The Army of Ptolemaic Egypt 323-204 BC – An Institutional and Operational History, Paul Johstono

The Army of Ptolemaic Egypt 323-204 BC – An Institutional and Operational History, Paul Johstono

The traditional version of the history of Ptolomeic Egypt is one of early success followed by a long period of decline, normally considered to have started late in the reign of Ptolemy III. The massive battle of Raphia, which took place under Ptolemy IV, is considered to have been an unusual exception, and the Ptolemaic victory to have largely been due to reforms instituted by newly arrived Greek military experts. 

One of the most impressive things about this book is the level of detailed information that it reveals about the Ptolemaic army. The key to this is the survival of an impressive number of papyri, recording many of the administrative details of that army. This gives us far more detail on individual soldiers and units that we have for any other Hellenistic army

One minor quibble from the section on the possible decline of the Ptolemaic army between the wars of Ptolemy III and Raphia – the author asks if its credible that a perfectly functioning army could be run down enough to need major reform in just three or four years – the answer is of course an overwhelming yes – the end of a major conflict is almost always a dangerous moment for any army. In recent times the British military of 1918 contained over 4 million people, and was at the peak of efficency, but by 1920 had dropped to just under 600,000 people. The US National Army, created to fight in the First World War, was actually disbanded in 1920. In an earlier period the British army halved in size between 1810 and 1820, and was undoubtedly less effective in 1820 than in 1814-15. 

Having said that, the author does a good job of proving that the army didn’t notably decline in the later years of Ptolemy III’s reign, and was more active and more effective than is normally acknowledged in the first years of Ptolemy IV’s reign. Polybius’s account of a period of rapid reform is clearly disproved, with many of those reforms being seen well before the pre-Raphia crisis. The Ptolemaic army emerges from this study as a surprisingly effective force, capable of conducing successful campaigns across most of the Hellenistic world. However the basic picture of success followed by decline is still true – it’s just that the decline started after Raphia, and not before that battle.

Large sections of this book are quite technical, looking in great detail at the exact nature of the troops in this army, the way they were organised, their ethnic origins (and how that differed from their official titles), and their property. However there are also sections on the campaigns fought by this army, many of emerge as being far more extensive than is often realised. Unfortunately the most successful campaigns of Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III are also amongst the worst documented of this period, but the author has found enough material to give a fairly convincing account of these otherwise obscure conflicts. The result is a book that should be of great value to anyone with a serious interest in Hellenistic armies.

Chapters
1 – The Ptolemaic Army at Raphia
2 – Ptolemy the Satrap, Ptolemy the King
3 – The Antigonid Wars, 315-382 BC
4 – Origins of Soldiers in the Ptolemaic Army
5 – The Age of Midas, Part I
6 – The Age of Midas, Part II
7 – Ptolemy III and the Third Syrian War
8 – Ptolemy III and the Purported Decline of the Ptolemaic Army
9 – The Fourth Syrian War and the Battle of Raphia

Author: Paul Johstono
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 320
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2020


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