Ptolemaic Egypt

Ptolemaic Egypt


In 332 BC Egypt welcomed a new ruler.  His name was Alexander.  Alexander the Great was one of the greatest men that the world has ever seen: not only was he a great general – he never lost a battle – but he also had what can only be called charisma.  People liked him and wanted to be on his side believing that he would do the right thing and that life would be better if they were with him.

Alexander the great - portrait

Perhaps an over idealistic portrait of Alexander, in the Museum at his home town of Pella

He was the son of Philip, King of Macedon,but when his father was assassinated, he seized power and set out to achieve Greece’s greatest ambition,  to destroy their old enemy, the Persians. In 334, when he was all of 22, he crossed the Hellespont, the strip of sea that separates Europe from Asia, and in two mighty battles destroyed the Persian Empire.

The next task was to go east and conquer the heartlands of the Persian empire: however , to the South there was an appendage – Egypt. Egypt was part of the Persian Empire, but the Persians were not popular, and thus the conquest of Egypt was no problem. This young handsome and attractive young man was clearly preferable to the Persians and he was welcomed with little resistance.

His visit to Egypt was a triumph: Alexander did all the right things. He had himself proclaimed pharaoh, and a  particular coup was when he went off into the Libyan desert to the west, to the oasis of Siwa.  Here there was an obscure cult of Amun, who was the chief Egyptian god, and the oracle promptly recognised Alexander as being the son of the god, and so he could return to Egypt being not only Pharaoh but the son of their greatest god.

Map of Alexandria, perched on a narrow ridge of land between the Mediterranean at the top and the Lake Mareotis at the bottom. The  stroke of genius that formed Alexandria was the dyke that built from the mainland out to the Pharos island on which the Pharos lighthouse was built, thus forming two fine harbours.

His greatest achievement was to found a new city which he named after himself: Alexandria.  It was on the sea near the mouth of the Nile where two magnificent harbours could be formed.   His touch was sure and Alexandria rose to become one of the greatest cities of the Greco-Roman world, and still one of the world’s great cities today.

Alexander did not stay long in Egypt  but soon left to finish off the Persians. He then battled his way to the furthest reaches of the Persian Empire until finally in 326 he reached the River Indus where his troops rebelled and he was forced to turn back for home. And in 323, at the age of thirty two, at Babylon, he died –  in suspicious circumstances. .

Frank Goddio, the excavator, admiring the fine statue that he excavated underwater at the site of Thomis/Herakleion,  the predecessor city to Alexandria, .later submerged. This is a fine example of the admixture of Greek and Egyptian. The lady has a typically Egyptian pose, her arms close to her side, and her left leg slightly forward; but the sexy clinging drapery is Greek. But who is she? Is she Aphrodite? Or is she Arsinoe, the wife (and sister) of Ptolemy?

What is perhaps so remarkable about Alexander is not just that he was so successful in his conquests, but that the effects were so long lasting.  All too often when a great conqueror goes through, the effect is only temporary, but with Alexander,  the Hellenising effect was being seen for centuries afterwards.  In Egypt the effects were long lost

On Alexander’s sudden and unexpected death there was chaos, and the empire eventually split up into three parts: the smallest but nominally the most important was the base in Macedonia.  The Asiatic Empire came under the control of the Seleucids, and Egypt came under the control of the Ptolemies.

Ptolemy was a drinking companion of Alexander and one of his best generals, and he seized control of Egypt and founded a long line of rulers mostly called Ptolemy of whom the first three were extremely competent and made Egypt into a great power.  The great object was to outdo the other two rulers, in particular the great Seleucid Empire.  They fought over Syria and Cyprus with varying success,  but the great battle was over prestige, and here the Ptolemies poured all the wealth of Egypt into Alexandria – and won.

Ptolemy II. and his sister/wife Arsinoe. This gold coin, worth eight drachmas, demonstrates how quickly Egyptian artists adopted Greek models. The inscription reads ‘adelphon’ – we’re siblings.

There were three important Ptolemies: Ptolemy I was the Saviour, Soter in Greek (323-283);  Ptolemy II was Philadelphos, (= loving brother: they all took grandiloquent Greek names), and the third was the Euergates, the Benefactor. The important one was the second one who has been likened to Louis XIV at the court of Versailles: he was cultured and dissolute.   He had two wives, the first providing him with his successor, the second being his sister and at least nine named mistresses,  one being his cup bearer, one a harpist and three being flautists.

Their most impressive achievement was the establishment of the Mouseion, or Temple of the Muses, the word being the origin of the modern museum, though it would be better to describe it as a university,  based on Plato’s academy at Athens but much enlarged. At its height it had over 1,000 scholars all receiving a salary, food and drink, accommodation — and no taxes.  Its scholars included the engineer Archimedes, Euclid who pioneered geometry, and Eratosthenes who said that the earth was round and calculated its diameter almost exactly.  There are great poets too – Callimachus the elegiac poet,  and Apollonius of Rhodes who wrote the classic saga of the Argonauts.

And attached to the Mouseion was the great library which collected books. Its proudest achievement was that it standardised the text of Homer. At the time there were many different versions of Homer, so they collected all the manuscripts they could find, and produced a definitive version. For scholars today there is no point in trying to understand any earlier text of Homer, because they had far better sources than modern scholars.  With the Mouseion and the Library,  in terms of culture,  the Ptolemies won.

The Lighthouse (Pharos) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Erected by Ptolemy II at the mouth of the harbour, it stood 100 m high. Although the great pyramid was 146 m high, it remained the tallest non-pyramid construction in the world down to the middle ages. Although totally destroyed, its appearance can be reconstructed from coins.

One of the big advantages of the new foundation of Alexandria was precisely that it was in the corner of Egypt and therefore did not interfere too much with the running of the Egyptian economy.  Alexandria was essentially a Greek city, and though there were areas given over to the Egyptians with Egyptian temples, it was predominantly Greek.  But this meant that the rest of Egypt could remain essentially Egyptian, and though Greeks overseers penetrated everywhere to see that farming was maintained and that the taxes were paid, the Egyptian agricultural system remained Egyptian and remarkably productive, and whoever was in charge — Pharaohs, Greeks or Romans, could cream off the riches

There were two reasons for this. The first was the Nile itself which produced its harvest year in, year out —  though one should note that with the coming of Islam Egypt has never been so rich.  But the other secret were the people themselves, the peasants of Egypt.  As Alan Bowman wrote: ‘the Ptolemaic government is usually characterised as one of the most efficiently run and rigidly hierarchical bureaucracies ever devised’. But whereas the Roman Empire was run by soldiers, or would-be soldiers, and China was run by those who were good at taking exams, Egypt was run by accountants.  The Macedonian conquerors introduced a new set of bureaucracy,  with  managers at the top and accountants underneath – all Greek.

The country was divided into thirty nomes, as it always had been.   (The word itself is Greek but it is a translation of an already existing system.)  Each nome had a Macedonian manager, but most of the bureaucracy at this local level was Egyptian.  Two sets of laws coexisted: Greek and Egyptian each in their own language, and whereas the major laws were written in Greek, the lesser laws, such as marriage contracts and divisions of property, were conducted largely in the Egyptian language.

Bronze coin of Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The reverse shows an eagle on a thunderbolt, a common theme of Ptolemaic coinage.

A major innovation was the introduction of money. Money was introduced into Egypt by the early Ptolemies who tried to make it the basis for the paying of taxes alongside the usual measurements in grain or in oil.  But the Egyptian monetary system was deliberately kept different from the rest of the world.   The basic weight of Egyptian coinage  was different, based on the Phoenician system of weights which was slightly lighter than the Attic (Athenian) system of weights which was usual in the East Mediterranean.  The difference continued down into the later Roman period.  It was clearly designed to keep Egypt as a quite separate economy in which it was illegal to use non-Egyptian coins.  The coins were different too in that silver does not occur naturally in Egypt, but gold and copper does, so there were few silver coins, but more than usual gold and copper coinage.  But the quality of some of the best coins is outstanding.  Greek models were clearly used, but one suspects that the Egyptians were prompt pupils.  I always like to believe that the introduction of coins and the market economy lead to an all round improvement in the economy, and I would like to think that Egypt bears me out.

Serapis, Egyptian god.

Head of Serapis, found in the underwater excavations at Thonis/Heracleion. Although he was meant to be an Egyptian god, his features are almost entirely Greek.

Egyptian religion was encouraged by the Greek rulers.  Indeed a new god was invented: Serapis, who was a combination of the Egyptian Isis and Osiris with numerous members of the Greek pantheon. 






Isis, Egyptian goddess.

Priestess of Isis, in the British Museum.

Isis too flourished combining with Aphrodite and Venus as an all purpose female god and pin-up girl. But as time went by, the Greek rulers degenerated and the periodic  revolts by the Egyptian peasants increased.  At the same time there was an increasingly powerful external influence: Rome.  It culminated with the best known and most powerful of the Egyptian rulers: Cleopatra.

Under the Ptolemies,  queens often held considerable power. The system was introduced by Ptolemy II who married his sister Arsinoe, who was a powerful lady in her own right.  This established a tradition of the rulers marrying their sisters, which is not wise genetically, but which can reduce family rivalry.  This culminated in the most famous queen of all. She was an outstanding figure—  she was the only one of the Ptolemies who actually learnt the Egyptian language. Seeing that the Romans were the rising power, she decided that the most sensible thing was to join them.  She became queen in 51 BC at the age of eighteen, and when in 48 BC Julius Caesar came to Egypt,  she made a beeline for him and began a passionate love affair which resulted in a son called Caesareon.



Was Cleopatra, beautiful?

Above is the Russian version version, a black basalt statue in the Hermitage Museum showing her dressed Egyptian style with a wig coming down to her breasts whihjcv are proudly bare. She apparently continueds naked down to her legs when suddenly she appears to acquire a skirt for her lower legs.

Below is the Berlin bust, often thought to be carved when she was visiting Rome. Right is an early coin of Alexandrine type.

Plutarch hints that she was not conventionally beautiful, but  it was her wonderful conversation and her beautiful voice that made her so very attractive

Three years later, Caesar was assassinated in Rome, so  she had to start again and set about seducing his successor.  Unfortunately she chose the wrong successor, and seduced Mark Anthony.  Again she had a passionate love affair which included in six month trip up the Nile to see the real Egypt and resulted in three children – twins followed by another girl.  Many sculptures illustrate how beautiful she was, but her coins tell a different story of a lady with a long nose.  But whatever she looked like, she clearly had lots of ‘it’.

But Rome was in chaos: politics was pulling it apart, and Augustus battled it out with Mark Anthony and Augustus won.  There was nothing left for Cleopatra but to commit suicide which she did at the age of thirty nine, leaving behind her an irresistible subject for playwrights and film makers through the ages.  The Ptolemaic period was over,  The Roman epoch now begins.


On to Roman Egypt


7th September 2019