Ptolemy (Soter), son of Lagus
Ptolemy, son of Lagus and Arsinoe, holds a distinguished place in the memory of Alexander for two reasons. First, he was the closest of the king’s circle of friends (save perhaps Nearchus) to write a history of the campaign, which survives in what are called fragments in Arrian’s ‘Anabasis’. Although none of his actual history remains, we know that Arrian drew upon his history deeply. Second, he managed to grab hold of Egypt after Alexander’s death, and to hold on to is in order to found a dynasty that survived for longer than any other successor kingdom – it only came to an end in 30 BC, with the death of Cleopatra VII and Egypt’s absorption into the Roman empire.
Friend & Bodyguard
It could be argued that, were it not for the latter achievement, he would not be as well known as he is, despite his literary legacy; for even during Alexander’s lifetime his career is the subject of some significant controversy and ambiguity. The rumour that Ptolemy was an illegitimate son of Philip II almost certainly appeared only after 323 BC, when the Diadochoi vied with each other to produce a basis for their right to rule parts of the fragmenting empire. Even if he had been the natural son of Philip, it did not benefit him in any particular way during Alexander’s lifetime. His rise to prominence, when it happened, was a reward for his friendship and loyalty, not for any familial relationship.
Born probably in the early 360s, he was one of the five older youths charged with mentoring Alexander, forming a council of older and presumably wiser heads to advise the prince and keep him out of trouble. This role was to land Ptolemy in hot water at sometime in 337 or 336 BC, when he and the other mentors were exiled by Philip over the Pixodarus affair. Whether they had advised or helped the prince in his botching of Philip’s diplomacy, or whether they had merely failed to stop him, they were exiled for failing in their duty. We don’t know any details of their exile, save that they were recalled only when Alexander became king.
Over time, Alexander then found ways to reward his friends for their loyalty, and for the trouble they courted on his behalf. Nearchus received a satrapy in 333 BC; Harpalus became Alexander’s treasurer; Laomedon was given the task of looking after Persian captives, and possibly acted as chief interpreter between Alexander and the Persians; and Erigyius was raised to a cavalry command in 333 BC. Ptolemy, however, had to wait until 330 BC when, in the aftermath of the Philotas affair, he was promoted to be one of the seven ‘somatophylakes’, the king’s closest bodyguard.
When Bessus was betrayed by Dataphernes and Spitamenes, his erstwhile co-conspirators, Ptolemy was sent to pick up the traitor and bring him in chains to Alexander for punishment; this mission he fulfilled competently, taking command of around 5,000 men to carry it out. In 328 BC he led one of the five division that Alexander sent through Sogdia, to subdue the region; and later that year, at Marakanda, he was one of those who tried to keep Alexander and Cleitus apart – a task in which he failed, which resulted in Alexander killing his friend and nearly succeeding in taking his own life.
So far, so good – or at least reasonably clear and uncontroversial. After this time, however, the difficulties arise. There is a great difference between what Arrian says of Ptolemy, and what the vulgate sources say. In Arrian he is credited with commands and deeds of which there are no records in the Vulgate. Naturally this has served to focus attention on Arrian’s apparently naïve (and/or fatuous) comment that he used Ptolemy’s history as a source because, as a king, “mendacity would have been more dishonourable for his than for anyone else” (‘Anabasis’ I.i, Loeb translation); it appears that Ptolemy used his history to puff his own achievements, even lying about them.
However, one story exists which makes us think again. Ptolemy is credited with being in the town of the Malli, as one of those who defended Alexander’s wounded body until the rest of the army gained entry to the town – but this story appears in the Vulgate, while Ptolemy’s own history denies it (through Arrian).
Of course, it might be that this story, accepted as coming from Cleitarchus, was too easily proved to be false, and Ptolemy knew the limits of his ‘mendacity’ – Paul Cartledge rather ingeniously suggests that, as a king, Ptolemy could “least of anyone afford to be caught out blatantly lying” (calling to mind the joke about the missing 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not be caught out”). He points out that the occasions when Ptolemy can be accused of outright lies are rare (‘Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past’, 2004, p.250). In his own history, it is quite possible that his contribution to the campaign might appear overstated, even unintentionally; and Arrian, writing 400 to 450 years later, might have failed to analyse his sources as critically as he should. Ptolemy’s probably most outrageous ‘lie’, that on the way to the oracle of Ammon Alexander’s party was saved by talking snakes, is so obviously propaganda designed to bolster his control of Egypt that it should be easy to forgive, or at least to accept without casting harsh aspersions on the rest of his account.
So, Ptolemy’s career, at least between 327 and 324 BC, remains controversial and ambiguous; but it becomes clearer cut after the return from India. He was charged with supervising the building of Calanus’ funeral pyre; and at the mass wedding at Susa he was given Apame/Artakama, a daughter of Artabazus (and therefore Barsine’s sister). He also acted as Alexander’s second in command in the campaign against the Cossaeans, undertaken after Hephaestion’s death. This might indicate his high status by this time, although Heckel points out that, with Hephaestion dead, Perdiccus taking the dead man’s body to Babylon, and Craterus on his way back to Macedonia, Ptolemy was one of the few commanders left for Alexander to use in the campaign (‘Marshals’, p.227). Whether Heckel is being unduly cynical in this is difficult to say: Ptolemy was senior and powerful enough in 323 BC to play a part in the power game that followed Alexander’s death. He was given Egypt to govern, succeeded in hijacking Alexander’s body and diverting it to Memphis, held off an invasion by Perdiccus, and intervened with varying degrees of success in the struggles of the next 40 years. Ultimately, he declared himself king of Egypt and established a dynasty that lasted for nearly 300 years.
As the founder of this Macedonian-Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty, history remembers him as Ptolemy Soter - "the Preserver".