Ptolemy I was an officer in the army of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) who dramatically ascended the military hierarchy to become a leading general. Ptolemy’s prominence at the time of Alexander’s death allowed him to have great influence in the future of Alexander’s empire. The late ruler’s generals and confidants divided the empire amongst themselves for governance. Ptolemy was able to maneuver himself into the position of satrap or governor of Egypt, and although he would not proclaim himself king for many years, he had no intention of relinquishing control of his chosen domain. Whereas other power players in the immediate post-Alexander world, such as Perdiccas (d. 321), Antipater (d. 319) and Antigonus (d. 301 BCE), wanted to keep the sprawling empire intact, either ruled by a blood-relation of Alexander or by themselves, Ptolemy consistently plotted for decentralization that would increase the power of regional governors such as himself in Egypt.
Ptolemy I was an effective multi-tasker, able to simultaneously keep his eye on the chaotic politics and power struggles between Alexander the Great’s successors, while also personally striving to ingratiate and entrench himself with the locals of Egypt. One such move that likely garnered Ptolemy praise and affection from ancient Egyptians was a large donation of money that he made to the funeral of a sacred Apis Bull that had died around the time he first became governor of Egypt. This politically savvy move was commented on by the historian, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), who wrote:
“After the death of Alexander and just subsequently to the taking over of Egypt by Ptolemy the son of Lagus, it happened that the Apis in Memphis died of old age; and the man who was charged with the care of him spent on his burial not only the whole of a very large sum which had been provided for the animal’s maintenance, but also borrowed in addition fifty talents of silver from Ptolemy” (Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 1.84).
With his military skill, political prowess and aptitude for public relations, Ptolemy I (eventually nicknamed Soter, or ‘Savior’) maintained control of Egypt and established a hereditary monarchy. After being a governor of his province for nearly two decades, he finally declared himself King of Egypt around 305 BCE and left no question about succession by elevating his son, Ptolemy II, as co-king in 285 BCE. King Ptolemy I would die two or three years later, but the Ptolemaic Dynasty that he created would maintain power in Egypt until the family was overthrown by the Romans in 30 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Procession of the Sacred Bull, painted by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847–1928), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).