Recently, I read Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington.
How does one write a biography about a person of whom we know almost nothing? Worthington does so by looking at Ptolemy in relation to the events that took place around him; chiefly, Alexander’s expedition (334-323 BC) and the wars of the Successors (323-282 BC).
As I read Ptolemy, I did something I too rarely do and underlined the passages that most interested me. I even wrote a quick note on my mobile phone to remind myself why I had underlined the passage. This post, therefore, and those after, come to you sponsored by the Notes function on the iPhone. Thank you, Apple.
As for this post, and the rest in this little series, I don’t mean to go into the book in depth. Instead, what I would like to do is quote one of the passage that I underlined and share my thoughts regarding it. I will go through the book sequentially.
After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323, Ptolemy, then about 44 years old, found himself suddenly pitted against Alexander’s generals and satraps when crucial decisions had to be made about the future of the empire. He had largely remained on the periphery of the king’s retinue in Asia, but if the senior staff thought little of him because of his status they were mistaken. [Emphasis mine]
(Ptolemy I p. 3)
For me, this is a very contentious passage, most of all for the statement that I have put in bold.
Firstly, I disagree with the insinuation in line two that Ptolemy was not a general. This is something I shall be coming back to in my next post so I shall leave it hanging for now.
Secondly, and now the line in bold, I reject the notion that Ptolemy was on the periphery of Alexander’s ‘retinue’. For the last seven years, he had been one of the king’s royal bodyguards (the Somotophylakes). As such, and by and bye, he was not just a piece of muscle between Alexander and everyone else; he was an advisor, too. When Alexander wanted counsel, Ptolemy was one of the men he went to.
The idea, therefore, that Ptolemy, lived on the periphery of Alexander’s court is inconceivable to me.
Why does Worthington take this position? I think it is so that he can present Ptolemy as the outsider who made good. He left Macedon a nobody and died not only a king but one of the most brilliant of the Successors. That’s a great story but I don’t believe the record bears it out.
Before finishing, I should say that this will not be the only occasion that I disagree with Worthington. However often I do, though, don’t think that I didn’t enjoy reading his book. I did, and I am very glad that I have this blog to hold a kind-of conversation with it. If we were in a pub, I’d certainly buy Worthington a beer. For now, though, I’ll just say that if you are interested in Alexander’s captains and Successors I would absolutely recommend the book to you.