One of the most powerful of the ancient states, Rome emerged from a small, rural community in Italy to conquer most of the Mediterranean world and to bring to an end the long pharaonic history of Egypt in 30 B.C.E.
The first significant involvement of Rome in the affairs of Egypt occurred in 170 B.C.E. when the strife between Egypt and Syria (under King ANTIOCHUS IV) ended with both sides appealing to the Romans to decide who should be the rightful claimant to the throne. The two candidates were PTOLEMY VIII EUERGETES II (the favorite of the Egyptians) and PTOLEMY VI PHILOMETOR (the nephew and favorite of Antiochus IV). The Roman Senate decided to split the rule of the country, so that Philometor reigned in MEMPHIS and Euergetes controlled ALEXANDRIA. This state of affairs proved unsatisfactory to the Egyptians, who wasted no time upon Antiochus’s departure back to Syria to rise up against Philometor. Antiochus responded by marching on Egypt with an army. The Egyptians appealed once more to Rome.
The Roman Senate dispatched a three-man commission to Egypt, and in 168 there occurred the famous encounter between Antiochus IV and Papillius Laenas at Eleusis just outside of Alexandria. Laenas gave Antiochus the terms of the Senate: the Syrians must depart Egypt or there would be war. Laenas then used a stick to draw a circle in the sand around Antiochus’s feet and demanded an answer before he set foot out of the ring. The Syrian agreed to the Senate’s demands, and Ptolemy VI was installed as ruler of all Egypt; Ptolemy VIII was made king of Cyrenaica.
Rome now stood as the supreme arbiter of Egyptian affairs. Thus, when PTOLEMY XII NEOS DIONYSIUS was driven from Egypt in 58 B.C.E. he fled to Rome. After paying extensive bribes and cultivating the political favor of Julius CAESAR, Ptolemy XII returned to Egypt and was reinstated with the assistance of three Roman legions. The remainder of his reign was as a virtual client of Rome, and Ptolemy left provision in his will for the Romans to have oversight over the transition of power to his children, CLEOPATRA VII and PTOLEMY XIII.
The bitter political struggle between Cleopatra and her brother went largely unnoticed by the Romans owing to their own civil war. In 48 B.C.E., however, following the defeat of POMPEY the Great by Julius Caesar at the battle of Pharsalus, Pompey fled to Egypt and what he hoped would be the sanctuary of the court of Ptolemy. The Roman general was immediately assassinated by a cabal of Egyptian courtiers, and his head was given as a gift to Caesar upon the dictator’s arrival in Alexandria.
Caesar decided the dispute between Ptolemy and Cleopatra in favor of the queen, and Ptolemy died in the fighting that followed. In a famous romance, Caesar and Cleopatra became lovers and produced PTOLEMY XV CAESARION. Following Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.E., Cleopatra established a relationship with Marc ANTONY. Their political and personal alliance culminated in the war with Caesar’s nephew, Octavian (the future AUGUSTUS) and the battle of ACTIUM in 31 B.C.E. The defeat of the Egyptian fleet and army opened the door for the Roman conquest of Egypt. Cleopatra committed suicide in famed fashion by stinging herself with an asp, and Marc Antony died on his own sword. Octavian, the future Augustus, entered Alexandria on August 1, 30 B.C.E. Henceforth, until the Arab conquest in 641 C.E., Egypt remained a territory of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire.