North Africa

Egypt History – The Ptolemaic Age Part I

Two opposing conceptions are attributed by historians to the Ptolemies, as directives of their policy. According to some, the main purpose of the government was to extract from the country as much wealth as possible, in order to be able to maintain an army and a fleet so strong as to allow the rulers to exercise an undisputable dominance in the international politics of the Mediterranean; Egypt would only have been an instrument for a politics whose movements and aims were outside it, for an invasive and aggressive imperialism, aimed at creating a Macedonian-Hellenic world power. According to others, however, the main purpose of the Ptolemies would have been the creation of a strong, independent kingdom, sheltered from any attempt of enemy oppression; the dominance of the sea, the control of the maritime routes which Egypt lead, would have been only a necessity to guarantee such independence and the security of free trade with foreign countries; an imperialism, therefore, defensive and of an economic nature, instrument of the prosperity of the Egyptian state. In our opinion, the policy of the Ptolemies was not so much the development of a fixed program, prepared by long hand and applied with rigorous logic, but rather a changing action, from time to time moved and determined in part by one’s own will, in part even greater by the circumstances of the politics of other neighboring or rival countries, and the state of mind of the subjects. We must not forget that the Nile valley, under the new dynasty, constitutes something hybrid and infinitely complex; no longer an exclusively Egyptian state, independent or subject to a foreign power, but a Greek-Egyptian state, a Hellenistic state, inevitably led not to isolate itself in an African policy, but also forced to mix in that which gravitated around the Aegean and the Mediterranean. However, in this new organism the element of Egypt is anything but accessory; on the other hand, it constitutes the central nucleus of the new kingdom and of the interests of the rulers.

According to, the Great Alexander did not treat Egypt as a country of conquest but, although he preordained a firm organization as a province of the empire he was creating, he followed a policy of conciliation and rapprochement towards the indigenous people. The administration and financial control were entrusted to a Greek, Cleomenes of Naucratis, with the special task of providing for the rapid progress of the newly created city, Alexandria (v.); military power was held by two generals of the occupying army, but the names were left as indigenous archers, Doloaspis and Petesis, and the lower posts were also occupied by indigenous people. There is no doubt that Alexander was already alive and effective power had been centralized in the hands of Cleomenes alone. Even when in 323, after the conqueror’s death, General Ptolemy son of Lago, managed to be assigned Egypt as a satrapy, he did not stray too far from the politics of the great Macedonian. A notable change took place as Alexandria assumed the appearance and function of the new capital, and Ptolemy’s attention was drawn to the events taking place in the Mediterranean and he participated in them; little by little, above all, as the number of Greeks who came to settle in the country increased around the army of occupation. For about twenty years the satrap of Egypt ruled not in his own name, but in that of the central authority, nevertheless trying to solidify his position: getting rid, for example, of Cleomenes and creating a fleet and an army strong enough to assure him the independence and to allow him to face any eventuality. In 321 the disastrous expedition of Perdiccas against Egypt freed him from the most fearsome antagonist and transformed his revocable investiture into a right of conquest. He therefore knew how to combine great prudence and skill in subsequent events, managing to form a vast maritime domain in the Aegean. However, in 306, a formidable defeat inflicted on him by Demetrius, son of Antigonus Monophthalus, at Salamis of Cyprus, caused the vast building to collapse. Antigonus and Demetrius were proclaimed βασιλεῖς.

The satraps Seleucus and Cassander took the same title. In 305 also Ptolemy, withdrawn in Egypt and already from 321 de facto independent, following the example of the other diadochi, officially assumed the title of king, however, he began to count the years of his sovereignty from 324-23. The dismemberment of the Alexander empire was thus accomplished in law and in fact, and Ptolemy son of Lake founded the Ptolemaic or Lagidi dynasty (see., Philopator, Soter, etc. – with whom they were venerated in the official cult), a dynasty that died out almost exactly three centuries later, on the death of Cleopatra VII. Until 301 the struggles between the diadochi led to frequent reversals of situations and changes in territorial possessions, but no event managed to endanger the safety of Ptolemy in the rich and populous valley of the Nile. It was probably during the fight to which he was forced against Antigonus and Demetrio that the Rodîs decreed him the surname with which he was later venerated in the cult, of Sotere “Salvatore”.

Egypt History - The Ptolemaic Age 1