Make Roma Great Again
ru | en

Hellenistic Egypt

Hellenistic Egypt (332 BCE - 30 BCE) was a period in the history of Egypt that began with its incorporation into the empire of Alexander the Great. The capital of Hellenistic Egypt became the city of Alexandria (Egyptian) founded by Alexander in the Nile Delta, which became one of the main centers of Greek Hellenistic culture.

The first Egyptian ruler of this period, Ptolemy Soter, utilized local traditions that had been preserved from the dynastic period to solidify his power and established the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled for most of the time, hence the state is also known as Ptolemaic Egypt or the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

It existed until it was conquered by Octavian in 30 BCE, after which it became a province of the Roman Empire known as Egypt.

Map of Hellenistic Egypt

History of Hellenistic Egypt

In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt to conquer it but was proclaimed pharaoh and the incarnation of Zeus-Amun. This marked the end of the Achaemenid rule in Egypt. Nine years later, in 323 BCE, Alexander died suddenly in Babylon. His death led to prolonged wars among the Diadochi, who vied for power over the vast empire. The result of this struggle was the partitioning of the territories conquered by Alexander. Egypt was given to Ptolemy I (ruled 323-283 BCE), who declared himself king in 305 BCE. The Ptolemaic dynasty founded by Ptolemy ruled Egypt until its conquest by the Romans.

Ptolemy I is characterized as an intelligent and talented politician. This is indicated by the fact that he was the only one of the Diadochi who died a natural death. He declared Alexander the Great as the patron of his dynasty, and the fact that Alexander was buried in Alexandria served as confirmation. The cult of Alexander spread throughout Egypt. In 270 BCE, Ptolemy II's wife, Arsinoe II, died, and she was soon deified. Subsequent rulers were proclaimed gods during their lifetime shortly after ascending the throne. This cult, first inherited from Ancient Egypt, was intentionally strengthened by the Ptolemaic dynasty to demonstrate their legitimacy and enhance their power.

Under Ptolemy II (ruled 283-246 BCE), Egypt reached its greatest power and prominence. The Ptolemaic realm included Cyrenaica, Cyprus, Palestine, southern Syria, the western part of Asia Minor, the coast of Thrace and the Hellespont, and the islands of the Aegean Sea.

Starting from the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator, who preferred a life of luxury and extravagance, the strength of Egypt weakened. Rebellions by Egyptian tribes led to the loss of parts of the country's territory. The Alexandrian Sosibius and Agathocles, effectively controlling the country during Ptolemy IV's reign, seized power during the minority of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, killing his mother and dispersing all notable individuals who posed a threat to them. Strategos Tlepolemus managed to take away the right of regency but proved to be an ineffective ruler. Seeing the weakness of Egypt, Antiochus III the Great, king of the Seleucid Empire, and Philip V of Macedon jointly attacked and captured the islands in the Aegean Sea, Caria, southern Syria, Palestine, and Coele-Syria.

The forced alliance with Rome did not prevent the invasion of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 170 BCE, who deposed the underage Ptolemy VI Philometor and placed Ptolemy VIII Physcon, whom he controlled, on the throne. After a long struggle, Ptolemy VI, with the support of Rome, managed to regain power in Egypt but died in the Battle of Antioch in 145 BCE.

Ptolemy VIII returned to the throne but fled to Cyprus in 130 BCE after a worsening feud with his wife-sister (formerly the wife-sister of Ptolemy VI), Cleopatra II. Returning with mercenary troops, Ptolemy VIII forcibly regained power around 124 BCE.

After the death of Ptolemy VIII in 116 BCE, according to his will, the second wife of the deceased king, Cleopatra III, wanted to place her underage son, Ptolemy X Alexander I, on the throne. However, the people insisted on the coronation of the elder son, Ptolemy IX Soter II. Unsatisfied with the role of co-ruler, Cleopatra III attempted a coup in 107 BCE by summoning Ptolemy X, who was the former governor of Cyprus. Ptolemy IX, unwilling to fight against his mother, fled to Cyprus where he declared himself king and then went to fight in Syria and Palestine, from where he was expelled by Cleopatra III. By 89 BCE, Ptolemy X became extremely unpopular in Egypt and was killed. Ptolemy IX became the ruler of Egypt.

Ptolemy IX's daughter, Berenice III, married Ptolemy X, and after his death in 80 BCE, she ruled for six months before being forced to marry Ptolemy XI Alexander II, who soon killed her. Enraged, the people tore apart the king, but in doing so, Egypt lost its last direct legitimate heir from the Ptolemaic dynasty. Fearing Roman intervention, Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos (Auletes), the son of Ptolemy IX and a concubine, was declared king.

The Roman Empire, which had been interfering in Egyptian politics for many years, took note of the low legitimacy of the Egyptian king and his decadent lifestyle, which he preferred over governing the country. It is believed that the annexation of Egypt by Rome was part of Julius Caesar's political agenda when he was the leader of the republican party. However, Ptolemy XII managed to secure support from Caesar by paying a huge sum of 6,000 talents (155,400 kilograms of silver) and entering into an alliance. Nevertheless, in 58 BCE, Cyprus, which was ruled by another son of Ptolemy IX from a concubine, was declared a Roman province, and troops were sent there. To escape the people's anger, Ptolemy XII went to Rome to seek assistance, while his wife, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, ruled Egypt for one year. Berenice IV replaced the deceased queen, but in 55 BCE, with the support of Roman troops, she was overthrown and beheaded so that her father, Ptolemy XII, could regain the throne. Compelled to repay debts incurred in Rome, Ptolemy XII distributed treasures and state positions to the Romans. After his death in 51 BCE, his son Ptolemy XIII and daughter Cleopatra VII became co-rulers.

Government Structure

During the Ptolemaic era, the administration of Egypt combined both Greek-Macedonian and Egyptian characteristics. The king held absolute power, supported by a large staff of officials. A vast amount of bureaucratic correspondence has been preserved. The administrative work was conducted in Greek. The traditions of Alexander's court were maintained, including the existence of a "royal diary" and extensive correspondence. There were high-ranking court positions such as "relatives," "equals in rank to relatives," "first friends," "equals in rank to first friends," "friends," "successors," and so on.

At the top of the administrative hierarchy was the position of dioiketes (Greek: διοικητής), who managed the economy and finances, overseeing the royal treasury, managing economic resources, collecting revenue, and controlling expenditures. The dioiketes held the highest office in the state and, with certain abilities, could become all-powerful. One such example was Apollonius, the dioiketes during the reign of Ptolemy II.

All settlements, except for three poleis (city-states), were part of the chora (Greek: χώρα), meaning they did not have self-government. The chora was divided into nomes (this division had existed since ancient times) that largely remained autonomous. The nomes were further divided into toparchies, and those, in turn, were divided into komai. Herodotus and Strabo mention the smallest unit of division, the aroura (Greek: ἄρουρα), a land measurement unit among the Greeks of about 0.024 hectares, and among the Egyptians about 0.2 hectares. The latter explains that "such precise and small division is necessary due to the constant shifting of borders caused by the flooding of the Nile."

The functions of the nomarchs were transferred to the strategoi (Greek: στρατηγός - commander, leader). The secretary in charge of all the administrative affairs of the nome was called the royal secretary. Equivalent positions existed in the toparchies and komai. Appointments to these positions depended on the dioiketes.

The activities of all these officials were closely related to the financial officials, who were also subordinate to the dioiketes. The chief financier in the nome was the oikonomos (Greek: οἰκονόμος - manager of the household, steward). Instructions for the oikonomos from the 3rd century BCE have been preserved, providing a clear understanding of their responsibilities. Essentially, the oikonomos was responsible for the entire economic life of the nome. Their activities were overseen by a controller.

In the administrative center, there was a treasury (trapeza) headed by a trapezites (Greek: τραπεζίτης - money-changer, banker), who carried out various financial transactions, primarily receiving new revenues. There was also a central grain storehouse (thesauros - Greek: θησαυρός - treasury, treasury chamber, granary) under the management of a sitologos (from Greek: σιτολογία - gathering of bread or food supplies). The trapeza and thesauros had local branches.

In Hellenistic Egypt, unlike in the Seleucid Empire, the poleis (city-states) did not play a significant role. There were only three poleis in the entire state: Alexandria, Naukratis (an ancient Greek colony), and Ptolemais (founded by Ptolemy I). At the same time, the ancient Egyptian cities held importance, although they did not have self-government: Memphis, Thebes, Hermopolis, Heracleopolis, and others. The poleis did not belong to the chora and were not part of the administration of the nome. The citizens of the polis constituted the urban community and formed phylai (Greek: φυλή - tribe, clan) and demoi (Greek: δῆμος - people; region, country), similar to the system in Greece. In Naukratis and Ptolemais, they elected the city council and certain officials. In Alexandria, as it was the capital, there was no city council. It was a city of numerous nationalities: Macedonians, Greeks, Thracians, Cretans, Iranians, Anatolians, Jews, Syrians, and Egyptians lived there. The Egyptians were deprived of any political rights. The rest of the population was organized into politema (Greek: πολίτευμα - the way of governing the state, political principle; government of the state; political structure), each independent of the others and subject only to the royal administration. The degree of self-government varied among them.

Ptolemaic Temple in Philae

AleAlexandria was the largest Hellenistic city and a crucial center of crafts and trade. The geographer Strabo (64/63 BCE - 23/24 CE) wrote:

"It is the only place in all of Egypt for both maritime and land trade, thanks to its excellent harbor, and it serves as the world's largest market because everything is easily transported by river and gathered at this point."

Alexandria was built according to the plan of the architect Deinocrates of Rhodes and had a regular layout. The city was divided into five quarters. The royal quarter housed the palaces of the Ptolemies, the theater, the Mouseion, the library, and the tomb of Alexander the Great.

The Ptolemies had a dual relationship with the priesthood. On one hand, the independence of this class was somewhat diminished, but at the same time, the priests were actively supported by the kings as a highly influential social force. Many inscriptions reveal that the Ptolemies granted numerous lands and their revenues to local deities.

Each temple was headed by an archiereus (Greek: ἀρχιερεύς - high priest, high priest), or an epistates (Greek: ἐπίσταθμος - chief, superintendent), representing the local priesthood in dealings with the government. Priest congresses (synods - from Greek: σύνοδος - assembly, gathering) were periodically convened. Temples had special rights, such as the right of sanctuary.

Temples in Egypt were always significant economic centers. This was particularly evident in the Fayyum, where the Temple of Horus in Edfu, the Temple of Isis on Philae Island, and others were located. Temples had certain privileges in the field of craft production, such as the right to produce sesame oil, which was a state monopoly, and the right to manufacture special fabrics. Priests received monetary allowances from the treasury and collected offerings from believers.

All aspects of Egypt's economic and social life were regulated by specific edicts and decrees, some of which have survived to this day. For example, the decree of 261 BCE on slavery and the so-called "Tax Law" of 257 BCE. Egyptian Hellenistic law represented a remarkable blend of Greek and ancient Egyptian legislation. Different courts existed for the Greek and Egyptian populations, as well as for the poleis and the chora. Disputes between Greeks and Egyptians were resolved in a general court.

Related topics

Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Alexander the Great's military campaigns, Alexander the Great