(c) Jerry Fielden 2000 

Ptolemy I Soter’s self-promotion in his history of Alexander the Great 

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, he left an empire that would soon be coveted and fought over by his lieutenants. One of these men was Ptolemy, a childhood friend of Alexander’s that had even shared exile with him when Philip II had sent the young heir away. Ptolemy accompanied Alexander on his massive conquest effort, and obtained more and more responsibility as time went on. When Alexander died, Ptolemy took the position of satrap of Egypt away from the rightful owner of the job, Cleomenes,[1] an action that was fairly easy to accomplish because of the Greeks’ and Ptolemy’s popularity in Egypt due to his amiable and diplomatic disposition.[2] That gave him an excellent power base and plentiful resources. Ptolemy lost and regained other territories several times as well in the fight against other former lieutenants of Alexander’s. 

He eventually declared himself king of Egypt in 305 BC, and thus became the first ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ended with Cleopatra’s death after Actium in 31 BC. Another one of Ptolemy’s deed was the brazen theft of Alexander’s corpse and its eventual relocalization to Memphis, then Alexandria.[3] But the most important part of his career to historians was the now-lost history he wrote of his tribulations with Alexander. In a way, however, this important text is not really lost, because we can deduce as lot of it and rebuild a plausible version of it from Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri. What we will attempt to discuss here is how Ptolemy used his history as a sort of self-propaganda and to what degree. 

First of all, we must situate Ptolemy as a historian. We know that Ptolemy’s text can mostly be found in Arrian, with a few fragments elsewhere.[4] When we remove what we know to come from Aristobulus and other writers, we are left with a military-oriented text that is mostly based on Ptolemy, giving us a good idea of what he may have written in the original version. Arrian (who was a military writer himself) had confidence enough in Ptolemy's rectitude to declare that “Being a king, it would have been especially shameful for him to lie”.[5] Ptolemy is also considered to have been true enough that he did not slander other authors.[6] Thus, Arrian seems to have used mostly Ptolemy as his main source (P.A. Brunt and A.B. Bosworth also state this) and that he was so even over an authority such as Aristobulus.[7] 

One can see how Ptolemy’s career evolved through the pages of Arrian, all the way to his attaining a generalship at Alexander’s side. Ptolemy may have written his history a few months before his death in 283,[8] and it was possible that he wanted to explain his deeds for posterity along with Alexander’s in this work, maybe as a legitimization device for his family’s rule over Egypt. It is also possible that he wrote it earlier, as a political promotional effort during the wars with his former colleagues.[9] As far as the value of this history is concerned, it is considered invaluable for its military details, but maybe a bit too positive an evaluation of the character of Alexander and of the exploits of Ptolemy himself.[10] 

Ptolemy may have wanted to portrait Alexander and himself in the best possible light to legitimize his rule over Egypt, as successor of the last pharaoh, which is what Alexander was considered at the time.[11] In other words, he “simply omitted or glossed over controversial incidents of Alexander’s life.”[12] For instance, the Theban massacre was attributed to the Phocidians and other Boeotians, not to Alexander’s Macedonians and he mentions the burning of a city, Persepolis, but “not its sack”.[13] 

The advancement of Ptolemy’s career is quite manifest in Arrian. For instance, we know that Ptolemy was appointed bodyguard[14] and then started out with minor operations, such as in the battle of the Issus, where he did not lead a major concentration of forces, but only helped Alexander to pursue Darius, and then he went on to positions of higher responsibility, such as the command of thousands of troops at the battle for the Persian Gates.[15] All this is rendered closely by Arrian, ever the military writer,[16] and himself an experienced general and politician.[17] 

There are several passages that may stand out as aggrandizement pieces, but the clearest piece of Ptolemaic self-propaganda is the combat singulier episode that took place near the River Choes, where “The actual leader of the Indians of this district was observed by Ptolemy, son of Lagus, already close to a foothill… … when the Indian saw Ptolemy drawing near, he himself turned round at bay, and his hypaspists with him, and with his long spear struck at close quarters through Ptolemy’s corselet to his breast; the corselet checked the blow. But Ptolemy drove right through the Indian’s thigh, and felled and despoiled him.”[18] 

This is definitely the sort of story that a man would be admired for in those days, and in Roman times we know of the spolia opima given to the victor of just that sort of combat. Maybe this appealed to the military leader in Arrian and that is why he put this episode in the Anabasis. All we can surmise s that it definitely sounds like a tale that Ptolemy would tell to impress soldiers or even his own subjects. One can wonder then if this was written as an intimidation piece for his rivals in the years following Alexander’s death and the wars of his lieutenants, or simply as a piece to impress his people and maybe posterity, which brings up again the question of the date at which the history was written, that we discussed earlier, a date which has been the subject of debate, and that cannot be pinpointed precisely to this day. 

Ptolemy also seems to have been the main source for all details military, including the numbers of infantry and cavalry used, but there seems to be a debate on the actual numbers, even these are partly confirmed by other writers than Arrian.[19] Ptolemy’s numbers, when he is recalling a battle in which he participates, may seem inflated, a possible device for his self-promotion. For instance, we have a figure of forty thousand men and two hundred and thirty oxen captured at a single battle at which, of course, Ptolemy had one of the leading roles, and showed his military acumen with great distinction.[20] 

Problems occur when Ptolemy applies similar details from Alexander’s military operations to his own battles, for instance in a narrative copied on the pursuit of Darius by Alexander.[21] We also have a possible exaggeration of Ptolemy’s role in the capture of Bessus, where Ptolemy made a speech to the villagers promising not to hurt them if they gave up Bessus, and then seized him personally, whereas Aristobulus says that Ptolemy only played a small role in the affair.[22] 

Ptolemy always was known more for his caution and diplomatic ability than his great feats in war after Alexander’s death. Between 308 and 306, he lost Cyrene temporarily and Corinth. He suffered a major defeat at Salamis as well in 306. So he used alliances and marriages to secure his empire rather than warfare. Here we had the combination of an earlier warrior then a later diplomat that was to mark his whole life’s work. However, Ptolemy was not one to shrink from war if he had to fight, as in the coalition war of 288-286 BC where Ptolemy, Seleucus, Lysimachus and Pyrrhus fought Demetrius.[23] It is possible that Arrian recognized this and that the use of a former general and later king’s accounts of his days with Alexander may have been hard to resist for another former warrior and present politician. He may have valued the polyvalence of Ptolemy and he certainly believed strongly in him, because he was a king, and kings did not lie, according to Arrian. 

I think that Ptolemy probably wrote this biography with posterity in mind, but with an eye to the present. Certain tales were sufficient to impress his subjects and fellow rulers and satraps, but I also think that he wrote this history to impress other generals and soldiers. His tone varies from the military and the diplomatic, with a strong political overtones related to his fight for the control of Egypt and some other territories after the death of Alexander. It is a very polyvalent style, that could be made to prove any succeeding author’s point that would be taken from or inspired by Ptolemy’s history of Alexander. Ptolemy wrote his accounts with plenty of details and numbers, but omitted some details and left some unsavory episodes unwritten (but not all of them), so he would have seemed pretty even-handed, even to his rivals, but he always had an eye on the little touch that would make him stand out over the others in the writing of his deeds at Alexander’s side, and it is this point that seems to stand out in the Ptolemy-inspired parts of Arrian’s Anabasis. 


Arrian, History of Alexander and Indica, (Loeb, London, 1966) 

Bosworth, A.B., A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander, (Oxford, 1980) 

French, Valerie and Dixon, Pamela, “The Source Tradition for the Pixodaros Affair”, The Ancient World XIV 1986, 25-40 

Kincaid, C.A., Successors of Alexander the Great, (Chicago, 1969) 

Pearson, Lionel, The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great, (New York, 1960) 

Pédech, Paul, Historiens compagnons d’Alexandre, (Paris, 1984) 

Roisman, Joseph, “Ptolemy and his rivals in his History of Alexander”, CQ 34 (ii) 1984, 373-385 

OCD, 3rd Ed., (Oxford, 1996) 

Encyclopedia Britannica online: 

Alexander: http://search.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/4/0,5716,108634+1,00.html 

Ptolemy I Soter: http://search.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/7/0,5716,63327+1,00.html 


[1] OCD, 3rd Ed., (1996), 1271 

[2] C.A. Kincaid, Successors of Alexander the Great, (Chicago, 1969), 13 

[3] Kincaid, 14 

[4] In Strabo, Quintus Curtius, Synesius, etc.; Lionel Pearson, The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great, (New York, 1960), 188-189 

[5] Arrian, I.Preface.2; Pearson, 189 

[6] A.B. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander, (Oxford, 1980), 25 

[7] Arrian, Introduction, xxxii; Bosworth, 16 

[8] Pearson, 193 

[9] Joseph Roisman, “Ptolemy and his rivals in his History of Alexander”, CQ 34 (ii) 1984, 373 

[10] OCD, 3rd Ed., (1996), 1272 

[11] He had taken the double crown of Egypt in November 332 BC: Encyclopedia Britannica online, “Alexander”: http://search.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/4/0,5716,108634+1,00.html 

[12] Valerie French and Pamela Dixon, “The Source Tradition for the Pixodaros Affair”, The Ancient World XIV 1986, 33 

[13] Pédech, Paul, Historiens compagnons d’Alexandre, (Paris, 1984), 254 

[14] Arrian, III.27.5 

[15] Pearson, 196 

[16] For instance, of the Essay on Tactics, and the Order of Battle against the Alans; OCD, 3rd Ed., (1996), 175 

[17] Arrian had been consul around AD 129, then legate of Cappadocia, and finally archon of Athens in AD 145-146 

[18] Arrian IV.3-5 

[19] Arrian, Introduction, lxix ff. 

[20] Arrian IV.24.10-IV.25.4 

[21] Bosworth, 376 

[22] Arrian, III.30.1-5 

[23] Ptolemy I Soter: http://search.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/7/0,5716,63327+1,00.html, Encyclopedia Britannica online

Return to Essays Index