The Founder of the Hellenistic World’s Greatest Dynasty
Ptolemy I Soter, Greek for “Ptolemy the Savior” (367 – 282 BC), was a Macedonian general and close companion of Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy was one of the three Diadochi, or successors, who carved up Alexander’s empire, taking Egypt as his share. He founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled Egypt for three centuries, before ending with Queen Cleopatra’s suicide and the annexation of Egypt to the Roman Empire in 30 BC.
Ptolemy was born out of wedlock to a concubine presented by a nobleman to King Phillip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy’s father is unknown, and some ancient sources claim that his mother was already pregnant when she was gifted to Phillip II. Others assert that it was Phillip who impregnated her – which would make Ptolemy the biological half-brother of Alexander the Great.
Whatever his parentage, Ptolemy was born in Phillip’s household, and was educated as a royal page in the Macedonian court. There, he befriended the crown prince, Alexander, and the duo remained close companions until the latter’s death. When Alexander took the crown, Ptolemy became one of his seven somatophylakes – trusted Macedonian nobles who served as the king’s bodyguards, and also as generals holding command positions.
Ptolemy served Alexander well during his conquests. Among his notable achievements were the capture of the assassins of the defeated Persian king Darius III, meritorious service in the subjugation of Persia, and command of the Macedonian fleet in the Indian campaign. Ptolemy was held in high esteem by Alexander, who praised, rewarded, and decorated him on various occasions.
When Alexander died in 323 BC, Ptolemy realized that nobody could control the vast empire the conqueror had left behind. So he convinced Alexander’s generals to divide it amongst themselves and ended up with Egypt and the surrounding Libyan and Arabian regions. A capable and shrewd ruler, Ptolemy adopted policies that won over the native Egyptian population. After consolidating his power at home, he methodically seized Cyprus, Syria, and parts of Asia Minor, and transformed his domain into a powerful Hellenistic kingdom.
Ptolemy also intercepted and hijacked the corpse of Alexander the Great while it was being transported for burial in Macedonia, and took it to Alexandria. There, he enhanced his capital’s prestige by building a magnificent mausoleum in the center of the Alexandria, in which the preserved corpse of the great conqueror was put on display for visitors.
Alexander’s generals eventually fell out amongst themselves and went to war against each other. The Nile Valley’s isolation was advantageous to Ptolemy during those turbulent decades. From his relatively secure power base in Egypt, Ptolemy alternated between war and diplomacy to expand or protect his domain. However, he suffered a major naval defeat in 306 BC, that forced him to give up on expansion. For the final decades of his life, he relied on diplomacy and marriage alliances to secure what he already had. At his death in 282 BC, he left behind the most secure and stable of the newly created Hellenistic powers, and the Ptolemaic Dynasty established by him outlasted all of its Hellenistic peers.