CHAPTER TEN

A GREEK TRAGEDY

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

Sir William Empson, “Missing Dates”

 
 
Ptolemy III’s successor was not the new Rameses his father had hoped for. By the time he came to the throne at about twenty years old in 222 BC, it was clear that he had neither the military genius of a Macedonian king nor the mental sophistication of an Egyptian pharaoh.

This alone was no reason to fear for Egypt’s future. The new pharaoh had inherited a stable administration and stable borders. Provided he could maintain this balance—the Egyptians’ beloved maat—and avoid external trouble, there was reason to think that Ptolemaic rule would continue at least to appear glorious. But what made Ptolemy IV’s succession different was not the usual threats and maneuvers from abroad, but something much closer to home. When the young pharaoh took the Egyptian throne he was not alone. Standing in the shadows was another man, a man who was not simply the king’s adviser but his puppeteer.

The man in the shadows was a court official called Sosibius, and the classical historian Polybius is quite blunt about his role in what was about to unfold: “Sosibius . . . appears to have been a dextrous instrument of evil who remained long in power and did much mischief in the kingdom” (Polybius, Histories, book 15, chapter 25).

The problem had begun long before Ptolemy IV took the throne, when it became clear that he would rely on favorites for everything, being unable or unwilling to take any role in the running of his household or the state himself. Many previous pharaohs had of course relied upon court officials to administer the country on their behalf, but all had at least the knowledge and instincts to choose their proxies well. Ptolemy IV was inexperienced, lazy, and a very poor judge of character, and the result was that on his taking the throne Sosibius became Egypt’s first minister. Ptolemy, convinced that the running of the state was now in hand, then retired to indulge in the lavish festivities of the court and the pleasures of the royal bedchamber.

Sosibius kept a tight exclusion zone around the pharaoh, ensuring that all the information he got from the outside world came through him. In doing so he carefully created an atmosphere of suspicion and fear in which those who threatened him or his control over the pharaoh could be denounced and neutralized in a moment. The cull had begun, as in so many previous Ptolemaic reigns, with the death of the new king’s immediate family—those best placed to challenge his rule. Within months of his accession, his uncle (his father’s brother) was dead, then his younger brother was “accidentally” scalded to death with boiling water while taking a bath, and finally his mother perished, most probably poisoned. Sosibius had a hand in all these killings, and the move served him well. Not only could he claim to have removed those who might envy the king his throne, he had in the process left Ptolemy alone, without friends or family for support or advice. Ptolemy was now entirely under Sosibius’s spell. “The murdered is well disposed” (Zenobius,Proverbs, book 3, no. 94) became a saying in Alexandria at the time. While stripping away Ptolemy’s support, Sosibius was also careful to build his own. Aiding and abetting him was a courtier called Agathocles, who was probably a boyhood friend of the young king’s, and who cemented his hold on the king by way of his sister, Agathoclea, who became the royal mistress.

Hearing only the whispers of his ministers and mistress, Ptolemy began his reign confident of his own security. He flattered himself that his summary action against his relatives had secured his throne, while news from the Near East that two of his main foreign enemies, Antigonus and Seleucus, had died, leaving children on their thrones, further boosted his sense of invulnerability. The result, as Polybius tells us, was predictable:

Secure therefore in his present good fortune, he began to conduct himself as if his chief concern were the idle pomp of royalty, showing himself as regards the members of his court and the officials who administered Egypt inattentive to business and difficult of approach, and treating with entire negligence and indifference the agents charged with the conduct of affairs outside Egypt, to which the former kings had paid much more attention than to the government of Egypt itself. . . . This new king, neglecting to control all these matters owing to his shameful amours and senseless and constant drunkenness, found, as was to be expected, in a very short time both his life and his throne threatened by more than one conspiracy.

Polybius, The Histories, book 5, chapter 34

 
The first signs of trouble seemed relatively unimportant. During the reign of Ptolemy III an exiled Spartan king by the name of Cleomenes III had taken asylum in Alexandria, where he continued to make a nuisance of himself, constantly plaguing the new king with requests for a ship and a small army so that he could retake his native land. But Ptolemy IV, who on his accession took the almost ironic name Philopator (“he who loves his father”), refused to assist. Cleomenes was not a man to be rebuffed, however, and he began attempting to recruit an army in the city himself. At this news Sosibius panicked, suspecting that the Spartan king might turn the mercenaries currently employed by the Egyptian state against him, so he had Cleomenes imprisoned. In sheer desperation, when Philopator was visiting the delta town of Canopus, Cleomenes and his colleagues managed to escape and, running through the streets of Alexandria, tried to incite the mob to turn against the pharaoh. But despite their shouts that they had evidence that the king had murdered his mother, a very popular woman in the city, and despite the fact that the claim was probably true, the usually restive city mob failed to rise up. In despair Cleomenes and his men took the Spartan way out of what was becoming an impossible situation and killed themselves with their own knives. The Spartan’s wife and children, entrusted to the care of Ptolemy, fared equally poorly and were soon put to death on Sosibius’s orders.

If Ptolemy and Sosibius had been wrong in thinking they could keep their private affairs from the Alexandrian public and men like Cleomenes, they were also mistaken in their assessment of their foreign rivals. A far more serious threat was now emerging in the form of the young Antiochus III, ruler of the Seleucid Empire. Unlike his counterpart in Alexandria, this young man kept himself fully informed of all the news from his rival kingdoms, and so soon realized that the young Ptolemy was both weak and ensnared by a corrupt and self-serving court. He wasted no time. Gathering a strong army, he invaded Syria, rolling up the Ptolemaic possessions in the Near East almost a far as Palestine, Egypt’s front doorstep, before the Egyptian army could muster. In the blink of an eye the conquests of Philopator’s father were lost and the way to Egypt looked open.

Fortunately for Ptolemy Philopator, Antiochus’s campaign encountered much stiffer resistance as it moved south toward Egypt proper, with several cities withstanding his sieges for months. As Antiochus’s army got bogged down, Sosibius called for and got a cease-fire for four months. It was a desperate gamble but it worked, buying time so that he and Agathocles could gather an army to resist the invasion of Egypt itself.

In an attempt to fool Antiochus into believing he would sue for peace, Sosibius built up Egypt’s army secretly at Alexandria. Negotiations for the cease-fire and all other diplomatic traffic were rerouted from the capital to Memphis during the winter of 219-218 BC as recruits from all over the Mediterranean were gathered, drilled, and formed into fighting units in Alexandria. Paying for this huge mercenary army naturally put a heavy burden on the Egyptian peasantry, but Sosibius planned to utilize his own population in another, entirely novel way. Whereas in the past the Ptolemies had fought their wars with local and imported Macedonian and other foreign troops, this time Sosibius decided to recruit and train a local phalanx of Egyptian troops, armed and drilled in Macedonian style. The twenty-thousand Egyptians of the phalanx would be led personally by Sosibius and would play a decisive role in the forthcoming battle, and beyond.

At the end of the cease-fire in 218 BC, Antiochus resumed his conquest of southern Syria, but the revitalized Egyptians put up sufficient resistance to check him in the Bekaa Valley, in what is now Lebanon, and to hold on to Damascus and Sidon. This bought enough time for Sosibius to bring his new weapon into play.

By the spring of 217 BC the Ptolemaic secret army was ready and was led to battle by Ptolemy IV. According to Polybius the army included 70,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 73 African elephants. Against him Antiochus fielded 62,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 102 Indian elephants.

The two armies met outside the small town of Raphia, modern-day Rafah near Gaza, setting up camp opposite each other, where they sized each other up for five days. On the fifth day, June 22, 217 BC, Ptolemy moved his troops out of camp to take up battle positions, and Antiochus immediately followed suit. Both sides placed their strongest, handpicked phalanxes in the center, with elephants and cavalry on each wing. Ptolemy, his sister Arsinoe, and their retinue took a place on the left flank, opposite Antiochus and his horse guards on their extreme right. At the same moment, Ptolemy and Antiochus gave the signal for their elephants to charge, and the battle began. According to Polybius, Antiochus’s Indian elephants outweighed and outfought the smaller African forest elephants of Ptolemy’s army, and many of the latter turned and fled into their own ranks, breaking the line of Ptolemy’s left wing and causing enormous confusion. Still the forces facing each other on Ptolemy’s right wing held back, waiting. Polybius tells us:

 
When he [Echecrates, Ptolemy’s general] saw the cloud of dust being carried in his direction, and their own elephants not even daring to approach those of the enemy, he ordered Phoxidas with the mercenaries from Greece to attack the hostile force in the front, while he himself with his cavalry and the division immediately behind the elephants moving off the field and round the enemy’s flank, avoided the onset of the animals and speedily put to flight the cavalry of the enemy, charging them both in flank and rear. Phoxidas and his men met with the same success; for charging the Arabs and Medes they forced them to headlong flight. Antiochus’ right wing then was victorious, while his left wing was being worsted in the manner I have described. Meanwhile the phalanxes, stripped of both their wings, remained intact in the middle of the plain, swayed alternately by hope and fear.

Polybius, The Histories, book 5, chapter 85

 
An overconfident Antiochus now pressed home his advantage on the right wing, assuming that both the center ground held by the phalanxes and the left wing were as victorious as he had been, and hence believing that the battle was as good as won. But at that moment Ptolemy, who had taken shelter within his own phalanx, suddenly rode forward, urging his men on. This stunned the enemy and rallied Ptolemy’s own troops in the center. Lowering their sarissas—eighteen-foot-long double-pointed pikes—the phalanx under Ptolemy’s general Andromachus and the Egyptian phalanx under Sosibius advanced together in full charge. The Syrians facing them resisted briefly, but soon crumbled under the overwhelming pressure and turned and fled. Antiochus, not yet the great general he would one day become, was forced to dash for cover behind the walls of Raphia and console himself with the solace of all bad workmen who blame their tools rather than themselves: “He retired to Raphia, in the confident belief that as far as it depended on himself he had won the battle, but had suffered this disaster owing to the base cowardice of the rest” (Polybius, The Histories, book 5, chapter 85).

Polybius reports that Antiochus left behind on the battlefield more than 10,000 infantry dead and 300 cavalry also killed, with a further 4,000 men taken prisoner. Ptolemy had lost about 1,500 foot and 700 horse, as well as 16 elephants dead and most of the rest captured. Ptolemy, so it seemed, was as victorious as his father had been. But this would be the last time Asia would see a pharaoh ride out to battle in person.

The next few, heady months were spent reoccupying Syria, after sending Sosibius to Antioch to negotiate punitive peace terms with Antiochus. In the meantime the young Ptolemy occasionally laid siege to or sacked a town to keep up the pressure on the negotiations. Finally, on October 12, 217 BC, Philopator returned in triumph to Egypt, rewarding his victorious army with three hundred thousand pieces of gold and sending abundant gifts to the temples of Egypt, to thank the gods for his great victory. On the face of it, he seemed to be repeating the pattern of all his ancestors, setting off while still young to score a resounding victory in Asia and reestablishing the Near Eastern buffer zone. Surely now he was entitled to the abundant leisure he so craved. Unfortunately for the Ptolemies, back in Alexandria, the perfect setting for his decadence had already been created, ironically enough, in the halls of the museum.

The literary scene that would provide the backdrop to Philopator’s disastrous reign had been created during his father’s lifetime, and it had begun with a new emphasis in the institution on literature rather than science. Ptolemy III had given his most gifted scholar-writer, Callimachus of Cyrene, the immense task of cataloging the ever-increasing mountain of books accruing in the library. This he began at the height of his powers around 250 BC when he embarked on his Pinakes (literally, “Lists”), whose full title translates as “List of Those Who Distinguished Themselves in All Branches of Learning, and Their Writings.” As the full title suggests, this was no mere catalog. Running to 120 separate books, it was a comprehensive survey of all the books held in the great library, along with biographical and bibliographical details of the authors—in short, a survey of all known classical literature up to the time of its compilation.

In this work he also introduced the notion of a library classification system—the forerunner of our Dewey decimal system—in which all books were classified as written by (1) dramatists, (2) epic and lyric poets, (3) legislators, (4) philosophers, (5) historians, (6) orators, (7) rhetoricians, or (8) miscellaneous writers. Not that this impressed everyone; one of the first new tomes Callimachus had to catalog with his system was Aristophanes of Byzantium’s highly critical Against Callimachus’s Library Lists. History does not record which number he chose for it.

Besides the mammoth task of the Pinakes, Callimachus also wrote his own poetry. His longest work, the Aitia (“Causes”), is a narrative elegy in four parts, one of which, The Lock of Berenice, records the story of the constellation Coma Berenice. This poem was freely copied by Catullus and subsequently became the model for Alexander Pope’s 1712 poem The Rape of the Lock.

Callimachus was above all a stylist, famed for his conciseness, precision, and artistry, a great master of the finely turned phrase, often in epigrammatic form. Even when he tackled enormous subjects like the Pinakes or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, his method was to break up the longest works by having them copied into shorter sections. He is said to have maintained that all big books were boring books.

For all his love of brevity, Callimachus was a prolific writer, credited with producing about seven hundred works in all, and he became hugely famous in his day and in the succeeding centuries. In fact no other Greek poet except Homer is so often quoted by the grammarians of late antiquity. He was best known for his epigrams, of which sixty-three have survived. Epigram 31, an epitaph, displays his wit and elegance superbly. It takes the form of a dialogue:

 
Tell me, is Charidas buried here?

“If it’s the son of Arimmas you mean, he’s here.”

Charidas, how is it down there?

“Darkness.”

What of Return?

“A lie.”

And Pluto?

“A myth.”

We’re done for, then.

“I’ve given you the truth. If you prefer a pleasantry, beef ’s a penny a pound in Hades.”

 
Callimachus’s insistence on brevity put him somewhat at odds with his most famous pupil, Apollonius of Rhodes, whose lifetime ambition had been to set down in verse the epic adventures of Jason and the Argonauts. But Apollonius’s epic chimed with the times: an adventure tale of brave Greek warriors who journeyed (like Alexander) to the edges of the known world, visiting en route Cyrenaica, the Aegean Islands, and the Black Sea, all places of considerable interest to the Ptolemies and their trading, seafaring nation. The heroes are portrayed in overtly Homeric style, and the boat itself and accompanying technology are deliberately set in an archaic context, but Apollonius weaves into the text all sorts of “modern” scientific (and geographical) ideas and knowledge along with the more traditional fabulous geography of clashing rocks, sirens, and mythical beasts.

Into this admixture of modern science within the traditional setting, Apollonius introduces an innovation of his own, a running commentary on his own narrative, as Richard Hunter explains in the introduction to his 1993 translation of the Argonautica:

A particular mode for the expression of this textual self-consciousness is irony and humour; where the poet is constantly also a commentator on his poetry, the anticipation of reading and reception is inscribed in the text itself, and the poet becomes not just a creator but also a reader, himself surprised by his own creation. . . . When, for example, Medea puts the evil eye on Talos, Apollonius reacts as a particular type of reader of the Argonautica might react:

“Father Zeus, my mind is all aflutter with amazement, if it is true that death comes to us not only from disease and wounds, but someone far off can harm us, as that man, bronze though he was, yielded to destruction through the grim powers of Medea, mistress of drugs.”

—Apollonius, Jason and the Golden Fleece
[The Argonautica], trans. R. L. Hunter

 
The poet stands outside his poem and contemplates it, almost as though he had nothing to do with it.

This dreamlike, wistful mythmaking was now the setting for Ptolemy IV’s return from the wars. The revival in heroic literature gave him the perfect foil for his own reign, the perfect opportunity to revel in his own position as a hero-god to his people; but in this, as with so much, he was gravely mistaken.

Taking the sister who had accompanied him to war as his wife, although still entirely under the sway of his mistress Agathoclea, he now lost himself in romantic reveries of heroic tales. The future seemed bright. His father had fought a great war at the beginning of his reign and then retired, safe, to live out his years among his scholars and courtiers. Why shouldn’t the son do exactly the same? But Ptolemy was no returning Jason, and his Argonauts were no more than a gaggle of sycophants. Back at court the king and his favorites became ever more detached from the reality of life in Egypt and the political situation outside. The young king duly set about building his own literary court, but even here something was clearly different from his father’s day. In the place of the Aristarchus and Eratosthenes of previous years the court now, according to an early-twentieth-century biographer of the Ptolemies, “swarmed with literary pretenders, poets, grammarians, whores, buffoons, philosophers” (Edwyn R. Bevan, The House of Ptolemy, chapter 7).

It seems Ptolemy Philopator was not content simply to fund the museum; he intended to be its greatest star as well, and as such gathered around him a multitude of favorites to praise his own work. When he wrote his own, terrible play, an erotic idyll calledAdonis, the obsequious Agathocles immediately produced a laudatory commentary on it. One story from the time tells how the king arranged a poetry competition where the entries were judged on the amount of applause each rendition received. However, one judge, Aristophanes of Byzantium, chose the poem that received the least applause. When asked why, he went to the great library and produced texts that proved that only the poem he had chosen was actually original. All the others were simply copied from earlier works. Ptolemy’s court had pretensions to be the museum, but in fact it was a mockery.

But far more serious than the pharaoh’s personal delusions was the situation in his country. The great victory Sosibius had orchestrated contained a poisonous seed.

That seed lay in the heart of Sosibius’s greatest achievement, among the native Egyptian troops he had raised and trained to fight for their pharaoh. They had seen the magnificence of the Greek Ptolemaic court, they had seen the plunder, and now they had returned to the reality of life in their country. Many of these highly trained warriors made their way back to the heartland of the ancient capital of Thebes (modern Luxor), only to find their families in extreme poverty and much of the land in disrepair. Native Egyptians had always known they were an underclass under Greek rule, but while the Ptolemies made Egypt great again, they had kept their silence. Now the administration was in the hands of corrupt favorites, taxes were exorbitant, and their sacrifice in the Middle East seemed to have benefited everyone except themselves.

There was only one conclusion: Ptolemy IV Philopator was not a god-king, he was a foreign impostor; and when the situation in the countryside failed to improve, a full-scale rebellion broke out in Thebes in 206 BC against the “false gods” of the Alexandrians. This immediately struck chords with the Egyptian peasantry, who had been taxed to the breaking point to finance Ptolemy’s war. In fact many had fled to remote areas in the desert or in the marshy Nile Delta, where they had become outlaws, roaming the countryside and ravaging small villages and temple complexes, rather than working themselves to the bone for next to no reward. This process, known as anachoresis (literally, “to go up-country”), had occurred quite frequently in pharaonic times of famine, crop failure, or acute economic pressure. This time, however, it was spearheaded by fully trained, battle-hardened troops, troops who had seen how the other half lived in Alexandria.

The rebellion soon spread to the delta, where a vicious twenty-one-year guerrilla war broke out; but if it was bad in the delta, it was far worse farther up the Nile. Around the old Egyptian city of Thebes, just across the river from the resting places of the greatest native Egyptian pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, nationalism was rife. Upper Egypt, backed by the kings of Nubia, now effectively seceded from the north, and the rebels declared their leader, an Egyptian named Herwennefer, their pharaoh in 206 BC.

Though Ptolemy had retrieved his territories in Syria, he had almost simultaneously lost more than half of Egypt, and his lifeblood: her grain. The Nile Valley and the Fayyum were the great breadbaskets of Egypt, and with them in rebel hands the Ptolemies’, and Alexandria’s, revenues plummeted. So severe was the economic crisis that at one point Ptolemy had to abandon the use of silver coinage and introduce a worthless bronze currency instead. The need to retain a large standing army to oppose the rebels further increased the burden on the economy. Egypt could no longer pay her bills.

At the very center of the maelstrom stood the temples. The early Ptolemies had always been extremely careful to cultivate the temple priests, whose institutions not only nominally owned much of the land but also collected the taxes on behalf of the crown. Traditionally the temples had also been a way for these foreign pharaohs to demonstrate their credentials for ruling Egypt.

As the revolt gained momentum, many of these institutions fell into rebel hands, including the vast new complex begun under Ptolemy III at Edfu, the temple of Horus. This magnificent building, measuring 448 feet in length and 246 feet in breadth, would become a monument to Philopator’s increasingly unsustainable belief that he could live as a Greek basileus but rule Egypt as a divine pharaoh.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the temple is how this huge monument—the pylons at the entrance are nearly 130 feet tall—and all its architecture and decoration are executed entirely in the pharaonic tradition. Great bas-relief carvings depict the (Greek) pharaohs in battle, and specific mythological tales relating to the patron god, Horus, the falcon-headed son of Isis and Osiris, are all depicted in traditional fashion. The temple itself was said to be built on the site of the mythic battle between Horus and his deadly enemy Seth, god of chaos and murderer of Osiris. And it was doubtless to Philopator’s taste that the great temple was also the scene of a love match. Every year, at the Feast of the Beautiful Meeting, a statue of Horus’s wife, Hathor, traveled by river from her temple at Dendera to be brought together with her husband, arriving at the full moon and spending their nights in the mamissi, or birthing house. Reliefs at the entrance to the mamissi, some still retaining their colored paint, portray the ritual of the birth of Harsomtus, Horus and Hathor’s son, and symbolically represent the fertility of the gods, their royal descendants, and the nation as a whole.

Yet the inscriptions on the temple itself show that from the beginning of the troubles, no further work was carried out on the building, and therefore, we must assume, no revenues from the temple’s estates were returned to Alexandria until long after the king’s death.

 
Then trouble arose, because ignorant rebels interrupted in the South the works on the Throne-of-the-gods [i.e., the temple of Edfu]. The rebellion raged in the South until year 19 of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, “the heir of the gods Philopatores,” the son of Re “Ptolemy, loved by Ptah,” now deceased, the god Epiphanes, the strong one, the king who chased disorder out of the country.

Inscription from the Naos, temple of Edfu

 
It was ironic that after the outrageous success at Raphia, it would be his own Egyptians, those “ignorant rebels,” who would humble the all-conquering pharaoh and bring his most Egyptian work—the building of the temple of Horus at Edfu—to a halt. After his victory in Palestine, Ptolemy IV had chosen to return to Egypt on that god’s birthday, traveling like the new Horus downstream by ship from Memphis to Alexandria at the inception of the annual flooding (and symbolic rebirth) of the Nile. To honor him and his sister-wife it was decreed that statues of the king and queen be placed in the largest courts of all the major temples in Egypt; Ptolemy Horus, it was declared, was his father’s protector and his victory at Raphia was “beautiful.” In this way the polite fiction of the divinity of Ptolemy Philopator was at least maintained in his own mind. In truth the victory was not beautiful but hollow.

In 204 BC, still in the midst of the native rebellion and just forty years old, Philopator departed to join the gods. The circumstances surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery. There was no formal announcement of his death from Sosibius or Agathocles; he simply wasn’t seen for several months. Then, mysteriously, his wife-sister, Arsinoe, who would certainly have taken the role of regent, disappeared too. Finally, Sosibius summoned the court and announced that both king and queen were dead. He then proceeded to read out a forged royal will appointing himself and Agathocles guardians of the new king. There were few tears shed for the death of the king, but the people were immediately suspicious about Arsinoe’s death. How had she come to die simultaneously with her husband, and what, or who, had killed her? Polybius tells us that on receiving the news of her unhappy death “the people fell into such a state of distraction and affliction that the town was full of groans, tears and ceaseless lamentation, a testimony, in the opinion of those who judged correctly, not so much of affection for Arsinoe as of hatred for Agathocles” (Polybius, The Histories, book 15, chapter 25).

Sosibius escaped the backlash, dying a few months later, but Agathocles was determined to continue as sole guardian of the new king and proxy ruler of the nation. His first acts were to send away from Alexandria all the most able and influential people at court, on diplomatic missions, so that he gained absolute ascendancy there. Having secured his own position, he began to revel in it, living a life of constant drunkenness and debauchery, “sparing neither women in the flower of their age nor brides nor virgins, and all this he did with the most odious ostentation” (Polybius, The Histories, book 15, chapter 25).

Loathing of Agathocles had spread throughout the streets of Alexandria and among the Macedonian soldiers quartered there, and when Agathocles attempted to torture and execute some soldiers he thought were plotting against him, word spread around the garrison and among the townsfolk that revolt was imminent. At the same time, Agathocles was engrossed, as Polybius would have it, in his nightly banquet and orgy, after which he fell into a drunken sleep. He was aroused from this by a party of furious soldiers demanding that the king be surrendered to them. Realizing that he and his sister were trapped, Agathocles eventually surrendered the boy with his bodyguard to the soldiers, who took him on horseback to the stadium, where crowds of citizens and soldiers had assembled.

The crowds were elated to see the king freed but bayed for the blood of the tyrant Agathocles and his harlot sister. At that moment Sosibius’s son, who had remained in the background since his father’s death, saw an opportunity to betray his father’s old colleague and perhaps improve his own standing. Approaching the king, he asked his assent for the crowd to be given satisfaction. The pharaoh apparently nodded, and the crowd roared its approval as soldiers set off to the houses of Agathocles and his sister. In due course they, their attendants, and all their families were brought shackled to the stadium, the women naked, where they were stabbed, bitten, and mutilated until they were all dead. “For terrible is the cruelty of the Egyptians when their anger is aroused,” notes Polybius (The Histories, book 15, chapter 33). The younger Sosibius meanwhile slipped away with the young king, eager to protect him from the sight of the mob at work.

Polybius is equally merciless in his final assessment of Agathocles, damning his memory as formidably as the Alexandrians had damned the man:

 
Agathocles displayed neither courage in war nor conspicuous ability, nor was he fortunate and exemplary in his management of his affairs, nor, finally, had he that acuteness and mischievous address which serve a courtier’s ends and which made Sosibius and several others so successful until the ends of their lives in their management of king after king. On the contrary it was quite different with Agathocles. Owing to Philopator’s incapacity as a ruler he attained an exceptionally high position; and in this position finding himself after the king’s death most favourably circumstanced to maintain his power, he lost both his control and his life through his own cowardice and indolence.

Polybius, The Histories, book 15, chapter 34

 
The key phrase here, however, is not about Agathocles, it’s about Ptolemy IV: “Owing to Philopator’s incapacity as a ruler . . .” And there lies the rub. Ptolemy’s failings had sadly not died with him; indeed, his legacy was only just beginning to bear its bitter fruits. Yet from the inscriptions surviving from the early reign of his son, Ptolemy V, one could be forgiven for thinking that another renaissance was in the air.

From this date come a number of apparently upbeat reports. The uprising in the delta was finally brought under control by a ruse. Well protected in the same papyrus marshlands that had harbored the Egyptian resistance to the Persians, the leaders of the revolt had proved impossible to capture until an offer of a peace was made. When the leaders finally emerged to sign the peace declaration they were promptly arrested, harnessed to carts, and forced to drag them, like animals, through the streets. They were then publicly tortured to death. But Ptolemy V proved merciful, if we are to believe one famous, laudatory inscription that dates from this time—the Rosetta stone, whose fame as a key to translating hieroglyphics has rather overshadowed its actual contents. It deals with the aftermath of the delta rebellion, restoring lands and rights and making concessions, particularly to the temples. When it comes to the rebels themselves it also treads a cautious but clearly victorious line, saying the king had “ordained that those who return of the warrior class, and of others who were unfavourably disposed in the days of the disturbances, should, on their return, be allowed to occupy their old possessions.”

The news from Upper Egypt seemed positive as well, if we can rely on the inscriptions at Edfu that marked the restoration of the temple after the rebellion and spoke of the new Ptolemy as the king who “chased disorder out of the country.”

But in these inscriptions rests the lie. Ptolemy V was king in name only. He hadn’t chased anyone or anything out of the country, nor had he magnanimously pardoned the rebels; he was just a boy growing up in a court of murderous “favorites.” On his death, still young, there were no brothers to succeed him, no adult kings-in-waiting who might take the court in hand and reassert royal power. They had all been killed on Ptolemy V’s succession, and the only real achievement of his short life was the siring of a son of his own, another child pharaoh to take on the mantle of political impotence on his death and continue the cycle of manipulation and murder.

While court factions squabbled for control of the boy pharaoh, real political power was slipping away. Few rulers of the Near East believed any pharaoh would last long, and without a real leader in Egypt they grabbed every opportunity to erode his empire. The descendants of Alexander’s other generals—the Seleucids in Persia and Syria, and the kings of Macedonia—took back all of Egypt’s territories in the Aegean, Asia Minor, and Palestine. And there was little danger of revenge.

But while the court bewailed the loss of empire and the Alexandrian merchants the loss of trading influence, both would have done well to look across the Mediterranean to a far greater threat looming on the horizon.

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