Ptolemaic Egypt

(by Sally-Ann Ashton)

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his kingdom was divided amongst his generals.  Ptolemy, son of Lagos took control of Egypt and governed the country until 305 BC, when he was crowned King.  The Dynasty ruled in Egypt for almost 300 years, until the death of one of Egypt’s most famous queens Cleopatra VII in 30 BC, when it was annexed by Rome.  The male rulers were all named Ptolemy (Greek Ptolemaios) but can be distinguished by their cult names such as Philadelphos (sibling-loving) for Ptolemy II because he married his sister Arsinoe.  Today we often allocate numerals in order to distinguish Ptolemies I to XV.  The royal women were named Arsinoe, Berenike or Cleopatra and sometimes a combination of these names; this practice sometimes causes confusion and in fact the famous Cleopatra, who is usually called Cleopatra VII, was only the sixth queen to have this name.

The Ptolemies were Macedonian by descent and were often represented as Greek rulers, as seen on the coinage, rings and stone portraits (UC 17231, bronze finger ring with an image of Ptolemy IX).  However, the Ptolemies were also pharaohs of Egypt and appear on many temple reliefs and also statues in the Egyptian-style (UC 28711, plaster head representing Ptolemy IX or X).  The Petrie Museum has a large collection of sculptors’ models, which are thought were used by sculptors to ensure that the royal image remained the same (UC 16317).  Some scholars believe that these busts were used as dedications in temples on behalf of the pharaoh; they are very similar to the portraits of the last native Egyptian Dynasty (Dynasty 30), which may have been a deliberate attempt by the Ptolemies to link themselves to their Egyptian predecessors.

The Ptolemaic queens played a very important political and religious role during this period.  They appear as queens, supporting the pharaoh as seen on temple reliefs, but following their deaths they were then promoted to goddesses and receive offerings from the pharaoh as seen here on this relief from the temple of Isis at Philae where Arsinoe II stands behind the goddess Isis and receives an offering from her husband and brother Ptolemy II Philadelphos (see image).   Later, queens were deified in this way during their lifetimes; the statues used to represent the divine queens were different from those of the usual time (UC 47952), both Greek and Egyptian representations had a cornucopia or horn of plenty and often a knotted garment (UC 49884).  Greek goddesses wear a stephane (crown) rather than a royal diadem or fillet, as seen on UC 49924 and UC 49930 respectively. Egyptian goddesses can be distinguished from mortals by the vulture headdress rather than uraeus (royal cobra) as seen on UC 75638, where the wings are visible.  Statues of the rulers and their queens were set up in every temple throughout Egypt, and we know from an inscription that Cleopatra’s statues were worshipped until the fourth century AD, over 400 years after her death.  Both Cleopatra VII and Arsinoe II wore a distinctive iconography of more three and two cobras respectively on their headdresses as seen on the Koptos crown (UC 14521) and on the bronze attachment for which there is a plaster mould (UC 50324 and UC 30497, from Saqqara and Memphis).    


Sites for Ptolemaic Egypt

Memphis: religious, industrial 
Saqqara: religious, burial
Koptos: religious
Hawara: religious, burial
Koptos: religious

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