, Ptolemaios II provided funding and resources to countless scholars and intellectuals and he played a major role in turning Alexandria into the intellectual center it became. In later times, people looked back on his reign as the “Golden Age” of Ptolemaic Egypt. Later Hellenistic rulers—not just of Egypt, but of other kingdoms as well—sought to imitate him.
ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of an ancient Greek bronze bust of Ptolemaios II Philadelphos from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, now on display in the Naples National Archaeological Museum
The founding of the ancient city of Philadephia
Over half a century after Ptolemaios II’s death, there was a Greek king of Pergamon named Eumenes II, who had a brother named Attalos II, who acted as his general. Attalos II was famously loyal to his brother, so he was given the epithet Φιλάδελφος, which had earlier been held by Ptolemaios II. While this epithet may have originally been given to Ptolemaios II to mock him surreptitiously, when people gave it to Attalos II, they definitely meant it as a good thing.
At some point shortly after 189 BC, Eumenes II founded a city in the region of Lydia in what is now western Turkey and named it Φιλαδέλφεια (Philadélpheia) in honor of his beloved brother. The city was located roughly seventy miles east of the Greek city of Smyrna (present-day Izmir, Turkey) on the northeast slope of Mount Tmolos.
After Eumenes II’s death in 159 BC, Attalos II ascended to the throne and married his brother’s widow Stratonike. He ruled the kingdom of Pergamon until his own death in 138 BC. After his death, he was succeeded by Eumenes II’s son Attalos III.
The city that Eumenes II founded and named after his brother later bore several other names in antiquity, including Neokaisareia and Flavia, but Philadelphia remained the best-known name for the city. That city actually still exists in Turkey today, but today it is known by the Turkish name Alaşehir.
ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of a fragmentary marble portrait of either Attalos II or Attalos III of Pergamon. The city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor was named after Attalos II, who was known for his loyalty to his brother Eumenes II.
Philadelphia in the Book of Revelation
Centuries after the city of Philadelphia was founded, when the Christian writer John of Patmos was writing the Book of Revelation near the end of the first century AD, he included in the book letters to seven churches of Asia Minor. The sixth of the seven churches that he wrote to was the church in the city of Philadelphia—the same city that Eumenes II had founded in honor of his brother Attalos II.
John of Patmos’s letter to the Philadelphians is included in the Book of Revelation 3:7–13. In it, John praises the Philadelphians for their extraordinary faith. He writes, as translated in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:”
“‘These are the words of the holy one, the true one,
who has the key of David,
who opens and no one will shut,
who shuts and no one opens:'”
“‘I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying—I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.'”
Of the seven churches of Asia Minor addressed by John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation, the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only ones that receive only praise and no criticism from him. The members of the church at Smyrna, however, are forewarned that they will face a temptation lasting for ten days; whereas the members of the church at Philadelphia are explicitly promised that, on account of their tremendous faith, they will be spared from temptation altogether.
On account of this letter, the city of Philadelphia was widely known to Christians throughout the Early Modern Period (lasted c. 1450 – c. 1750) as a glorious, utopian city where faith and brotherly love flourished. This romanticized image of ancient Philadelphia is, of course, inaccurate, but it is the image that John of Patmos’s description inspired in the minds of later Christian readers.
ABOVE: St. John on Patmos, painted between c. 1649 and c. 1669 by the Flemish painter Gaspar de Crayer
The founding of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
When the English aristocrat and Quaker William Penn (lived 1644 – 1718) founded the city of Philadelphia in 1682, he envisioned it as a place where people of all religious backgrounds would be able to live together in peace, brotherly love, and steadfast faith. Therefore, he named it “Philadelphia” after the famous ancient city praised by John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation.
The fact that William Penn very clearly named Philadelphia after an ancient city mentioned in the Bible is often omitted in discussions of the etymology of the name of the city of Philadelphia, but this is an important historical fact for us to pay attention to. William Penn clearly picked this name not just because it means “City of Brotherly Love,” but also because of the exuberant praise that the city of this name receives in the Book of Revelation.
William Penn was a devout Quaker and, although people in Philadelphia today may want their city to have a secular name, when Penn picked this name, he undoubtedly had certain religious ideas in mind. In Penn’s mind, Philadelphia was supposed to be a place where people of all faiths could coexist in peace, but Penn would probably be just as disgusted and horrified to hear of atheists living in his city as any other man of his time.
It is unlikely that William Penn knew about the connection between the name Philadelphia and the epithet of Ptolemaios II Philadelphos. If he had known about this connection, it is unclear whether he would have still picked this name for his new utopian city.
ABOVE: Portrait of William Penn, the founder of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, painted in 1666 when he was twenty-two years old
The name of the city of Philadelphia can ultimately be traced back to an ancient city mentioned in the Book of Revelation that was named by a king of Pergamon after his brother, who held a nickname that had originally been applied to a king of Egypt who married his own sister. In other words, the “brotherly love” in the name originally referred to literal incest.
I guess the lesson here is that, if you want to truly live in the spirit of “brotherly love,” you should marry your sibling.
Author: Spencer McDaniel
Hello! I am an aspiring historian mainly interested in ancient Greek history. Some of my main historical interests include ancient religion, mythology, and folklore; gender and sexuality; race and ethnicity; historiography; and interactions between Greek cultures and cultures of the Near East. I graduated with high distinction from Indiana University Bloomington in May 2022 with a BA in history and classical studies (Latin/Greek), with an honors thesis in history about the Galloi (i.e., mendicant self-castrated devotees of the Phrygian mother goddess Kybele) and their religious practices in Hellenistic Asia Minor in the third and second centuries BCE. I will be going into an MA program in Ancient Greek and Roman Studies at Brandeis University in fall 2022.View all posts by Spencer McDaniel