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Ptolemies

Ptolemies: name of the last dynasty of independent Egypt, of Macedonian descent.

Ptolemy I Soter
Ptolemy I Soter
In 332, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and gave a new capital to the old kingdom along the Nile, Alexandria. After his death (11 June 323), his friend Ptolemy became satrap of Egypt, and started to behave himself rather independently. When Perdiccas, the regent of Alexander's Philip Arridaeus arrived in 320, he was defeated. This marked the beginning of Egypt's independence under a new dynasty, the Ptolemies (or Lagids). Ptolemy accepted the royal title in 306.

The fourteen kings of this dynasty were all called Ptolemy and are numbered by modern historians I to XV (Ptolemy VII never reigned). A remarkable aspect of the Ptolemaic monarchy was the prominence of women (seven queens named Cleopatra and four Berenices), who rose to power when their sons or brothers were too young. This was almost unique in Antiquity. Another intriguing aspect was the willingness of the Ptolemies to present themselves to the Egyptians as native pharaohs (cf. the pictures below, some of which are in Egyptian style). This was less unique: the Seleucid dynasty that reigned the Asian parts of Alexander's empire did the same.

The Ptolemaic Empire at the end of the third century
The Ptolemaic Empire at the end of the third century
Although Ptolemy I had refused the regency after the death of Perdiccas, he aimed at more than Egypt alone. In the last years of the fourth century, he managed to seize Coele Syria, which is more or less equivalent to modern Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and southern Syria (and included the small Jewish state around Jerusalem). The possession of this area was, however, hotly contested: several Syrian wars were fought to defend it against the claims of the Seleucids. At first, Egyptian power was great: Cyprus, several Aegean islands, parts of Asia Minor and parts of Thrace belonged to the Ptolemaic empire.

However, after the death of Ptolemy IV Philopator in 204, his son Ptolemy V Epiphanes was too young to rule, and his wife Arsinoe was murdered. During this crisis, the Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great and Philip V of Macedonia decided to attack the Ptolemaic empire and divide the booty. When a peace treaty was signed in 195, Egypt had lost Coele Syria and all oversea possessions, except for Cyprus. The next years saw several revolts inside Egypt.

In 169 and 168, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Egypt, conquered the Delta, and laid siege to Alexandria. However, the Romans intervened and forced him to return. From now on, the Ptolemies were increasingly dependent on Rome.

Cleopatra VII Philopator
Cleopatra VII Philopator
The first Roman plans to conquer Egypt were made in the 140s, but the famously rich kingdom was too high a prize for one man to win: every Roman senator wanted to be the man who conquered Egypt, and hence all senators jointly prevented any Roman magistrate who wanted to go to Alexandria from doing so. Egypt was left to its own until 47, when Julius Caesar - who had defeated all other senators - arrived. He made Cleopatra VII queen (together with her twelve-year old brother Ptolemy XIV) and demanded money. Seventeen years later, Caesar's adoptive son Octavian drove Cleopatra into suicide, murdered her son Ptolemy XV Caesarion and annexed the country.

This page was created in 2002; last modified on 30 January 2015.