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Macedonian and Ptolemaic Egypt (332–30 bce)

The Macedonian conquest

In the autumn of 332 bce Alexander the Great invaded Egypt with his mixed army of Macedonians and Greeks and found the Egyptians ready to throw off the oppressive control of the Persians. Alexander was welcomed by the Egyptians as a liberator and took the country without a battle. He journeyed to Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert to visit the Oracle of Amon , renowned in the Greek world; it disclosed the information that Alexander was the son of Amon. There may also have been a coronation at the Egyptian capital, Memphis , which, if it occurred, would have placed him firmly in the tradition of the kings (pharaohs). The same purpose may be seen in the later dissemination of the romantic myth that gave him an Egyptian parentage by linking his mother, Olympias, with the last king, Nectanebo II .

Alexander left Egypt in the spring of 331 bce, having divided the military command between Balacrus, son of Amyntas, and Peucestas, son of Makartatos. The earliest known Greek documentary papyrus , found at Ṣaqqārah in 1973, reveals the sensitivity of the latter to Egyptian religious institutions in a notice that reads: “Order of Peucestas. No one is to pass. The chamber is that of a priest.” The civil administration was headed by an official with the Persian title of satrap , one Cleomenes of Naukratis . When Alexander died in 323 bce and his generals divided his empire , the position of satrap was claimed by Ptolemy , son of a Macedonian nobleman named Lagus. The senior general Perdiccas , the holder of Alexander’s royal seal and prospective regent for Alexander’s posthumous son, might well have regretted his failure to take Egypt. He gathered an army and marched from Asia Minor to wrest Egypt from Ptolemy in 321 bce; but Ptolemy had Alexander’s corpse, Perdiccas’s army was not wholehearted in support, and the Nile crocodiles made a good meal from the flesh of the invaders.

The Ptolemaic dynasty

Until the day when he openly assumed an independent kingship as Ptolemy I Soter , on November 7, 305 bce, Ptolemy used only the title satrap of Egypt, but the great hieroglyphic Satrap stela, which he had inscribed in 311 bce, indicates a degree of self-confidence that transcends his viceregal role. It reads, “I, Ptolemy the satrap, I restore to Horus, the avenger of his father, the lord of Pe, and to Buto, the lady of Pe and Dep, the territory of Patanut, from this day forth for ever, with all its villages, all its towns, all its inhabitants, all its fields.” The inscription emphasizes Ptolemy’s own role in wresting the land from the Persians (though the epithet of Soter, meaning “Saviour,” resulted not from his actions in Egypt but from the gratitude of the people of Rhodes for his having relieved them from a siege in 315 bce) and links him with Khabbash, who about 338 bce had laid claim to the kingship during the last Persian occupation.

Ptolemy I Soter
Ptolemy I SoterPortrait of Ptolemy I Soter on a silver tetradrachm coin, Alexandria, Egypt, 3rd century bce.Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum

Egypt was ruled by Ptolemy’s descendants until the death of Cleopatra VII on August 12, 30 bce. The kingdom was one of several that emerged in the aftermath of Alexander’s death and the struggles of his successors. It was the wealthiest, however, and for much of the next 300 years the most powerful politically and culturally, and it was the last to fall directly under Roman dominion. In many respects, the character of the Ptolemaic monarchy in Egypt set a style for other Hellenistic kingdoms; this style emerged from the Greeks’ and Macedonians’ awareness of the need to dominate Egypt, its resources, and its people and at the same time to turn the power of Egypt firmly toward the context of a Mediterranean world that was becoming steadily more Hellenized.

The Ptolemies (305–145 bce)

The first 160 years of the Ptolemaic dynasty are conventionally seen as its most prosperous era. Little is known of the foundations laid in the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (304–282 bce), but the increasing amount of documentary, inscriptional, and archaeological evidence from the reign of his son and successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 bce), shows that the kingdom’s administration and economy underwent a thorough reorganization. A remarkable demotic text of the year 258 bce refers to orders for a complete census of the kingdom that was to record the sources of water; the position, quality, and irrigation potential of the land; the state of cultivation; the crops grown; and the extent of priestly and royal landholdings. There were important agricultural innovations in this period. New crops were introduced, and massive irrigation works brought under cultivation a great deal of new land, especially in Al-Fayyūm, where many of the immigrant Greeks were settled.

Hellenistic world, 2nd century bce
Hellenistic world, 2nd century bceEgypt as part of the Hellenistic world, c. 188 bce.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Macedonian-Greek character of the monarchy was vigorously preserved. There is no more emphatic sign of this than the growth and importance of the city of Alexandria . It had been founded, on a date traditionally given as April 7, 331 bce (but often cited as 332 bce), by Alexander the Great on the site of the insignificant Egyptian village of Rakotis in the northwestern Nile River delta, and it ranked as the most important city in the eastern Mediterranean until the foundation of Constantinople in the 4th century ce. The importance of the new Greek city was soon emphasized by contrast to its Egyptian surroundings when the royal capital was transferred, within a few years of Alexander’s death, from Memphis to Alexandria . The Ptolemaic court cultivated extravagant luxury in the Greek style in its magnificent and steadily expanding palace complex, which occupied as much as a third of the city by the early Roman period. Its grandeur was emphasized in the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus by the foundation of a quadrennial festival, the Ptolemaieia, which was intended to enjoy a status equal to that of the Olympic Games . The festival was marked by a procession of amazingly elaborate and ingeniously constructed floats, with scenarios illustrating Greek religious cults.

Ptolemy II gave the dynasty another distinctive feature when he married his full sister, Arsinoe II , one of the most powerful and remarkable women of the Hellenistic age. They became, in effect, co-rulers, and both took the epithet Philadelphus (“Brother-Loving” and “Sister-Loving”). The practice of consanguineous marriage was followed by most of their successors and imitated by ordinary Egyptians too, even though it had not been a standard practice in the pharaonic royal houses and had been unknown in the rest of the native Egyptian population. Arsinoe played a prominent role in the formation of royal policy. She was displayed on the coinage and was eventually worshiped, perhaps even before her death, in the distinctively Greek style of ruler cult that developed in this reign.

From the first phase of the wars of Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies had harboured imperial ambitions. Ptolemy I won control of Cyprus and Cyrene and quarreled with his neighbour over control of Palestine . In the course of the 3rd century a powerful Ptolemaic empire developed, which for much of the period laid claim to sovereignty in the Levant , in many of the cities of the western and southern coast of Asia Minor, in some of the Aegean islands, and in a handful of towns in Thrace, as well as in Cyprus and Cyrene. Family connections and dynastic alliances, especially between the Ptolemies and the neighbouring Seleucids , played an important role in these imperialistic ambitions. Such links were far from able to preserve harmony between the royal houses (between 274 and 200 bce five wars were fought with the Seleucids over possession of territory in Syria and the Levant), but they did keep the ruling houses relatively compact, interconnected, and more true to their Macedonian-Greek origins.

When Ptolemy II Philadelphus died in 246 bce, he left a prosperous kingdom to his successor, Ptolemy III Euergetes (246–221 bce). Euergetes’ reign saw a very successful campaign against the Seleucids in Syria, occasioned by the murder of his sister, Berenice , who had been married to the Seleucid Antiochus II. To avenge Berenice, Euergetes marched into Syria, where he won a great victory. He gained popularity at home by recapturing statues of Egyptian gods originally taken by the Persians. The decree promulgated at Canopus in the delta on March 7, 238 bce, attests both this event and the many great benefactions conferred on Egyptian temples throughout the land. It was during Euergetes’ reign, for instance, that the rebuilding of the great Temple of Horus at Idfū (Apollinopolis Magna) was begun.

Euergetes was succeeded by his son Ptolemy IV Philopator (221–205 bce), whom the Greek historians portray as a weak and corrupt ruler, dominated by a powerful circle of Alexandrian Greek courtiers. The reign was notable for another serious conflict with the Seleucids, which ended in 217 bce in a great Ptolemaic victory at Raphia in southern Palestine. The battle is notable for the fact that large numbers of native Egyptian soldiers fought alongside the Macedonian and Greek contingents . Events surrounding the death of Philopator and the succession of the youthful Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205–180 bce) are obscured by court intrigue. Before Epiphanes had completed his first decade of rule, serious difficulties arose. Native revolts in the south, which had been sporadic in the second half of the 3rd century bce, became serious and weakened the hold of the monarch on a vital part of the kingdom. These revolts, which produced native claimants to the kingship, are generally attributed to the native Egyptians’ realization, after their contribution to the victory at Raphia, of their potential power. Trouble continued to break out for several more decades. By about 196 bce a great portion of the Ptolemaic overseas empire had been permanently lost (though there may have been a brief revival in the Aegean islands in about 165–145 bce). To shore up and advertise the strength of the ruling house at home and abroad, the administration adopted a series of grandiloquent honorific titles for its officers. To conciliate Egyptian feelings, a religious synod that met in 196 bce to crown Epiphanes at Memphis (the first occasion on which a Ptolemy is certainly known to have been crowned at the traditional capital) decreed extensive privileges for the Egyptian temples, as recorded on the Rosetta Stone .

The reign of Ptolemy VI Philometor (180–145 bce), a man of pious and magnanimous character, was marked by renewed conflict with the Seleucids after the death of his mother, Cleopatra I , in 176 bce. In 170/169 bce Antiochus IV of Syria invaded Egypt and established a protectorate; in 168 bce he returned, accepted coronation at Memphis, and installed a Seleucid governor. But he had failed to reckon with the more powerful interests of Rome . In the summer of 168 bce a Roman ambassador, Popillius Laenas , arrived at Antiochus’s headquarters near Pelusium in the delta and staged an awesome display of Roman power. He ordered Antiochus to withdraw from Egypt. Antiochus asked for time to consult his advisers. Laenas drew a circle around the king with his stick and told him to answer before he stepped out of the circle. Only one answer was possible, and by the end of July Antiochus had left Egypt. Philometor’s reign was further troubled by rivalry with his brother, later Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Physcon. The solution, devised under Roman advice, was to remove Physcon to Cyrene, where he remained until Philometor died in 145 bce. It is noteworthy that in 155 bce Physcon took the step of bequeathing the kingdom of Cyrene to the Romans in the event of his untimely death.

Dynastic strife and decline (145–30 bce)

Physcon was able to rule in Egypt until 116 bce with his sister Cleopatra II (except for a period in 131–130 bce when she was in revolt) and her daughter Cleopatra III. His reign was marked by generous benefactions to the Egyptian temples, but he was detested as a tyrant by the Greeks, and the historical accounts of the reign emphasize his stormy relations with the Alexandrian populace.

During the last century of Ptolemaic rule, Egypt’s independence was exercised under Rome’s protection and at Rome’s discretion. For much of the period, Rome was content to support a dynasty that had no overseas possession except Cyprus after 96 bce (the year in which Cyrene was bequeathed to Rome by Ptolemy Apion) and no ambitions threatening Roman interests or security. After a series of brief and unstable reigns, Ptolemy XII Auletes acceded to the throne in 80 bce. He maintained his hold for 30 years, despite the attractions that Egypt’s legendary wealth held for avaricious Roman politicians. In fact, Auletes had to flee Egypt in 58 bce and was restored by Pompey’s friend Gabinius in 55 bce, no doubt after spending so much in bribes that he had to bring Rabirius Postumus, one of his Roman creditors, to Egypt with him to manage his financial affairs.

In 52 bce, the year before his death, Auletes associated with himself on the throne his daughter Cleopatra VII and his elder son Ptolemy XIII (who died in 47 bce). The reign of Cleopatra was that of a vigorous and exceptionally able queen who was ambitious, among other things, to revive the prestige of the dynasty by cultivating influence with powerful Roman commanders and using their capacity to aggrandize Roman clients and allies. Julius Caesar pursued Pompey to Egypt in 48 bce. After learning of Pompey’s murder at the hands of Egyptian courtiers, Caesar stayed long enough to enjoy a sightseeing tour up the Nile in the queen’s company in the summer of 47 bce. When he left for Rome, Cleopatra was pregnant with a child she claimed was Caesar’s. The child, a son, was named Caesarion (“Little Caesar”). Cleopatra and Caesarion later followed Caesar back to Rome, but, after his assassination in 44 bce, they returned hurriedly to Egypt, and she tried for a while to play a neutral role in the struggles between the Roman generals and their factions.

Cleopatra VII
Cleopatra VIIFragment of a relief of Cleopatra VII, Egypt, c. 1st–c. 3rd century ce.© DeA Picture Library

Her long liaison with Mark Antony began when she visited him at Tarsus in 41 bce and he returned to Egypt with her. Between 36 and 30 bce the famous romance between the Roman general and the eastern queen was exploited to great effect by Antony’s political rival Octavian (the future emperor Augustus ). By 34 bce Caesarion was officially co-ruler with Cleopatra, but his rule clearly was an attempt to exploit the popularity of Caesar’s memory. In the autumn Cleopatra and Antony staged an extravagant display in which they made grandiose dispositions of territory in the east to their children, Alexander Helios, Ptolemy, and Cleopatra Selene. Cleopatra and Antony were portrayed to the Roman public as posing for artists in the guise of Dionysus and Isis or whiling away their evenings in rowdy and decadent banquets that kept the citizens of Alexandria awake all night. But this propaganda war was merely the prelude to armed conflict, and the issue was decided in September 31 bce in a naval battle at Actium in western Greece . When the battle was at its height, Cleopatra and her squadron withdrew, and Antony eventually followed suit. They fled to Alexandria but could do little more than await the arrival of the victorious Octavian 10 months later. Alexandria was captured, and Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide—he by falling on his sword, she probably by the bite of an asp—in August of 30 bce. It is reported that when Octavian reached the city, he visited and touched the preserved corpse of Alexander the Great, causing a piece of the nose to fall off. He refused to gaze upon the remains of the Ptolemies, saying “I wished to see a king, not corpses.”

Mark Antony
Mark AntonyMark Antony, detail of a marble bust; in the Vatican Museums, Vatican City.Alinari/Art Resource, New York

Government and conditions under the Ptolemies

The changes brought to Egypt by the Ptolemies were momentous; the land’s resources were harnessed with unparalleled efficiency , with the result that Egypt became the wealthiest of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Land under cultivation was increased, and new crops were introduced (especially important was the introduction of naked tetraploid wheat, Triticum durum, to replace the traditional husked emmer, Triticum dicoccum). The population, estimated at perhaps three to four million in the late Dynastic period, may have more than doubled by the early Roman period to a level not reached again until the late 19th century. Some of the increase was due to immigration; particularly during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, many settlers were attracted from cities in Anatolia (Asia Minor) and the Greek islands, and large numbers of Jews came from Palestine. The flow may have decreased later in the Ptolemaic period, and it is often suggested, on slender evidence, that there was a serious decline in prosperity in the 1st century bce. If so, there may have been some reversal of this trend under Cleopatra VII.


The foundation of the prosperity was the governmental system devised to exploit the country’s economic resources. Directly below the monarch were a handful of powerful officials whose authority extended over the entire land: a chief finance minister, a chief accountant, and a chancery of ministers in charge of records, letters, and decrees. A level below them lay the broadening base of a pyramid of subordinate officials with authority in limited areas, which extended down to the chief administrator of each village (kōmarchēs). Between the chief ministers and the village officials stood those such as the nome steward (oikonomos) and the stratēgoi, whose jurisdiction extended over one of the more than 30 nomes, the long-established geographic divisions of Egypt. In theory, this bureaucracy could regulate and control the economic activities of every subject in the land, its smooth operation guaranteed by the multiplicity of officials capable of checking up on one another. In practice, it is difficult to see a rigid civil service mentality at work, involving clear demarcation of departments; specific functions might well have been performed by different officials according to local need and the availability of a person competent to take appropriate action.

By the same token, rigid lines of separation between military, civil, legal, and administrative matters are difficult to perceive. The same official might perform duties in one or all of these areas. The military was inevitably integrated into civilian life because its soldiers were also farmers who enjoyed royal grants of land, either as Greek cleruchs (holders of allotments) with higher status and generous grants or as native Egyptian machimoi with small plots. Interlocking judiciary institutions, in the form of Greek and Egyptian courts (chrēmatistai and laokritai), provided the means for Greeks and Egyptians to regulate their legal relationships according to the language in which they conducted their business. The bureaucratic power was heavily weighted in favour of the Greek speakers, the dominant elite. Egyptians were nevertheless able to obtain official posts in the bureaucracy, gradually infiltrating to the highest levels, but in order to do so they had to Hellenize.


The basis of Egypt’s legendary wealth was the highly productive land, which technically remained in royal ownership. A considerable portion was kept under the control of temples, and the remainder was leased out on a theoretically revocable basis to tenant-farmers . A portion also was available to be granted as gifts to leading courtiers; one of these was Apollonius, the finance minister of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who had an estate of 10,000 arourae (about 6,500 acres [2,630 hectares]) at Philadelphia in Al-Fayyūm. Tenants and beneficiaries were able to behave very much as if these leases and grants were private property. The revenues in cash and kind were enormous, and royal control extended to the manufacture and marketing of almost all important products, including papyrus, oil, linen , and beer. An extraordinarily detailed set of revenue laws, promulgated under Ptolemy II Philadelphus, laid down rules for the way in which officials were to monitor the production of such commodities. In fact, the Ptolemaic economy was very much a mixture of direct royal ownership and exploitation by private enterprise under regulated conditions.

beer; yeast; ancient Egypt
beer; yeast; ancient EgyptLearn about the beer of ancient Egypt and the role of the yeast microbe in the brewing process.© Open University

One fundamental and far-reaching Ptolemaic innovation was the systematic monetarization of the economy. The monarchy also controlled this from top to bottom by operating a closed monetary system, which permitted only the royal coinage to circulate within Egypt. A sophisticated banking system underpinned this practice, operating again with a mixture of direct royal control and private enterprise and handling both private financial transactions and those that directed money into and out of the royal coffers. One important concomitant of this change was an enormous increase in the volume of trade, both within Egypt and abroad, which eventually reached its climax under the peaceful conditions of Roman rule. There the position and role of Alexandria as the major port and trading entrepôt was crucial: the city handled a great volume of Egypt’s domestic produce, as well as the import and export of luxury goods to and from the East and the cities of the eastern Mediterranean. It developed its own importance as an artistic centre, the products of which found ready markets throughout the Mediterranean. Alexandrian glassware and jewelry were particularly fine, Greek-style sculpture of the late Ptolemaic period shows especial excellence, and it is likely that the city was also the major production centre for high-quality mosaic work.

glass bowl
glass bowlBowl of pressed mosaic glass, believed to be from Alexandria, Egypt, 1st century bce; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum


The Ptolemies were powerful supporters of the native Egyptian religious foundations, the economic and political power of which was, however, carefully controlled. A great deal of the late building and restoration work in many of the most important Egyptian temples is Ptolemaic, particularly from the period of about 150–50 bce, and the monarchs appear on temple reliefs in the traditional forms of the Egyptian kings. The native traditions persisted in village temples and local cults, many having particular associations with species of sacred animals or birds. At the same time, the Greeks created their own identifications of Egyptian deities, identifying Amon with Zeus, Horus with Apollo, Ptah with Hephaestus, and so on. They also gave some deities, such as Isis, a more universal significance that ultimately resulted in the spread of her mystery cult throughout the Mediterranean world. The impact of the Greeks is most obvious in two phenomena. One is the formalized royal cult of Alexander and the Ptolemies, which evidently served both a political and a religious purpose. The other is the creation of the cult of Sarapis , which at first was confined to Alexandria but soon became universal. The god was represented as a Hellenized deity and the form of cult is Greek, but its essence is the old Egyptian notion that the sacred Apis bull merged its divinity in some way with the god Osiris when it died.

ApisApis, the ancient Egyptian bull deity, painted on the bottom of a wooden coffin, c. 700 bce; in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim, Germany.Bavaria-Verlag


The continuing vitality of the native Egyptian artistic tradition is clearly and abundantly expressed in the temple architecture and the sculpture of the Ptolemaic period. The Egyptian language continued to be used in its hieroglyphic and demotic forms until late in the Roman period, and it survived through the Byzantine period and beyond in the form of Coptic. The Egyptian literary tradition flourished vigorously in the Ptolemaic period and produced a large number of works in demotic. The genre most commonly represented is the romantic tale, exemplified by several story cycles, which are typically set in the native, Pharaonic milieu and involve the gods, royal figures, magic, romance, and the trials and combats of heroes. Another important category is the Instruction Text, the best known of the period being that of Ankhsheshonq, which consists of a list of moralizing maxims, composed, as the story goes, when Ankhsheshonq was imprisoned for having failed to inform the king (pharaoh) of an assassination plot. Another example, known as Papyrus Insinger, is a more narrowly moralizing text. But the arrival of a Greek-speaking elite had an enormous impact on cultural patterns. The Egyptian story cycles were probably affected by Greek influence, literary and technical works were translated into Greek, and under royal patronage an Egyptian priest named Manetho of Sebennytos wrote an account of the kings of Egypt in Greek. Most striking is the diffusion of the works of the poets and playwrights of classical Greece among the literate Greeks in the towns and villages of the Nile River valley.

Thus there are clear signs of the existence of two interacting but distinct cultural traditions in Ptolemaic Egypt. This was certainly reflected in a broader social context. The written sources offer little direct evidence of ethnic discrimination by Greeks against Egyptians, but Greek and Egyptian consciousness of the Greeks’ social and economic superiority comes through strongly from time to time; intermarriage was one means, though not the only one, by which Egyptians could better their status and Hellenize. Many native Egyptians learned to speak Greek, some to write it as well; some even went so far as to adopt Greek names in an attempt to assimilate themselves to the elite group.

Alexandria occupied a unique place in the history of literature, ideas, scholarship, and science for almost a millennium after the death of its founder. Under the royal patronage of the Ptolemies and in an environment almost oblivious to its Egyptian surroundings, Greek culture was preserved and developed. Early in the Ptolemaic period, probably in the reign of Ptolemy I Soter, the Alexandrian Museum (Greek: Mouseion, “Seat of the Muses”) was established within the palace complex. The geographer and historian Strabo , who saw it early in the Roman period, described it as having a covered walk, an arcade with recesses and seats, and a large house containing the dining hall of the members of the Museum, who lived a communal existence. The Library of Alexandria (together with its offshoot in the Sarapeum) was indispensable to the functioning of the scholarly community in the Museum. Books were collected voraciously under the Ptolemies, and at its height the library’s collection probably numbered 500,000 or more papyrus rolls, most of them containing more than one work.

The major poets of the Hellenistic period, Theocritus , Callimachus , and Apollonius of Rhodes , all took up residence and wrote there. Scholarship flourished, preserving and ordering the manuscript traditions of much of the classical literature from Homer onward. Librarian-scholars such as Aristophanes of Byzantium and his pupil Aristarchus made critical editions and wrote commentaries and works on grammar. Also notable was the cultural influence of Alexandria’s Jewish community, which is inferred from the fact that the Pentateuch was first translated into Greek at Alexandria during the Ptolemaic period. One by-product of this kind of activity was that Alexandria became the centre of the book trade, and the works of the classical authors were copied there and diffused among a literate Greek readership scattered in the towns and villages of the Nile valley.

The Alexandrian achievement in scientific fields was also enormous. Great advances were made in pure mathematics, mechanics, physics, geography, and medicine. Euclid worked in Alexandria about 300 bce and achieved the systematization of the whole existing corpus of mathematical knowledge and the development of the method of proof by deduction from axioms. Archimedes was there in the 3rd century bce and is said to have invented the Archimedean screw when he was in Egypt. Eratosthenes calculated Earth’s circumference and was the first to attempt a map of the world based on a system of lines of latitude and longitude. The school of medicine founded in the Ptolemaic period retained its leading reputation into the Byzantine era. Late in the Ptolemaic period Alexandria began to develop as a great centre of Greek philosophical studies as well. In fact, there was no field of literary, intellectual , or scientific activity to which Ptolemaic Alexandria failed to make an important contribution.

Alan Edouard Samuel
Alan K. Bowman

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      • In coin: From Alexander the Great to the end of the Roman Republic, c. 336–31 bc
    • education
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