Ptolemy’s First Campaigns

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Ptolemys First Campaigns

Ptolemy first lived in Egypt’s traditional capital Memphis to give the impression of a continuity of rule to the people, but he intended to govern Egypt eventually from Alexandria, which Alexander had founded in 331. Construction of the city had been ongoing since that year, but it was Ptolemy who was instrumental in its completion and added greatly to it beyond what Alexander had likely envisaged. Alexandria was also going to be the base for his fleet, but its site presented a problem to his security. Natural frontiers protected his western, eastern, and southern borders, but Alexandria was on the coast to his north, so it was vulnerable to attack from the Mediterranean.

To help protect Alexandria and the northern coastline, Ptolemy made strategic alliances with several of the nine kings of neighboring Cyprus, who had been allies of Alexander. To one of them, Eunostus of Soli, he married Eirene, his daughter by Tais, the same woman who was believed to have encouraged Alexander to burn down the palace at Persepolis. Cyprus’ location and its natural resources (metals, timber, and grain), which were critical for Egypt and its economy, explain Ptolemy’s move; in fact, all the Ptolemies followed his lead, which is why the island was the longest held of all that dynasty’s possessions.

Ptolemy’s diplomatic intervention in Cyprus was soon followed by a military campaign to his west in independent Cyrenaica (northeast Libya). Some time ago, in the Greek colony of Cyrene (near Shahhat in eastern Libya), founded in 630 by settlers from Tera (Santorini), a civil war had broken out between oligarchs and democrats. In 324, during this strife, some exiled democrats from Cyrene gained help from a Spartan mercenary commander named Tibron, who had just killed Alexander’s disgraced imperial treasurer Harpalus on Crete. Tibron absorbed Harpalus’ 7,000 mercenaries into his own army and took them to Cyrene. Instead of supporting the exiled democrats’ cause, Tibron wrested power for himself, and besieged the city. He forced terms on the Cyrenaeans, including further military forces for his army and a payment of 500 silver talents, and allowed his men to plunder the surrounding areas. With no relief in sight, the desperate oligarchs appealed to Ptolemy for help. Recognizing the opportunity that had suddenly come his way, Ptolemy lost no time. In probably late summer 322, he ordered his general Ophellas (from Olynthus) to take a fleet and land army to Cyrene. Ophellas defeated Tibron and his men, later hanging Tibron in Cyrene. Aferward, Ophellas handed over the whole of Cyrenaica to Ptolemy.

Ptolemy imposed a moderate oligarchy on the Cyrenaeans, supported by garrisons in their cities, with himself as their general and the sole authority in selecting their officials. He also started to strike his own coinage in Cyrene, further evidence that he controlled the region. To be on the safe side, though, he kept Ophellas and a large contingent of troops there. Just like today, foreign campaigns are costly, and the maintenance of troops in Cyrenaica, as well as his other incursions well beyond his borders, explains his bureaucratic innovations to generate revenue. Cyrene now remained in Ptolemaic hands until 96 (when Ptolemy Apion left it in his will to the Romans, who promptly freed the cities), even though it was often a problem area for them. Ptolemy’s action in Cyrenaica can only have added to Perdiccas’ suspicion of him, and Perdiccas may even have been aggrieved that he had not been consulted about the campaign in the first place. But Ptolemy knew, as with his execution of Cleomenes, that there was nothing Perdiccas could do; if the later protested, then Ptolemy could simply say he was protecting Egypt’s borders, which, after all, was one of his tasks as satrap.

Perdiccas Invades Egypt

Perdiccas marched toward Egypt with a large army including war elephants, animals that the Macedonians had first encountered in India, and which became a staple of Hellenistic armies. He also had Philip III, Alexander IV, and Roxane in tow since technically, as regent, he was invading Egypt in the kings’ names.

In the meantime, there was a surprising turn of events in Cappadocia. Antipater and Craterus had earlier invaded Asia Minor, intent on preventing Perdiccas from attacking them in Macedonia. Antipater took up a position in Cilicia, while Craterus’ mission was to defeat Perdiccas’ ally Eumenes, who had been doing a sterling job in his territories, especially as the expected help from Antigonus and Leonnatus had never arrived (the former had not wanted anything to do with Cappadocia, and the later had died in Greece in 323 during the Lamian War). Afterward, Antipater and Craterus were to rendezvous and march south against Perdiccas, neatly trapping him between themselves and Ptolemy. However, Eumenes defeated and killed Craterus in battle. News of this shocking result does not seem to have reached Perdiccas or Ptolemy before the former closed in on Egypt in May or June of 320.

Perdiccas’ invasion of Egypt was a disaster. At Pelusium his soldiers began to desert him, perhaps because Ptolemy had spies or at least sympathizers among the enemy troops since he routinely resorted to bribery or offered higher pay to mercenaries to weaken an opponent’s forces. But “what harmed Perdiccas more than the strength of his enemy was the loathing he incurred by his arrogance; this won the hatred even of his allies.” Even though he was a battle-hardened soldier from his experiences with Alexander, he could never instill in his men the same sort of devotion they had shown their king.

From Pelusium, Perdiccas marched by night about 130 miles to the Fort of Camels, not far from Memphis, and a good crossing point on the Nile. There he made ready to cross the river and attack the capital. Unfortunately for him, the Fort of Camels was garrisoned. Ptolemy, who may have heard from the deserters of Perdiccas’ plan to take the fort, moved quickly to increase the garrison’s manpower, bringing the reinforcements himself. When Perdiccas attacked the fort at dawn, Ptolemy was clearly visible on the ramparts-“with utter contempt of the danger, striking and disabling those who were coming up the ladders, he sent them rolling down, in their armor, into the river,” and he even speared one of their elephants. Ptolemy’s Homeric fighting style, reminiscent of the way he had fought in India, bravery, and his emulation of Alexander’s leadership skills in always leading from the front, paid off:

his men rallied around him, and forced back Perdiccas’ troops, who may well have been battling fatigue after their night march. Perdiccas had no choice but to abandon the siege.

Perdiccas then decided on a surprise forced march to capture Memphis while Ptolemy was still at the fort. His idea was a good one, and his quick strategic thinking to capitalize on an enemy’s circumstances illustrates why Alexander had chosen him as his second-in-command. Again, he pushed his men hard after their forced march the night before and setback at the fort, and again fate was against him, this time in the guise of the Nile. He decided to cross in stages to an island in the river’s eastern branch opposite Memphis. The first batch of troops made the crossing successfully, despite facing strong currents and water that was chest high. In an effort to help the rest of his men, Perdiccas deployed some elephants upstream from the island on the left and cavalry downstream on the right to make smoother conditions-and catch any of his men that were swept away, as Macedonian soldiers were generally not good swimmers. Unfortunately, the animals moved so much to keep their balance that they added to the swell of the water, and many men in the next contingent drowned as they were in full armor.

Given the setback at the Nile, and perhaps also worried that Ptolemy and his men might suddenly catch up to his troops in their disarray, Perdiccas decided to move his location and called the men on the island back to him. They had noticed that their comrades’ heavy armor had contributed to their drowning, so they shed their own armor before they began to swim back. Still, many of them drowned or were swept away and were eaten by “the animals in the river”-crocodiles and perhaps even hippopotami. Over 2,000 of Perdiccas’ men had died in the course of one to two days, and enough was enough: that night, after much mourning and criticism, two of his commanders, Pithon and Seleucus, stabbed Perdiccas to death in his tent.

Ptolemy was quick to capitalize on Perdiccas’ demise to win over his soldiers. He had already cremated the enemy dead and sent their ashes back to their families, a solemn task that fell to a commander. His action was not necessarily meant to win over Perdiccas’ men, for by nature Ptolemy seemed to have been a kind and caring person, traits that appealed to people. Ten the day after he rode into the Perdiccan camp, taking presents for the kings to show his loyalty, and to counter any criticisms that he was a traitor because Perdiccas had invaded Egypt in their name. It was a clever move, and it worked: Philip III accepted Ptolemy’s allegiance to both kings. As a further sign of his loyalty, Ptolemy seems to have been behind the building of a sanctuary to Philip in the temple of Karnak, which bears the king’s name in hieroglyphics (one of a very few instances of his name in Egypt); it is an interesting example of the priests’ willingness to recognize Philip as their king.

With the two kings on his side, Ptolemy addressed Perdiccas’ troops. He promised them food and a place in his own army if they surrendered to him, or a safe passage out of Egypt. This was obviously a pragmatic move, as his own army was not large, and he would have been on the lookout to increase his numbers wherever and whenever he could. We also wonder whether his experiences with Alexander had taught him the need to win over any enemy. He had been present when Alexander had treacherously killed Indian mercenaries at Massaga after promising to spare them, which had stiffened local resistance to him. Ptolemy was always careful to appeal to enemy troops.

Perdiccas’ men apparently pleaded with Ptolemy to take on their former commander’s position, including regency of the two kings. But Ptolemy said no, and instead put forward Pithon and Arrhidaeus (the man in charge of Alexander’s funeral cortege) as regents. Ptolemy’s refusal of the powerful regency has been taken as another sign that he wanted nothing to do with the empire and planned to separate Egypt from it, but that is too much of a stretch. Indeed, whether Ptolemy was even offered the regency is debatable, and the whole episode may have been invention on the part of the biased Diodorus to show Ptolemy’s “selflessness, moderation, and friendship.”


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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