Hellenistic Egypt: 5 Keys Events in the Ptolemaic Dynasty

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.

Ancient Egypt Magazine
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.