Seedy deaths ran in the Ptolemy family, even before it became a dynasty, as illustrated by the death of Philip II, Ptolemy I’s likely father. Philip II (382 – 336 BC) ascended the throne of Macedon in 359 BC, and within two decades, had changed the face of Greece. He unified Macedon’s fractious tribes, and transformed them into the world’s most respected and feared military machine. Greek city states relied on citizen armies of de facto reservists, but Philip made soldiering a full time professional occupation. That enabled him to drill his men regularly, ensuring discipline and unit cohesion.
Philip’s military machine was unstoppable, and by 338 BC, he had mastered Greece. He then began preparations for his life’s ambition: invading the Persian Empire. However, just before setting out to conquer Persia, Philip’s ambitions, and life, were cut short by a sordid court dispute. One of his bodyguards quarreled with one of Philip’s in-laws, and it ended with the in-law getting the bodyguard drunk, and having his attendants gang rape him. When the bodyguard turned to Philip for justice, the king failed to offer him redress, so the bodyguard assassinated Philip during the king’s wedding to a new bride.
17. Ptolemy I Was One of Alexander the Great’s Most Trusted Lieutenants
When Alexander succeeded Philipp II, 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.
16. Ptolemy I Hijacked Alexander the Great’s Corpse
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. It was a propaganda coup that came in handy, when 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, he alternated between war and diplomacy to expand or protect his domain, until a major naval defeat in 306 BC, forced Ptolemy 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 his Ptolemaic Dynasty ended up outlasting all of its Hellenistic peers.
15. Ptolemy I’s Successor Kicked Off a Tradition of Incest by Marrying His Sister
The first Ptolemy was a capable general, having learned from and served under one of history’s greatest military geniuses, Alexander the Great. His son and successor, Ptolemy II (308 – 246 BC), did not inherit his father’s military chops, opting instead for peaceful and cultural pursuits such as patronizing scientific research and expanding the Great Library of Alexandria. During his reign, the Ptolemaic court in Alexandria reached a height of splendor that would not be seen again.
Another distinction of the second Ptolemy is that he was nicknamed Phialdelphos (“lover of his sister”), because he took sibling affection to lengths hitherto alien to Greeks and Macedonians, but common among Egyptian royals. He had initially been married to Arsinoe, the daughter of king Lysimachus of Thrace – who was also married to Ptolemy II’s sister Arsinoe II, thus making Lysimachus his father in law as well as brother in law. After Lysimachus’ death, Ptolemy II got rid of the Thracian king’s daughter, Arsinoe, and married his own sister, the widowed Arisinoe II, thus kicking off a tradition of Ptolemaic incest that lasted for centuries, until the dynasty’s fall.
14. The Dynasty Reached the Height of its Power Under the Third Ptolemy
The sister-loving Ptolemy II was succeeded by his son, Ptolemy III, also known as Euergetes, or the Benefactor (reigned 246 – 222 BC). Unlike his father, who had ditched the military and warlike ways to focus on peaceful pursuits at home, Ptolemy III was militarily inclined, and had no hangups about picking up the sword and letting loose the dogs of war. To be fair, he had ample justification for his first war, which broke out soon as he ascended the throne: he fought to avenge his murdered sister and her infant son.
Ptolemy III’s elder sister, Berenice Syra, had married Antiochus II, ruler of the neighboring Seleucid Empire, and gave birth to the royal heir. However, Antiochus ditched her in 246 BC, and returned to his former queen, Laodice, who promptly murdered Berenice and her infant son. So Ptolemy III invaded the Seleucid Empire to avenge his sister and nephew – and seize what he could from the Seleucids, while he was at it. He captured the Seleucid capital of Antioch, and led his armies deep into Syria and Iraq, while his fleet rampaged throug enemy waters. He also captured Laodice, and had her killed. By the time Ptolemy III was done, the Ptolemaic Kingdom had reached the height of its power and its greatest territorial extent.
13. The Rot Sets In: The First Ptolemy To Murder His Mother
Arguably, the Ptolemaic dynasty’s rot and track record of depravity began when Ptolemy II married his own sister. The consequences of introducing that tradition of incest into the dynasty were long lasting, ultimately producing a long line of unfit rulers, and transforming the Ptolemies into objects of ridicule among Hellenistic and Roman contemporaries. Incest was arguably eclipsed, however, by Ptolemy IV (244 – 204 BC, reigned 221 – 204 BC), who added intra-familial murder to the Ptolemaic dynasty’s repertoire, by murdering his own mother, Berenice II.
Ptolemy IV ascended the throne as co-ruler, alongside his mother – a formidable woman, who had once stemmed a battlefield rout by mounting a horse, rallying her side’s surviving troops, and leading them in a countercharge that seized victory from the jaws of defeat. Feeling intimidated and wanting to rule alone, Ptolemy IV inaugurated his reign by murdering his mother. Notwithstanding that act of ruthlessness, he was a weak willed ruler who was dominated by his mistress and court favorites, and an airhead who devoted himself to religious rituals. While Ptolemy IV devoted himself to fluff, Egypt was wracked by serious rebellions, that took decades suppress. He also married his own sister, Arsinoe III, who gave birth to his heir, Ptolemy V.
When Ptolemy IV died in 204 BC, his son and heir, Ptolemy V (210 – 181 BC), was too young to rule in his own right. Power was thus supposed to go to the child king’s mother/ aunt, Arsinoe III, who was to rule as regent. However, that arrangement went awry, when some of the former king’s courtiers, who had gotten used to dominating the weak willed Ptolemy IV, feared that they would lose their influence, and perhaps their lives, if Arsinoe assumed power. So they beat her to the punch by murdering her, and taking the regency for themselves.
The new regents were murdered soon thereafter, one of them lynched on the street by an Alexandrian mob, and Egypt grew increasingly unstable. The other Hellenistic kingdoms took advantage of the chaos along the Nile, and the Seleucids and Macedonians made a pact to divvy up the Ptolemaic Kingdom. The dynasty probably would have come to an inglorious end during the reign of Ptolemy V, if not for the intervention of a rising power from the other side of the Mediterranean: Rome.
With Egypt in disarray and ruled by the child king, Ptolemy V, kings Philip V of Macedon and Antiochus III the Great of Seleucia entered into an agreement to seize and divide amongst themselves the Ptolemaic Kingdom’s possessions. Accordingly, Philip V seized the Egyptian kingdom’s holdings in Thrace and Asia Minor, while Antiochus the Great plucked Judea and Coele-Syria – a region stretching northeast from Lebanon, through Syria, to the Euphrates River.
Things got worse for the Ptolemies when Ptolemy V was succeeded in 181 BC by his son, Ptolemy VI (186 – 145 BC), another child ruler, who reigned as a figurehead while power was exercised by courtiers. When the new monarch’s regents demanded the return of Coele-Syria in 170 BC, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, beat them to the punch and launched a preemptive strike, with a lightning invasion of Egypt in 169 BC. The Egyptians were routed, and Antiochus IV captured Alexandria, and seized Ptolemy VI, whom he allowed to remain on the throne as a puppet ruler.
While the power of the Ptolemies was declining in the Eastern Mediterranean, that of the Roman Republic was rising in the Western Mediterranean and the Aegean. Rome would ultimately gobble up Egypt and extinguish the Ptolemaic Kingdom, but in the second century BC, Rome came to Egypt’s rescue in a big way, saving the Ptolemies from the depredations of Antiochus IV. In 168 BC, the Seleucid king launched a second invasion of Egypt, that once again routed the Egyptians. Antiochus’ invasion was stopped in its tracks by a single Roman envoy, Gaius Popillius Laenas, who met the invading army a few miles out of Alexandria.
Laenas told Antiochus that the Roman Senate demanded that he abort his attack, and return to his kingdom. When Antiochus played for time, and sought to consult his advisers, Popillius Laenas used a stick to draw a circle in the sand around the Seleucid monarch, and told him not to step out of it until he gave an answer. By then, Rome had routed the Carthaginians, the Macedonians, overran Greece, and were running rampant all over the Mediterranean. Antiochus IV decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and immediately turned his army around and marched out of Egypt. The Ptolemaic Dynasty was saved, but from then on, the Ptolemies would continue on as Rome’s client kings and puppets.
9. The Feuding Siblings: Ptolemies VI and VIII, and Cleopatra II
The Seleucid invasions of Egypt and resultant political and diplomatic machinations further added to the chaos engulfing the Ptolemaic Kingdom. When Antiochus IV captured Alexandria and made Ptolemy VI his puppet, the people of Alexandria rioted, and chose the puppet king’s obese younger brother, Ptolemy VIII Physcon, or Ptolemy Potbelly, (182 – 116 BC) as monarch. After the Seleucid were forced out of Egypt by Roman threats, Ptolemy Potbelly agreed to a three-way joint rule, with his brother Ptolemy VI, and their sister Cleopatra II, who was also Ptolemy VI’s wife.
It was an unstable arrangement, that lent itself to intrigues, conspiracies, and betrayals, and further destabilized Egypt. Ptolemy Potbelly was not in Egypt when Ptolemy VI died in 145. Their sister Cleopatra II, the deceased king’s wife, promptly declared her son, Ptolemy VII, as king. When Potbelly returned, he convinced his widowed sister to marry him, instead, and the sibling-spouses would rule jointly. He double crossed his sister/ new wife, by having her son, Ptolemy VII, murdered during the wedding feast. He also reneged on his promise to rule jointly with his sister-wife, and declared himself sole ruler.
8. Ptolemy Potbelly Ditched His Sister/ Wife to Marry His Stepdaughter/ Niece
Cleopatra II was, understandably, steaming mad that her husband-brother, Ptolemy Potbelly, had murdered her son and reneged on his promise to share the rule with her. Then Potbelly made things worse by seducing and marrying Cleopatra II’s daughter, Cleopatra III – his stepdaughter, as well as double niece, being the daughter of both his sister and his deceased brother, Ptolemy VI. Adding insult to injury, Potbelly did not bother to divorce Cleopatra II, before marrying her daughter.
Cleopatra II retaliated by engineering an uprising in Alexandria, that forced her brother/ husband/ son-in-law, and his stepdaughter/ niece/ wife, to flee the city in 132 BC. The resultant civil war pitted Cleopatra II, supported by the city of Alexandria, against her daughter and Ptolemy Potbelly, who had the backing of the rest of Egypt. When things turned against Cleopatra II, she offered her throne to the neighboring Seleucids, but their armies were unable to rescue her, and she was forced to flee to Syria in 127 BC. Chaos reigned in Egypt, until Rome intervened once again, in 116 BC, to restore order.
Ptolemaic family intrigues complicated the reign of Ptolemy IX Soter II, nicknamed Lathyros (“Chickpea”). Continuing what by then had become an established family tradition of incest, this Ptolemy married his sister Cleopatra IV, sometime before he became king. When his father, Ptolemy VIII Potbelly, VIII died in 116 BC, his mother and the reigning queen, Cleopatra III, made him co-regent. However, it seems that Ptolemy IX had not been her favorite son, and that she had been forced to choose him because of public pressure from the citizens of Alexandria.
She worked out some of that resentment by forcing Ptolemy IX in 115 BC to divorce his sister-wife Cleopatra IV, and replace her with her own sister, and Ptolemy IX’s aunt, Cleopatra Selene I. Ptolemy IX’s sister and ex wife fled Egypt to the neighboring Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom, where she married Antiochus IX and became queen consort in 114 BC. Her reign proved brief, however, as her husband was defeated and deposed by a half brother. Cleopatra IV sought sanctuary in a temple, but soldiers followed her in, and murdered her there. As to Ptolemy IX, Cleopatra III accused her son and co-regent of having tried to murder her, and deposed him in 107 BC. His place was taken by his brother and Cleopatra III’s favorite son, Alexander, who ascended the throne as Ptolemy X.
6. The Mother Who Was Murdered by Her Favorite Son
After engineering the deposition of her son Ptolemy IX, and replacing him on the throne with a more favored son, Ptolemy X, Cleopatra III settled in to enjoy her twilight years as queen and co-regent. Her enjoyment did not last long, however, when the favorite son whom she had made king demonstrated his ingratitude in the most visceral way possible. Six years into their joint rule, Ptolemy X tired of his mother, and had her murdered in 101 BC.
After murdering his mother, Ptolemy X made his wife, Cleopatra Bernice III, queen and co-regent. An incestuous tie being a Ptolemaic norm by this point, Ptolemy X’s wife Bernice III was also his niece – the daughter of his brother, the Ptolemy IX who had been deposed by their mother Cleopatra III. A popular uprising in 88 BC overthrew Ptolemy X, who fled to Syria. He returned with a mercenary army, whom he paid by looting and melting down the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. That infuriated the Alexandrians, who deposed and chased him out of Egypt again. He was killed while trying to flee to Cyprus, and was succeeded by his brother and father in law, the previous king Ptolemy IX Lathyros.
Perhaps none of the Ptolemies illustrates how tangled things had gotten after generations of incest than Ptolemy XI Alexander II, who ruled the kingdom for a few days in 80 BC. His uncle Ptolemy IX Lathryos had died in 80 BC, leaving the throne to his daughter Cleopatra Bernice, who briefly reigned alone as Bernice III. The Roman dictator Sulla however wanted a more pliant ruler, so he sent a young Ptolemy XI to Egypt. There, the new arrival married Bernice III, and ruled jointly with her.
Bernice, aside from being Ptolemy’s XI’s cousin as the daughter of his uncle Ptolemy IX, was also his half sister, step mother by dint of having been married to Ptolemy XI’s father, Ptolemy, and might even have been his actual mother – sources are confused on this point. Despite the close family ties – or perhaps precisely because of those ties – Ptolemy XI did not like his new wife, and 19 days into the marriage, he murdered her. That proved to be a mistake, because he was little known to the locals, while Bernice had been a popular ruler. Soon thereafter, Ptolemy XI was seized by an enraged Alexandrian mob, and publicly lynched.
4. The Ptolemies Founded the Ancient World’s Greatest Learning Center
It wasn’t all seediness, incest, and murder. The Ptolemies also did some good, like establish the Great Library of Alexandria. Founded by Ptolemy I Soter and maintained thereafter by his successors, it was the ancient world’s greatest library. It was more than just a “library”, as the word is understood today. It did contain the ancient world’s largest collection of books and tracts, to be sure – up to 400,000 scrolls by some estimates. However, as part of a larger research institution known as the Mouseion of Alexandria, the Great Library was also the ancient world’s greatest educational and research center.
The great thinkers of the age, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, poets, and other academics, all flocked to Alexandria to study and exchange ideas. The Great Library’s lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens, teemed with an educational and intellectual fervor and ferment that would not be seen again for centuries. Then, at some point, the Great Library of Alexandria was lost to history, along with its vast store of ancient knowledge. That loss, and its disappearance as a research and higher education institute, is one of the greatest tragedies in the history of science, the arts, and knowledge in general.
3. For Centuries, The Great Library’s Demise Was a Mystery
It is commonly thought that the Great Library was burned down or destroyed in a cataclysmic event. Plutarch (46 – 120 AD), holds that the library was accidentally destroyed by Julius Caesar during the siege of Alexandria in 48 BC. However, the geographer Strabo, writing 30 years after the siege of Alexandria about the Mouseion, to which the Great Library was attached, mentions no such destruction. Christian zealots have also been blamed. Supposedly, when Emperor Theodosius banned pagan practices in 391, Christian gangs celebrated with anti pagan riots, during which they torched the building. However, the accounts of the rioting actually refer to the Christians destroying the Serapium, or temple of Serapis, which is not the Great Library, or even a library at all.
Another culprit is the Muslim Caliph Omar. Supposedly, after Egypt fell to the Muslims in the 7th century, somebody asked the conquering general Amr for the books in the royal library. Amr wrote the Caliph for instructions, and Omar reportedly replied “If the books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them, and if they are opposed to the Quran, destroy them“. However, there is nothing to support this story other than a single account by a Syrian Christian writer, who probably wanted to tarnish the Caliph’s image.
2. Turned Out the Great Library Disappeared Due to Budget Cuts
There is no archaeological evidence to support any account of a cataclysmic destruction of the Great Library. The likeliest culprit is something more prosaic and petty: budget cuts. The Ptolemaic Dynasty generously supported the Great Library, both out of belief in its mission, and because its presence lent their capital city of Alexandria significant prestige as the ancient world’s greatest educational center. That changed after the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC: the new rulers had no attachment to the Great Library, so they did not support it like the Ptolemaic rulers had.
Additionally, Alexandria in the Roman era was given to frequent rioting between its Greek, Jewish, and native Egyptian populations – not the most inviting environment for scholars. More significantly, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius suspended the Mouseion’s revenue, eliminated its members’ stipends, and expelled all foreign scholars from Alexandria. The Great Library’s significance in the ancient world was based not on its being a repository of scrolls, but on its scholarship. When Marcus Aurelius essentially fired the scholars and forbade new students from coming in, he effectively shut down the Great Library’s operations. It would be akin to the fate of MIT or Harvard, if all their professors were fired, and out of state students were prohibited from setting foot in Boston.
1. The Dramatic Ptolemies Went Out in Dramatic Fashion
All of the Ptolemies’ vices, intrigues, betrayals, and perversions, were present in the reign of Cleopatra VII, the Ptolemaic Dynasty’s most famous ruler, and the last one who wielded actual power. Carrying on the family’s tradition of incest, she married her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, before falling out with him and plunging the country into a civil war that ended with the death of her brother/ husband, after Julius Caesar intervened and took her side in the conflict. She then married another brother, Ptolemy XIV, while carrying on an affair with Caesar. She bore the Roman dictator a son, Caesarion, the future Ptolemy XV – the dynasty’s last nominal ruler.
After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra took up with his chief lieutenant, Mark Antony, with whom she had one of history’s most famous love affairs. The couple were eventually defeated by Antony’s rival, Gaius Octavius, the future emperor Augustus. Antony fell on his sword, and Cleopatra famously committed suicide via snakebite in 30 BC. She was nominally succeeded by Ptolemy XV Caesarion, but Augustus had him killed when he was captured a few weeks later. The deaths of Cleopatra and Caesarion brought the Ptolemaic Dynasty to an end, and Egypt was made into a Roman province.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading