The Ptolemies: What Was Ancient Egypt Like Under Greek Control?

The Ptolemies were a Greek dynasty that ruled ancient Egypt in the final centuries before the Common Era. They made a lasting impact on Nilotic culture and its landscape.

Apr 23, 2021By Michael Arnold, BA Art History, MA Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology
assassins creed alexandria
Digital illustration of Alexander the Great statue in the foreground of ancient Alexandria from Assassin’s Creed Origins via Vice magazine


When Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt in 332 BC, he was not only welcomed but deified. The conqueror, whose reputation quite literally preceded him, deposed the occupying Persian regime with ease. He then went on to meet the Oracle at Siwah, who proclaimed him to be the son of Amon. Alexander was depicted as a god and pharaoh thereafter. His stay in Egypt was brief. But the country enchanted an ambitious general within his ranks, a certain Ptolemy I Soter. Let’s learn more about the Ptolemies and the history of ancient Egypt!


Who Were The Ptolemies?

Illustration of the Oracle Temple at Siwa by Jean Claude Govin, via Jean Claude Govin website


After establishing his eponymous capital city on the Mediterannean, Alexander and company stole off to chase glory in the East. In his stead, a nomarch remained to govern Macedon’s brand new possession on the Nile.


But when fortune failed him  and it certainly did: Alexander the Great became ill suddenly in Babylon and died aged only 32the empire that he’d sewn together so quickly fell apart just as fast. His generals divided the provinces amongst themselves, and Ptolemy set his sights on Egypt. He’d walked the political tightrope until he was able to firmly establish himself as a satrap of the province. And it wasn’t until 305 BC, long after murdering Alexander’s lingering nomarch, that he crowned himself pharaoh of a new and independent Egyptian dynasty — the Ptolemies.


A long line of them would go on to rule after him, ending with the suicide of his last of kin, Cleopatra.


Statue of a Ptolemaic prince (possibly Caesarion, the son of Cleopatra VII and Julius Caesar), Late Ptolemaic Period, 51BC-30BC, via The Brooklyn Museum, New York City

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Although Greeks had been in Egypt since as early as the 7th century BC, it’s this dynasty that really gives meaning to the term Graeco-Egyptian. Ancient Egypt had long been in its death spiral by the time Alexander and Ptolemy first entered the scene. But for almost 300 years it was restored, albeit with a Greek twist, by the Ptolemies.


The Ptolemies Reorganized Ancient Egypt

Appliqué of Ptolemy I Soter as Dionysus, 3rd century BC, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Nectanebo II, the last ethnically Egyptian pharaoh, exercised his power to the hilt. But he was unable to stop the inevitable doom of Pharaonic Egypt. Ptolemy I Soter, on the other side of the Persian occupation, broadly represents its recovery. He ushered in the start of a renewed prosperity that continued into the Roman Period after the Ptolemies. 


It all began with a reorganization of the state. For starters, the administration of the country would now be centered around Alexandria. While still important, the former religious and political centers of Thebes and Memphis took a back seat to the new capital and other Greek cities like Naukratis and Ptolemais.


According to the renowned British classicist Alan K. Bowman, both the government and economy of the Ptolemies were “highly organized and tightly controlled.” Because of this, the Ptolemaic Period saw increased urban development in ancient Egyptian cities and towns.


Head of an Egyptian official, Ptolemaic Period, 50 BC, Diorite, Mitrahina, Egypt, via The Brooklyn Museum, New York City


The Ptolemies ushered in a new bureaucracy to govern the country that was, aptly, pyramid-shaped. Naturally, the pharaoh was at the top of the pyramid, followed by politicians and ministers heading various business sectors, and regional ministers called strategos in the strata beneath that. The bureaucracy was so intricate that even a petty komarch, or village administrator, factored into the network that linked all the way up to the monarch.


Along with changes to bureaucracy and government, the Ptolemies imported Greek laws while taking care not to supplant traditional Egyptian ones. Like with most else, they laid the Greek custom on top of the existing blueprint. 


This created a two-tier legal system. Contracts made in Greek would be settled according to Greek law in Greek courts, called chrematistai; meanwhile, contracts made in Demotic adhered to the laws of the land and were settled in Egyptian courts, laokriti.


Treatment of Natives

Digital illustration of an Egyptian landscape from Assassin’s Creed Origins via


The notion of a two-tier legal system implies that the Ptolemies promoted an unequal society. And to a great extent that is true. Of course, native Egyptians were more populous than Greeks in Egypt. But Greeks dominated the aristocratic classes, and they barred most Egyptians from ever entering into them.


One method by which an Egyptian could advance was through military service. Grants of cultivable land were often the reward at the end of a soldier’s tenure. Landowners were considered creditworthy in ancient Egypt and were, therefore, able to more easily access the greater Ptolemaic economy. Nonetheless, they often had to borrow at exorbitant interest rates.


If an Egyptian had ambitions to enter the government bureaucracy, he would first need to learn Greek and culturally ‘hellenize’ himself to a considerable degree. But, by and large, Greeks were overtly favored in the administrative and legal systems established under the Ptolemies.


The Religion of the Ptolemies: Syncretism and Temple Construction

Colossal statue of the Nile potamos,  2nd-3rd century AD, Marble, Naples, Italy


Like most other pre-Christian Mediterranean cultures, both Greek and Egyptian religious traditions were fluid. They required little devotion on the part of the masses and were often modified to absorb new gods when it was convenient to do so.


For example, there was a potamos called Nilus in the Greek pantheon who dwelt permanently in the Egyptian river of the same name. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians worshipped Hercules and often conflated him with the Levantine deity Melqart. And for a time the Romans, particularly those in southern Italy, became obsessed with the cult of Isis.


The Ptolemies brought this spirit of syncretism to their rule of ancient Egypt by introducing new hybrid gods. Chief among them was Serapis, the god that most represents Graeco-Egyptian culture. No mythical figure personifies the Ptolemaic dynasty better than he does.


Pendant with image of Serapis, 2nd-1st century BC, Gold, Graeco-Egyptian, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Ptolemy I Soter used Serapis as a great unifier. He was depicted as a Greek in his physical characteristics, and Greeks would easily recognize him as a stand-in for Zeus. Meanwhile, the native Egyptians would connect him with Osiris and the Apis Bull myth.


Serapis was the protector of the capital. Magnificent temple complexes called ‘Serapaeums’ were erected in his honor both at Alexandria and Memphis the royal seats of the new and old dynasties respectively.


But despite this Hellenistic injection, the Ptolemies by no means sought to stamp out the traditional religion of ancient Egypt. On the contrary, they restored many of the old temples and even erected new ones. In fact, several of the best-preserved and most visited Egyptian sites today are products of the Ptolemaic kingdom. The temple of Amon at Karnak, the most important ancient complex in Luxor, was significantly expanded by the Ptolemies.


Illustration of Karnak by Jean Claude Govin, via Jean Claude Govin website


The famous temple dedicated to Horus at Edfu is a Ptolemaic reconstruction of a ruined Pharaonic one. The temple of Philae, dedicated to Isis and standing proudly on an island just south of the Aswan Dam, was originally constructed by the son of Ptolemy I Soter, one Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Today Philae is perhaps the most recognizable ancient monument in Upper Egypt.


Additionally, the temples at Dendera, dedicated to the fertility goddess Hathor, and Kom Ombo are original Ptolemaic constructions. All of this investment is proof that Egypt’s Greek rulers promoted the cults of the ancient gods and even worshipped themselves. They also allowed the traditional priesthood to remain fully intact.


Relief of Sobek at Kom Ombo – the crocodile temple


Kom Ombo, among the most fascinating of the Ptolemaic temples, served as a shrine to the great crocodile god Sobek. His temple bears evidence that worship of crocodiles continued under the Ptolemies: inside a chamber at Kom Ombo there is a room filled with mummified forms of these menacing beasts of the Nile. And it’s believed that living crocodiles were kept in the temple at one time.


Immigration & Empire

Map of the Ptolemaic Empire in red at its height, via New York University Institute for the Study of the Ancient World


Egypt embraced an immigration boom under the Ptolemies. Droves of Greeks from not only Macedonia but the Aegean islands, Asia Minor and Thrace set sail for Alexandria once the Ptolemies had firmly established their dynasty.


Huge numbers of Jews also migrated into Egypt. They were welcomed by Ptolemy I Soter who, in the tradition of Alexander, held them in high regard. Most of his successors extended similar tolerance. Later waves of Jewish immigrants in the 2nd century BC were primarily those fleeing persecution under the Seleucid occupation of Judea.


Much of the early migration, however, had to do with Egypt’s swelling empire. At its apex, Ptolemaic Egypt had conquered the expanse of land from Sinai to Syria, the entire island of Cyprus, huge swathes of southern Anatolia, several Aegean islands — most notably Delos, the birthplace of Apollo — as well as coastal Cyrenia in modern-day Libya.


Such expansion was made possible by a powerful navy. At a time when Rome and Carthage were at one another’s necks in the Western Mediterranean, Ptolemaic Egypt made waves in the East.


The Ptolemies assembled a formidable army for land operations. Its light infantry ranks were populated by immigrants and natives seeking upward mobility. Its cavalry was mostly composed of skilled Greek warriors. It was also not uncommon to pay foreign mercenaries to assist in campaigns as needed.


Decorative war elephant, 1st century AD


The Ptolemaic generals often employed war elephants on the battlefield. They had access to the North African species, like the ones Hannibal used, as well as much larger Asian elephants.


Most of the territorial acquisitions were accomplished under the first three pharaohs. Ptolemy III Eugeretes, the grandson of Ptolemy I Soter and third reigning sovereign of the dynasty, made it as far east as Babylon and as far north as Thrace in his military campaigns. The conquering spirit of Alexander was certainly alive in him. After his death, however, Ptolemaic Egypt began to stagnate and then decline. 


Later generations of Ptolemies idled in Alexandria as Rome overcame Carthage as the Mediterranean superpower. By the Late Ptolemaic Period, the Roman Republic wielded significant influence over Egypt on both an international and domestic scale.


Ancient Egypt Under Cleopatra VII: Last of the Ptolemies

Statue of a Ptolemaic queen – most definitely Cleopatra VII, Ptolemaic Period Egypt, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


The declination of Ptolemaic Egypt culminated with Cleopatra VII — that is the Cleopatra usually referred to in popular culture without her regnal number. It’s little known that there were six before and one after her with the same name. This, like the many other Hollywood omissions and mischaracterizations, obfuscates the historical person. But she is the most famous member of the House of Ptolemy for good reason.


In her youth, she was married to her brother, a custom that had become common among the Ptolemies of the late period. Sibling marriage had ancient roots in Egypt, but it was regarded with distaste in Greece. In this way, they broke sharply with their forefathers. The sibling couple ruled as co-pharaohs for a time, and after some squabbles and assassinations, Cleopatra was raised as the sole monarch.


During her reign, she garnered a reputation for truly caring about her subjects. Cleopatra was a polyglot. She was the first Ptolemaic ruler to actually speak Egyptian, and for this, she was loved. Cleopatra was hailed as the physical reincarnation of Isis. And though she was probably not beautiful in the traditional sense, as Plutarch so delicately puts it, she had an “irresistible charm.”


She was known to have used sex as a tool in diplomatic relations. And at a time when currying favor with Roman leaders was essential to maintaining power in Egypt, Cleopatra worked her charms wisely. She went on to have a total of four children between two famous Romans statesmen.


Screenshot from Invicta History Documentaries


Her first child was Caesarion, the son of Julius Caesar. This boy secured the bond between Rome and Alexandria. He ensured Cleopatra’s enduring rule of Egypt. After Julius Caesar was assassinated, however, Cleopatra linked up with the Roman general Marc Antony. Together the couple had three children: twins – a boy and a girl, named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and a second son named Ptolemy Philadelphus.


But, sadly, Cleo placed her bets on the wrong general. Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar who would go on to become the first Augustus of the Roman Empire, defeated the couple at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Cleopatra suicided by snake poison, leaving behind her four children. This event marked the definitive end of Ptolemaic Egypt.


Octavian, now Caesar Augustus, seized control of Egypt and all its remaining overseas holdings. He had Caesarion murdered immediately. He brought Cleopatras’s other three children back to Rome as trophies. Any record of Ptolemy Philadelphus’s fate has been lost to time. Alexander Helios died early on in Italy. And Cleopatra Selene was pawned off to a Numidian king as a token of goodwill from the Romans.


Much of the Ptolemaic bureaucracy and infrastructure was left in place during the Roman Period. And to most ordinary Egyptians, whoever was ruling in Alexandria didn’t make much of a difference to their lives anyway.

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By Michael ArnoldBA Art History, MA Ancient Mediterranean ArchaeologyMichael is a contributing writer and former world traveler whose hometown is New York City. He spent the majority of 2019 exploring Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. And currently, he’s studying for a masters degree in Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Pavia in Italy. In his spare time, Michael enjoys researching and writing about art, history, and archaeology with a focus on the ancient world.