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READ: The Ptolemaic Dynasty

In 305 BCE, one of Alexander the Great’s generals built an empire that dominated the Mediterranean for 200 years, carefully controlling vastly different cultures under Greek rule.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Looking at the map of Alexander’s Empire, what do you notice?
  2. How did the Ptolemies organize the hierarchy of Egyptian society?
  3. How did the Ptolemies use religion to assert authority?
  4. Earlier articles pointed out that Persian women had a greater role in society than Greek women. How would you characterize the role of women in this blended Greek-Egyptian society (which had once been ruled by Persia)?
  5. Why did Rome invade Egypt?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. You read an article about authority and control in empires. What are some methods of control mentioned in that article that you see reflected in the Ptolemaic empire? Did the Ptolemies use any methods of control that weren’t mentioned in the earlier article?
  2. You’ve read some definitions and characteristics of empires. What aspects of the Ptolemaic empire seem characteristic of all empires? What seems unique?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty

A large stone wall. There is text and symbols that are inscribed in the wall, as well as four figures. One of the figures is holding incense, burning in his hand.
By Bennett Sherry
In 305 BCE, one of Alexander the Great's generals built an empire that dominated the Mediterranean for 200 years, carefully controlling vastly different cultures under Greek rule.

Background

The conquests of Alexander the Great changed the lands they touched. In Egypt, Alexander was welcomed as a liberator when he conquered the country from the Persians. When Alexander died in 323 BCE, the Greeks stayed in Egypt, led by one of Alexander's favorite generals, Ptolemy. He and his successors capitalized on Egypt's strategic position along trade networks to build a rich and powerful empire that dominated the eastern Mediterranean for two centuries.

Formation

After Alexander's death, his empire quickly fell apart. While wars of succession and power struggles raged across the crumbling empire, Ptolemy continued to rule in Egypt. In 305 BCE, he declared himself Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter and established the Ptolemaic dynasty. Under the Ptolemies, Egypt became the center of an empire stretching from Libya to the Arabian Peninsula including the island of Cyprus in the Aegean Seastart superscript, 1, end superscript. But their influence extended over most of the Greek world in the Mediterranean.
The city of Alexandria on Egypt's Mediterranean coast was founded by Alexander (surprise!) in 332 BCE. As the capital city, it was the cultural, administrative, and economic heart of the Ptolemaic dynasty. It was the largest of the many cities Alexander founded from the Mediterranean to India, home to over 500,000 people. Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Syrians, Jews, and others mingled in the city's huge harbor and busy markets. Rising above the city streets, a massive library and lighthouse dominated the skyline.
Map shows land claimed by Ptolemaic Empire, most of which is along the sea.
Map of lands claimed by the Ptolemaic Empire. Much of the Ptolemies’ power came from their navy, with which they could defend their far-flung territories. By Thomas Lessman, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Administration

The architecture built by the Ptolemies was impressive to many, but to common Egyptians, it was a constant reminder that they were ruled by foreigners. Only those of Greek lineage (ancestry) held powerful positions in government and society, while actual Egyptians held lower roles. Just as Alexander's empire had been cosmopolitan (multicultural/multiethnic), Ptolemaic life in Egypt was pretty diverse. Though most lived harmoniously together, wealth and ethnicity often kept the diverse peoples of the empire in separate groups. The Ptolemies built upon existing Egyptian systems when possible. But, as a minority in the lands they ruled, the descendants of Alexander's soldiers held themselves apart from Egyptians. Greek citizens were governed by a different set of laws, and the Ptolemies avoided marrying Egyptians, opting instead to marry within their own family.
The Ptolemies faced external threats, particularly from the Seleucid Empire to the east. The two empires battled repeatedly over border territory around Anatolia and Arabia. These wars were expensive and required the Ptolemies to conscript (draft) Egyptians in their army. Repeated wars and higher taxes caused unrest that sometimes erupted into revolts against Greek rule.

Religion

Wars against external threats were not the only strategies the Ptolemies used to secure their reign. They also had to find ways to establish themselves as rulers in the minds of Egyptians. Though Greek culture dominated Egypt, the Ptolemies did not try to make Egyptians change their own culture. On the contrary, they sponsored temples to Egyptian gods and supported Egyptian priests. They did, however, introduce new practices of worship to Egypt. Ptolemy I created a new god, Serapis, in an effort to blend elements of Greek and Egyptian religion. The Ptolemies used this type of religious syncretism (the blending of different religious practices and beliefs) to gain acceptance as rulers.
A bust of Ptolemy I made of smooth stone. The sculpture is detailed.
Bust of Ptolemy I Soter in the Louvre Museum. By Jastrow, public domain.
Though they had endured the conquests of Greeks, Persians, and others, Egyptians still kept their ancient religious and political systems. One of the most important aspects of this was the idea that the pharaohs ruled Egypt as living gods. The Ptolemies adopted this tradition when Ptolemy II (the son of the first Ptolemy) declared himself a living god.
This should give you an idea of how highly skilled the Ptolemies really were in their rule over Egypt. They insisted on the primacy (No. 1 position) of Greeks within the empire. At the same time, they skillfully positioned themselves in Egyptian society and religion in order to secure their rule. By also retaining essential parts of their Greek culture, they continued to rule in a way that was acceptable to Greek elites. It was their flexibility as much as their wealth and power that made the Ptolemaic dynasty the most enduring of all Alexander's successor states.

Trade

Alexandria sat at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, Africa, and Asia. Its enormous harbor was capable of holding over 1,000 ships. The Ptolemies introduced coinage to the Egyptian economy for the first time and oversaw an expansion of Egyptian influence in regional trade networks. Much of this trade related to the production and distribution of agricultural goods. Egypt fed the Mediterranean world, and the fertile soil of the Nile River valley enriched the rulers. The Ptolemies directly owned almost half of Egypt's farmland, and Egyptian exports of grain, linen, and other goods helped fund the empire's expansion. Anyone producing linen, papyrus, and beer also had to meet strict government controls. One advantage of all these taxes and oversight was that the government could pay for improvements that further boosted the economy. This included irrigation projects that expanded farmland. Of course, all of this tax revenue also made the royal family and ruling class very, very rich.
Drawing of the inside of a library. Three men sit at a table, looking at a scroll. One man stands on a ladder, looking at scrolls lined up on a high shelf, and two others stand below him, looking at the shelf.
The Library of Alexandria, built by the Ptolemies, was a center of learning, employing dozens of scholars and holding up to 500,000 scrolls. Public domain.
Greek elites used their new wealth to purchase luxuries from abroad. Alexandria's place in networks of trade meant that luxury goods were funneled through Egypt as they made their way to the Mediterranean. Frankincense and myrrhsquared arrived in Egypt aboard caravans from Arabia. Chinese silk, cotton from India, and Indian Ocean spices from the east arrived aboard ships sailing the Red Sea. Ivory and gold traveled down the Nile from inland parts of Africa. And while the Greek elites were happy to enjoy the riches of Egypt, they also wanted a taste of home. They imported grapevines and olive trees to increase the production of Egyptian wine and olive oil. Many Greeks preferred the wools of their home to the linens of Egypt and so they imported sheep to Egypt.
What is left of a temple: mostly fallen down rock, but some remnants of stone walls remain.
The ruins of the Serapeum of Alexandria, a temple built to honor the god Serapis. By Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, CC BY 2.0.
Map uses icons to show different goods traded in the Ptolemaic dynasty: In Africa, items such as Ivory, linen, gold, and perfume, In Eurasia, sheep, grapes, and silk. India produced cotton, and Arabia produced tree resins Frankincense and Myrrh
Trade networks of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. By WHP, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Women in society

Like women in other ancient societies, Ptolemaic women were active participants in religious ceremonies and cultscubed during this era. There is some indication that these women had access to education, as their role required them to read music and religious texts. Wealthy women in Alexandria often acted as patrons, meaning they contributed time and money to support the arts, sciences, and religion. However, education and wealth were often reserved for elite members of the community. For women not in the elite classes, there were some exceptions. For example, sometimes a father would teach his daughter the skills of his profession, such as painting, writing, science, and math.
As with men, women at the upper levels of society generally had the most power in Ptolemaic Egypt. The queens of the empire also exercised almost equal power with the kings. The Ptolemaic kings of Egypt often wed numerous women. In some cases they even married their full sisters, just to preserve the bloodline. Ptolemy II married his sister Arsinoë II (both were children of Ptolemy I and Berenice I). Both Ptolemy II and Arsinoë II were designated as pharaohs of the region, indicating they both had power over the empire. Future pharaohs and queens would also share power on the throne, which made sense in Egypt but would have been pretty strange in Greece. Perhaps the most famous pharaoh of this period, male or female, was Cleopatra VII. Her reign marked the transition from Ptolemaic Egypt to Roman Egypt. She exercised a great deal of power and ultimately aligned with both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. But when Octavian (Augustus) became emperor of Rome the alliance spelled disaster, and Rome formally conquered Egypt.
A detailed gold coin shows the profiles of Ptolemy II and his sister, Arsinoe II. Arsinoe II is behind her brother, partially obscured.
Gold coin featuring the busts of Ptolemy II and his sister/co-ruler, Arsinoe II. By MatthiasKabel, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Decline and fall

Grain ended the Ptolemaic dynasty. By the time Julius Caesar rose to power, Egypt had become one of the main grain suppliers for Rome. The Ptolemies allied themselves with the growing power of the Roman Republic, handing over large amounts of grain tribute in return for Roman military support against Egypt's rivals in the east. A quarrel between two of the last Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII (they were brother and sister) threatened Rome's supply of wheat and provided the justification for Roman intervention.
A stone statue of a Ptolemaic queen.
Statue of a Ptolemaic queen, possibly Cleopatra VII. By the Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0.
Because Egypt produced so much of the food that Rome needed to supply its growing empire, Julius Caesar intervened to help Cleopatra secure her throne—and Rome's breadbasket. Caesar's intervention invited even more Roman involvement in Egyptian politics, ending in Octavian's conquest of Egypt. After that, the Ptolemy dynasty ended and Egypt became a Roman province. Egypt remained the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, exporting grain to pay Roman taxes and feed Roman legions. The Ptolemaic rule might have ended, but Egypt's centrality to long-distance trade networks only increased as it was integrated into the Roman Empire.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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