Hellenistic Egypt: 5 Keys Events in the Ptolemaic Dynasty
Hellenistic Egypt: 5 Keys Events in the Ptolemaic Dynasty

Hellenistic Egypt: 5 Keys Events in the Ptolemaic Dynasty

Patrick Lynch - December 21, 2016

The Ptolemaic dynasty was founded by Ptolemy I Soler, one of Alexander the Great’s seven bodyguards known as the somatophylax. Egypt was one of the many territories conquered by Alexander and when he died, Ptolemy was appointed satrap of Egypt with Alexander IV and Philip III Arrhidaeus as kings in name only. Unsatisfied with his position, Ptolemy moved on Cyrenaica and began a war that lasted almost 20 years.

Ptolemy emerged victorious, and his reign as the first Ptolemaic monarch is dated at 305 BC. His dynasty lasted 275 years, and every male ruler was called Ptolemy while most of the female rulers were known as Cleopatra, Berenice or Arsinoe. Alexandria became the capital of the new kingdom in 320 BC and flourished to the point where it became the economic and cultural center of the world. The early rulers improved agriculture, boosted the economy, and increased the standard of living for most Egyptians. Small wonder then that the Ptolemies were quickly recognized as the rulers of Egypt by its people.

After approximately 80 years of good rule with three high-quality monarchs, the dynasty began to crumble due to weak leadership. The regime struggled from the 220s BC onwards but survived until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC when Egypt was conquered by Rome and Octavian became the new ruler.


Hellenistic Egypt: 5 Keys Events in the Ptolemaic Dynasty
Ancient Egypt Magazine

1 – Reign of Ptolemy I Soter (305 – 282 BC)

Ptolemy was the son of a Macedonian nobleman although rumors suggested he was one of Philip II’s illegitimate sons; if true, it would have made him Alexander’s half-brother. Ptolemy was a decade older than Alexander and served as an advisor and trusted bodyguard. He was victorious in the Successor Wars; probably because he focused his attention on Egypt while his rivals allowed their focus to wander. By 305 BC (some sources suggest 303 BC), he took the title ‘Soler’ which means savior. He took complete control of Egypt by 301 BC after defeating and killing rival Antigonus at Ipsus.

One of his most important decisions was moving the capital city from Memphis to Alexandria; he was concerned about the influence wielded by priests and officials at the old capital and wanted to rule without interference. Alexandria was a strategically sound choice as it lay on the Mediterranean Sea and offered easy access to Ptolemy’s homeland of Greece. The capital was more Greek than Egyptian and Greek became the language of commerce and the government. Apparently, Cleopatra VII was the only monarch to learn Egyptian!

Ptolemy rebuilt temples that had been destroyed by the Persians and gave the priests due respect. However, he also created a ‘cult of Alexander’ with the Macedonian legend given the status of ‘state god’. A new religion based around Serapis, the god of healing, was formed and was seen as more Greek than native. Ultimately, the religion didn’t expand and funding was withdrawn.

Ptolemy focused on making Alexandria the intellectual center of the Mediterranean and seemingly showed little interest in foreign affairs. This is perhaps because he was in his sixties when he assumed full control or else he was simply fed up with a lifetime of war. Whatever the reason, his devotion to the arts resulted in the incredible library and museum at Alexandria. In its all-too-brief existence, the library was home to thousands of papyrus scrolls and became the #1 destination for men of learning all over the world. It may have contained up to 400,000 scrolls at its peak, but Caesar’s army burned part of it in 48 BC. Further attacks damaged the contents until the Arabs probably destroyed it during their conquests of the 640s AD.

Ptolemy also oversaw the construction of the lighthouse at Pharos; this architectural marvel was a huge structure with a statue of Zeus on top. The king had died before it was completed but his heir Ptolemy II completed the job. Ptolemy, I left an impressive legacy that was built upon by his two immediate successors; sadly, a string of unimpressive kings hastened the downfall of the dynasty.

Hellenistic Egypt: 5 Keys Events in the Ptolemaic Dynasty
Travel to Eat (Ptolemy IV facing Two Forms of Horus. Located at Edfu Temple Egypt)

2 – The Great Rebellion (207? – 186 BC)

Ptolemy, I was succeeded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (who was co-ruler with Ptolemy the Son for 12 years) and Ptolemy III Euergetes. They were great pharaohs by all accounts but the glory years of the dynasty ended with the death of Euergetes in 222 BC. Virtually every remaining ruler in the dynasty was either incompetent or tyrannical and often both.

Ptolemy IV Philopator began his reign with the murder of his mother, uncle and younger brother. His general weakness allowed the Syrians, under Antiochus III, to invade Egyptian territory. A surprising victory at Raphia in 217 BC enabled Ptolemy IV to retain control of Palestine, but internal strife started to take its toll and the skills learned by Egyptian soldiers during this battle gave them tremendous self-confidence. Whether the poor rule of Ptolemy IV or economic factors was the cause of the revolt is open for debate. When the emboldened Egyptians found a leader they believed in, they were ready for rebellion.

Historians place the beginning of the revolt to 207 or 206 BC in Edfu. A man called Haronnophris was crowned ‘Pharaoh’ in Thebes in 205 BC. Ptolemy IV died in 204 BC, so Ptolemy V Epiphanes was forced to respond. A counteroffensive in 200-199 BC led to the death of Haronnophris but another rebel named Chaonnophris assumed the mantle of Pharaoh. The rebellion is not particularly well documented, but it appears that Ptolemy V regained the title in Thebes only for his rival to once again take the throne in 194 BC. In September 191 BC, a Ptolemaic army took Thebes and forced Chaonnophris to flee to Nubia. He was finally defeated by General Conanus in 186-85 BC. It should be noted that Ptolemy V never officially ‘lost’ his crown throughout the rebellion.

The uprising took a huge toll on the Ptolemaic Empire as it almost emptied the royal treasury. Perhaps more importantly, this in-fighting weakened the empire sufficiently to allow the Syrians to take Palestine.

Hellenistic Egypt: 5 Keys Events in the Ptolemaic Dynasty
Andrew Collins.com (The mountaintop mausoluem of Antiochus III on the summit of Nemrut Dag)

3 – Battle of Panium (200 BC)

The victory at Raphia in 217 BC was arguably the high watermark of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. It brought the Fourth Syrian War to an end, but Ptolemy IV did not build on the victory and refused to expand into the Seleucid Empire. He died in 204 BC just as the Egyptian Rebellion was getting underway. Matters weren’t helped by the squabbling over the right to become Pharaoh as Ptolemy V was only a child. A minister called Agothocles might have held the regency until he was killed by a mob.

In the meantime, Antiochus III saw a chance for revenge and began an invasion of Coele-Syria. He made an agreement with Philip V of Macedon to share non-Egyptian Ptolemaic territories in what was a brief alliance. The Fifth Syrian War began in 202 BC and was dominated by Antiochus barring a brief setback at Gaza. He delivered the final blow at Panium in 200 BC when his army defeated the Ptolemaic force led by Scopas of Aetolia.

Precise details of the battle are hard to find, but it seems as if the Seleucids used cataphracts (armored cavalry) to attack the Egyptians on their flanks. This exposed the Egyptian infantry which was subsequently routed. It marked the end of Ptolemaic rule over Judea and was a loss the dynasty never fully recovered from. After Panium, Roman emissaries met with Antiochus and Philip and demanded that they didn’t invade Egypt as such an action would negatively impact grain supply to Italy. Neither monarch intended to invade Egypt in any case, so they obliged.

Antiochus completed his conquest of Coele-Syria in 198 BC and raided other Ptolemaic territories in Cilicia and Caria. Ptolemy V had to deal with the Egypt Rebellion at this time, and the war with Syria had dented the nation’s coffers. He decided to increase taxation which only angered the rebels, and the revolt wasn’t quelled for another decade. By then, the Ptolemaic dynasty was in permanent decline.

Hellenistic Egypt: 5 Keys Events in the Ptolemaic Dynasty
Huffington Post (Egyptian Papyrus painting of Cleopatra)

4 – The Reign of Queen Cleopatra VII (51 – 30 BC)

Although she was the seventh queen of Egypt with the name, pretty much everyone is referring to this particular woman when they mention ‘Cleopatra.’ She was born in 69 BC and was co-ruler with her father, Ptolemy XII. She became Queen Cleopatra VII in 51 BC when her father died, but because the tradition said a woman required a male consort to rule, she was forced to marry her 12-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII. However, Cleopatra dropped his name from all official records and ruled by herself.

As she could speak fluent Egyptian and a variety of other languages, she could communicate with foreign heads of states without the need for royal translators. Cleopatra used this fact to proceed with matters of state without the permission of the counsel. This tendency upset high-ranking officials, and they believed she overstepped her boundaries when she ordered the execution of the king of Syria’s sons after they arrived at the royal court looking for help. She was overthrown by her chief advisor in 48 BC (with Ptolemy XIII placed on the throne) and fled to Thebaid with her half-sister Arsinoe.

In the same year, Caesar defeated Pompey, and the latter fled to Egypt. He was murdered by an agent of Ptolemy XIII; a fact which outraged Caesar. He arrived in Egypt, declared martial law and stayed in the Royal Palace. Ptolemy XIII fled, but Caesar had him caught and returned. Cleopatra recognized Caesar as her opportunity to regain power and was smuggled into the palace. They quickly fell in love, and an outraged Ptolemy XIII declared war on the Roman with the aid of his general Achillas. After surviving a siege, Caesar defeated his enemies once more, and Ptolemy reportedly drowned after the Battle of the Nile in 47 BC.

Cleopatra bore Caesar a son called Caesarion in 47 BC and lived in Rome with her lover in 46 BC. Her happiness didn’t last long as Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. She fled Rome and became lovers with Mark Antony who defeated the assassins at the Battle of Philippi. He became ruler of Rome’s eastern provinces including Egypt while Octavian was ruler in the west.

This state of affairs didn’t last long, and Octavian and Mark Antony were soon at war. After the defeat at Actium in 31 BC, Mark Antony committed suicide after hearing false reports about Cleopatra’s death. A distraught Cleopatra was captured by Octavian and elected to commit suicide rather than be paraded through the streets of Rome. Her son Caesarion was murdered by Octavian, and the Ptolemaic dynasty came to an end.

Hellenistic Egypt: 5 Keys Events in the Ptolemaic Dynasty
National Maritime Museum (Battle of Actium)

5 – Battle of Actium (31 BC)

You could say it was a battle 13 years in the making and it is undoubtedly one that changed the entire course of history. After Actium, the Ptolemaic dynasty ended and the Roman Empire was born from the ashes of the Republic. The assassination of Caesar in 44 BC triggered a series of events that culminated in one of the most important naval affairs of all time.

Octavian was named as the heir in Caesar’s will, and he formed the Second Triumvirate with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Mark Antony. Their goal was to find Caesar’s assassins and things ran smoothly between them at the beginning; it took them a couple of years to track down and defeat Cassius and Brutus at the Battle of Philipi in 42 BC. The trio divided their spoils; Lepidus governed Africa, Antony took the east including Egypt while Octavian led Rome.

Antony was an exceptional general but partied as hard as he worked. In Egypt, he found that Cleopatra was his ideal companion as she drank, gambled and played practical jokes with him among other things. Antony was married to Octavia, the sister of Octavian and the new leader of Rome was unhappy with Antony’s conduct. Antony had three children with Cleopatra and divorced his wife in 33 BC. Octavian already disliked his rival, and this episode gave him an additional excuse to persuade the Senate to declare war on Cleopatra; he knew Antony would become involved.

The duo met on September 2, 31 BC at the Gulf of Actium off the coast of Greece. Antony’s fleet consisted of heavy quinqueremes which were ideal for ramming enemy ships. However, an outbreak of malaria devastated his crew, so the ships didn’t have enough sailors to operate them efficiently. Octavian had smaller, faster ships with a full complement of healthy men. Antony received a terrible below when one of his trusted generals, Quintus Dellius, betrayed him by joining Octavian and revealing Antony’s battle plans.

Octavian’s fleet was expertly commanded by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and drew Antony’s fleet into the open sea. The speed and mobility of Octavian’s ships soon overwhelmed his opponent and once it became apparent that the battle was lost, Cleopatra and 60 ships left the battle and sailed into the distance. Antony followed with 40 of his ships and left behind over 200 ships which were destroyed by Octavian; an estimated 5,000 of Antony’s men died.

Antony’s army deserted him soon after Actium, and, finding himself in a hopeless situation, he committed suicide on August 1, 30 BC. Cleopatra followed suit 11 days later. As well as ending the Ptolemaic dynasty and establishing Octavian as the first Emperor of Rome, Actium was the beginning of three centuries of Roman naval dominance over the Mediterranean waters and beyond.