ptolemaic and roman egypt

Marble bust of the Greco-Egyptian deity Serapis.  Roman copy after a Greek original (4th cent. BCE) made by the sculptor Bryaxis for the Serapeum in Alexandria.  Now in the Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City.


Kleopatra Selene II was born 40 BCE as a Ptolemaic Princess and was the only daughter to Greek Ptolemaic queen Kleopatra VII of Egypt and Roman triumvir Mark Antony. She was the fraternal twin of Alexander Helios, and was born, raised and educated in Alexandria, Egypt.

In 30 BCE, her parents committed suicide after being defeated by Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) in a naval battle. Subsequently, Octavian and his army invaded Egypt. Octavian captured Selene and her brothers and took them from Egypt to Italy. Octavian celebrated his military triumph in Rome by parading the orphans in heavy golden chains in the streets. The chains were so heavy that they could not walk, eliciting sympathy from many of the Roman onlookers. Octavian gave the siblings to Octavia Minor to be raised in her household in Rome.

In 25 BCE, Augustus arrange for Selene to marry King Juba II of Numidia in Rome. The Emperor Augustus gave to Selene as a wedding present a huge dowry and she became an ally to Rome. By then her brothers, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus, disappear from all known historical records and are presumed to have died, possibly from illness or assassination. When Selene married Juba, she was the only surviving member of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Juba and Selene could not return to Numidia as it had been made a Roman province in 4 6 BCe. The couple were sent to Mauretania, an unorganized territory that needed Roman supervision. They renamed their new capital Caesarea (modern Cherchell, Algeria), in honor of the Emperor. Selene is said to have exercised great influence on policies that Juba created. Through her influence, the Mauretanian Kingdom flourished. Mauretania exported and traded well throughout the Mediterranean. When Selene died in 5 BCE, she was placed in the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania in modern Algeria, built by her and Juba east of Caesarea and still visible. A fragmentary inscription was dedicated to Juba and Selene, as the King and Queen of Mauretania.

Gilded mummy mask of a woman, with recumbent jackals and an ibis flanked by two goddesses (perhaps Isis and Nephthys).  Artist unknown; between 50 BCE and 50 CE (late Ptolemaic or early Roman period).  Now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.  Photo credit: Walters Art Museum.

On this day in history, August 12th, two thousand and forty seven years ago, Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of Ancient Egypt, committed suicide.

Eleven days previously, her husband Marc Antony had already done the same. The couple had been engaged in a civil war against Octavian, the great nephew of Julius Caesar who had been declared his legal heir. During the final battle in Alexandria, Antony suffered serious desertions among his troops and lost the fight. Upon his return, he falsely heard Cleopatra had killed herself and fell on his sword.

After Antony’s death, Octavian arrived in Egypt and effectively took Cleopatra and her children by Antony prisoner. She had sent her eldest son Caesarion, her only living child with Caesar, away for his own safety. She knew that Octavian planned for her to march in chains behind his chariot during his triumph parade, and would very likely have her killed afterwards. Rather than suffer such humiliations and indignity, she chose to take her own life.

Popular history and mythology leads us to believe that she was killed by inducing an asp to bite her, after having locked herself in her mausoleum with her two handmaidens. However, many modern scholars believe that she instead took a mixture of poisons, since the venom of an asp does not cause a quick or painless death. Octavian and his men found her too late to do anything, Cleopatra was already dead and one handmaiden, Iras, was nearly dead on the floor. The second, Charmian, was straightening the Queen’s diadem. According to legend, one of the men asked if this was well done of her mistress, and she shot back “Very well done, as befitting the descendant of so many noble Kings.”

Upon her death, Octavian honoured her wish to be buried in her mausoleum at Antony’s side. He took her children with Antony, the twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, along with their younger brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus, to Rome with him as prisoners of sorts. They were fated to march in his triumph parade in their mother’s place, the chains so heavy they could hardly walk. After this they were given to Octavian’s sister Octavia, who had been Antony’s third wife, to look after.

Cleopatra’s son with Caesar, Caesarion, was nominally sole ruler of Egypt after his mother’s death. Eleven days after her suicide, he was found after being lured back to Alexandria under false pretences of being allowed to rule in his mother’s place. Octavian ordered his murder, on advice that “Two Caesar were too many.”

With Cleopatra’s death, and Caesarion’s subsequent murder, the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty came to an end and Egypt became a mere Roman Province

Detail of an ancient Egyptian wooden chest, showing a king making an offering to the crocodile-god Sobek, with a demotic inscription above.  Artist unknown; 1st cent. BCE (end of the Ptolemaic or beginning of the Roman period).  Now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.  Photo credit: Walters Art Museum.

Small collection of Ptolemaic Egyptian beads in emerald, carnelian, amethyst, and gold. Although strung together, this may not be their original context, it is suggested they may be elements of earrings. The mushroom-shaped item may be a pendant or a stud. Date to 220-100 BCE. From the collection of the Getty Museum

Beach at Marsa Matrouh. The town started as a small fishing village in Ancient Egyptian times; during the reign of Alexander the Great, it was called Amunia. There are ruins of a temple of Ramesses II (1200 BC). It became known as Paraitonion in the Ptolemaic era. When the Romans came to Egypt, the town became an important harbor for trade and shipping goods and crops to Rome. It was named Paraetonium then. During World War 2, the British Army’s Baggush Box was located to the east. Starting with the completion of an extension from the previous railhead at Fuka in 1936, Marsa Matrouh was the terminus for a single-track railway, which passed through El Alamein. Marsa Matrouh and Port Said have the coolest summer days of Egyptian cities; additionally Rafah, Alexandria, Abu Qir, Rosetta, Baltim, Kafr el-Dawwar and Marsa Matrouh are the wettest in Egypt.

Quick timeline of Ancient Greek History

Greek Dark Ages - c. 1100 BCE to c. 800 BCE

This was after the Bronze Age collapse that wiped out civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean and also a period where the Greeks forgot how to write for a few hundred years.

Archaic Period - c. 800 BCE to 480 BCE

Rediscovery of writing and formation of the poleis.

Classical Period - 480 BCE to 323 BCE

The height of Greek culture and dominion over the Mediterranean. What people usually think of when they think of “Ancient Greece.” Athens had its empire during this time.

Hellenistic Period - 323 BCE to 31 BCE

Alexander (a Macedonian) takes over Greece and also a lot of the known world. Greek culture is spread by him throughout the Mediterranean but this is also the beginning of the end of Greek independence. In 146 BCE most of Greece is taken over by the Romans, and in 31 BCE Ptolemaic Egypt, the last bastion of Hellenistic culture, falls to the Roman Empire.

Roman Rule - 146 BCE to 330 CE

Rome takes over and rules Greece for a long while, taking on Hellenic culture as the culture of its elite. In 330 CE Constantine establishes Constantinople and from then on Greece is more central to the Empire, and after the Sack of Rome in 410 the Roman Empire was more or less based entirely from Constantinople.