Intro to the Ptolemies

July 3, 2017

 

Fabulous, powerful, scandalous: what better way to describe Egypt's last ruling family? Although they weren't ethnically Egyptian, the Ptolemies immersed themselves in their adopted homeland's vibrant culture and traditions without hesitation, discarding their Macedonian identity to rule with all the splendor and might of conventional Egyptian pharaohs.

 

The first pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy I, started out as one of Alexander the Great's most trusted generals. Following Alexander's death in 323 C.E., Ptolemy recognized this opportunity for advancement and moved to seize the capital city of Alexandria and consolidate his power ( before his death, Alexander had conveniently failed to name his choice for the new ruler of Egypt). One of the strangest and most brazen ways he did so directly involved Alexander himself: on its way back from Babylon, Ptolemy intercepted Alexander's funeral procession, stole the Macedonian king's sarcophagus, and had Alexander buried in a grand ceremony at Memphis, the traditional and historical seat of pharaonic power. With his position as "pharaoh" of Egypt now uncontested, Ptolemy I Soter set about securing his legacy and the future of his family.

 

Beginning with Ptolemy I,  the rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty styled themselves as conventional Egyptian pharaohs, in the vein of Thutmose III and Ramesses the Great. They appeared as such in all official court and religious artwork, and were even deified and worshipped during their reigns as living gods. And, like the pharaohs, they kept it all in the family (Game of Thrones style)! Uncles married nieces, brothers married sisters: it's incredibly surprising that the Ptolemies (as far as we know) didn't suffer from any serious/extensive genetic defects. However, the close-knit nature of the Ptolemaic Dynasty lead to its share of problems. The last pharaonic family was marred by centuries of suspicion, jealousy, and paranoia, and had to deal with plenty of "mysterious" deaths and assassination attempts.

 

Every male of the dynasty was named Ptolemy; every female Arsinoe, Berenice, or Cleopatra. Ptolemy I expanded Egypt's borders, conquering Cyprus, Cyrenaica, and parts of Anatolia. His son, Ptolemy II, acquired Southern Nubia and its vast gold reserves. The Ptolemies built palaces, temples, museums and, in 295 B.C.E, the Library of Alexandria. Over the years, the Ptolemaic Dynasty grew in power, influence, and wealth, until the fall of Cleopatra VII in 30 B.C.E. and the advent of Roman rule.

 

 

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