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

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.