The Ptolemies, Apogee and Collapse: Ptolemiac Egypt 246–146 BC

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Arienne King
published on 19 June 2024
The Ptolemies, Apogee and Collapse: Ptolemiac Egypt 246–146 BC
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Title: The Ptolemies, Apogee and Collapse: Ptolemiac Egypt 246–146 BC
Author: John D Grainger
Audience: General Public
Difficulty: Easy
Publisher: Pen and Sword History
Published: 2023
Pages: 256

"The Ptolemies, Apogee and Collapse" is the second volume in Grainger's trilogy on the Ptolemaic Kingdom. It covers the timespan from 246 to 146 BCE, a period marked by massive battles in Syria, civil wars, and domestic unrest. As the title suggests, it is a general overview of the Ptolemaic dynasty’s decline from one of the great powers of the Mediterranean to a faded shadow of its former glory. Like the previous title in the series, it is of mixed quality but contains more good than bad.

The book opens with a summary of Ptolemaic history up to the ascension of Ptolemy III and a reasonable overview of the Ptolemaic Kingdom's constituent parts. This serves to establish the setting in which the book takes place, including Egypt, Cyrene, Coele-Syria, and Cyprus. This opening also serves to introduce readers to the uneasy hierarchy of Ptolemaic society, including priests, soldiers, and peasantry. These factions and their overlapping interests are shown to shape Ptolemaic history just as profoundly as the kings and queens who sat at the top of the hierarchy.

Grainger brusquely, and somewhat incorrectly, summarizes the internal politics of Ptolemaic Egypt as a tense conflict between impoverished Egyptians and wealthy Greeks. He treats the Egyptian aristocracy as a resentful ally of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the Greek aristocracy as its loyal guard dogs. This assessment fails to account for the more complex reality, in which both Greek and Egyptian elites sought greater power through cooperation and usurpation. Grainger’s handling of Egyptian society remains one of the weakest points in this series, which is regrettable given that Egypt is the core of the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

The book returns quickly with a summary of Ptolemy III’s early obstacles, from supporting his sister Berenike's failed coup in the Seleucid Empire to his more successful attempts to forcefully annex Seleucid territory. The book continues through the reigns of Ptolemy IV and Ptolemy V, who preside over an increasingly chaotic period of Ptolemaic history. The first Cleopatras, from Cleopatra I and Cleopatra II, are also discussed at length. The perennial conflict between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids dominates the action, followed closely by the conflict between the Ptolemies and their own subjects.

The result of territorial acquisitions was that the Ptolemaic army was stretched thin and military expenditures rose. Territorial losses led to decreased morale and a more limited population to recruit from. Famine and drought lead to uprisings in Ptolemaic territory. Moreover, the appointment of ruthless royal advisors created resentment in the capital, Alexandria, and the resulting riots and coups only weakened the politics further. At one point c. 205–187 BCE, a rebellion under a usurper pharaoh in southern Egypt divided the kingdom. Here, Grainger demonstrates a knack for summarizing military conflicts and the logistical challenges facing the Ptolemies.

The later chapters of the book deal with the lessening power and prestige of the Ptolemaic dynasty, amidst violent competition for the crown between royal siblings. This coincides with increasingly frequent interactions between Egypt and the Roman Republic, beginning with friendship and quickly evolving into a Ptolemaic reliance on Roman political support. Grainger’s central argument, that the Ptolemaic dynasty was “excessively centralized and autocratic, [...] vulnerable to disturbances at the top, by infant inheritances, by vicious court intrigues, [and] by army coups” (p. 212) is better articulated in this volume than in the first book.

John D. Grainger is a former teacher and independent scholar. He has authored numerous books on Classical history, including multiple volumes dealing with the Hellenistic period and the Diadochi.

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About the Reviewer

Arienne King
Arienne King is a writer and historical consultant specializing in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. She has written for publications such as Ancient History Magazine, and Ancient World Magazine. She is also a panelist on AskHistorians.

Cite This Work

APA Style

King, A. (2024, June 19). The Ptolemies, Apogee and Collapse: Ptolemiac Egypt 246–146 BC. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

King, Arienne. "The Ptolemies, Apogee and Collapse: Ptolemiac Egypt 246–146 BC." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 19, 2024.

MLA Style

King, Arienne. "The Ptolemies, Apogee and Collapse: Ptolemiac Egypt 246–146 BC." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 19 Jun 2024. Web. 18 Jul 2024.