Hellenistic Dynasties > Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt

Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt


The Ptolemaic (/ˌtɒləˈmeɪ.ɨk/) Dynasty of Egypt, known in Greek as Πτολεμαῖοι or Ptolemaioi was a major Egyptian dynasty and founders of the Hellenistic Kingdom known as the Ptolemaic Kingdom. The dynasty would first be established by Ptolemy I Soter following the death of Alexander the Great and the subsequent Wars of the Diadochi that saw the fragmentation of his empire.

The dynasty would rule over Egypt for 275 years between 305 BCE and 30 BCE and would become the final dynasty before the take over by the Roman Empire under the leadership of the famous Cleopatra VII.

Ptolemaic Kingdom

Ptolemy, one of the seven somatophylakes (bodyguards) who served as Alexander the Great's generals and deputies, was appointed satrap of Egypt after Alexander's death in 323 BC. In 305 BC, he declared himself King Ptolemy I, later known as "Soter" (saviour). The Egyptians soon accepted the Ptolemies as the successors to the pharaohs of independent Egypt. Ptolemy's family ruled Egypt until the Roman conquest of 30 BC.All the male rulers of the dynasty took the name Ptolemy. Ptolemaic queens, some of whom were the sisters of their husbands, were usually called Cleopatra, Arsinoe or Berenice. The most famous member of the line was the last queen, Cleopatra VII, known for her role in the Roman political battles between Julius Caesar and Pompey, and later between Octavian and Mark Antony. Her apparent suicide at the conquest by Rome marked the end of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt.

Ptolemy I Soter

See Ptolemy I Soter


As soon as Ptolemy I took over control of the Egyptian satrapy he became embroiled in the Wars of the Diadochi which saw a complete conflagration of the massive empire that Alexander had previously built. The first part of Ptolemy I's reign was dominated by the many wars between the various successor states to the empire of Alexander. His first object was to hold his position in Egypt securely, and secondly to increase his domain.

Within a few years he had gained control of Cyrenaica (Libya), Coele-Syria (including Judea), and Cyprus. When Antigonus, ruler of Syria, tried to reunite Alexander's empire, Ptolemy joined the coalition against him. In 312 BC, allied with Seleucus, the ruler of Babylonia, he defeated Demetrius, the son of Antigonus, in the battle of Gaza.

There was a slight peace that was brought between the Diadochi in 311 BCE however, within two years in 309 BCE fighting had resumed and Ptolemy managed to hold the city of Corinth along with other parts of Greece but was unable to secure the island of Cyprus in 306 BCE. Antigonus attempted to launch an invasion of Egypt but Ptolemy was able to secure the borders and held onto the territory.

Ptolemaic Kingdom - Ptolemy I Soter Bust (Lovure)

Ptolemy I Soter Bust - Louvre

In 302 BCE Ptolemy launched a renewed offensive against Antigonus however, at the Battle of Ipsus the general would be killed without any assistance from Ptolemy. Instead, he chose to conquer the territory of Coele-Syria and Palestine which was in direct violation of an agreement he had made with Seleucus I Nicator and would lay the foundation for the future Syrian Wars down the road. Following this he was able to reconquer the island of Cyprus in 295 BCE and with Antigonus dead there was no real military commander capable of threatening his newly minted kingdom.

Ptolemaic Kingdom - Ptolemaic Kingdom Satellite Map (300 BCE)

Ptolemaic Kingdom c. 300 BCE - Google Earth/NASA

After securing the borders of the Ptolemic Kingdom for his descendants he decided to share rule with his son Ptolemy II along with his wife Queen Berenice in 285 BCE who was to later rule over the kingdom. Ptolemy I effectively retired and chose to write a comprehensive history of the campaign of Alexander the Great. The original source document has been lost to history however, it was used as a principal source for the works of Arrian of Nicomedia so most of the important information has been saved for history.

At the age of 84 Ptolemy I died in 283 BCE with his kingdom about to experience one of the greatest golden ages and periods of enlightenment that the world would know for centuries. His construction projects such as the Pharos Lighthouse and the Library of Alexandria were kept well alive by his son and the borders of the Kingdom based around Egypt were well secure militarily.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus

See Ptolemy II Philadelphus

Library of Alexandria, Pharos Lighthouse, Colossus of Rhodes.

Rule over the Ptolemaic Kingdom was inherited by Ptolemy II Philadelphus who successfully succeeded his father in 283 BCE. Due to the previous efforts of his father the kingdom's borders were secure from foreign intrusion and Ptolemy II was able to reign over a great period of prosperity in Egypt's history. He oversaw the completion of many of his fathers and ultimately Alexander's major projects and was a very cultured person.

Ptolemy II Bust

Despite not being the warrior his father was, Ptolemy II was able to defeat the Kingdom of Kush in the 270's BCE which allowed the Ptolemies to conquer the Nubian territory and gain access to the rich gold mines known as the Dodekasoinos. This would bring Hellenistic culture as far south as Port Sudan where war elephants were acquired for future expeditions. The cultural diffusion during this time had an important effect on the Kush culture.

Ptolemy also went on a three year military campaign which became known as the First Syrian War and allowed the Ptolemic Kingdom to expand its borders all throughout the eastern Mediterranean Sea and allowed him dominion over many of the islands in the Aegean Sea including the kingdoms of Cilicia, Pamphylia, Lycia and Caria.

Ptolemy's first wife, Arsinoe I, daughter of Lysimachus, was the mother of his legitimate children. After her repudiation he followed Egyptian custom and married his sister, Arsinoë II, beginning a practice that, while pleasing to the Egyptian population, had serious consequences in later reigns.

One of the most important aspects of Ptolemy II's reign was his funding and sponsorship of the famous Library of Alexandria and under him its glory and splendor would reach new heights. During this time the Ptolemaic Kingdom actively sought knowledge from all across the known world and worked to establish the greatest center of learning and knowledge the world had every known.

Ptolemy II was important in sponsoring scientific research, arts, and it was during this time the famous Septuagint Bible was written be seventy Jews at the Library of Alexandria. Ptolemy II's goal was to make the city of Alexandria the intellectual, artistic and economic capital of the entire Hellenistic world.

Ptolemy III Euergetes

See Ptolemy III Euergetes

Ptolemy III Euergetes - Ptolemy III Euergetes Statue

Ptolemy III Euergetes would succeed in his father in rule over the Ptolemaic Kingdom in 246 BCE and would bring the kingdom to its greatest heights in terms of prosperity, territory and regional power. When his sister Queen Berenice and her son were murdered Ptolemy III decided to embark on a major military campaign that would be known as the Third Syrian War that would greatly enlarge the kingdom.

Ptolemy III was able to push as far into the Seleucid Empire as the civilization of Babylonia and his naval forces were able to conquer much of the Aegean Sea as well as Thrace. Despite the major losses Seleucus II Callinicus was able to continue ruling over the Seleucid Empire but the Ptolemaic Kingdom based out of Egypt was able to effectively control most of the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Following this decisive victory over the Seleucids and the other Macedonian successor kingdoms, Ptolemy III retired from war and decided to fund the political campaigns of his enemies in Kingdom of Macedon and elsewhere in Greece. Ptolemy III was extremely influential in the Egyptianisation of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and dynasty in that he embraced Egyptian culture, traditions and religions much more than previous Greek rulers and this would continue to develop under future rulers.

Ptolemy IV

When Ptolemy III died in 221 BCE he was succeeded by his son named Ptolemy IV Philopator. However, Ptolemy IV was a corrupt and ineffective king and the Ptolemaic Kingdom began to experience a slow decline. Under his rule there was much political and social turmoil with some Egyptians revolting against the Ptolemy rule and conquering nearly half of the Egyptian territory.

However, despite these failures Ptolemy IV was able to hold off the military expeditions of Antichus III the Great who attempted to conquer the strip of Coele-Syria. The Ptolemaic Kingdom won a decisive victory at the Battle of Raphia in 217 BCE which ended the Fourth Syrian War.

Philopator was devoted to orgiastic religions and to literature. He married his sister Arsinoë, but was ruled by his mistress Agathoclea. His reign was inaugurated by the murder of his mother, and he was always under the influence of royal favourites, male and female, who controlled the government. Ptolemy V Epiphanes, son of Philopator and Arsinoë

Ptolemy V

When Ptolemy V Epiphanes ascended to the throne in 203 BCE when he was only a child and therefore the empire was ruled in his stead by a series of regents. Sensing the decline of Ptolemaic power in the region both Philip V of the Kingdom of Macedon and Antichos III Doson of the Seleucid Empire made a diplomatic alliance to take out the Ptolemies and seize their lands.

To this effect Philip and Macedon seized several islands in the Aegean Sea along with the territories of Thrace and Caria in what became known as the Fifth Syrian War. Following the battle of Battle of Panium in 198 BCE control over the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and the territory of Coele-Syria switched hands from Ptolemaic to Seleucid control. Now the vital route for traveling to Egypt was secure the enemies of the Ptolemaic Kingdom could begin further military incursions.

Following this military defeat in Coele-Syria the Ptolemaic Kingdom began to search for allies that would be able to assist them in sustaining the political entity of their Hellenistic kingdom. For this they turned to the Roman Empire based out of their capital at Rome which was a rising power during this time period. The Romans were happy to align with the kingdom based out of Egypt because of the steady supply of essential grain needed to sustain a massive population. When he ascended to the throne Ptolemy V came a tyrannical leader and died early in 180 BCE.

Ptolemaic Dynasty Decline

Once again the Ptolemaic Kingdom was inherited by the infant son of Ptolemy V named Ptolemy VI Philometor. However, at this point the Ptolemaic Kingdom was extremely weak and in 170 BCE the leader of the Seleucid Empire named Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded the territory of Egypt. This event is mentioned in some versions of the Bible such as in the book of I Macabees 1:16-19. The following period of the Ptolemaic Kingdom is marked by frequent regime changes and much political turmoil that would eventually spell the end for the Hellenistic Kingdom based out of Egypt.

In his place Antichos VI installed Ptolemy VI's younger brother namedNow when the kingdom was established before Antiochus, he thought to reign over Egypt that he might have the dominion of two realms. Wherefore he entered into Egypt with a great multitude, with chariots, and elephants, and horsemen, and a great navy, and made war against Ptolemy king of Egypt: but Ptolemy was afraid of him, and fled; and many were wounded to death. Thus they got the strong cities in the land of Egypt and he took the spoils thereof.Philometor's younger brother (later Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II) was installed as a puppet king. When Antiochus withdrew, the brothers agreed to reign jointly with their sister Cleopatra II. They soon fell out, however, and quarrels between the two brothers allowed Rome to interfere and to steadily increase its influence in Egypt. Eventually Philometor regained the throne. In 145 BC he was killed in the Battle of Antioch.Philometor was succeeded by yet another infant, his son Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator. But Euergetes soon returned, killed his young nephew, seized the throne and as Ptolemy VIII soon proved himself a cruel tyrant. On his death in 116 BC he left the kingdom to his wife Cleopatra III and her son Ptolemy IX Philometor Soter II. The young king was driven out by his mother in 107 BC, who reigned jointly with Euergetes's youngest son Ptolemy X Alexander I.In 88 BC Ptolemy IX again returned to the throne, and retained it until his death in 80 BC. He was succeeded by Ptolemy XI Alexander II, the son of Ptolemy X. He was lynched by the Alexandrian mob after murdering his stepmother, who was also his cousin, aunt and wife. These sordid dynastic quarrels left Egypt so weakened that the country became a de facto protectorate of Rome, which had by now absorbed most of the Greek world.Ptolemy XI was succeeded by a son of Ptolemy IX, Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, nicknamed Auletes, the flute-player. By now Rome was the arbiter of Egyptian affairs, and annexed both Libya and Cyprus. In 58 BC Auletes was driven out by the Alexandrian mob, but the Romans restored him to power three years later. He died in 51 BC, leaving the kingdom to his ten-year-old son, Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator, who reigned jointly with his 17-year-old sister and wife, Cleopatra VII.

Cleopatra VII

See Cleopatra VII

At the age of eighteen the young Greek queen named Cleopatra VII ascended to the throne in Egypt and ruled over the Ptolemaic kingdom until its demise between 51 BCE and 30 BCE. While she oversaw a brief resurgence in the kingdom, in reality the rising trend of the Roman Empire was greatly threatening the survival of the weakened entity and would ultimately end up taking it over.

The decline had been long coming for the Ptolemaic Kingdom who had slowly lost territories and important cities to Kingdom of Macedon and the Seleucid Empire. In order to stave off its hostile neighbors the Ptolemies allied with the Romans which was a successful agreement for over 150 years. As time went on however, Rome gained more power and its ambitions increased as well. Soon Rome began exerting more hegemony over the Ptolemaic Kingdom and eventually imposed tribute on the kingdom under the reign of Ptolemy XII.

She reigned as Queen "Philopator" and Pharaoh between 51 and 30 BC, and died at the age of 39.During the rule of the later Ptolemies, Rome gained more and more power over Egypt, and was even declared guardian of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII, had to pay tribute to the Romans to keep them away from his Kingdom. Upon his death, the fall of the Dynasty seemed even closer.

Roman Republic

See Roman Republic

As children, Cleopatra and her siblings witnessed the defeat of their guardian, Pompey, by Julius Caesar through civil war. Meanwhile, Cleopatra and her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII were both attempting to gain control of Egypt's throne.

Julius Caesar

See Julius Caesar

In the middle of all this turmoil, Julius Caesar left Rome for Alexandria in 48 BC. During his stay in the Palace, he received 22-year-old Cleopatra, allegedly wrapped in a rug. She counted on Caesar's support to alienate Ptolemy XIII. With the arrival of Roman reinforcements, and after a few battles in Alexandria, Ptolemy XIII was defeated at the Battle of the Nile. He later drowned in the river, although the circumstances of his death are unclear.In the summer of 47 BC, having married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, Cleopatra embarked with Caesar for a two-month trip along the Nile. Together, they visited Dendara, where Cleopatra was being worshiped as Pharaoh, an honor beyond Caesar's reach. They became lovers, and she bore him a son, Caesarion, who was later proclaimed with many titles like king of kings. In 45 BC, Cleopatra and Caesarion left Alexandria for Rome, where they stayed in a palace built by Caesar in their honor.

In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was assassinated by several Roman senators which sparked a series of events that would soon cause create conflagration to the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Following his death, the Roman Republic was split between supporters of Mark Antony and Augustus Caesar. During the political turmoil in Rome, Cleopatra and the Ptolemaic Kingdom watched and waited to see which side would prevail. When it seemed like Mark Antony's camp began to prevail Cleopatra VII declared the support of the Ptolemaic Kingdom for his rule and the two became embroiled in a love affair much like Caesar before him.

Mark Antony

See Mark Antony

However, people in Rome did not approve of the alliance between Mark Antony and the Greek ruler of Egypt who they believed was a sorceress and practiced evil. The tension in Rome grew even worse as Antony gave Cleopatra territories of the Roman Republic such as Cyrene, Tarsus, Crete, Cyprus and Coele-Syria/Israel in 34 BCE at a major ceremony in Alexandria.

What distanced Mark Antony from Rome even further was that Augustus was able to obtain his will and found that he wanted to be buried at Alexandria instead of Rome. Soon, Augustus declared war on Mark Antony and the foreign queen Cleopatra VII. The two navies first met off the coast of the Greek city of Actium in what would became a world famous battle.

Battle of Actium

See Battle of Actium

It was the boiling point when Octavian declared war on the "Foreign Queen", and off the coast of Greece in the Adriatic Sea they met in at Actium, where the forces of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa defeated the Navy of Cleopatra and Antony.Octavian waited for a year before he claimed Egypt as a Roman province. He arrived in Alexandria and easily defeated Mark Antony outside the city, near present-day Camp César. Following this defeat, and facing certain death at the hands of Octavian, Antony committed suicide by falling on his own sword.Octavian entered Alexandria in 30 BC. Cleopatra was captured and taken to him, but Octavian had no interest in any relation, reconciliation, or even negotiation with the Egyptian Queen. Realizing that her end was close, she decided to put an end to her life. It is not known for sure how she killed herself, but many believe she used a poisonous snake as her death instrument.

Roman Empire

See Roman Empire

Following the death of Cleopatra VII, the Ptolemaic Kingdom based around Alexandria and thus Egypt officially became a province of the Roman Empire known as Aegyptus. Due to the importance of Egypt in terms of its grain production the person to govern the province was to be selected by the Roman emperor from the Equestrian so and not from the Senate so that there would be no political meddling.

In terms of the actual change of day to day affairs in Egypt there was little. Most of the Greeks were able to retain their administrative positions with the only changes being the highest offices. In the government the language of Greek was still the most commonly used and the Romans did not even settle Egypt so the education and upper class life still remaining largely Greek all throughout Roman control.

In addition to respecting the local Egyptian customs, traditions and religions the Romans helped protect it as well in order to appease the native population and gain their support. However, with successive Roman emperors slowly the cult of personality was introduced as well as the Roman state apparatus.

Non-Dynastic Ptolemies

Modern Archaeology

Modern archaeological analysis has revealed that many members of the Ptolemaic Dynasty were extremely obese and this can also be seen in various coins and sculptures which reveal swollen necks and prominent eyes. Familial Graves' disease could explain the swollen neck and exophthalmos could explain the eye prominence, however this is also very unlikely to occur in someone that is morbidly obese.

As a result of the medical findings many members of the dynasty likely perished from multi-organ fibrotic condition such as Erdheim–Chester disease or a familial multifocal fibrosclerosis where conditions such as thyroiditis, obesity and ocular proptosis may have all occurred concurrently which led to death. Overall the health of the Ptolemies decline significantly and coupled with their inbreeding to maintain the dynastic line likely contributed to the weakness and ineffectiveness of many of the later rulers.


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Jones, Prudence J. (2006). Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 14. They were members of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Macedonian Greeks, who ruled Egypt after the death of its conqueror, Alexander the Great.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. (1990). Women in Hellenistic Egypt. Wayne State University Press. p. 16. while Ptolemaic Egypt was a monarchy with a Greek ruling class.

Redford, Donald B., ed. (2000). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press. Cleopatra VII was born to Ptolemy XII Auletes (80–57 BCE, ruled 55–51 BCE) and Cleopatra, both parents being Macedonian Greeks.

Bard, Kathryn A., ed. (1999). Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge. p. 488. Ptolemaic kings were still crowned at Memphis and the city was popularly regarded as the Egyptian rival to Alexandria, founded by the Macedonian Greeks.

Bard, Kathryn A., ed. (1999). Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge. p. 687. During the Ptolemaic period, when Egypt was governed by rulers of Greek descent.

Wasson, Donald (February 3, 2012). "Ptolemy I". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 1, 2016.

Ashrafian, Hutan (2005). "Familial proptosis and obesity in the Ptolemies". J. R. Soc. Med. 98 (2): 85–86.

Susan Stephens, Seeing Double. Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria (Berkeley, 2002).

A. Lampela, Rome and the Ptolemies of Egypt. The development of their political relations 273-80 B.C. (Helsinki, 1998).

J. G. Manning, The Last Pharaohs: Egypt Under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC (Princeton, 2009).

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