Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt: 332 BC-395 AD

   When the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great, entered Egypt in 332 BC, he intended to found a universal empire. At its height, Alexander's brief empire included all of Egypt, Greece, Thrace, Turkey, the Near East, Mesopotamia, and Asia all the way to India. Nothing of the kind has ever been seen before or since. The Egyptians thought of Alexander as their great liberator, but soon they found themselves under Alexander as their king. He built a magnificent new capital at the very mouth of the Nile on the Mediterranean. And since Alexander was above everything else a modest man, he named his new capital, Alexandria.

   But the super-human empire that Alexander built did not last longer than his lifetime. After its death, the empire divided among his most powerful generals, and Egypt came under the control of the general, Philip Arrhidaeus, and then Alexander IV, and finally Ptolemy I.

   Ptolemy I began a new dynasty in Egypt, the last in history, the Thirty-second Dynasty. Although Ptolemy was Greek, he adopted Egyptian customs and the Egyptian theory of kingship. Like the Egyptians, the Ptolemaic kings married their sisters, who were all named Cleopatra ("kleos"="famous", "patris"="parents"). All the Ptolemaic kings, likewise, were named Ptolemy.

   Even though they adopted Egyptian customs to a certain degree, the Ptolemaic kings and queens were Greek. They spoke Greek and they thought that Greek culture and peoples were better than Egyptian culture and peoples. Greek became the state language, and cities were renamed. In fact, the word "Egypt" is a Greek word (the Egyptian word is "Kmt" or Kemet). On the whole, native Egyptians occupied the lowest social positions. The Ptolemies, though, as well as their Greek administrators, were highly tolerant and even interested in foreign religions. The most enduring cultural product they produced was a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures; the Ptolemies were interested in the Hebrew religion because of the large number of Jews living in Egypt at the time. Because of this translation, the Hebrew scriptures became one of the most important documents in the history of Western culture; had they ignored the book, it would probably have faded into the dust of history within a few hundred years.

   The final queen of the Ptolemaic line, Cleopatra VII, fell into a dispute with her half-brother over the succession and invited Julius Caesar and the Romans to intervene. Caesar then brought Egypt under the control of Rome under the nominal queenship of Cleopatra. However, when she sided with Mark Antony against Augustus Caesar and lost, Egypt became a Roman province.

   In the long history of Egypt many foreigners dominated the ancient peoples of the Two Lands, but none was more hated than the Romans. Anti-Roman sentiment soon crystallized around a new religion, Christianity, introduced by the evangelist Mark sometime in the middle of the first century AD. These Egyptian Christians, called "Copts," saw this religion as a tool to use in anti-Roman propaganda and agitation. For this reason, the Romans severely persecuted these early Egyptian Christians. But the religion survived in a form far different than the form it assumed in Europe; Egypt, however, would not belong to the Egyptians again for many, many centuries.


World Cultures

©1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999