Did the Trusted Ptolemy Murder Alexander the Great?
Alexander the Great was the ruler of one of the biggest empires in the ancient world. However, he died before his 33rd birthday, leaving behind a legend. He was careful and apparently avoided many assassination attempts during his life. Who could possibly be the person who murdered him? Was it Ptolemy, a man who had gained Alexander’s trust?
Ptolemy I Soter was born in 367 BC. He was perhaps the half-brother of Alexander and son of Philip II of Macedon with the beautiful Arsinoe. To avoid problems, Philip may have arranged the marriage of Arsinoe with a Macedonian nobleman named Lagus.
Regardless of a certain familial link, Philip treated Ptolemy as his own son. He took him to the capital at a young age and gave him as good of an education as he offered Alexander. Ptolemy was also sent to the school of Aristotle, where he was considered a talented student. It is unlikely that Philip would have invested so much attention and invited him to live in his palace, if Ptolemy had not been his child.
Everything in Ptolemy’s life suggested that he would be a very successful person, but, at least for a time, he had to stay in the shadow of Alexander.
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Ptolemy was considered a great warrior and very well-educated in the art of fighting. He soon became not only the closest friend of Alexander, but also his personal guard called ''somatophylakes''. He was a few years older than Alexander, tall and fit.
Ptolemy as Pharaoh of Egypt, British Museum, London. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ptolemy served with Alexander from the first campaigns of the young Macedonian prince. He traveled with the Macedonian army and participated in campaigns in the modern areas of India and Afghanistan. He was also one of the heroes of the Battle of Issus. Finally, he was the person who entered the temple in Siwa Oasis with Alexander.
It seems that during an expedition to Egypt, Ptolemy decided that he wanted that part of the Empire for himself. Alexander officially created the future capital city of Ptolemy on April 7, 331 BC. In Egypt, Alexander was proclaimed as the son of Zeus, and received the title as pharaoh. His charisma was so impressive that the Egyptians believed he was an incarnation of a god. No matter what Ptolemy thought, he followed his king, now also a pharaoh of Egypt, and traveled to Syria, Mesopotamia, where on October 1, 331 they met with Darius near Gaugamela.
Mosque near the famous Temple of Amun at Siwa Oasis in Egypt. (CC BY 2.0)
Ptolemy experienced his first independent command during the campaign against the rebel Bessus. He captured him and handed him over to Alexander for execution. During the campaign in India, Ptolemy was successful in commanding the advance guard at the siege of Aornos. He also found success at the Battle of the Hydaspes River.
During the periods when the conquering of unknown lands became difficult, and the ambitions of the young king were not understood by his soldiers, Ptolemy was one of the people who handled the situation. He had a huge amount of authority in the eyes of the army. When Alexander dreamed of other campaigns, Ptolemy stayed in the camp as a friend and companion of everyone.
He perhaps wasn't as visionary as Alexander, but Ptolemy knew how to assert his authority over other people and he wanted to go back to Egypt. He was especially fascinated with the golden treasures near the Nile River. He also knew that he was just as special as Alexander - the need for power burned in his veins.
The Death of Alexander and a Fight for Power
The king of the Macedonian Empire died in 323 BC in Babylon, and it is very likely that he was murdered. After the death of Alexander, the hell of fighting for power began. People who were old friends and companions of Alexander like: Antipater, Arrhidaios, Seleukos, Perdiccas and Ptolemy, asked for what they hoped to receive from the Empire that they had fought for.
Ptolemy was said to resettle the empire. He was appointed satrap of Egypt. Ptolemy decided that he wanted to receive Cyranaica. The new king of the Empire became Philip III Arrhidaeus and the infant Alexander IV.
Philip III as pharaoh on a relief in Karnak. (Public Domain)
It was a custom in Macedonia that kings asserted their right to the throne by burying the predecessor. Thus, it was very important who took part in the funerary ritual of Alexander the Great. That is why Perdiccas, the imperial regent, had to be stopped by Ptolemy. Perdiccas wanted to participate in the burial of Alexander, and it is possible that he hoped to bring the mummified king back to Macedonia. After this he could have defeated Phillip III, killed young prince Alexander IV, and became the ruler of the Empire. Perdiccas suspected that Ptolemy would like to get the throne for himself, but he did not expect that Ptolemy would join the coalition against him and steal the body of Alexander.
Deathbed of Alexander, illustration in Codex 51 (Alexander Romance) of the Hellenic Institute. The figure in the center is Perdiccas, receiving the ring from the speechless Alexander. (Public Domain)
According to resources, Ptolemy took the mummified body into the made for order caravan and went from Babylon to Egypt. He entered Alexandria calling himself the successor of Alexander and became the pharaoh of Egypt.
It seems that Ptolemy could have been the one who wanted the death of Alexander the most. Tired with the ambitions of the Macedonian King, and full of frustration created by being unable to live his life as he wanted, he may have taken Alexander’s life.
Nonetheless, the new beginning was not the end of Ptolemy’s troubles. Two years later, in 321 BC, Perdiccas tried to conquer Egypt. This led to fights between Ptolemy and great warriors like Antigonus, Cassander, Seleucus, etc. The wars took a toll on Ptolemy, but he was able to keep Egypt in his hands. He appeared as the strongest of all of Alexander’s old friends, an intelligent ruler, and worthy of his royal Macedonian roots.
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The Birth of the Ptolemaic Power
Ptolemy created a dynasty which ruled Egypt for 300 years. He governed Egypt between 323 and 283 BC. The influence of his reign on the architecture and religion of the country was impressive. He continued what Alexander had started, but also expanded the architectural works and started to create cities full of white and golden buildings. Apart from the classical Macedonian and Egyptian buildings, his builders had a unique new style of urbanization. Ptolemy did his best to protect the heritage of his ancestors in Egypt and he fully felt himself to be a son of Amun.
Kingdom of Ptolemy I Soter marked in Purple. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ptolemy never forget about his old companion, rival, and perhaps, brother. He announced the building of a great mausoleum for Alexander. It was finished by his son, Ptolemy II. It is known as ''Soma'' and was placed in the heart of Alexandria. The mausoleum became the most important site for pilgrimages for centuries.
Was Ptolemy really the murderer of Alexander? This cannot be confirmed, but it is surely a theory worthy of being explored.
Featured image: Alexander and his queen at table, and again in the foreground with a feather in his throat after being poisoned, 323 BC. Photo Source: (CC0 1.0)
Peter Green, Alexander the Great, 1974.
Graham Phillips, Alexander the Great Murder in Babylon, 1988.
Nicholas J. Saunders, Alexander's Tomb. The Two Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conqueror, 2006.
Robin Waterfield, Dividing the Spoils – The War for Alexander the Great's Empire, 2011.