- Ari Lieberman
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
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
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
…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 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”.