The Ptolemies: Dynastic 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 3,000 years of ancient Egypt, and their progenitor was a Macedonian Greek by birth. The Ptolemies broke millennia of tradition when they based the capital of their Egyptian empire not in Thebes or Luxor but in Alexandria, a newly constructed port on the Mediterranean Sea.

Fast Facts: Ptolemies

  • Also Known As: Ptolemaic Dynasty, Hellenistic Egypt
  • Founder: Alexander the Great (ruled 332 BCE)
  • First Pharaoh: Ptolemy I (r. 305–282)
  • Capital City: Alexandria
  • Dates: 332–30 BCE 
  • Famous Rulers: Cleopatra (ruled 51–30 BCE) 
  • Accomplishments: Library of Alexandria

Greeks Conquer Egypt

The Ptolemies came to rule Egypt after the arrival of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) in 332 BCE. 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 since the 6th century BCE. Alexander had just conquered Persia, and when he arrived in Egypt, he had himself crowned as the ruler 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 BCE, his only heir was his mentally unpredictable half-brother, who was set to rule jointly with Alexander's as-yet-unborn son Alexander IV. Although a regent had been established to support the 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 Kingdoms

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, the son of Alexander's general Lagos, was first established as the governor of the satrapy of Egypt, but officially became the first Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt in 305 BCE. Ptolemy's portion of Alexander's rule included Egypt, Libya, and the Sinai Peninsula, and he and his descendants would make up a dynasty of 13 rulers for close to 300 years.

Alexander's three great kingdoms jockeyed for power during the third and second centuries BCE. The Ptolemies attempted to expand their holdings in two areas: 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 BCE, Alexandria had a trained force of 57,600 infantry and 23,200 cavalrymen.

Alexander's Capital City

Kom El Dikka - Ruins of the Library of Alexandria
The ruins of Kom el Dikka are a complex of rooms and auditoria, part of the Library of Alexandria's university campus in Egypt. Roland Unger

Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 321 BCE 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 BCE), medical specialists such as Herophilus of Chalcedon (330–260 BCE), literary specialists like Aristarchus of Samothrace (217–145 BCE), 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 BCE, during the reign of Ptolemy V.

The Fall of the Ptolemies

Cleopatra and Caesarian at Dendera
Massive sunk relief of Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII) and her son Caesarean decorates the south wall of the Temple of Hathor, Dendera, Egypt. Cleopatra wears the solar disk and horns associated with the goddess Hathor as well as the Atef crown while Caesarean wears the double crown of Egypt (the Pschent). Terry J. Lawrence / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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 BCE. Civil unrest against the Ptolemies expressing the disaffection among the Egyptian population was seen in the form of strikes, the despoliation of temples, armed bandit attacks on villages, and flight—some cities were completely abandoned.

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. The Roman dominion over Egypt lasted until 395 CE.

Dynastic Rulers

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

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