Cleopatra: The Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt

How Ptolemy I Soter Rose to Power

Perhaps one of the most well-known cities in all of ancient history is the Egyptian Alexandria. Alexander the Great came to Egypt in 332 BC and established the port city of Alexandria 331 BC. He gained Egypt without much of a fight from the current satrap, or local Persian ruler, Mazakes (Redford). Some scholars declare Alexandria was the “most important” of all his created cities (Cartledge 106). Alexandria morphed into a city of art and science, having a library and museum. It claimed the title of the “capital of culture of the entire Greek world” (Cartledge 108).


Alexander’s death left Egypt to be ruled by Ptolemy I, a close acquaintance of the late Alexander (“Ptolemaic Kingdom”). However, Alexander’s once powerful nation started to crumple. Ptolemy I saw this as an opportunity to solidify his reign. He resisted attacks from Perdiccas, another of Alexander the Great’s close generals and ruler of Cappadocia, in the First Diadochi War, and declared himself king of Egypt in 305 BC. This was the beginning of the approximately 300 year rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. It is out of this dynasty that rose the famous Cleopatra VII (Redford).


A Brief History of the Rulers of the Ptolemaic Dynasty

The first ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt was Ptolemy I Soter, soter meaning savior. The 1st Diadoch War was a feature of his rule; it lasted from 322-320 BC; these were the wars between Alexander the Great’s generals, or Diadochi (Redford). After Alexander the Great’s death, the balance of power was shaken and his generals were attempting to disperse the power. Tensions were rising between the leaders as promises were not kept and new alliances and divisions were created. Historians believe Ptolemy I purposely pushed the other generals into the First Diadochi War because he claimed the body of Alexander the Great and bought it to Egypt. Perdiccas had first ordered for Alexander the Great’s body to be buried in Aegae of Macedonia, but Ptolemy I persuaded the corpse convoy to bring it to Egypt and bury it in the temple of Zeus Ammon. After this, Perdiccas assembled an army to attack Ptolemy I in Egypt, but every time he tried to get his men into the city, the Nile would block the way. When Perdiccas failed for the third time to get into Alexandria and his troops started to revolt, he attempted to get military advice from his allies–Peithon, Seleucus, and Antigenes. Rather than giving him advice, they killed him to end this meaningless war. Perdiccas’ allies met with Ptolemy I afterwards to negotiate. The negotiations left Ptolemy I as the ruler of Egypt, Babylonia would be ruled by Seleucus, Peithon would rule Media, and Antigenes would rule Elam (Lendering).


Ptolemy II Philadelphus was the son of Ptolemy I Soter and took over his rule. He co-reigned with his sister, the first Ptolemaic female ruler, Arisone II. The Syrian Wars began during his reign and ended during the rule of Ptolemy VI Philometor (Redford). The main combatants in the Syrian Wars included the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Seleucid Empire. They were fighting over the southern portion of Syria, referred to as Coele-Syria. There were six Syrian Wars in total, each one debilitating the two nations more and more. The first Syrian War (274-271 BC) ended with Ptolemaic control over Coele-Syria. The second Syrian War (260-253 BC) was resolved with the union between the Ptolemaic princess Cleopatra II and Antiochos II, the current Seleucid king. The third Syrian War (246-241 BC) left the Ptolemaic Empire with the most land it would ever claim.  The fourth Syrian War (219-217 BC) utilized Egyptian soldiers and resulted in Egypt maintaining its claim of Coele-Syria. At its end, the Egyptian soldiers organized into the “Egyptian Revolt” and pulled away from the Ptolemaic Kingdom. The Ptolemaic Kingdom reclaimed the land in 185 BC taken from the rebels. The fifth Syrian War was a failure for the Ptolemy Empire, resulting in the loss of Coele-Syria and the marriage of Ptolemy V to Cleopatra I, the daughter of the Seleucid king Antiochos III. The sixth Syrian War ended due to Roman involvement, forcing the Seleucid Empire to leave Egypt alone (“Syrian Wars”). The Roman Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus said the following in his final negotiations to Antiochos:

“The grasping nature of Antiochus has been the cause of his present and past misfortunes. While he was the possessor of a vast empire, which the Romans did not object to, he seized Coele-Syria, which belonged to Ptolemy, his own relative and our friend….We might properly impose a severer punishment on him for his obstinacy in fighting us so persistently, but we are not accustomed to abuse our own prosperity or to aggravate the misfortunes of others. We will offer him the same conditions as before…He must abandon Europe altogether and all of Asia this side of the Taurus, the boundaries to be fixed hereafter” (Appian 38).

There were many Ptolemy rulers prior to Cleopatra VII. The key triumphs of each king’s reign will be summarized. During the ruling of Ptolemy III Euregetes, the Ptolemaic Egyptian Empire was the largest it would ever be. Ptolemy IV Philopator reign was marked by the beginning of rebellions from the people that turned into non-threatening dissatisfaction. In 194 BC, Ptolemy V Epiphanes married the first female Ptolemaic ruler with the name of Cleopatra I. His reign was full of unrest and he died at the hand of his own generals via poison (Redford).

After the death of Ptolemy V, Cleopatra I reigned until she died. Her son, Ptolemy VI Philometor took the responsibility to reign in 175 BC and married Cleopatra II, his sister. It is important to note that incest was a feature of Egyptian culture, Greek culture found incest to not be appropriate for mortal men (Roller 36). They ruled together, and at some points in time reigned with Ptolemy VII, their son. Ptolemy VI also married Cleopatra Thea, his daughter, to protect the Ptolemaic throne. It was he who allowed the erection of a Yahweh Temple. Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes II married his sister (and Ptolemy VI’s widow after he received a mortal injury in the battle of Oinoparas) Cleopatra II, and proceeded to assassinate her son, Ptolemy VII, for trying to usurp the Ptolemaic reign. He also married Cleopatra III, the daughter of Cleopatra II and the niece of Ptolemy VIII. However, Cleopatra II’s civil war drove Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III away to Cyprus. After that, Cleopatra II declared herself sovereign queen of Alexandria with the title of Thea Philometor Soteira which means “goddess mother-loving savior.” Ptolemy VIII regained control of Alexandria, but it was a fight that left many dead, and he published an amnesty decree before he died in 116 BC (Redford).

Ptolemy IX Soter II and Ptolemy X Alexander I, the sons of Cleopatra III and Ptolemy VIII, co-ruled from 116-81 BC. During this time, Cleopatra III seemed to exercise more governing authority over the kings. Ptolemy X married the daughter of Ptolemy IX, Cleopatra Berenice III. After Ptolemy X died, Cleopatra Berenice III was the ruler, but not for long. Ptolemy XI Alexander II, the son of Ptolemy X and a unknown woman, married Cleopatra Berenice III and murdered her. His crime did not go unnoticed, and the Alexandrians killed him (Redford).

After the death of Ptolemy XI Alexander II, there was no legitimate male heir to the throne. To solve this, Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, the son of Ptolemy IX and an unknown concubine, became the ruler. He married his sister, Cleopatra V, and had the daughter Cleopatra Berenice IV. He also married an unknown woman and had four more children: Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator, Arsinoe IV, Ptolemy XIV, and Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra VII co-reigned with her father and her brothers. However, Ptolemy XIII assassinated the Roman military leader Pompey. This angered Julius Caesar, the current Roman consul and dictator, and he had Ptolemy XIII killed and Alexandria placed under Roman control. Nonetheless, Cleopatra VII was able to seduce Julius Caesar and regain her throne (Redford).

The Ptolemaic Dynasty ended in 30 BC with the death of Cleopatra VII.

Next blog post to read: Cleopatra: Becoming a Female Ruler of Egypt



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