The Sources Speak: Diodorus on Ptolemy Pt 1

An index of the other posts in this series can be found here

Ptolemy I Soter

Ptolemy I Soter

Now that I have finished my series of posts on the Wars of the Successors I would like to look at how some of them are represented in the individual sources from the beginning of the source writer’s narrative until the subject’s death or 301 BC when Diodorus’ history of the successor period ends. My first subject is Ptolemy Lagides.
A Surprise
As I am already reading Arrian for my Letters posts, I thought I would start this series of posts with another source – Diodorus Siculus.
To begin then; when I opened up the Index to Book VIII of his Library of History this morning, I expected to see any number of references to Ptolemy. Much to my surprise, however, Diodorus mentions him only twice. In April 325, Alexander attacked the city of Harmatelia (AKA Harmata). The Brahminic army fought with weapons smeared with a deadly drug. Here is Diodorus’ description of its effect – not for the faint hearted!

The power of the drug was derived from certain snakes which were caught and killed and left in the sun. The heat melted the substance of the flesh and drops of moisture formed; in this moisture the poison of the animals was secreted. When a man was wounded, the body became numb immediately and then sharp pains followed, and convulsions and shivering shook the whole frame. The skin became cold and livid and bile appeared in the vomit, while a black froth was exuded from the wound and gangrene set in. As this spread quickly and overran to the vital parts of the body, it brought a horrible death to the victim.

Depending on how you look at things, you could say that this was an early form of chemical warfare.
Ptolemy’s Deadly Injury
Diodorus doesn’t tell us how many Macedonians were injured fighting the Brahmins’ army, only that ‘some of [his] forces were’. One of those wounded, though, was Ptolemy. Here are two interesting snippets of information that Diodorus has to say about him.

  1. … Alexander was not so much concerned [for the other wounded], but he was deeply distressed for Ptolemy… who was much beloved by him
  2. [Ptolemy] was loved by all because of his character and his kindnesses to all

(1) I am quite sure that Alexander was concerned for all his injured men and that Diodorus, rather crassly, is suggesting otherwise simply to foreground the king’s love for Ptolemy. If I’m right, it is the same kind of simplification that Oliver Stone makes in his film of Alexander for the sake of the story. Nothing new under the sun, as they say!
(2) In case you are wondering, Diodorus doesn’t use Ptolemy as a source for his work! Actually, this was my second surprise. Given how close Ptolemy was to Alexander, I would have thought his memoir would have been required reading for historians.
According to Livius, Diodorus’ source is Cleitarchus. The latter’s source is said by the chart to be soldiers in the Macedonian army itself. If this is so, it would give credibility to Diodorus’ second statement above, which does seem rather over-the-top otherwise.
The King Has Healing Hands
How did Ptolemy survive his horrible injury? According to Diodorus, Alexander himself came to the rescue.

The king saw a vision in his sleep. It seemed to him that a snake appeared carrying a plant in its mouth, and showed him its nature and efficacy and the place where it grew. When Alexander awoke, he sought out the plant, and grinding it up plastered it on Ptolemy’s body. He also prepared an infusion of the plant and gave Ptolemy a drink of it. This restored him to health.

It’s easy to be cynical about these kind of dreams that we read so much about in antiquity but if there is a god or gods why wouldn’t they use them to communicate with their people? Admittedly, Diodorus doesn’t say that that is what happened here; I am just assuming that the dream did not come from Alexander’s subconscious. Although, now that I think about it, perhaps he was once told about the plant and its healing powers, so that now, in his dream, as he worried over his dying friend, he remembered it again.
Otherwise, I can only wonder why Diodorus uses the dream trope to explain Alexander’s knowledge. I presume it must add something to his character as he is generally favourable to the king. Unfortunately, I just don’t know enough about the matter to say.
One final point – Arrian, whose chief source is Ptolemy, does not mention this incident. Did Ptolemy decide not to mention it (and if so, why, as it shows he had Alexander’s close friendship), or was it Arrian who chose to omit it?
Ptolemy the General
Ptolemy’s second appearance in Diodorus’ History follows on from the first. Upon reaching ‘the frontiers of Oreitis’ Alexander ‘divided his force into three divisions and named as commander of the first, Ptolemy’. The son of Lagus was given orders to ‘plunder the district by the sea’. Leonnatus and Alexander himself led the other two divisions and the country was laid waste to.
And that for Ptolemy, as far as Diodorus is concerned, is that. We won’t meet him again until the Wars of the Successors, which the Diodorus covers in Books XI – XII. So that is where we will go next.

  • My edition of Diodorus is the Loeb Classical Library (1963). The quotations can be found in Book VIII pp. 415-21
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