- Ari Lieberman
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
After 38 years of ruling Egypt Ptolemy I concluded that it was time to hand over the reigns of the kingdom to his son.
According to Justinus (second century CE) "Feeling the weight of years press heavily
upon him – that he was less able than formerly to bear the duties of his office, and wishing to see his son firmly seated on the throne’ he laid aside his diadem and his title, proclaimed Ptolemy, his son by Bernice, king… This is perhaps the most successful instance known of a king, who had been used to be obeyed by armies and by nations, willingly giving up his power when he found his bodily strength no longer equal to it”.
Perhaps Ptolemy took to heart the intense tension filled relationship between Alexander and his father Philip II and appreciated the need to handle matters differently. Perhaps he saw the chaotic chasm left behind upon Alexander’s sudden untimely death and the violent breakup of the hard won empire and decided to proceed differently.
His succession to his son would therefore be seamless, steady and smooth.
So at the age of twenty-five Ptolemy the Second (known in history as Ptolemy
Philadelphus) became the sole ruler of Egypt.
Like Alexander before him. Ptolemy II built upon the achievements of his father but only
after he had Ptolemy I Soter declared divine, a common practice of the Greeks and
Romans who knew how to spread divinity around.
It has been remarked: “few princes ever mounted a throne with such fair prospects before
them as the second Ptolemy. He had been brought up with great care, and being a
younger son was not spoilt by that flattery which in all courts is so freely offered to the
heir… and as he grew up he was surrounded by the philosophers and writers with whom
his father mixed…”
He began his reign with tremendous pomp and ceremony exhibiting the great wealth of
Egypt. It was the inauguration party of all inaugurations meant to impress and astound
with its grandeur signaling the continuation of his father’s hard work in creating a future
dynasty in Egypt. According to the historian Athenaeus (early third century) just a small
part of his investiture included:
twenty four chariots drawn by elephants,
sixty drawn by goats,
twelve by lions,
seven by rhinoceroses,
four by wild asses,
fifteen by buffaloes,
eight by ostriches and
seven by stags.
Then came chariots loaded with the tributes of the conquered nations;
men of Ethiopia carrying six hundred elephant’s teeth; sixty huntsmen leading two thousand four hundred dogs; and one hundred and fifty men carrying trees, in the branches of which were tied parrots and other beautiful birds.
Next walked the foreign animals,
Ethiopian and Arabian sheep,
Brahmin bulls, a white bear,
a camelopard and
Bevan describes in detail Ptolemy Philadelphus in contrast to his father:
Ptolemy the son was of a very different character from Ptolemy the father. The softening
of fibre which became more pronounced in several of the later kings already showed
itself in the son of the tough old Macedonian marshal…. His education had
been directed by Strato, one of the chief representatives of the school of Aristotle, and
Ptolemy II's eager interest in geography and zoology was, no doubt, quickened by the
attention devoted to scientific studies by Aristotle and his disciples. Yet probably the
climate of Egypt had not yet changed the robust Macedonian stock in the second Ptolemy
as far as it had done in later kings. He was of fair complexion, an obvious European,
probably of a ruddy corpulence; there was plainly in the kings of this house an inherited
tendency to grow fat in later life. Some constitutional weakness, or, it may be, too tender
care for his own health, made him averse from bodily exertions.
Ptolemy Philadelphus came to power with the help of his father but commenced his rule
under the long shadow of his father’s legacy. Historians credited him with being up to the
task. “But Philadelphus… had more of wisdom than is usually the lot of kings; and
though we cannot but see that he was only watering the plants and gathering the fruit
where his father had planted…yet we must acknowledge that Philadelphus was a
successor worthy of Ptolemy Soter”.
Ptolemy Philadelphus completed the great light house on the island of Pharos which
helped thousands of ships navigate in and out of the Alexandrian harbor now an
international center of commerce. He also finished the royal burial site in the city and
moved Alexander the Great’s remains from Memphis to Alexandria.
The intellectual, cultural and academic cornerstone of Ptolemy’s Egypt was the Museum
of Alexandria (University & Library) which “held at this time the highest rank among the
Greek schools whether for poetry, mathematics, astronomy, or medicine, the four
branches into which it was divided”.
The staff of the Museum included the leading scholars, the who’s who, of the era. For
example, heading the school of mathematics was Euclid known today as the “Father of
Geometry” Euclid’s famous work entitled “Elements” was studied as the main textbook
for mathematics from the time of its publication until the early 20th century. The wor
consists of 13 books and it has been said that they were the most studied books apart
from the Bible.
Regarding the Jewish nation Josephus' positive portrait of Ptolemy II is a contrast to the
negative one he painted of Ptolemy I: When Alexander had reigned twelve years, and
after him Ptolemy Soter forty years, Philadelphus then took the kingdom of Egypt, and
held it forty years within one. He procured the law to be interpreted, and set free those
that were come from Jerusalem into Egypt, and were in slavery there, who were a
hundred and twenty thousand.
Furthermore, “the Jews who lived in Lower Egypt, in the full enjoyment of civil and
religious liberty, looked upon that country as their home”.
The Tzemach David sourcing a number of Jewish authorities once again concurs with
Josephus: Ptolemy 2 who was called Philadelphus the son of Ptolemy 1 ruled over Egypt
in 3484. He excelled in all of the wisdom, loved wise men, honored and supported them.
He had a center for the wise men in Alexandria. He built the Pharos Tower [lighthouse]
in the port of Alexandria as is written in Josephus. And Sefer Yuchsin wrote that he had
300,000 books of knowledge. And in Meor Einayim and in Julio it says he had more than
700,000 books from all of the wisdoms and languages from all four corners of the world.
And all of these books were burnt by the army in wars of Julius Cesar and Pompey.
Dorot HaRishonim describes how Ptolemy Philadelphus loved all knowledge and
scholarship thereby positioning Alexandria as the hub of the leading thinkers,
mathematicians and scientists of the time. Furthermore, even though he was naturally
drawn to his own Greek cultural treasures he welcomed the works of other peoples and
supported the intellectual and cultural efforts of other nations.
Ptolemy sought the good graces of the Jewish people in part because the capital
Alexandria did not contain a majority of Macedonians and Greeks and therefore the
Jewish community was viewed as a welcome bulwark against the indigenous population
and the numerous enemies within Ptolemy’s own people. He also recognized that his
rival Seleucid rulers in the north could favor the Jewish nation and leverage that
relationship against Ptolemy’s regional interests. This all led to a release of the Jewish
captives and to the appointments of Jews at the highest echelons of the Greek-Egyptian
regime. It also helped create a positive, friendly policy towards the Jews in the Land of
Israel as well as towards the temple in Jerusalem.