Greek and Roman Rule

The Greco-Roman period in the history of ancient Egypt started in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great defeated Persians and entered Egypt, and it ended when the Arabs conquered Egypt in 642 CE.

Alexander of Macedon had already won two great victories – in western Turkey and on the Levantine coast – against the Persians before he arrived in Egypt in 332.

The Egyptians greeted him as their saviour, and the Persian king who ruled Egypt at the time, Darius III, opened the borders to let Alexander’s army in.

The Rulers and Dynasties in the Greco-Roman period in Egypt

The Macedonian dynasty ruled for a very short time. Alexander of Macedon had only spent a year in Egypt; where he became the pharaoh, started building Alexandria, the new capital city, introduced a Greek monetary system, renovated several temples, and moved on to conquer more territories.

His son, Alexander IV, succeeded the throne much later. In the meantime, general Perdiccas acted as regent for Alexander the Great’s half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, and young Alexander IV.

Greek and Roman Rule Facts

  • Neither Arrhidaeus nor Alexander IV ruled Egypt directly. The person in charge in Egypt was General Ptolemy.
  • At first, Ptolemy ruled Egypt in the name of Philip and Alexander IV of Macedon.
  • When Alexander’s empire broke apart, Perdiccas attacked Egypt. Ptolemy defended the country, became the king of Egypt, and founded the Ptolemaic dynasty.
  • The Ptolemies (all male members of the family were named Ptolemy) ruled Egypt for almost 300 years.
  • The last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty was Cleopatra VII (female members of the dynasty were named either Cleopatra, or Berenice, or sometimes Arsinoë).
  • The Ptolemaic kings often relied on Roman support, and Cleopatra had a close relationship with Julius Caesar and, later, general Marc Antony, who married her and stayed to rule Egypt with her.
  • Roman Emperor Augustus attacked Cleopatra’s and Antony’s armies, defeated them, and turned Egypt into a Roman province.
  • Egypt was an important province within the Roman Empire, for several reasons.It was the wealthiest Roman province outside of Italy, and it became the main grain producer for the empire.Alexandria was the second largest city of the Roman Empire – second only to Rome itself – and it had the largest port in the whole empire.
  • Because of that, Egypt had a special status. It didn’t have a senatorial governor like other provinces did. 

    Instead, Egypt was governed by an “Augustal prefect” who was only responsible to the emperor.

  • Alexandria continued to be a large, cosmopolitan city.Around 70 CE, after the destruction of Jerusalem, Alexandria became the home for the largest Jewish community in the world, and also an epicentre of religious conflicts between the Greeks and the Jews.
  • During the second century CE, native Egyptians rebelled against oppressive taxation.The war that followed caused an economic decline. Revolts continued in the third century.
  • Queen Zenobia of Palmyra managed to conquer Egypt in 269, but the Roman Emperor Aurelian took it back five years later.
  • Egypt remained a Roman province, and later a diocese of the later Roman Empire until 395 CE.After that, Egypt became a diocese of the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire, until the Muslim conquest in 642 CE.

What did you learn?

Which great emperor ended the Persian rule in Egypt?
It was Alexander the Great of Macedon

Which Greek dynasty ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years?
The Ptolemaic Dynasty

Who was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty?
Cleopatra VII

What is the name of the emperor of Rome who defeated Cleopatra?
It was Emperor Augustus

Why was Egypt so important for the Romans?
Egypt was important because of its great wealth, grain production, and a large port.