Ptolemies and Cleopatra - Hellenistic Egypt
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Ptolemies and Cleopatra

silver coin with a man's head in profile, with longish hair
Ptolemy I Soter, on a coin
(He's trying to look like Alexander)

April 2016 - In 332 BC Alexander the Great and his Greek army conquered Egypt from the Persians who were ruling Egypt. At first the Egyptians thought he would make them independent again, but he did not. Alexander made Egypt part of his own empire. When Alexander died in 323 BC, his general Ptolemy (TA-low-mee; the P is silent) took over Egypt as his own territory.

Egyptian style stone carving of a man's head
Now Ptolemy's trying to look
Egyptian (British Museum)

Ptolemy worked hard to make it clear that Egypt was now conquered by Greeks. Rather than settling in an Egyptian city like Memphis, Ptolemy had his capital in a brand-new city called Alexandria after Alexander. In the harbor of Alexandria, Ptolemy built a giant lighthouse to guide ships. This lighthouse, the Pharos, was one of the seven wonders of the world, and probably the tallest building in the world, for more than a thousand years. Ptolemy also used the tax money he took from the Egyptians to start a great university in Alexandria, like the ones at Taxila and Nalanda that the Buddhists were starting in India at the same time. The University of Alexandria was the home of the mathematician Euclid, who wrote the first geometrical proofs, the astronomer Aristarchus, who figured out that the earth went around the sun, Eratosthenes, who figured out how big around the earth was, and Archimedes, who worked out how levers work. These men all knew each other and worked together at the university in Alexandria. To help with the research, Ptolemy also started a big library in Alexandria, collecting books from all the ships that sailed into the port of Alexandria.

Cleopatra
Cleopatra VII (see how
much she looks like Ptolemy?)

Ptolemy and his successors (all called Ptolemy) ruled Egypt until the Roman Augustus conquered it from the last Ptolemy, the Pharaoh Cleopatra in 30 BC. The Greek Ptolemies succeeded in reconquering much of Israel and Syria, as the Egyptians had in the New Kingdom, and as the Philistines had before that. The Ptolemies brought Greek culture and the Greek language to Egypt and to Israel, though ordinary people continued to speak Egyptian and worship Egyptian gods.

Learn by doing: the circumference of a circle
Go on to the Romans conquering Egypt

Bibliography and further reading about Hellenistic Egypt:

Egypt After the Pharaohs: 332 BC-AD 642: from Alexander to the Arab Conquest, by Alan Bowman (1996). A standard among historians, and pretty readable.

Cleopatra, by Diane Stanley (reprinted 1997) . A biography of the last independent queen of Egypt, for kids.

Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra, by Sarah Pomeroy (reprinted 1990). Pomeroy is an expert on the lives of women in antiquity.

The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, by Erich Gruen (reprinted 1986).

Other time periods in Egyptian history:
Old Kingdom (2686-2160 BC)
First Intermediate Period (2160-2040 BC)
Middle Kingdom (2040-1633 BC)
Second Intermediate Period (1786-1558 BC)
New Kingdom (1558-1085 BC)
Third Intermediate Period (1085-525 BC)
Persian rule (525-332 BC)
Greek rule (332-30 BC) (also called the Hellenistic)
Roman rule (30 BC-700 AD)
Islamic rule (700 AD to present)
More about ancient Egypt
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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