Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt

June 6, 2016by 3qxgu0
Bust of Ptolemy in Egyptian style.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty reigned over Egypt for nearly three centuries (305-30 BCE) before succumbing to Roman conquest. Interestingly, throughout their rule, they did not assimilate into Egyptian culture. They secluded themselves in Alexandria, a city conceived by Alexander the Great, which retained Greek customs and language. The dynasty practiced endogamy, with marriages only within the family; brothers wed sisters, and uncles wed nieces. Cleopatra VII, the final Ptolemaic ruler (lived c. 69-30 BCE), was of Macedonian descent but was also fluent in Egyptian and other languages. With the exception of Ptolemy I, and his son Ptolemy II, the dynasty was largely ineffective and ultimately relied on Rome’s support to retain power.

The Greek Dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs

The Ptolemaic dynasty is often noted for its unique stance of not assimilating into Egyptian culture. The Ptolemies served as Egyptian pharaohs and Greek monarchs but retained their Greek identity in language and customs. This was preserved through a practice of intermarriage, typically between siblings or uncle and niece, aimed at securing the dynasty’s stability and consolidating power. Contrary to the common belief that such marriages were an Egyptian tradition—echoing the union of the deities Isis and Osiris—these practices were also rooted in Greek mythology, as seen in the marriages of Cronus to his sister Rhea and Zeus to Hera. Out of fifteen recorded Ptolemaic marriages, ten were fraternal, and two involved a niece or cousin. Thus, Cleopatra VII, the final Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt and a figure celebrated in art and literature, was of Macedonian heritage, tracing her lineage back to notable Greek figures like Olympias, the formidable mother of Alexander the Great.

In her defense, Cleopatra was the only member of the Ptolemaic dynasty to learn Egyptian and make an effort to understand the Egyptian populace. Naturally, the dynasty’s practice of inbreeding was far from ideal, leading to widespread jealousy and frequent conspiracies. It is believed that Ptolemy IV murdered his uncle, brother, and mother, and Ptolemy VIII notoriously killed his fourteen-year-old son, dismembering him.

Ptolemy I Soter

Ptolemy IThe sudden death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE threw his vast empire into chaos, as he had not appointed a successor, instead declaring that his empire should go ‘to the strongest.’ His commanders, who had faithfully followed him from Macedon across the dry deserts of western Asia, were left to decide the fate of the empire. Some suggested waiting for the birth of Roxanne’s and Alexander’s child, the future Alexander IV, while others looked for an immediate solution beneficial to themselves: dividing the empire among them. This decision sparked years of warfare and ruin. Alexander’s extensive territories were eventually split among his most loyal generals: Antigonus I the One-Eyed, Eumenes, Lysimachus, Antipater, and Ptolemy, the latter being recognized as the ‘most resourceful’ of Alexander’s commanders.

Ptolemy I Soter, known as the Savior, lived from 366 to 282 BCE. He was a Macedonian noble, widely believed to be the son of Lagos and Arsinoe. A childhood friend of Alexander the Great, he served as his official taster and bodyguard, and there were even whispers that he might be an illegitimate son of Philip II, Alexander’s father. Following Alexander’s death, Ptolemy played a key role in the division of the empire among the generals at the Partition of Babylon. He was ultimately granted the territory he most desired: Egypt, a land he considered ideal and abundant in resources.

After enduring years of Persian oppression, the Egyptians greeted Alexander the Great and his army with open arms. The Persians had shown little respect for Egyptian religious practices and traditions, whereas Alexander displayed a greater tolerance, even participating in their religious rites and building a temple dedicated to Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess. Meanwhile, Ptolemy, observing Egypt, recognized its immense potential for his own gain. The nation boasted immeasurable wealth, primarily from its agricultural output; it had defensible borders, with Libya to the west and Arabia to the east (wisely, he distrusted his fellow commanders); and it maintained a positive relationship with his homeland of Macedon.

While the partition granted Egypt to Ptolemy, not everyone trusted the astute commander, especially Perdiccas, Alexander’s self-proclaimed successor. Thus, Cleomenes of Naucratis, previously appointed as Egypt’s finance minister by Alexander, was assigned by Perdiccas as an overseer or Hyparchos to monitor Ptolemy. Sensing Perdiccas’ scheme, Ptolemy decided to eliminate Cleomenes by accusing him of ‘fiscal malfeasance’—a charge with some basis—and executed him. With Cleomenes out of the picture, Ptolemy could govern unobserved, establishing a dynasty that would endure nearly three centuries, until the era of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra VII. Ptolemy’s forty-year reign in Egypt laid the foundations for the nation’s economic and administrative stability.

Following Cleomenes’ death, Ptolemy I swiftly established his rule in Egypt, aiming to restore its former glory. Despite his reluctance, he became entangled in the Wars of the Successors, the fierce conflicts among Alexander the Great’s generals. Although Ptolemy I did not actively seek expansion beyond Egypt, he seized opportunities as they presented themselves, such as taking control of Cyprus around 318 BCE. He also engaged in combat with a Spartan named Thribon who had captured Cyrene on the North African coast, swiftly defeating him and handing him over to the city for execution. Inevitably, Ptolemy’s interactions with other commanders continued; he offered asylum to Seleucus and supported Rhodes against Demetrius the Besieger, Antigonus’ son.

The rivalry with Perdiccas persisted. The animosity only intensified when Ptolemy intercepted Alexander’s body en route to its intended tomb in Macedon. As Alexander’s chiliarch, Perdiccas had solidified his position posthumously, aspiring to consolidate the empire. He held both the royal signet ring and Alexander’s body, intending to return it to Macedon. Yet, in Damascus, the body vanished without explanation. Ptolemy I had seized it, transporting it to Memphis and later to Alexandria, where the golden sarcophagus was exhibited in the city’s heart. Perdiccas was, understandably, incensed. In Egypt, however, the Ptolemaic dynasty’s legitimacy hinged on its association with the deceased monarch. Alexander remained pivotal in death, shaping the Egyptian and Ptolemaic psyche. The appropriation of Alexander’s body was the last straw for Perdiccas, culminating in a war (322 – 321 BCE). Escalating his campaign against the Ptolemaic ruler, Perdiccas made three unsuccessful attempts to cross the Nile into Egypt, losing over two thousand troops. Disillusioned, his forces mutinied and killed him. His demise elicited little sorrow among his fellow generals, given his lack of popularity.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus
Bust of Ptolemy II

succeeded his father, Ptolemy I, who died in 282 BCE. The younger Ptolemy, known as ‘Brother-loving’ and who lived from 308-246 BCE, had been co-regent since 285 BCE. He married Arsinoe I, the daughter of Thracian regent/king Lysimachus. Following the death of his first wife, Lysimachus wed Arsinoe II, daughter of Ptolemy I and his mistress Berenice, around 300 BCE, a union he would come to regret. Arsinoe II, likely aiming to secure the Thracian throne for her son, persuaded Lysimachus to execute his eldest son and heir on fabricated charges of treason, leading to widespread discontent among the officers.

Following Lysimachus‘ death, Ptolemy II married his widow, Arsinoe II Philadelphus, who was also his sister. Diverging from the path of many successors, Ptolemy II expanded Egypt’s territory by reclaiming Cyrene, which had declared its independence, and by making acquisitions in Asia Minor and Syria. He engaged in two Syrian Wars against Antiochus I and Antiochus II from 260 to 252 BCE and arranged the marriage of his daughter Berenice to Antiochus II. However, his military efforts were not always successful; he suffered defeat in the Chremonidean War against Macedon from 267 to 261 BCE. Domestically, he established trading posts along the Red Sea, completed the construction of the Pharos, and expanded the library and museum. In tribute to his parents, he instituted a new celebration, the “Ptolemaeia”

Syrian Wars

Ptolemy II is often regarded as one of the last truly great pharaohs of Egypt. His successors struggled to fortify Egypt both domestically and abroad, with jealousy and internal strife being rampant. Ptolemy III Euergetes, also known as the Benefactor (284-221 BCE), ascended to the throne following his father’s death in 246 BCE. He took Berenice II of the Greek city Cyrene as his wife. Their offspring included Ptolemy IV and a princess, also named Berenice.


The untimely demise of the princess led to the issuance of the Canopus Decree in 238 BCE, which, among other edicts, deified her. The decree proposed an innovative calendar with 365 days and an extra day every four years, although it was never implemented. In 246 BCE, Ptolemy III launched a campaign into Syria to aid his sister’s spouse, Antiochus II, during the Third Syrian War against Seleucus II, resulting in the acquisition of several towns in Syria and Asia Minor.

Ptolemy IV Philopator, known as ‘Father-loving’ (244-205 BCE), ascended to the Egyptian throne in 221 BCE, succeeding his father. In adherence to family tradition, he wed his sister Arsinoe III in 217 BCE. During the Fourth Syrian War (219-217 BCE), he achieved modest success against Antiochus III. Despite his largely ineffective rule, he did accomplish the construction of the Sema, a mausoleum dedicated to Alexander the Great and the Ptolemaic dynasty. Tragically, both he and his wife were assassinated in a palace coup in 205 BCE.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes (210-180 BCE), known as ‘Made-Manifest’, was the progeny of Ptolemy IV and Arsinoe III. His parents’ untimely demise led to his early ascension to the throne. In 193 BCE, he wed Seleucid princess Cleopatra I. His reign was marred by wars and rebellions as Seleucid and Macedonian monarchs vied for Egyptian territories. The 200 BCE Battle of Panium resulted in Egypt’s loss of significant lands in the Aegean and Asia Minor, including Palestine. Moreover, in 206 BCE, Thebes rebelled, eluding Ptolemaic rule for two decades.

Ptolemy VIII Euergetes I

Like his father, Ptolemy V, Ptolemy VI Philometor (Mother-Loving) began his rule as a young child, co-reigning with his mother until her sudden death in 176 BCE. Despite significant conflicts with his brother, the future Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II (Benefactor), he married his sister Cleopatra II and embarked on his turbulent rule. Egypt suffered two invasions (169-164 BCE) by Antiochus IV, whose forces nearly reached Alexandria. With Rome’s support, Ptolemy VI eventually regained nominal control over Egypt, yet his reign, shared with his brother and wife, was marked by continuous strife. In 163 BCE, he and his brother agreed to a settlement, with Ptolemy VI taking Egypt and Ptolemy VIII governing Cyrene. Ptolemy VI met his end in 145 BCE, dying in combat in Syria.

Civil War

The details surrounding the reign of Ptolemy VII remain obscure, and it is uncertain if he ever truly ruled. However, Ptolemy VIII, the younger sibling of Ptolemy VI, ascended to the throne in 145 BCE. Following Ptolemaic tradition, he wed his brother’s widow, Cleopatra II, and later married her daughter, Cleopatra III, his own niece. From 132 to 124 BCE, a brutal civil war tore through Egypt, severely affecting Alexandria, a city that notably despised Ptolemy VIII. The animosity between Alexandria’s residents and the royal family was not unusual and led to severe persecution and expulsion of the city’s inhabitants. An amnesty was eventually declared in 118 BCE.

Ptolemy VIII was succeeded by his eldest son in 116 BCE. Ptolemy IX Soter II, also known as Lathyrus (Chickpea), reigned from 142-80 BCE. Following the tradition of his predecessors, he married two of his sisters: Cleopatra IV, the mother of Berenice IV, and Cleopatra V Selene, who bore him two sons. He co-ruled with his mother, Cleopatra III, until 107 BCE, when he was overthrown by his brother and fled to Cyprus. He reclaimed the throne in 88 BCE and ruled until his death in 80 BCE.

The Rise of Rome

The subsequent pharaohs had minimal impact on Egypt, marking the first significant influence of a western power, Rome. Ptolemy X Alexander I (140-88 BCE), the younger brother of Ptolemy IX, served as the governor of Cyprus before his mother summoned him to Egypt in 107 BCE to replace his brother. In 101 BCE, he allegedly assassinated his mother, Cleopatra IV. He later wed his niece, Berenice III, the daughter of Cleopatra V Serene. After his expulsion from Egypt in 88 BCE, he vanished at sea. His youngest son, Ptolemy XI Alexander II (100-80 BCE), briefly succeeded him. Following the cession of Egypt and Cyprus to Rome, Ptolemy XI was installed as pharaoh by the Roman general Cornelius Sulla and co-ruled with his stepmother, Cleopatra Berenice, whom he later killed. Regrettably, he was subsequently slain by the citizens of Alexandria.

Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, also known as Auletes, was a son of Ptolemy IX who succeeded Ptolemy XI in 80 BCE. He married his sister, Cleopatra Tryphaena. His close ties with Rome led to his disdain and expulsion by the Alexandrians in 58 BCE. Nevertheless, he reclaimed the throne with the help of the Syrian governor Gabinius and managed to stay in power through bribes and his Roman connections, despite the Roman Senate’s distrust of him.

Ptolemy XIII (63-47 BCE), brother and spouse of the notorious Cleopatra VII, had a brief reign as pharaoh. He unsuccessfully allied with his sister Arsinoe in a civil war, opposing Julius Caesar and Cleopatra for control of the throne. He anticipated winning Caesar’s favor by murdering the Roman general Pompey, who had fled to Egypt, and presenting his head to Caesar. Contrarily, Caesar was enraged, having wished to execute Pompey himself. Following a fierce battle, Ptolemy XIII’s forces were vanquished, and he perished in the Nile River when his vessel capsized. Arsinoe was paraded in chains to Rome, only to be released later.

After Ptolemy XIII, his brother Ptolemy XIV (59-44 BCE), who had previously served as the governor of Cyprus, succeeded him. He later married his sister, as Caesar had wished, and ruled until his sudden death, which may have been due to poisoning on the orders of his elder sister.

The Last Ptolemaic Pharaoh Cleopatra
Bust of Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra VII, commonly known as Cleopatra, was the final pharaoh of Egypt. Her reign lasted 22 years, during which she wielded control over a significant portion of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. She was well-educated, as were many women of her time, prepared for her role by her father Ptolemy XII in the traditional Hellenistic fashion. Cleopatra endeared herself to the Egyptian populace by taking part in numerous local festivals and ceremonies and was the only member of the Ptolemaic dynasty to learn the Egyptian language, in addition to Hebrew, Ethiopian, and various other dialects.To maintain her throne after overcoming her siblings, she knew she needed to stay allied with Rome. Her liaison with Julius Caesar has captivated dramatists and poets for ages. Following Caesar’s assassination and the ensuing uncertainty of Rome’s political landscape, she unfortunately allied herself with the Roman leader Mark Antony, a decision that culminated in their defeat at the Battle of Actium. She was unable to garner sympathy from Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, leading to her suicide. Her son with Caesar, Caesarion (Ptolemy XV), was executed by Octavian. Her younger children, Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus, were taken to Rome and raised by Octavian’s spouse. Like the rest of the Mediterranean, once termed a Roman lake, Egypt succumbed to Roman dominion, ending the Ptolemaic reign.

Hellenization & Alexandria

A notable aspect of Ptolemaic rule was the policy of Hellenization, which involved integrating Greek language and culture into Egyptian society. There was no effort to assimilate into Egyptian civilization. Among Ptolemy I’s initial actions was the transfer of the government center from its historic location in Memphis, which continued to be the religious center, to the newly established city of Alexandria.

Alexandria’s strategic location, in proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and Greece, led to its development more as a Greek city than an Egyptian one. Consequently, the Ptolemies seldom left the city, occasionally embarking on leisurely cruises along the Nile. Greek eventually became the language of government and commerce throughout much of the erstwhile Alexandrian empire.

Ptolemy I also made Alexandria the intellectual hub of the Mediterranean by establishing a vast library and museum there. The museum offered spaces for quiet contemplation, while the library gathered thousands of papyrus scrolls, drawing scholars of philosophy, history, literature, and science from across the Mediterranean for many years. Ptolemy I’s consultant for this project was Demetrius of Phaleron, an alumnus of Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens, ensuring the library became a beacon of Hellenistic culture. Regrettably, the library and its treasures were lost to a succession of fires during the period of Roman dominion.

In the harbor of the city, Ptolemy initiated the construction of the Pharos, a colossal lighthouse that his son, Ptolemy II, would complete. The Lighthouse of Alexandria, towering with three levels, served as a beacon visible for miles, illuminated day and night, and ultimately was recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

Cleopatra-Selene-II-queen-of-MauretaniaBeyond Alexandria, in Upper Egypt, the less illustrious city of Ptolemais emerged, established as a hub for the Greek settlers who were arriving in droves. Although Ptolemy I may have seemed to want to turn Egypt into a new Greece, he largely honored the Egyptian people, acknowledging the significance of their religious practices and traditions. He and his successors upheld the various local cults. To maintain harmony with the temple priests, he returned many sacred artifacts taken by the Persians.

While the ancient Egyptian deities were venerated—no one wished to provoke the gods—two novel cults emerged: one revered Alexander the Great, symbolizing the Greek inhabitants’ ongoing fealty to the Ptolemaic dynasty. The other, less popular cult was dedicated to Serapis, the healing deity. In the local context, temple priests continued to be part of the elite, reflecting their loyalty to the Ptolemaic rule. While the capital was relocated, the fundamental administrative framework remained intact, despite the challenges Egyptian scribes faced with the Greek language.

Egypt’s economy was tightly regulated; the majority of the land belonged to the crown, and permissions were required for activities such as cutting down trees or breeding pigs. Meticulous record-keeping was crucial, with comprehensive surveys of land and censuses of livestock. Given Egypt’s reliance on agriculture, taxes derived from these censuses and surveys were vital. During Cleopatra VII’s reign, taxes were imposed on salt, dikes, and pastures. Fishermen were also obligated to surrender a quarter of their haul.Family-Tree-of-the-Ptolemaic-Dynasty-of-Egypt

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