The Ptolemies, who originally came from Macedonia, were some of the most intriguing families in history. Their reign lasted from 323 BC to 30 BC according to the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History. The first Ptolemy came to power after the death of Alexander the Great in Babylonia. His generals, including Ptolemy, divided the empire between each other. He became the sole ruler of Egypt after the death of Alexander’s general Perdiccas.
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This was not the first time Egypt was under foreign rule, but all the previous foreign rulers were challenged and successfully driven out of the land. To boost his claim on the Egyptian throne, Ptolemy asserted that his father was Ptolemy (Alexander the Great’s father) as his mother was pregnant by the time she was given in marriage to Lagus. This meant that he was Alexander’s brother and that he came from Macedonian royalty. Ptolemy also took advantage of the native Egyptian’s belief that kings were also gods. He claimed that he descended from Zeus, Heracles, and Dionysius.
The Ptolemies followed Egyptian royal tradition and married their own siblings which started when Ptolemy II married his sister Arsinoe II. This marriage had two goals: to ensure her loyalty to the king and control her possessions she inherited from the dead King Lysimachus. This tradition continued until the reign of the last Ptolemaic ruler. The Ptolemies also married other women, so the court ran out of intrigue.
Alexandria became the new capital of Egypt during the rule of the Ptolemies. It was a city of great wealth, and it rivaled other Hellenistic capitals of the ancient world in splendor. It contained the remains of Alexander the Great. And the construction of the lighthouse of Alexandria on the island of Pharos made the city one of the major trading ports of the Mediterranean.
What made it one of the greatest cities in the ancient world was its Mouseion (Museum) which also contained the Great Library of Alexandria, the center for scientific research and scholarship in the Mediterranean. It also helped that Alexandria was a center for agricultural and precious commodities of trade, so it became a hub for the exchange of ideas and cultures. But its culture remained Greco-Macedonian.
The Ptolemies owned much of the land, and they divided the lands between the temple, soldiers, and other people in service of the king. The land was controlled by the government which strictly kept track of the revenues reaped from the agriculture. The Egyptians were given freedom by the Ptolemies to worship their own gods, and they even built temples to honor native Egyptian gods.
Ptolemaic Egypt was in a slow decline by the time of the rise of the Roman Empire. Conflicts within their own family threatened their rule over Egypt. This situation was made worse by the violent tendencies of the Alexandrian mob. Some of those lynched by the mob were Agathocles and his family because of the murder of Arsinoe III. As well as Ptolemy XI for the murder of his wife, Berenice. The Alexandrian mob was so powerful that even the Ptolemies were afraid of it.
As internal conflicts slowly destroyed Ptolemaic Egypt, it did not help that the government was weakened by corrupt local officials and military. The native Egyptians resented the advantages of the Greeks and Macedonians who ruled over them. There was widespread famine and inflation, so revolts led by native Egyptians were common during the rule of the Ptolemies.
Rome played a large part in Egyptian politics during its decline. It reached its peak during the conflict between the last Ptolemaic rulers: Cleopatra VII and her brothers. It did not help that by 167 BC Macedonia lost its independence to Rome. This was followed by Pergamon when its king died without an heir. The Seleucid empire of Asia was also on the verge of collapse. Large chunks of its land were added to Rome as provinces. Ptolemaic Egypt soon lost the territories of Cyrenaica and Cyprus and the Ptolemies were replaced by the Romans starting with Octavian (Augustus).
Picture By Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011), CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16921071
Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
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