Rulers of the Ptolemies - Ancient Egypt From Alexander to Cleopatra

The Last Pharaohs of Egypt were Greeks

The Ptolemaic Temple at Edfu (237-57 BCE)
The main gate to the Temple of Horus at Edfu, Egypt, dedicated to the falcon god Horus and built between 237 -57 B.C.E. Robert Muckley / Getty Images

The Ptolemies were the rulers of the final dynasty of ancient Egypt, and their progenitor was a Macedonian Greek by birth. The Ptolemies based the capital of their Egypt in Alexandria, a newly constructed port on the Mediterranean Sea.


The Ptolemies came to rule Egypt after the arrival of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) in 332 B.C.E. At the time, the end of the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt had been ruled as a Persian satrapy for a decade—indeed that was the case in Egypt off and on beginning in the 6th century B.C.E. Alexander had just conquered Persia, and when he arrived, he had himself crowned as the ruler of Egypt in the Temple of Ptah at Memphis. Shortly afterward, Alexander left to conquer new worlds, leaving Egypt in the control of various Egyptian and Greco-Macedonian officers.

When Alexander unexpectedly died in 323 B.C.E., his only heir was his mentally unpredictable half-brother, who was to rule jointly with Alexander's as-yet unborn son Alexander IV. Although a regent had been established to support that new leadership of Alexander's empire, his generals did not accept that, and a War of Succession broke out among them. Some generals wanted all of Alexander's territory to stay unified, but that proved untenable.

Three great kingdoms arose from the ashes of Alexander's empire: Macedonia on the Greek mainland, the Seleucid empire in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the Ptolemies, including Egypt and Cyrenaica. Ptolemy son of Lagos was established as a governor of Egypt to begin with, but officially became the ruler of Egypt in 305 B.C.E. Ptolemy's portion of Alexander's rule included Egypt, Libya, and the Sinai Peninsula, and he and his descendants would make up 13 rulers of Egypt and rule for close to 300 years.


The three great powers of the Mediterranean jockeyed for power during the third and second centuries B.C.E. Two expansionist areas were most enticing for the Ptolemies: the Greek cultural centers in the eastern Mediterranean and Syria-Palestine. Several expensive battles were waged in attempts to attain these areas, and with new technological weapons: elephants, ships, and a trained fighting force.

War elephants were essentially the tanks of the era, a strategy learned from India and used by all sides. Naval battles were waged on ships built with a catamaran structure which increased the deck space for marines, and for the first time artillery was mounted aboard those ships as well. By the 4th century B.C.E., Alexandria had a trained force of 57,600 infantry and 23,200 cavalrymen.

Alexander's Capital City

Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 321 B.C.E. and it became the Ptolemaic capital and a major showcase for Ptolemaic wealth and splendor. It had three main harbors, and the city's streets were planned on a chessboard pattern with the main street 30 m (100 ft) wide running east-west across the city. That street was said to have been aligned to point to the rising sun on Alexander's birthday, July 20, rather than that of the summer solstice, June 21.

The four major sections of the city were the Necropolis, known for its spectacular gardens, the Egyptian quarter called Rhakotis, the Royal Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. The Sema was the burial place of the Ptolemaic kings, and for a while at least it contained the body of Alexander the Great, stolen from the Macedonians. His body was said to have been stored in a gold sarcophagus at first, and then later replaced by a glass one.

The city of Alexandria also boasted of the Pharos lighthouse, and the Mouseion, a library and research institute for scholarship and scientific inquiry. The library of Alexandria held no fewer than 700,000 volumes, and the teaching/research staff included scientists such as Eratosthenes of Cyrene (285-194 B.C.E,); medical specialists such as Herophilus of Chalcedon (330-260 B.C.E), literary specialists like Aristarchus of Samothrace (217-145 B.C.E), and creative writers like Apollonius of Rhodes and Callimachus of Cyrene (both third century).

Life Under the Ptolemies

The Ptolemaic pharaohs held lavish panhellenic events, including a festival held every four years called the Ptolemaieia which was intended to be equal in status to the Olympic games. Royal marriages established among the Ptolemies included both full brother-sister marriages, beginning with Ptolemy II who married his full sister Arsinoe II, and polygamy. Scholars believe these practices were intended to solidify the pharaohs' succession.

Major state temples were numerous throughout Egypt, with some old temples rebuilt or embellished, including the temple of Horus the Behdetite at Edfu, and the temple of Hathor at Dendera. The famous Rosetta Stone, which proved to be the key to unlocking the ancient Egyptian language, was carved in 196 B.C.E, during the reign of Ptolemy V.

The Fall of the Ptolemies

Outside of the wealth and opulence of Alexandria, there was famine, rampant inflation, and an oppressive administrative system under the control of corrupt local officials. Discord and disharmony arose by the late third and early second centuries B.C.E. Civil unrest against the Ptolemies expressing the disaffection among the Egyptian population was seen in the form of strikes, flight—some cities were completely abandoned, the despoliation of temples, and armed bandit attacks on villages.

At the same time, Rome was growing in power throughout the region and in Alexandria. A long drawn out battle between the brothers Ptolemy VI and VIII was arbitrated by Rome. A dispute between the Alexandrians and Ptolemy XII was resolved by Rome. Ptolemy XI left his kingdom to Rome in his will.

The last Ptolemaic pharaoh was the famous Cleopatra VII Philopator (ruled 51-30 B.C.E.) who ended the dynasty by allying herself with the Roman Marc Anthony, committing suicide, and turning over the keys of the Egyptian civilization to Caesar Augustus.

Dynastic Rulers

  • Ptolemy I (aka Ptolemy Soter), ruled 305-282 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy II, ruled 284-246 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy III Euergetes ruled 246-221 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy IV Philopator ruled 221-204 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy V Epiphanes, ruled 204-180 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy VI Philometor ruled 180-145 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy VIII ruled 170-163 B.C.E.
  • Euregetes II ruled 145-116 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy IX 116-107 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy X Alexander ruled 107-88 B.C.E.
  • Soter II ruled 88-80 B.C.E.
  • Berenike IV ruled 58-55 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy XII ruled 80-51 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy XIII Philopator ruled 51-47 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy XIV Philopator Philadelphos ruled 47-44 B.C.E.
  • Cleopatra VII Philopator ruled 51-30 B.C.E.
  • Ptolemy XV Caesar ruled 44-30 B.C.E.


  • Chauveau, Michel (translated from the French by David Lorton). 2000. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and society under the Ptolemies. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
  • Lloyd, AB. 2003. The Ptolemaic Period. In Shaw I, editor. 2003. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.