Ptolemy’s fleet, the appropriated Phoenician navy, made the Egyptian dynast a powerful force in the Aegean.
The strategic location of Rhodes and Cyprus, as we have said, made control of both of them desirable. Cyprus was also rich in grain, copper, and especially timber, which Ptolemy needed for his fleet, and he and the other Ptolemies always worked to maintain some sort of influence over the island. Likewise, Rhodes was an important commercial center for Egyptian grain, and a transit point for all goods shipped to Egypt throughout the Hellenistic period. The large number of Rhodian amphorae found in Alexandria testifies to the commercial contacts between the two places, and the Rhodians probably furnished Ptolemy with warships and let him use their island as a port for his fleet. 60 Both islands had been allies of Alexander and had close ties to Ptolemy, but then again, the Rhodians had made alliances with practically every Successor at some point. Cyprus especially had been a bone of contention between Ptolemy and Antigonus for years, so if Demetrius were to take both islands he would strike a blow at Egypt’s economy and security, as well as assuring Antigonid control of the eastern Mediterranean.
In the spring of 306, Demetrius set out to Cyprus with 15,000 infantry, 400 cavalry, and at least 163 warships. En route he tried to win over the Rhodians, but they refused his diplomatic advances, preferring to maintain their amity (and trading prerogatives) with Ptolemy. Both Antigonus and Demetrius viewed the Rhodian reaction as a causus belli, and decided to deal with the island later. Demetrius sailed on to Cyprus, landing near Salamis with his infantry and cavalry. Close to that city he did battle with Menelaus, Ptolemy’s brother, who had 12,000 infantry and 800 cavalry, and defeated him. Menelaus escaped into Salamis and managed to send urgent word to his brother Ptolemy before Demetrius laid siege to the city. His enormous siege engines, taller than the ramparts of the city, included the fearsome, multistoried armored helepolis, designed by Epimachus of Athens; at over 100 feet high, with a 40-foot base, it could launch missiles weighing over 175 pounds a staggering 650 feet.
Ptolemy sailed at once to relieve his brother with at least 140 warships and 200 transport vessels carrying 10,000 troops. Landing at Paphos, he received reinforcements from some of the Cypriot cities and made plans to join up with Menelaus’ own fleet of sixty warships. But Demetrius moved quickly to barricade Menelaus in the harbor of Salamis, and then as Ptolemy arrived (probably unaware of Menelaus’ fate), Demetrius attacked him. Both fleets included huge quadriremes and quinquiremes, so their enormity of size, numbers, and the other armaments must have made the entire scene breathtaking in scale. The epic naval battle, characterized by daredevil prow on prow ramming of the warships and Demetrius’ use of catapults mounted on ships (reminiscent of Alexander’s use of siege towers and battering rams on boats at Tyre), provided “an excellent case study for how best to attack or defend a coastal city with the aid of a fleet,” and became a “textbook example” for the next century. Demetrius’ left wing successfully drove back Ptolemy’s right wing, enabling Demetrius to maneuver into the space and attack Ptolemy’s center, which also was pushed back (precisely what Ptolemy had intended to do to his opponent’s line). Ptolemy had no choice, given Demetrius’ relentless assault, but to retreat to Citium in utter defeat.
Ptolemy’s losses are not properly known, but at least forty warships and one hundred supply ships were captured and eighty damaged, with 8,000 men taken as prisoners of war, to Demetrius’ twenty ships damaged. Menelaus’ only option now was to surrender Cyprus to Demetrius, and Ptolemy to return to Egypt with his tail between his legs, although “not at all humbled in spirit by the defeat.” Thus Demetrius had his revenge for his defeat six years earlier at Gaza, and the Antigonids now became the dominant naval power. Among the captives at Salamis were Menelaus and Leontiscus (Ptolemy’s son by Thais), whom Demetrius allowed to leave unharmed and without a ransom. Another captive was the courtesan (hetaira) Lamia, who had accompanied Ptolemy to Cyprus, perhaps as his mistress, but had been left behind by him there. Although older than Demetrius and “past her prime,” she seduced him and became one of his numerous mistresses in Athens for many years.
Ptolemy would not regain his ascendancy in the Aegean until 294. He still had Egypt and Cyrene, and some cities in the Peloponnese, but these were far from the possessions he had painstakingly accumulated over the past sixteen years. Worse was to come later that year when, Antigonus and Demetrius decided to invade Egypt to topple him from power once and for all.
Soon after news of his son’s crushing victory at Salamis in 306 reached him, Antigonus, at the grand old age of 79, began to wear a diadem and took the title of king, the first of the Successors to do so. He then sent a diadem to his son in Cyprus and allowed him to be called king as well. Lysimachus, Seleucus, Cassander, and Ptolemy quickly proclaimed themselves kings so that they would not be considered inferior, as satraps, to Antigonus and Demetrius as kings.
Antigonus’ move formally ended the mirage of satrapal status. Although Justin claims the Successors had refused the title of king “as long as sons of the king [Alexander the Great] had been able to survive. such was the respect they felt for Alexander that, even when they enjoyed the royal power, they were content to forego the title `king’ as long as Alexander had a legitimate heir,” Alexander IV, the “legitimate heir,” had been put to death four years previously. That it took that long for the Successors to call themselves kings of their territories was perhaps because they had brought down the dynasty to which they had sworn allegiance and had lived under all their lives. The world of 306 was very different from that of 310, and appearance could now give way to the reality of kingship. Suddenly this new world went from no king to a multitude of them. Ptolemy’s army apparently acclaimed him king. Exactly when this occurred is unknown, and scholars are split into two camps over a date in 306 or 304.
The ancient sources seem to suggest that Ptolemy (and the others) became kings in the same year as Antigonus so as to match his authority. Since Ptolemy was an ambitious ruler, we would not expect him to have been content in a subordinate position once the others were calling themselves kings. In fact, Ptolemy even backdated his kingship to include his years as satrap after Alexander’s death in 323. But would Ptolemy have assumed the kingship in 306, when Demetrius had so recently and decisively defeated him off Salamis? This question has given rise to the belief that Ptolemy became king only in 304, after Demetrius’ lengthy siege of Rhodes had ended, during which Ptolemy had given the defenders valuable assistance and had also warded off an Antigonid invasion of Egypt. Thus he was again enjoying the sorts of victories that people would expect of a king. Moreover, the year 305/304 fits in with the chronology of Egyptian documents, which dated his kingship to that year, as the Egyptian year ran from November 7 to November 6, and the siege of Rhodes was over by the spring of 304. He may have become king on the first day of the Egyptian New Year in 305 (November 7), but did not celebrate his accession until the anniversary of Alexander’s death, which fell in the following year; this in turn became the anniversary of his accession.