Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
William Shakespeare, Cymbeline
While the fighting between the heirs of Alexander intensified, Ptolemy quietly secured his position as ruler of Egypt, as he was uniquely well equipped to do so, having been with Alexander from childhood. He had watched the man at work, learned from his successes, and learned still more from his failures.
Ptolemy was the son of a nobleman called Lagus, a member of a relatively obscure Macedonian family. Indeed, so obscure was it that when Ptolemy eventually achieved greatness himself, wild stories quickly became embroidered around the prosaic facts of his ancestry. The pro-Ptolemaic faction even claimed that he was the illegitimate son of Philip II. For their part, those ranged against Ptolemy told the story of how he had once asked a grammarian the famously difficult question “Who was the father of Pelops?” only to receive the reply “I will tell you as soon as you tell me who was the father of Lagus.”
But for all the obscurity of his ancestry, Lagus did ensure that his son received an education at Philip II’s court. Here he was appointed a page, during which time he became a close friend of the young Alexander and one of the group of five youths charged with mentoring the king’s son.
In this situation he was able to watch the impressive Philip at work, carving out a Macedonian empire and building the army that his son would one day unleash on the world. He must also have enjoyed the culture of the court and perhaps shared the privilege of being taught by the tutor Philip had appointed for his son Alexander—the great Aristotle.
But he had shared in Alexander’s tribulations as well as in his good fortunes. In the Pixodarus affair, Alexander had nearly been gulled into marrying the daughter of one of the heirs of King Mausolus, whose capital at Halicarnassus Alexander would later besiege. It was a match Philip knew to be inappropriate, and he managed to forbid it despite Alexander’s having apparently already agreed. For this the prince and his mentors, including Ptolemy, were exiled, only to return upon the old king’s death.
This turbulent childhood and youth molded Ptolemy into an extraordinarily shrewd young man, and his prince’s ablest companion, as they set out to conquer the world together. He had been appointed one of Alexander’s seven personal bodyguards and had played key roles in the campaigns in Afghanistan and India, although Arrian’s descriptions of his heroics (drawn from Ptolemy’s own account of Alexander’s life) betray a tendency to exaggerate his importance. But most important of all, Ptolemy had learned to watch and wait, to see but remain silent. That was the great advantage he had over his old friend Alexander. Ptolemy was not in a hurry.
After Alexander’s death the situation became delicate, and, having been with Alexander at Siwa and in Memphis, Ptolemy knew the Egyptian people had to be treated carefully if he was to retain their loyalty in the dangerous years ahead. As such he made no pretense of kingship, made no bid for the pharaonic throne so recently vacated by his friend and master. Instead he contented himself with the old Persian title “satrap”—effectively making himself governor of Egypt.
Even this careful move did not leave him without enemies. Alexander had appointed a man called Cleomenes to administer the delta area and raise the funds for the building of Alexandria. Cleomenes was a business-man, an extortionist, and a crook. Of those who wrote about him none had a good word to say for him. Demosthenes called him a “dishonest manipulator,” while Arrian pulled even fewer punches and just branded him “an evil man.” The cause of such hatred was, at least in part, his sheer success. He had been so successful indeed, and felt so confident, that he had declared himself satrap while Alexander was still in India. On returning, the king had admonished him for his presumption but, extraordinarily, hadn’t dismissed him for it—he’d generated far too much money for that.
As part of the initial settlement among Alexander’s generals upon his death, Ptolemy had now taken the title of satrap of Egypt for himself, but in doing so he was taking a risk. Alexander’s empire was crumbling and Cleomenes had already shown that he had the nerve to take on the Macedonian state. How long would this hugely wealthy individual put up with Ptolemy as his master? For now this powerful but increasingly unpopular man could not be unseated, so in taking the title satrap for himself, Ptolemy appointed Cleomenes as his assistant (hyparchos). Most likely neither felt content with this, but the final resolution would have to wait.
And waiting is what Ptolemy was becoming good at. The end of Alexander’s reign had been marked by confusion, and time seems to have done little to clarify the situation. As such the preparations for Alexander’s body’s final journey home were anything but quick. Indeed it was two years before news came from Babylon that the sarcophagus of Alexander was finally on the move.
The procession must have made quite an impression. The king’s body had been placed inside two golden caskets, the outer one draped with a purple robe on which lay Alexander’s armor. This coffin was then mounted on a specially constructed golden carriage with a vaulted roof supported by slender Ionic columns. Diodorus describes the scene:
At the top of the carriage was built a vault of gold, eight cubits wide and twelve long, covered with overlapping scales set with precious stones. Beneath the roof, all along the work was a rectangular cornice of gold from which projected heads of goat-stags in high relief. Gold rings two palms broad were suspended from these, and through the rings there ran a festive garland beautifully decorated in bright colours of all kinds. At the ends there were tassels of network suspending large bells, so that any who were approaching heard the sound from a great distance. On each corner of the vault on each side was a golden figure of Victory holding a trophy.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 18, chapter 26
But that was only the beginning. Diodorus goes on to explain how the carriage lavishly advertised the already partly mythical achievements of Alexander: On the vault over Alexander’s body was strung a golden net on which were suspended long painted tablets, one on each side. On the first of these was a chariot carved in relief, on which sat Alexander, scepter in hand, surrounded by Macedonian and Persian attendants. On the second tablet were carved war elephants complete with mahouts and regular Macedonian troops. The third tablet portrayed Alexander’s impressive cavalry in battle formation, while the fourth showed his navy, ready for combat. At the entrance to the chamber itself there were golden lions whose eyes, so Diodorus tells us, turned to watch those who would enter this holy of holies. Above the chamber, he adds,
there was a purple banner blazoned with a golden olive wreath of great size and when the sun cast upon it its rays, it sent forth such a bright and vibrant gleam that from a great distance it appeared like a flash of lightning.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 18, chapter 26
Here then, condensed into one fabulous vehicle, was the achievement of Alexander—a glittering advertisement for all that he had been and all that he could have been. Its single remaining task was to bear away the body of the man whose life it portrayed. Finally, in 321 BC the carriage, drawn by sixty-four mules and accompanied by a great procession, wound its way through the streets of Babylon and out into the countryside beyond. The question now was, where was it going?
Ancient historians cannot agree on where Alexander himself wanted to be buried, but that is perhaps hardly surprising when his heirs couldn’t agree either, though each would claim he was doing Alexander’s will. The traditional burial place for a king of Macedon was the ancient capital of Lower Macedonia, Aigai on the slopes of the Pierian Mountains in what is now northern Greece. Here, by the modern village of Vergina, lie the remains of a great Macedonian palace whose veranda once commanded a majestic view over the plains of the Haliakmon River, and where, among the ruins of the temple of Eukleia, can still be found the bases of two votive statues dedicated by Alexander’s grandmother Queen Eurydice. All around among the elm trees can be seen the memorials of ancient Macedonians of all classes and levels of fame, right up to the magnificent royal tombs of the Great Tumulus, whose contents are now impressively housed in their own subterranean museum. Here lie the finds from the “tomb of Philip II,” discovered in 1977, perhaps the last resting place of Alexander’s father, although more recent archaeological work suggests that perhaps it is the tomb of his simple half brother Philip III Arrhidaeus. But whoever the occupant actually was, this was clearly the last resting place of Alexander’s ancestors and hence perhaps as close as this restless soul might have come to a final home.
But other thoughts had crowded into Alexander’s mind in his last years. The trip to Siwa had given him alternative and far more illustrious ancestors—the gods of Egypt. While we do not know to what degree Alexander actually believed that he was a god, Diodorus says his last wish was to be buried not with his earthly ancestors in Aigai, but at Siwa, where he could be with his divine father, Ammon.
But with Alexander dead there were considerations far greater than his dying wishes—indeed all his last wishes were soon forgotten. Whatever he believed or wanted his people to believe, the mummified contents of his golden coffin were worth as much as the coffin itself—literally its weight in gold—wherever it finally ended up.
When the procession left Babylon, that body was nominally under the control of Philip III Arrhidaeus, but as such it must, in truth, have been under the control of Perdiccas. Perdiccas, one of Alexander’s faithful bodyguards, had, according to some ancient sources, been given Alexander’s ring on his deathbed—as close as the great man came to nominating an heir. Since then he had done his best to try to hold the whole of his old master’s dream together—to keep the empire as one entity. Of course he was not ruling in his own right, merely as regent for the dead king’s simple half brother and infant son, but he was certainly in control. So we must imagine that the procession struck out for Aigai, in the lands directly ruled by the people over whom Perdiccas had control. But they would not stay that way for long.
Ptolemy was clearly tipped off about the removal of Alexander’s body, and he acted quickly. As the funerary cortege wound its way across Asia Minor back toward Macedon, Ptolemy struck, possibly in or near Damascus. Seizing control of the somber procession, he ordered it to turn south down the Mediterranean coast and across Sinai into Egypt. Alexander wasn’t going home to Macedon, he was going back to the city he’d founded by the island of Pharos, and there, though dead, he was going to found a new empire—not a crude military conquest but an empire of the mind.
The kidnapping of the body of Alexander was Ptolemy’s masterstroke. While the other generals still jostled for wealth and position in the Near East and Persia, he had realized that the one treasure still worth having was the body of the king himself. Ptolemy had decided that Alexander would quite literally be the centerpiece of the new Egyptian empire he planned to rule, and where better to rule from than the city his old master and friend had founded?
But again patience was necessary. Alexandria was not yet a thriving city and Egypt was not yet so pliable that its people would accept anything their satrap ordered. Ptolemy needed the Egyptians to believe in him and what he stood for. He knew dangerous times were coming. Having stolen the body of Alexander he had finally severed his links with Perdiccas, showing clearly that he had no belief in the maintenance of Alexander’s empire as one coherent entity. He had effectively shouted “Every man for himself ” and must have known that Perdiccas would now come after him and the treasure he had taken for his own.
Egyptian protocols now had to be carefully followed. After a sweltering journey across Sinai, Ptolemy ordered that the body first be taken to the old pharaonic capital of Memphis, twelve miles south of the modern Egyptian capital of Cairo, and interred in an Egyptian-style tomb near his divine “father,” Ammon, while work on both his Alexandrian tomb and his city progressed.
Memphis was a city of pharaohs, an ancient center of Egyptian religion and regal power, and the place where Alexander had been crowned king. This had been Egypt’s first great city in what, even then, was the distant past. Legend had it that it had been created by the founder of the Old Kingdom, Menes, close to the necropolis at Saqqara, where the first pyramids had been built. Since then its fortunes had waxed and waned, having lost its role as capital in 1300 BC and having only recently returned to prominence under the Persian satraps. But for Ptolemy’s purpose what Memphis had in its favor was history. When the funeral procession of Alexander wound through the gates, it was entering a city that was already 2,750 years old.
The presence of his body here announced that he had been a legitimate heir to the pharaohs who had built this place; that he had supported the priests of Ptah here; that he had honored the Apis bull, Egypt’s most sacred animal, who lived here; and that he had respected the ancient temple system that ran the country. His burial in an Egyptian-style tomb was also of the greatest importance. This spoke to Egyptians, telling them that Egypt—long-suffering, invaded, and despoiled Egypt—was what had mattered most to Alexander and that the greatest general for centuries, perhaps of all time, had known that his spiritual home was here in the greatest of ancient civilizations. That alone proved to them that he must have been born of the Egyptian gods, and reminded them that they were once, and would be again, a great nation.
But Ptolemy did not intend to leave Alexander in Memphis. This ancient city in the delta was not ideally suited as the capital of the type of modern state he had in mind, and the monolithic religious presence there might prove stifling to his plans. Though he wanted to rule Egypt in a way Egyptians understood, this did not extend to being a puppet of Egyptian officials and priests in Memphis. No, the site for his new capital had to be Alexandria. Not only had this place been selected by the divine Alexander himself but it also fulfilled Ptolemy’s strategic and cultural requirements. Ptolemy needed a capital that had access to the Mediterranean world, the Greek world, which could dominate trade and diplomacy as well as grant a military advantage against enemies. He needed a port which had access to Egyptian wealth and that of the world beyond. Ancient Egypt had often been an inward-looking culture, suspicious of foreign contact. Ptolemy intended to plug it into the Greek world and in the process reinvent it.
There were also purely military considerations. This Egypt was not going to be part of a greater empire. Ptolemy had seen firsthand how difficult it was to rule vast territories with their huge cultural differences. He instead chose a place with one cultural identity, but he would have to defend it from the other heirs of Alexander who still believed in Alexander’s dream and would, no doubt, attempt to bring Egypt back into the fold. As Egypt’s wealth was the Nile Valley, this meant protecting the country’s flanks, setting up buffer zones in the east and west to prevent attacks across Sinai or from the other city-states along the Libyan coast. For this Alexandria was ideally situated, so he urged its builders on.
The man charged with laying out Alexander’s city was Dinocrates of Rhodes, who hence takes his place as the first in that long line of Alexandrian scholars. He had the task of following with surveyors where Alexander had once strode with barley flour, placing temples here and palaces there with the sweep of his hand and turning that vague idea into functioning reality. As the city’s planner he devised a design based on the principles of the great Greek architect Hippodamus of Miletus, the man who had been employed by the Athenians to build their harbor at Piraeus. Hippodamus had been a flamboyant character, if the none-too-flattering sketch furnished by Aristotle can be relied upon:
Hippodamus, the son of Euruphon a Milesian, contrived the art of laying out towns. . . . This man was in other respects too eager after notice, and seemed to many to live in a very affected manner, with his flowing locks and his expensive ornaments, and a coarse warm vest which he wore, not only in the winter, but also in the hot weather.
Aristotle, Politics, part 8
Despite these affectations Hippodamus and his school were held in high regard when it came to planning towns. For them town planning was about much more than just laying out public squares and markets. For them the job of an architect also included suggesting how a town should function, what the structure of its government should be, and how its citizens should work together for the common good. Aristotle, in a more generous mood, tells us that Hippodamus was
the first who, not being actually engaged in the management of public affairs, set himself to inquire what sort of government was best; and he planned a state, consisting of ten thousand persons, divided into three parts, one consisting of artisans, another of husbandmen, and the third of soldiers; he also divided the lands into three parts, and allotted one to sacred purposes, another to the public, and the third to individuals.
Aristotle, Politics, part 8
He even seems to have gone as far as suggesting the rudiments of a welfare state, when he
made a law, that those should be rewarded who found out anything for the good of the city, and that the children of those who fell in battle should be educated at the public expense; which law had never been proposed by any other legislator, though it is at present in use at Athens as well as in other cities.
Aristotle, Politics, part 8
Of course Hippodamus had rarely had the opportunity to build a city from scratch, having instead to change towns piecemeal and persuade their inhabitants of the merits of his ideas. At Alexandria, however, Dinocrates had a clean slate, and as he paced the burning sand he must have thought of not just how to build a city but how to make it work as well.
The physical system Dinocrates built was based around a grid of roads, each cell of which was then to be filled in with housing, public buildings, and royal palaces. This gridiron provided the maximum road access and commercial frontage while also allowing for privacy within each cell. It was a simple but hugely innovative design, forgotten in the modern world until recent centuries. Today, of course, it is a plan that forms the backbone of some of the greatest cities on earth, from Tokyo to New York.
The most important work, however, was to create the two sea harbors and for this major engineering work was necessary. This took the form of a 600-foot-wide mole, or causeway, stretching between the mainland and the island of Pharos, which divided the bay in half. As this land bridge was seven times the length of a Greek stadium (around 4,200 feet) it was known as the heptastadion. The heptastadion was cut and bridged at its top and bottom to allow shipping to pass from one harbor to the other. To the east was the Great Harbor, running from the isle of Pharos over the heptastadion, along the coast, and out via another promontory, the Lochias. Across its narrow neck lay dangerous reefs, making the approach extremely difficult; but inside the harbor, shipping was almost entirely protected from the elements. For a ship finding passage into this haven, an extraordinary new vista now opened up. Ahead lay the tiny island of Antirrhodos, with its own miniature royal harbor, and embracing this, the walls of the harbor proper, where the palaces, apartments, and gardens of the royal quarter spilled down to the edge of the sea. Here the still blue waters ran so deep that even the largest ships could tie up at the walls without fear of grounding.
To the west lay the port of Eunostos in the curve from the other end of the Pharos across the heptastadion and on to the mainland coast. With its wide mouth it made for an apparently much easier approach from the sea, but again the harbor opening was littered with reefs and shoals, making sense for any sailor of the port’s name, Eunostos—the “Port of Good Return.” From here there was also a canal cut across to Lake Mareotis. Finally, there was a third, very small sea harbor, on the far side of the island of Pharos itself, known as the Port of Pirates, suitable for small fishing boats perhaps but, thanks to a string of rocks across its entrance, of no use in Dinocrates’ magnificent plan. Nor was the name purely fanciful. The inhabitants of Pharos and the users of her harbor retained something of a reputation for piracy even as the city began to thrive, and ships approaching and leaving port were warned to give the island a wide berth.
To provide water for the city, another canal stretched from the Nile near the town of Canopus to great underground communal cisterns in the city. For those fortunate to be living in the wealthier sections of the city, the larger private houses were fitted with their own cisterns giving their owners the unique advantage in a desert land of having fresh water “on tap.” Nor were the inhabitants of Pharos forgotten, and an aqueduct carried water for the island from the Nile canal, through the city, and across the heptastadion.
Within these boundaries it was Dinocrates’ task to fit this perfect city, and the results were spectacular. Imagine the traveler whose ship puts in at Alexandria’s Great Harbor in these early days. He would walk along the new wharves and pass south through the Gate of the Moon into the city itself. Ahead lies a 101-foot-wide boulevard known later as the Street of the Soma, or “body,” after the mausoleum of Alexander and the Ptolemaic kings that stood on its flank. Down each side the dazzling white of marble colonnades leads the eye to the southern gate of the city—the Gate of the Sun—and, glittering beyond it, the waters of Lake Mareotis. Here Nile transports laden with Egyptian grain might be seen tying up alongside the marsh harbor, while distant sails carry Greek treasures away to the Nile Valley. Walking down the granite-paved street, our visitor eventually comes to the major crossroads where the great east- west Canopic Way intersects the Street of the Soma. In years to come this will be the chaotic, noisy heart of the city, filled with street philosophers, tradesmen, and hawkers, but for now it is still quiet. To the left along the way, in the far distance, stands the Canopic Gate, beyond which a dusty road leads east toward the Nile and “old” Egypt. To the right the colonnades stretch out to the Necropic Gate at the threshold of the City of the Dead. Beyond lie the gardens and embalming houses in which the inhabitants of this city will be buried in centuries to come, a silent other-world of incense-laden air and voiceless mausolea. Along both these streets and the grid of smaller roads that spread out from them, plots are already being divided up. There will be a theater and a stadium, a riding track, a gymnasium, and a host of temples and shrines. The large space needed for the hippodrome will have to be found outside the city limits, beyond the Canopic Gate, while the royal quarter will quickly fill with ever more lavish palaces and lodges.
Other wonders too would soon come to Alexandria, but with the building of the heptastadion and the laying out of the main roads, the fundamental plan of the greatest city in the ancient world was complete. Plutarch in his Life of Alexander commented that the overall shape was, appropriately enough, like that of a military Macedonian chlamys, the Macedonian short cloak—gathered in the middle between the Mediterranean and Mareotis and splaying out to east and west. Long before the lighthouse shone out from Pharos, before the foundation of the library or museum, before even Alexander’s body was entombed in its marble-and-rock-crystal vault, his city was already a miracle. The flour and sand had become marble and granite.
The people who gazed out from their new marble porticoes in the nascent city were as varied in origin and wealth as the peoples Alexander had conquered. The city had been laid out not in three “classes,” as Hippodamus had suggested, but in three main ethnic districts: the original village site of Rhakotis became the native Egyptian quarter, the Brucheum was home to both Greek immigrants and the Greek rulers of the city, and a Jewish quarter was populated with both local Jewish residents and traders and a large population (some report it as one hundred thousand people) of captives, brought here by Ptolemy after he had conquered Jerusalem. Later other districts would follow, but already this blend of European, African, and Near Eastern peoples was unique.
We have no contemporary description of the early city, but later travelers visited and described what this seed would become. Strabo, a Greek geographer, whose name is actually an insulting Roman term meaning “squinty,” visited the city during Julius Caesar’s lifetime and recorded how by his time, every space within the plan laid out by Dinocrates had been filled with buildings:
The city contains most beautiful public precincts and also the royal palaces, which constitute one-fourth or even one-third of the whole circuit of the city; for just as each of the kings, from love of splendour, was wont to add some adornment to the public monuments, so also he would invest himself at his own expense with a residence, in addition to those already built, so that now, to quote the words of the poet, “there is building upon building.” All, however, are connected with one another and the harbour, even those that lie outside the harbour.
Strabo, Geography, book 17, chapter 8
But if it was the whim of Alexander that had founded the city and the will of Ptolemy that made it his capital, it was something more powerful than both of them that made it a success from the start. The reason people from across the ancient world were settling here was trade. Alexandria was rapidly becoming the entrepôt of the world. Sited between two harbors, the city stood at the crossroads of the ancient world, where the fine art and technology of the Greek city-states could be traded for the vast food resources of the Nile Valley, the treasures of Africa, and the luxuries of Asia. By the time Diodorus visited sometime around the middle of the first century BC it was unsurpassed:
The city in general has grown so much in later times that many reckon it to be the first city of the civilized world, and it is certainly far ahead of all the rest in elegance and extent and riches and luxury. The number of its inhabitants surpasses that of those in other cities. At the time when we were in Egypt, those who kept the census returns of the population said that its free residents were more than three hundred thousand, and that the king received from the revenues of the country more than six thousand talents.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 17, chapter 52
Alexandria was a commercial success, and once the body of the hero himself was installed as its centerpiece it would gain an electrifying additional significance. It would become a city of God.
While Alexander’s great plan seemed to be coming together, Ptolemy’s place in succeeding to this patrimony was by no means yet certain. Ptolemy’s retiring to Egypt with the body of Alexander sent out a clear message to any Macedonian generals who might dispute the succession. If Perdiccas or anyone else wanted to reintegrate Egypt into that empire, he would now have to fight Ptolemy for it. Egypt was hence the first fragment to fall away from the Macedonian Empire, beginning a sequence of collapse that would lead to years of internecine warfare.
But in the last remaining days of peace there was one other problem in Egypt to clear up. It was time for Ptolemy to turn to that other festering sore, that other dangerous reminder of the old times. Cleomenes of Naucratis was still a powerful official in Egypt, and still the man in charge of funding the building of Ptolemy’s new city. But as that dream came to fruition, so the potentially dangerous Cleomenes’ usefulness was coming to an end.
It was perhaps an old face from Ptolemy’s childhood, Aristotle, who suggested the solution. Cleomenes had somehow come to Aristotle’s attention, and in the great man’s economic treatise Oeconomica he describes at length some of the hyparchos’s more “unusual” methods of raising funds. In one instance he threatened to attack the sacred crocodiles who ate one of his servants, forcing their priests to produce a large quantity of gold in order to buy off his wrath and so protect the sanctity of the reptiles.
In particular Aristotle reports the unique approach he took to funding and filling the new city of Alexandria by persuading the inhabitants of the nearby market town of Canopus to move to the city: “Sailing therefore to Canopus he informed the priests and the men of property there that he was come to remove them. The priests and residents thereupon contributed money to induce him to leave their market where it was” (Aristotle, Oeconomica, book 2, 1352a).
Cleomenes was not about to forgo a substantial bribe, so he took the money and left the inhabitants of Canopus in peace, at least for a little while. But in fact the residents of the city had just bought some time while the finishing touches were put to Alexandria. Then Cleomenes returned “and proceeded to demand an excessive sum; which represented, he said, the difference the change of site would make to him. They however declared themselves unable to pay it, and were accordingly removed” (Aristotle, Oeconomica,book 2, 1352a).
Aristotle went on to list numerous other cons, tricks, and elaborate extortions by which this rather faithless financial adviser lined the imperial pocket and his own. Whether this information had come to Aristotle from Ptolemy, or whether it was common knowledge, is unknown. Perhaps Cleomenes felt invulnerable enough even to boast of his financial “achievements.” If he did so, however, he was a fool, for Aristotle was writing his death warrant.
Perhaps, standing in front of the beautiful city now growing up around him, Cleomenes thought his work, his reputation, or even his money could protect him. He was quite mistaken. In fact, making money—his great talent—would be his undoing. His sharp financial practices had been overlooked for years by rulers eager to line their own coffers, but Ptolemy now turned with righteous indignation on the man who had built Alexandria for him. The financial wizard who, more than any other person, had actually turned Alexander’s orders into architectural reality was charged with embezzling the staggering sum of eight thousand Egyptian talents. To put that into the context of the day, it was enough money to have paid one of the laborers building the city for over sixty-six thousand years. It was also of course a charge which undoubtedly had a certain ring of truth to it, even if Ptolemy had massaged the exact figures. As a result Cleomenes was tried, found guilty, and promptly executed.
It was another astute move on Ptolemy’s part. He had removed a dangerous and wealthy rival and at the same time made himself hugely popular in Egypt for bringing “justice” to bear on a man who had bled the country dry. But Ptolemy had no intention of returning the money. Alexandria was built, the population was moved, and the money in the state (and Cleomenes’) coffers would now be at his command. It was a most fortunate situation for Ptolemy, and he needed good fortune, for war was coming.
Alexander would have wept to see what followed his death. Perdiccas, his old friend, could not stand by quietly while provoked by Ptolemy. Ptolemy had Alexander’s body and was clearly carving out a piece of his empire for his sole use. And so, in a vain attempt to hold together the whole idea of a unified empire, the regent attacked Egypt with the full might of the Macedonian army—Indian elephants, mahouts, and all. But his high-handed arrogance and his failure to appreciate the impossibility of ruling this vast, messy collection of conquests alone would prove his downfall. Although others of the friends and companions of Alexander marched through Sinai into Egypt with Perdiccas, not all of them still believed that the empire could be maintained. Fewer still believed, or wanted to believe, that it should be maintained by Perdiccas. Thus, the army that burst into the eastern delta was not the happy, all-conquering band of brothers that had only recently fought its way across Asia to India.
On reaching the Nile, Perdiccas ordered his army across, the elephants in the front, then the shield bearers and ladder carriers who were to be the vanguard of his attack on a fort known as the Fort of Camels. However, Ptolemy was not far away, and he and his army dashed to the fort and quickly took up positions, prepared to repel the assault: “At once the shield bearers set up the scaling ladders and began to mount them while the elephant borne troops were tearing the palisades to pieces and throwing down the parapets” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 18, chapter 34).
According to Diodorus, who describes the scene, Perdiccas did not use his war elephants with the tactical brilliance of his old master, and seeing a weakness, Ptolemy personally seized the initiative:
Ptolemy, however, who had the best soldiers near himself and wished to encourage the other commanders and friends to face the dangers, taking his long spear and posting himself on the top of the outwork, put out the eyes of the leading elephant, since he occupied a higher position, and wounded its Indian mahout. Then with utter contempt of the danger, striking and disabling those who were coming up the ladders, he sent them rolling down, in their armour into the river.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 18, chapter 34
His men followed suit and began targeting the Indian mahouts, leaving the elephants out of control and useless, although Perdiccas sent wave after wave of attackers, having the advantage of numbers. The battle (and Ptolemy’s personal heroics) lasted all day, but in the end Perdiccas was forced to call off the assault and retreat to his former camp. Ptolemy was victorious.
We don’t know Diodorus’s source for this episode, but the wild heroics of Ptolemy himself suggest it was somewhat biased. In fact Ptolemy had delayed Perdiccas long enough for something far more powerful to come to the rescue—doubt.
Perdiccas had failed to cross the Nile, and now the whispering campaign began. Ptolemy had secured a jewel for himself—something manageable, defendable. Why shouldn’t Alexander’s other old friends do the same for themselves? Forget the greater empire, forget Perdiccas, and seize something tangible for their own. And so they did. In the late spring of 321 BC a mutiny broke out among those same Macedonian troops who had once conquered the world, and Perdiccas’s own officers assassinated him.
This would not bring an end to the wars among Alexander’s heirs, but it did mark the end of the idea that any of them could rule everything their old master had. By the end of the fighting, which lasted until nearly the end of the century, Alexander’s dreams lay in ruins—his mother, wife, half brother, and infant son all murdered. In their place stood three families. In Greece and Macedon, the Antigonids would rule the old homeland; in the Asian satrapies, the descendants of Seleucus (who had been one of the assassins of Perdiccas) would govern this part of the former Persian Empire; while in Egypt, Ptolemy intended to found his own dynasty.
Ptolemy had set the tone for the new order in Egypt and, fired by the same drive that had taken him and his master to the Indian subcontinent, set about subduing the city-states of North Africa.
By 321 BC the wealthy but isolated city of Cyrene, lying between Egypt and Tunisia, had fallen to him. As one of Alexander’s conquests it was a state Ptolemy rightfully felt was his for the taking, having only recently come under the rule of a Spartan adventurer in the chaos following Alexander’s death. But in retaking the city he showed himself to have learned from his master’s diplomatic mistakes. He did not replace tyrant Spartan rule with a dictatorship of his own but with a liberal constitution. Under the “Ptolemaic constitution” the state was to be ruled by ten thousand privileged citizens arranged into two councils and a popular court, in a plan not dissimilar to that proposed by Hippodamus. He did not go so far as to let the Cyrenians think they could rule themselves alone, of course, appointing himself as their guardian in perpetuity.
In an age which celebrated outright conquest, this defensive imperialism was not only novel, it was successful and sustainable. Ptolemy pushed on farther west beyond Cyrene to take control of the profitable trans-Saharan trade routes bringing gold, ivory, and slaves from Central and West Africa. To the east and north he seized Palestine and parts of Syria, as well as Cyprus and the Aegean islands of the Cyclades. This gave him control of lucrative trade routes but, more important, created a buffer zone where he could contest disputes with his Persian and Macedonian rivals, leaving the Egyptian heartland stable and free from warfare for generations to come. Ptolemy had been the only successor to Alexander not to want to inherit that whole empire. He did not want new territories, just enough friendly or subject states around him to protect the core of his plan—Egypt. He had taken a dependent satrapy and forged it into an independent nation. The physical structure for the Ptolemaic age was now in place; it simply needed to be brought to life.