by Brian Thornton
A few years back I wrote a couple of books about "bastards": (in)famous people with a mean streak- including some that many today continue to consider "heroes," or at least "good people"- admittedly many of these historical figures have overall positive public images, but in order to show that most everyone has a bit of the "bastard" in them, I included discussions of George Washington putting the moves on his best friend's wife, Jefferson siring children with one of his slaves, and so on.
More fun to write were the accounts we have of many historical personages who have all but disappeared from the pages of history, and getting the opportunity to lay out just exactly why these characters ought to still be considered "bastards" even today. This is one of those "neglected" personages. The account below is an expanded version of the one that ended up in The Book of Ancient Bastards, and lends more detail than I was given within the constraints of the book itself. I hope you enjoy it.
|A contemporary bust of Alexander the Great|
During the intervening three hundred years a whole lot of ambitious and unscrupulous people (all of them related by blood in one way or another) did a whole lot of awful things to each other, and all in the name of furthering their own political aims. This sort of bad behavior became so widespread that the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” tends to be near interchangeable with the word “bastard” for scholars who study the period.
And one of the most notorious of these bastards was a prince who rebelled against his father, married his sister, murdered her children, and stole her kingdom.
And all this after stabbing a 77 year-old ally to death in a fit of rage.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ptolemy Keraunos (“Thunderbolt.”)
|Ptolemy I ("Soter")|
The early Hellenistic period was an incredibly chaotic time. The passing of Alexander the Great left a power vacuum too tempting for the generals he had set in place as local governors in his empire to resist for long. The seemingly inevitable wars that followed are known collectively as the Wars of the Diadochoi (“Successors”). In dizzying succession this ruthless pack of scoundrels began to pick each other off, the survivors of each round of violence circling each other looking for an advantage, making alliances and breaking alliances as it suited them.
|The kingdoms of the "successors" shown here around 301 BC|
In the case of Ptolemy the Thunderbolt, he might have learned some of these lessons too well. But where the father was wily, the son was aggressive. Where the father plotted, the son preferred action. Ptolemy Soter had from an early age developed a talent for picking the right side in any dispute. His son did not possess the patience to weigh options. Putting it kindly, the Thunderbolt was the prototypical “man of action” born into an age where intrigue ruled. He was literally a man out of step with his own time.
In his eightieth year, with the question of succession pressing upon him, Ptolemy I gave up on his impulsive, hot-headed offspring. Instead he chose a more sober half-brother (also confusingly bearing the name of “Ptolemy”) as his co-ruler and eventual successor.
If the Thunderbolt expected things to be different for him in Thrace, he was mistaken. His sisters were busy plotting against each other: Lysandra intent on seeing her husband Agathocles (“Uh-gath-uh-kleez”) succeed Lysimachus (who by this time was in his late seventies), where Arsinoe sought to secure her husband’s blessing for one of her three sons to succeed him. In the end they were both foiled.
Arsinoe succeeded in convincing Lysimachus that Agathocles was plotting to overthrow him. The king responded by having his eldest son and erstwhile heir executed. Lysandra fled, and Ptolemy Keraunos went with her.
They traveled to Babylon, to the court of Seleucus, by now the only other of Alexander’s generals still left standing aside from Ptolemy in Egypt and Lysimachus in Thrace. Seeing an opportunity, Seleucus agreed to raise an army on the behalf of the two, and assured them that he would support their bid to take the throne of his old rival Lysimachus. During that same year Ptolemy I died. The succession of his easy-going son Ptolemy II to the throne went off without incident.
|The site of the battle of Corupedium in modern-day Turkey|
It was a fatal mistake on his part.
For Seleucus, a battle-hardened veteran of Alexander’s wars of conquest, and now the last of the diadochoi left alive, reckoned without the hot-headed son of his old rival Ptolemy I. Enraged at having again been denied a throne he considered his by right, the younger Ptolemy stabbed Seleucus to death in his tent. The act earned Ptolemy the nick-name "Thunderbolt".
|Seleucus I (Nicator)|
Ptolemy then slipped out of Seleucus’ camp and over to Lysimachus’ army. Upon hearing that Ptolemy had killed the hated Seleucus, the soldiers promptly declared him Lysimachus’ successor and the new king of Macedonia (a title up for grabs since its previous owner had died in captivity in 283 and his son was in no position to press his claim). The only problem was that Arsinoe still held Cassandrea. So Ptolemy struck a deal with her.
Arsinoe agreed to marry her half-brother, help strengthen his claim to the Macedonian throne and share power as his queen. In return for this Ptolemy agreed to adopt Arsinoe’s eldest son (also named, not surprisingly, “Ptolemy”) as his heir. You can guess what happened next.
While Ptolemy was off consolidating his new holdings in southern Greece, Arsinoe began plotting against him.
Once again furious (it seems to have been his natural state), Ptolemy killed Arsinoe’s two younger sons. The eldest, Ptolemy-son-of-Arsinoe-not-to-be-confused-with-Ptolemy-Keraunos fled the kingdom. Arsinoe did as well, heading home for Egypt and the court of her full brother, Ptolemy-II-King-of-Egypt-not-to-be-confused-with-any-of-the-other-Ptolemies-listed-herein.
But Ptolemy Keraunos did not live to enjoy his throne for very long. In 280 BC a group of barbarian tribes began raiding Thrace. The Thracians asked for his help against them. When Ptolemy short-sightedly refused, the Thracians were forced to ally themselves with the invaders; a group of Celtic-speaking savages known as the Getae (“Get-tay”). The Thunderbolt was captured and killed while fighting them the next year.
|A fifteenth century French depiction of the death of Ptolemy Keraunos while fighting the Getae. Note how the artist has portrayed all the combatants as if they were contemporary French knights, right down to the plate armor.|
|A coin from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus portraying the king side-by-side with his sister/wife/queen the formidable Arsinoe II.|