Ptolemy I Soter by Dr Robert S Bianchi

Ptolemy I Soter

PTOLEMY I SOTER (367/6 – 282 BC)


I find the career of the eponymous founder of the dynasty which bears his name an extremely interesting personality, particularly when viewed through the lens of ancient Egypt. There a tradition maintains that Ptolemy was a son of Philip born to one of his many loves so that he came to be regarded as Alexander’s half-brother. The friendship between the two apparently so disturbed Philip that he was exiled, doubtless because Philip feared that the recognized abilities of the ten-year older Ptolemy might be advantageously utilized by Alexander to Philip’s detriment. Upon Philip’s death, however, Ptolemy was recalled at the insistence of Alexander himself who bestowed upon him dignified court titles. He served Alexander well, fighting with distinction during the campaigns, which, with hindsight, justified the meaning of his Greek name, Ptolemaios, “war-like.”


Ptolemy, perhaps like Julius Caesar, was not only a warrior but was also an astute politician, as we will see, and an author. He described the campaigns in an account which, alas, has not survived, but is either quoted or referenced by subsequent ancient historians, particularly Arrian (about AD 86-160) in his Anabasis of Alexander, and described as one of the most accurate, objective accounts ever-penned on the subject.


The political acumen of Ptolemy is perhaps best exemplified by the results of his participation in the events which occurred after the death of Alexander the Great at Babylon in June 323 BC. It soon became evident to all that no single member of Alexander’s entourage would emerge as his sole successor. The most powerful among these individuals, collectively termed the Diadiochi, “the Heirs,” intrigued to obtain parts of the empire as their own kingdoms. Ptolemy was involved in the plotting and instrumental in determining that division as the clever allocation of  Egypt to himself so clearly reveals. At the same time, Philip Arrhidaeus, the  (some maintain mentally-challenged) half brother of Alexander, was charged with the funeral arrangements which took almost two years to complete. The body of the hero was mummified in accordance with Egyptian practice, an elaborate hearse was designed and constructed, and plans were set into motion to convey the body in a cortege throughout the lands the hero had conquered so that all could pay their final respects before the planned interment was performed, arguably in a dynastic vault at Aegae, Greece. The cortege, moving westward, was hijacked by Ptolemy who seized the body of Alexander and conveyed it to Memphis, the administrative center of Egypt and location of Ptolemy’s royal palace. Ptolemy reverentially erected a tomb at Saqqara, the traditional, millennia-old necropolis of Memphis, in which the body of Alexander was initially laid to rest.


Whenever I am asked about the location of the tomb of Alexander the Great, I invariably ask, “which tomb?,” because there was more than one. I can, however, point to an area in which his first tomb, the one at Saqqara, was doubtless located. It has been suggested, and I would whole-heartedly agree, that the often overlooked semi-circle of poets and philosophers, sculpted in friable Egyptian limestone and now irreversibly effaced, which is presently within an orchestra-like concrete dome in the vicinity of the tourists’ path to the sepulchers of the Apis Bulls marks the area in general in which this tomb was located. This monument, conspicuous because of its totally Hellenic style, stands in marked contrast to all of the pharaonica in the area. Each of the individuals depicted in those statues resonate with associations of Alexander from Homer, whose Achilles in the Iliad  served as his avatar, to Pindar, whose house he spared when he sacked Greek Thebes.


At about this same time, according to the information contained on the Stela of the Satrap, the Persian noun for governor, in which capacity Ptolemy asserted he was ruling, he repatriated statues and temple scrolls which the Persian king Cambyses had apparently removed as examples of  trophy art during his conquest of Egypt between 525-522 BC.


Political attempts to challenge Ptolemy failed because he initially maintained with a straight face that he was merely ruling as the satrap of the province of Egypt for members of Alexander’s immediate family, until each in turn died, either naturally or by foul-play, by November 305 BC. In that year, Ptolemy took the unprecedented step of proclaiming himself pharaoh of Egypt, thereby inaugurating the Macedonian Greek dynasty whose members were to rule for almost three centuries until the death by suicide of his last descendant, Cleopatra VII, in 30 BC.


Military action against Ptolemy by the any of the Diadiochi proved futile, particularly the one concerted attempt in 321 BC when his opponents were stymied by both natural and artificial obstacles from gaining access to valley of the Nile. So ensconced had Ptolemy become that a persistent legend arose equating possession of the body of Alexander the Great with the sovereignty of Egypt. His body became a touch-stone which is the reason it was so ardently visited by any number of subsequent emperors of Rome.


Ptolemy proved to be an astute administrator. In addition to appointing Greeks to high bureaucratic positions, he followed the lead of Alexander the Great and likewise permitted Persians as well as Egyptians to remain in positions of authority within Egypt provided they demonstrated their unfailing allegiance to him. He did little to alter the nome, or provincial, administration of Egypt, so that Egypt’s pharaonic institutions continued to function unchanged. His name in Egyptian and his titulary were composed in concert with Egypt’s learned priestly-scribes who employed the same writing for his prenomen written with the first cartouche as that used earlier for Alexander the Great. By his second regnal year he was styled in Demotic, “the protector,” providing the equivalent, “Soter,” his Greek epithet.


His positive interaction with the Egyptian priesthood was furthered by his renovations of Egyptian temples. Although these architectural programs are not on the monumental scale of those of some of his successors, an inventory of his name preserved at these sites indicates that his architectural program effected virtually every major temple throughout the entire land. In this regard it is interesting to note his activities at Karnak between Pylons 8 and 9, where the foundations of an exterior wall composed of re-used talatat from the Amarna Period were replaced with sandstone blocks usurped by his agents from an unknown structure of post-Ramesside date. The artistic style of the relief decoration associated with these architectural programs reveals that the craftsmen in his employ perpetuated the style of the immediately preceding pharaonic dynasties, as is evident if one compares images inscribed in his name from Iseion in the Delta or from the Chapel of Thoth, now in Hildesheim, from Tuna el-Gebal with relief inscribed with the names of Nectanebo II of Dynasty XXX.


In addition to his financial support of these Egyptian institutions, Ptolemy I Soter, as he is now universally known, was doubtless responsible for sowing the seeds of what was to grow into the famous Library and Mouseion at Alexandria. He seems to be the individual responsible for acquiring the private library of Aristotle, which formed the core collection of the Library’s holdings. In this endeavor he seems to have engaged the services of Demetrius of Phaleron, a suburb of the city of Athens. Realizing the need for providing his immigrant Greek entourage with an understanding of the country they were now administrating, Ptolemy commissioned the Egyptian priest Manetho from the Delta city of Sebennytos to compose a history of his country in Greek.


Toward the end of his life, Ptolemy elected to avoid a dynastic crisis by appointing his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, to share the throne as his co-regent. Well into his 80s, Ptolemy died, peacefully, in his own bed, the only Diadioch to have lived to such a ripe age and the only one not to have had his life taken by foul-play.


Ptolemy II Philadelphus honored his father by instituting a great festival at Alexandria in which the cult of Ptolemy I Soter was established. He had, like Alexander before him, become posthumously deified. That cult was long-lived. Ptolemy I Soter was in fact the only male member of his dynasty whose cult was celebrated well into Roman times of the second century AD at a time when the cults of all the other male members ceased to be observed in the principal cities of Upper Egypt.


Robert Steven Bianchi

Holiday, FL





Dr Robert Steven Bianchi is an independent scholar who serves as the chief curator for the Ancient Egyptian Museum Shibuya [Tokyo] and as the curator responsible for ancient art in the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. He is internationally recognized as a consult because of his specialization in ancient art and aesthetics, is extensively published, and has been featured in almost 80 telecasts worldwide.

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