Egypt conquered by the Greeks

S. Rappoport

Alexander the Great, as King of Egypt and Horus

Alexander the Great.—Cleomenes.—B.C. 332-323

The way for the Grecian conquest of Egypt had been preparing for many years. Ever since the memorable march of Xenophon, who led, in the face of unknown difficulties, ten thousand Greeks across Asia Minor, the Greek statesman had suspected that the Hellenic soldier was capable of undreamed possibilities.

When the young Alexander, succeeding his father Philip on the throne of Macedonia, got himself appointed general by the chief of the Greek states, and marched against Darius Codomanus, King of Persia, at the head of the allied armies, it was not difficult to foresee the result. The Greeks had learned the weakness of the Persians by having been so often hired to fight for them. For a century past, every Persian army had had a body of ten or twenty thousand Greeks in the van, and without this guard the Persians were like a flock of sheep without the shepherd's dog. Those countries which had trusted to Greek mercenaries to defend them could hardly help falling when the Greek states united for their conquest.

Alexander defeated the Persians under Darius in a great and memorable battle near the town of Issus at the foot of the Taurus, at the pass which divides Syria from Asia Minor, and then, instead of marching upon Persia, he turned aside to the easier conquest of Egypt. On his way there he spent seven months in the siege of the wealthy city of Tyre, and he there punished with death every man capable of carrying arms, and made slaves of the rest. He was then stopped for some time before the little town of Gaza, where Batis, the brave governor, had the courage to close the gates against the Greek army. His angry fretfulness at being checked by so small a force was only equalled by his cruelty when he had overcome it; he tied Batis by the heels to his chariot, and dragged him round the walls of the city, as Achilles had dragged the body of Hector.

On the seventh day after leaving Gaza he reached Pelusium, the most easterly town in Egypt, after a march of one hundred and seventy miles along the coast of the Mediterranean, through a parched, glaring desert which forms the natural boundary of the country; while the fleet kept close to the shore to carry the stores for the army, as no fresh water is to be met with on the line of march. The Egyptians did not even try to hide their joy at his approach; they were bending very unwillingly under the heavy and hated yoke of Persia. The Persians had long been looked upon as their natural enemies, and in the pride of their success had added insults to the other evils of being governed by the satrap of a conqueror. They had not even gained the respect of the conquered by their warlike courage, for Egypt had in a great part been conquered and held by Greek mercenaries.

The Persian forces had been mostly withdrawn from the country by Sabaces, the satrap of Egypt, to be led against Alexander in Asia Minor, and had formed part of the army of Darius when he was beaten near the town of Issus on the coast of Cilicia. The garrisons were not strong enough to guard the towns left in their charge; the Greek fleet easily overpowered the Egyptian fleet in the harbour of Pelusium, and the town opened its gates to Alexander. Here he left a garrison, and, ordering his fleet to meet him at Memphis, he marched along the river's bank to Heliopolis. All the towns, on his approach, opened their gates to him. Mazakes, who had been left without an army, as satrap of Egypt, when Sabaces led the troops into Asia Minor, and who had heard of the death of Sabaces, and that Alexander was master of Phoenicia, Syria, and the north of Arabia, had no choice but to yield. The Macedonian army crossed the Nile near Heliopolis, and then entered Memphis.

Memphis had long been the chief city of all Egypt, even when not the seat of government. In earlier ages, when the warlike virtues of the Thebans had made Egypt the greatest kingdom in the world, Memphis and the lowland corn-fields of the Delta paid tribute to Thebes; but, with the improvements in navigation, the cities on the coast rose in importance; the navigation of the Red Sea, though always dangerous, became less dreaded, and Thebes lost the toll on the carrying trade of the Nile. Wealth alone, however, would not have given the sovereignty to Lower Egypt, had not the Greek mercenaries been at hand to fight for those who would pay them. The kings of Saïs had guarded their thrones with Greek shields; and it was on the rash but praiseworthy attempt of Amasis to lessen the power of these mercenaries that they joined Cambyses, and Egypt became a Persian province. In the struggles of the Egyptians to throw off the Persian yoke, we see little more than the Athenians and Spartans carrying on their old quarrels on the coasts and plains of the Delta; and the Athenians, who counted their losses by ships, not by men, said that in their victories and defeats together Egypt had cost them two hundred triremes. Hence, when Alexander, by his successes in Greece, had put a stop to the feuds at home, the mercenaries of both parties flocked to his conquering standard, and he found himself on the throne of Upper and Lower Egypt without any struggle being made against him by the Egyptians. The Greek part of the population, who had been living in Egypt as foreigners, now found themselves masters. Egypt became at once a Greek kingdom, as though the blood and language of the people were changed at the conqueror's bidding.

Alexander's character as a triumphant general gains little from this easy conquest of an unwarlike country, and the overthrow of a crumbling monarchy. But as the founder of a new Macedonian state, and for reuniting the scattered elements of society in Lower Egypt after the Persian conquest, in the only form in which a government could be made to stand, he deserves to be placed among the least mischievous of conquerors. We trace his march, not by the ruin, misery, and anarchy which usually follow in the rear of an army, but by the building of new cities, the more certain administration of justice, the revival of trade, and the growth of learning. On reaching Memphis, his first care was to prove to the Egyptians that he was come to re-establish their ancient monarchy. He went in state to the temple of Apis, and sacrificed to the sacred bull, as the native kings had done at their coronations; and gamed the good-will of the crowd by games and music, Performed by skilful Greeks for their amusement.

But though the temple of Phtah at Memphis, in which the state ceremonies were performed, had risen in beauty and importance by the repeated additions of the later kings, who had fixed the seat of government in Lower Egypt, yet the Sun, or Amon-Ra, or Kneph-Ra, the god of Thebes, or Jupiter-Amnion, as he was called by the Greeks, was the god under whose spreading wings Egypt had seen its proudest days. Every Egyptian king had called himself "the son of the Sun;" those who had reigned at Thebes had boasted that they were "beloved by Amon-Ra;" and when Alexander ordered the ancient titles to be used towards himself, he wished to lay his offerings in the temple of this god, and to be acknowledged by the priests as his son. As a reader of Homer, and the pupil of Aristotle, he must have wished to see the wonders of "Egyptian Thebes," the proper place for this ceremony; and it could only have been because, as a general, he had not time for a march of five hundred miles, that he chose the nearer and less known temple of Kneph-Ra, in the oasis of Ammon, one hundred and eighty miles from the coast.

Accordingly, he floated down the river from Memphis to the sea, taking with him the light-armed troops and the royal band of knights-companions. When he reached Canopus, he sailed westward along the coast, and landed at Rhacotis, a small village on the spot where Alexandria now stands. Here he made no stay; but, as he passed through it, he must have seen at a glance, for he was never there a second time, that the place was formed by nature to be a great harbour, and that with a little help from art it would be the port of all Egypt. The mouths of the Nile were too shallow for the ever increasing size of the merchant vessels which were then being built; and the engineers found the deeper water which was wanted, between the village of Rhacotis and the little island of pharos. It was all that he had seen and admired at Tyre, but it was on a larger scale and with deeper water. It was the very spot that he was in search of; in every way suitable for the Greek colony which he proposed to found as the best means of keeping Egypt in obedience. Even before the time of Homer, the island of Pharos had given shelter to the Greek traders on that coast. He gave his orders to Hinocrates the architect to improve the harbour, and to lay down the plan of his new city; and the success of the undertaking proved the wisdom both of the statesman and of the builder, for the city of Alexandria subsequently became the most famous of all the commercial and intellectual centres of antiquity. From Rhacotis Alexander marched along the coast to Parastonium, a distance of about two hundred miles through the desert; and there, or on his way there, he was met by the ambassadors from Cyrene, who were sent with gifts to beg for peace, and to ask him to honour their city with a visit. Alexander graciously received the gifts of the Cyrenæans, and promised them his friendship, but could not spare time to visit their city; and, without stopping, he turned southward to the oasis.

At Memphis Alexander received the ambassadors that came from Greece to wish him joy of his success; he reviewed his troops, and gave out his plans for the government of the kingdom. He threw bridges of boats over the Nile at the ford below Memphis, and also over the several branches of the river. He divided the country into two nomarchies or judgeships, and to fill these two offices of nomarchs or chief judges, the highest civil offices in the kingdom, he chose Doloaspis and Petisis, two Egyptians. Their duty was to watch over the due administration of justice, one in Upper and the other in Lower Egypt, and perhaps to hear appeals from the lower judges.

He left the garrisons in the command of his own Greek generals; Pantaleon commanded the counts, or knights-companions, who garrisoned Memphis, and Pole-mon was governor of Pelusium. These were the chief fortresses in the kingdom: Memphis overlooked the Delta, the navigation of the river, and the pass to Upper Egypt; Pelusium was the harbour for the ships of war, and the frontier town on the only side on which Egypt could be attacked. The other cities were given to other governors; Licidas commanded the mercenaries, Peucestes and Balacrus the other troops, Eugnostus was secretary, while Æschylus and Ephippus were left as overlookers, or perhaps, in the language of modern governments, as civil commissioners. Apollonius was made prefect of Libya, of which district Parætonium was the capital, and Cleomenes prefect of Arabia at Heroopolis, in guard of that frontier. Orders were given to all these generals that justice was to be administered by the Egyptian nomarchs according to the common law or ancient customs of the land. Petisis, however, either never entered upon his office or soon quitted it, and Doloaspis was left nomarch of all Egypt.

Alexander sent into the Thebaid a body of seven thousand Samaritans, whose quarrels with the Jews made them wish to leave their own country. He gave them lands to cultivate on the banks of the Nile which had gone out of cultivation with the gradual decline of Upper Egypt; and he employed them to guard the province against invasion or rebellion. He did not stay in Egypt longer than was necessary to give these orders, but hastened towards the Euphrates to meet Darius. In his absence Egypt remained quiet and happy. Peucestes soon followed him to Babylon with some of the troops that had been left in Egypt; and Cleomenes, the governor of Heroopolis, was then made collector of the taxes and prefect of Egypt. Cleomenes was a bad man; he disobeyed the orders sent from Alexander on the Indus, and he seems to have forgotten the mild feelings which guided his master; yet, upon the whole, after the galling yoke of the Persians, the Egyptians must have felt grateful for the blessings of justice and good government.

At one time, when passing through the Thebaid in his barge on the Nile, Cleomenes was wrecked, and one of his children bitten by a crocodile. On this plea, he called together the priests, probably of Crocodilopolis, where this animal was held sacred, and told them that he intended to revenge himself upon the crocodiles by having them all caught and killed; and he was only bought off from carrying his threat into execution by the priests giving him all the treasure that they could get together. Alexander had left orders that the great market should be moved from Canopus to his new city of Alexandria, as soon as it should be ready to receive it. As the building went forward, the priests and rich traders of Canopus, in alarm at losing the advantages of their port, gave Cleomenes a large sum of money for leave to keep their market open. This sum he took, and, when the building at Alexandria was finished, he again came to Canopus, and because the traders would not or could not raise a second and larger sum, he carried Alexander's orders into execution, and closed the market of their city.

But instances such as these, of a public officer making use of dishonest means to increase the amount of the revenue which it was his duty to collect, might unfortunately be found even in countries which were for the most part enjoying the blessings of wise laws and good government; and it is not probable that, while Alexander was with the army in Persia, the acts of fraud and wrong should have been fewer in his own kingdom of Macedonia. The dishonesty of Cleomenes was indeed equally shown toward the Macedonians, by his wish to cheat the troops out of part of their pay. The pay of the soldiers was due on the first day of each month, but on that day he took care to be out of the way, and the soldiers were paid a few days later; and by doing the same on each following month, he at length changed the pay-day to the last day of the month, and cheated the army out of a whole month's pay.

Another act for which Cleomenes was blamed was not so certainly wrong. One summer, when the harvest had been less plentiful than usual, he forbade the export of grain, which was a large part of the trade of Egypt, thereby lowering the price to the poor so far as they could afford to purchase such costly food, but injuring the landowners. On this, the heads of the provinces sent to him in alarm, to say that they should not be able to get in the usual amount of tribute; he therefore allowed the export as usual, but raised the duty; and he was reproached for receiving a larger revenue while the landowners were suffering from a smaller crop.

At Ecbatana, the capital of Media, Alexander lost his friend Hephæstion, and in grief for his death he sent to Egypt to enquire of the oracle at the temple of Kneph in the oasis of Ammon, what honours he might pay to the deceased. The messengers brought him an answer, that he might declare Hephæstion a demigod, and order that he should be worshipped. Accordingly, Alexander then sent an express command to Cleomenes that he should build a temple to his lost favourite in his new city of Alexandria, and that the lighthouse which was to be built on the island of Pharos should be named after him; and as modern insurances against risks by sea usually begin with the words "In the name of God; Amen;" so all contracts between merchants in the port of Alexandria were to be written solemnly "In the name of Hephæstion." Feeling diffident of enforcing obedience at the mouth of the Nile, while he was himself writing from the sources of the Indus, he added that if, when he came to Egypt he found his wish carried into effect, he would pardon Cleomenes for those acts of misgovernment of which he had been accused, and for any others which might then come to his ears.

A somatophylax in the Macedonian army was no doubt at first, as the word means, one of the officers who had to answer for the king's safety; perhaps in modern language a colonel in the body-guards or household troops; but as, in unmixed monarchies, the faithful officer who was nearest the king's person, to whose watchfulness he trusted in the hour of danger, often found himself the adviser in matters of state, so, in the time of Alexander, the title of somatophylax was given to those generals on whose wisdom the king chiefly leaned, and by whose advice he was usually guided. Among these, and foremost in Alexander's love and esteem, was Ptolemy, the son of Lagus. Philip, the father of Alexander, had given Arsinoë, one of his relations, in marriage to Lagus; and her eldest son Ptolemy, born soon after the marriage, was always thought to be the king's son, though never so acknowledged. As he grew up, he was put into the highest offices by Philip, without raising in the young Alexander's mind the distrust which might have been felt if Ptolemy could have boasted that he was the elder brother. He earned the good opinion of Alexander by his military successes in Asia, and gained his gratitude by saving his life when he was in danger among the Oxydracæ, near the river Indus; and moreover, Alexander looked up to him as the historian whose literary powers and knowledge of military tactics were to hand down to the wonder of future ages those conquests which he witnessed.

Alexander's victories over Darius, and march to the river Indus, are no part of this history: it is enough to say that he died at Babylon eight years after he had entered Egypt; and his half-brother Philip Arridæus, a weak-minded, unambitious young man, was declared by the generals assembled at Babylon to be his successor. His royal blood united more voices in the army in his favour than the warlike and statesmanlike character of any one of the rival generals. They were forced to be content with sharing the provinces between them as his lieutenants; some hoping to govern by their power over the weak mind of Arridæus, and others secretly meaning to make themselves independent.

In this weighty matter, Ptolemy showed the wisdom and judgment which had already gained him his high character. Though his military rank and skill were equal to those of any one of Alexander's generals, and his claim by birth perhaps equal to that of Arridæous, he was not one of those who aimed at the throne; nor did he even aim at the second place, but left to Perdiccas the regency, with the care of the king's person, in whose name that ambitious general vainly hoped to govern the whole of Alexander's conquests. But Ptolemy, more wisely measuring his strength with the several tasks, chose the province of Egypt, the province which, cut off as it was from the rest by sea and desert, was of all others the easiest to be held as an independent kingdom against the power of Perdiccas. When Egypt was given to Ptolemy by the council of generals, Cleomenes was at the same time and by the same power made second in command, and he governed Egypt for one year before Ptolemy's arrival, that being in name the first year of the reign of Philip Arridæus, or, according to the chronologer's mode of dating, the first year after Alexander's death.