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Roman Egypt and the Alexandrian War

Joe Palaski

Before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in the 4th century BC, the Egyptians thrived
off the Nile River as an independent kingdom. Egypt had been taken over by Persians prior to
Alexander the Great, but the Egyptians resisted Persian control. As a result, they welcomed
Alexander the Great for he delivered them from Persian rule. Upon conquering Egypt, Alexander
set up the port city of Alexandria along the northern coast of Egypt bordering the Mediterranean
Sea in 331 BC. This city would eventually grow to become the one of the largest and most
prosperous cities in the entire world. Alexander the Great only stayed in Egypt for a few months
and then moved on to conquer other territories. He placed his commander Cleomenes in charge
of building the city of Alexandria that he had envisioned. Cleomenes did lay a solid foundation
for the city, but a large percentage of growth came during the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332 BC 30
BC). In 323 BC, Alexander the Great died and his general Ptolemy brought his body back to
Alexandria to be buried. Ptolemy stayed in Alexandria and began rule of Egypt from the city.
The city of Alexandria blossomed into one of the largest in the known world. Famous scholars,
scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, and historians all flocked to the city and
impacted the society. Alexandria became a city of knowledge, especially when Ptolemy I began
the construction of the Library of Alexandria. The library was completed during the reign of
Ptolemy II (285 246 BC). It is not certain what number of items the library held, but there have
been estimates of about 500,000 books and 70,000 papyrus scrolls. These items were collected in
a number of ways. The historians Oakes and Gahlin once wrote, Most of the items were bought
but other means were sometimes used. In order to procure coveted works, all ships entering the
harbour were searched. Every book found was taken to the Library where it was decided whether

to give it back or confiscate it and replace it with a copy (www.ancient.eu). Famous scholars,
scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, and historians all flocked to the city to study at
this library. All of these people impacted the society and made the city rich in knowledge. (1, 2)
When Roman rule came to Egypt, so did the end of the Library of Alexandria. In 48 BC,
Caesar defeated Pompey in the Battle of Pharsalus. Pompey then fled to safety in Egypt but was
killed upon arrival by King Ptolemy XIII in order to try to gain support from Caesar. Caesar
followed Pompey to Egypt and was outraged by the fact that Pompey had been killed. At that
time in Egypt, Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra VII ruled, but they were bitter rivals and
Ptolemy had the upper hand at the moment. However, Caesar met Cleopatra and immediately fell
in love. Thus, Caesar sided with Cleopatra and the Alexandrian War broke out in Egypt. This war
was fought for sole power of Egypt between Ptolemy and Cleopatra, with Caesar siding with
Cleopatra. Caesar took over the royal palace and took Ptolemy XIII captive for he was angered
by what Ptolemy had done. Ptolemys advisor, Pothinus, who was still in the palace, notified an
Egyptian general named Achillas of the recent events. Thus, Achillas gathered 20,000 men and
marched to the royal palace in Alexandria to take on Caesar. Caesar had roughly 4,000 men, so
he realized that he must secure all that he could; the palace and the harbor. Achillas and his men
took control of the city of Alexandria and the fighting began. Neither side could however gain an
advantage over the other. In late 48 BC, the Egyptians attempted to secure the harbor in order to
cut off Caesars supplies and a potential escape route. During this battle in the harbor of
Alexandria in which Caesar eventually came out triumphant, many Egyptian ships were set on
fire. Unfortunately, the fire spread all the way to the city and a large portion, including some of
the Library of Alexandria, was destroyed. Caesar eventually found out that Pothinus had
informed Achillas of his capture of Ptolemy and had him put to death. Meanwhile, the younger

sister of Cleopatra, Arsinoe IV, managed to escape the palace and joined the Egyptian army.
However, she was not fond of Achillas and had him killed and replaced with her beloved servant
Ganymedes. By this time, the Roman general Calvinus had arrived in Egypt as reinforcements
for Caesar. Battles continued to be raged, but neither side gained any momentum. The Egyptians
soon realized that the Romans would never give up, so they devised a plan. They convinced
Caesar that they were tired of Arsinoe and Ganymedes because they were doing them no good. If
Caesar released Ptolemy they would submit to him and live under Roman rule. Caesar was
convinced they were being honest, so he let Ptolemy go to join the Egyptian army. However,
Ptolemy and the Egyptians did not keep their promise and war continued. Once again, the war
was in a stalemate. Therefore Caesar called upon his ally Mithridates of Pergamum to aid him in
trying to get the upper hand. Mithridates army was ready by early 47 BC and they made their
way towards Alexandria. In the ensuing battle, Caesar and Mithridates crushed the Egyptians.
Ptolemy attempted to escape during the final battle along the Nile River, but was killed when the
boat sunk because the crew had over packed the ship. Caesar then marched to Alexandria and
was made leader of Egypt. (1, 2, 3)
After Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC Cleopatra, who had been in Rome with him, fell
in love with Marc Antony, a close ally of Caesar. She then elevated her son she had with Caesar,
Caesarion, to king of Egypt. Octavian, the true heir of Caesar, and Cleopatra at first joined forces
to eliminate Caesars assassins, but they turned on each other. Octavian defeated the forces of
Antony in 31 BC and then headed to Egypt. There he battled with the Egyptians and on the verge
of his victory, Cleopatra and Marc Antony both committed suicide. Octavian then had Caesarion
killed and thus Egypt came under the control of the Roman Empire in 30 BC. (2)

The Roman province of Egypt was set up differently then all the other provinces because
Octavian kept it as a personal hereditary property. This meant that the Senate had no power over
this province at all. The Romans did very little to alter Egyptian customs and thus Greek
influence continued. In addition, Egyptian gods were implemented into Roman culture. For the
most part, the Egyptian province was peaceful and did not cause much disorder. There were only
a few minor revolts between Greeks and Jews. Egypts economy, like it had been for the past few
thousand years, was primarily based on agriculture because of the fertility of the Nile River.
Grain and other crops were exported to places all over the empire. Textile manufacturing, such as
clothing, also played a key role in the economy. One major contribution that the Egyptians
contributed to the Roman world was papyrus (paper), and the world would be a completely
different place if paper did not exist. (2)

Works Cited
1. http://www.ancient.eu/alexandria/
2. http://www.unrv.com/provinces/aegyptus.php
3. http://www.unrv.com/fall-republic/caesar-in-egypt.php