The following is adapted from material published in my book The Book of Ancient Bastards (Adams Media 2011). Although there were fourteen (or depending on whom you believe, fifteen) Macedonian Greek kings of Egypt named Ptolemy, here below are featured the three most interesting. And by "interesting," I mean they lived up to the title of the book in which I featured them: three truly "ancient bastards."
Ptolemy I Soter (ca. 367 B.C.-ca. 283 B.C.)
“And thus Aridaeus, who had spent two years in preparations, brought the king’s [Alexander’s] body from Babylon to Egypt. Ptolemy, in honour of the king, met the corpse with his army as far as Syria, where he received it, and accompanied it with great care and observance: for he had not resolved as yet to accompany it to the temple of Ammon, but to keep the body in the city [Alexandria] which Alexander himself had built, the most famous almost of any city in the world. To this end [Ptolemy] built a temple in honour of Alexander, in greatness and stateliness of structure becoming the glory and majesty of that king; and in this repository he laid the body, and honoured the exequies of the dead with sacrifices and magnificent shows, agreeable to the dignity of a demigod. Upon which account [Ptolemy] was deservedly honoured, not only by men, but by the gods themselves: for by his bounty and generosity he so gained upon men, that they flocked from all parts to Alexandria, and cheerfully enlisted themselves into his service, notwithstanding the king’s army was then preparing for war against him: and though he was in imminent danger, yet all readily ventured their lives to preserve him. And the gods themselves, for his virtue, and kind obliging temper towards all, rescued him out of all his hazards and difficulties, which seemed insuperable.'
— Ancient Greek Geographer Diodorus Siculus
The Guy Who Gave His Name To The Greek Pharaonic Dynasty In Egypt
|Bust of Ptolemy I in the Louvre Museum|
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, frequently several times over) did a whole lot of awful things to each other, and all in the name of furthering their own political aims. The seemingly inevitable wars that followed Alexander’s death 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.
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.
General, Courtier, Governor, Cadaver Thief?
But for all that, Ptolemy, childhood companion and advisor to the young Alexander, seems different: when offered a command as a royal governor in the aftermath of Alexander’s death, Ptolemy chose Egypt: rich, fertile, both a breadbasket and a gold mine, easily defended because the deserts that surrounded it made travel across them by large military forces nearly impossible. And from there he ventured out to steal Alexander’s body (as laid out in the lengthy quotation of Diodorus Siculus excerpted above) from the caravan taking it home to Macedonia. This was a real political coup: control of Alexander’s body, to which he publicly paid every possible honor, gave Ptolemy the opportunity to set himself up as Alexander’s most legitimate successor. And this is what he did, for the most part settling back and allowing the successors to pick each other off for the next four decades.
The Victor Who Wrote The History
Ptolemy’s greatest accomplishments weren’t founding a dynasty that lasted for three centuries in Egypt, though. They were two-fold: first, he wrote a history of his famous king, which was used by countless historians during the next millennium (thereby allowing Ptolemy to by and large set the narrative of not just Alexander’s life story, but his own). Second, he did what no other Diadochus (including the incredibly successful Seleucus) managed to do: he died in bed, of old age.
Truly a coup for a bastard in an age reknowned for its bastardry!
Bastard Son, Bastard Brother?
Ptolemy is listed all over the historical narrative of the period as “Ptolemy, Son of Lagus.” No further mention is made of Lagus anywhere except his brief mention as Ptolemy’s father. His mother was a distant relative of the Macedonian royal house and the rumored one-time mistress of Philip, father of Alexander the Great. It is possible (perhaps even likely) that Ptolemy’s actual father was Philip himself, making Ptolemy Alexander’s bastard half-brother. This would help explain why a boy eleven years older than the young prince was listed as one of his “childhood companions,” even going into exile with Alexander when the prince fled to Epirus shortly before the murder of his (their?) father.
|A silver tetradrachm coin depicting Philip II, father of Alexander, and perhaps, of Ptolemy as well?|
Ptolemy Keraunos: the Guy Who Made Oedipus Look Like a Boy Scout
“(T)hat violent, dangerous, and intensely ambitious man, Ptolemy Keraunos, the aptly named Thunderbolt.”
— Modern Historian of Ancient History, Peter Green
In an age where the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” and “bastard” were interchangeable, one of the most notorious bastards on the scene 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.”)
Bastard Out of Time
The Thunderbolt’s father and namesake Ptolemy I carried the honorific "Soter" (Again, Greek for "Savior.") for a reason. In his own way the elder Ptolemy was as much as bastard as his hot-tempered son. But where the father was wily, the son was aggressive. Where the father plotted, the son preferred movement. 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, and the court of one of his father’s rivals, Lysimachus. 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).
Since the time of the pharaohs dynastic marriage has been a political tool used by rulers to cement alliances and found dynasties. At no time was this practice more in fashion than during the Hellenistic period, when Alexander’s generals married the much younger daughters of their rivals, and married off their own children to yet others of their rivals’ offspring. Such was the case at Lysimachus’ court: the old man himself was married to one of Ptolemy Keraunos’ sisters, a woman named Arsinoë, and another sister, Lysandra, was married to Lysimachus’ son and heir from a previous marriage, Agathocles. Confused yet? Keep reading!
If the Thunderbolt expected things to be different for him in Thrace, he was mistaken. His sisters were busy plotting against each other. Arsinoë eventually succeeded in convincing Lysimachus that Agathocles was plotting to overthrow him. The king responded by having Agathocles executed. Lysandra and Ptolemy Keraunos fled, traveling to Babylon, to the court of Seleucus, by now the only other one of Alexander’s generals still left standing. Largely for his own reasons Seleucus assured the two that he would support their bid to take the throne of his old rival Lysimachus.
Seleucus’ forces triumphed in the resulting war. 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.
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. The only problem was that Arsinoë still held Cassandrea. So Ptolemy struck a deal with her.
A Devil's Bargain
Arsinoë 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 Arsinoë’s eldest son (also named, not surprisingly, “Ptolemy”) as his heir.
|Coin minted by this Ptolemy during his short reign in Macedon: the likeness is of his sister/wife Arsinoë|
You can guess what happened next.
The Betrayer Betrayed, and a Further Betrayal
While Ptolemy was off consolidating his new holdings in southern Greece, Arsinoë began plotting against him. She intended to place her eldest son (the one named “Ptolemy”) on the throne and rule in his name.
Once again furious (it seems to have been his natural state), Ptolemy killed Arsinoë’s two younger sons. Arsinoë headed 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 Thunderbolt was captured and killed while fighting them the next year.
Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes: Gluttonous, Murderous, Unspeakable Bastard (ca. 182 B.C.-116 B.C.)
“The Alexandrians owe me one thing; they have seen their king walk!”
—Roman General & Politician Scipio Aemilianus
|Ptolemy VIII being crowned: apparently stone is slimming!|
Turns out all of those generations of in-breeding tends to have crazy results.
What’s in a Bastard’s Name?
When he took the throne of Egypt in 145 B.C. the Ptolemy took the reign name “Eurgetes” (Greek for “Benefactor”). In truth he was anything but. Quickly tiring of his lying, his murderous rages, and his rampant gluttony, his subjects began to refer to him as “Physcon” (“Potbelly”) because he was so fat. The quote that leads off this chapter references that physical characteristic as well as his laziness. Beholden to the Roman Republic for its support, Ptolemy VIII was forced to actually walk through the city of Alexandria while playing tour guide to a visiting collection of Roman V.I.P.s, including Scipio Aemilianus.
Originally a younger son of Ptolemy VI, this Ptolemy bounced around from Egypt to Cyprus to Cyrenaica (Libya) until his older brother (also a “Ptolemy”) died in 145 B.C. In short order he manipulated the common people into supporting him for king, in place of his nephew (a boy who was crowned shortly after his father’s death with the reign name of “Ptolemy VII,” with his mother, Cleopatra II- no, not that Cleopatra- as regent/co-ruler), and managed to work out a compromise with his sister-also-brother’s-widow wherein in he married her and the three of them became “co-rulers” of Egypt.
Not only did Ptolemy then promptly have his nephew killed at the aforementioned wedding feast, he seduced and married as his “second wife” the boy’s sister, his niece, his wife’s daughter (confused yet? It gets better), also named “Cleopatra” (No, still not that Cleopatra, the Ptolemies, like the Romans weren’t very original with names). This after knocking up his sister/wife/widow of his dead predecessor herself, siring a son named Ptolemy (again) Memphitis.
When the people of Alexandria eventually rebelled and sent Ptolemy VIII, the younger Cleopatra and their children packing off to Cyprus, Cleopatra II (the sister/widow/first wife) set up their son as co-ruler and herself (once more) as regent. Within a year Ptolemy VIII had the boy, his own son murdered. Pretty awful, right? Unspeakable?
No, that’s what came next.
Once he’d had the child (no older than 12) killed, Ptolemy VIII had him dismembered and (no lie) sent to his mother as a birthday present!
As if this wasn’t enough, Ptolemy went on to re-take his throne and share power with his first wife until he died of natural causes after a long life in 116 B.C.
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And there you have it: saved the best (okay, the WORST) for last! See you in two weeks!