Ptolemy V Epiphanes, The Fifth King of Egypt's Ptolemaic Period

Ptolemy V Epiphanes

The Fifth King of Egypt's Ptolemaic Period

by Jimmy Dunn

The Egyptian cartouche of Ptolemy V Epephanes

Ptolemy V Epiphanes ("manifest"), the fifth king of Egypt Ptolemaic Period began life precariously. His father, Ptolemy IV Philopator was a weak king who died at the relatively young age of 41, after a dissolute life shrouded by controlling advisors. After his mother, Arsinoe III's death at the hands of his father's advisers, Sosibius and Agathocles, these same people took custody of the child, who was then only five years old. However, when the Alexandria mob found out about the murder of his mother, they lynched Agathocles (Sosibius disappears from the record at about the time of his accession tot he throne) in about October of 203 BC, leaving him to be raised by one ambitious adviser after another. This caused near anarchy, particularly in Upper Egypt. In fact, what Ptolemy V inherited from his father was considerable trouble.

A coin depicting Ptolemy V

Also, Ptolemaic possessions and navel bases around the Mediterranean were shrinking as other rulers took advantage of Egypt's internal weaknesses. Antiochus III almost certainly eyed the scene with uncommon interest, and in fact, frantic embassies were sent off in all directions by Egypt. They urged Antiochus to respect the peace of 217 BC, and in Rome they sought diplomatic representations to Antiochus. In Greece, they hired mercenaries to aid against the Seleucid threat.

Rome, which was becoming a world power at this point, did issue warnings to various powers about invading Egypt, including the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus, which he accommodated because at that point he was not much interested in Egypt itself, but rather to subjugate Coele-Syria and also to raid Egypt's coastal strongholds from Caria to Cilicia. In fact, Philip V of Macadon and Antiochus made a secret pact to conquer, and share Ptolemy's overseas possessions between them.

Philip seized several islands and places in Caria and Thrace. Antiochus swept down through Coele-Syria in what is known as the Fifth Syrian War (202-195) and, after some temporary reversals, particularly at Gaza, inflicted a crushing defeat on the Ptolemaic forces at Panion in 200 BC, near the headwaters of the river Jordan. He took the Palestinian holdings of the Egyptians, including the key port of Sidon.

Egypt and the Mediterranean World before the reign of Ptolemy V

Egypt and the Mediterranean World before the reign of Ptolemy V

Hence, the heir to the throne had little time to grow into a proper man. For almost his entire reign, Upper Egypt achieved total independence under a series of native pharaohs, which also had the effect of depriving the king of a substantial proportion of his revenues, besides necessitating an increased army of mercenaries to fend off the rebels. In an attempt to settle the civil problems, it was decided to crown the young prince as he turned twelve, at the old capital of Memphis in about 197 BC. This was the first time that a Ptolemy had been crowned in Memphis to our knowledge, but it did begin a tradition that would continue from then on. He took the Egyptian name, Iwaennetjerwy-merwyitu Setepptah Userkare Sekhem-ankhamun, the same as his father, which means "Heir of the [two] Beneficent Gods, Chosen of Ptah, Powerful is the Soul of Re, Living Image of Amun" Much of this is recorded in the decree of the priests of Memphis in 196 BC, and inscribed in three scripts (hieroglyphs, demotic and Greek) on the famous Rosetta Stone found in 1799.

A coin depicting what is believed to be a somewhat older Ptolemy V

An uneasy peace with the Seleucid ruler followed when, in 192 BC, Ptolemy V married the daughter of Antiochus the Great. Her name was Cleopatra (I), and she produced two sons and a daughter for the king. The sons became Ptolemy VI and perhaps Potlemy VIII, and the daughter was presumably Cleopatra II. Additionally, there seems to have been marriage negotiations for him between the Egyptian and Macedonian courts on his accession, though the identity of the Macedonian princess involved is unknown.

It is really difficult to assess what sort of man Ptolemy V Epiphanes became. He seems to have spent most of his reign putting out fires of one sort or another. There seems to be some indications that he worked hard to portray himself as a traditional Egyptian king. At Sehel island near Elephantine at Aswan, he had inscribed on a rock face, 2000 years after Djoser's death, a text which describes the action taken by Djoser to deal with a famine during his reign. It reads:

"My heart was in sore distress, for the Nile had not risen for seven years. The grain was not abundant, the seeds were dried up, everything that one had to eat was in pathetic quantities, each person was denied his harvest. Nobody could walk any more: children were in tears; the young people were struck down; the old people's hearts were sad and their legs were bent when they sat on the ground, and their hands were hidden away. Even the courtiers were going without, the temples were closed and the sanctuaries were covered in dust. In short, everything in existence was afflicted."

In this text, Djoser looks back into the archives, attempting to find the origins of the Nile flood and to understand the role of Khnum, the ram-god of Elephantine, in the rising of the waters. He then makes an offering to Khnum, and the god appears to him in a dream, promising:

"I will cause the Nile to rise up for you. There will be no more years when the inundation fails to cover any area of land. The flowers will sprout up, their stems bending with the weight of the pollen."

It is believed that Ptolemy V was no doubt actually referring to himself in the guise of Djoser, as he coped with the combined effects of famine and the revolt of the successors of the Meroitic king Ergamenes in southern Egypt. It is likely that the Nubians from Meroe participated in the Upper Egyptian revolt during his reign. Nevertheless, he apparently used considerable cruelty in suppressing the native rebellion ,and some accounts represent him as a personal tyrant.

Otherwise, it is said that he was a remarkably passionate sportsman who excelled in athletic exercises. Very little is known about his building activities in Egypt.

The elder of his sons by Cleopatra (1) would become Ptolemy VI Philometor. In fact, that happened all too soon as Ptolemy V Epiphanes died, some say by poisoning, at the age of twenty-eight in about 181 BC. Prior to his death Ptolemy V had managed to put down the revolt and take back southern Egypt from Ankhwennefer in about 191 BC and squash the last of the insurgencies in the Delta, which left a weaker but stable regime in Egypt with Cleopatra I acting as the regent fro young Ptolemy VI Philometor.

Ptolemy V was presumably buried in Alexandria, though his tomb, like all the other Ptolemies, has never been discovered.






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