Growing up in the reign of King Philip II of Macedon, Ptolemy traveled far and fought in many battles under Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. Then, he would seize the former kingdom of Egypt, make it independent again, and reign as pharaoh. His line would rule over the desert until the legendary Cleopatra, centuries later. But, like so many rulers of his era, there was a dark side to this monumental ruler. Discover more about Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander’s forgotten general.
1. The Great vs. the Savior
The title “Ptolemy Soter” translates to “Ptolemy the Savior.” We can assume that he gained this moniker when he secured his position as ruler of Egypt rather than when he was riding around with Alexander. Otherwise, there might have been an argument between Ptolemy and Alexander about whose nickname was more egomaniacal!
2. When Mom Met Dad
Ptolemy was born in 367 BC in the kingdom of Macedon. Many records state that he was the son of Lagus, a minor Macedonian nobleman, while his mother was named Arsinoe. Allegedly, Philip of Macedon personally arranged the marriage between Lagus and Arsinoe. This tied into his strategies of tying the various Macedonian factions together through political marriages.
3. Friends of Convenience
Despite being eleven years older than Alexander, Ptolemy became one of his closest companions while the Macedonian prince was growing up. For his part, Ptolemy likely served as a page in the Macedonian court and became attached to Alexander by association.
4. Living in My Shadow
Ptolemy had one brother of whom we know. Menelaus is almost never mentioned in the histories of Alexander, meaning that he didn’t hold the kind of prestigious position that Ptolemy did. In fact, no surviving historical records even mention him until 315, by which time Alexander was already dead and Ptolemy was Pharaoh of Egypt (more on that part of his life later, though).
5. “To the Strongest”
When Alexander the Great was no more, he left a massive power vacuum. Several of his closest and most power-hungry friends rose up to fill it, and Ptolemy was among this group. These former associates were known to history as the Diadochi (“Diadochi” can be translated from both Latin and Greek to the word “successors”). The most prominent Diadochi included Ptolemy, Seleucus, Cassander, Perdiccas, Antigonus “One-Eye,” and Lysimachus. Each of these men tried to seize and control either part of Alexander’s empire or the entirety of it, and their conflict shaped the world for centuries to come.
6. The Seven Kingsguard
Alexander the Great kept his own personal bodyguards during his life, which proved especially necessary while he was conquering the Persian Empire. These bodyguards originally consisted of seven men from Macedonian nobility, such as Perdiccas and Lysimachus. In some cases, the men fell in battle, or to disease, and had to be replaced. However, one of them, a man named Demetrius, was executed in 330 BC when he was suspected of being involved in a conspiracy to kill Alexander and take his throne.
But one man’s fall is another man’s fortune, and Ptolemy replaced him as one of the bodyguards. Unlike his predecessor, Ptolemy maintained this position for the rest of Alexander’s life.
7. We Can Trust You, Right?
Ptolemy’s rule over Egypt began after the fall of Alexander the Great. Because Alexander’s heir was a newborn infant, and because Alexander’s brother had support from the Macedonian army, advisors decided that these two should be co-rulers. Ptolemy became the satrap (governor) of Egypt, and his job was to look after it for the Macedonian Co-Kings. However, things didn’t exactly go according to plan…
8. Big Shoes to Fill
Oddly enough, Ptolemy wasn’t the first man named “Ptolemy” to be a member of Alexander’s bodyguard. The first Ptolemy was killed in battle in 334 BC during the Siege of Halicarnassus. We’re assuming that “Ptolemy” was like the “Steve” of today’s world.
9. We Have a Tradition and We’re Sticking with It!
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that Cleopatra was actually the seventh woman of that name to rule Egypt during the Ptolemaic dynasty. If you think that’s an overuse of a name, keep in mind that every single male ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty was named Ptolemy! Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
10. Doing Your Job Well
Ptolemy was one of the two bodyguards of Alexander (along with Leonnatus) who discovered the conspiracy to assassinate Alexander while he was campaigning in the eastern Persian Empire. This discovery undoubtedly saved the king’s life, and Ptolemy’s star rose even higher thereafter. I wonder if Alexander knew what kind of man he was creating?
11. Always By His Side
Ptolemy’s longtime mistress (and possibly his first wife) was a Greek prostitute named Thais. She accompanied the Macedonians on their journeys east under Alexander, and she became Ptolemy’s personal concubine by the time they reached Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire. Thais remained at Ptolemy’s side even when he took political wives as satrap—and later Pharaoh—of Egypt.
She would have three children with Ptolemy during their lives together, but since she was of low birth, none of them were ever considered as potential heirs to his throne.
12. Bodyguard-Turned-Bounty Hunter
Ptolemy’s first independent command under Alexander was to hunt down Bessus, a Persian commander. After Alexander defeated King Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela, the Macedonian troops found the king’s body in the wildness, struck down by his own men. In a genius move, Alexander sought out the king’s assassins to punish them for regicide—thereby gaining the trust of the Persian populace.
After each of the assassins had been hunted down, Bessus, Darius’ former general, was the last one standing, until Ptolemy finally caught him in 329.
13. Foreign Rulers?
The successor kingdoms of Alexander the Great had varying levels of success, but Ptolemy’s was the greatest of them all. The Ptolemaic dynasty would rule Egypt for just under three centuries. Because of Ptolemy’s background, and because so many Greeks and Macedonians settled in Egypt, the Ptolemaic dynasty ruled over a remarkably diverse Egypt. But while the Ptolemaic rulers did embrace several aspects of Egyptian culture, only the last active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt (Cleopatra) actually learned how to speak Egyptian.
14. A Fine Case of Land-Grabbing
Ptolemy is usually described as having only taken Egypt to rule, but for a time, he and his descendants also controlled Cyprus, Rhodes, and parts of Israel and Turkey. It wasn’t quite an Alexander-sized kingdom, but it wasn’t bad!
15. My Place in History
Ptolemy’s first noted participation in a significant battle in Alexander the Great’s campaigns was the legendary Battle of Issus in 333 BC. According to historical records, he was on the left flank of the Macedonian army at Issus, serving under the command of Parmenion, Alexander’s second-in-command. It wasn’t the most illustrious position—but his fate would change before long.
16. Loveless Marriage
In 324 BC, Alexander organized a marriage festival in the city of Susa. He hoped to integrate the Persians and Macedonians, who both now looked to him as their king. Ptolemy was one of the many nobles and commanders who got a wife during this festival. Her name was Artakama and she was a noblewoman whose father, Artabazus, was a Persian satrap. However, this wasn’t exactly a fairy tale love story…
Artakama and Ptolemy never had any children; in fact, after the marriage festival, she is almost never mentioned again in surviving historical records. Most suspect that Ptolemy discarded her after Alexander bit the dust.
17. Future Pharaoh
Ptolemy was one of the men who accompanied Alexander to the sacred Oracle at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt when the Macedonians liberated Egypt from the Persian Empire. It was there that Alexander was hailed as the new Pharaoh of Egypt, though he would never return to Egypt again during his lifetime. The great irony, of course, is that his successor as Pharaoh had been with him the entire time at the Oracle, despite neither Alexander nor Ptolemy realizing it!
18. Was That Me?
One of the earlier references to Ptolemy in the history of Alexander’s campaigns places him in the northern Balkans with Alexander in 335 BC. After Philip II was assassinated, several people in Greece, Thrace, and other regions revolted against Macedonian rule. Alexander spent over a year traveling around just to subdue the resistances and confirm his authority.
19. Europe to Asia to Africa
Ptolemy first struck out for his own personal rule when he stole the body of Alexander the Great. Traditionally, a dead king would be buried by his successor however they saw fit, but at that time, the co-kings were an infant and a man with intellectual disability in Macedon. Ptolemy didn’t exactly trust those two with Alexander’s legacy, and he assumed that the power-hungry regent Perdiccas couldn’t be trusted either.
Ignoring the demands of those back in Macedon, Ptolemy went to great lengths to bring Alexander’s body to his city of Alexandria in Egypt, where the great king was laid to rest.
20. In Alexander’s Shadow
In 1956, Hollywood filmmaker Robert Rossen wrote, produced, and directed a film about Alexander the Great. Ptolemy is a minor character, with the film only portraying that part of his life when he was Alexander’s general. Ptolemy was portrayed in the film by Portuguese actor and heartthrob Virgilio Teixeira. My question is, where’s Ptolemy’s movie? At least he lived to actually rule over his kingdom!
21. I Was There…
Ptolemy famously wrote a history of Alexander the Great’s life, but this priceless eye-witness account was lost forever during the decline of the Library of Alexandria during the time of the Roman Empire. The silver lining is that Ptolemy’s memoirs survived long enough for the historian Arrian to read and study them. Arrian credits Ptolemy as a chief source for his own history of Alexander. Arrian’s account remains one of the principal sources on that time period.
22. Love and Marriage
Forgetting his first marriage to Thais (who might have just been his concubine), and his short marriage to Artakama, Ptolemy married two women who both became Queen of Egypt. Eurydice was the daughter of Antipater, the regent of Macedonia and Greece during Alexander’s lifetime (and who took those regions for his own rule after Alexander). Berenice was a cousin of hers once removed who later married Ptolemy in 317, causing a jealous rift between the two women.
Eurydice would provide Ptolemy with at least four children, while her cousin gave him three more of her own. Sounds like it would have been pretty awkward around the dinner table…
23. The Tables Have Turned!
In 321 BC, shortly after Ptolemy had secured Egypt (and Alexander’s body) for himself, his rival Perdiccas led a massive army southeast to bring Ptolemy to heel. He had no idea, but his foolish campaign would only lead to his doom. Ptolemy set up effective defenses along the Nile, preventing Perdiccas’ army from getting across. After more than 2,000 casualties, Perdiccas’ army had had enough of their general’s failures—and decided to do something about it…
24. Perdiccas, We Hardly Knew Ye
Two of Perdiccas’ closest advisors struck him down in his own tent, putting an end to the campaign in Egypt. Ptolemy crossed the river when he heard about the mutiny and ironically began giving them supplies from his own camp. However, Ptolemy refused the chance to take Perdiccas’ place as regent of the empire. Unlike such figures as Perdiccas or Antigonus (more on him later), Ptolemy never wanted to reunite the empire under his own rule and was content with carving out a valuable piece of it for himself. Clearly, it paid off!
25. Good Advice!
In 337 BC, Pixodarus, a Persian satrap, suggested that Philip II of Macedon marry his daughter. However, perhaps because Philip already had been married to six women by that point, he instead suggested that the daughter marry his son, Philip Arrhidaeus. Alexander was furious, as he was worried that if Arrhidaeus managed to produce children, it would threaten his own position as heir to his father’s throne.
It was reportedly Ptolemy who advised Alexander to act, and so Alexander quickly pointed out to Pixodarus that Arrhidaeus was intellectually disabled (which was true) and offered to marry the daughter instead.
26. Then Again, Maybe Not
Unfortunately, Ptolemy’s plan to have Alexander steal his brother’s bride backfired. Philip II was furious when he discovered Alexander’s meddling, and he had Ptolemy banished from the royal court. Ptolemy would remain exiled until Alexander became king.
27. Oh Brother…
While he kept Egypt secure, Ptolemy also expanded his influence on the island of Cyprus, as we’ve previously mentioned. When he did so, he made his brother, Menelaus, the King of Cyprus in order to keep it in line. However, he’d eventually realize that he’d made a terrible mistake. By 306, Antigonus “One-Eye” sent his highly accomplished son Demetrius “The Besieger” to take Cyprus from Menelaus, and it went as could be expected…
28. It’s Right in the Name
With a nickname like that, Demetrius made short work of Menelaus’ forces, and not even a fleet sent by Ptolemy could turn the tide. Menelaus surrendered to Demetrius at Salamis and was allowed to leave the island of Cyprus. We can assume that he just looked sheepish when his brother asked him how things turned out!
29. We Shall Fight Them on the Shores
Antigonus “One-Eye” and Ptolemy would continue to be a thorn in each other’s sides for years, even after Ptolemy’s loss of Cyprus. In 306 BC, Antigonus would launch an invasion of Egypt to break his rival once and for all. But, if you can remember the last time a rival tried to march into Egypt, that was a lot easier said than done. Ptolemy managed to throw back Antigonus’ invasion attempts just like he had with Perdiccas.
Hey Antigonus, count yourself lucky, at least you still walked out of Egypt alive!
30. Does that Make Me Vice-Leader?
Alexander the Great’s last campaign took place in the Zagros mountains in Iran. Ptolemy, having risen high in Alexander’s court, served as his second-in-command in the campaign. We can only assume he would have had a similarly high position in the campaign that Alexander was planning against the Arabs before he croaked. Not too bad for a guy who had been completely banished just a few years earlier.
31. Waiting for the Vacancy
Despite effectively being in charge of Egypt after Alexander the Great’s passing, Ptolemy didn’t crown himself Pharaoh until 304 or 305 BC. This was around four years after the murder of Alexander’s son and heir, Alexander IV, by the orders of Cassander, who had taken the throne of Macedon for himself.
32. Would I Lie?!
Across the years, historians have argued over how trustworthy Arrian, and therefore Ptolemy, is on the subject of Alexander the Great’s life. Given how the Diadochi were at each other’s throats mere days after Alexander gave his last breath, people have suspected Ptolemy of smearing the names of his rivals in his history of Alexander. For his part, Arrian argued that he could trust Ptolemy since he was an eye-witness to Alexander’s life, but also because Ptolemy was a king, and it would have been a great dishonor for a king to lie. We’ll allow any cynics reading this to have a great snort of laughter before reading onwards.
33. If He’s Thunderbolt, was Meleager Called “Lightfoot”?
When it comes to Ptolemy’s sons, things weren’t necessarily sunshine and rainbows. Known also as “Keraunos” or “Thunderbolt,” the eldest son of Ptolemy was also called Ptolemy, but he and his brother Meleager were both passed up for the succession by a much younger son (also called Ptolemy, of course). Kept from the throne, Keraunos was forced to leave Egypt after Ptolemy’s passing and his half-brother’s ascension. But don’t worry, he had other plans in mind…
34. Worth a Shot!
Keraunos decided to go to Macedon and become its king (Cassander was no more by that point). However, things didn’t turn out as well as he’d hoped. Not long after, Keraunos would be killed in battle with hordes of Celts from Gaul invading Macedon. After Meleager tried to succeed his brother as king, the Celts were only driven back by Antigonus Gonatas, grandson of Antigonus “One-Eye.” This began the Antigonid dynasty, which lasted until the Romans conquered Macedon and Greece years later.
35. A Good King Rules
You might wonder how a Macedonian general with just 4,000 troops under his command ever managed to win the Egyptians over so thoroughly. One thing Ptolemy did was take a leaf out of Alex’s book and ingratiate himself with the local population by adopting their culture for himself. He reopened the sacred temples which the Persians had closed or destroyed during their rule of Egypt.
Moreover, Ptolemy would become a patron of the Egyptian gods and the arts in Egypt. He would even establish a research institute known as the Alexandrian Museum. Clearly, Ptolemy believed in ruling with honey more than vinegar.
36. I’d Say I Did a Good Job
Ptolemy lived long enough to make Egypt a well-run and powerful independent kingdom, despite all the chaos of the Diadochi’s wars. He lived to the ripe old age of 85 before passing away in January, 282 BC. For back then, 85 was one heck of a feat!
37. Did I Do That?
It’s uncertain whether or not Ptolemy first laid the foundations for the Library of Alexandria, one of the most prestigious libraries of the ancient world. Some sources claim that the library was founded during the time of his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Others say that Ptolemy was the first ruler to begin the construction, but it wasn’t finished until his son’s rule. Either way, the great library was one of the most lasting accomplishments of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
38. Good Boy!
Speaking of wondrous architecture of the ancient world, it’s sadly not true that Ptolemy had anything to do with the Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). It was his son, Ptolemy II, who would arrange the construction of the Lighthouse. It spent a few centuries existing as the tallest non-pyramidal structure in the world before it was sadly destroyed by a series of earthquakes from between the 9th and 12th centuries AD. Too bad no one took any photos…
39. Worship Her!
If having queens for daughters wasn’t enough, another one of Ptolemy’s daughters reached higher status than that. Philotera isn’t very well-known in the histories except for the fact that after she passed, her brother had her deified. A cult religion was established around Philotera, and a temple was built in her honor in Alexandria.
40. My Story on My King
In 2004, Oliver Stone released his passion project Alexander. It underperformed expectations, but massive DVD sales led him to release a Director’s Cut, a Final Cut, and an Ultimate Cut several years later on. In the sprawling epic, three different actors portrayed Ptolemy. Robert Earley portrays Ptolemy as a child, training and studying alongside Alexander. Elliot Cowan is the adult Ptolemy accompanying his king across the vastness of the Persian Empire. Finally, Anthony Hopkins portrays Ptolemy as an old man, narrating the story as he composes his memoirs on Alexander.
41. “I’ve Known Many Great Men in my Life, but Only One Colossus!”
The wars against Antigonus “One-Eye” and his son Demetrius “The Besieger” would continue onwards after Ptolemy successfully defended Egypt from their forces. In 305 and 304 BC, Demetrius famously laid siege to Rhodes. Rhodes had maintained their neutrality in the prior years, and also wanted to keep their close trade ties with Egypt at the same time. For his part, Ptolemy sent reinforcements and supplies to the besieged Rhodians and helped them overcome the attack.
Not only was Ptolemy granted divine honors by the Rhodians, but they also built the Colossus of Rhodes to commemorate their victory over Demetrius! And all thanks to Ptolemy!
42. Burn it All!
Ptolemy’s concubine Thais may have been partly responsible for one of the most destructive episodes in Alexander’s campaigns. When the Macedonians arrived at the Persian capital of Persepolis, they began feasting and getting rowdy, especially Alexander. According to some historical sources, it was Thais who suggested that Alexander burn Persepolis in revenge for the Persians’ prior looting of Athens (Thais herself came from Athens).
Whether Alexander was drunk or sober, Thais evidently made a good case. He had the city burned to the ground. We can assume that Thais and Ptolemy shared an awkward hangover the next day!
43. It’s Like House Targaryen but Without the Dragons
Traditionally, the Pharaohs of Egypt kept their bloodline pure…and we mean really pure. Lannister pure. After Ptolemy became the Pharaoh of Egypt, his descendants would engage in incest as well, perhaps because their new subjects just expected it or because they finally had a place to safely practice that strange fetish of theirs. Either way, the Ptolemaic dynasty became deeply inbred (while most people have sixteen great-great-grandparents, the famous Cleopatra only had six). As you can imagine, this had consequences…
The Ptolemies’ incestual ancestry led to unstable physical conditions within the family. According to historical reports, they were often morbidly obese with swollen necks or other deformities.
44. A Twist Worthy of Game of Thrones
Believe it or not, there is a legend that Ptolemy wasn’t actually the son of Lagus, but King Philip II! This would make Ptolemy the illegitimate older half-brother of Alexander! It’s impossible to say for sure if this is true, or if it’s a lie invented to flatter the Egyptian Pharaoh, or if Ptolemy himself invented the story. If it’s true, that puts a whole new spin on Ptolemy’s loyalty to Alexander, even against his own father.