by Brian Thornton
|Alexander the Great|
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 (pronounced “Tah-lemm-mee,” the “P” being silent) was the eldest son of Ptolemy I Soter (“Savior”), a Macedonian general and boyhood friend of Alexander the Great who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of kings that ruled Egypt after Alexander’s death. The Thunderbolt was the eldest of Ptolemy I’s legitimate sons to survive childhood; a product of Ptolemy’s marriage to his third wife, Eurydice (“Yur-id-iss-see”), and at least initially was designated as the first Ptolemy’s chosen successor as pharaoh.
|The kingdoms of the "successors" shown here around 301 B.C.|
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.
And their children, often pawns in Hellenistic dynastic marriages, learned from their example.
|The first of many Ptolemies ("Soter")|
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.
Furious, Ptolemy Keraunos fled to Thrace (modern-day northeastern Greece, southern Bulgaria, and European Turkey) and the court of another diadochos, Lysimachus (“Lie-simm-muh-kuss”). Lysimachus was married to Ptolemy’s half-sister Arsinoe (“Ar-sinn-oh-ee”), and his son by a previous marriage was married to another sister, Lysandra. Ptolemy hoped to have Lysimachus’ backing in a war with his father for the throne of Egypt. Lysimachus put him off with vague promises, but did allow the younger man to stay at his court (possibly so he could keep an eye on him).
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|
Seleucus and Lysimachus faced off at the battle of Corupedium (“Kohr-up-ee-dee-um”) in 281 BC. Meeting in single combat, the 77 year-old Seleucus defeated and killed the 79 year-old Lysimachus (now that must have been a sight: the Clash of the Geriatrics!). Ptolemy, who had fought on Seleucus’ side, demanded Lysimachus’ kingdom as Seleucus had agreed. And just as Lysimachus had, Seleucus stalled, all the while planning his triumphal march into Lysimachus’ capital of Cassandrea.
It was a fatal mistake on his part.
|Seleucus I (Roman copy of a Macedonian original)|
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 Selecus to death in his tent. The act earned Ptolemy the nick-name “Thunderbolt.”
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.
|15th century French depiction of the death of the Thunderbolt|
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.
As for the sisters of Ptolemy, Lysandra and her children disappear from the historical narrative around the death of Seleucus (did Ptolemy or Arsinoe kill them as well?), and Arsinoe? She talked her brother Ptolemy II into setting aside his first wife and marrying her. She served as his co-ruler for the remaining ten years of her life. Ever afterward Ptolemy II was known as “Philadelphus” (“sibling-lover”). In the end, who was the bigger bastard? The relatively straight-forward, hot-headed Thunderbolt, or his constantly scheming half-sister Arsinoe?
|A coin from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus depicting him side-by-side with his sister/queen, the formidable Arsinoe II|