Ptolemy of Egypt

Ptolemy of Egypt

Ptolemy of Egypt

Ptolemy of Egypt


Ptolemy was the creator of the longest lasting of the Hellenistic kingdoms. He created a state whose cultural importance was unparalleled until the coming of Rome. He encouraged the erection of the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as well as creating a library which eventually contained the greatest collection of books until relatively recent times. Ptolemy's institution of higher learning, the Museum, gave birth to the greatest advancements in science before the seventeenth century of our own era.In this work, the first biography of Ptolemy in any language, Professor Ellis charts Ptolemy's extraordinary achievements in and beyond Egypt in the context of the fragmentation of Alexander's enormous empire and the creation of the Hellenistic state.


Although we know a great many facts about Ptolemy I, his personality is beyond recovery. I see him, on the basis of an inference from Curtius (9.8.23, quoted above) and my conclusions from all these facts, as a practical, methodical, patient, and hard-working, public servant. I see him in the mold of a Vespasian or a Harry Truman. He was a man of insight, but he was not a man of charisma.

He did not excite the mass of men the way that Alexander the Great did or even Demetrius Poliorcetes. But he was shrewd. He understood what neither of those men did, nor any of the other leaders of that generation. He understood, at some level, consciously or unconsciously, that Alexander's empire would not survive as an entity.

Ptolemy chose Egypt as his satrapy, perhaps long before Alexander died. He concentrated all his considerable skill and intelligence on the preservation, the development, and the promotion of Egypt: of a new Hellenized Egypt, centered in the Alexandria which still bears his leader's name but which, likewise, still bears Ptolemy's stamp.

Alexandria! Is there any other city in the world that conjures up such a rich, exotic, mental image? Antony and Cleopatra, Arius and Athanasius, Amr ibn al-As, Saladin, Cavafy, the Thais of Anatole France and of Jules Massenet, the Justine of Lawrence Durrell.

I wish my book were more about Alexandria, Ptolemy's greatest achievement, and less about the interminable wars of the Successors. But I am limited by the surviving sources and by the preferences of the ancient historians, who seemed to think that the art of war was more important than the arts of civilization.

We could wish that Plutarch had left us a life of Ptolemy. But if the sources seem insufficient in the early years for his life, at least we have the connected chronicle of Diodorus. After that, from about 301 until

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