The History of Ancient Egypt, Part 6/6: 500BC - 30BC

In the wake of Alexander the Great's conquests, Egypt has been governed for 300 years by an alien dynasty, the Ptolemies.

- The Persian Period

- Alexander the Great and after

- Ptolemaic Egypt

- The Ptolemaic state

- The End of Ptolemaic Egypt

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The Persian period

The Persian conquest


In 526 BC an Egyptian army was comprehensively defeated by a Persian army at Pelusium. The pharaoh, Psamtek II, was deposed (and later executed).


The country was occupied by the Persians. Some temples were ransacked and their treasures confiscated, but the Persian king, Cambyses, swiftly moved to put a stop to this. He spent most of the rest of his reign in the Egypt, and treated the people - and especially the priesthood, who exercised great influence over the people - with great respect. The priesthood reciprocated by recognizing him as a legitimate ruler of Egypt (in Egyptian history the Persian kings are counted as the 27th dynasty of pharaohs). Cambyses employed Egyptian officials in senior positions to help govern the country.


The next Persian king, Darius the Great (reigned 521-485 BC), continued Cambyses’ policy of showing respect towards his Egyptian subjects and governing them through Egyptian officials. Like Cambyses, he had himself depicted in traditional mode and regalia as an Egyptian pharaoh, and continued to build temples in the native style. Darius spent as much time as he could in Egypt. He completed a canal between the River Nile and the Red Sea, which had been started under the previous dynasty, and opened it in person with great fanfare in 486 BC.




Already by this time, however, opposition was brewing. The Egyptians had a glorious history and did not take kindly to being subject to an alien ruler. The allocation of large estates to Persian nobles must also have caused dismay to the Egyptian landowning class, who would now have found themselves playing second fiddle to aliens in their own land. A revolt broke out at the end of Darius’ reign, and Xerxes, his son and successor as Persian king, put it down with great harshness. This started a cycle in Egypt of revolt and brutal repression, but in 404 BC the Egyptians, under a member of the former pharoanic house of Sais, succeeded in driving the Persians out of their country.


This was by no means the end of their troubles, however. The constant threat of re-invasion by the Persians hung over the rulers and people of Egypt for the next sixty years. Two invasions actually materialised, in 374 and 351 BC, which penetrated as far as the Nile Delta. This situation meant that the Egyptian government had to keep its defences in a constant state of readiness, with the field army and military garrisons at full strength. This represented a huge drain on the government’s treasury; taxes were high and poverty was widespread. The pharaoh Takos (reigned 360-358 BC) even took to raiding the treasuries of the temples, the biggest store of wealth in the land; this swiftly earned him the enmity of the priests and he was deposed in favour of the more pliant Nektanebo (reigned 358-342 BC). Nektanebo’s caution prevented him from raising sufficient funds to keep up the defences properly. He was defeated by a Persian army under Artaxerxes III in 343 BC, and Egypt (and the territory to its west, Cyrene) was once again absorbed into the Persian empire. The country was reduced to the status of a satrapy, and governed by Persian officials - a period later remembered by the Egyptians with great bitterness.


Alexander the Great and after


Alexander's conquest


In 332 BC Egypt was occupied by the army of Alexander the Great. Alexander was able to present himself to the Egyptian people as a liberator. He worshipped the Egyptian gods at Heliopolis and Memphis, and visited the oracle at Siwa, which pronounced him to be the son of the god Ammon. As they had done with Cambyses before him, the priesthood recognized Alexander as a legitimate king.


Alexander soon moved on to greater conquests, however, and he spent the rest of his reign far from Egypt. After his early death in 323, and with his son and heir a newborn child, Alexander’s generals allocated the satrapies of the empire amongst themselves. Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s most prominent commanders, was allotted Egypt; he immediately travelled to his new province and established it as his base.


Ptolemy in control


The generals - of “Successors”, as they are called by historians (as they succeeded Alexander in ruling his various conquests) - soon fell to fighting amongst themselves. Their initial aim was to gain power over the whole empire, but as it became clearer that this was not realistic, each aimed to grab as much of it for themselves as he could.


Most of them perished in the fierce competition that ensued, but by 301 BC three of the Successors were left standing - Cassander in Macedonia, Seleucus in the East, and Ptolemy in Egypt. Ptolemy’s success probably stemmed from his single-minded policy of securing his position in Egypt rather than aiming for control of the whole of Alexander's conquests. To consolidate his power in Egypt, however, he also sought to gain control of neighbouring lands, Cyrene (the territory on the north African coast to the west of Egypt), Judaea and the island of Cyprus. He eventually succeeded in these aims.


Since shortly after the murder of Alexander’s young son in 310 BC, the surviving Successors had begun to claim the title of king, and Ptolemy had taken the title of king of Egypt in 305 BC.


Ptolemaic Egypt


Ptolemy's family would rule Egypt for almost 300 years, until the Roman annexation of 30 BC. All the male rulers of the dynasty took the name Ptolemy. Ptolemaic queens were usually called Cleopatra, Arsinoe or Berenice. Most of these were sisters, mothers, aunts or nieces of their husbands (the Ptolemies followed the ancient Egyptian tradition of incestuous royal marriage, although they were not alone in this - several kings of other Hellenistic states also contracted marriages with siblings).


Greek-style cities


Like the other Hellenistic dynasties, the Ptolemies built new Greek-style cities throughout the country. Naucratis, on the north-west coast of Egypt, had already existed as a Greek colony for several centuries before Alexander’s conquest. It continued to flourish under the Ptolemies, and recent archaeological work there (much of it under the sea) has led to an understanding of the way Greek and Egyptian influences melded together to make a rich cultural fusion. 


Ptolemais, in upper Egypt, was a new foundation (as its name suggests). Located 400 miles up the Nile, it formed an island of Greek civilization within a pervasively Egyptian environment. 




Alexandria was also a new foundation. It was located on the Mediterranean coast, and was the capital of the Ptolemies. It became the greatest city in the Hellenistic world, a major centre of Greek culture and trade. Its importance as a port was underlined by the building of the famous lighthouse, the pharos of Alexandria, considered as one of the seven wonders of the world at that time. The city’s significance was also secured by the presence of Alexander the Great’s mausoleum, which became a centre of international pilgrimage. 


At Alexandria Ptolemy I founded the largest library in the ancient world. This not only functioned as a huge collection of books, it was also a research institute, with scholars from all over the Hellenistic world studying there. It even had a zoo and botanical garden attached to it for the study of plants and animals. 


The Greek-speaking inhabitants of Alexandria and elsewhere in the country constituted the ruling class of Ptolemaic Egypt. They filled all the most important government positions, as well as providing the troops for the army. Veterans of this army were allotted grants of land to live on, and settled around the country, though with concentrations in the Delta region. These incomers lived lives largely separate from the native population; they were educated as Greeks, and lived under Greek law. Throughout Ptolemaic times, and indeed into the Roman period, they remained a privileged minority. Over time, however, they could not help but be influenced by the cultural environment around them; they took to worshipping local gods, and many intermarried with local families.


Egyptian traditions


The Ptolemies did not neglect their relations with the native population. They claimed to be the successors of the long line of pharaohs, and had themselves portrayed on public monuments in Egyptian royal style and dress. They participated in the worship of the Egyptian deities, and patronized the Egyptian temple priesthoods. They built new temples, and refurbished old ones, according to the canons of Egyptian design and workmanship: the quality of Ptolemaic period temple architecture is comparable to the best of New Kingdom work. The temple-complex of Philae is an example of the beauty achieved by Egyptian architects at this time.


The Ptolemaic period saw a great deal of religious syncretism, with Egyptian and Greek gods and goddesses being identified with one another. As time went by many Greek-speakers adopted Egyptian beliefs and practices, and vice versa. Through this process Egyptian cults began to spread throughout the Hellenistic world. The Ptolemies themselves preferred the hybrid Greek-Egyptian cult of Serapis over the traditional Greek gods, as a result of which it became almost an official cult amongst the Greek-speaking elites of the new cities. Older native cults were imbued with a new vitality; that of Isis especially had become a major feature of the religious life of the eastern Mediterranean by the time the Romans took over, and would continue to flourish for several centuries afterwards.


The identification of the Ptolemaic dynasty with the religion and culture of its Egyptian subjects enabled them to find widespread acceptance amongst the native population, even though native-born Egyptians were largely excluded from political power. The Egyptian temple priests retained great influence over the people. There were several native revolts, but on the whole the Egyptians accepted the new facts of political life. The Ptolemies were viewed as the legitimate rulers of the country, successors to the pharaohs. The population certainly preferred this state of affairs to subjection to a distant Persian king.


The Jewish community


One ethnic group which had become established in Egypt long before Ptolemaic times was the Jews. These were situated in groups scattered around the country, including a strong presence in southern Egypt. As Alexandria grew into a large city, it acquired an important population of Jews. Many Jews became very wealthy, and the Jews of Alexandria adopted much Greek culture. They had a huge influence on Jewish groups scattered throughout the Hellenistic world by translating the Hebrew scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint).


The Ptolemaic state




The administration of Ptolemaic Egypt was highly centralized. The countryside was directly administered by royal officials, whose demands for tax were frequent and heavy. The bureaucracy was in fact a finely tuned mechanism for squeezing as much wealth as possible from the fertile Nile river valley and its millions of peasant farmers. In this it was little different from the government of the pharaohs, in principle at least; the Ptolemies seemed to have applied it with more efficiency, however. They paid much attention to the economy of the country, ensuring that the irrigation system was kept in good order; and in 269 BC they reopened the Nile-Red Sea canal, which had forst come into operation under the Persians but had fallen into disrepair.


The heavy tax demands of the government led to bouts of peasant unrest, including, in the late 3rd century, a revolt which detached a portion of the country from central government control for almost twenty years.


The army


The Ptolemaic army was initially composed of Macedonians and Greeks. As time went by, native troops were recruited in large numbers. These were trained to fight in the Macedonian way, organized around the phalanx. However, the Ptolemies never felt able to rely exclusively on such troops, and mercenaries from around the Hellenistic world formed a major component of their armies. Meanwhile the royal guards were always selected from the pool of Macedonian and Greek settlers within Egypt. 


Relations with the wider world


For much of their history the Ptolemies ruled several external possessions, especially Cyrene, the island of Cyprus, and, between 301 and 219 BC, Judea. These territories were governed by military commanders appointed by the king. The early Ptolemies also controlled some areas in Greece and Asia Minor, but these were soon given up as being of little strategic value. 


The focus of the Ptolemies international relations was on the other Hellenistic states around the eastern Mediterranean, with whom they had strong cultural, commercial and political links (the Ptolemaic royal family had multiple marriage alliances with the royal families of other Hellenistic kingdoms); but relations with the peoples of Africa to the south were not ignored. Treaties were agreed with the kings of Nubia, and a fleet of warships was stationed in the Red Sea.


The end of Ptolemaic Egypt


A new Power


From the late 2nd century BC the Ptolemaic royal family produced a series of inadequate rulers - tyrants, children and weaklings under the control of wives and favourites. Dissensions within the ruling family led to royal depositions, murders, civil wars and native rebellions; the unruly Alexandrian mob also played its part, being instrumental in the end of two reigns.


Fear of the Seleucids and Macedonians led Egypt into an alliance with the rising power of Rome as early as 198 BC. Weakness and instability at the Ptolemaic court gave Rome ever greater influence within the kingdom. She used her power to annex Cyrenaica (96) and Cyprus (58), by which time Egypt itself was virtually a Roman protectorate.




The most famous member of the Ptolemaic dynasty was also the last, Queen Cleopatra. She ruled Egypt as the queen, first of her 10 year old brother, Ptolemy XIII, and then of her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV. Her and her country’s fate were tied up in the final phases of Rome’s long civil wars, and she played an active - indeed intimate - role in the careers of the Roman generals Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (she was mistress to both). Unfortunately for her, Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC and Mark Antony was defeated by his rival, Octavian (later the first emperor of Rome, Augustus) at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC. After this defeat Mark Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt, with Octavian following the next year. Mark Antony committed suicide after defeat in battle, and Cleopatra did so a little later. Octavian then annexed Egypt to the Roman empire.



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The History of Ancient Egypt:

Part 1 - Ancient Egyptian History, up to 3500 BC: Hard LabourA Civilization in the making

Part 2 - Ancient Egyptian History 3500 BC - 2500 BCUnificationThe Old KingdomThe Pyramid Age

Part 3 - Ancient Egyptian History 2500 BC -1500 BCThe First Intermediate Period c.2150-2080 BC, The Middle Kingdom c.2074-1759 BC,  The Second Intermediate Period c.1759-1539 BCReunification

Part 4 - Ancient Egyptian History 1500 BC- 1000 BC A Strong Monarchy, An Imperial Power, International Trade and Diplomacy, Egyptian Imperialism, Religious Upheavals, The Hittite Challenge, New Threats Impotence Abroad c.1153-1069 BC, Weakness at Home 

Part 5 - Ancient Egyptian History 1000 BC - 500 BC: Kings from the South, Assyrian Occupation 656 - 639 BC, National Revivial, The Babylonian Threat, Persian Conquest 525 BC

See also:

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Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Kingdoms


Greece and Macedonia after the time of Alexander the Great


The Seleucid kingdom


The rise of Rome

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