Ptolemy I & II’s Military Forces

When Alexander left Egypt in 331 BC, he appointed two Egyptians, Doloaspis and Petisis, as governors – the second soon resigned – while Cleomenes of Naucratis, a local Greek, was in charge of collecting the tribute and governing Arabia. Four thousand of Alexander’s soldiers were stationed in garrisons at Memphis and Pelusium, with Pantaleon of Pydna and Megacles of Pella as garrison commanders (phrourarchoi), respectively, while the generals (strategoi) of the army were the Macedonian Peucestas and Balacros, according to Arrian (Anabasis 3.5.5), or Peucestas and the Rhodian Aeschylus, according to Curtius (4.8.4-5). In addition, Polemon was the admiral (nauarchos) of a fleet of thirty triremes, and the Aetolian Lycidas was in charge of the mercenaries (xenoi). The troops were probably Macedonians and Greek mercenaries, since their commanders were drawn from both groups. From the death of Alexander in 323 BC to the end of the fourth century BC, Diodorus is our most comprehensive source. According to him, Ptolemy went to Egypt without an army but with friends who were experienced officers. He also hired mercenaries with 8,000 talents he took from the Egyptian treasury (Diodorus 18.14.1). Two lucky events gave Ptolemy, still satrap, an opportunity to increase the number of his soldiers. First, his conquest of Cyrenaica in 322/1 BC with land and naval forces allowed him to hire Cyrenean soldiers (Diodorus 18.21.7-9). Ptolemy probably expanded his fleet by seizing ships abandoned by Thibron, the Macedonian commander vanquished in Cyrene, and by building new ones thanks to treaties with dynasts in Cyprus (320 BC). He also had access to building material as a consequence of his brief occupation of Coele-Syria (319/18-314 BC). Second, in 320 BC a large number of invading troops led by Perdiccas joined the Ptolemaic army, either expecting a better deal from Ptolemy or because they were left with no employer at Perdiccas’ death (Diodorus 18.21.7-9, 18.33-6). In addition, Ptolemy probably took over a few elephants with their mahouts.

A few years later, in 315 BC, Ptolemy was able to send 13,000 mercenaries and 100 ships to Cyprus and later to Caria, while keeping an army in Palestine (Diodorus 19.62.3-4). These mercenaries must have fought with Ptolemy at the Battle of Gaza (312 BC) along with newly hired mercenaries and armed Egyptians, for a total of 22,000 men including 18,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry (Diodorus 19.80.4). This victory gave Ptolemy forty-three elephants and 8,000 prisoners, mainly mercenary infantry, whom he settled in the Egyptian nomes (Diodorus 19.84.1-4, 85.3; Plutarch, Demetrius 5; Justin, Epitome 15.1). Even if Ptolemy acquired some of Antigonus’ soldiers in the years that followed, Demetrius’ defeat on land of Ptolemy’s brother in Cyprus, where Ptolemy had 12,000 infantry and about 800 cavalry in garrison, led to the loss of a third of them (Diodorus 20.47.3). Even worse was Ptolemy’s naval defeat in 306 BC at Salamis of Cyprus, where Demetrius captured 8,000 infantry on supply ships, along with forty warships, while eighty of Ptolemy’s warships were disabled.

On the strength of the naval forces and the discrepancies between the ancient authors and within Diodorus’ account (20.46.5-47.4; 47.7-52), see Hauben (1976): Ptolemy’s fleet consisted of 200-210 warships (no larger than quinqueremes) and 200 transport vessels carrying at least 10,000 men; Demetrius’ fleet consisted of 180-190 warships, but was qualitatively better with the heptereis and hexereis that Ptolemy II lacked, which had large decks with arrow- and stone-shooting catapults.

Ptolemy had to abandon Cyprus and Coele-Syria to Antigonus and lost a total of 16,000 infantry and 600 cavalry (Diodorus 53.1), plausibly half his army. Despite this defeat, his soldiers proclaimed Ptolemy king in response to Antigonus’ assumption of that title (Plutarch, Demetrius 18.1; Appian, Syrian Wars 54; Justin, Epitome 15.2.11), and in 305 BC he was able to defend the Egyptian border by using small nilotic ships maneuverable in the Delta, but also by attracting some of Antigonus’ soldiers with money (Diodorus 20.75.1-3, 76.7; Plutarch, Demetrius 19.1-3; Pausanias 1.6.6).

These episodes show that money was central to the survival of what was about to become the Ptolemaic dynasty and to the organization of its army. The events of 305 BC were probably the last opportunity to hire large numbers of Macedonians or Thracian soldiers. In the third century the foreigners joining the Ptolemaic army were voluntary, independent immigrants, groups of soldiers hired for or during specific events, and the descendants of these original soldiers. An army of 30,000-40,000 soldiers and 100 warships, all ethnic groups included, for the entire realm at that time, is a plausible estimate on the basis of the numbers noted above and the description of the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC. Intense international warfare remained the norm in the decades that followed and during the second generation of Successors. Ptolemy I’s main rivals were Antigonus and Demetrius; theirsuccessors, the Antigonids, remained Ptolemy II’s principal opponents onsea. Ptolemy I took oversome cities in Lycia and Caria but was stopped in Halicarnassus by Demetrius and had difficulty maintaining his garrisons in Greece: by 303 BC he had lost Corinth, Sicyon and Megara (Diodorus 20.37.1-2; Diogenes Laertius 2.115). But Ptolemy had become Rhodes’ devoted ally during the siege of the city by Demetrius in 305/4 BC, by providing at least 2,000 soldiers and food supplies (Diodorus 20.88.9, 94, 96.1, 98.1). During the Fourth War of the Successors (303-301 BC), he secured Coele-Syria but did not fight with the other Successors at the final battle against Demetrius at Ipsus. Seleucus did not formally renounce the rights he enjoyed to this region thanks to his military participation at Ipsus but neither, because Ptolemy was a friend and ally, did he ask him to leave it (Diodorus 21.1.5). This ambiguous status was the cause of the numerous Syrian Wars between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids in the third and second centuries BC. The region was essential to Egypt as a buffer zone, a platform for trade and a prosperous region to tax. Ptolemy returned to Egypt with Jews whom he garrisoned in Egypt, although the figure of 30,000 soldiers given by literary sources is an overestimation. In the 290s BC, while the other kings were attacking Demetrius’ positions, Ptolemy was able to take back Cyprus and to add Lycia and perhaps already Pamphylia, as well as Sidon and Tyre to his external possessions (295/4 BC). Since his defeat at Salamis he had built up his fleet again to at least 150 warships, which he sent the same year to defend Athens – unsuccessfully – against Demetrius (Plutarch, Demetrius 33-4). In 287 BC Ptolemy supported a rebellion against his rival with 1,000 soldiers dispatched from his bases in Andros and led by the Athenian Callias but ultimately opted for a peace treaty with Demetrius. Without winning any major naval battles, Ptolemy I had established a network of fortified bases in the Aegean and provided solid ground for a Ptolemaic thalassocracy. It is likely that he acquired Demetrius’ warships in Ephesus, but Lysimachus, who probably seized Demetrius’ fleet at Pella, was still a serious rival at sea.

Ptolemy II (285-246 BC): the challenge of a thalassocracy

After the death of Demetrius and that of Lysimachus in 281 BC, Ptolemy II had the most powerful fleet in the Mediterranean. It is in this context that he founded the League of the Islanders and became its first president, as has recently been argued by Andrew Meadow, who rejects the idea that the League was an Antigonid foundation of the late fourth century BC. Modern historians refer to the three decades that follow as the Ptolemaic thalassocracy. Ptolemy’s garrisons and fleet dominated the Aegean, but the low level of military engagement of the fleet and the quasi-absence of naval victories over Ptolemy’s main rival, the new king of Macedonia, Antigonus II Gonatas (283-239 BC), remained partly an obstacle to total control of the Eastern Mediterranean and the consolidation of an empire. Ptolemy’s expansion at the beginning of his reign against his rivals in Anatolia, during and after the Syrian War of Succession (280/79 BC), is visible in the epigraphic sources, and its precise development continues to be refined by new material. This success was valuable for consolidating Ptolemy II’s influence early on. He took the opportunity to display his power and wealth publicly by organizing a Greek festival, the Ptolemaia, in honour of his deified father. The delegates of the League of the Islanders met on Samos, a new Ptolemaic possession, to “[vote] that the contest should be equal in rank with the Olympic Games” and to send sacred envoys. The Ptolemaia took place every four years and attracted many visitors between 279/8 BC and at least 233/2 BC. A description of the Grand Procession is preserved in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists (5.197c-203e) drawing on Callixeinus of Rhodes’ account, perhaps written a century after the fact. Which occurrence of the Ptolemaia this description represents is unclear. The most widely accepted dates are 279/8 BC, the first Ptolemaia, immediately after the Syrian War of Succession, or 275/4 BC, when Ptolemy II was preparing his troops for the First Syrian War (274-271 BC) after the failed attempt by Magas king of Cyrene to march on Alexandria. But it is unnecessary to connect this description with a military expedition, and the Cyrenean episode was not particularly remarkable: Magas had to cut his assault short because the Libyan tribes rebelled, and Ptolemy did not pursue the Cyrenean army because he had to suppress a revolt by his 4,000 Celtic mercenaries. In any case, Callixeinus reports 57,600 infantry and 23,200 cavalry in the procession, and other units were not present.

Rice, in her study of the Grand Procession, accepts these numbers as representing some percentage of the total army, because Callixeinus had access to official records for his account. In addition, she regards Appian’s very high numbers of troops as referring to men from the garrisons in Alexandria and the Delta and from nearby cleruchies: 200,000 infantry, 40,000 cavalry, 300 war elephants, 2,000 armed chariots, and arms in reserve for 300,000 more soldiers (Praef. 10). Thompson is far more cautious, suggesting that the entire army perhaps consisted of about 100,000 soldiers. Even before her, many scholars had questioned the numbers given by Appian and Callixeinus because the size of the army reported in 305 BC and in 217 BC at Raphia does not correlate with these accounts. Appian supposedly relied on the Royal Records (Basilikai Anagraphai) and Callixeinus on official records, but numbers are often dubious in ancient historians’ accounts. In both cases, for example, the figures for the cavalry are unrealistically high for Hellenistic armies, which usually had a cavalry/infantry ratio of one to ten. If Callixeinus’ total approximates the number of soldiers in the entire army, it probably exaggerates the number of cavalry as well as the number of men present at the Grand Procession. Even with lower numbers, the propagandistic effect of thousands of soldiers on parade remains fundamental, and the event was a clear demonstration of strength, which the ancient writers augmented.

Both Callixeinus and Appian also describe Ptolemy II’s naval forces, emphasizing that he had the most powerful navy in the Mediterranean, whether at the beginning of his reign (Callixeinus) or the end (Appian).They are more specific than Theocritus’ praise of Ptolemy II (Idyll 17, esp. 86-94). Appian’s enumeration follows his description of the land army and precedes his report of the size of the state treasury, 740,000 Egyptian talents, which is a significant juxtaposition: 2,000 transports (kontota) and other smaller ships, 1,500 galleys (triereis), galley furniture for 3,000, and 800 vessels (thalamega). These numbers are certainly exaggerated, as also for the land army.

By contrast, Callixeinus’ description of the Grand Procession includes 112 warships, 224ships, and 4,000ships for controlling the islands (numbers calculated on the basis of Athenaeus 5.203d). In total, there were 336 warships, one third of these being quinqueremes or larger ships, whose decks allowed for more catapults and marines. The bulk of the fleet still consisted of triremes. This description, however, indicates maximal capacity rather than actual numbers.

Military naval activity was concentrated in the Mediterranean, but the Ptolemaic navy was also active on the Nile and in the Red Sea toward the Indian Ocean. In the latter two regions it served as a police force whose mission was to protect trade, notably commerce in gold and ivory, and to facilitate the transport of elephants captured in the south for military purposes from 270 BC until the late third century BC. Troops were also transported on the Nile, as during the Nubian expedition organized around 275 BC, when Ptolemy II secured the Dodekaschoinos (the approximately 75-mile stretch south of the First Cataract) and perhaps even a larger share of the Kushite kingdom. Ptolemy II’s achievements in Nubia and along the Red Sea were remarkable. But his goals in these regions were in large part driven by his military needs in the Mediterranean. A survey of military engagements there allows us to assess the degree of Ptolemaic supremacy during the thalassocracy. The First Syrian War (274-271 BC) began with an attack on Seleucid Syria by the Ptolemaic army but turned into a threat of invasion of Egypt by sea and land by Antiochus I (Theocritus, Idyll 17.98-101), whose army included twenty Bactrian elephants. Ptolemy II and his sister-wife Arsinoe II went to the border to organize their troops (Pithom Stele, ll. 15-16), but Antiochus soon renounced the attack because of troubles in Babylonia. In fact, the outcome of the war – no details of the engagements are preserved – was a continuation of the status quo but was celebrated as a victory at the Ptolemaia of 271/0 BC, as is clear from Theocritus’ Idyll 17, composed for the occasion.

Ptolemy II turned to his other rival, Antigonus II, and tried to erode his naval power in the Aegean by making an alliance with Athens and Sparta in the name of Panhellenic freedom. In response, Antigonus attacked Attica in 267 BC, starting a war known as the Chremonidean War (267-261 BC) after the Athenian Chremonides, whose decree before the Athenian assembly sealed the alliance with Ptolemy and Sparta. Ptolemy sent a fleet led by his Macedonian admiral Patroclus with Egyptians on board who, according to Pausanias, were supposed to attack Macedonian soldiers on land from the rear only once the Spartans started the assault (Pausanias 3.6.4-6). But King Areus of Sparta found the situation too risky and returned home. Ultimately Athens had to capitulate and Macedonian garrisons were established in the Piraeus and on the hill of the Museion. Why the instigator of the war, Ptolemy II, apparently contributed so little to it has accordingly been debated at length. Archaeological evidence shows that Patroclus’ troops set foot in Attica and on the nearby islands of Keos and Methana and were thus more actively engaged than Pausanias claims. Above all, Patroclus’ fleet established a network of Ptolemaic garrisons in the Aegean, notably in Hydrea, Thera and Itanos in Crete. From the Ptolemaic point of view, the war was rather successful, whereas Patroclus’ expedition is often used as an example of the lower quality of Egyptian soldiers in contrast to Greeks and Macedonians. But Pausanias’ description makes it clear that the troops were not hoplites but marines or infantry on ships (nautai), who were not supposed to fight against a Macedonian phalanx on land. This suggests that Ptolemy did not intend a major military engagement on land at this stage and was hoping for a minimum of actual fighting, as was probably the case in the establishment of his garrisons. Either Ptolemy II was generally uninterested in military involvement and his only concern was to protect Egypt – one explanation put forward in this debate – or he was instead a fine strategist: he decided to let the others fight, so as to weaken his main rival first while securing proper bases from which to launch further attacks if opportunity presented itself.

Around the same time an army led by Ptolemy “the son” was consolidating Ptolemaic influence in Asia Minor, Miletus, Ephesus and perhaps Lesbos, events that no doubt triggered the Second Syrian War against Antiochus (260-253 BC). In this context Antigonus, who supported Antiochus, defeated the Ptolemaic fleet commanded by Patroclus at Cos (Plutarch, Moralia 182, 545b; Athenaeus 5.209e; 8.334a), either in 262 BC or around 255 BC; in 255 BC or perhaps 258 BC, the Rhodians won the Battle of Ephesus against the Ptolemaic fleet, this time led by Chremonides. But according to Walbank there is no clear evidence that Ptolemy lost control of the sea after the Battle of Cos. Delos, however, was now Antigonid – as Andros too would be by the end of the 250s (Plutarch, Aratus 12.2). Ptolemy was no longer leading the League of the Islanders, which soon dissolved, and he lost important cities in Asia Minor such as Miletus, Samos and Ephesus to Antiochus. Ptolemy II also lost territory in Cilicia and Pamphylia but proved a skilled diplomat, by sealing the peace treaty with the marriage of his daughter Berenice to Antiochus II. Ptolemy II was also able to consolidate his presence in the Black Sea by supporting Byzantium against the Seleucids and their allies in 254 BC. His influence expanded as far as Crimea, where a fresco with a galley, probably a five (penteres), with the word ISIS engraved on it was found in Nymphaeum. After the war Ptolemy II also settled a large number of soldiers in Egypt by granting them cleruchic land in exchange for military service, which suggests that it was becoming Ptolemaic strategy to demobilize and decrease the cost of the land army. Ptolemy II’s visit to Memphis can be connected with the distribution of land in the Fayyum. Around 250 BC, the Ptolemaic fleet was finally able to defeat Antigonus, according to Aristeas Judaeus (180-1) and Josephus (Antiquitates Judaicae [AJ] 12.93). We have no idea where the battle took place, assuming that it really happened. Finally, during the last years of his reign, Ptolemy began to support the Achaean League financially and was able to maintain some influence in the Cyclades, notably through the garrison on Thera, which was still in place under Ptolemy VI.

If by “Ptolemaic thalassocracy” one means a strong network of garrisons in the Aegean with a large fleet freely navigating between them, its peak can be situated in the 270s and its decline in the 250s, as is traditionally assumed, or even later. If the term also implies the ability to defeat rival fleets in naval battle, it is misleading. Even if the fleet was not as large as Appian claims, but rather of the size given by Callixeinus, one wonders why Ptolemy’s admirals were unable to defeat Antigonus at Cos. As nothing is known about the battle, we can only hypothesize about causes. But such a major defeat and the material loss it implies easily explain why the fleet was unable to stand against another enemy, the Rhodians, especially if the two battles took place in the same year. At least four criteria can be put forward to evaluate Ptolemaic naval capacity: (1) the material quality of the fleet, including the number and type of warships; (2) the crews and marines; (3) the skills and experience of the captains and admirals; and (4) luck. The only encounter for which we have a description of the Ptolemaic fleet is the Battle of Salamis in 306 BC, where Ptolemy I’s fleet was numerically inferior. In addition, he lacked the heptereis and hexereis that made Demetrius’ fleet qualitatively better; but by Ptolemy II’s time these issues were resolved, notably because Phoenicia, the source of the heptereis, was part of Ptolemaic territory. An anecdote reported three times by Plutarch about Antigonus indicates that the fleet of Ptolemy II or Ptolemy III outnumbered the Antigonid ships at the Battle of Cos (Plutarch, Moralia 545b) or Andros (Pelopidas 2.2), or at both (Moralia 182). In addition, innovations in naval tactics were readily available from engineers in Alexandria, as the Compendium of Mechanics of Philo attests. The experience of the crew, from oarsmen and marines to the helmsman and captain of a ship, was essential, and in times of international competition it was also costly. But Ptolemy II was certainly not inferior to Antigonus in terms of economic power. Both used ships with local crews, meaning that the Ptolemies employed Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians, whose functions were not limited to serving as oarsmen. The skills and loyalty of the marines and the captain were also essential. The only evidence for the ethnicity of the fighting troops on Ptolemaic ships concerns Patroclus’ fleet during the Chremonidean War and suggests that they were Egyptian. Van ‘t Dack and Hauben have proposed that the Ptolemies imitated the Persian model by adding a small number of nonEgyptian marines to each ship (Herodotus 7.96 and 184). They also suggest that the Ptolemaic fleet failed in naval battle because a large share of its crews and marines were of Egyptian origin. But the contribution of Egyptian soldiers to the establishment of garrisons during the Chremonidean War does not suggest that Egyptian marines were unskilled. The only evidence to assess the quality of Ptolemaic marines and sailors goes back to the capture of Ptolemy I’s forty warships at Salamis (Diodorus 20.52.6), where they surrendered without a long fight. Either the ships were so damaged that they could not escape, or they were defeated quickly. In any case, they were probably in an unfavorable position, because Demetrius’ larger ships carried more marines, making it easier to board ships that carried fewer. The third plausible reason for failure was the quality of the high command and the skills of many captains and helmsmen. Ptolemy II employed a Macedonian, Patroclus, as admiral of the fleet, and thereafter an Athenian, Chremonides, whereas Ptolemy I was commanding in person – still with no success. But as communication between ships was a general weakness of ancient naval warfare, the outcome depended in the end on the tactical and navigational skills of captains and helmsmen. In terms of ethnicity, these positions were mostly given to Greeks. The lack of detailed sources prevents us from asserting that Ptolemy’s commanders were on average less skilled than their opponents, but this might have been a factor in his failure. Finally, luck can be important, when an external factor such as a storm destroys part of a fleet before battle, although no such event is reported concerning the Ptolemaic fleet.

In conclusion, even if the reason for Ptolemy II’s failure in naval battle cannot be precisely determined, it was not caused by the use of Egyptians in his fleet. It appears that Ptolemy II’s successful strategy of establishing naval forces would have allowed him to truly dominate the Aegean, had he been able to defeat his main opponents at sea. His overall strategy – in continuity with his father’s policy – leaves open the possibility that Ptolemy II hoped to expand his empire further. This might be confirmed by Ptolemy III’s military undertakings at the beginning of his reign.

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