Ancient History & Civilisation



ALEXANDER LEFT EGYPT IN APRIL 331, NEVER TO RETURN. HIS STAY had lasted barely four months. Yet, in that brief time, he had not merely added the land of the pharaohs to his growing list of conquests and had himself recognized as a living god. With an eye on his empire’s destiny, as well as his own, he had also put in place farsighted administrative arrangements to ensure strong government in the Nile Valley after his departure. Alexander recognized that, although won by the sword, Egypt would not flourish under a military junta, so he ensured a clear separation of powers, leaving the military command in Macedonian hands, while civil matters were entrusted to two governors, one Egyptian and one Persian. Proud of his Greek inheritance, Alexander was nonetheless intent on building a multicultural empire, a world of opportunity where talented individuals of all ethnic backgrounds could rise to the top. The Nile Valley might now be Macedonian territory, but an Egyptian dignitary such as Sematawytefnakht could still amass honors and offices, confident of being “blessed by his lord, revered in his nome.”1 As Alexander’s public display of piety to the Apis bull had been intended to emphasize, he wanted to present himself as a liberator, and an enlightened ruler who respected and honored Egypt’s ancient traditions and beliefs. In this spirit, the Macedonian commander of the occupying forces, Peukestas, had a notice pinned up at the sacred animal necropolis at Saqqara, forbidding his troops from entering the ritual area. It survives to this day as one of the oldest known Greek documents on papyrus, and as a vivid demonstration of Alexander’s inclusive ethos.

Not everyone in Alexander’s retinue, however, shared his broad-mindedness and his interest in good government. Very soon his carefully laid plans began to fall apart as his subordinates’ competing ambitions came to the surface. The Egyptian governor resigned, leaving his Persian counterpart in sole charge of the civilian administration. Before long, he was sidelined in turn, as the Greek commander in charge of the eastern border area and the country’s finances, Kleomenes of Naukratis, won promotion to the post of satrap, with comprehensive powers. Despite Alexander’s best endeavors, Egypt was on its way back to being a dictatorship.

Alexander’s untimely death, just eight years later, on June 10, 323, sealed the country’s fate. As Alexander’s closest lieutenants squabbled over the division of his vast empire, a general named Ptolemy, son of Lagus, succeeded in being allocated the satrapy of Egypt. Since he had accompanied his childhood friend Alexander on the visit to the oracle of Amun, Ptolemy may have been able to argue that he had some claim to the province. He certainly knew that it was the wealthiest and easiest to defend of Alexander’s many conquests—ideally suited, in other words, to become, once again, a powerful kingdom in its own right. Without delay, Ptolemy traveled to Egypt, removed the unpopular Kleomenes, and set about consolidating his own authority.

Taking charge of the Two Lands posed a knotty problem. Ptolemy might have held the reins of political and economic power, but he lacked the moral and spiritual authority that Alexander had possessed to reign over Egypt as pharaoh. With the great conqueror dead, the Egyptians might balk at another Macedonian monarch. Ptolemy knew that Alexander’s imprimatur would be essential if he, a commoner, were to win recognition as a legitimate ruler. It had been Alexander’s dying wish to be buried within the sacred precinct of the temple of Amun at Siwa; but the new regent of Macedon, Perdiccas, had decided for political reasons that the dead hero should be interred in the dynastic necropolis of the Macedonian kings at Aegina. Everyone, it seemed, wanted Alexander’s body as a talisman of legitimacy.

Employing all his tactical skills, honed on the battlefields of the Near East, Ptolemy hatched an audacious plan to steal Alexander’s corpse from right under Perdiccas’s nose. As the funeral cortège made its way from Babylon, bound for the Hellespont, Ptolemy’s army hijacked it in Syria and forced it to divert to Egypt. Once the hero’s body was safely on Egyptian soil, Ptolemy showed his true colors. Rather than carrying out Alexander’s wishes, he had the body buried at Memphis, traditional capital of the pharaohs. With Alexander’s aura cast over the seat of government, nobody could now deny Ptolemy his right to rule.

It is not surprising that the deception incensed Perdiccas, provoking an immediate conflict between Macedon and Egypt—the first in a wearying series of internecine wars between Alexander’s successors that would drag on for thirty-five years. At the same time, the Greek penchant for deadly family feuds showed itself, laying waste to Alexander’s surviving relatives within twelve years of his own death. First, his heir and half brother Philip III was murdered at the behest of Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Then, Alexander’s posthumous son, Alexander IV, was murdered by his guardian.

In Egypt (where the unvarnished truth had never been allowed to get in the way of decorum), dates continued to be reckoned as if the younger Alexander were still alive and reigning. But it was nothing more than a political fig leaf, designed to conceal Ptolemy’s real intentions beneath a veneer of loyalty. A year earlier, Ptolemy had moved his residence to Alexandria, Alexander’s city by the sea. When the new capital was ready, the general made his move. On January 12, 304, he proclaimed himself king. One of his first acts as monarch was to have Alexander’s body moved to Alexandria and reinterred in a glass-sided coffin in a lavish new tomb. There Alexander would lie for all eternity as a founding father and patron deity, not just of a new city, but also of a new dynasty. The house of Ptolemy had arrived.

The next eighty years, under the first three Ptolemies, were the golden age of Ptolemaic rule. Though elevated to king, Ptolemy I lost none of his general’s touch, using the interminable Wars of the Successors to carve out an empire in the eastern Mediterranean. He acquired Cyprus in 313, followed by strategic footholds in Anatolia and the Aegean. These he added to Cyrenaica (coastal Libya), which he had already annexed to Egypt just a year after Alexander’s death. In the early 280s, Ptolemy won recognition as head of the Island League, securing his hegemony over the Cyclades. And he made strategic alliances with Macedon through diplomatic marriages to the daughters of two important families. When he died in the winter of 283–282, at the ripe old age of eighty-four, Ptolemy I had succeeded in creating a buffer zone against invasion that would last for another two and a half centuries.

The eventual outcome of the conflict between Alexander’s successors was a threefold division of his realm. In the northwest, Macedon, his ancestral homeland, remained an independent kingdom. In the south, the Ptolemies ruled over Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Cyprus. The great central swath of territory, comprising southern Anatolia, the Near East, Mesopotamia, and Persia, had fallen to another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, and the Seleucid Kingdom emerged as a powerful rival to the Ptolemaic Empire. Territorial disputes between these three Hellenistic monarchies continued under Ptolemy II and III (285–246 and 246–221), erupting into the full-scale Syrian Wars between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid powers. These periodic conflicts provided opportunities for a wealthy and well-defended state such as Egypt to extend its power still further. With the aid of a large naval fleet, Ptolemy II added southern and western Anatolia to his conquests; his successor Ptolemy III won control of the Ionian coast, the Hellespont, and southern Thrace.

This territorial expansion was a means to an end, not an end in itself, for throughout the Ptolemaic lands, trade was at the heart of government policy. As with later world empires, Ptolemaic Egypt grew fabulously wealthy from commercial activity underpinned by extensive natural resources. Early in his reign, Ptolemy II launched a campaign against the Nubian kingdom of Meroë, and succeeded in seizing control of lower Nubia, with its abundant gold reserves. To drive the point home, he founded a gold processing city in the Wadi Allaqi, named Berenike Panchrysos (“all-gold Berenike”) in honor of his redoubtable mother. Control of Nubia also had the added bonus of providing Egypt with a supply of African elephants, to pit against the awesome Indian war elephants of the Seleucid army. In another move, Ptolemy II ordered the Suez Canal, built by Darius some 230 years earlier, to be dredged and reopened to shipping. From ports on the Red Sea coast, ships plied the sea routes to India; riverboats sailed up the Nile to sub-Saharan Africa, while camel trains followed the overland routes west across the Sahara and east to Arabia. Under Ptolemaic rule, Egypt was once again at the hub of a great trading empire.

When it came to trumpeting their fabulous wealth and far-flung imperial connections, the Ptolemies were not given to modesty. In the winter of 275–274, Egypt witnessed one of the most magnificent pageants ever staged in the ancient world. From the cushioned comfort of a vast tent, erected within the walls of the royal citadel, Ptolemy II and 130 specially invited guests watched as a great ceremonial procession filed past. First came the statues honoring the dynasty’s patron deities, Dionysus, Zeus, Alexander, and Ptolemy I and his wife Berenike. Following them, exotic tribute from Africa, Arabia, and India thundered past: twenty-four elephant wagons, antelope, ostriches, wild asses, leopards, a giraffe, a rhinoceros, and countless camels; then Nubians bearing tribute, colorful Indian women, cattle, and dogs (all of them “fauna” in Ptolemy’s eyes). Finally came the military contingent, an essential element of any triumphalist procession, comprising eighty thousand soldiers from the Ptolemaic army. Where the pharaohs of the New Kingdom had merely carved scenes of tribute on the walls of tombs and temples, the Ptolemies staged the real thing.

In a more radical departure from pharaonic precedent, Ptolemy II’s astonishing pomp took place not in Thebes or Memphis but in Alexandria, the jewel in the Ptolemaic crown. Since its foundation on April 7, 331, the city had grown into the leading commercial center of the Mediterranean world. Alexander had personally selected the location, and he had chosen well. Since it was fewer than twenty miles from one of the Nile’s main mouths, yet unaffected by the annual inundation, Alexandria was ideally situated for maritime trade. A double natural harbor, divided by a causeway, provided deep-water anchorage for merchant shipping, and extensive wharfs were built for loading and unloading goods. As well as warehouses, shipyards, and the emporium, the waterfront also provided the perfect location for a theater and a temple to Poseidon, Greek god of the seas. Inland, the main city was laid out on a grid system (another Hellenistic trait), with two broad, hundred-foot-wide avenues intersecting at right angles. Along these boulevards were ranged the principal public spaces, notably the market square and the major temples. Indeed, as befitted an administrative and dynastic capital, precincts and palaces covered between one-quarter and one-third of the city. The royal mausoleum and colossal statuary, law courts, and a porticoed gymnasium: monuments in Egyptian and Greek styles, in polished granite and dazzling marble, stood cheek by jowl in a mesmerizing blend of Hellenistic and pharaonic cultures. Alexandria was a place where two worlds met in a rich and heady mix—even if some native Egyptians insisted on referring to it, contemptuously, as the “building site.”

No institution better demonstrated the Ptolemies’ vision for Alexandria than the Great Library. Ptolemy I had been determined from the outset to steal Athens’s crown and promote his capital as the paramount intellectual center of the Greek world. To this end, he established a scholarly academy within the palace quarter, presided over by a priest of the Muses. The Museum swiftly became a powerhouse of research and teaching, as the Ptolemies sought out the best brains from across the Greek world and lured them to Alexandria with the promise of academic freedom and a guaranteed salary—paid directly from the royal treasury. The Museum buildings had all the necessary elements of a scholarly community: covered arcades with recesses and seats for quiet contemplation; a large dining hall, in which the learned members could meet and discuss ideas; and, of course, a library. Not just any library but the greatest collection of books in the ancient world, acquired by fair means or foul from the best book markets of the day. Ptolemy III was so desperate to acquire original editions of Greek literary classics that he even resorted to outright theft. His ruse was to borrow books from the libraries of Athens, in return for a hefty deposit of fifteen silver talents. As soon as the manuscripts had arrived safely in Alexandria, Ptolemy sent his thanks to the Athenians—they could keep the deposit, he was keeping the books.

In its heyday, the Great Library numbered half a million papyrus rolls, representing the sum total of knowledge in every field of inquiry. The wealth of its written holdings was matched only by its glittering array of scholarly talent, as successive directors of the library gathered about them an astonishing array of visiting academics. There were one or two Egyptians—notably Manetho, a priest of Sebennytos (Egyptian Tjebnetjer), who was commissioned to write a history of Egypt—but the vast majority of Alexandria’s intellectuals came from across the Greek world. Euclid, the founder of geometry, was brought from the Platonic School in Athens and organized the entire corpus of Greek mathematical knowledge into a unified system. The engineer Archimedes invented his water-lifting device while he was in Egypt, and the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos advanced the theory of a solar system with the sun at its center. In 245, the geographer and astronomer Eratosthenes was appointed director of the library. During his stay in Egypt, he accurately calculated the circumference of the earth by measuring the length of the shadow cast by a stick at the same time of day in Aswan and Alexandria. His contemporaries in Alexandria included physicians steeped in the Hippocratic tradition who established the basic workings of the nervous, digestive, and vascular systems, while the court poet Callimachus compiled a painstaking catalogue of books in the Great Library, laying the foundations for the survival of Greek learning into later antiquity and beyond.

In a city of such intellectual wonders, one final architectural masterpiece quite literally beamed Alexandria’s achievements to the far horizon. On a rocky islet connected to the mainland by a long breakwater stood the Pharos, towering hundreds of feet into the sky. Commissioned by Ptolemy I and completed by his successor in 280, it was a miracle of engineering. The great tower was built from blocks of stone weighing on average seventy-five tons, and the structure rose in three massive stories, by turns square, octagonal, and cylindrical. At the summit, topped by a gigantic statue of Zeus, was the crowning glory, a beacon that burned day and night. Its light, magnified by mirrors, was visible a vast distance out to sea—to guide people, goods, and ideas from across the Mediterranean into the Ptolemies’ thriving metropolis. A practical landmark for shipping and a powerful symbol of Ptolemaic power, the Pharos epitomized the Greek mastery of Egypt.


THE MARITIME WORLD BEYOND ALEXANDRIA MIGHT HAVE BEEN THOROUGHLY Greek, but the delta and Nile Valley were a different matter. Ptolemaic law recognized only three autonomous cities (poleis) in Egypt: Alexandria itself; the ancient trading center of Naukratis; and the new foundation of Ptolemais, established by Ptolemy I near Abdju, in Upper Egypt, as a counterweight to the traditional hegemony of Thebes. In each polis, the citizens enjoyed special tax privileges and were permitted to elect their own magistrates. Immigrants from across the Greek world came in the thousands to Ptolemaic Egypt, seeing it as a land of opportunity where there were fortunes to be made in finance and commerce. But such immigrants—as immigrants tend to do—naturally gravitated to existing Greek communities. Alexandria, Naukratis, and Ptolemais rapidly became multiethnic polyglot cities, where Sicilians, Illyrians, and Thracians rubbed shoulders with Ionians and Carians. By contrast, large tracts of the Egyptian countryside, where the native population was dominant, remained relatively immune to immigration.

This cultural and ethnic divide between the Greek cities and the Egyptian countryside ran like a fault line through Ptolemaic society. The Pharos may have been a beacon to a land of opportunity, but it was no Statue of Liberty. A small class of Greek officials, merchants, and soldiers ruled the roost, while the mass of Egyptian peasantry tilled the fields, as they had always done. The Ptolemies showed no hesitation in adopting the autocratic, authoritarian mode of rule perfected by their pharaonic predecessors, while entrusting the reins of power to a small Greek-speaking coterie of royal favorites. Out went the vizier—the head of the Egyptian administration since the dawn of history—to be replaced by a dioiketes. Under him, officials with similarly alien titles controlled every aspect of government, from the chief secretary (hypomnematographos) in Alexandria to the chief administrator (strategos) in each province, appointed by the king to keep a close eye on the native population. The ruling class had their gymnasia, bastions of (male) Greek culture. These men wrote and spoke in Greek, and they continued to think of themselves as Greeks, even after three or four generations in Egypt. They also had their own legal system, imported from their homeland. It operated alongside the native pharaonic system of courts that continued to decide cases between Egyptians. It was quite literally a case of one law for those in power, another law for the rest.

In the towns and villages of rural Egypt, especially in the Fayum, with its concentration of Greek military settlers, the native population had no choice but to accommodate this new, alien culture in their midst. Many in the lower ranks of the bureaucracy adopted double names, using higher-status Greek names in the exercise of their official duties but reverting to their Egyptian names for private matters. In a typical village such as Kerkeosiris, Greek shrines dedicated to Zeus and the two heavenly twins, Castor and Pollux, jostled for space with native shrines where people still worshipped the old deities Isis, Thoth, Bastet, and Amun. Even in Memphis, with its thriving port and its long tradition of cultural mixing, each ethnic group lived in a separate quarter of the city.

The question for the Ptolemies was how to bind together such disparate elements into a unified kingdom, how to prevent the country from fragmenting along ethnic and cultural lines. The answer, as so often in Egyptian history, was religion. Animal cults had been a characteristic feature of ancient Egyptian religion for centuries, and Ptolemy I took great pains to honor them. He paid particular devotion to the most ancient and revered of all such cults, the Apis bull of Memphis, not least because of its strong connection with divine kingship since the First Dynasty. To complement the bull’s cult center at Saqqara, Ptolemy I built a second complex at Alexandria, dedicated to Osiris-Apis (“Serapis” in Greek). Pilgrims came from all over the Greek world to visit the two Serapeums. The native Egyptians, however, remained distinctly underwhelmed. They knew traditional deities when they saw them. Serapis, represented as a Greek hero god, was not one of them. Eventually, the Ptolemaic state withdrew its funding for the cult of Serapis, having failed to win over the Egyptian population.

Rather more successful was the Ptolemies’ attempt to combine the Hellenistic and Egyptian concepts of monarchy into a single countrywide ruler cult. Alexander’s life and death had demonstrated the potency of the Hellenistic version, and the Ptolemies understood the unifying force of Egyptian divine kingship, a doctrine that had been the country’s defining belief for most of its history. Combining the two strands—Hellenistic and pharaonic—seemed to promise a result that would be irresistible to both communities. At first, it was the Hellenistic cult of the basileus, “king,” that took precedence. Ptolemy I deliberately promoted the cult of Alexander, associating himself with it and establishing it in Alexandria to give his dynasty legitimacy. He elevated his former boss to the position of state god and made Alexander’s priest—an office denied to native Egyptians—the highest ranking clergyman in the land. Not that Ptolemy was overcome with modesty when it came to self-deification. Beyond the shores of the delta, on the island of Rhodes, he was only too happy to be worshipped as a god during his lifetime. After his death, he was formally deified in Egypt, and a festival in his honor, the Ptolemaia, was celebrated in Alexandria every four years, accompanied by processions, sacrifices, banquets, and sporting competitions.

Ptolemy II went even further, founding cults for numerous members of his family, including his mistresses. His great procession of 275–274 proclaimed the material and military basis of his (Greek) kingship, and at the same time, he took steps to polish his credentials as pharaoh. Soon after his accession, he visited many of Egypt’s most important sanctuaries, especially those devoted to the indigenous animal cults, to fulfill his religious duties as an Egyptian ruler. He had images of himself and members of his dynasty placed in the Serapeum at Saqqara, alongside the statues of the Apis bull and other Egyptian gods. Above all, like all good pharaohs before him, he honored the gods by commissioning spectacular new temple buildings. A complex dedicated to Isis was begun on the island of Philae, at the first cataract; work was also undertaken at Ipetsut, Gebtu (Greek Koptos), Iunet (Greek Tentyris), Saqqara, and in the delta at Per-hebit (Greek Iseum).

The native temples were bastions of Egyptian culture, proudly independent institutions that made a point of rejecting external influences, as a way of maintaining pharaonic religion and customs. So, by acting the royal patron, in time-honored fashion, Ptolemy II hoped to reconcile the native population to foreign rule. The temples were also important landowners and centers of economic activity, so they offered the king material as well as spiritual gain. To tap into this vital source of wealth, Ptolemy forced the temple estates to accept crown agents, trusted officials who were tasked with looking after the government’s economic interests.

Egypt’s famed wealth had always been based upon its agricultural productivity, and from the start, the Ptolemies were determined to exploit their new domain to the full. The founder of the dynasty established his eponymous city, Ptolemais, in an area renowned for its arable cultivation. He launched an even more ambitious project in the Fayum, reclaiming vast tracts through irrigation and trebling the region’s cultivable land in the process. Under Ptolemy II, in a miracle of civil engineering, an artificial lake with a capacity of 360 million cubic yards was created in the southern Fayum; it held enough water to irrigate about sixty square miles of arable land. Because these estates had been created anew from barren desert, they lay outside any preexisting land claims, and their produce was channeled straight into the state’s ample coffers.

Similarly, in every rural community throughout Egypt, the lowliest official in the government hierarchy, the village scribe, concerned himself first and foremost with land use and farm yields. His main task was to work out how much land could be rented out by the state to tenant farmers and how much revenue it would produce. Scribes were summoned to their provincial capital to meet with the Greek governor in the state records office twice a year—once in February, to prepare for the annual survey of agricultural production, and again four weeks later to report on the survey’s findings. Later in the year, in the early summer, village scribes from across Egypt gathered in Alexandria to answer to the dioiketes. It was a stark reminder that, whether the country was ruled by an Egyptian or a Greek, the economy remained at the heart of the state’s concerns.

Like colonial rulers before and since, the Ptolemies were concerned with squeezing every drop of profit out of their territory, regardless of the consequences. They levied a land tax on Lower Egypt and a harvest tax on Upper Egypt, and charged high fees for holding government office. Even a village scribe had to pay a commission on appointment (and reappointment), and was compelled, as a condition of service, to lease land from the crown at a very high annual rent. Little by little, the state imposed a new economic regime throughout Egypt, turning ever more land over to wheat production, using intermediaries to collect revenue, and maximizing taxation by every means possible. As a result, Ptolemaic Egypt outshone every other Hellenistic state in wealth and power. But these policies also bred instability and insurrection. Subservient in their own country, the native Egyptians would not stay silent and uncomplaining forever.


THE PTOLEMIES MAY HAVE SOUGHT TO PROJECT AN IMAGE OF DIVINE authority, but their view of themselves as benevolent rulers was by no means universally shared. After only two generations of Greek rule, elements of the Egyptian population decided to vent their frustration at the punitive economic policies imposed by their foreign masters. In 245, Ptolemy III was forced to break off his campaigning during the Third Syrian War to deal with a native revolt. It was a minor and short-lived insurrection but the harbinger of worse to come. Resentment festered for another three decades, kept at bay by the Ptolemies’ machinery of repression.

Ironically, the last straw was a famous military victory. In 217, after the Fourth Syrian War had been raging for two years, the forces of Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Kingdom reached a decisive moment and faced each other across the border near the town of Raphia. To finance the war effort, Ptolemy IV (221–204) had increased taxes still further, imposing a heavy burden on an already hard-pressed population. He had also put aside the Ptolemies’ long-standing contempt for non-Greek soldiers by recruiting a large force of Egyptian troops (albeit armed in Macedonian style). On the eve of battle he addressed his forces, acting the part of a traditional pharaoh, but the pretense fooled nobody, especially as he had to use an interpreter to translate from Greek into Egyptian. The Battle of Raphia resulted in a narrow Ptolemaic victory, and Ptolemy IV had himself immortalized on the walls of Egyptian temples as a war hero and “ruler of Syria.”2 It was the last time a Ptolemy would display such confidence in his own sovereignty. Armed and battle-hardened, the twenty thousand Egyptian troops seized the opportunity to mutiny, feeding a widespread revolt throughout the delta. Peasants left their villages in droves and lived as outlaws, roaming the countryside. Bandits attacked a Greek garrison and an Egyptian temple, both symbols of repression. The Macedonian and Seleucid kings offered their assistance to Ptolemy IV, putting aside their dynastic rivalry in face of this native insurrection, but to little effect. Within a few years, civil war raged through Lower Egypt.

Encouraged by the unrest in the north, the citizens of Thebes were the next to rebel. Ever since the fall of the New Kingdom, Upper Egypt in general and the Theban region in particular had harbored secessionist tendencies. The attitude of the Ptolemies, who rarely strayed beyond their northern power base, merely exacerbated Theban resentment at being ruled from distant Alexandria. Sensing the native threat, Ptolemy IV ordered construction to begin on a vast new temple to Horus at Djeba (Greek Apollonos polis), in the far south of Egypt. But it was too little, too late. A contemporary text (the Demotic Chronicle) lambasted the Ptolemaic rulers, accusing them of ignoring maat, and prophesied that a native king would rise up to overthrow the foreigners.

The prophecy was soon fulfilled. In 206, a charismatic rebel leader won an initial victory against the state’s forces. Within a few months, after taking the sacred city of Thebes, he was proclaimed pharaoh and given official recognition by the priesthood of Amun. Horwennefer, “beloved of Amun-Ra, king of the gods,” began his reign in the autumn of 205. From Abdju, in the north, to Inerty (Greek Pathyris), in the south, Upper Egypt was once again under native rule. Land records were destroyed, the hated tax regime was suspended, and Greeks were forced from their homes. Ptolemaic rule was in retreat. For a brief, heady moment, it looked as if the Nile Valley might wrest itself free from foreign domination, as it had at other turning points in its history.

The Ptolemies thought otherwise. At the end of 200, a new king in Alexandria, Ptolemy V (204–180), launched his counteroffensive. Greek troops marched southward from their bases in the delta and the Fayum. By early 199 they had recaptured Ptolemais, and as summer turned to autumn they laid siege to the sacred site of Abdju. Having seized the cult center of the god Osiris-Wennefer from the rebel leader, they pressed on to Thebes, there to win a further victory. Pessimism among the freedom fighters turned to despair as they lost first their capital, then their leader. Horwennefer’s death in mid-autumn 199 might have spelled the end of Theban resistance, but a successor, Ankhwennefer, quickly filled his shoes, continuing the same sequence of regnal years as if nothing had happened. However, with Ptolemaic forces in control of Thebes, and another major Greek garrison dug in at Aswan, Ankhwennefer’s options were severely limited. Daringly, he chose to march northward, perhaps using the desert routes, and targeted the province of Sauty (Greek Lykopolis), 190 miles north of Thebes. By inflicting maximum damage, plundering towns, and disrupting the normal workings of the rural economy, Ankhwennefer’s plan was to isolate the Ptolemaic troops occupying Thebes, deprive them of supplies, and cut their lines of communication with Alexandria. It was a bold move, and a successful one. Before long, the Ptolemaic army was forced to abandon Thebes and retreat southward. The rebel forces were back in the game.

Frustrated by the degree of opposition in Upper Egypt, Ptolemy V decided to direct his firepower against the delta rebels. In 197, his army besieged their fortified and well-stocked headquarters. In the end, the insurgents’ idealism proved no match for the superior strength and weaponry of the Ptolemaic forces. The town was captured and the ringleaders of the uprising were brought to Memphis, there to suffer public execution by impalement as part of Ptolemy’s coronation festivities. This highly charged occasion on March 26, 196, mixing politics and religion in characteristically Egyptian style, was duly commemorated in a great royal decree, inscribed in the country’s two languages (Egyptian and Greek) and three scripts (hieroglyphics, demotic characters , and Greek). This Decree of Memphis survives to this day, more famously known as the Rosetta Stone.


Buoyed by his decisive victory in the delta, Ptolemy V turned his attention, once again, to Thebes. First, the Ptolemaic army drove the rebel forces from the province of Sauty in a bloody battle that ravaged the land. Then, in the autumn of 191, Ankhwennefer abandoned Thebes and fled toward the Nubian border. His options were fast running out. Once back in control of Thebes, the authorities, ever concerned with economic matters, held a public auction of land confiscated from the insurgents. The sooner it was returned to profitable cultivation, the sooner the taxes would start to flow again. With Greek troops now converging on Aswan, well supplied with grain from all over Egypt, Ankhwennefer knew that his cause was doomed. Despite receiving military assistance from Nubia, the Egyptian rebels were finally defeated on August 27, 186. Ankhwennefer’s son was killed in battle; he himself was captured and imprisoned. Only the intervention of a synod, held in Alexandria a few days later, spared him an excruciating death. The Egyptian priests managed to persuade Ptolemy V that killing Ankhwennefer would merely create a martyr and that a wiser policy would be to brand him an enemy of the gods but pardon him. The king swallowed hard, accepted the priests’ counsel, and issued a great amnesty decree, instructing all fugitives to return to their homes and fields.

In a further attempt to placate native sentiment, Ptolemy V lavished spending on the temples, resuming the work at Djeba that had been suspended at the outbreak of the insurgency in 206. Yet, hand in hand with these conciliatory gestures, he also took steps to impose absolute military control over the south. For the first time, loyalist Greek soldiers were given land grants in Upper Egyptian communities. The governor resident in Ptolemais was given complete control of civil and military matters, and two new army camps were set up at strategic points near Thebes, at Sumenu (Greek Krokodilopolis) and Inerty. Future rebels would not have it so easy.

Ptolemy V reserved his final act of vengeance for the remaining northern rebels who had started the revolt in the first place. In 185, on the pretext of seeking a negotiated settlement, he lured them to the city of Sais—symbolic center of Lower Egyptian resistance since the far-off days of Tefnakht more than five centuries earlier. Too late they realized the trap. On the king’s orders, they were stripped naked, harnessed to carts like oxen, and forced to pull the carts through the city streets—watched by the city’s terrified inhabitants—before being tortured to death. Ptolemaic mercy had its limits.

The royal family’s appetite for internecine rivalry did not. The internal crises affecting the dynasty grew increasingly serious from the late third century onward, exacerbated by the persistent native rebellions. When Ptolemy V had come to the throne in 204, aged barely six, his mother, due to become regent, had been murdered by powerful court officials. They had then fought among themselves to gain the upper hand, weakening the government still further. Riven by conflict at home, the Ptolemaic state had been trounced abroad, losing its overseas possessions in Syria, Anatolia, and Thrace. By the time of Ptolemy V’s death in 180, a once mighty empire was fatally weakened.

And with Hellenistic power crumbling across the eastern Mediterranean, an ambitious young state was watching developments with hungry eyes.


THE LATINS WERE ONE OF A NUMBER OF ITALIC TRIBES DESCENDED from settlers who had first migrated into Italy around the time of the Sea Peoples. In 753, according to their own tradition, the Latins had established a city by the banks of the river Tiber. This foundation, Rome, had grown steadily in size and influence until, by 338, it had controlled the surrounding province of Latium and within another eighty years the whole of peninsular Italy, ousting Greek colonists in the process. Little wonder that the Ptolemies had wanted to be on friendly terms. So in 273, following his great procession, flush with pride and more confident than ever of his own importance, Ptolemy II had taken the step of arranging a formal exchange of envoys with the rising star of international politics. The treaty of friendship with Rome was the beginning of a long, tortuous, and ultimately fatal attraction.

From the outset, the Ptolemies regarded the Romans with a mixture of haughty condescension and sycophantic fascination, as is the wont of established superpowers with up-and-coming nations. To curry favor with Rome (and despite having a treaty with the Phoenician city of Carthage, on the North African coast), Ptolemaic Egypt sat on its hands during the First Punic War, and received a delegation of grateful Romans as a reward for its duplicity. Playing the same game, Rome intervened in the endless struggles between the Ptolemaic Kingdom and its Macedonian and Seleucid rivals, posing as a friend of Egypt in order to further its own international ambitions. In such an atmosphere, the Hellenistic dynasties’ bitter feuding led inevitably to the emergence of Rome as the key player in Mediterranean politics.

Like his father, Ptolemy VI (180–145) became king at the age of six. For the first four years of his reign, with his mother acting as regent, some degree of stability was maintained. But after her death in 176, those at court who backed the king’s siblings broke cover and soon forced the proclamation of a triarchy. Ptolemy VI, his sister, and his younger brother Ptolemy VIII would henceforth reign as joint sovereigns. It was a recipe for disaster. A disastrous Sixth Syrian War, during which Ptolemy VI tried to negotiate terms with the enemy, led to his being deposed by the febrile citizenry of Alexandria. The Seleucid king, Antiochos, claiming to represent Ptolemy VI (but interested only in a land grab of his own), besieged the Egyptian capital, before breaking off his campaign to deal with domestic problems. The situation was a typically Macedonian cocktail of sibling rivalry, territorial ambition, and native unrest.

Enter the coolheaded Romans to restore order. When Antiochos moved against Alexandria again in the spring of 168, having already captured Cyprus and Memphis and begun issuing royal decrees as ruler of Egypt, Rome intervened decisively to prevent a unification of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms. A few months later, in early July, the Roman envoy Popilius met Antiochos in a suburb of Alexandria called Eleusis. With showstopping chutzpah, the envoy demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities and the complete withdrawal of Seleucid forces from Egypt and Cyprus without delay. Overawed, Antiochos meekly complied, and left with his tail between his legs. The Day of Eleusis went down in history as the moment when Rome saved Egypt. It was a Faustian pact.

For the remaining 130 years of Ptolemaic rule, Roman, not Greek, power was the key factor in the destiny of the Nile Valley. As family disputes between Ptolemy VI and his siblings wore out the kingdom, Rome was increasingly asked to intervene on one side or another, and the Romans strengthened their stranglehold on the country’s fate. To make matters worse, opportunistic rebellions continued to break out in Upper Egypt, insurgents taking advantage of the power vacuum at the center. In 165, Thebes erupted in revolt. Serious clashes spread to the Fayum, where rebels burned land documents in a direct challenge to the authorities; farmers left their villages; and fugitives sought sanctuary in the temples. Ptolemy VI responded with a decree making the leasing and cultivation of land compulsory, but the measure proved so ineffective and unpopular that he was forced to go into exile. It is not surprising that he headed straight for Rome.

Ptolemy VIII fared no better. Within a year, his tyrannical rule led to calls for his brother’s return and he found himself turning to Rome for support. Exiled in Cyrenaica, desperate to regain power, and unsettled by an attempt on his life in 156–155, Ptolemy VIII made a will promising his kingdom to Rome if he should die without a legitimate heir. It had the desired effect of frightening his political opponents—better the devil you know, they concluded—but it merely weakened Egyptian independence still further. Only with the death of Ptolemy VI in 145 did the younger brother finally regain his throne.

On returning to Alexandria, Ptolemy VIII married his brother’s widow (and his own sister), and it is said that he had her son by Ptolemy VI murdered during the wedding celebrations. It was entirely typical of his wanton barbarity. He carried out harsh reprisals against the Jewish troop commanders who had risen up against his regime, and he banished many Greek intellectuals from Alexandria. As a counterbalance to the many enemies he was making among the immigrant population, Ptolemy VIII deliberately curried favor with his Egyptian subjects, patronizing their temples and issuing amnesty decrees. It was a shameless bribe, but it worked. Well used to brutal rulers, the native population turned a blind eye to Ptolemy’s atrocities and rallied to his side.

The dynasty’s domestic affairs—never straightforward—then turned increasingly bizarre. Ptolemy began an intimate relationship with his sister-wife’s younger daughter, marrying her in 141 and making her queen. As a result, mother and daughter became the fiercest of rivals. Those seeking to oust the despotic king could now count on his older wife’s full support. When civil war broke out between the two camps in 132, Ptolemy fled to Cyprus, taking his younger consort with him and leaving his estranged wife to be acclaimed sole ruler in Alexandria. Fearing that his son by her would be proclaimed king, Ptolemy had the young boy kidnapped, brought to Cyprus, and murdered before his own eyes. He then dismembered the body and had the pieces sent back to the boy’s mother to arrive on the eve of her birthday celebrations. Never one to put personal grief before political gain, she put the remains on public display in Alexandria, to arouse the people’s wrath against the tyrant Ptolemy. But the native Egyptian population remained steadfastly loyal. His cruel calculation had paid off.

Ptolemy VIII’s popularity among his Egyptian subjects gave him the perfect springboard, and he recaptured the country from his wife’s backers. He further capitalized on his native support by promoting Egyptians to high office for the first time in two centuries. Men such as the royal scribe Wennefer spouted the same self-aggrandizing hyperbole as their predecessors from the golden age of Egyptian civilization—“I was one honoured by his father, praised by his mother, gracious to his brothers.… I was one praised in his town, beneficent in his province, gracious to everyone. I was well-disposed, popular, widely loved, cheerful.”3 But alongside the self-congratulation, there was an equal measure of dissipation that signaled the decay of pharaonic mores: “I was a lover of drink, a lord of the feast day … singers and maidens gathered together … braided, beauteous, tressed, high-bosomed … they danced in beauty, doing my heart’s wish.”4 Such decadence was a sign of the times. The people of Egypt were taking their cue from their rulers. Once Ptolemy VIII had retaken Alexandria, to teach his opponents a lesson he had the gymnasium surrounded and torched, burning everyone inside alive. Such senseless violence in the pursuit of power, combined with rampant corruption, only accelerated Egypt’s decline.

In the summer of 116, Ptolemy VIII breathed his last in Alexandria, leaving his throne to his young wife and whichever of her two sons she preferred. At the same time, seven hundred miles upstream, a group of Romans came to visit the temple of Isis at Philae and carved their names on the temple wall, leaving behind the oldest surviving Latin inscriptions in Egypt. The two incidents nicely summed up the past and future of the Nile Valley. The dynastic strife of an old and tired regime looked increasingly irrelevant in the face of Roman expansionism. Twenty years later, Rome inherited Cyrenaica, leaving Cyprus as the only overseas Ptolemaic possession. History repeated itself as two royal brothers (Ptolemy IX and X) vied for power and there was further unrest in Upper Egypt. A second Ptolemy willed his kingdom to Rome in return for military support, and there were more outrages in the capital.

The Ptolemaic temple of Horus at Djeba (modern Edfu)  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

Of all the old certainties that had given Egypt its self-confidence, only a belief in the traditional gods remained. For that reason, if for no other, great were the celebrations in 70 when the vast new temple of Horus at Djeba was finally consecrated, 167 years after Ptolemy III had performed the foundation ceremony. Thoroughly Ptolemaic in design but undeniably pharaonic in dedication, the towering edifice of sandstone, with its pylon gateways and columned halls, was the epitome of the hybrid Hellenistic-Egyptian culture that successive generations of Greek pharaohs had struggled to create. The crowds who gathered that day to enjoy the colorful pageantry must have hoped, in their heart of hearts, that they were witnessing a new dawn, a promise of future harmony and prosperity.

Similar sentiments, no doubt, accompanied the birth a few months later of the king’s newest child. Of mixed ancestry, Ptolemy XII’s baby daughter carried on her tiny shoulders the hopes and expectations of her diverse countrymen. Her life would be devoted to maintaining their independence; her death would signal the end of pharaonic Egypt. Her name was Cleopatra.

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