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  • Ari Lieberman

Ptolemy Soter

Updated: Mar 7, 2021

Alexander The Great trained, nurtured and maintained an impressive array of

commanders and high ranking military officers. These included those battle tested generals he inherited from his father King Philip as well as those he hand-picked from his devoted and loyal companions.

Ptolemy the son of Lagos belonged to the latter group.

Ptolemy I (366–283 B.C.E.) was born in the upper Macedonian region of Eordaia. As a

member of the Macedonian aristocracy Ptolemy grew up in the invigorating and

stimulating imperial court at Pella.

As part of the inner circle in the royal court Ptolemy joined Alexander at Mieza where

together with Alexander and the future King’s companions he studied for three years with the one and only Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E. ).

Ptolemy served as an older colleague, friend, advisor and confidant of the future king.

When the explosive dispute took place between Alexander and his father King Philip,

Ptolemy sided with his friend Alexander. King Philip took a very dim view of Ptolemy

and as a result of his advice to, and efforts on behalf of Alexander, Ptolemy was forced to

join Alexander in exile. The relationship between the two was from then on further


In 336 B.C.E., before he had a chance to begin his dream of replacing the Persian empire,

King Philip was assassinated. Now it was Alexander’s shot at the throne. But it was not a

forgone conclusion that Alexander would be the one to replace his father’s place on the

Macedonian throne. As always in the royal courts of yesterday (and today) the intrigue

immediately began and matters needed to be taken care of quickly and efficiently.

Ptolemy played his role by returning to the court and supporting Alexander's claim to

take over Philip’s successful rule. When Alexander swiftly consolidated his position, he

appointed Ptolemy to various positions such as companion, lifeguard, and seneschal, an

office in charge of the household and servants.

Arrian: “in the time of Alexander, the title of somatophylax was given to those generals

on whose wisdom the king chiefly lent, and by whose advice he was usually guided.

Among these, and foremost in Alexander’s love and esteem, was Ptolemy the son of


Ptolemy accompanied Alexander on his initial military campaigns to regions in the

Danube in 336 B.C.E. and in the battles to crush the rebellion in Corinth and to destroy

Thebes in 335 B.C.E.

He participated and effectively contributed in the major battles later won by Alexander in

Asia, Persia and India though it’s unclear as to the full extent of Ptolemy’s involvement

and role.

Pausanias portrays an extremely positive picture: “he had earned the good opinion of

Alexander by his military successes in Asia, and had gained his gratitude by saving his

life when he was in danger among the Oxydracae, near the river Indus; moreover

Alexander looked up to him as the historian whose literary powers and knowledge of

military tactics were to hand down the wonder of future ages those conquests of which he

was eye-witness”.

With the death of Alexander and break-up of the empire into four smaller kingdoms as

prophesized in Daniel, Ptolemy wisely focused on his desired prize, Egypt. By then

Ptolemy was acknowledged as a formidable general, popular with the troops; “and

Ptolemy’s high character for wisdom, generosity, and warlike skill had gained many

friends for him among the officers: they saw that the wealth of Egypt would put it in his

power to reward those whose services were valuable to him; and hence crowds flocked to

his standards”.

…but Ptolemy, on the contrary, was generous and fair and granted to all the

commanders the right to speak frankly. What is more, he had secured all the most

important points in Egypt with garrisons of considerable size, which had been well

equipped with every kind of missile as well as with everything else.  This explains why he

had, as a rule, the advantage in his undertakings, since he had many persons who were

well disposed to him and ready to undergo danger gladly for his sake.

Ptolemy perhaps (correctly) understood that only an Alexander could conquer the entire

world; that perhaps only an Alexander could have maintained that world empire and

forged a new global culture which included Greek, Persian, Asian and Indian traditions.

For Ptolemy there was plenty to be done with Egypt and the surrounding region.

At the same time Ptolemy made sure to maneuver events so that he was seen as the natural

continuation of Alexander’s great legacy. He forcibly kidnapped Alexander’s body when

it was on route for burial in Macedonia and ceremoniously interned him in Egypt. It

could be argued that this “body grab” was as important and significant as the land grabs

attempted by the various other successors to Alexander.

According to Diodorus Siculus, “the wise and mild plans which were laid down by

Alexander for the government of Egypt, when a province, were easily followed by

Ptolemy when it became his own kingdom”.

Ptolemy’s role as a bearer of Alexander’s legacy was without doubt assisted by the fact

that Ptolemy himself had written a military biography on Alexander. That work is

currently not extant. but the second century historian Arrian’s work which focused on the

military campaigns of Alexander is based on Ptolemy's writings together with the work of Aristobulus (also not in existence). Ptolemy’s accounting of events, and his participation

in them, whether totally accurate or not, was preserved and highlighted throughout

history via Arrian and subsequent historians.

Once in power in Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter engaged in numerous military campaigns to

preserve his Egyptian “empire” and at times fought to extend his reach and secure his

international or regional claims.

Back home in Egypt Ptolemy I focused his efforts on building his Egyptian empire. He

originated numerous new innovative projects of which a number stand out.

It was Ptolemy who actualized Alexander’s dream of creating a new port city that would

be the center of Mediterranean trade and commerce. From its start the Ptolemaic dynasty

was based in Alexandria where it developed a new type of bustling vigorous port city

encompassing Greeks, Jews, foreigners and Egyptians.

In 290 BCE he began to build the magnificent Pharos Lighthouse – one of the seven

wonders of the ancient world - in Alexandria which was later completed by his son,

Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Ptolemy I created the famous Library of Alexandria and within it the Mouseion,

Alexandria's famous ancient university. This scholarly center of collected wisdom would

play a role in the eventual translation of the Torah into Greek. It was Ptolemy’s son who

enlarged the library and invited leading scholars from all fields to teach and study at the

university. Ptolemy I was himself had been a student of Aristotle together with

Alexander. He was a thinker and a scholar known for his biography of Alexander which

is still used as a source of Alexander’s life; and which remains the subject of heated

debates among modern Greek historians.

Perhaps more significantly Ptolemy I set in motion the foundations of a dynasty. Ptolemy

is credited therefore for being the founding father what was to be known as the Ptolemaic

dynasty of Egypt, a family of fifteen kings and queens including the famous Cleopatras

who reigned over Egypt for more than three hundred years. It was a dynasty of Greece in

Egypt. Indeed, it has been claimed that only the last ruler, the famous Cleopatra of

Cleopatra and Anthony fame, spoke Egyptian! It was Hellenism of the Pharos.

Clearly Ptolemy was following in the footsteps of Alexander. Like Alexander before him,

Ptolemy was a Macedonian embracing Greek culture, philosophy and wisdom. He

initiated and built an Egyptian dynasty that was a Greek one.

E. R Bevan author of The House of Ptolemy summarizes Ptolemy 1 Soter as follows:

So far as we can see Ptolemy's personality through the mists of time, he was a robust,

full-blooded Macedonian, with the sound common sense which often characterizes the

leaders of a people of country farmers, the shrewd caution which looks a long way

ahead, and likes to play a safe game and secure solid advantages…, a man rather of

vigorous bodily and mental constitution than of fine fibre. Yet he was not without interest

in Greek letters; young Macedonians of the upper class had learnt for a generation or

two to talk Greek and read Greek; and Ptolemy was not only eager to get Greek men of

letters and philosophers and artists to his court, but himself made, as an author, a very

creditable addition to Greek historical   literature — a narrative of the campaigns of

Alexander distinguished by its plain adherence to fact and its freedom from rhetorical


The Jewish view of Ptolemy I highlights his negative actions vis-a-vis Israel tempered

together with his recognition of the value of the Jewish people to his empire.

Dorot Rishonim references the ploy used by Ptolemy on the Sabbath to conquer

Jerusalem from an innocent unsuspecting populace. He also concurs that the number of

people exiled by Ptolemy from Jerusalem to Egypt was 100,000. But he also states that

Ptolemy quickly came to realize that the Jewish people were always loyal citizens of their

countries (as they were under Darius & Persia and then under Alexander) and that they

could be counted on to be so to him as well.

Rav Miller follows the traditional Jewish historians (and Josephus) in describing

Ptolemy I Lagos as an oppressor the Jewish community in Israel. At the same time he

recognized that the Jewish people were a loyal one as per Josephus’ writings ..” despite

their sufferings because of him, the Jews were loyal subjects of Ptolemy Soter, “He

entrusted the fortresses of Egypt in their hands, knowing that they would keep them

loyally and courageously for him; and when he desired to secure the rule over Cyrene

and other cities of Libya for himself, he sent a number of Jews to inhabit them”.

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