Novel Ptolemaic naval power : Arsinoë II, Ptolemy II, and Cleopatra VII’s innovative thalassocracies
James Harrison McKinney
May 9, 2018
Department or Program
Egypt’s particular and extensive foray into naval power in the early Hellenistic period offers a window into the religion, politics, and culture of the ancient Mediterranean that few scholars have taken the time to explore. Looking at the early Ptolemies’ naval expansion, two figures stand out for the roles they played in shaping this famed and powerful navy: Ptolemy II and Arsinoë II. Their innovative responses to traditional views of the sea allowed them to exert power and influence in unprecedented ways, forcing other Mediterranean rulers to change their views of naval power and to rethink the role of Egypt in the Hellenistic world for generations to come. By combining elements of Egypt’s traditional religious structure, Greek elite’s norms of political culture, and a developing Mediterranean geography for situating Egypt’s place in the world, Ptolemy II and Arsinoë II crafted a quintessentially Hellenistic hegemony that belies the scant historical attention their reign has garnered. Two hundred and fifty years after their deaths, Cleopatra VII was able to successfully revive and develop this thalassocracy like none had done before (or have done since) in the ancient Mediterranean. Cleopatra’s efforts to resurrect and reinterpret Ptolemy II and Arsinoë II’s policies saw enough success that Rome was forced to restructure its own evolving narrative of empire. Cleopatra, Ptolemy II, and Arsinoë II found innovative uses for the sea as a means for establishing legitimate international power, at once political, military, and religious in character. Examining their innovations within the context of the Hellenistic Mediterranean helps to clarify the historic tensions in Ptolemaic Egypt between its population’s diverse cultures, its rulers’ varying agendas, and its shifting significance to the Mediterranean as a whole.