The history of Ptolemaic Egypt

The history of Ptolemaic Egypt
  The history of Ptolemaic Egypt starts chronologically with the conquest by the king Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great) in 332 BC and ends with the death of the queen Cleopatra of Egypt and the Roman conquest in 30 BC. The Ptolemaic Kingdom was founded when Ptolemy I Soter declared himself Pharaoh of Egypt, creating a powerful Hellenistic state from southern Syria in the east to Cyrene to the west, and extending south to the frontier with Nubia. Alexandria became the capital city and a center of Greek culture and trade. To gain recognition by the native Egyptian populace, they named themselves as the successors to the Pharaohs. The later Ptolemies took on Egyptian traditions by marrying their siblings, had themselves portrayed on public monuments in Egyptian style and dress, and participated in Egyptian religious life.[1][2] Hellenistic culture thrived in Egypt well after the Muslim conquest. The Ptolemies had to fight native rebellions and were involved in foreign and civil wars that led to the decline of the kingdom and its annexation by Rome.

Alexander III

In 332 BC Alexander III of Macedon conquered Egypt with little resistance from the Persians. He was welcomed by the Egyptians as a deliverer. He visited Memphis, and went on pilgrimage to the oracle of Amun at the Oasis of Siwa. The oracle declared him to be the son of Amun. He conciliated the Egyptians by the respect which he showed for their religion, but he appointed Greeks to virtually all the senior posts in the country, and founded a new Greek city, Alexandria, to be the new capital. The wealth of Egypt could now be harnessed for Alexander’s conquest of the rest of the Persian Empire. Early in 331 BC he was ready to depart, and led his forces away to Phoenicia. He left Cleomenes as the ruling nomarch to control Egypt in his absence. Alexander never returned to Egypt.

Ptolemaic Kingdom

Main article: Ptolemaic Kingdom
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Ptolemy I, King of Egypt
Following Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 BC, a succession crisis erupted among his generals. Initially, Perdiccas ruled the empire as regent for Alexander’s half-brother Arrhidaeus, who became Philip III of Macedon, and then as regent for both Philip III and Alexander’s infant son Alexander IV of Macedon, who had not been born at the time of his father’s death. Perdiccas appointed Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s closest companions, to be satrap of Egypt. Ptolemy ruled Egypt from 323 BC, nominally in the name of the joint kings Philip III and Alexander IV. However, as Alexander the Great’s empire disintegrated, Ptolemy soon established himself as ruler in his own right. Ptolemy successfully defended Egypt against an invasion by Perdiccas in 321 BC, and consolidated his position in Egypt and the surrounding areas during the Wars of the Diadochi (322 BC301 BC). In 305 BC, Ptolemy took the title of King. As Ptolemy I Soter (“Saviour”), he founded the Ptolemaic dynasty that was to rule Egypt for nearly 300 years.

All the male rulers of the dynasty took the name “Ptolemy”, while princesses and queens preferred the names Cleopatra and Berenice. Because the Ptolemaic kings adopted the Egyptian custom of marrying their sisters, many of the kings ruled jointly with their spouses, who were also of the royal house. This custom made Ptolemaic politics confusingly incestuous, and the later Ptolemies were increasingly feeble. The only Ptolemaic Queens to officially rule on their own were Berenice III and Berenice IV. Cleopatra V did co-rule, but it was with another female, Berenice IV. Cleopatra VII officially co-ruled with Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator, Ptolemy XIV, and Ptolemy XV, but effectively, she ruled Egypt alone.

The early Ptolemies did not disturb the religion or the customs of the Egyptians, and indeed built magnificent new temples for the Egyptian gods and soon adopted the outward display of the Pharaohs of old. During the reign of Ptolemies II and III thousands of Greek veterans were rewarded with grants of farm lands, and Greeks were planted in colonies and garrisons or settled themselves in the villages throughout the country. Upper Egypt, farthest from the centre of government, was less immediately affected, though Ptolemy I established the Greek colony of Ptolemais Hermiou to be its capital, but within a century Greek influence had spread through the country and intermarriage had produced a large Greco-Egyptian educated class. Nevertheless, the Greeks always remained a privileged minority in Ptolemaic Egypt. They lived under Greek law, received a Greek education, were tried in Greek courts, and were citizens of Greek cities, just as they had been in Greece. The Egyptians were rarely admitted to the higher levels of Greek culture, in which most Egyptians were not in any case interested.

Ptolemaic contributions

The Greeks now formed the new upper classes in Egypt, replacing the old native aristocracy. In general, the Ptolemies undertook changes that went far beyond any other measures that earlier foreign rulers had imposed. They used the religion and traditions to increase their own power and wealth. Although they established a prosperous kingdom, enhanced with fine buildings, the native population enjoyed few benefits, and there were frequent uprisings. These expressions of nationalism reached a peak in the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (207–206 BC) when rebels gained control over one district and ruled as a line of native “pharaohs.” This was only curtailed nineteen years later when Ptolemy V Epiphanes succeeded in subduing them, but the underlying grievances continued and there were riots again later in the dynasty.

Family conflicts affected the later years of the dynasty when Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II fought his brother Ptolemy VI Philometor and briefly seized the throne. The struggle was continued by his sister and niece (who both became his wives) until they finally issued an Amnesty Decree in 118 BC.


The Ptolemaic kingdom was diverse in the people who settled and made Egypt their home on this time. During this period, Greek troops under Ptolemy I Soter were given land grants and brought their families encouraging tens of thousands of Greeks to settle the country making themselves the new ruling class. Native Egyptians continued having a role, yet a small one in the Ptolemaic government mostly in lower posts and outnumbered the foreigners. During the reign of the Ptolemaic Pharoahs, many Jews were imported from neighboring Palestine by the hundred thousands for being renowned fighters and established an important presence there. Other foreign groups settled during this time even Galatian mercernaries were invited in.


Of the aliens who had come to settle upon Egypt, the ruling race, the Greeks, were the most important element. They were partly spread as allotment-holders over the country, forming social groups, in the country towns and villages, side by side with the native population, partly gathered in the three Greek cities — the old Naucratis, founded before 600 B.C. (in the interval of Egyptian independence after the expulsion of the Assyrians and before the coming of the Persians), and the two new cities, Alexandria by the sea, and Ptolemais in Upper Egypt. Alexander and his Seleucid successors were great as the founders of Greek cities all over their dominions; Greek culture was so much bound up with the life of the city-state that any king who wanted to present himself to the world as a genuine champion of Hellenism had to do something in this direction, but the king of Egypt, whilst he was as ambitious as any to shine as a Hellene, would find Greek cities, with their republican tradition and aspirations to independence, inconvenient elements in a country which lent itself, as no other did, to bureaucratic centralization. The Ptolemies therefore limited the number of Greek city-states in Egypt to those three — Alexandria, Ptolemais, Naucratis. Outside Egypt, as we have seen, they had Greek cities under their dominion — the old Greek cities in the Cyrenaica, in Cyprus, on the coasts and islands of the Aegean — but in Egypt no more than the three. There were indeed country towns with names such as Ptolemais, Arsinoe, and Berenice, in which Greek communities existed with a certain social life; there were similar groups of Greeks in many of the old Egyptian towns, but they were not communities with the political forms of a city-state. Yet if they had no place of political assembly, they would have their gymnasium, the essential sign of Hellenism, serving something of the purpose of a university for the young men. Far up the Nile at Ombi we find in 136‑135 B.C. a gymnasium of the local Greeks, which passes resolutions and corresponds with the king. And in 123 B.C., when there is trouble in Upper Egypt between the towns of Crocodilopolis and Hermonthis, the negotiators sent from Crocodilopolis are the young men attached to the gymnasium, who, according to the Greek tradition, eat bread and salt with the negotiators from the other town.

All the Greek dialects of the Greek world gradually became asimilated in the Koine Greek dialect which was the common language of the Hellenistic world. Generally the Greeks of the Ptolemaic Egypt felt like a representative of a higher civilization yet were curious over the native culture of Egypt.

Arabs during the Ptolemies

Arab nomads of the eastern desert penetrated in small bodies into the cultivated land of the Nile . The Greeks called all the land on the eastern side of the Nile “Arabia”, and villages were really to be found here and there with a population of Arabs who had exchanged the life of tent-dwellers for that of settled agriculturists . One hears of a village, Poïs, in the Memphite nome, two of whose inhabitants sent on September 20, 152 B.C a letter in Greek. It had to be written for two of its Arab inhabitants by the young Macedonian Apollonius, the Arabs being even unable apparently to subscribe it. Apollonius writes their names as Myrullas and Chalbas, the first probably, and the second certainly, Semitic. A century earlier we hear of Arabs farther west, in the Fayûm, organized under a leader of their own, and working mainly as herdsmen on the dorea of Apollonius the dioiketes; but these Arabs bear Greek and Egyptian names.

Jews of Egypt

The largest foreign element after the Greek was the Jewish population. At the time of the Christian era the Jews in Egypt had come to number about a million out of a total population of about seven and a half millions. In those days they had not yet any special reputation in that line. The Jews of Alexandria were, no doubt, like the Greeks of Alexandria, engaged in various kinds of trade and industry, but large numbers of the Jews in Egypt had been imported as soldiers. The Maccabean revolt and the wars of the Hasmonaean kings proved how formidable the Jews could be as fighters. The Elephantine Aramaic papyri have shown us Jewish soldiers of the Persian king established near the first cataract long before Alexander came to Egypt. Perhaps semi-paganized Jewish communities of this type had been absorbed, and ceased to exist as a separate people, before the end of the Persian period, but it seems likely that Ptolemy I found a Jewish element still existing in Egypt when he took over the obscure.

Sir Flinders Petrie refers to a Jewish tomb, opposite Oxyrhyncus, discovered in 1922, with a long Aramaic inscription, belonging to the middle of the 5th century. In any case, when Palestine had been united to their kingdom by the Ptolemies, a fresh stream of immigration from Judaea to Egypt naturally followed. It was not only voluntary immigration. Regarding the Jews as good material for his army, Ptolemy I had transported masses of them to Egypt — 100,000, according to Pseudo-Aristeas, who says that he put 30,000 of them “in the garrisons” — settled them, we may perhaps understand, like the Greeks and Macedonians, on the land. Inscriptions and papyri give us traces of this Jewish population in the country towns of Egypt throughout the Ptolemaic period.

The language of the Egyptian Jews was Greek; after a generation or two immigrants from Palestine forgot their Semitic speech. Their Hebrew scriptures they knew only in the Greek translation, which we column the Septuagint because, according to the legend, the translation had been made by the Seventy Translators under Ptolemy II. Since the Seventy Translators were held to have been themselves miraculously inspired, there was no need for the Egyptian Jews to concern themselves with the original Hebrew. As a matter of fact, the translation of the Old Testament was made, bit by bit, in Egypt during the last three centuries before the Christian era. According to the first form of the legend, it was not the Old Testament as a whole, but only the five books of the Law which were translated by the Seventy, and it is likely that a Greek version of the Law really was required by the Egyptian Jews as early as the reign of Ptolemy II. In the latter times of the dynasty it made an important difference to any one who ruled Egypt, or aspired to rule it, if he had the Jews on his side.

Whether the Jews at Alexandria were, or were not, included in the citizen-body of Alexandrines is, as has been said, a debated question.71 It seems really to resolve itself into a question of terms — what is meant by “citizenship” — the Jews plainly had certain peculiar privileges, on the strength of which they might claim to count as Alexandrine citizens, whilst they lacked other ordinary characteristics of citizenship, the absence of which might justify the Greek Alexandrines in denying them the name. As a community in Alexandria, they had a measure of self-government not conceded to any other community within a Greek city-state. Their chief in early Roman times (and perhaps in Ptolemaic times) had the title of genarches or ethnarches. In Roman times the government of the community was vested in a senate (gerusia), and this, too, may go back to the earlier period. The archontes seem to have been a committee of the senate. But the only title for the rulers of the community for which we have documentary evidence in the Ptolemaic period is that of Elders.

The Jewish quarter, Delta, adjoined the palace quarter on the north-east and reached down to the sea. Insofar as it lay beyond the harbour, it might be spoken of by enemies of the Jews contemptuously, as an out‑of-the‑way wretched sort of place, whilst the Jews might retort that its sea-front and its proximity to the royal palace made it pleasant and honourable.75 It was not a ghetto, inasmuch as there was no compulsion upon the Jews to live in the Delta quarter; many, as a matter of fact, lived in other parts of the city. But the Delta quarter was mainly inhabited by Jews, who had gathered there by choice.

There were naturally a number of synagogues in Alexandria for a community so large. The principal synagogue p114was in Roman times one of the most impressive in the Empire, a magnificent building in the style of a Greek basilica, described with pride in the Talmud, so large that the voice of the officiating minister could not reach the more distant part of the congregation, and a man had to be stationed half-way down the building with a flag, to signal the moments for saying Amen. But we have in Ptolemaic times the mention of synagogues at Alexandria — one built on behalf of the famous Cleopatra and Ptolemy Caesar “to the Great God who heareth”, by a certain Alypus, a rich member, no doubt, of the Jewish community

Roman Egypt

In 30 BC, following the death of Cleopatra VII, Egypt became part of the Roman Empire as the province Aegyptus, governed by a prefect selected by the Emperor from the Equestrian and not a governor from the Senatorial order, to prevent interference by the Roman Senate. The main Roman interest in Egypt was always the reliable delivery of grain to the city of Rome. To this end the Roman administration made no change to the Ptolemaic system of government, although Romans replaced Greeks in the highest offices. But Greeks continued to staff most of the administrative offices and Greek remained the language of government except at the highest levels. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not settle in Egypt in large numbers. Culture, education and civic life largely remained Greek throughout the Roman period. The Romans, like the Ptolemies, respected and protected Egyptian religion and customs, although the cult of the Roman state and of the Emperor was gradually introduced.


The early Ptolemies raised the quality of Egyptian agriculture by reclaiming cultivatable land through irrigation and introduced crops such as cotton and better wine-producing grapes. In addition, they increased the wealth of their population by increasing foreign trade, making more luxury goods available to more people. In return, Egypt enriched their lives as the new rulers absorbed their adopted culture. Egypt had enchanted the Ptolemies, as it had all its foreign rulers before them. Ptolemy and his descendants adopted Egyptian royal trappings and added Egypt’s religion to their own, worshipping the gods of Eternity and building temples to them, and even being mummified and buried in sarcophagi covered with hieroglyphs

In his lifetime Strabo made extensive travels to among others Egypt and Ethiopia.


1. ^ Bowman, Alan K (1996). Egypt after the Pharaohs 332 BC – AD 642, 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 25-26. ISBN 0520205316. 
^ Stanwick, Paul Edmond (2003). Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek kings as Egyptian pharaohs. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292777728. 

References and further reading

  • Bingen, Jean. Hellenistic Egypt. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007 (hardcover, ISBN 0748615784; paperback, ISBN 0748615792). Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007 (hardcover, ISBN 0520251415; paperback, ISBN 0520251423).
  • Bowman, Alan Keir. 1996. Egypt After the Pharaohs: 332 BC–AD 642; From Alexander to the Arab Conquest. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press
  • Chauveau, Michel. 2000. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society under the Ptolemies. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  • Ellis, Simon P. 1992. Graeco-Roman Egypt. Shire Egyptology 17, ser. ed. Barbara G. Adams. Aylesbury: Shire Publications, ltd.
  • Hölbl, Günther. 2001. A History of the Ptolemaic Empire. Translated by Tina Saavedra. London: Routledge Ltd.
  • Lloyd, Alan Brian. 2000. “The Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC)”. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 395–421

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