One of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the eastern Mediterranean was Egypt. On Alexander’s death his empire broke up for lack of a suitable designated successor. Ptolemy (367–283 b.c.e.), a trusted general under Alexander, had counseled that the empire be divided into a series of satrapies, each under the control of a leading general.
The alternative, he believed, would be anarchy or warfare between the Macedonians. Ptolemy took control of Egypt, establishing a dynasty of Ptolemies that lasted for nearly 300 years until the death of Cleopatra VII, who died in 30 b.c.e., after which Egypt was incorporated as a province of the Roman Empire.
Ptolemy I took the name of Soter and set about establishing a formidable, independent Hellenistic state. He improved methods of administration and captured territories, adding to Arabia and Libya, which were already within the satrapy of Egypt. These territories included Cyprus and parts of Cyrenaica and Syria. Ptolemy was drawn into warfare with Perdiccas in Asia Minor as one of the Diadochi to Alexander.
During the subsequent reallocation of satrapies, Antipater of Macedon was named as regent of Alexander’s empire, and Ptolemy strengthened his possessions by marrying Eurydice, the daughter of Antipater. Further wars among the successors brought mixed fortunes, but Ptolemy was never seriously threatened with losing his core Egyptian territories.
By presenting himself as an Egyptian ruler in appearance and style of rule, Ptolemy gained support from the Egyptian people that lasted, by and large, throughout the length of the dynasty. Even so, Ptolemaic Egypt retained a distinctive Macedonian Greek nature.
A total of 15 Ptolemies were named, although only 14 reigned since Ptolemy VII was not able to take the throne. Seven of these Ptolemies were in fact named Cleopatra, and these 11 women reigned as regents while their sons or brothers were too young to rule.
The prominence of female rulers was unprecedented in Western antiquity and would be surprising even in the 21st century. The second Ptolemy, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 285–246 b.c.e.) introduced the practice of sibling marriage when he took his sister as his wife; she became Arsinoe II. This shocked the Greeks but was considered appropriate for an Egyptian monarch.
She was widely regarded as the power behind the throne, and while her influence was almost certainly less than that, her example does show the importance of women in the administration of the Ptolemaic state. Her likeness appeared on official coinage, and she benefited from monarch worship cults.
The Ptolemies improved administration by the introduction of advanced taxation regimes, together with measures to prevent extortion by corrupt tax collectors. A great deal of industry came under state control, and the fertile Nile delta lands and overseas possessions were used to provide security and a measure of shared prosperity for the Egyptian people.
A census was conducted under Ptolemy II Philadelphus that itemized all sources of water and other resources and was used to plan for agricultural innovations and improvements. Irrigation was greatly increased and the newly fertile lands were used for the settlement of migrant Greeks.
They in turn contributed to the growth of Alexandria, which grew into a formidable example of Greco-Egyptian intellectual endeavor. It held a monopoly on papyrus throughout much of the Mediterranean and controlled trade in goods from the east.
Throughout the third century b.c.e., external dangers to the Ptolemiac empire came from successor states to the east, together with occasional resurgent Greek citystates.
These wars were generally fought outside Egypt on overseas possessions; however, internal revolts developed following the Battle of Raphia (217 b.c.e.), fought in Palestine and resulting in a victory for the Ptolemaic side against the Seleucids.
Ptolemy’s army contained large contingents of native Egyptians, and it appears that their success emboldened them into believing that a native could once again lead Egypt. Uprisings in the upper Nile region continued for years but did not seriously threaten the Ptolemaic state.
A greater threat was arising in the western Mediterranean as the Roman Republic became increasingly influential. Romans had long coveted the riches of Egypt, particularly the wheat that would eventually feed Roman citizens and sustain the empire.
The Ptolemaic empire gradually declined to Egypt and Cyprus. It was not until Julius Caesar pursued Pompey to Egypt after the latter’s defeat in the civil war that a concerted effort was made to bring Egypt under Roman military control. Ptolemy Cleopatra VII became the lover of Julius Caesar in an attempt to retain Egyptian independence.
After Caesar’s assassination Cleopatra contracted a relationship with Mark Antony, chief loyalist of Caesar, and when Octavian and his allies at the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c.e. defeated him, she committed suicide, and Rome took control. Although both the preceding pharaohs and the succeeding Romans are better known in popular culture, the Ptolemies were no less influential in shaping the ancient world.