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date: 03 March 2024

Ptolemy I

The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization
Dorothy J. ThompsonDorothy J. Thompson, Albert Brian BosworthAlbert Brian Bosworth

Ptolemy I (Ptolemaeus) Soter (‘Saviour’) (c.367–282 BC) 

son of Lagus and Arsinoë, served Alexander the Great of Macedon as an experienced general and childhood friend. At Susa in 324 he married Artacama (also called Apame), daughter of the Persian noble Artabazus, whom he later divorced. He later married the Macedonian Eurydice (6 children) and subsequently Berenice I, mother of the dynastic line. After Alexander’s death (323) he hijacked the conqueror’s embalmed corpse and, taking it to Memphis in Egypt, established himself as satrap in place of Cleomenes. In the following year he took Cyrene and in 321 repulsed the invasion of Perdiccas. In the complex struggles of Alexander’s Successors (Diadochi) he was not at first particularly successful. In 295 however he recovered Cyprus, lost in 306 to Demetrius Poliorcetes (‘the Besieger’), and from 291 he increasingly controlled the Aegean League of Islanders. Ptolemy took the title of King (basileus) in 305; this served as the first year of his reign. Responsible for initiating a Greek-speaking administration in Egypt, he consulted Egyptians (the priest Manetho and others), exploiting their local expertise. The cult of Sarapis, in origin the Egyptian Osiris-Apis (see egyptian deities), was probably developed under Soter as a unifying force. There are few papyri from his reign, but hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Delta (especially the ‘Satrap Stele’) present him as a traditional pharaoh. In Upper Egypt he founded Ptolemais Hermiou (mod. El-Mansha) as a second Greek administrative centre. Moving the capital from Memphis (S. of mod. Cairo) to Alexandria, he brought Egypt into the mainstream of the Hellenistic world.

Dorothy J. Thompson

Ptolemy I as historian

Ptolemy I wrote a history of the reign of Alexander the Great. Much about it is obscure, notably its title, dimensions and even its date of composition. Apart from a single citation in Strabo our knowledge of it is wholly due to Arrian who selected it, along with Aristobulus, as his principal source. The work was evidently comprehensive, covering the period from at least 335 bc to the death of Alexander, and it provided a wealth of ‘factual’ detail, including most of our information about the terminology and organization of the Macedonian army. The popular theory that Ptolemy based his work upon a court journal rests ultimately on his use of the Ephemerides (royal day-books) for Alexander’s last illness. Rather the narrative, as it is reconstructed from Arrian, suggests that Ptolemy had propagandist aims (not surprisingly, given his skill at publicity). He emphasized his personal contribution to the campaign and tended to suppress or denigrate the achievements of his rivals, both important in an age when service under Alexander was a considerable political asset. There is also a tendency to eulogize Alexander (whose body he kept interred in state) and gloss over darker episodes like the ‘conspiracy’ of the Macedonian general Philotas. The king accordingly appears as a paradigm of generalship, his conquests achieved at minimum cost and maximum profit, and Ptolemy continuously figures in the action. His account is contemporary and valuable; but it is not holy writ and needs to be controlled by other evidence.

Albert Brian Bosworth