Hellenistic Ancient Egypt (Argean And Ptolemaic Kingdoms)

The Ptolemaic Temple of Edfu, in what is now the Aswan Governate of Egypt.

5. Background and Initial Formation

When Alexander the Great, King of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, invaded Egypt in 332 BCE, the country was under the rule of the Second Egyptian Satrapy, a satrapy of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. itself lasting from 43 BCE until 332 BCE. Alexander the Great realized the potential of using Egypt’s longstanding powers to aid in his conquest of the Persian Empire. He thus set up the new Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt, and appointed Macedonian officials to hold all of the senior posts in the country. He left Egypt in 331 BC, installing Cleomenes, a Greek from Naucratis, as the nomarch of Egypt’s Arabian district. Though Alexander never returned to Egypt again, the Hellenistic rule he had established in the country continued to flourish for centuries thereafter.

4. Rise To Power And Accomplishments

Following Alexander’s death in 323 BC, chaos broke out all across his the conquered dominions of his Macedonian Kingdom, with many of his generals claiming succession to his position. Perdiccas, one of Alexander’s generals and a regent for the ruler’s half brother and his infant son, appointed Ptolemy to be the new satrap of Egypt. The highly capable Ptolemy had been a Macedonian general and loyal friend of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy soon established himself as an independent ruler, and defended Egypt against Perdiccas’ invasions of the are in 323 BC, and also emerged victorious in the Wars of Diadochi, held between 322 and 301 BC between the rival generals, families, and friends of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy’s success soon led to his being crowned as Ptolemy I Soter, the King of Egypt and founder of the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled the region for the next three centuries. Art, architecture, and culture flourished in Egypt during the Ptolemaic Period. The Library of Alexandria, one of the most vital learning centers of the Mediterranean world, was established during this period. Many prosperous Greek settlements and cities, such as Alexandria, Naucratis, and Ptolemais, were established during this period. Modern education and scientific research were highly patronized by the Ptolemaic kings and queens, which led to Egypt witnessing the growth of distinguished scholars like Archimedes of Syracuse and Euclid of Alexandria. The Egyptians were allowed to practice their own religion and traditions as they wished, and the Ptolemaic rulers would even build magnificent statues to the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses of their new homeland. Temples like Edfu, Deir el-Medina, and one in Luxor were built by the Ptolemaic kings in honor of traditional Egyptian Gods.

3. Challenges and Controversies

The Ptolemaic kingdom under its first three rulers was powerful and prosperous. The Egyptian custom of incest was adopted by Ptolemy II when he married his sister Arsinoë II. Though this pleased the native Egyptians, the politically incestuous Ptolemaic Kingdom was to suffer the consequences of incest in the future periods. Incest made the Ptolemaic genes weak, and the mental health and intelligence of its future kings became ever more feeble. Though the first two Ptolemaic rulers kept themselves out of war and mainly engaged in patronizing the arts, Ptolemy III Euergetes was more ambitious, and triumphantly participated in the Third Syrian War against the Seleucids where he emerged victorious. Dynastic disputes during his rule also witnessed the murder of Ptolemy III Euergetes's wife and son during his reign. With the death of Ptolemy III Euergetes, the rule of the Ptolemaic kingdom began to weaken further still, paving the way for its demise.

2. Decline and Demise

In 221 BC, Ptolemy IV Philopator succeeded his father, Ptolemy III, to the Egyptian throne. Ptolemy III had been a corrupt king, and so were most of the successors to follow him. The succeeding rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty were weak and incapable of consolidating their kingdom, and the ongoing weakening kingdom of Egypt soon attracted the attention of rival powers. In the battle of Panium (198 BC), the Ptolemaic Coele-Syria region came under Seleucid control and, in 170 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Seleucid King, displaced Philometor from the Egyptian throne. The later kings served either as puppet rulers of the more powerful kingdoms of the region or remained engaged in internal rivalries and conflicts, making them highly unpopular among the Egyptian masses. When Cleopatra VII ascended the Egyptian throne in 51 BC, she had very little choice but to ally with the Romans to defend the kingdom against the ambitious Seleucids. In 48 BC, Julius Caesar, a distinguished Roman general and statesman, visited Egypt. While there, he fell in love with Cleopatra who bore him a son, whom they named Caesarion. After Caesar’s murder at the hands of a group of Roman Senators in 44 BC, the Roman Empire became divided between the forces of Marc Antony and Octavian. The former took interest in Cleopatra and they too became lovers. Octavian’s forces exhibited a clear hatred for the “Foreign Queen”, and labelled her as an evil sorceress. Octavian’s forces soon defeated the joint forces of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, at which time Marc Antony committed suicide by falling upon his own sword. In 30 BC, Octavius entered Alexandria and captured Cleopatra, who also died by committing suicide. Thus, the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt ended. to be replaced by the era of Egyptian history under Roman Empire.

1. Historical Significance and Legacy

The Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt left behind a significant legacy of accomplishments in all spheres of Egyptian life. Agricultural lands expanded during this period, and crops like cotton and improved varieties of wine-producing grapes were introduced into the country. Coinage composed of gold, silver, and bronze were extensively used during the Ptolemaic rule. These large-sized coins used in this period were particularly noteworthy, as it was not until the 15th Century that coins of such substantial size were used in other parts of the world. Ptolemy I Soter introduced a new Egyptian God, the Serapis, formed from a combination of existing Egyptian Gods. Male Egyptian Gods were now represented without tails to endow them with more human-like features, and Ptolemaic queens like Arsinoe II and Cleopatra VII were often related to such Greek and Egyptian Goddesses as Aphrodite and Isis, respectively. The importance of women in the Ptolemaic period was reflected in the extensive depiction of women in the works of Egyptian art and sculpture seen crafted during this period. Perhaps the greatest legacy left behind by the Ptolemaic Kingdom was the establishment of a bi-cultural civilization involving the successful fusion of Greek and Egyptian cultures.


More in Society