After Alexander’s death of a malarial fever in 323 B.C., the Macedonian commander in Egypt, Ptolemy, who was the son of Lagos, one of Alexander’s seven bodyguards, managed to secure for himself the satrapy (provincial governorship) of Egypt.
Under the early Ptolemaic, the culture was exclusively Greek. Greek was the language of the court, the army, and the administration. The Ptolemies founded the university, the museum, and the library at Alexandria and built the lighthouse at Pharos. A canal to the Red Sea was opened, and Greek sailors explored new trade routes.
The Ptolemies had succeeded in assimilating the Egyptian culture and thus the respect of the native population, but the new Roman rulers who came after them made little attempt to do so. Certainly, they adopted the pharaonic titles and built temples in the traditional style, but as Egypt was now ruled in absentia from Rome, the native population, still deeply rooted in their ancient religion and beliefs, refused to honor rulers who no longer performed the ceremonial roles of divine kingship.
The Ptolemies tried to stress their desire to support things ‘Egyptian’ and many temples were built during this period. The Egyptian gods, Osiris, Isis, and Horus became symbolic of the ideal family but the cult of the goddess Isis was particularly popular and spread outside Egypt.
It was under the Ptolemaic Dynasty that Alexandria truly became the cultural and economic center of the ancient world. Egypt was ruled from Alexandria by Ptolemy’s descendants until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC. The early Ptolemies raised the quality of Egyptian agriculture by reclaiming cultivatable land through irrigation and introduced crops such as cotton and better wine-producing grapes.
Literature flourished, focusing on the Library at Alexandria. It was at this time that Manetho composed his history of Egypt, and the tri-lingual decree was inscribed on the Rosetta Stone.
This was quite literally a golden age for the citizens of Alexandria, and for Egypt as a whole. Although Alexander never lived to see its glory, it nevertheless became the racial melting pot he is said to have wanted for his capital city. Ptolemy decided early on that Alexandria would be not just another port capital, but the home of a new age in Greek science and art. It may seem surprising to find such an impulse in a military man, but Ptolemy was more than just another general.
With the death of Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemies to rule, and the defeat of the once-mighty Ptolemaic navy at Actium, in 31 BC Egypt became part of the Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar. Her main preoccupations were to preserve the independence of Egypt, to extend its territory if possible, and to secure the throne for her children. After the ruinous defeat at Actium in 31 B.C., Cleopatra was unable to continue the fight against Rome.