Childhood & Early Life
Ptolemy was born in 367 BC in the ancient kingdom of Macedonia to Arsinoe, who is said to be a descendant of Alexander I of Macedon; and Lagus, a Macedonian nobleman. However, many ancient sources claim that he was an illegitimate son of Philip II of Macedon. If this theory is to be believed then Ptolemy would have been the half-brother of Alexander! It is said that this myth was probably created to elevate the Ptolemaic dynasty.
As per sources, he might have pursued studies at the royal court of Macedonia, which was later ruled by Alexander III of Macedon, more commonly known as Alexander the Great.
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Association with Alexander the Great
Ptolemy served in almost all of Alexander's initial campaigns and the European campaigns during 336–335. In the fall of 330, he was appointed the personal bodyguard (''somatophylakes'') to the king.
He was a key figure in the king's later campaigns in Afghanistan and India. Ptolemy commanded troops in the ‘Battle of Issus’ and later accompanied Alexander in his expedition to the Oracle in the Siwa Oasis.
In 329, as one of the somatophylakes, he captured Bessus, the assassin of the Persian emperor Darius III, and handed him over to Alexander for execution.
Alexander was highly impressed by Ptolemy's conduct and honored him several times. He also got him married to Artakama, a Persian noblewoman.
It was a custom in Macedonia that the claimant to the throne had to bury their predecessor to assert their right to the throne. To stop the imperial regent Perdiccas from staking his claim to the throne through this ritual, Ptolemy had to labor hard in acquiring Alexander’s body. Alexander had wished to be buried at the 'Temple of Zeus Ammon' in ancient Libya, but Perdiccas and other influential nobles attempted to bury him in Macedon instead. Ptolemy I Soter captured Alexander’s body in Syria, while it was being transported to Macedon. He then brought Alexander's body back to Egypt and buried it at Memphis, which was later moved to Alexandria.
Ptolemy thereafter joined an alliance against Perdiccas who suspected him of capturing the throne and hence began a rivalry between the two.
Satrap of Egypt
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Ptolemy is said to have initiated the settlement of the empire. As a result of the ‘Partition of Babylon,’ he was named the satrap of Egypt, and Libyan and Arabian regions.
He suggested dividing the satrapies (the provinces of the huge empire) among the generals.
Ptolemy strategically and diplomatically resolved the struggle for power , which had begun soon after Alexander's death.
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In 322, Ptolemy acquired the African Hellenic towns of Cyrenaica, the eastern coastal region of Libya.
In 321 BC, Perdiccas made an attempt to invade Egypt, but it ended in fiasco for him, as Ptolemy decided to defend the Nile against him. As a result of this failure, Perdiccas was murdered by two his own men.
Amidst the struggle for power between the different Diadochi, Ptolemy’s aimed at holding Egypt and securing control over the outlying areas (Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and Syria).
He first captured Syria in 318 BC and then subjugated Cyprus. Ptolemy joined the coalition against Antigonus, who showed expansionist ambitions; he swiftly evacuated Syria on the outbreak of the war. He reconquered Cyprus in 313 BC.
In 312, he and Seleucus I Nicator invaded Syria and defeated Demetrius, the son of Antigonus, in the Battle of Gaza. He occupied Syria once again, only to evacuate it when Demitrius and his father, Antigonus entered Syria.
In 311, peace was concluded between the warring factions. When Alexander IV was murdered in Macedonia, the satrap of Egypt became his own master.
In 309, he led a fleet against Antigonus and took away the coastal towns of Lycia and Caria from him. Thereafter he crossed into Greece and occupied Megara, Corinth, and Sicyon (308 BC).
He lost Cyprus in to Antigonus I Monophthalmus, in 306.
Antigonus and Demetrius assumed the title of king, which was followed by Ptolemy, Cassander, Lysimachus and Seleucus I Nicator. In 306, Antigonus tried to capture Egypt but Ptolemy held his own and successfully thwarted the attack. Thereafter Ptolemy did not lead any expeditions against Antigonus. He, however, did help Rhodes during its siege by Demetrius. He was honored with the title of "Soter" (Saviour) in 304 after he helped the inhabitants of Rhodes against Antigonus.
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In 302, the coalition against Antignus was renewed and Ptolemy, too, joined it and invaded Syria once again, but evacuated upon hearing the news of Antigonus’ victory against Lysimachus. He, however, occupied Syria for a fourth time upon hearing the news of Antigonus defeat and death. The coalition members, however, had assigned Syria to Seleucus.
He lost his possessions in Greek but managed to reconquer Cyprus in 295/294 BC.
Ptolemy established the city of Ptolemais in Upper Egypt and introduced coinage.
In 286 B.C.E., he was hailed as the protector of the southern Cycladic islands and their center at Delos.
Ptolemy established the Serapis cult (fusion of the Egyptian and Greek religions) in Memphis. He restored the temples of the pharaohs, which was destroyed by the Persians.
Final Years of Reign
Ptolemy's defeats between 308 and 306 drove all of his focus to the expansion of his empire during his final 15 years of reign. The expansions were secured mostly through the policy of alliances and marriages of his children.
Riding his alliances with Lysimachus and Pyrrhus (both acquired through marriages) and with the support of Seleucus, Ptolemy opposed Demetrius in the last coalition war of 288–286 to liberate Athens from Macedonia.
During the coalition war, Ptolemy protected the League of Islanders, which Antigonus Monophthalmus had established in 315.
Ptolemy's son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, succeeded him to the throne in 285 BC.
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Personal Life & Death
Ptolemy's first marriage was with Berenice I, the granddaughter of Cassander (the brother of Antipater). His three children with his mistress, Thaïs, were Lagus, Leontiscus, and Eirene.
Ptolemy then married a Persian noblewoman Artakama. After divorcing her, he married a Macedonian noblewoman Eurydice, the third daughter of Antipater, the regent of Macedonia, around 321 BC.
From Eurydice, Ptolemy had two daughters - Ptolemais and Lysandra, and three sons – Ptolemy Keraunos, who served as the king of Macedon from 281 BC to 279 BC; Meleager, who succeeded Keraunos and ruled for two months; and a third son (name not known), who became a rebel and was killed by his half-brother Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
Ptolemy and Eurydice's marriage was purely a political alliance, so it was naturally not a happy union. He married Eurydice's cousin Berenice, who had traveled to Egypt with her children, after the death of her first husband, Philip, a Greek Macedonian nobleman, in 318 BC. Ptolemy and Berenice had three children together: Arsinoe II, Philotera, and Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
In 290, Berenice was proclaimed the queen of Egypt and in 285 (possibly on June 26) named his son with Berenice, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, his co-regent and successor.
Ptolemy died in January 282 BC.
Ptolemy's contribution as a historian is immense; he wrote an eyewitness history of Alexander's campaigns (which is now lost). Writing the 'Anabasis' of Alexander (history of the campaigns of Alexander the Great) in the second century AD, Arrian of Nicomedia used Ptolemy's history as one of the two main sources. Although Ptolemy's history is now lost but it is assumed to have survived in in Arrian's work.
He sponsored the great mathematician Euclid. It is interesting to note that Ptolemy found Euclid's mathematical treatise, Elements, very difficult to comprehend.
Anglo-American actor Anthony Hopkins portrayed Ptolemy in the 2004 biopic 'Alexander.'
He founded the Museum (Mouseion), a common workshop of scholars and artists, and the famous library at Alexandria.