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Ancient Armies

Ptolemaic (DBA 42a & b)
(320 BC-30 BC)

By Kevan Barwise

Upon Alexander's death, no single successor emerged to claim his extensive empire. Rather, the widespread territories were divided amongst his generals. Egypt was the share of one of the more skilled of these: Ptolemy. He was Macedonian by birth, but ruled in Alexandria as a Pharaoh, he expanded his kingdom to include Lybia, Palestine, Cyprus, and parts of Asia Minor. The reign of the Ptolemaic Dynasty ended in 30 BC, when Cleopatra lost the famous battle of Actium in the Adriatic. Egypt then became a Roman province, under the rule of Octavian.

The most famous Ptolemaic leader is without a doubt Cleopatra. When Cleopatra VII ascended the Egyptian throne, she was only seventeen. She reigned as Queen Philopator and Pharaoh between 51 and 30 BC, and died at the age of 39.

Before glancing at Cleopatra's reign, let us first have a look at the keys to her rise and fall. The demise of the Ptolemies power coincided with the rise of the Roman Empire. Having little choice, and seeing city after the other falling into Rome's grip, the Ptolemies decided to ally with the Romans, a pact that lasted for two centuries. During the rule of the later Ptolemies, Rome gained more and more power over Egypt, and was even declared guardian of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII had to pay tribute to the Romans to keep them away from his Kingdom. Upon his death, the fall of the Dynasty seemed even closer.

Hence the controversy over Cleopatra's real motives. Was she trying to save her throne, or did she have a more noble cause? Was she protecting her Dynasty, or was she preventing more interference from the Romans in Egypt?

As children, Cleopatra and her siblings witnessed the defeat of their guardian, Pompey, by Julius Caesar in a duel. Meanwhile, Cleopatra and her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII were dueling, albeit silently, over the throne.

In the middle of all this turmoil, Julius Caesar left Rome for Alexandria in 48 BC. During his stay in the Palace, he received a famous gift in history: an oriental carpet... with a 22 year old Cleopatra wrapped in. Captivated by her charm, the 52-year-old Roman helped her regain her throne. Cleopatra counted on Caesar's support to alienate Ptolemy XIII. With the arrival of Roman reinforcements, and after a few battles in Alexandria, Ptolemy XIII was defeated and drowned.

In the summer of 47 BC, having married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, Cleopatra and Caesar embarked on a two month trip along the Nile, aboard a legendary boat. Together, they visited Dendara, where Cleopatra was being worshipped as Pharaoh, an honor beyond Caesar's reach. They became lovers, and indeed, she bore him a son, Caesarion, meaning "little Caesar". In 45 BC, Cleopatra and Caesarion left Alexandria for Rome, where they stayed in a palace built by Caesar in their honor.

Caesar's acts were anything but overlooked by the Romans. In 44 BC, he was killed in a conspiracy by his Senators. With his death, Rome split between supporters of Mark Antony and Octavian. Antony, as ruler of the eastern empire, summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus, in Asia Minor, to answer charges that she had aided his enemies. The queen arrived, knowing the value of a good entrance, dressed (or undressed) as Venus, on a magnificent river barge. She welcomed Antony with feasting and entertainment. Fascinated by her, he followed her to Alexandria, and, shortly after, they too became lovers.

Mark Antony's alliance with Cleopatra angered Rome even more. The senators called her a sorceress, and accused her of all sorts of evil. The Romans became even more furious as Antony was giving away parts of their Empire - Tarsus, Cyrene, Crete, Cyprus, and Palestine - one after the other to Cleopatra and her children.

It was the boiling point when Octavian declared war on Cleopatra, and off the coast of Greece in the Adriatic Sea they met in one of the most famous naval battles in history: Actium. Cleopatra had assured Antony that her navy would win the sea battle and give Antony the upper hand. However, Antony was overmatched. Octavian had more men and a more experienced army. The battle itself was not at all inspired. The Egyptians bungled and allowed themselves to get trapped in the harbor at Actium. The Egyptian defeat was often attributed to the early withdrawal of a coward Cleopatra from the battle scene, although most historians now discredit this claim.

Octavian waited for a year before he claimed Egypt as a Roman province. He arrived in Alexandria and easily defeated Mark Antony outside the city, near present day Camp César. Antony was asked to be taken to Cleopatra. He died in her arms and was buried as a King.

Ocatvian entered Alexandria in 30 BC. Cleopatra was captured and taken to him, and the Roman Emperor had no interest in any relation, reconciliation, or even negotiation with the Egyptian Queen. Realizing that her options were limited, she decided to put an end to her life. It is not known for sure how she killed herself, but many believe she used an asp as her death instrument.

Note: The DBA army list finishes at 40BC, which is incorrect. The actual date should coincide with the death of Cleopatra in 30BC.

Army Composition

Early Ptolemaic Late Ptolemaic Notes
1 x 3Kn 1 x 3Kn Cleruch Cavalry. Equipped similarly to Macedonian companions, the cleruch cavalry were offered land for military service.
1 x 2LH 1 x 2LH Egyptian "Ethic" light cavalry.
6 x 4Pk 6 x 4Pk Macadonian Phalangites. The bulk of the army was made up of military settlers and mercenaries. The Egyptian native population was considered too unreliable and was only used in dire emergency.
1 x 4Aux -- Peltasts. Equipped with the usual javelin, spear and shield.
-- 1 x 4Aux or 4Bd The blade option represents troops equipped in Roman style as "imitation legionaries".
1 x 4Wb -- Galatan mercenaries.
2 x 2Ps 1 x 2Ps Cretan mercenaries, Egyptian or Syrian archers and slingers
-- 1 x El African elephants of the small forest species were tamed to make up for the lack of Indian elephants after the line of supply was blocked by the Seleucids.
-- 1 x 3/4Aux or 4Wb The irregular option represent Thracian mercenary peltasts.

Army Variants

A later variant of the Later Ptolemaic army includes the army at the time of Cleopatra and her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII, covering the period 54BC to 30BC. Caesar reports that the Ptolemaic army in his day largely comprised brigands and ex-pirates from Cilicia and Syria, exiles and runaway slaves. The phalanx, if present, was supplemented by imitation legionaries and remnant legionaries left behind by a previous Roman expedition. The spear option represents rioting mobs of the non-Egyptian population of Alexandra.

Cleopatra Variant (54BC to 30BC)

1x3Kn, 1x2LH, 2x4Aux, 2x2Bd, 2x4Pk, 2x4Pk or 2x4Sp, 1x4Aux or 1x4Bd, 1x2Ps.


The enemies of the Early Ptolemaic include Later Libyan (#14b), Antigonid (#38a), Macadonian Early Successor (#40), Early Seleucid (#41a).

The enemies of the Later Ptolemaic armies include Later Libyan (#14b), Early Seleucid (#41a) and Marian Roman (#59).


The usual pike based tactics work well for Ptolemaic armies. As a Ptolemaic army has six pike elements a double-ranked phalanx in the center will usually over-power any historical enemies with four pikes. However, most historical successor armies will normally have more mounted troops and the single knight and light horse elements will find themselves out-gunned, especially when facing Seleucid armies. In these cases, it is best to anchor the army against difficult terrain to secure at least one flank. The knight and light horse elements can be kept together in a refused wing which will keep the mounted troops out of trouble while the phalanx will hopefully win the day.

Against the Marian Roman army, care must be taken not to be flanked by the Roman longer battle line. A good tactic is to attack a Roman wing with the mounted troops forcing an engagement with favorable matchups against the Roman cavalry. Taking the blade and warband option will not only help extend the line but also provide a quick kill option via the warband against the Roman blades. It is best to protect the auxilia against the Roman blades or they will be crushed.


The classical scene of a reclining woman being fanned by slaves would not be out of place. In the accounts of the lavish coronation of Ptolemy III, where no expense was spared, there are stories of chariots being drawn by ostriches and elephants. These would make interesting baggage for any up-and-coming pharaoh.


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Last Updated: July 3, 1999

Comments, questions or suggested additions to this page can be sent to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.