Ptolemy I Soter was the son of Lagus, a Macedonia general. His mother may have been Arsinoe, who was either a mistress or cousin of Philip II. Whichever it was, Ptolemy was close to Alexander during his youth and served as one of his Bodyguards – effectively one of his staff – during the wars in Asia. After the death of Permenion in 330 Ptolemy was one of the small number of men who monopolised high office in Alexander’s army.
After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, Ptolemy adopted a different policy to his rivals. While others made a bid for all of Alexander’s empire, Ptolemy soon realised that the empire was simply too big for one man to rule – even Alexander was beginning to run into problems towards the end of his life. In the distribution of the satrapies at Babylon in 323 Ptolemy requested and received Egypt. During the struggles of the next forty years Ptolemy would concentrate on keeping control of Egypt, and would consistently oppose anyone who looked like they might become a threat to his position.
In many ways he adopted the traditional policies of the Pharaohs. Key amongst them was the possession of Syria, as a buffer for Egypt. He did not entirely abandon his Greek roots, and maintained a constant interest in the Aegean. He was generally successful – Egypt remained in his hands for the rest of his life, and his family (Ptolemaic or Lagid dynasty) ruled the county until the final defeat of Cleopatra in 30 BC.
For the first two year of his rule, Ptolemy had to share some of his power with his predecessor in Egypt, Cleomenese. He expanded his power by seizing control of the Greek kingdom of Cyrenaica, on the coast west of Egypt.
This was an uncertain period. Power in the Empire was divided uneasily between Alexander’s generals, with each of them suspicious of the others. One of the most potent symbols of authority in the empire was the body of Alexander. After two years of preparation, his funeral procession was ready to leave Babylon, heading either for the traditional Macedonian burial grounds, or possibly for the Oasis of Siwah in the desert west of the Nile. Ptolemy intercepted the procession, seized Alexander’s body and took it to Memphis.
This attracted the hostility of the regent Perdiccas. He was already facing a war in Asia Minor against Antipater and Craterus, but decided to leave that war in the hands of Eumenes of Cardia and deal with Ptolemy in person. The expedition ended in disaster for Perdiccas. His army suffered casualties in an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Nile. Ptolemy appears to have been stirring up trouble in Perdiccas’s camp. Perdiccas was murdered by his own officers, and Ptolemy took possession of the army. He was supremely lucky in this, for a few days later news reached Egypt of a great victory won by Eumenes, in which Craterus had been killed.
In the settlement of Triparadisus Ptolemy kept Egypt. The following year he made his first attempt to expand into Syria. This was triggered by the death of Antipater and his replacement as regent by Polyperchon, an obscure general. This first conquest of Syria was short lived. Most of the area was lost to Eumenes, who was fighting his way east having been condemned by the army, and then to Antigonus, who was pursuing Eumenes, although Ptolemy did retain control of Palestine, at least for a few years.
Antigonus now became the main threat to Ptolemy. He commanded a vast area, stretching from Asia Minor, through Syria and into Iran. In 315 he deposed Seleucus, satrap of Babylon, who fled to Ptolemy. Ptolemy, Cassander and Lysimachus now issued an ultimatum in which they each demanded Antigonus surrender land to them. Ptolemy demanded Syria.
This Third Diadoch War began badly for Ptolemy. Antigonus seized Joppa and Gaza, securing Palestine. He then left his son Demetrius in command in the area while he turned north in an attempt to attack Macedonia. Ptolemy was slow to respond. Eventually, in 312 he struck, defeating Demetrius at Gaza. This victory allowed Seleucus to return to Babylon, but it did not secure Syria for Ptolemy. In the peace of 311 he was confirmed in his position in Egypt, but did not get Syria. The Third Diadoch War ended with the main combatants back where they started.
Fourth Diadoch War
There was now a four year gap before the accepted start of the Fourth Diadoch War in 307. That is not to say that peace descended on the Greek world. The main field of fighting was now Greece and the Aegean. Ptolemy had visited Cyprus in 312, securing his control of the island, and giving him an excellent naval base. By 306 he had also acquired Rhodes as an ally. In 308 he actually sent a large expedition to the Peloponnese during a short period of uneasy alliance with Antigonus. In 315 both men had issued decrees promising to support the liberty of the Greek cities, Antigonus first and Ptolemy in response. The expedition of 308, aimed against Cassander, the ruler of Macedonia, failed to win support in Greece, and Ptolemy soon withdrew.
This period saw the successors finally adopt the title of king. Antigonus and Demetrius were first, after their triumph on Cyprus. This move forced their main rivals to do the same. Ptolemy was given his chance to claim that title in 305 after Antigonus had to abandon an invasion of Egypt.
Ptolemy was part of the alliance that eventually defeated Antigonus, along with Lysimachus, Cassander and Seleucus. However, he failed to play his agreed part in the campaign that ended at Ipsus in 301 BC. Instead of sending troops to the battle, he instead conquered the southern part of Syria, as far as the northern border of the modern Lebanon (the River Eleutherus, now the Nehr el-Kebir). This southern area now became known as Coele-Syria (the term could be used for the entire area from Gaza to the Eleutherus, or just for the northern part of the area).
In the aftermath of the battle the status of Coele-Syria remained unclear. Seleucus never abandoned his official claim to the area, but recognised how important Ptolemy’s help had been in helping his regain Babylon, and so allowed him to keep the area. The issue would remain dormant while the two men remained alive, but fighting would soon erupt between their heirs (First Syrian War, 276-272 BC) and a total of six Syrian Wars would be fought, at least partly over the area.
Ptolemy now returned to his standard policy of preventing any other successor from gaining enough power to threaten him. This saw him help Pyrrhus regain his kingdom of Epirus in 298-8, where he would act as a western buffer to Macedonia. By 294 he had regained control of Cyprus, taking it from Demetrius, who was concentrating on restoring his position in Greece. In 288/7 he took over the Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre, and by 287 he had taken over the patronage of the Confederate of the Nesiotes, an important federation of Greek islands.
He was now in his early 80s. While several of his fellow successors also survived into old age (notably Seleucus and Lysimachus), Ptolemy became the first since Antipater to die peacefully in his dotage. In 285 he withdrew from active government, and handed power on to his son Ptolemy II. He died in 283 BC.
Ptolemy was a writer as well as a general and monarch. We know he wrote a well respected and probably accurate biography of Alexander the Great, apparently in response to some of the more outrageous myths that were beginning to form around the conqueror. Sadly Ptolemy’s work is now lost.