During the New Kingdom (Dynasties 18–20, c.1575–1087bc) Egypt expanded into Asia. This great age of Egyptian militarism created in the 18th Dynasty an empire which stretched from the Euphrates to beyond the Fourth Cataract in Nubia, and the resources generated made possible remarkable achievements in the visual arts, esp. great temples such as those of Karnak and Luxor and the mortuary temples of west Thebes as well as the brilliantly decorated tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. The decline in Egypt's imperial position at the end of the dynasty was reversed by Seti I and Ramesses II in the early 19th Dynasty, but they never succeeded in recovering all the territory lost in Asia. The later New Kingdom is largely characterized by gradual decline. The Late Dynastic period (Dynasties 21–31, c.1087–332) is marked by long periods of foreign occupation by Libyans, Nubians, and Persians punctuated by short, if sometimes brilliant, periods of national resurgence (see saites). It terminates with the occupation by Alexander (2) the Great in 332.
In the period from the death of Alexander in 323 until the defeat of Cleopatra VII with Antony (see Antonius, Marcus) at Actium in 31 bc the Egyptian throne was held by Macedonians, and from 304 by the one family, descended from Alexander's general Ptolemy son of Lagus. Externally the main problem remained the extent of the kingdom, while internally the nature of administrative control and relations with the native Egyptians formed the major concerns of this new resident dynasty of foreign pharaohs. Contemporary historical analysis is limited in period, much of it concentrating on the scandalous and sensational, and while numerous papyri and ostraka, preserved in the dry desert, join with inscriptions to make Egypt better documented than other Hellenistic kingdoms, they illustrate the details of administration and everyday life without its wider context.
Internally the Ptolemies used local expertise as they set up their royal administration based on the traditional divisions or nomes (see nomos (1)) of Egypt. Self‐governing cities were few: Alexandria, which served as capital from 312, Naucratis, and Ptolemais, founded by Ptolemy I as a Greek city in the south. Through a hierarchical bureaucracy, taxation of rich agricultural land and of the population and their livestock was based on a thorough census and land‐survey. Greek was gradually introduced as the language of the administration, and Greeks were privileged, both socially and in the tax‐structure. The classification ‘Greek’ was now not an ethnic one, but rather one acquired, through employment and education. The wealth of the country (from its irrigation‐agriculture and from taxes) was employed both for further development in the countryside (with agricultural initiatives and land‐reclamation, esp. in the Fayūm) and, in Alexandria, for royal patronage and display. The cultural life of the capital, with the Museum and Library strongly supported under the early Ptolemies, played an important role in the definition of contemporary Hellenism.
Like other Hellenistic monarchs, the Ptolemies depended for security on their army, and Ptolemaic troops were tied in loyalty to their new homes by land‐grants in the countryside. In a soft approach to Egyptian ways, the Ptolemies early recognized the importance of native temples, granting privileges, and supporting native cults. The Ptolemies were both Egyptian pharaohs and Greek monarchs. General tolerance and even financial support for native temples characterize the religious policy of the regime. Two separate legal systems continued in use. The sister‐marrying Ptolemaic dynasty is, from the late 3rd cent., consistently represented as in decline. From the mid‐2nd cent. the shadow of Rome loomed large, yet Egypt was the last Hellenistic kingdom to fall under Roman sway.