The Ptolemies

Ptolemy II’s chief concern early in his reign was to secure his rule against the possibility of any interdynastic disputation of the throne. When his sister Arsinoe arrived in 280 or thereabouts from the northern Aegean, in flight from her disastrous marriage to Ptolemy Ceraunus, he made her marry him and adopt his children, so that there were no loose ends. Marrying his full sister was an extraordinary step for Ptolemy to take. There were only faint traces of such a practice in Egyptian and Persian pasts (though Mausolus and other fourth-century dynasts of Caria had married siblings), but Ptolemy gloried in it: around 272 he inaugurated a joint cult of Alexander and the Sibling Deities—himself and Arsinoe, though both were still alive (she died in 270). Nor were these minor cults: in both the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms, the priests of dynastic cults were always important men, and royal appointees. There came to be several such cults in each kingdom, often conjoined with those of Alexander, and the Greek cities followed the kings’ lead.

Brother–sister marriage was supposed to guarantee the purity of the bloodline, to advertise the solidity of the royal family, and to secure stability by eliminating the possibility of rival claimants to the throne; the king was effectively cloning himself, and so every generation of Egyptian kings took the same name. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no real evidence of genetic deterioration over the more than two hundred years that the Ptolemies, or some of them, practiced sibling marriage. Strife within the royal family became increasingly savage, but savagery has characterized many courts throughout the ages. Sibling marriage was a symbol of power, a way for the Ptolemies to claim that conventional morality did not apply to them. If the satirical poet Sotades’ reaction is typical, the Greeks were appalled: “Unholy the hole into which you push your prick.” Sotades paid for the quip with his life.

The mainspring of Ptolemaic foreign policy was the need to keep intact the extensive buffer zones that the first two Ptolemies had put in place around Egypt by the middle of the third century. Apart from their defensive function, these overseas possessions made up for Egypt’s deficiencies in minerals and ship-quality timber, and enabled them to control the trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the Black Sea approaches. They were the major suppliers to the Greek world of grain and other commodities, and they needed to make sure that their cargoes were safe.

In Greece and Anatolia, as we have seen, the Ptolemies supported whichever state or states seemed best able to check Antigonid and Seleucid ambitions. In the Aegean, they did their best to retain their possessions against a strengthening Macedonian navy. In Palestine, Coele Syria, and Phoenicia, they fought a series of wars against the Syrian kings. In Cyrenaica, the earliest Ptolemaic external possession and one of the most important, they used diplomacy to keep the peace and allowed the rulers to think of themselves for a while as royalty. In Africa, they extended south into Nubia, especially to safeguard the provision of war elephants and gold.

From the moment he ascended to the Syrian throne in 223, Antiochus III intended to recover the entirety of the kingdom when it had been at its greatest extent, under Seleucus I, as though he still had rights to it. He was delayed by Molon’s rebellion, but once it had been put down, Antiochus drove the Ptolemaic forces out of Coele Syria and coastal Phoenicia. This task occupied the first two years of the Fourth Syrian War. But Ptolemy IV, who had come to the Egyptian throne in 221, belied his reputation for being more interested in poetry than politics, or took the advice of his powerful chief ministers. Having restructured his army and greatly increased the number of native Egyptians serving in it, he inflicted a massive defeat on Antiochus at the battle of Raphia in 217. With over 140,000 men (and 175 elephants) between the two sides, which were fairly evenly matched, this was the greatest battle since Ipsus. After acknowledging defeat, Antiochus withdrew to northern Syria, and over the next few weeks almost every single place that he had gained or regained returned to Ptolemaic control.

This was a great victory for the Egyptians, but it proved to be a peak from which they could only fall. Trouble had been brewing for a long time, with occasional outbursts, since a good number of Egyptians, especially in the south, resented being a subject race and the exploitation of their land by foreigners. Before the battle of Raphia, the Ptolemaic governor of Coele Syria had gone over to Antiochus, and Ptolemy’s queen is said to have offered every soldier in the Egyptian army two gold minas. Even with the exaggeration, it seems that the Ptolemies were finding it hard to retain the loyalty of their men.

To judge by the concessions that were made when the troubles were over (reductions in tax, for instance, and concessions to the priesthood), social discontent was the major factor. Very probably, Egyptian priests were behind the disturbances; during the decades of Persian rule, the temples had grown hugely powerful, forming a kind of nationalist underground, much as the Greek Orthodox Church did during the Turkish rule of Greece, and the Catholic Church did in Ireland under British occupation. When the Ptolemies arrived, they did their best to appease the powerful priesthoods, by performing all the rituals appropriate to their position as pharaohs, by allowing the temples to prosper, and by personally funding the building and rebuilding of temples. Many of the monumental Egyptian remains that survive today date from the Ptolemaic era.

Nevertheless, it was clear that this velvet glove concealed an iron fist. There were garrisons everywhere; soldiers were a common sight on any town or city street, especially since the country was so often on a war footing; the kings presented themselves as warriors. Polybius described the inhabitants of Alexandria as Egyptians, Greeks, and mercenaries, “heavily armed, numerous, and coarse.” Ptolemy II’s far-famed parade, held in Alexandria perhaps in 278, included eighty thousand soldiers; even Adolf Hitler’s fiftieth birthday in 1939 was celebrated by only fifty thousand.

Disturbances began not long after Raphia, both in the Delta and in Upper Egypt, and the Egyptian soldiers who had fought in the battle were right at the center of them. Although the kings were never seriously threatened, and probably retained control of the Nile valley, there were occasions between 205 and 186 when men in Thebes were calling themselves pharaohs, or perhaps were being allowed to call themselves pharaohs. The country was seriously weakened by two decades of internal strife, and, as we shall see, only Roman intervention stopped it falling to the Seleucids.


Egypt was a relatively self-contained unit, geographically speaking; it consisted of the Nile Delta on the Mediterranean and a thin strip of fertile flood plains a thousand kilometers (620 miles) south up the river valley to the First Cataract (the first stretch of shallows), never wider than thirty kilometers (twenty miles) at any point and bounded by desert to east and west. The kingdom comprised about 23,000 square kilometers (about 8,880 square miles) and had a population of four or five million.

Settlements along the river were perched on high ground, to avoid the annual mud-depositing floods, the source of the country’s great fertility and wealth; at the time of the floods, they were turned into islands. There were three main areas of settlement. Lower Egypt, the Delta region in the north, was densely settled; it was on the far west of the Delta that Alexander chose to site Alexandria. To the southwest of the Delta lay a large, fertile depression called the Fayyum, where the arable land was hugely increased by a massive drainage and canalization project initiated by the Ptolemies. Then Middle and Upper Egypt sprawled up the Nile, and included two great cities: Memphis in the north, the religious center of Egypt, and Thebes in the south, famous for the temples of Karnak and Luxor. The many-streamed and marshy Delta was hard to cross, so Memphis (near modern Cairo) was the usual gateway to Egypt from the east—though there was the Sinai Desert to cross first.

Egypt had been a major center of culture for hundreds of years before the Macedonians arrived to form its thirty-first and final dynasty, and Ptolemy I had less city-building to do than the Seleucids. Many Egyptian Greeks therefore lived in non-Greek environments, in close relationships with the native populations. Ptolemy’s only large foundation (or refoundation: it replaced a smaller Greek settlement) was Ptolemais in the southern Thebaid, which, with its different dialect and ethnic makeup, had a perennial tendency to regard itself as a separate state, and so needed a regional administrative center.

The Ptolemies, like all Hellenistic kings, also founded many smaller settlements (for instance, by settling mercenaries on the land, like the Seleucids), but there were only ever the three Greek cities in Egypt itself (not counting Egypt’s overseas possessions)—Alexandria, Ptolemais, and Naucratis. But Alexandria by itself was an enormous project. Founded in 331, it was still largely a building site when Ptolemy designated it his capital, perhaps in 313, and marked the occasion by moving Alexander’s body there from Memphis, where he had first laid it to rest after the hijacking. The city was divided into three sections: one for Greeks and Macedonians (who were the only full citizens and were privileged with tax exemptions), one for Egyptians, and one for everyone else, who were mainly Jews—the second largest Jewish population after Jerusalem. Until the growth of Rome, Alexandria was the greatest city in the Mediterranean. Even in the first century, one visitor could say: “It leaves all other cities a long way behind in terms of its beauty, size, financial liquidity, and everything that contributes to graceful living.” But it was also beset with all the usual urban problems, from corruption to ethnic tension.