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Bust of Ptolemy I. Britsh Museum, London (Britain).
Ptolemy I Soter (British Museum)
Ptolemies: name of the last dynasty of independent Egypt.

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 mentally unfit successor 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.

Map of the Ptolemaean empire under Ptolemaeus III and IV. Design Jona Lendering.
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.

The first Roman plans to conquer Egypt were made in the 140's, 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.

late summer 306

27 January 282

Ptolemy I Soter

Married to: (1) Apame; (2) Artacama; (3) Eurydice; (4) Berenice I
(Louvre, Paris)
Bust of Ptolemy I Soter. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.

27 January 282

28 January 246

Ptolemy II Philadelphus

Married to: (1) Arsinoe I; (2) Arsinoe II
(National Archaeological Museum, Naples)
Bust of Ptolemy II Philadelphus from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.

28 January 246
after 5 February 222

Ptolemy III Euergetes

Married to: Berenice II
(British museum, London)
Coin of Ptolemy III Euergetes. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.

before 16 February 222
before 8 September 204

Ptolemy IV Philopator

Married to: Arsinoe III
(Louvre, Paris)
Ptolemy IV Philopator. Bust at the Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.

29 November 205
after 20 May 180

Ptolemy V Epiphanes

Married to: Cleopatra I Syra
Coin of Ptolemy V Epiphanes. From S. Walker & P. Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt. From history to myth (2001).

July 145

Ptolemy VI Philometor

Married to: Cleopatra II
Bust of Ptolemy VI Philometor, from Aegina. Now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.

(Ptolemy VII never reigned.)

before 8 August 145
28 June 116

Ptolemy VIII Euergetes Physcon

Married to: (1) Cleopatra II; (2) Cleopatra III
Ptolemy VIII Physcon. Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel (Belgium). Photo Jona Lendering.

October 116
September/October 107

Cleopatra III and Ptolemy IX Soter Lathyros

Marble head of Cleopatra III. Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.

September/October 107
October 101

Cleopatra III and Ptolemy X Alexander

(British museum, London; ©!!!)
Limestone trial piece of Cleopatra III and Ptolemy X Alexander (?). British museum, London (Britain). From S. Walker & P. Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt. From history to myth (2001).

October 101
October 88

Ptolemy X Alexander

Married to: (1) Unknown; (2) Cleopatra Berenice III
(Mariemont, Morlanwelz)
Bust of Ptolemy X Alexander. Musée Royal de Mariemont, Morlanweltz (Belgium). Photo Marco Prins.

before 1 November 88
late December 81

Ptolemy IX Soter Lathyros

Married to: (1) Cleopatra IV; (2) Cleopatra V; (3) An Egyptian lady
Coin of Ptolemy IX Soter Lathyros. From S. Walker & P. Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt. From history to myth (2001).


Ptolemy XI Alexander

Married to: Cleopatra Berenice III
(Louvre, Paris)
Gold sealing ring with a portrait of Ptolemy XI Alexander (?). Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.

before 11 September 80
before 7 September 58

Ptolemy XII Auletes

Married to: (1) Cleopatra VI Tryphaena; (2) an Egyptian lady
(Louvre, Paris)
Head of Ptolemy XII Auletes. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.

before 7 September 58
March/April 55

Berenice IV

Married to: (1) Seleucus Cybiosactes; (2) Archelaus
Head of Berenice IV (??). Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). From S. Walker & P. Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt. From history to myth (2001).

March/April 55
February/March 51

Ptolemy XII Auletes

(Louvre, Paris)
Head of Ptolemy XII Auletes. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.

February/March 51
14 January 47

Cleopatra VII Philopator and Ptolemy XIII

Married to: (1) Julius Caesar; (2) Marc Antony
(Altes Museum, Berlin)
Bust of Cleopatra, Altes Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.

February 47
after 26 July 44

Cleopatra VII Philopator and Ptolemy XIV

(Bibliothèque national, Paris; ©!!!)
Ivory game counter with head of Ptolemy XIV. Bibliothèque national, Paris (France). From S. Walker & P. Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt. From history to myth (2001).

August 44
30 August 31


Cleopatra VII Philopator and Ptolemy XV Caesarion

Portait of Caesarion (?). Palazzo Altemps, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.


  • Alan K. Bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs, 332 BC - AD 642 (1986 London)
  • Günther Hölbl, Geschichte des Ptolemäerreiches (1994 Darmstadt)

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