In 221 BC, Ptolemy IV assumed the throne of the Ptolemaic Empire. Still in his early twenties, the new king was almost immediately plunged into the most serious crisis his land had faced in decades. For, many leagues to the east of Egypt, another young king had just assumed his own throne with an aggressively expansionist agenda. Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire was tired of the tripartite division of Alexander the Great’s brief-lived dominion which had held sway for the past century. Looking westward, he was certain that he was a better man than his counterpart in Alexandria. He decided to conquer Ptolemaic Egypt. After accomplishing that feat, he would bring the combined might of his two imperial legacies of Alexander to bear on the third, Macedonia. If he could realize his ambitions, he might just go down in history as a greater king than even Alexander. Indeed, he had already taken to styling himself “Antiochus the Great.”
Antiochus fielded a massive army and led it southwestward toward Egypt, rolling up Ptolemaic possessions as he did so, including Judea and Jerusalem. Caught utterly unprepared, a desperate Ptolemy IV humbly asked for a ceasefire, and this Antiochus granted, under the assumption that Ptolemy wanted to negotiate a peace that would make Egypt a vassal state of the Seleucid Empire. In reality, however, the ceasefire was a wily gambit worthy of the first Ptolemy. While his diplomats stalled for time, Ptolemy IV conscripted and trained an infantry of native Egyptians to supplement the caste of foreign soldiers — many of them descended from those who had traveled and fought with Alexander himself — that had traditionally made up the Ptolemaic military.
After some months, it became clear to Antiochus that Ptolemy was not negotiating in good faith, and the former resumed his forward march at the head of his army. But the reprieve of several months had been enough for Ptolemy to field a formidable force of his own. In fact, his army now slightly outnumbered that of Antiochus, although it was neither as well-trained nor as battle-hardened, containing in its ranks as it did so many raw native conscripts. The two armies met on June 22, 217 BC, a short distance west of the town of Raphia, which stood on the border between Egypt and Palestine (as its modern incarnation of Rafah still does today).
This battle over the future of Egypt was a pitched, all-day affair, during which each side seemed on the verge of victory on multiple occasions. But there came a point in the afternoon when the tide seemed to have decisively turned against Ptolemy. At this fraught juncture, the king took personal command of a phalanx of native troops. “This caused consternation in the enemy ranks,” writes the ancient historian Polybius, “but hugely increased the resolution and determination of his own soldiers, who accordingly lowered their pikes and began to advance”; Antiochus’s troops “soon gave way and began to fall back.” The battle that had been so evenly contested suddenly turned into a rout, as many ancient clashes tended to do in the end, and Antiochus and his army retreated pell-mell back to Raphia. When he counted his losses that evening, he found that they numbered more than 10,000 men; meanwhile Ptolemy had lost barely 2000. The next day, it was Antiochus rather than Ptolemy who begged for a truce. At the parley, he promised to return with his army to his own capital, ceding back to Ptolemy all of the territories he had so recently conquered. It seemed he was not to become the next Alexander the Great after all.
This Battle of Raphia bore every outward sign of marking the beginning of a yet more glorious age for Ptolemaic Egypt. Ptolemy IV had protected his empire by personally leading his army to victory against a foreign invader, much as his great-grandfather had in the face of Perdiccas’s army — much like, for that matter, one of the legendary Egyptian pharaohs of old. Then, too, the fact that native Egyptian rather than foreign troops had borne the brunt of the fighting seemed an auspicious sign for the kingdom’s integrated future. The world, it seemed, might be on the brink of a Pax Ptolemy.
But alas, that was not to be. Rather than being a sign of a still brighter future yet to come, the Battle of Raphia would go down in history as marking the beginning of the end of the Ptolemaic Empire’s glory days. There would be no more such noble victories in the dynasty’s future, only a long, slow decline into decadence at home and impotence abroad.
The responsibility for beginning the decline can in fact be laid squarely at the feet of Ptolemy IV himself, who was not quite the steely-eyed war hero that the royal chroniclers of the Battle of Raphia described him to be. Like his father and grandfather before him, he had been steeped in the ethos of the philosopher king during his childhood and youth; his chief tutor was none other than the wise Eratosthenes, Head Librarian of Alexandria. Yet the teachings failed to find any purchase in his barren soul. He grew into a weak-minded, weak-willed young man who thought only about his personal pleasures.
A crown prince of this ilk is catnip for ambitious courtiers, of which there was no lack in Alexandria. One of their number named Sosibios insinuated himself with the king-to-be long before he assumed the throne. And when that event did come to pass, Sosibios moved decisively to consolidate his position. Whispering in the king’s ear that there were conspirators everywhere and that only he himself could be trusted to protect him, he eliminated any and all rivals and potential rivals. His methods smack of black comedy, as if Sosibios was auditioning to become the prototype of every subsequent fictional depiction of a shifty power behind a throne. The king’s uncle was mugged and murdered by a random band of street criminals; his younger brother somehow managed to scald himself to death in his bathtub; his mother died of an exceptionally ferocious case of food poisoning. Polybius describes how Ptolemy IV, left completely isolated by these depredations, treated everyone at court other than Sosibios with “disdain and indifference,” being “distracted by unsuitable love affairs and stupefied by non-stop carousing.”
Even the triumph over the Seleucid Empire was actually the work of the clever Sosibios rather than the pleasure-addicted young king. It was the former who proposed gaining time with a ceasefire, who elected to train native Egyptians to fight for the crown, and even who gave the army its orders at Raphia. And at the pivotal moment that turned the tide of battle, it was Sosibios who had to coax the king into showing himself — for, notes Polybius, the latter’s first instinct had been to “take shelter behind [emphasis mine] his phalanx.”
In his recent comprehensive history of Ptolemaic Egypt, Günther Höbl has this to say about the legacy of Ptolemy IV:
Under Ptolemy IV, the kingdom could still display a brilliant façade stemming from its supremacy in the foreign politics of the eastern Mediterranean. The victory at the Battle of Raphia, however, marked the close [emphasis mine] of a glorious era, the end of the “century of the Ptolemies.” In the later years of [Ptolemy IV’s] reign, the Ptolemaic Empire began to teeter on its feet like a colossus unsure of its step.
As so often happens with great powers, the onset of Ptolemaic Egypt’s decline was accompanied by a turning inward, a disengagement with the outer world. The vacuum thus created was such that Antiochus III, after licking his wounds for a time in his capital, started to feel his oats and began to indulge his Alexander the Great fantasies once again, leading expeditions deep into India to his east and probing constantly the edges of the Ptolemaic Empire to his west, all while his counterpart in Alexandria continued to occupy himself primarily with the joys of the royal winery and the royal bedchamber. Legend says that Ptolemy IV ordered built the largest and most expensive ship in the history of the world to that point, a vessel 420 feet (128 meters) long that required 4000 oarsmen to propel it through the water; it was not a ship of war or even of state in any practical sense, simply his conception of a pleasure yacht.
While his king thus busied himself, Sosibios attempted to deal with an enemy of a new stripe. As the debauchery and dissipation of the regime in Alexandria became evident to all and the taxes that were required to support the courtly lifestyle became ever more onerous, the new era of integration which seemed to have been heralded by the use of native Egyptian troops at the Battle of Raphia proved to be the cruelest of lies. Instead the delicate balance between Greek and Egyptian which had been so meticulously engineered by Ptolemy I and so carefully maintained by his son and grandson began to break down. The Egyptian peasantry, along with more than a few of the all-important priesthood which Ptolemy I had once managed to co-opt, came to see the Ptolemaic dynasty as just the latest in a succession of foreign invaders, no better nor worse than the Persians before them. What other excuse could there be for the fact that the fourth Ptolemaic king to rule them could still not be bothered even to learn their language? Ptolemy IV lacked the will, much less the ability, to address the growing social unrest. As the real ruler of the land, Sosibios was left to do the best he could.
In 206 BC, a full-fledged insurrection began in the southern city of Thebes, one of the biggest in the country — in fact, its capital for long periods of its former history. Egypt was plunged into a civil war that would last for the next two decades. At times, virtually the entirety of the country south of the Nile Delta was under the control of the rebels, who went so far as to crown their own, native-born pharaoh as their standard bearer. The war was devastating to the Egyptian economy; the diverse variety of trade goods, from grain to papyrus, that had once flowed down the Nile in such quantities to Alexandria no longer turned up on the city’s wharves, and the once-bustling harbor grew eerily quiet.
In 204 BC, Ptolemy IV died at around 40 years of age. We cannot know for sure whether his early demise was the toll of his personal debauchery or whether it was down to the viperous intrigues of his court. But one fact does lend credence to the latter notion: his sister, wife, and queen Arsinoe — brother-sister marriages were now commonplace among the Ptolemies, and were apparently consummated just like any other marriage — died either on the exact same day as her husband or very shortly thereafter. It was, naturally, Sosibios who announced their deaths, reading out an alleged last will which made it clear that he was to maintain his privileged position under the next king. It availed him little: Sosibios too soon died under mysterious circumstances, his wiliness presumably having finally failed him.
If the previous king had been infantile in character, the next one was almost literally an infant. Ptolemy V was no more than five years old when he assumed the throne, a puppet awaiting the hand of whoever at court was canny enough to grab his strings. The elevation of this child left Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire positively licking his chops; he promptly signed a pact with the king of Macedonia in which they agreed on how to divide up the Ptolemaic territories they now felt confident of seizing. And indeed, over the course of a seven-year-war they swallowed up most of the Ptolemaic Empire that lay outside of Egypt’s borders, including Judea and Jerusalem for the second and final time. The government in Alexandria was forced to sign a highly disadvantageous peace treaty in order to prevent another invasion of Egypt proper. Its one benefit was that it allowed the central government to focus solely on putting down the internal rebellion to the south, something which it did slowly manage to do.
Ironically and inadvertently, the prosecution of this civil war wound up bestowing upon posterity one of Ptolemaic Egypt’s last great intellectual gifts to the world. On March 26, 196 BC, a group of rebel prisoners was brought to Memphis to suffer the spectacle of public execution by impalement. To commemorate the occasion, a set of steles was produced, each engraved with a Decree of Memphis, reiterating in no uncertain terms Ptolemy V’s absolute supremacy as pharaoh of all of Egypt. To ensure that there could be no misunderstanding, the decree was written in three different forms on each of the steles: in Greek; in Demotic, a form of written Egyptian that used a relatively small alphabet of glyphs similar in concept to the ones used by written Greek; and in the much older ceremonial hieroglyphs of Egypt, a logographic form of writing whose thousands of unique glyphs each stood for a thing, being, action, or idea rather than a granular unit of spoken sound. The steles were then stood up at various places in Egypt.
Fast-forward to AD 1799, when a detachment of French soldiers, part of an invasion force led by Napoleon, stumbled upon one of the steles near the Egyptian port of Rosetta, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Alexandria. Its presentation of the same text in well-known Greek and two other, as-yet undeciphered scripts was a code-breaker’s dream. After much struggle, both the Demotic and hieroglyphic forms of Egyptian writing were finally demystified, the former largely by a British scholar named Thomas Young, the latter by the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion. Their achievements opened up vast swaths of Egyptian history that had previously been completely unknown. Thus Ptolemaic Egypt, that oddly amalgamated simulacrum of the Pharaonic Egypt of yore, was responsible for the two most foundational texts of modern Egyptology: first Manetho’s chronicle, then the Rosetta Stone.
But all that was for the future; the present of the early second century BC looked highly dismaying for Egypt. The slender thread of learning and ideology that had bound the first three philosopher kings in Alexandria to the wisdom of Plato had been irretrievably broken, leaving behind only the brutality of might making right, as evinced by the very occasion that produced the Rosetta Stone. “The decline of the royal house,” notes Günther Höbl, “had progressed so far that the prospect of reversing this trend had now vanished for good.” As he grew up, Ptolemy V occupied himself chiefly with athletics; he became an accomplished hunter, rider, and fencer. This was perhaps an improvement in some ways over the Dionysian excesses of his father, but it left him with no more time to see to the affairs of a crumbling state.
All of the developments I’ve just described had serious consequences for the scholars of Alexandria’s museum. Ptolemy IV and V had no interest in mathematical and scientific inquiry, and so those disciplines were no longer much encouraged. Ptolemy IV at least did, however, fancy himself a connoisseur of literature. Unfortunately, his taste was not the best, bending toward the merely decadent rather than the truly sophisticated. He went so far as to write a theatrical play of his own, an erotic depiction of the goddess Aphrodite and her mythological lover Adonis. Knowing all too well who buttered their bread, his court rushed en masse to sing its praises. (For once, we perhaps need not feel too badly that this play, like so much Alexandrian literature, is now lost to us…)
Another anecdote tells of a poetry competition which one of the two kings in question — it isn’t entirely clear which one — arranged among his courtiers. The audience applauded enthusiastically as each entry was read aloud. Only Aristophanes, the creator of the first Greek dictionary and the successor to Eratosthenes as Head Librarian, sat silently throughout, with a rather peeved expression on his face. He applauded for only one poem, the one the rest of the room found least appealing. Asked about his strange behavior, he requested that he be excused for a few minutes. When he returned, he brought with him all of the original copies of the poetry that had just been read. Every single courtier had chosen to plagiarize his poem — all except one, whose entry may have been pedestrian but was at least original. Few stories provide a more vivid illustration of the corrupt court and its pernicious influence on the museum. Although some honest, capable scholars like Aristophanes would continue to find a home there for a long time to come, its glory days were on the wane along with those of Ptolemaic Egypt itself.
Ptolemy V died in 180 BC, when he was about 30 years old. Again, his early death gives rise to natural suspicions of foul play; rumors swirling around the royal palace at the time held that he had been poisoned by certain courtiers whose decisions he had begun to challenge as he grew into maturity. In what was beginning to look like a dismaying new tradition, the latest successor to the throne was once more to be a pliable child of barely five years.
The reign of this Ptolemy VI proved the most disastrous yet. Just a few years into it, a rival faction in the royal palace produced their own claimant to the throne, in the form of a boy who would go down in history as Ptolemy VIII. (The reason for skipping a Ptolemy VII is unclear; he may have been an earlier rival claimant who didn’t even live long enough to become a proper footnote to history.) For a long while, the land teetered on the brink of another civil war, this one pitting the House of Ptolemy against itself. An unwieldy compromise was brokered at last in 170 BC, calling for the two would-be kings to rule jointly.
Sensing weakness in all this division, the ever-opportunistic Seleucid Empire invaded Egypt itself, the last significant bit of the former Ptolemaic Empire that remained unconquered, just as the compromise was going into effect. This time there would be no heroic stand at the country’s border. By 168 BC, the Seleucid army under Antiochus IV, the son of the Seleucid king who had been vanquished at Raphia, had made it all the way to the walls of Alexandria, marking the first time the Ptolemaic capital itself had ever been besieged. In desperation, the government there sent envoys to a rising power in the world known as Rome, promising to swear fealty in return for help in this hour of need.
And so we’ve arrived at the point in this book where Rome, which has been lurking around the edges of our tale for quite some time, must enter it in earnest at last. We ought first of all to know, then, who these Romans actually were and what their history had been prior to this point.
The Romans told themselves that their city was founded in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of their god of war Mars and a mortal woman descended from the mythical hero Aeneas, a prince of Troy who had managed to escape his city after the Greeks had played their trick with the Trojan Horse and were burning it to the ground. The twin monarchs became the first of seven generations of legendary Roman kings, the last of whom, having become a cruel tyrant, was cast out in 510 BC to make room for the Roman Republic.
Modern historians hew to a more organic if less dramatic origin story, having to do with the city’s location amidst some of the most bountiful soil on the Italian Peninsula, next to the wide, deep, and easily navigable Tiber River. This location provided the best of both worlds: a port city’s easy access to the sea and a landlocked city’s relative protection from seaborne pirates and invaders. A primitive human settlement probably first sprang up at this desirable spot at some point between 1500 and 1000 BC, and grew only very gradually into power and prominence, absorbing successive waves of migrants and invaders as it did so. Indeed, as late as 387 BC, an army of Gauls — a people stemming from modern-day France — was able to sweep down from the north and sack the city, although they soon departed again with their plunder.
By this time, the Republic was reaching its mature incarnation, having some time since replaced the warlords and kings who had ruled Rome in earlier centuries. The Roman system of rule by the people was a more restrained affair than the celebrated likes of Athenian direct democracy, yet it was in many ways more practical, betraying far more resemblance to the systems of representative democracy that predominate in much of the world today. In addition to the Senate, its elected body of law makers, Rome had a ministerial branch of elected officials who were responsible for administrating the law, helmed by a pair of chief executives known as consuls, who served as joint heads of state for a one-year term. This arrangement was designed to prevent one ambitious man from accruing enough personal influence to overthrow the established systems of government.
Roman society remained firmly caste-based even well after the abolition of the monarchy, with citizens divided into two broad groups: the patricians who belonged to the traditional noble families of the city, and the plebeians who consisted of everybody else, whether rich or poor. In the early days of the Republic, almost all government posts as well as the voting franchise were reserved for the former, but the passing decades saw more and more power shared with the latter, until by the beginning of the third century BC the two groups were effectively equal in the eyes of the law if not quite in social status. In fact, the law eventually came to demand that at least one of the consuls must be a plebeian, a stipulation that did much to reduce the potential for social unrest and the resultant revolutions that were always the greatest fear of the Roman intelligentsia.
Alas, those who claim that a representative form of government inevitably slakes a nation’s thirst for conflict and territorial expansion find a poor example in Rome. For, even as the city’s form of government was evolving to become ever more representative of its people, it was asserting its authority over more and more of the Italian Peninsula, guided already by the sanguine sense of manifest destiny that would always mark its opinion of itself. By 270 BC, when Ptolemaic Egypt’s glory and influence were nearing their height, Rome owned the entirety of its peninsula and was beginning to look abroad for more lands to conquer.
In doing so, it ran headlong into the only force capable of challenging it in the Western Mediterranean: the equally vigorous city-state of Carthage, located at the northeastern tip of modern-day Tunisia. Over the course of the next 70 years, the two would be at war with one another more often than not. In the crucible of these, the so-called Punic Wars, the last pieces of the enduring Roman identity were forged, the final prerequisites of an eventual empire almost 2 million square miles (5 million square kilometers) in extent. The Second Punic War ended at last with the complete defeat and subjugation of Carthage in 202 BC.
And so Rome, having succeeded in making the Western Mediterranean its own private lake, started to gaze eastward. “For once the Romans defeated the Carthaginians,” writes Polybius, “they came to think that they had completed the largest and most difficult part of their project of worldwide domination, and so that was the first time when they ventured to reach out for what was left — to cross over with an army to Greece and Asia.”
Our ancient historian does perchance oversimplify here; in truth, the Romans moved eastward out of a more complex mix of motivations than a pure lust for conquest. Although they spoke their own language of Latin, the Romans were great admirers of Greek culture, to the extent of importing the Greek pantheon of gods virtually wholesale. Yes, they wanted to conquer the storied homelands of Heracles, Homer, and Alexander — but, perhaps even more than that, they wanted to be accepted as worthy heirs to their legacy. In 200 BC, Rome declared war on the tottering Macedonian Empire, a land whose internal politics were if anything in even worse shape than those of Ptolemaic Egypt. Within four years, having driven the armies of King Philip V of Macedonia out of mainland Greece, Rome made the former Greek city-states its vassals, complete with all of their accumulated history and myth.
These encroachments into the Eastern Mediterranean placed Rome on a collision course with the Seleucid Empire, the only one of the three empires left behind by Alexander the Great that was at all still worthy of the name. Rome was the victor in a war that lasted from 192 to 188 BC, and the peace treaty that followed left it the unchallenged master of the entire Mediterranean. Thus the Seleucid monarchs were forced to restrict their ambitions to the interior of the Near East, and to beating up on an even more hapless Egypt.
It was this set of circumstances, then, which convinced the courtiers in Alexandria, huddled in their besieged capital in 168 BC, that Rome, the sometime enemy of their enemy, might become their friend if they promised their obeisance in return. Their hopes proved well-founded: no less important a figure than Gaius Popillius Laenas, a once and future consul of Rome, came to Alexandria to demand that Antiochus IV withdraw his army from Egypt immediately. Their meeting would go on to delight many a later Roman historian. Here, for example, is the one named Livy, writing about 150 years after the events in question:
[Antiochus] was met by the Roman commissioners, to whom he gave a friendly greeting and held out his hand to Popilius. Popilius, however, placed in his hand the tablets on which was written the decree of the Senate and told him first of all to read it. After reading it through, he said he would call his friends into council and consider what he ought to do. Popilius, stern and imperious as ever, drew a circle round the king with the stick he was carrying and said, “Before you step out of that circle give me a reply to lay before the Senate.” For a few moments he hesitated, astounded at such a peremptory order, and at last replied, “I will do what the Senate thinks right.” Not until then did Popilius extend his hand to the king.
Just like that, the first siege in Alexandria’s history was lifted. Rome had become more than just a power to be respected; it was a power to be feared by the rest of the world.
For, the very same year that Rome agreed to come to Ptolemaic Egypt’s aid, it was finishing the work of defeating and abolishing the royal dynasty of Macedonia, the very lineage from which Alexander the Great had sprung. The Greek historian Polybius, writing only shortly after all of the events I’ve just described, summed up the emerging conventional wisdom: “The Romans have made themselves masters of almost the entire known world, not just some bits of it, and have such a colossal empire that no one alive today can resist it and no one in the future will be able to overcome it.” His half-despairing faith in the empire’s durability was well-judged for the nonce, not least because it was founded on such long-lasting, stable institutions; it wasn’t a cult of personality built around a single man like the empire of Alexander the Great had been.
For their part, the rulers of Ptolemaic Egypt were about to learn what it meant to be beholden to a power far more immense than their own. Needless to say, it was not pure altruism which had caused the Romans to respond to the pleading from Alexandria with such alacrity. If it could just put all of its recent troubles behind it, Egypt remained capable of producing an astonishing amount of grain, and this the Romans had need of in order to feed their growing metropolis and empire. In fact, for the next 600 years and more Egypt would be commonly referred to as the breadbasket of their empire. They were willing to maintain the polite fiction of the land’s independence for the time being, but only as long as the precious grain kept flowing. From now on, keeping their masters in Rome satisfied would be the overriding preoccupation of the Ptolemaic monarchs — which isn’t to say that the royal family didn’t continue to make time for intrigue and murder up and down its ranks.
Indeed, the casual butchery of the latter-day Ptolemies almost defies description. Take, for example, the case of Queen Cleopatra III. Her uncle King Ptolemy VIII, who also happened to be her stepfather, began raping her when she was still a pre-teen. Nevertheless, she later married him. Years later, after the two had had a particularly ugly row, Ptolemy VIII killed her favorite son, had him chopped to pieces, and ordered the body parts delivered to her chambers. The two quarreled for a few days more, then reconciled and got on with their lives. After all, what was one more dead Ptolemy in the grand scale of things?
But such tales soon take on a weary monotony. Suffice to say, then, that four more boys and men named Ptolemy ruled Egypt after the unusually long-lived Ptolemy VIII died at about age 68 in 116 BC. The logic of succession and the forms of power-sharing that were devised — the Romans were certainly not going to permit an outright civil war — became ever more tortured, with a surprising number of queens as well as kings taking the reins of state at various times, even as incestuous marriages came to dominate at every level of the royal hierarchy. Few to none of these monarchs, whether male or female, were any better than they ought to have been.
While the royal family squabbled and killed one another, the real life of Egypt went on around it. Every year the barges full of grain flowed down the Nile to Alexandria, which became a bustling port once again. If life in Alexandria’s museum was no longer quite what it used to be, the place remained a haven of serious thought and discourse, with the largest library in the world still at its disposal. So, Alexandria muddled along as neither a paradise nor a hellhole, as most places have done at most times in history, while its people were born and died, made fortunes and lost them, wrote and talked and labored and fell in and out of love with one another. Ptolemaic Egypt as a whole could take some solace in the knowledge that it had fared better under the shadow of Rome than had either the Macedonian Empire, which no longer existed at all, or its old nemesis the Seleucid Empire, which by 100 BC was on its last legs as the shabbiest of rump states.
And then, more than a century after the house of Ptolemy had made its Faustian bargain with Rome, life in Alexandria was upended yet again. The city suddenly found itself playing a prominent role in a crisis that would transform Rome and, indeed, the entire course of the world which Rome now so dominated. At the center of the storm stood the most famous woman in all of ancient history — a woman who would overcome her royal inheritance of futility, corruption, and in-breeding to become much, much more than she ought to have been.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)