Ptolemy I Soter

Did the Wars of the Successors need to happen?

After Alexander died, the Macedonian phalanx and cavalry divided over who should succeed him. The phalanx wanted Alexander’s half-brother, Arrhidaeos, to do so. The cavalry, however, which included Alexander’s most senior officers, were opposed to this. The two sides nearly came to blows before reaching a compromise: Arrhidaeos would become king and Perdiccas, leader of the cavalry faction, his regent (See Diodorus XVIII.2). A few months later, when Alexander’s son, Alexander IV, was born, he was made co-king (See Justin XIII.4).

The peace that this arrangement brought about held for virtually no time at all. After dividing the satrapies of the empire among Alexander’s senior officers, Perdiccas sent Peithon to quell a revolt of Greek settlers in Bactria and Sogdia (Diodorus XVIII.4; see also Dio. XVII.99). Peithon accepted the commission but he did not intend to fight the rebellious settlers; rather, he intended to win them over to his side and take power in Bactria and Sogdia (Diodorus XVIII.7). As it happens, Peithon was foiled in his plan but his was the first act of rebellion by one of Alexander’s commanders, and it set the stage for the conflict that would continue for forty years.

So, that is what happened. But did it need to?

Well, the cavalry could have sent Roxane home and accepted Arrhidaeos as their king, allowing him to rule under the aegis of a regent. In the summer of 323 this didn’t happen because the cavalry knew that Arrhidaeos was unfit to rule: he had a physical or mental impediment that made it impossible. Of course, they did eventually allow it to happen, but when it did, the Wars of the Successors started.

An alternative would have been for Arrhidaeos to be sent home and Roxane’s child, if a boy, to be elevated to the throne, instead. Of course, he too would have required a regent, but only until he came of age.

Or, Alexander’s illegitimate son Heracles could have been made king, instead (Curtius X.6.10-12).

These were the options. Why did the Successors not take them? Or, when they did, why did they not adhere to them?

A mixture of reasons. Arrhidaeos’ mental/physical impediment denied him the authority that he needed to rule. Moreover, it meant that he could never lead from the front, which is what a Macedonian king had to be able to do.

As for Alexander IV, I believe he was rejected out of fear; the Successors feared that when he came of age, Alexander might strip them of the power they had enjoyed for the previous eighteen years, and have them killed.

Why would Alexander IV do this? After all, he would have known that he owed his empire to the Successors. This is true, but the Macedonian political situation in the late fourth century BC was too unstable to permit Alexander IV to trust anyone. He would know full well that as long as the generals lived they would be rivals to his throne. He would not be safe until men of his generation, and therefore men with less authority than him, were in the key positions of power. This is why Alexander the Great removed Philtoas and Parmenion, and I believe it is why Cassander assassinated Alexander IV, and why none of the other Successors so much as said a word about it let alone protested or made war on him. They might not have liked what Cassander had done but they liked the idea of being killed even less.

Heracles was rejected because of old fashioned Macedonian (and Greek) racism: he was seen as a barbarian (Curt.X.6.13-14). Had Ptolemy Lagides got his way, Alexander IV would have been rejected for the same reason.

So, back to the headline question: did the Wars of the Successors need to happen?

When Ptolemy rejected Alexander IV and Heracles, he suggested that the generals should rule the empire together (Curt. X.6.15). I suppose this is why Ptolemy is regarded as a separatist. His idea, though, made sense. It would have lead to a kind-of government of all the talents, just what the diverse empire needed.

The only problem was – fear; the same fear that made Cassander kill Alexander IV. Fear is what drove Macedonian politics. It is the reason why, upon his accession in 336 BC, Alexander the Great killed anyone with a rival claim to the throne; it is the reason he had Philotas and Parmenion killed. I think it is one of the reasons why Hephaestion, Craterus and Coenus colluded in the judicial murder of Philotas (Curt. VI.11.10). In the Macedonian royal court, one was either in favour or out, and one had to do what was necessary to stay in. Co-operation happened but one had to be prepared to betray friends and allies as necessary. After all, they might do the same to you – as necessary.

So, no, the Wars of the Successors didn’t need to happen, but I think that the prejudices of the Successors, allied to their legitimate fears, made the conflict inevitable. The only thing that might have stopped it is if Alexander III had died twenty or more years later and if his son had been as strong and determined a person as his father. But even then, all it would have taken is one cup laced with poison…

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, On Alexander, Plutarch, Ptolemy I Soter, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: | 4 Comments

Isis, the Madonna and her Son

Christmas Day is nearly upon us and I was going to take the week off writing for this blog until an idea for one or two posts occurred to me. And as all writers know, when an idea comes, one has to write it down.
Last week, I read Walter M. Ellis’s book Ptolemy of Egypt. In it, he describes how Ptolemy I created a new cult that would bring his Greek and Egyptian subjects together. Enter Sarapis.

Was it a strictly a cynical move to push Egyptian propaganda throughout the Mediterranean, or is it possible that Ptolemy experienced some sort of genuine conversion?
(Ellis Ptolemy of Egypt p 30)

We’ll never know for sure but given how politically savvy Ptolemy was I agree with Ellis that the former reason is more likely to be the true one.
Sarapis did not enter Egyptian life alone. He came with Isis – his sister-wife.

A Ptolemaic era statue of Isis (Wikipedia)

A Ptolemaic era statue of Isis (Wikipedia)

Ellis states that,

[Isis] is all-woman. She is mother, maiden, whore and virgin, wife and mother, all-knowing and all-forgiving. She is Athena, Hera, Artemis, Demeter, Aphrodite, Persephone, and Hecate.
     She became all things to all men, and her worship spread all around the Mediterranean. Five centuries later Isis remained the primary competitor to Christianity for the minds and souls of the men and women of the Roman empire.
(Ibid p. 36)

At first sight, I find it hard to imagine what Isis and Christianity have in common but as I think about it a little more, Isis starts to remind me of two people in particular – the two who are at the heart of our celebrations this Wednesday: Mary and Jesus.
Isis is not an exact prototype – no one calls Mary a whore and Jesus is not all-forgiving if by that we mean He automatically forgives everyone who does anything wrong, but there is more than enough of them in her to make me now see why she provided such strong competition for the loyalty of Men’s souls.

Categories: Of The Moment, Ptolemy I Soter | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

The Significance of Reality: Perdiccas and Hitler

I’ve been reading Ptolemy of Egypt by Walter M. Ellis. It is a very short – 70 page – biography of Ptolemy I Soter in seven chapters tracing such as we know (which, sadly, is not a great deal) of his life as a general and successor to Alexander the Great.
In the fifth chapter, Ellis turns to Perdiccas’ attempted invasion of Egypt in 320 BC, and he questions why it took place:

… Perdiccas, still stationed in Asia, faced a formidable coalition in the west. Antipater, Lysimachus, Craterus, and Antigonus were all aligned against him. Why Perdiccas would chose to take on such a coalition and to invade Egypt at the same time is difficult to understand…
(Ptolemy of Egypt, p. 36)

When I read this, I immediately thought of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, and I asked myself how Adolf Hitler could ever have thought that his invasion of the mighty (in terms of size and capability) USSR would succeed.
To find out, I put Ellis down and did a quick search on Google. The answer that I found was not at all the one I expected. In an interview with Laurence Rees, here, the eminent historian Ian Kershaw explains that prior to the Nazi invasion, many people – generals and intelligence agencies alike, in Germany and in the West – thought that the Soviet Union would fall, either in weeks or months. Why?

… from the contemporary point of view the Red Army had fought a war in Finland in the winter of 1939-40 and suffered grievous losses in this war against a puny military force like the Finnish Army. And then on top of that came the racial sentiments that these were somehow Untermenschen and they were inferiors and they were not capable of putting up very stiff resistance for long. And beyond that then there were notions that Stalin himself had wrecked his own army through the purges of the late 1930s and that many of these people were not really willing to fight for this regime for very long….

Except for the confidence that came from believing themselves to be racially superior to the Russians, the reasons given by Kershaw are negative. By contrast, Walter Ellis gives a positive answer to his question. He suggests that Perdiccas,

… apparently had the greatest confidence in his ally, Eumenes.
(Ptolemy of Egypt, p. 36)

I’ve no doubt Hitler thought highly of his army, too, and so it is interesting to find this little point of connection between the two men and the two eras. Although Perdiccas and Adolf Hitler don’t have anything else in common, this connection – as light as it is – brings both the moments in time that Kershaw and Ellis are talking about to life for me that little bit more.
One final point. Ian Kershaw reminds us how our perception of reality can change over time. A few days ago, I watched The English Patient with Anthony Minghella’s commentary. As the film approaches its climax, Minghella mentions that the producer, Saul Zaentz, once told him that when he – Zaentz – and his fellow sailors heard the news of the destruction of Hiroshima they did not interpret it ‘as a cataclysmic event in history’ but simply as ‘a ticket home’. Today, that seems a very crass comment to make, but Zaentz cannot be indicted of being so: the event had a different signification for him and the other men. I would have done well to remember this before wondering how Hitler thought he could defeat the Red Army. I shall certainly try and remember it the next time I come across an event in antiquity that seems to have no logical explanation for occurring!

Categories: Of The Moment, Ptolemy I Soter | Tags: , | 2 Comments

C P Cavafy “The Glory of the Ptolemies”

As I write these words it is nearly 10pm on a Friday evening. I have not left myself much time to write anything substantial. That may be a relief to you as my last couple of posts have been rather word heavy. Instead of a long post, therefore, I thought I would share with you a poem by C. P. Cavafy who lived in and loved Alexandria. In keeping with the theme of the last couple of days, the poem I have selected is dedicated to Ptolemy I Soter.

The Glory of the Ptolemies
I’m Lagides, king, absolute master
(through my power and wealth) of sensual pleasure.
There’s no Macedonian, no barbarian, equal to me
or even approaching me. The son of Selefkos
is really a joke with his cheap lechery.
But if you’re looking for other things, note this too:
my city’s the greatest preceptor, queen of the Greek world,
genius of all knowledge, of every art.

A couple of thoughts – I think Cavafy is being a little unfair to Ptolemy I who was not known for being a hedonist. The first Ptolemy to live that kind of life was Ptolemy IV Philopator. The last three lines of the poem obviously refer to Alexandria. Cavafy is perhaps being a little anachronistic in describing her in such fine terms. The city did not reach the heights of its existence until the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

Who is Selefkos? I don’t know for sure – could it be an alternative spelling of Seleucus? Unfortunately, I do not know enough about his son(s) to be able to say for sure.
I found The Glory of the Ptolemies on the official C. Cavafy website. There are some really lovely poems there that are very well worth reading.

Categories: Poetry, Ptolemy I Soter | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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