Monday, April 9, 2018


Ian Worthington, Ptolemy I: King and Pharaoh of Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 253. ISBN 9780190202330. $35.00.

Reviewed by Charlotte Van Regenmortel, University of Leicester (

Version at BMCR home site


Of all Alexander's successors, Ptolemy is perhaps the one most worthy of a biography. Having been born into a relatively humble family, he rose to become one of Alexander's bodyguards, and eventually Pharaoh of Egypt. His life, furthermore, falls within a timespan that incorporates the early Hellenistic world's major developments. From the rise of Philip of Macedon and the campaigns of Alexander to the solidification of the Hellenistic monarchies, Ptolemy was there. With this book, Ian Worthington, an expert on the period, provides the first biography of Ptolemy I since W. M. Ellis's Ptolemy of Egypt (1994). Although the influence of Ptolemy, who is known as patron of the arts, economic innovator, and sophisticated administrator, cannot be downplayed, a full-length biography proves to be a difficult enterprise. The nature of the source material, from which Ptolemy is largely absent until the death of Alexander, is problematic when the aim is a singular focus on Ptolemy, as can be seen from this book.

The book offers a chronological overview of Ptolemy's life, which started in Macedonia and ended in Egypt. The book concludes with a brief assessment of the history of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and includes two short appendices on Ptolemy's history of Alexander and on the available historiographical source material on Ptolemy. Worthington's aim is to argue against the notion that Ptolemy pursued a policy of 'defensive imperialism', and rather that 'he had the same imperialistic goals as the other Successors' (p. 8). For Worthington, evidence for Ptolemy's imperialistic ambitions falls into three categories. First, his alleged 'choice' of the satrapy of Egypt, useful for an imperialistic agenda due to its location and resources, allowed for a secure base (p. 4). Second, Ptolemy's continuous attempts at association with Alexander, of which the hijacking of his body is the best example, are described by Worthington as 'an overt declamation of his ambition' (p. 94). Third, the rumour that Ptolemy was an illegitimate son of Philip II is seen in the same light, and leads Worthington to postulate that Alexander's will was a Ptolemaic fabrication (pp. 151-4). According to Worthington, the claimed descent from Philip II came about during Ptolemy's Greek campaign of 310-308. Likewise, this campaign should be seen as openly imperialistic, rather than as 'uncharacteristic aggression' (p. 155).

Biography is a tried and tested format for scholarly works dealing with the Successor Wars, and allows for the exploration of the complex narrative and the multitude of topics from a single perspective. Worthington explicitly states that this book 'is not a book on the Successors' (p. 5), but the difficulty with this statement and approach reveals itself in the contents of the book's first four chapters. Although Ptolemy was certainly present for the events narrated in this section, he did not make it into the sources related to this period with the exception of a handful of references. The first seventy-odd pages of the book, therefore, almost exclusively deal with the history of Philip and Alexander of Macedonia. And so, while Ptolemy's obscure origins as the son of a certain Lagus, who may have married a cousin of Philip, are dealt with, the bulk of the first chapter is concerned with the nature of Macedonia as a militaristic society. The subsequent four chapters, 'Invading Persia with Alexander' (Chapter 2); 'The Campaign in Afghanistan' (Chapter 3); 'To India and Back' (Chapter 4); and 'Ptolemy and the Rise of the Successors' (Chapter 5), are likewise dedicated to events of which Ptolemy was part, rather than to Ptolemy himself.

The focus returns to Ptolemy in the chapter related to his initial securing of Egypt (Chapter 6), while his rise to power and expansionist overtures form the heart of Chapters 7, 9, and 10, entitled 'Taking on the Enemy'; 'From Satrap to King'; and 'First among Equals' respectively. Apart from Ptolemy's military action in the Southern Aegean, as well as in Greece and Macedonia, some attention is given to the assumption of the title of king by the various Successors, the importance of a perceived connection to Alexander, and other forms of political propaganda. Chapter 8, 'Alexander's Corpse', as well as Chapter 11, 'Ptolemy and Egypt', look at the influence Ptolemy had over Egypt itself. The oddly titled Chapter 8 discusses the development of Alexandria as a city and centre of learning; it is described as 'the ultimate symbol of Ptolemaic grandeur and wealth' (p. 146). Chapter 11 discusses Ptolemy's three main areas of governance, namely the relations with his people, the administration and economy, and religion (p. 185). Chapter 12 offers a very brief history of Ptolemy's descendants, and a final verdict of Ptolemy as a ruler that shaped the history 'of the early Hellenistic world to a greater extent than has often been thought' (p. 212).

Despite Ptolemy's participation in some of the major events of the early Hellenistic period and his lasting impact on the Hellenistic world, he proves to be a difficult biographical subject, not in the least due to his relative invisibility in the historical sources. The paucity of material, furthermore, does not result in the available sources' full exposure in this book. A discussion on the nature and potential problems of the literary sources is reserved for two short appendices (pp. 213-223), while the epigraphic and numismatic evidence is mentioned, but rarely employed to its full extent and often in a dubious fashion. For instance, an assessment of what Ptolemy looked like is based partly on the portraiture on his coinage, and partly on Egyptian, standardized portraits (p. 11-12). Ptolemy's alleged appearance leads Worthington to conclude that he had 'sad, even tired, eyes' (p. 12) and that there was an 'air of authority around him' (ibid.). Further appraisals of his character, such as his reported frugality, are based on short reports from the vulgate sources (pp. 13-14). More interesting elements that complicate such assessments, such as the role of Ptolemaic propaganda in the works of Arrian and Diodorus, are only mentioned in passing and without further bearing on the interpretation of the source material.

Judgements of character, and especially those based on reported appearance, are questionable at best, but they are all the more problematic within the overall tone of this book, in which Ptolemy's character emerges as an explanatory deus ex machina throughout: Ptolemy 'chose' to rule Egypt because of the promise it held for his imperialist agenda (p. 4); his religious policies were 'a genuine attempt to recognize the rights, customs, laws, and religions of different peoples, and to promote unity between Macedonians, Greeks, native Egyptians, and others' (p. 200), as well as 'pragmatic' (p. 197). Pragmatism, in fact, emerges as Ptolemy's defining character trait, and adduced as the prime motivator for his decisions (e.g. pp. 91, 188).

Similar difficulties can be detected in Worthington's treatment of broader topics, such as Ptolemy's administration of Egypt. The importance of Ptolemy's economic policies, for instance, is stressed, but treated only briefly. The closed-currency system, to name but one example, is mentioned but not elaborated upon; Cyrenaica is mistakenly included within Ptolemy's unified monetary system (p. 196). This latter example, furthermore, is but one of the factual errors of the book, which are particularly prominent in Chapter 12, 'The End – and Beyond'. 1

This book is ambitious in scope, but, perhaps due to the material available, falls short as a biography of Ptolemy. Inconsistencies and errors aside, however, it can be read as an introduction to the narrative history of the period, from the rise of Philip of Macedonia to the solidification of the Hellenistic kingdoms, in which the main features and developments of the period are presented.


1.   A list can be found in C. Lorber's review in CR 2017, DOI 10.1017/S0009840X17002165.

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