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Updated on February 19, 2010

Ptolemy was a Greek dynasty, the name taken by a number of kings who ruled Egypt from 323 B.C. to 30 B.C. The Ptolemaic rulers controlled an empire unrivaled in its day in military strength, wealth, and cultural achievements. The dynasty always remained foreign to Egypt, however, and native resentment, the incompetence of the later kings, and Roman imperialism combined to bring about its collapse.

The founder of the dynasty was Ptolemy I, a Macedonian general in the army of Alexander the Great. When Alexander died in 323 B.C. and his empire was divided, Ptolemy I received Egypt. He and his successors built an empire that included Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus, southern Syria, and Phoenicia. The Ptolemies considered themselves the successors of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. They accepted the Egyptian religion, built new temples, and appeared in paintings with the dress and titles of the pharaohs. They were, nevertheless, conquerors, and they had to rely on Greek mercenaries for their armies, on Greek officials to carry out their policies, and on Greek businessmen to develop industry and commerce. Land concessions were given to Greeks who settled in Egypt, and some Greek communities were allowed to organize themselves like Greek city-states, electing their own councils and assemblies. For the Egyptian population the traditional political system was retained, but military forces under a Greek general were stationed in each district to preserve law and order.

The Ptolemies maintained strict control over the economy. The king owned all the land, supervised irrigation work, and determined the types and quantities of crops to be raised. Taxes were collected on agricultural products, animals, and houses and even for the use of water and pasturelands. The state had a monopoly on banking and on the manufacture of oil, salt, textiles, papyrus, and beer. Trade was strictly regulated. Alexandria, the capital, became the foremost commercial city of the Mediterranean world and an intellectual and cultural center as well. In an effort to rival the achievements of Athens, the Ptolemies built a library and museum in Alexandria, which attracted outstanding scholars, poets, artists, and scientists.

The Ptolemies were never really accepted by the Egyptians, however, and after the first century of their rule there were frequent revolts. Inefficient kings, involved in family intrigues, fell increasingly under Roman domination. Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic ruler, tried to maintain her throne by enlisting the support of Julius Caesar and, later, Mark Antony. The latter, however, was defeated in battle by Octavian (later the Roman emperor Augustus) in 31 B.C., and Egypt was absorbed into the Roman Empire the next year.

Ptolemy I

Ptolemy I, Macedonian general and ruler of Egypt from 323 B.C. to 285 B.C. Born Macedonia, about 367 B.C. Died Egypt, 283 B.C.

Ptolemy was one of the most trusted and capable generals of Alexander the Great. When Alexander's empire was divided after his death in 323 B.C., Ptolemy was appointed satrap, or governor, of Egypt. In the warfare among Alexander's generals for control of the empire, Ptolemy gained Palestine and Cyprus. He declared himself Ring of Egypt in 304 B.C. Ptolemy maintained rigid control of the Egyptian economy, spending the proceeds on war and on making Alex andria, his capital, the foremost cultural center of the time. There he founded a famous library and museum.

Ptolemy II

His son, Ptolemy II - the builder of the Pharis lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - also developed Egypt's economy.

Ptolemy III

Under Ptolemy III, Egyptian armies conquered major cities in Syria, Asia Minor and Thrace. But subsequent Ptolemys were less successful, more violent and prone to family feuds. The best known member of the dynasty, Cleopatra, intrigued with Julius Caesar and later married Mark Antony to preserve her power, but she committed suicide after the Romans, under Octavian, took Alexandria in 30 BC. Egypt was then formally annexed by Rome.


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