Tuesday, January 14, 2020


Timothy Howe (ed.), Ptolemy I Soter: A Self-Made Man. Oxford: Oxbow, 2018. Pp. x, 196. ISBN 9781789250428. £38.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Leanna Boychenko, Loyola University Chicago (lboychenko@luc.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The Ptolemaic dynasty was by far the most successful of the Hellenistic kingdoms that sprouted from Alexander the Great's empire, prospering greatly and outlasting all others. Ptolemy I Soter, as founder and father of that dynasty, fashioned a new world and, as this volume argues, a meticulously self-crafted, self-aware image and legacy.

The rather unfortunate title1 belies the value of this volume. Although some are stronger than others, each of the chapters puts forth a bold case for a fresh look at an aspect of Ptolemy I's reign, whether it is his relationship with high-ranking Egyptians, his marriage practices, or his political propaganda. There is no introduction, but a short forward is followed by seven chapters, each of which I will briefly comment on below. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

Waldemar Heckel begins with Ptolemy and historiography: what other historians say about him and what he says about himself. He dates Ptolemy's History to the end of his lifetime—Howe, in the last chapter, puts forth a different view, as discussed below—and argues that while Ptolemy manipulated the depiction of his role in his History, he was not a flat-out liar or wild inventor. The chapter ends with a useful chart of key moments in Ptolemy's career and our literary sources for them. Lacking, however, is an acknowledgement of the problem of our access to Ptolemy's words: we have no direct quotations, only paraphrases in later writings. Indeed, this issue is only addressed in a footnote in Timothy Howe's chapter (p. 157, n. 18), but is extremely important to consider when making an argument about self-presentation.

In the second chapter, Edward Anson argues that Ptolemy was in favor of dividing Alexander's empire, rather than taking it over himself. Ptolemy had the foresight to see that the empire had no chance of surviving whole and so focused on the part he thought the most valuable: Egypt. This departs from the typical views of historians, who look at Ptolemy's interests in the Aegean and Greek mainland as well as his intended marriage to Cleopatra, the sister of Alexander, as signs that he wanted to rule it all.2 Anson says that the best way to understand Ptolemy is by looking at what he did (p. 21) and doing that, he makes a strong case for his claim. Still, it is always difficult, if not impossible, to truly glean intentions from a garbled historical record.

In chapter three, Sheila Ager examines the problems of succession when a polygamist with multiple sons becomes king. This chapter is an exciting new look at the families and family dynamics of Ptolemy I. It has generally been believed that Ptolemy rejected his Macedonian wife, Eurydice, with whom he already had a potential heir (Ptolemy Keraunos), in favor of the younger Berenike, mother of Ptolemy II. Ager points out that in a polygamous situation there is no need for one wife to be repudiated in order to have children with another and she argues that Ptolemy I could have very well been continuing to have children with Eurydice after marrying Berenike (with Ptolemais being his youngest daughter). In fact, Berenike, who already had children before arriving in Egypt, might have been older than Eurydice (p. 46). Ager further considers the characters of the two sons of Ptolemy named Ptolemy and what determined one's favoritism over the other.

The fourth chapter, by Catharine Lorber, walks the reader through Ptolemy's reforms in currency. Lorber argues that instead of a mere isolationist policy, Ptolemy employed his coinage to send specific messages both within Egypt and to the broader Greek world. The consideration of more than one audience leads to a much fuller reading of Ptolemy's numismatic program and is clear and convincing. At times, however, the discussion of the differing opinions of scholars on the meaning of the coins' imagery distracts from the main argument. The images of the coins are high quality and the important details, even when small, are quite clear in the figures.

Chapter five poses the question, "How 'Ptolemaic' was Egypt under Ptolemy I?" (p. 89), focusing on debated issues in four topics: the relationship between the Macedonians and the Egyptian elite, the beginnings of the Serapis cult, the identification of Alexander with Dionysus, and Ptolemy's response to ruler cults. S.G. Caneva interprets Ptolemy in the context of a multi-cultural society. The analysis of a variety of sources in more than one medium broadens our understanding of Ptolemy's representation of Alexander. This chapter begins with a brief overview of Ptolemy's career, picks out key issues, and could work well as introductory reading material for students.

Gilles Gorre's chapter looks at Ptolemy's relationship with the Egyptian elite (priests and generals), focusing on evidence from inscriptions on private Egyptian monuments as well as public stelae, in particular the so-called Satrap Stela. Gorre argues that it is not until Ptolemy II that a formal tie with the priests was institutionalized and that it is unlikely that Egyptian generals would have served in Ptolemy's army. Gorre includes an appendix, a "Typology of the earliest private inscriptions of the Macedonian period," which would be more useful with bibliographical information beyond references to Gorre's 2009 book.

Finally, Howe ends the book by looking at how Ptolemy I purposefully upheld the traditional standards of an Egyptian pharaoh, presenting himself as a ruler who "protects his father"(p. 155), i.e., supports the legacy of his predecessor, Alexander, speaks and enacts truth, and unites the two halves of Egypt. Howe looks back to older Egyptian writings to show how Ptolemy incorporates traditional ideas in his own self-presentation. He ends with the bold suggestion that Ptolemy I wrote his History in 309/8 BCE while he was on the island of Kos waiting for his son, Ptolemy II, to be born and then read it aloud at the Isthmian Games of 308. Howe suggests that this public, Panhellenic performance would mark him as a new Herodotus, who was believed to have introduced his own new work at Panhellenic games (p. 175). This is a very attractive suggestion and certainly deserves to be considered along with the usual suggestions for the dating of Ptolemy's History.

This volume is an important contribution to the study of Hellenistic History. Although it is aimed at scholars of Ptolemaic Egypt and assumes a strong background in the sources and circumstances of the period, I would also recommend it to scholars of Hellenistic literature and historians of other periods. While the focus is extremely narrow, the book still manages to cover a range of topics with minimal overlap and provide some contrasting viewpoints; it is well-balanced and stays true to its purpose. For a small book, it offers lots of big ideas and provides fertile ground for future scholarship.

Authors and Titles

1. Ptolemy: A Man of His Own Making (Waldemar Heckel)
2. Ptolemy and the Destruction of the First Regency (Edward Anson)
3. Building a Dynasty: The Families of Ptolemy I Soter (Sheila Ager)
4. The Currency Reforms and Character of Ptolemy I Soter (Catharine Lorber)
5. Ptolemy I: Politics, Religion, and the Transition to Hellenistic Egypt (S.G. Caneva)
6. Ptolemy Son of Lagos and the Egyptian Elite (Gilles Gorre)
7. Kings Don't Lie: Truthtelling, Historiography, and Ptolemy I Soter (Timothy Howe)


1.   "Self-made," in the context of the book, is clearly meant to refer to Ptolemy's control over his public persona as well as his initiative in making himself king and leaving a history to assist people in remembering him as he wished to be remembered. The phrase, however, historically refers to a man who builds himself up from nothing and is often used in conjunction with the fantasy of the American dream. "Self-Made Men" is the title of a speech by Frederick Douglass from 1859, in which he defines and examines what it takes to be self-made. "A self-made man" is a loaded phrase with a rich history that, in my opinion, is not appropriate to use when speaking about Ptolemy I. Furthermore, it is misleading. Indeed, Ptolemy did not start off as the most important Macedonian with the best pedigree, but he certainly did not pull himself up by his bootstraps from nothing.
2.   First in Diodorus (20.37.4); c.f. Meeus, A. 2014. "The Territorial Ambitions of Ptolemy I," in H. Hauben and A. Meeus (eds.) The Age of the Successors and the Creation of the Hellenistic Kingdoms (323-276 B.C.), 263-306. Leuven. Anson provides an extensive bibliography (p. 20, n. 5).

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