Ptolemy II Philadelphus, The Second King of Egypt's Greek Period

Ptolemy II Philadelphus,

The Second King of Egypt's Greek Period

by Jimmy Dunn

The Egyptian cartouches of Ptolemy II

In about 285 BC, Ptolemy I Soter probably took as his co-ruler one of his sons by Berenice, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who became the sole ruler of Egypt and the rest of his father's empire upon the elder king's death in about 282 BC. He took the Egyptian name, Meryamun Setepenre, which means "Beloved of Amun, Chosen of Re". His reign can only be described as successful, considering the expansion of his possessions around the Mediterranean, the internal stability in Egypt, and the fulfillment of many of his father's imaginative projects, such as the Pharos Lighthouse and the Alexandrian University and Library.

However, it is important to put into perspective many of these accomplishments, and to understand the basis for the future of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt that flowed from this early period.

Ptolemy II was actually not born in Egypt but in Cos in about 309 BC. As a youth, he enjoyed the best tutors. The practice of getting the best scholars or poets available to educate the crown prince was something that Ptolemy I had the occasion to observe in Macedonia, where the young Alexander was taught by no less a figure than Aristotle himself. Ptolemy II would need this training, as well as the natural attributes of his family, in order to rule during an age of intrigue amidst international ambitions. Indeed, the Ptolemies were known for their seemingly natural ability to live in greed, luxury and intrigue while other members of the diadochi (the followers) of Alexander the Great, who split his empire amongst themselves, suffered from these follies. When he took the throne of Egypt, he was known as Ptolemy II Philadelphus was, like his father before him, not simply the ruler of Egypt. Indeed, he specifically wanted control over the Aegean, the eastern Mediterranean trade routes and the sea passage through the Black Sea. He was in fact making headway on his ambitions in this regard when Macedonia made a resurgence under Antigonus Gonatas. Greece and the Aegean had been Macedonia's natural sphere of influence ever since the days of Philip II, and Gonatas showed no signs of abandoning that role. When Gonatas began to restore the naval supremacy that Macedonia had once enjoyed, nothing could have been more alarming to Ptolemy II. Therefore, the Egyptian king began to actively subsidize any and all of Macedonia's enemies in the area.

Ptolemy II and his wife  and sister

Athens, under Macedonian control, was one such enemy. Ptolemy II was already supplying much of Athens' wheat, and he concentrated his efforts there. He knew that most Athenians longed for freedom and autonomy from Macedonia, and that they had a dream of regaining control of Piraeus. However, he also worked anti-Macedonian allies, such as the Sparetan king Areus, into a coalition. Eventually, when he felt the time was ripe, Ptolemy II, through his agents, encouraged the Athenian to declare war on Antigonus. The patriotic notion of war was made in Athens by an idealistic and handsome Athenian citizen named Chremonides, who also gave his name to the war.

However, this war backfired on Ptolemy II and the Greeks. Ptolemy actually did very little to support the efforts of the Athenians, even though Chremonidean had claimed that Ptolemy "conspicuously shows his zeal for the common freedom of the Greeks". When the Spartan king Areus met Antigonus outside Corinth during this war, he died on the battlefield, leaving Antigonus to lay siege to Athens. There was no rescue by Ptolemy II, and in the end, the Greeks were much worse off than before. However, it must be said that, through all of this, Ptolemy seems to have been gaining ground in the region, and he continued to spark conflicts between Macedonia and its enemies. This was a time of intrigue amongst all parties, and sometimes Ptolemy II expanded his region of control, only to lose it again and these types of conflicts outside of Egypt appear to have been ongoing through his reign.

At home, this was a period of considerable achievement for Egypt's new capital, Alexandria, which grew so fast during the reign of Ptolemy II and his predecessor that it had to be divided into three governable districts. By the end of his reign, it consisted of Rhakotis, the native Egyptian quarter, Bruchium, the royal Greek-Macedonian quarter and the Jewish Quarter, that was almost as large as the Greek.

However, Alexandria did not only grow quantitatively, but in quality as well. It was Ptolemy II who called upon the most learned men in all fields to come to Alexandria and to the new university to lecture. He managed to integrate them into the Alexandrian society and provided these scholars with a life free from want and from taxes, allowing them to study write, collate manuscripts, research lecture and theorize in their respective disciplines. Together with is father, the new king of Egypt established the foundations upon which Alexandria's fame would be based. Not that all of this arose completely from Ptolemy II's pure passion for intellectualism. Much of his policy was one of cultural ostentation and self-advertisement.

To a certain extent, offering patronage to Hellenistic scholars such as poets was a brilliant step, not unlike the powerful men of today that harness the power of print and television. These scholars were well cared for by Ptolemy II, but in return, at intervals, were also expected to glorify their patrons with palpable flattery and hints of divine status. In his first hymn, Callimachus associates, indeed virtually equates Ptolemy II with Zeus, and with the second, Apollo. He writes, "From Zeus come kings, for than Zeus's princes nothing is more divine... We can judge this from our lord (Ptolemy II) since he has outstripped the rest by a wide margin. What he thinks in the morning he accomplishes by evening - by evening the greatest projects, but the lesser one the moment he thinks of them." Thus, through Callimachus and many others that he supported, there arose a viable catalog of works exhorting the king. Manetho even dedicated his history of Egypt to him, though it was Ptolemy II who had ordered him to write the history in the first place.

Of course, this sort of advertisement did not very well reach the Egyptian people outside of those in Alexandria. Egypt was really two lands at this point, and through much of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Many of the Greeks never bothered to even learn the local language, and indeed it is claimed that the famous and last Ptolemy, Cleopatra, was the only Ptolemaic ruler ever to learn the Egyptian. Therefore, the Greeks worked through an army of translators to communicate with the priests and bureaucracy that actually ran the remainder of Egypt. Ptolemy ran Egypt as a private estate, and much of the bureaucracy, which had a stranglehold on Egypt, was simply to insure that he received what was due him.

The dynastic cult of the Ptolemies was a Greek cult with a Greek hierarchy, and with worshippers drawn from the Greek speaking population of the country. Though they borrowed from pharaonic cult practices, this made no fundamental difference to this basic fact. The nearest the Ptolemies came to any kind of integration was the imposition of themselves, and their cult, for political reasons, on the native theocracy. They treated Egyptian priests with some amount of respect, and in return they enjoyed pharaonic privileges and honors. Nevertheless, it is clear that the priests, particularly of Upper Egypt, still regarded them privately as foreign interlopers, not unlike the Hyksos, to be expelled when the time was right. That never happened.

Nevertheless, Egypt is said to have attained its greatest height under Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

Though perhaps most famous for completing his father's great works in Alexandria, he is also credited with other accomplishments. For example, he completing the canal from the Pelusiac branch of the Nile River. The construction of this canal was begun under Necho and continued by Darius who abandoned it when he was told that the Red Sea was at a higher level than Egypt. Ptolemy II provided the canal with a lock and after its completion, the canal was named the Ptolemy River in his honor. And even though Ptolemy II's buildings and many of his accomplishments have been lost to us through time, one of his most enduring contributes to Egypt is readily visible to us today. He was the first to import camels to Egypt.

Ptolemy II and his wife and full sister, Arsinoe

Interestingly, one of Ptolemy II's claims to fame was his marriage to his full sister. At first, he made a dynastic marriage with Arsinoe, the daughter of the powerful Lysimachus of Thrace, who had been one of Alexander the Great's foremost generals. By her, he had three children. However, when his sister, another Arsinoe, who was bored with sanctuary on Samorthrace, finally returned to Egypt, she cultivated her brother who was her junior by eight years. Ptolemy II ended up repudiating his existing wife, after some rumors of treason associated with her arose and she was banished to Coptos in Southern Egypt. He then married his full sister. She promptly adopted his first wife's children, and began to appear with her brother and now husband on his gold and silver coinage. In fact, by some sexist oddity, it was his sister and wife, who while they both lived, and not Ptolemy II who was known as Philadelphus. The date of this marriage is uncertain, but it must have taken place before 274/3 BC, when Arsinoe appears as regnant queen on the Pithom stele.

Arsinoe II, Ptolemy II's full sister and wife

It is not always certain that the more ancient Egyptian pharaohs who also married their sisters had sexual relations with them, but Arsinoe was undeniably beautiful, as well as determined, and therefore her incestuous marriage to her brother seems to have been more than a mere act of calculated policy. Nevertheless, calculation undoubtedly entered into it. Ptolemy I had already been deified, and the more divinity that hedged the royal succession the better. Ptolemy II probably figured on playing Osiris to Arsinoe's Isis for the benefit of his Egyptian subjects, and Zeus to her Hera for the Greeks.

Sailors were already praying to Arsinoe during her lifetime, a sign that she was regarded in some sense as the avatar of Isis, and she was promptly deified after her death. It has often been thought that she held considerable influence over Ptolemy, though her role as the political power behind the throne has probably been exaggerated. Ptolemy could be a forceful enough ruler when force was called for.

All was not perfect, though. By now, the very intellectualism in Alexandria established by the first two Ptolemies had created satirists in the city, and no great man seems to have escaped them. When Ptolemy II married his full sister, the Greek poet Sotades published a lampoon that included the stinging line, "You are pushing the prong into an unholy fleshpot". This landed him in prison, and later Ptolemy II had him hunted down by his admiral, Patroclus, who drowned him in a lead coffin.

Ptolemy seems to have died a relatively peaceful death and been buried in Alexandria as was probably his father. he was succeeded by Ptolemy III Euergetes, a product of his first wife who had been brought up by his stepmother.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Alexandria, City of the Western Mind Vrettos, Theodore 2001 Free Press, The ISBN 0-7432-0569-3
Alexander to Actium (The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age) Green, Peter 1990 University of California Press ISBN 0-520-05611-6
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt) Clayton, Peter A. 1994 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05074-0
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Dictionary of World History Lenman, Bruce P. 1993 Chambers Harrap Pubishers ISBN 0-7523-5008-0
Egypt after the Pharaohs (332BC-AD642) Bowman, Alan K. 1989 California University Press ISBN 0-520-06665-0
Egypt, Greece and Rome (Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean) Freeman, Charles 1996 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815003-2
Vanished Library, The (A Wonder of the Ancient World) Canfora, Luciano 1987 University of California Press ISBN 0-520-07255-3