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Ptolemaic era temple Kon-Ombo            Source: xfargas / Adobe Stock

Last of the Kings of Egypt: The Ptolemaic Dynasty

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Ptolemaic Egypt is distinctive in being both the last independent Egyptian dynasty and the last Hellenistic kingdom to fall to Rome. The Ptolemies were not native Egyptians, but Greek and Macedonian by descent.

Nonetheless, they preserved many of the traditions of the ancient Egyptians. It was also a major Hellenistic cultural center which set the pattern for other Hellenistic kingdoms to follow.

Rise of the Ptolemies

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) liberated Egypt from the Persians in the autumn of 332 BC. During his stay in Egypt, he also founded the legendary city of Alexandria at the location of the formerly unimportant Egyptian town of Rhakotis.

After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire was divided between his generals. A Macedonian general by the name of Ptolemy, who had been with Alexander in Egypt, declared himself satrap of Egypt.

He ruled as satrap until 305 BC, when he declared himself king of Egypt as Ptolemy I Soter. His epithet, which means savior, comes from his reputation for having saved the people of Rhodes from a siege in 315 BC.

Ptolemy as the pharaoh of Egypt. (Einsamer Schütze / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ptolemy as the pharaoh of Egypt. (Einsamer Schütze / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt (305-145 BC)

During his reign, Ptolemy I Soter expanded the holdings of Egypt, creating an overseas empire that included Cypress and Cyrene. He and the king of the Seleucids also contested for control of the Levant. It is also during the reign of Ptolemy I that the Great Library of Alexandria was established.

Ptolemaic Empire circa 300 BC. (Eubulides / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ptolemaic Empire circa 300 BC. (Eubulides / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Great Library was established by Demetrius of Phaleron, a former student of the Peripatetic school, Aristotle’s famous school. After an aborted political career in Athens, Demetrius emigrated to Egypt where he was able to find a job in the court of Ptolemy I.

The Hellenistic king was interested in increasing his prestige by making his realm famous for intellectual learning. The library was envisioned as being not just an ordinary library, but a universal library containing all knowledge in the known world, at the time.

This ambition was in keeping with the reverence that the Greeks and other ancient Mediterranean cultures had for knowledge as well as the goals of Alexander the Great. He wanted to gain as much knowledge from the lands that he conquered as possible.

Ptolemaic relief. (Vladimir Wrangel / Adobe Stock)

Ptolemaic relief. (Vladimir Wrangel / Adobe Stock)

The Library of Alexandria was established around 295 BC and served as a massive collection of writings, containing books from across the ancient world. The library existed within the palace complex and was under direct control of the king. There was also a research institution, the Musaeum, attached to it which consisted of scholars who were given the task of studying all the knowledge brought to the Great Library.

Library of Alexandria of the Ptolemaic dynasty. (Quibik / Public Domain)

Library of Alexandria of the Ptolemaic dynasty. (Quibik / Public Domain)

These scholars both lived and worked within the grounds of the Great Library and the Musaeum. The scholars known to have been in residence include luminaries such as Archimedes, Euclid, the founder of Western geometry, Eratosthenes, the first Greek mathematician to calculate the circumference of the earth, and the great astronomer Claudius Ptolemy who published the astronomical treatise, the Almagest. At its height, the Great Library is said to have had as many as 700,000 scrolls.

In 285 BC, Ptolemy I was succeeded by his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Ptolemy II is known for having increased the prestige of Alexandria by establishing a festival, the Ptolemaieia, which was supposed to be on par with the Olympic Games in prestige. It consisted of a series of floats depicting various religious traditions in the city.

Ptolemy II also is known for having been engaged in a number of conflicts with the Seleucid kings. During his reign, Egypt became one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the Hellenistic kingdoms. A Ptolemaic empire emerged across the lands of the eastern Mediterranean.

Another custom attributed to Ptolemy II is brother-sister marriage among the Ptolemaic monarchs. He married his full sister Arsinoe II and they both took the same epithet, Philodelphus, which essentially means ‘sibling-loving’. This practice was soon imitated by common Egyptians.

Arsinoe II reigned the Ptolemaic dynasty with her brother-husband Ptolemy II. (Peter D. Tillman / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Arsinoe II reigned the Ptolemaic dynasty with her brother-husband Ptolemy II. (Peter D. Tillman / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 246 BC, Ptolemy II Philadelphus was succeeded by Ptolemy III Euergetes who governed from 246 BC to 221 BC. His reign was marked by conflict with the Seleucids. Ptolemy III Euergetes went to war with the Seleucids after the murder of his sister Berenice, who had been married to Antiochus II.

After a successful invasion of Syria, he returned statues to Egypt which had been stolen by the Persians. This made him very popular among native Egyptians. This event was recorded in the Decree of Canopus in 238 BC.

The king succeeding him was Ptolemy IV Philopator who was considered by Greek historians to be a weak ruler who was easily manipulated by Alexandrian officials. Nonetheless, Egypt did experience a major victory during his reign at the Battle of Raphia.

The Battle of Raphia took place in 217 BC in southern Palestine and was a decisive victory over the Seleucids. It was also notable for the involvement of native Egyptian soldiers fighting alongside soldiers of Greek and Macedonian descent.

The Decline of Ptolemaic Egypt

By the end of the 3rd century BC, Ptolemaic Egypt had lost most of its overseas territories. This may have been partly due to problems arising at home. Native Egyptian regiments had played an important role in the victory at the Battle of Raphia and this made the Egyptians realize their potential and encouraged native revolts across the southern part of the kingdom.

The Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt in 200 BC. (Malus Catulus / CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 205 BC, Ptolemy IV Philopator was succeeded by Ptolemy V Epiphanes. Ptolemy V made several attempts to improve his public image and the public image of the Ptolemies both abroad and at home, especially among native Egyptians.

In 196 BC, Ptolemy V Epiphanes was crowned King of Egypt at Memphis, the traditional capital of Pharaonic Egypt, in traditional Egyptian style, an event recorded on the famous Rosetta Stone.

The reign of Ptolemy V’s successor, Ptolemy VI Philometor (180-145 BC) was characterized by conflict with the Seleucids and continuous decline in the autonomy of the Ptolemaic kingdom. Ptolemy VI had to contend both with the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV and with his brother who was one of his major rivals. The Romans were also becoming a larger influence from the west.

Between 170 BC and 169 BC, Antiochus IV of the Seleucid kingdom invaded Egypt and was able to set up a protectorate, over which he appointed a governor. Things were going well for the Seleucid monarch until he was approached by the Romans in 168 BC.

The Roman ambassador Popillius Leanas informed Antiochus IV that the Seleucids had to withdraw from Egypt or face a conflict with Rome. Antiochus IV knew he was unable to defeat the Romans. By the end of that year, Antiochus IV had withdrawn back to the Middle East.

During the reign of Ptolemy VI Philometor and after his reign, Rome began to play an increasingly important role in Egyptian politics. Roman politicians wanted access to the enormous wealth of Egypt, but they also respected it enough that they did not invade and even maintained stability within the kingdom by interrupting a civil war.

Cleopatra VII – The Last Queen of Egypt

In 52 BC, Cleopatra VII became queen of Egypt. She is known for having been a very able and effective queen. She was able to work shrewdly with Roman generals and leaders to advance the interests of her kingdom.

In 48 BC, the Roman general Julius Caesar chased his rival, Pompey, to Egypt where Pompey was eventually murdered by Egyptian courtiers. After the death of Pompey, Caesar met with Cleopatra and she took him on a tour of Egypt up the Nile during the summer of 47 BC. Soon after Julius Caesar returned to Rome, Cleopatra became pregnant and claimed that the child was Caesar’s.

She named the child Caesarion. She eventually came to Rome to meet with Caesar again. Whatever plans Caesar and Cleopatra may have had were interrupted when he was assassinated in 44 BC. After this, Cleopatra quickly returned to Egypt.

Cleopatra and her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera. (Oltau / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Ptolemies became important in Roman politics again a few years later in 36 BC when Mark Antony, the rival of Octavian, the future Augustus Caesar, became romantically involved with the queen of Egypt. Cleopatra soon became involved with Mark Antony’s plan to defeat Octavian and this eventually led to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

The battle did not go well for Mark Antony and Cleopatra. They were forced to withdraw to Alexandria where they awaited the arrival of their victorious nemesis.

Before Octavian arrived in August of 30 BC, they both agreed to commit suicide. Cleopatra is said to have died by being bitten by an asp. Cleopatra’s suicide ended Ptolemaic rule in Egypt after 275 years.

Egypt Under the Ptolemies

Much of the Ptolemaic period was a prosperous one for Egypt. Agricultural innovations were made which greatly increased the capacity of the land to feed a large population. Among these innovations included the introduction of tetraploid wheat which replaced emmer wheat.

At the beginning of the Hellenistic period, the population of Egypt was perhaps 3-4 million. By the Roman period, the population of Egypt may have doubled in size and attained population levels that would not be reached again until the 19th century.

Part of the reason for the prosperity of Ptolemaic Egypt was an efficient system of governance. Directly beneath the king was a cabinet of ministers responsible for the administrative tasks of the state. These ministers included the chief accountant, the chief finance minister, and the chancery of ministers responsible for overseeing decrees, records, and letters.

Beneath these chief ministers was a bureaucratic hierarchy. One of these administrative levels was that of the nome stewards. Nomes were geographic divisions of Egypt dating back to pre-Ptolemaic times. Beneath the nome stewards were village administrators each of which was responsible for an individual village.

Most of the land in Egypt was still owned either by the crown or by temples. The land not under royal control or the control of the religious institutions of Egypt was leased or granted to tenant farmers.

Some of these farmers would also fight as soldiers when the situation required it. Greek farmers were generally given larger plots of land than native Egyptian farmers.

To accommodate the two major cultures in Ptolemaic Egypt, there were two interlocking court systems, one for native Egyptians which used the Egyptian language and one for Greeks which used the Greek language. Because the ruling elites were Greek, the bureaucracy was weighted in favor of the Greeks.

An important Ptolemaic innovation in the Egyptian economy was monetarization. The use of an effective monetary system greatly increased trade between Egypt and the surrounding regions.

Tetradrachm issued by Ptolemy V Epiphanes ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty. (Lequenne Gwendoline / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The main industries in Ptolemaic Egypt included the production of grain as well as the production of exquisite and finely crafted glassware and jewelry.

The Ptolemies were very sensitive to the Egyptian religion and made many concessions to the religious beliefs and proclivities of the native Egyptians. The Ptolemies spent most of their time in Alexandria which was a very Greek city. Nonetheless, the Ptolemies invested considerable time and resources into connecting themselves with the ancient pharaohs.

In the city of Alexandria, statues were erected depicting the Ptolemies as pharaohs. The semi-divine status of the pharaohs also fit well into the Hellenistic ruler cult.

During the Ptolemaic period, extensive renovations were made to Egyptian temples. Egyptian religious officials were respected and at least one of the Ptolemaic kings, Ptolemy V Epiphanes, was crowned using traditional rites in Memphis.

Meanwhile Greek immigrants also incorporated their own religious beliefs. For example, they identified the god Amon with Zeus and the god Ptah with Hephaestus. The Egyptian goddess Isis eventually became the center of a mystery religion that quickly spread outside of Egypt and across what would become the Graeco-Roman world.

Another important innovation was the appearance of the god Serapis. Serapis was a syncretic deity combining aspects of the Egyptian gods Ptah, Apis, and Osiris in a traditionally Greek form. He was originally only worshiped in Alexandria where his temple, the Serapeum, was located, but later he became worshiped all over the Hellenistic world.

Remains of the Serapeum of Alexandria. (Mav / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Remains of the Serapeum of Alexandria. (Mav / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The crown jewel of Egypt during this time was probably the city of Alexandria. Because of its important location on the Mediterranean, Alexandria became a major port city as well as a gateway to the wealth of Egypt. Its fame as well as its wonders, such as the Great Library and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, outlived the Ptolemaic dynasty.

The city continued to have an influence throughout the Roman period and was the most important city in the eastern Mediterranean region until the founding of the city of Constantinople in the 4th century AD. Even afterwards, the city’s illustrious past was still visible. The enormous Lighthouse of Alexandria, for example, stood until the Islamic period, when it was finally destroyed by a series of earthquakes in the 14th and 15th centuries.

In addition to its Greek heritage, Alexandria also had a thriving Jewish community which produced Jewish philosophers, such as Philo. It is also where the Hebrew Old Testament was first translated into Greek, producing the Septuagint. Later in history, after the Ptolemies had ceased to rule in Egypt, Alexandria became an important Christian center with the famous theological school of Alexandria, which included church fathers such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria.

The Lasting Effects of the Ptolemaic Dynasty

The Ptolemaic kings are less celebrated than the Roman emperors or the Greek democracies, but they nonetheless were very important in the development of the Western tradition. The Great Library and Musaeum produced many poets, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians who are still considered important in the West today.

The Ptolemies also accidentally helped preserve knowledge of Egyptian civilization since, without artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone, we would not know much about the ancient Egyptians. The Ptolemaic dynasty represents the last of both ancient Egypt and the Hellenistic kingdoms. It also represents one of the often-under-appreciated foundations of Western civilization.

Top image: Ptolemaic era temple Kon-Ombo            Source: xfargas / Adobe Stock

By Caleb Strom


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Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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