He was a loyal friend and a brave soldier of Alexander the Great, the legendary Macedonian king who conquered most of the known world in the 4th century BC. But he had a secret that could have cost him his life. He was rumored to be the illegitimate son of Alexander’s father Philip II, which would have made him Alexander’s half-brother and a potential rival for the throne.
His name was Ptolemy I Soter, and he became one of history’s most influential illegitimate children. He carved out a kingdom for himself in Egypt, where he founded a dynasty that lasted longer than any other established on the soil of Alexander’s empire. He also created a cultural and scientific hub in Alexandria, where he supported scholars like Euclid and Eratosthenes.
This is his remarkable story.
Ptolemy was born in 367 or 366 BC, the son of a nobleman named Lagus and a woman named Arsinoe, who was related to the Macedonian royal family. He was probably educated as a page at the royal court of Macedonia, where he befriended Alexander, who was two years younger than him.
When Alexander ascended to the throne in 336 BC, after his father Philip II was assassinated, he appointed Ptolemy as one of his personal bodyguards. He also made him his trusted general and advisor, and took him on his epic campaign to conquer Persia and Asia.
Ptolemy proved himself as a courageous and capable commander in many battles and campaigns with Alexander. He captured the assassin of Darius III, the last Persian king, who had fled after being defeated by Alexander at Gaugamela in 331 BC. He also married a Persian princess named Artacama at a mass wedding in Susa in 324 BC, which was part of Alexander’s plan to fuse the Macedonian and Iranian cultures.
He also accompanied Alexander to India, where he became the commander of the Macedonian fleet on the Indus River. He fought bravely against the Indian king Porus at the battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC, where Alexander’s horse Bucephalus was killed. Alexander rewarded him with several honors and decorations for his deeds.
But when Alexander died suddenly in Babylon in 323 BC, leaving no clear heir to his vast empire, Ptolemy faced a dilemma. He could either join the struggle for power among Alexander’s generals, who divided up his domains among themselves, or he could secure himself a safe and prosperous kingdom in Egypt, which had been assigned to him as a governor.
He chose the latter option, and moved quickly to transport Alexander’s body to Egypt, hoping to gain legitimacy and prestige from burying the great conqueror in a splendid mausoleum. He also founded the city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, which became one of the most important cities in the ancient world.
He declared himself king of Egypt in 305 BC, after defeating Antigonus, one of his rivals, who had tried to take over Rhodes. The grateful Rhodians gave him the title Soter, meaning Savior, which he was commonly called from that time.
He also expanded his realm by conquering Cyprus, Phoenicia, Palestine, and parts of Asia Minor. He formed alliances and marriages with other kings, such as Lysimachus of Thrace and Demetrius Poliorcetes. He even helped liberate Athens from Macedonian occupation in 287 BC.
He was not only a warrior and a statesman, but also a historian and a patron of arts and sciences. He wrote a history of Alexander’s conquests based on his personal experience and eyewitness accounts. Unfortunately, his work is now lost but it was used by later historians such as Arrian and Plutarch.
He also supported scholars at his famous library in Alexandria, which housed hundreds of thousands of books on various subjects. He invited Euclid, the father of geometry, to teach at his museum. He also sponsored Eratosthenes, who calculated the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy.
He died in 283 or 282 BC at an advanced age after abdicating in favor of his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus. He was buried next to Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria. He had founded a dynasty that lasted for 300 years and included famous rulers like Cleopatra VII.
He was one of the most successful successors of Alexander the Great who managed to create a stable and prosperous kingdom out of chaos. He was also one of history’s most influential illegitimate children who rose from obscurity to greatness.