Ptolemy I Soter: Biography, Military Campaigns & Accomplishments
Ptolemy I Soter is best known as the Macedonian nobleman and general who founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, the same dynasty that famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII hailed from. Ptolemy’s dynasty reigned over a very prosperous Egypt from 305 BC to 30 BC, when it was fully incorporated into the Roman Empire by Augustus. The question that begs to be answered is: how did a Greek general become pharaoh of ancient Egypt? And what were some of Ptolemy I Soter’s major achievements?
Below, World History Edu explores the life, military campaigns and achievements of Ptolemy I Soter:
Birth and Family
Ptolemy I Soter, the famous Macedonian King of Egypt, was born in 367BC in the Kingdom of Macedon. He was a contemporary and comrade of Alexander the Great, and a prolific captain of war who was at the forefront of Alexander’s army that was famed for conquering large parts of the Mediterranean, Egypt, Persia and some parts of India.
The first Soter was reportedly born out of an affair between a young noblewoman and Philip II of Macedon, who was the father of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). This story is alleged to be fictitious propaganda peddled by Ptolemy himself to give himself royal legitimacy. Were this story true, it would make Ptolemy the half-brother of Alexander the Great and therefore one of the heirs to the Macedonian throne after Alexander.
In truth, Ptolemy was born into a reasonably wealthy Macedonian noble family. His parents were Lagus of Eordaia and Arsinoe of the Argead dynasty. Ptolemy’s mother, Arsinoe, was said to be the concubine of Philip II of Macedon. This, as well as many others, is the reason why it was rumored that Ptolemy was the son of Philip II.
Ptolemy received a classical education directly from the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, along with Alexander the Great and other Macedonian children of highborn. He was trained in matters of philosophy, economics, and political maneuvering. He also underwent strict military training, covering war strategy and military combat. He was among the most skilled soldiers of the Macedonian army in his day.
Read More: 10 Most Famous Ancient Greek Philosophers
Ptolemy as a general under Alexander the Great
Ptolemy fought along with Alexander the Great, from his first campaigns in 336BC to his last ones in 323BC, as a top commander of Alexander’s Army. He was also one of the seven personal bodyguards of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian nobleman was considered one of the most intelligent commanders of the Macedonian army.
As a loyal, seasoned military commander, Ptolemy was at the forefront of Alexander’s great army as it embarked on campaigns southwards of Macedonia, razing through Asia Minor, through Syria, all the way to Egypt.
The Persian Campaign and Capture of Babylon
Shortly after their conquests in Egypt began, Alexander embarked on an impossible pilgrimage to find a rumored mystical oasis along with Ptolemy and some of his men. After almost getting lost, they reportedly found this mythical oasis. Upon completion of this quest, Ptolemy and fellow generals hailed their commander as the son of Zeus (or Amun in Egyptian Mythology). This event was remarkably significant as it established Alexander’s reputation as a figure almost close to a god, perhaps a demigod destined to bring the entire world under his rule.
Soon after, Alexander ordered the building of a glorious city; one that became the historic city of Alexandria; which endured as one of the most central cities of the Hellenic world for several centuries.
Alexander led his formidable army onward to seek yet more territory. At the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander and Ptolemy came up against what was undoubtedly their fiercest challenge – the Persian army. Again Alexander relied to some extent on Ptolemy’s military tactics to secure a hard-fought win, even coming close to capturing the Persian King, Darius III. The Persian campaign also saw the Macedonian army capture the historic Persian stronghold city of Babylon.
Ptolemy hunts down Bessus
There they sojourned for some time, plotting how to capture the Persian King Darius III and put an end to the Persian Kingdom. Darius III was indeed killed shortly after; but not in the way Alexander had desired. The Persian king was ingloriously assassinated by Bessus, a high-standing Persian royal who named himself King after Darius III. Alexander charged Ptolemy to hunt Bessus down and bring him to book, which Ptolemy executed flawlessly. Relying heavily on the custom of the Persians, Alexander meted out justice against Bessus for the crime of regicide.
How Ptolemy came close to being killed by a poisoned arrow
A story is told of how Ptolemy had a brush with death in a battle. Realizing how important the Macedonian military general was to the Alexander the Great’s conquest in Asia, opposing armies tried endlessly to take him down.
One such attempt came when a poisoned arrow from a Brahmin soldier’s bow was struck Ptolemy. The general was by then fighting in one of Alexander’s expansionary campaigns westward in the area around modern-day Pakistan.
It was reported that Ptolemy was saved thanks to a potion made of powerful native herbs administered by Alexander himself.
The failed India Campaign and the death of Alexander the Great
Coupled with this event, as well as other factors, Alexander’s India campaign ended up not going according to plan. Alexander and Ptolemy were met by an unprecedented opposition in the area and were forced to retreat to Babylon, where it is reported that Alexander fell succumbed to a fatal illness after drinking copious amounts of alcohol.
The Macedonian king died soon after (in 323 BC); and without naming an heir, chaos ensued among his generals (the Diadochi) on the matter of succession.
Ptolemy was not only an intelligent military general, but he was a shrewd politician. Therefore, after deeply mourning the passing of his commander, he set about to fend off attacks and political maneuvering by his fellow generals who squabbled among themselves for control of Alexander’s huge empire.
Ptolemy’s efforts to consolidate power
Following the death of Alexander the Great, Perdiccas, second in command and self-proclaimed regent of the Macedonian realms suggested that the generals await the birth of Alexander’s heir by his wife, Roxanne, who was with child at the time, before determining Alexander’s succession.
Ptolemy, along with other generals, staunchly opposed this idea and led a popular campaign to delimit the empire among the top generals of Alexander’s army.
Ptolemy himself was granted to have his desired territory – as the “Satrap” of Egypt. Ptolemy’s clear dominion over the lesser generals in nearby territories enabled him to consolidate his power over territories from Egypt to Syria.
Amidst all of that, Perdiccas harbored much distrust for Ptolemy. Fearing that he would usurp power, he placed in Ptolemy’s courts a poorly disguised spy in the person of Cleomenes, formerly Alexander’s Master of Coin. Ptolemy, recognizing Cleomenes’ less-than-secretive role in his courts framed him for financial malfeasance and had him executed; giving himself free rein to engage in battle with and completely dominate dissenting but less powerful generals to the south of Asia Minor. He went on to secure the loyalty of the more sympathetic generals. He also increased his wealth by accessing Cleomenes’ enormous stores of wealth, which he had accumulated as Alexander’s Master of Coin.
Perdiccas had arranged a royal entourage to return the body of Alexander to the city of Macedon. It was Macedonian custom that the one who buried the deceased king held a dominant right to the throne. Ptolemy went to great lengths to ensure Perdiccas was not the one to bury Alexander. Ptolemy launched a campaign to intercept the entourage and steal Alexander’s body and bring it to the Egyptian city of Memphis instead. Alexander’s body was reportedly buried in a golden tomb in Alexandria [by Ptolemy’s successors].
Outraged by Ptolemy’s political maneuvering, Perdiccas raised an army and matched southward to seek out and bring Ptolemy to justice. Concurrently, generals in the northern European cities closer to the heart of Macedonia learnt of the rebellion of Ptolemy against Perdiccas and followed suit. Those generals ended up siding with Ptolemy. What this meant was that Perdiccas faced rebellion on two fronts. He decided to keep moving south, with the intention of taking care of Ptolemy first, then returning to quell the uprising closer to home.
The gods were not on Perdiccas’ side. Approaching Alexandria, a swollen river barred Perdiccas’ army from accessing the city. Perdiccas had no remedy to the barrier. Seeing the futility of Perdiccas’s quest, top officers in his own army mutinied and later assassinated Perdiccas.
Ptolemy’s rise continues
With Perdiccas out of the way, Ptolemy’s reputation as the “successor” of Alexander grew, and soon, the former prodigy of Alexander loomed large over the other generals.
Antigonus, “Satrap” of Asia Minor, and his son usurped Ser Lucas, governor of Babylon, who fled to seek asylum with Ptolemy in Alexandria. An unsavory conflict ensued between Ptolemy and Ser Lucas on one side and Antigonus on the other side. Ptolemy and Ser Lucas came out victorious.
At about the same time, another ambitious Macedonian nobleman called Cassander plotted and successfully wiped out the entire royal family in Macedonia, including the wife and the child of Alexander. This led to the generals holding various “Satraps” across the conquered lands of Alexander declaring themselves kings over their territories.
Ptolemy I Soter: A breath of fresh air for Egypt
Antigonus, “Satrap” of Babylon, was killed in battle not long after. By this time, Ptolemy had established himself as the most dominant force across most Macedonian territories. He was named the first Soter (Savior) of Egypt.
In order to ensure he was not answerable to the still quite influential religious leaders over at Memphis, the capital of Macedonia, Ptolemy declared Alexandria the new capital of his dynasty. He transformed the city of Alexandria into the most economically prosperous city in the entire Macedonian kingdom, becoming a famous hub for merchants and scholars. He also incorporated the Greek language, customs, philosophies, education, and religions into the flourishing Egyptian city.
Ptolemy ushered Egypt into a prosperous and stable era. This was due to his respect for Egyptian customs. Unlike the Persian rulers, Ptolemy allowed Egyptian priests to rebuild the temples that were razed to the ground by the Persians.
Other Notable Achievements of Ptolemy I of Soter
Ptolemy died in 282BC. At the time of death, he had successfully established Alexandria as one of the most impressive locations in the Mediterranean world. It had become an intellectual powerhouse, which housed many museums and the famous Library of Alexandria, the biggest in its day as it had a over 550,000 papyrus scrolls. The city and its vibrant culture was able to draw in some of the most leading scientists and philosophers of the Hellenistic era, most famous among them Archimedes and Euclid.
Also, Ptolemy I Soter’s reign saw construction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (the Pharos) begin. Eventually completed by his heir and son Ptolemy II of Philadelphus, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was a magnificent architectural and engineering work of the highest order. It was estimated to reach around 400 feet high, with a statue of the Greek god Zeus atop. It is no wonder the structure, which was erected off the coast of the City of Alexandria, made it on to the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Ptolemy’s other infrastructure projects in Alexandria made the Port of Alexandria the busiest and wealthiest port city in all of Europe, bringing in merchants and scholars across cities and continents.
Ptolemy established one of the most potent Egyptian dynasties – the Ptolemaic Dynastic – which lasted several centuries and produced such remarkable personalities as Cleopatra. The Ptolemaic Dynasty was the last dynasty of Egypt, lasting up until the conquering of Egypt by the Roman Empire.
Read More: Cleopatra’s Greatest Achievements
Meaning of Soter
After the Macedonian general established himself as the first king of the Ptolemy dynasty, he took the title Ptolemy I Soter. The word “soter” meant savior. Almost similar to the red carpet welcome Egyptians gave to Alexandria the Great, Ptolemy was also beloved by the Egyptians. He was seen as a breath of fresh air for the city of Alexandria and Egypt in general.
Ptolemy I Soter died in 282 BC and was succeeded by his son Ptolemy II. After Ptolemy I’s death, the Egyptians elevated him to the status of a god.
Other Interesting Facts about Ptolemy I Soter and his dynasty
The following are a few more interesting facts about Ptolemy I Soter:
- Ptolemy I Soter never learned the language of the Egyptians. As a matter of fact the only Ptolemaic ruler to speak the Egyptian language was Queen Cleopatra VII, who could speak several languages.
- To honor the conquests and achievements of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy created the cult of the Alexander, thereby making the conqueror a god.
- He is credited with promoting the cult of Serapis, the Greco-Egyptian deity of healing. Ptolemy used this deity to bring together Egyptians and Greeks in his kingdom.
- The Ptolemaic dynasty which he Ptolemy I Soter established ruled Egypt for almost three hundred years. It was not until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC did the dynasty come to an end. Egypt was then incorporated into the growing Roman Empire by Emperor Augustus.