The Ptolemaic period is the entire epoch of Hellenistic Egypt, beginning with Alexander the Great's arrival in Egypt in 332 BCE and ending with the Roman conquest in 30 BCE. Within these three centuries, there is a differentiation between the period under the kings of the Macedonian dynasty (332–304 BCE) and that of the Ptolemaic pharaohs (304–30 BCE, the Ptolemaic period in the strict sense). The sequence of the Ptolemaic kings used here follows that established by Otto and Bengston (1938), although the latest research shows that between Ptolemy VI and VIII, no other king ruled with an autonomous government.

Political and Dynastic History.

Following his victory over Darius III in the battle of Issus (late in 332 BCE), Alexander the Great pushed on into Egypt. The Persian satrap Mazakes ceded the country to him without a struggle. Alexander's actions primarily belong to the sphere of religious politics and ideological history. He founded the port city of Alexandria, begun in 331 BCE, before departing to conquer the Persian Empire, and never returned to Egypt. The settlement of Babylon (323 BCE) established Arrhidaeus Philip III (Alexander's incompetent half-brother) and his son, Alexander IV, as coregents of the Alexandrian empire, but they appear in Egyptian documents as successive pharaohs (323–316 BCE and 316–304 BCE, respectively). In the wake of Alexander the Great's death his empire was split into parts, ruled by his generals, the so-called Diadochi. Ptolemy I (born in 367/6 BCE, the son of Lagus, and a successful comrade-in-arms of Alexander) seized de facto power over Egypt as satrap.

Ptolemy I Soter.

Satrap (323–306/304 BCE) and king (r. 306/304–283/282 BCE), the founder of the dynasty conquered Cyrenaica (Libya) in 322/321 BCE. By bringing the body of Alexander the Great to Egypt, he precipitated the First Diadoch War (c.321/320 BCE) against the state administrator Perdikkas, who pushed forward into the Nile Delta, lost two battles, and was murdered by his own officers. In the settlement of Triparadeisos (321/320 BCE), Ptolemy I was confirmed ruler of Egypt and Libya. He participated in subsequent Diadoch Wars (319–315 BCE and 314–311 BCE), with campaigns in Syria and Phoenicia. He ruled Cyprus from 313 to 306 BCE, and in 309 BCE, he conquered several cities in Caria and Lycia (Asia Minor). In the meantime, Philip III was assassinated (317 BCE) and Alexander IV was murdered in Macedonia (in 310/309 BCE, but his regnal years were counted until 304 BCE). In late summer or fall of 306 BCE, Ptolemy I assumed the Hellenistic royal title of basileus, following the example of the Diadoch Antigonus Monophthalmos, thus renewing personal kingship in the Macedonian tradition for his domain, and forging a link from him to Alexander the Great. Henceforth the dates on Greek documents for the years of Ptolemy I's reign are counted retroactively from Alexander's death. Other Diadochi followed suit and assumed the title of king. In the fall of 306 BCE, Ptolemy I repelled an invasion led by Antigonus and his son Demetrius. At the beginning of 304 BCE, he became pharaoh (Egyptian documents date from year 305/4 BCE [regnal Year 1] onward). During the fourth Diadoch War (303–301) Ptolemy I occupied western Syria and Phoenicia (Coele-Syria) and illegally kept possession of the province after the battle of Ipsos (301), with the acquiescence of the Diadoch Seleucus I. In 295/294 BCE, Ptolemy I finally added Cyprus and the Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre to his empire.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

(r. 283/282–246 BCE), son of Ptolemy I and his third wife Berenice I, had been coregent since 285/284 BCE. Ptolemy II was married at first to Arsinoe I, daughter of the Diadoch Lysimachus of Thrace. Then, around 279/278, he wed his sister, Arsinoe II, widow of the same Lysimachus, who would become the first reigning woman in the Ptolemaic dynasty at the side of her brother-husband. Soon after 280, Ptolemy II conquered Samos and other cities in southwest Asia Minor; in 278 Ptolemaic rule over Pamphylia is attested. Magas, the half-brother of Ptolemy II and governor of Cyrene, broke free of Alexandrian dominance and assumed the title of king. Around 175, Ptolemy II expanded his rule to northern Lower Nubia (Twelve Mile Land). Victories in the first Syrian War (274–271 BCE) against the Seleucid King Antiochus I, successor to Seleucus I, are not proved. The Alexandrian court poet, Theocritus (Idyll XVII: 86–90) enumerated the Ptolemaic territories in Anatolia (c. 270), mentioning Pamphylia, Cilicia, Lycia, and Caria. Around 270/269, Ptolemy II commissioned the restoration of the canal leading from the Nile to the Red Sea. In the following years, numerous strongholds were built between the Gulf of Suez and the road of Bab el-Mandeb. During the so-called Chremonideic War (267–261; named after Chremonides, an Athenian who called for an alliance between the Ptolemaic Empire, Athens, and Sparta against the Macedonian king, Antigonus Gonatas), the Ptolemaic admiral Patroclus, a Macedonian by birth, founded permanent Ptolemaic bases in the Aegean Itanos (East Crete), Thera, Methana/Arsinoe (in the Peloponnesus), and Chios (in the Cyclades). Ephesus was Ptolemaic from 262 to approximately 255. During the Second Syrian War (260–253) against the third Seleucid king, Antiochus II, Ptolemaic influence waned in the Cyclades, and Ionia, Pamphylia and Cilicia became Seleucid domains. After the peace accord, Antiochus II married a daughter of Ptolemy II called Berenice (252). Around 250, Magas died in Cyrene, after he had come to a settlement with Ptolemy II, and had engaged his daughter, also called Berenice (that is, Berenice II), to the heir to the throne in Alexandria, Ptolemy III.

Ptolemy III Euergetes.

(r. 246–222/221 BCE) regained the province of Libya through his marriage to Berenice II. The catalyst for the Third Syrian War (246–241) was a conflict after the death of Antiochus II, when his widow, Berenice, as well as his first wife, Laodice, each claimed the Seleucid throne for her own son. Ptolemy III came to the aid of his sister Berenice, and marched into Seleucia in Pieria and into Antiochia along the Orontes. Although his sister had been murdered, in the meantime, he conquered Syria all the way to the Euphrates (246). The first insurrection by the Egyptians against the Ptolemaic regime forced him to retreat in 245. With the acquisition of Seleucia in Pieria, Cilicia, Pamphylia, Ionia (especially Ephesus and Samos), and the Hellespont and southern Thrace (including the island of Samothrace), the Ptolemaic Empire reached its greatest extent.

Ptolemy IV Philopator.

(r. 221–204 BCE), the son of Ptolemy III and Berenice II, married his sister Arsinoe III soon after coming to power. In the Fourth Syrian War (219–217) against the Seleucid king Antiochus III, Coele-Syria was lost at first but then regained in the Battle of Raphia (22 June 217). Soon after, northern Egypt was the scene of many insurrections, initially supported by the new Egyptian military state that had been created in the wake of arming the populace against Antiochus III. Toward the end of Ptolemy IV's reign, the rebellions turned into a peasants' war. From 206 to 186, local pharaohs ruled in Thebes with varying degrees of success (Herwennefer, 206–200, Ankhwennefer, 200–186), in part with the support of Nubian troops. This allowed the neighbor to the south, Meroë, to reclaim Lower Nubia. Ergamenes II and Adikhalamani appear as pharaohs on the temple reliefs of Philae, Debod, and Dakka.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes.

(r. 204–180 BCE), born 9 October 210, was the son of Ptolemy IV and Arsinoe III. He was subject to the guardianship of a series of regents. Arsinoe III had been assassinated immediately after the death of Ptolemy IV. The dynastic, military, and economic weaknesses of the Ptolemaic Empire sparked the Fifth Syrian War (202–195). Antiochus III conquered Coele-Syria in 198, and by 197 he had also taken Ptolemaic Asia Minor. Philip V of Macedonia annexed Ptolemaic Thrace in 200. After making peace with Antiochus, Ptolemy V married his daughter Cleopatra I (194/3). The rebels in northern Egypt were suppressed in 197 and 185. The Theban pharaoh, Ankhwennefer, was overthrown in August of 186 by Komanos, the epistrategos (“commander of troops”) of the Chora (the land outside Alexandria). On 9 October 186, Ptolemy V declared a general amnesty (the Philanthropa Decree), together with an appeal to the refugees to return to their home villages (a measure against the so-called Anachoresis). In the spring of 180, Ptolemy V was poisoned by his generals.

Ptolemy VI Philometor.

(r. 180–145 BCE). Cleopatra I reigned on behalf of her young son, Ptolemy VI Philometor until her death in 176; she was succeeded in her role as guardian by two courtiers of nonroyal descent. These guardians wed Ptolemy VI in the spring of 175 to his sister, Cleopatra II. From the fall of 170 an official tripartite reign of the Ptolemaic siblings was in force: Ptolemy VI, Cleopatra II and Ptolemy VIII. In the Sixth Syrian War (170/169–168), the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, Cleopatra I's brother and the uncle of the Ptolemaic kings, conquered Cyprus and the Egyptian Chora in two campaigns, during which he even issued prostagmata (royal decrees) in his role as basileus. He was prevented from taking Alexandria by a Roman envoy, C. Popilius Laenas, and was forced to retreat from the Ptolemaic Empire (“Day of Eleusis” in July 168). There were uprisings soon after in Alexandria, in the Faiyum, and in the region of Thebes. Ptolemy VIII held absolute power in Alexandria for a short period (164/3), which was followed by the joint rule (the first for a Ptolemaic royal couple) of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II (from the summer of 163 onward). Cleopatra II was named queen, following her husband, in Egyptian and Greek documents. Ptolemy VIII was given the province of Libya and lived in Cyrene. The Romans were repeatedly drawn into the struggle between the brothers. Ptolemy VIII in 155 BCE even deeded his part of the empire to them, in the event that he died without legitimate heirs (the so-called Testament of Euergetes, preserved on a stela discovered in the Apollo temple at Cyrene in 1929). In the late 160s, Ptolemy VI allowed a large number of Jewish emigrants to enter from Palestine; he placed Onias IV (son of the high priest Onias III) in an influential position in the army and permitted the construction of a Yahweh temple in Leontopolis (Tell el-Yehudiyya). By about 150, the strategos Boëthos had established Ptolemaic dominance in the Thirty Mile Land (that is, all of Lower Nubia, possibly all the way to the Second Cataract of the Nile at Wadi Halfa). From 150 to 145, Ptolemy VI intervened in the Syrian (Seleucid) throne struggles and wed his daughter, Cleopatra Thea, in succession to each of the opposing pretenders to the throne, Alexander Balas and Demetrios II. Ptolemy VI accepted the “Diadem of Asia” in Antiochia in the spring of 145 but later limited Ptolemaic claims to Coele-Syria. Although he defeated Alexander Balas in the battle of Oinoparas in July 145, he himself was mortally wounded.

Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II.

(r. 145–116 BCE) was immediately brought to Alexandria from Cyrene. He married his brother's widow in 145/144, who was also his own sister, Cleopatra II. At the same time, he killed her youngest son, whose father was Ptolemy VI Philometor. (This youngest son has been erroneously ascribed a separate reign between Ptolemy VI and VIII as Ptolemy VII). Ptolemy VIII then lashed out brutally against the Jews and the Greek intelligentsia in Alexandria, but at the same time he tried to gain the goodwill of the Egyptian priests and the populace by signing amnesty decrees. As late as 145, he surrendered the last strongholds in the Aegean (Itanos, Thera, and Methana). In 141/140, Ptolemy VIII married Cleopatra III, the younger daughter of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II by an additional marriage. The two wives were officially on the same hierarchical level, and were listed below Ptolemy VI in the latter's official documents. Around 139, a Roman delegation led by the younger Scipio visited Egypt. During the civil war with Cleopatra II (132–124), Ptolemy VIII was forced to flee to Cyprus with Cleopatra III (fall of 131). Cleopatra II then proclaimed herself to be the sole ruler in Alexandria as Thea Philometor Soteira. At the same time, Harsiese (the last Egyptian to hold the title of pharaoh) led a revolt in Thebes, whence he was rapidly expelled, although there is proof of his presence in el-Hiba in November of 130. Having returned in the spring of 130, Ptolemy VIII was able to prevent intervention by the Seleucid king, Demetrius II, in support of his mother-in-law, Cleopatra II, and forced her to flee to Syria. In 127/126 he took Alexandria; the city was then the scene of a bloody purge. The embattled Ptolemaic factions reconciled in 124. Around 122, the high priest of Ptah at Memphis married Psenptah II, a Berenice, probably directly related to the royal house. In 118, Ptolemy VIII published his great amnesty decree (see below). He died on 28 June 116.

Ptolemy IX Soter II and Ptolemy X Alexander I.

(together, r. 116–81 BCE), were sons of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III. In the fall of 116 there was a short tripartite rule shared by Cleopatra II, Cleopatra III, and Ptolemy IX, followed (after the death of the elder Cleopatra) by the joint rule of Cleopatra III and Ptolemy IX (116–107). The queen mother had absolute governing power and appears in administration records above the name of the king. Ptolemy X became strategos of Cyprus, where he proclaimed himself king in 114/113. In 107, Ptolemy IX fled from his mother to Cyprus, where he ruled independently (106/105–88). Ptolemy X (in Egypt, 107–88) returned to Alexandria and became coregent to Cleopatra III, whom he supported in her war in Syria (103–101) against Ptolemy IX, and whom he then killed in 101. Ptolemy X married Cleopatra Berenice III (daughter of Ptolemy IX) who became the new coregent, and who once again appears after the king in all documents. From 100 onward, Ptolemy Apion (son of Ptolemy VIII and an unknown woman) was king of Cyrene; prior to his death (in 96), he deeded his empire to the Romans, who initially took possession of the “Royal Land” and liberated the Greek cities. (The Roman province of Cyrene was founded as late as 75/74 BCE). Ptolemy X was forced to flee Alexandra in 88 and died in the attempt to reconquer Cyprus (87), after he, too, had deeded his empire to the Romans (but his will, which was met with internal resistance in Rome, was not executed). From 88 until his death at the end of 81, Ptolemy IX once again ruled in Alexandria, and Cleopatra Berenice III remained coregent.

Ptolemy XI Alexander II.

After the death of Ptolemy IX, Cleopatra Berenice III took over as sole ruler at the beginning of 80 BCE. In June, Ptolemy XI Alexander II (the son of Ptolemy X's first marriage to an unidentified woman) came from Italy to Alexandria and married the queen (who was his stepmother), then killed her a few days later. Ptolemy XI was then assassinated by the Alexandrians.

Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos.

(r. 80–51 BCE), son of Ptolemy IX and an unidentified woman, was brought to the throne by the Alexandrians, and his brother was made king of Cyprus (Ptolemy of Cyprus). Ptolemy XII married his sister Cleopatra VI Tryphaina, who gave birth to (Cleopatra) Berenice IV. In 76 BCE, Ptolemy XII was crowned pharaoh by the fourteen-year-old high priest of Ptah, Psenptah III. Toward the end of the decade, Ptolemy XII married an Egyptian woman, probably a noblewoman and relative of the family of high priests of Memphis, which had close links to the royal house. She became the mother of Cleopatra VII, Ptolemy XIII and XIV, and Arsinoe IV. Cleopatra VI fell into disgrace in 69/68 BCE. Caesar confirmed Ptolemy XII as king in 59, thereby renouncing the Roman inheritance to Egypt. Cyprus, by contrast, was annexed in 58 by Rome according to Ptolemy X's testament. Ptolemy of Cyprus then committed suicide. Ptolemy XII was exiled from Alexandria because of his inactivity (58–55) and pursued his case for repatriation in Rome by paying enormous bribes. In the meantime, Alexandria was ruled by Berenice IV. In the spring of 55, A. Gabinius restored Ptolemy XII as king in Alexandria with the support of the Roman army. The Roman troops, the Gabiniani, were stationed in Egypt and they hence-forth protected Ptolemy XII. The Roman banker C. Rabirius Postumus was given the office of dioicete (see below), which gave him the legal right to oversee the collection of the king's debts. Owing to the general animosity that resulted from his attaining this office, he soon had to leave the country. During the last year of Ptolemy XII's reign (he died at the beginning of 51 BCE), Cleopatra VII was his coregent.

Cleopatra VII.

The last two decades of the Ptolemaic empire (under Cleopatra VII and her coregents Ptolemy XIII–XV) were characterized by dynastic discord and constant intervention from Rome. Ptolemy XII had designated Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII as coregents in his will, and made Rome the executor of this succession. Cleopatra VII soon reigned on her own, but she was pushed aside in 49 by the supporters of Ptolemy XIII. In the summer of 48, Pompey came to the coast near Pelusium after his defeat in the battle of Pharsalus. There the courtiers of Ptolemy XIII had him assassinated. Julius Caesar entered Alexandria, and soon settled the dispute in accordance with Ptolemy XII's will. He also declared Ptolemy XIV and Arsinoe IV kings of Cyprus, which once again became Ptolemaic. Caesar fell in love with Cleopatra VII. The powers at the Ptolemaic court unleashed the Alexandrian War against Caesar (48/47), which Caesar won through the timely arrival of reinforcements. Ptolemy XIII died in battle; Arsinoe IV, who had been proclaimed queen by her army (that is, in opposition to Cleopatra), was captured. Cleopatra VII was given governing power by Caesar, with Ptolemy XIV as coruler. Egypt was a Roman protectorate (47–44 BCE) by virtue of the three legions that remained behind after Caesar's departure. On 23 June 47, Ptolemy XV Caesar was born, the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar; the Alexandrians gave him the patronymic “Caesarion” (son of Caesar). From 46 to 44, Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIV lived with Caesar in Rome. Soon after Caesar's death, Cleopatra VII returned to Alexandria and murdered her brother Ptolemy XIV (44 BCE). At the same time, she raised Ptolemy XV Caesar to be her coregent. Thus, in official documents, the heads of the state were once again a mother and her son. During the Roman civil war, the legions stationed in Egypt decided to defect to Cassius in 43 BCE, with the Ptolemaic satrap of Cyprus following suit. In 41, Cleopatra VII had to defend her case in front of Mark Antony in Tarsus; she won his affection and convinced him to order the assassination of Arsinoe IV, who was living in exile in Ephesus. In the winter of 41/40, Mark Antony visited Cleopatra VII in Alexandria and joined Ptolemaic Cyprus to Roman Cilicia: Cleopatra VII gave birth to twins (in 40 BCE), whose father was Mark Antony: they were named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Cleopatra VII spent the winter of 37/36 with Antony in Antiochia; subsequent to Antony's political reorganization of the Near East, Cleopatra received areas of Lebanon, near Jericho, and regions of the Nabataean realm, as well as Cyrene and landholdings on Crete. In 36, Ptolemy Philadelphus, the third child of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, was born. In the fall of 34, Mark Antony celebrated his triumph as New Dionysos in Alexandria. Soon after, he legalized his union with Cleopatra VII in marriage, a bigamous marriage (in the tradition of Hellenistic rulers), which had no legitimacy in Roman law since he was still married to Octavia (Octavian's sister). In view of the propaganda war between Mark Antony and Octavian, Cleopatra VII was seen as a threat to Rome and to the world, and she was declared an enemy of the state in Rome (32 BCE). On 2 September 31, Antony lost the battle of Actium. On 1 August 30, Octavian conquered Alexandria, and two days later made Egypt a Roman province. Mark Antony and Cleopatra then committed suicide. Ptolemy XV Caesar was beaten to death. Octavia raised the children of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII in Rome; Cleopatra Selene married Juba II of Mauritania in 20 BCE; their son, Ptolemy of Mauretania, ruled that country as the last Ptolemy, from 23 to 40 CE.

Like Alexander the Great, who was often imitated in Roman times, Cleopatra VII had her greatest fame after her death. As late as 373 CE, a Cleopatra statue was plated in gold by a priest of Philae. Her mystique lives on in the works of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, and in films.

Ideology and Religious Culture.

The Egyptian pharaoh was the central figure in Egyptian religion and the divine representative on Earth. The belief that the deeds of Egypt's ruler were cult actions that guaranteed world order and all life inspired Egyptian priests and Macedonian kings alike to legitimize Alexander the Great's seizure of power, according to the ancient Egyptian royal ideology. By putting an end to the detested Persian rule, Alexander had fulfilled the primary mythic task of a pharaoh: ending chaos and restoring order. By making offerings to the gods of Heliopolis and Memphis, especially to the royal deity, Apis, the Macedonian simultaneously declared his ascension to the throne as Egyptian king. Furthermore, at the beginning of 331 BCE, Alexander traveled to the Amun temple in the Siwa Oasis with a group of chosen friends (among them Ptolemy I), for confirmation from a king's oracle that he was the son of Zeus-Ammon and thus the legitimate successor to the indigenous pharaohs. In the New Kingdom, occasionally oracles had been used to legitimize the ascension of a new king to the throne, by recognizing the king as the chosen and beloved son of Amun-Re (corresponding to Zeus-Ammon of Siwa), and thus recognizing him as the heir of the gods in the office of King. The bark sanctuary in the temple of Luxor and another sanctuary in the Karnak temple have reliefs and inscriptions that date from the period of Alexander the Great. Alexander's function as pharaoh was passed on successively to Philip III (recorded in the bark sanctuary in Karnak) and to Alexander IV (see the gate of the Khnum temple on the island of Elephantine). At the same time, the satrap Ptolemy sought to grow into the pharaonic role. On the Satrap Stela of 311 BCE, he confirms temple lands to the priests of Buto and appears as the returning victor from Asia, bearing images of gods that the Persians were believed to have stolen—a theme that was often used to legitimize the Ptolemies as devout pharaohs during the entire third century BCE. In January 304, Ptolemy I became pharaoh, about a year and a half after having taken the Hellenistic title of basileus. The victory over the insurgents Antigonus and Demetrius could be taken as proof of his ability to hold the divine office. Henceforth the Ptolemaic king would embody two different kingships: the Hellenistic, personal kingship as basileus, and the national Egyptian kingship as the pharaoh. Hence we find both Greek and Egyptian statues of the Ptolemies and their wives, depending on their specific goals; the pharaonic statues wear the Egyptian royal headcloth or the double crown and other Egyptian elements, but the face is either stylized in the native Egyptian manner or displays some degree of naturalistic Greek influence.

The two kingdoms of the Ptolemies corresponded to the two large population groups of the empire, Greeks and Egyptians. Therefore the religious politics and the development of religion on the whole continued in two currents. The cult of Alexander as a national god in Alexandria was aimed at the Greek population. The office of priest for this cult, founded around 290 BCE, was the highest in the Hellenistic world. There is no proof of an Egyptian ever having held it. The subsequent Ptolemaic royal couples were integrated over time into the Alexander cult so that it developed into a Ptolemaic dynastic cult. Out of this, a Ptolemaic family charisma developed over the course of the third century BCE, which promulgated the divinity of individual members of the Ptolemaic family. From the second century BCE onward, this family charisma would compensate for the victorious quality now missing but once an essential feature of the basileus. By the end of the second century BCE, the office of the Alexander priest was held by the kings Ptolemy IX and X, and even in 105/104 BCE, by Cleopatra III. Furthermore, numerous state priestly offices were founded, first to venerate deceased members of the dynasty and later for living ones, in Alexandria and in Ptolemaïs of Upper Egypt. These priests and priestesses are mentioned in the documents much like the Alexander priests (termed “eponymous priests”). This type of official Greek cult of the king reached its late, exaggerated peak toward the end of the second century BCE, when five eponymous priesthoods existed for the living Cleopatra III in Alexandria.

Toward the Egyptians, the Ptolemies pursued a successful religious policy within the framework of the Egyptian cults, and they could count on the cooperation of the high priest of Ptah of Memphis. The latter represented all Egyptian priests and was responsible for the royal titulary of the Ptolemaic kings and for the crowning of the pharaoh. From the reign of Ptolemy II onward, the Ptolemies were included in the old Egyptian cult of kings.

The main area of interaction and cooperation between priests and kings was, as it had always been, the prolific building of temples. The great Ptolemaic projects began with the new construction of the Isis temple at Philae under Ptolemy II. The best-preserved temple in the old Egyptian style is the Horus temple of Edfu, which was started in 237 BCE, and continued to be built well into the middle of the fifth decade of the first century CE. It is a complete complex with a classic Ptolemaic ground plan: behind the pylon is a large courtyard, followed by the first large pronaos, and then the somewhat narrower and lower second pronaos (“Hall of Appearance”). Subsequently, along the temple axis are the offering hall, the “Hall of the Ennead,” and the single-room sanctuary (surrounded by chapels), which is designed as an autonomous architectural element. A Thoth temple was begun under Ptolemy IV in Nubia at Dakka; construction continued during the revolt in Upper Egypt (from 206 BCE onward) under the patronage of the Meroitic king, Ergamenes II, who is portrayed there as pharaoh. Temple construction flourished under Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII. Of special note is the double-temple for Haroëris and Sobek in Kom Ombo and the temple house of the large Khnum temple in Esna (the great pronaos is Roman). The last Ptolemaic construction project on a large scale was the Hathor temple in Dendera, begun under Ptolemy XII and continued under Cleopatra VII, into which the goddess could officially enter in the first year of Augustus Caesar. Egyptian temple construction continued in the Roman period.

Egyptian royal ideology was adapted to the actual history of the dynasty; especially the increasingly political role of the queen was transposed into the world of religious monuments in accordance with the status given her in administrative documents. This led to the formation of a female pharaoh beside and finally in front of the male pharaoh—in contrast to earlier female pharaohs, who had reigned on their own, such as Hatshepsut and Tawosret. Arsinoe was posthumously given a throne name, and Berenice II received a titulary composed of a Horus- and a birth-name in her lifetime. From this period onward, the king's wife is shown in temple reliefs performing rituals equal to her husband. Ptolemy VIII is depicted with one or two pharaonic female companions behind him, depending on the political circumstances (Cleopatra II and III, for example, in Kom Ombo). In Tod, expressions such as “the two Horuses” or “the masters of the two lands” were coined for the joint rule of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II. Cleopatra III and VII, during whose reigns the female element in the dynasty reached its peak, appear in some reliefs in front of their royal sons, or even acting alone during cult ceremonies.

During the Ptolemaic period, numerous actions within the sphere of religious policy were carried out to unite the complex and varied population of the empire. Even during his early years as a satrap, Ptolemy I founded a Hellenistic cult of Serapis for the Memphite Osiris-Apis, in consultation with the famed Egyptian priest and historian, Manetho. He also created the Serapeum on the Rhakotis hill in Alexandria (the large Hellenistic building, with a science library, dates from the reign of Ptolemy III). After her death in 270 BCE, Ptolemy II raised Arsinoe II to the status of a full Egyptian and Greek goddess (on the Mendes Stela). Egyptian and Greek temples were consecrated to her (Arsinoeia), and she was honored in the Egyptian temples as a guest goddess and was identified with other goddesses, especially Isis and Aphrodite. In Memphis, the high priest of Ptah himself acted as priest for the goddess Arsinoe during the third century BCE. The Egyptian high clerics met repeatedly during the reigns of Ptolemy II to VI to formulate a uniform approach to Ptolemaic kingship. The clerics would take stock of various beneficial royal deeds and invariably honor the king (or royal couple) with cult ceremonies, statues, and celebrations. Of these so-called priest decrees, usually published in hieroglyphic, Demotic, or Greek inscriptions, the most important are: the Canopus Decree (238 BCE), which introduced a leap year of 366 days every four years—an idea that, however, did not take hold; the Raphia Decree (217 BCE), which celebrated the victory after the Battle of Raphia, and is the first occurrence of the hieroglyphic royal title transposed into Greek; the Rosetta Stone (196 BCE), which commemorated the crowning of Ptolemy V as pharaoh; and the Philensis Decrees (186 and 185 BCE), which marked the suppression of the large uprising in Upper Egypt. The Dionysian worldview that had risen to prominence with Alexander the Great and had been increasingly supported by the dynasty since Ptolemy IV could be understood from the Egyptian perspective by equating Dionysus with Osiris (the title of Ptolemy XII; the name “Neos Dionysos” is written in hieroglyphs as “young Osiris”).


Ptolemaic kings ruled with absolute power and the assistance of close advisers (philoi). At the top of the administrative hierarchy in Alexandria were the royal secretary for diplomatic affairs (epistolographos), the chancellor (hypomnematographos), the author of royal edicts, the top generals, and the dioicete, who oversaw civil administration. This position, which was likely a parallel of the sntj office created by Amasis, was adopted from the Egyptian past. The most famous dioicete was Apollonios of Caria (approximately 262–245 BCE), whose secretary, Zenon of Kaunos (also in Caria), compiled the most significant Hellenistic archives at that time. The dioicete was head of local civil administration; the geographical division of the country by nomes (districts) of varying number was maintained; under Ptolemy II, the Faiyum became a separate nome (Arsinoites). The nomarch supervised the agricultural production of the nome. The oikonomos was head of finance. The basilicus grammateus (“royal scribe”) was charged with administering and registering land properties. As commander of troops, the district strategon rose to the top of the entire province administration under Ptolemy III, while the nomarch was gradually relegated to the status of a lowly finance official. The office of epistrategos was probably created in the wake of suppressing the revolt in Upper Egypt in 187. The epistrategos resided in Ptolemaïs in Upper Egypt, exercising supreme military as well as civil authority throughout the Chora. While the high officials were exclusively Greek during the third century BCE, the domain of local civil administration tended to remain in Egyptian hands. Only from Ptolemy VIII onward could Egyptians rise to the highest offices of the land. General Paos was epistrategos of the Chora from 129 BCE onward, Phommous likewise 115–110 BCE; both were awarded the highest title at the Ptolemaic court, syngenes (“blood relative”).

In theory, as in the past, the king was owner of the entire land. Therefore all land that was not “royal land” and farmed by half-free royal tenants was seen as “loaned land.” To this belonged the large estates of temple lands, the land of Greek cities (Naukratis, Alexandria, and Ptolemaïs), and royal feudal and private lands all fell into this category. The king deeded large estates to deserving officials (doreai; for example, the 2,750-hectare dorea of the dioicete Apollonios in the Faiyum); soldiers in active service (cleruchs) were given smaller holdings (Kleroi) to support their families. From the second century BCE, the cleruchs were divided into the stratiotai (usually Greeks or descendants of the Macedonian occupation army) and the poorer maximoi, who were mostly members of the Egyptian peasantry. From the time of Ptolemy II onward, there is documented evidence of Jewish cleruchs, especially in the Faiyum. In 165/164 BCE, the maximoi complained successfully about a royal decree, “On Agriculture,” which forced farmers to cultivate land released at reduced lease rates (compulsory lease). The anachoresis (“flight from the landholding” which a farmer was forced to cultivate) worsened as a result of taxes and forced obligations. Consequently, the office of the idios logos was created during the first half of the second century BCE. This official was charged with finding profitable use for the abandoned and confiscated farms, which were usually appropriated by the state as fallow land.

From the early Hellenistic period, in the Faiyum, arable land had been increased enormously through irrigation along the edge of the desert, resulting in some thirty to forty new towns, which developed into centers of Greek culture. The greatest achievement in water management (probably under Ptolemy II) was the creation of an artificial lake with a surface area of 114 square kilometers and a capacity of 275 million cubic meters. The lake was used to irrigate an arable area of approximately 150 square kilometers for a second harvest in spring. Zenon, among others, was responsible for increasing agricultural production, especially the repeated sowing wheat.

The king was also a legislator and supervised the judiciary in the country through his highest judge (archidikastes). Egyptian and Greek law had equal validity; the jurisdiction of the Egyptian and Greek courts of law were reorganized in the amnesty decrees of 118 BCE.

The large temple lands occupied a position of their own within the overall organization of the country, and their structure remained virtually unchanged from the New Kingdom until the reorganization under Amasis, and into the Ptolemaic period. The high clergy of the so-called “god's house” of the supraregional deity, along with the adjacent “house of life” (the school for the training of priests), and the lands belonging to it, were not subject to the “law of pharaoh,” but to a “law of Thoth” handed down by Re. They were also exempt from taxation. The same temple area would contain the various royal cult institutions and their economic institutions and fields, which were supervised by the state administration and operated by wab-priests, who were dependent on the king and were paid a wage (syntaxis). Higher Greek officials also exerted influence on the state-owned areas of temples (for example, the dioicete Apollonios on the Serapeum of Memphis). The temple administration and the temple economy, as well as state administration and state economy, were thus closely linked. Alexander the Great and Ptolemy I went to great lengths to secure the property of temples, which accumulated even more through donations from later kings (especially from Ptolemy II). Probably the greatest donation was the transfer of tax income from the Twelve Mile Land to the Isis temple of Philae. The temples were the centers of public life, sciences, and the arts, as well as large economic entities.

In addition to the trade in the Mediterranean (Rhodes was one of the most important trading posts), trade to the south and southeast was an important factor in the Ptolemaic economy. Relations with the empire of Meroë and trading posts on the Red Sea coast were maintained to trade for products from central Africa and the purchase of elephants for military purposes. To protect the incense route in the second century BCE, which reached the Mediterranean via Gaza (Ptolemaic in the third century BCE), the state collaborated with the southern Arabian Minaeans and the Sabaeans. Tensions soon developed with the Nabataeans, who controlled the northern section of the trade route—or rather with Nabatean pirates, with whom the Ptolemies fought battles in the Red Sea from the second century BCE onward. A shorter shipping route was probably found, making partial use of monsoon winds.

Elements of Greek education and culture were widespread in urban and (during the Ptolemaic period) also in village gymnasia. The peak, however, was reached with the School of Alexandria and its two centers, the Museion and the Serapeum. The foundation of the Museion and its rapidly growing library, which soon contained several hundred thousand papyrus scrolls, most likely dates from the time of Demetrius of Phaleron, an Athenian statesman who had become advisor to Ptolemy I in 297 BCE. In the third century BCE, the king called the most eminent scholars of the Greek world to the Museion as professors, researchers, and directors of the library. They included Zenodotos of Ephesos, one of the teachers of Ptolemy II; Apollonius of Rhodes, teacher of Ptolemy III; the physicians Praxagoras of Kos and Herophilos of Chalcedon; the mathematicians and geometricians Euclid (who died c.270 BCE) and Konon of Samos; the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (c.310–230 BCE), who was famous for his heliocentric system; and the scholar Erathosthenes of Cyrene (c.284–202 BCE), who calculated the circumference of the Earth, and taught Ptolemy IV. The court poets Theocritus of Syracuse and Callimachus of Cyrene served the Ptolemaic royal ideology. The Septuagint is thought to have been begun under the government of Ptolemy II, with the collaboration of the royal court, and to have been completed near the middle of the second century BCE. During the second century BCE, the Homeric scholars Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace served as directors of the Museion library.



General Works

  • Bianchi, Robert S., et al. Cleopatra's Egypt: Age of the Ptolemies. New York, 1988. Catalog created for an extensive exhibition on Ptolemaic Egypt (in part also for Egypt under Roman rule), with short introductory articles on Ptolemaic-Roman relations, on the ethnic and cultural relationship between Greeks and Egyptians, on Egyptian priests and Egyptian adoration of Ptolemaic queens as well as on pharaonic art in Egypt under the Ptolemies. Includes a large bibliography.
  • Bowman, Alan K. Egypt after the Pharaohs, 332 bc–ad 642 from Alexander to the Arab Conquest. Oxford, 1986. General introduction to the organizational, religious and cultural development of Egypt during the period indicated in the title.
  • Fraser, Peter M. Ptolemaic Alexandria. 3 vols. Oxford, 1972. Comprehensive presentation of topics relating to Hellenistic Alexandria (topography, history, religion, art and science).
  • Hölbl, Günther. A History of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. London, 2000. Rev. ed. Geschichte des Ptolemäerreiches, Darmstadt, 1994. Focuses on the history of ideology and the history of temple construction; extensive bibliography.
  • Otto, W. and H. Bengston. Zur Geschicte Neiderganges des Ptolemäerriches. Munich, 1938.
  • Schneider, Thomas. Lexikon der Pharaonen. Zürich, 1994. Pp. 205–225 give detailed individual biographies of the Ptolemies, based on Hölbl (1994).
  • Thompson, Dorothy J. Memphis under the Ptolemies. Princeton, 1988. Excellent presentation of the topographical, ethnic and religious conditions in Ptolemaic Memphis.

Political and Dynastic History.

  • Bagnall, Roger S. The Administration of the Ptolemaic Possessions outside Egypt. Leiden, 1976. Detailed information on the history and organization of all regions under Ptolemaic rule outside of Egypt.
  • Beyer-Rotthoff, Brigitte. Untersuchungen zur Aussenpolitik Ptolemaios' III. Bonn, 1993. The political history of Ptolemy III, geographically categorized (Seleucid kingdom, Greek, the Occident) as well as an overview of Ptolemaic control at sea and domestic politics; excellent study of sources.
  • Ellis, Walter M. Ptolemy of Egypt, London, 1994. History of Ptolemy I.
  • Grainger, John D. Hellenistic Phoenicia. Oxford, 1991. Excellent overview of the political history of Ptolemaic Syria and Phoenicia.
  • Huss, Werner. Untersuchungen zur Aussenpolitik Ptolemaios' IV. Munich, 1976. Presentation of the foreign policy under Ptolemy IV, based on a detailed study of sources and categorized by geographical areas, with an emphasis on the Fourth Syrian War.
  • Pestman, P. W. “Haronnophris and Chaonnophris, Two Indigenous Pharaohs in Ptolemaic Egypt (205–186 BC).” In Hundred-Gated Thebes, edited by S. P. Vleeming, pp. 101–137. Leiden, 1995. Comprehensive study of the great revolt in Upper Egypt.
  • Schrapel, Thomas. Das Reich der Kleopatra: Quellenkritische Untersuchungen zu den “Landschenkungen” Mark Antons. Trier, 1996. The territorial reorganization of the Ptolemaic empire in the 30s of the first century BCE.
  • Sullivan, Richard D. Near Eastern Royalty and Rome, 100–30 BC. Toronto, 1990. Pp. 81–95, 229–279, history of the Ptolemaic Empire in connection to Rome under Ptolemy IX until Roman conquest.
  • Whitehorne, John. Cleopatras. London, 1994. Biographies of the most important female Hellenistic figures named Cleopatra.

Religion and Ideology.

  • Huss, Werner. Der makedonische König und die ägyptischen Priester. Stuttgart, 1994. Very detailed and extensively annotated presentation of the relationship (cooperation and opposition) between the Egyptian clergy and the Ptolemaic king.
  • Huss, Werner. “Die in ptolemaiischer Zeit verfassten Synodaldekrete der ägyptischen Priester.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 88 (1991), 189–208. Overview of decrees issued by priests.
  • Onasch, Christian. “Zur Königsideologie der Ptolemäer in den Dekreten von Kanopos und Memphis (Rosettana).” Archiv für Papyrusforschung 24–25 (1976), 137–155. Study of the problem of creating a universal Ptolemaic royal ideology from Ptolemy III to V.
  • Smith, R. R. R. Hellenistic Royal Portraits. Oxford, 1988. Contains a critical study of the different influences found in Ptolemaic royal sculpture as well as an annotated catalogue and photographs.
  • Sauneron, Serge, and Henri Stierlin. Edfou et Philae: Derniers temples d'Égypte. Paris, 1975. General introduction to architecture and cult traditions (everyday traditions and special celebrations) of the most important temple sites in Ptolemaic Egypt.


  • Clarysse, Willy, and Katelijn Vandorpe. Zenon, un homme d'affaires grec à l'ombre des pyramides. Louvain, 1995. Introduction to the history and content of the papyri of the Zenon archives, with text examples (Greek and French) and cultural-historic commentary.
  • Goudriaan, Koen. Ethnicity in Ptolemaic Egypt. Amsterdam, 1988. Definition and characterization of ethnic groups “Hellenic” and “Egyptian.”
  • Grzybek, Erhard. Du calendrier macédonien au calendrier ptolémaïque. Problèmes de chronologie hellénistique. Basel, 1990. Macedonian and Egyptian calendars during the reign of Ptolemy II, but contestable hypotheses.
  • Lewis, Naphtali. Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt: Case Studies in the Social History of the Hellenistic World. Oxford, 1986. On the fate of individual Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt.
  • Samuel, Alan E. From Athens to Alexandria: Hellenismus and Social Goals in Ptolemaic Egypt. Louvain, 1983. On the Greek impact on the economy, technology, culture, and society of Ptolemaic Egypt.
  • Thomas, J. David. The Epistrategos in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, 1. The Ptolemaic Epistrategos. Opladen, 1975. Responsibilities and importance of the Ptolemaic epistrategos, as well as biographies of well-known individuals who held this office.

Günther Hölbl; Translated from German by Elizabeth Schwaiger