The Sources Speak: Diodorus on Ptolemy Pt 2

  • An index of the other posts in this series can be found here
  • I am using the Loeb Classical Library’s edition of Diodorus’ Library of History (Harvard University Press, 2004) for this post.

In the last post we saw how Ptolemy was only mentioned twice by Diodorus in Book 8 of his Library of History. Firstly, when Alexander saved his life after Ptolemy was poisoned. Secondly, when Alexander split his army into three to lay waste to the low, middle and high country of the land on the border of Oreitis. Alexander gave himself responsibility for attacking the upper (hill) country, Leonnatus the responsibility for despoiling the interior, and Ptolemy responsibilty for devastating the land by the sea.
The second mention of Ptolemy is made without further comment in respect of his character or how (well) he carried out his orders. The mission was a success, though, for as Diodorus records,

… much country was wasted, so that every spot was filled with fire and devastation and great slaughter. The soldiers soon became possessed of much booty, and the number of persons killed reached many myriads.
(Diodorus VIII. Bk. 17. p. 421-2)

The first mention of Ptolemy is much more interesting as Diodorus tells us that Alexander was very close to him, and that Ptolemy himself was much loved by the Macedonian soldiers on account of his ‘character and kindness to all’.
323 BC
We pick up the story in Babylon, just two years after the events described above. Alexander is dead, and his senior officers are in the Royal Palace listening to Perdiccas tell them which satrapies he has decided to allocate to who.

… he gave Egypt to Ptolemy, son of Lagus…
(IX. 18. p. 17)

Diodorus makes no further mention of Ptolemy here. But in a way, he doesn’t need to; not when it comes to Ptolemy’s capability as a general, anyway. Had he not been a very good one, I very much doubt that Perdiccas would have entrusted such an important country to him.
But what about Ptolemy’s character? We know, of course, that the men liked him – could that have played a part in Perdiccas’ considerations? I think so, but only alongside Ptolemy’s perceived loyalty to the Argead cause. Remember, the phalanx and senior officers had already almost come to blows over what should happen to Alexander’s empire. The phalanx wanted Alexander’s mentally disabled brother, Arrhidaeus, to be made king; but the senior officers disagreed. The two sides prepared for a fight until conciliators managed to bring them both together. As a result of the proceeding ‘Babylon Conference’, Arrhidaeus was indeed named king, but only with Perdiccas as his regent. I would like to suggest that Ptolemy was given Egypt, in part or in whole, as part of an attempt by Perdiccas to assure the Argeads that they had a place at the high table of power. A kind of quid pro quo for Perdiccas holding the regency.
323/22 BC

In Asia, of those who had shared in the division of the satrapies, Ptolemy took over Egypt without difficulty and was treating the inhabitants with kindness. Finding eight thousand talents in the treasury, he began to collect mercenaries and to form an army. A multitude of friends also gathered about him on account of his fairness. With Antipater he carried on a diplomatic correspondence that led to a treaty of co-operation, since he well knew that Perdiccas would attempt to wrest from him the satrapy of Egypt.
(IX. 18. p. 51)

Once again, Diodorus highlights Ptolemy’s kind character. It is hard not to believe, however, that at least a few of those ‘friends’ were attracted to the 8,000 talents Ptolemy held as much as they were to Ptolemy himself.
Ptolemy’s ‘kindness’ towards the Egyptians is still noteworthy as imperial powers are not generally known for treating the their subjects with respect. One imperialist did, though – Alexander. Was Ptolemy, then, emulating his standard of rule? Possibly, although maybe he really was just a very kind natured person; I suspect, though, that as with all human beings, Ptolemy had mixed motives for ruling in the way he did. After all, by treating his subjects well, he made friends with the powerful priestly class who could, had it wanted, made his life very difficult.
Diodorus’ observation that Ptolemy ‘well knew that Perdiccas would attempt to wrest… the satrapy of Egypt’ from him suggests to me that Perdiccas did indeed appoint Ptolemy to his post for political reasons rather than because he thought Ptolemy was the best choice.
322/21 BC
Ptolemy’s arrival in Egypt appears to have taken place around the same time as the Lamian War. Not long after his arrival, he received a visit from a group of rich Cyrenians who had been thrown out of Cyrene by the commoners as a result of Thibron’s siege, which was causing the city great hardship.
The exiles asked Ptolemy for his help in restoring them to their city. Seeing the opportunity to extend his power and influence in the region (Cyrenaica was in eastern Libya, right next to Egypt), Ptolemy sent,

… a considerable force, both infantry and naval, with Ophellas as general.
(IX. 18. p. 75)

The new leaders of Cyrene were so dismayed by the return of the exiles that they agreed terms with Thibron and made common cause with him against the Ptolemaic army. It was to no avail, however; Ophellas defeated the joint army, captured Thibron and took Cyrenaica, which he then ‘delivered… to Ptolemy the king’ (Ibid, p. 77). In actual fact, it would be another 17 or so years before Ptolemy would claim that title.
Ptolemy’s opportunism was not a characteristic that was unique to him. All of Alexander’s Successors had this trait. For his part, Ptolemy used it alongside his natural cautiousness, a trait we will see more of in the future. Thus, while he never sought to empire build like people such as Antigonus and Seleucus, he would where he was able, grab land and power, releasing both quickly if circumstance turned against him, only to return later.

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