The Ptolemies: Rise of a Dynasty – Ptolemaic Egypt in 330-246 BC


This is the first of three planned books on the last of Egypt’s dynasties, written not by an Egyptologist, but by a specialist in Classical and Hellenistic Greek history. This initial volume, covering the reigns of the first two Ptolemies, focuses more on military activities across the Mediterranean, than on providing an in-depth account of life in Egypt at this time. Grainger details the main events of the wars between the Successors of Alexander the Great – their constantly shifting alliances, and their territorial losses and gains. There was something of an arms race between the Successors to build armies and fleets of warships.

Within Egypt, the Ptolemaic Dynasty represented a continuation of the pharaonic regime, but marked by increasing immigration of Macedonians, Greeks, and other peoples. However, the author argues that the changes brought in were ‘neither significant nor fundamental, but additional’. Ptolemaic rule was concentrated mostly in the new capital city of Alexandria, and focused on the reorganisation of the army and administration (in particular the tax system), and the development of the Fayum and Red Sea areas; most of the rest of the country was only minimally affected.

Neither Ptolemy I nor II fares well in Grainger’s analysis. Ptolemy I (described from his coin portraits as ‘a bruiser’) was an able military commander, but also a ‘determined womaniser’, leading to intense competition between his many sons (and their ambitious mothers). His successor was a younger son, Ptolemy II, who began his reign by killing his many older and half-siblings. Unlike his father, this second Ptolemy was no warrior-king, instead sending out able commanders to conduct his campaigns while he distracted his subjects with festivals in Alexandria, including the lavish Ptolemaia celebrating the rule (and divinity) of the dynasty. According to Grainger, Ptolemy II set the pattern for the behaviour of many later dictator types (including Roman emperors, and even Hitler), as the court became closed off, and his favourites given power ‘until they ceased to be a favourite, and were cast into the outer darkness’. The royal women of the early regime are given only a brief mention, with the exception of Arsinoe II; as sister-wife of Ptolemy II, she was unusually able to act in her own right, and so merits a chapter to herself.

The early Ptolemaic empire emerged as the most powerful state in the eastern Mediterranean, having avoided the violence and disruption caused by disputed succession in Syria, Macedon, Greece, and Asia Minor. However, this situation could not last. Egypt had attracted far too many enemies, as the Ptolemies over-extended their reach without having the armed strength to hold their gains, while within Egypt the heavy taxation of the native Egyptian population stoked resentment, eventually leading to rebellion and the eventual collapse of the dynasty. But that is a story for another volume.

The Ptolemies: Rise of a Dynasty – Ptolemaic Egypt in 330-246 BC
by John D Grainger
Pen & Sword, 2022
ISBN 978-1-3990-9022-3
Hardback £25