How Ptolemy Transformed Egypt Into a Bastion of Strength | History Hit

How Ptolemy Transformed Egypt Into a Bastion of Strength

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In 320 BC Ptolemy, a Macedonian general who had served with Alexander the Great, pronounced his rule over Egypt ‘spear-won’. It was a boastful claim to this rich North African province, echoing the Homeric tales of old. But for Ptolemy, this pronouncement was more than mere bravado. The governor had just fended off the greatest military challenge he had ever faced.

Earlier that year Ptolemy’s Egypt had been the object of a huge invasion, led by the Empire’s regent Perdiccas and his Grande Armée. Its eventual failure catapulted Ptolemy into the spotlight of the Successors stage. His successful resistance was a remarkable feat, fending off Alexander the Great’s former second-in-command and his supreme royal army. But how did he achieve this?

How did Ptolemy, the governor of Egypt, successfully hold out against a figure as powerful as Perdiccas, who commanded the most fearsome army in the known world?

One key reason was his long-term preparation.

Years in the making

Ever since the immediate aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death Perdiccas and Ptolemy had been at loggerheads. Each felt threatened by the other. As a compromise they had agreed to co-exist in the empire following Alexander’s demise, but their tense relations meant that a bloody end to this feud was always likely.

Both were well aware of this. Within a year of Alexander the Great’s death, already Perdiccas was contemplating a future invasion of Ptolemy’s Egypt and to force his former comrade from power.

But Ptolemy was equally alert. Ever since his arrival in Egypt he sought to strengthen his position in preparation for such an invasion.

Bust of Ptolemy I Soter, located at the Louvre.

Image Credit: Public Domain / Shutterstock

Egypt’s benefits

Ptolemy benefited from a strong starting position. Protected by the formidable Nile River and harsh desert lands to his east and west the new governor had some formidable natural defence features. The province was at peace; no powerful native princes contested his rule – a luxury for the time.

What was more, his swift execution of his potentially-troublesome and decadent deputy Cleomenes upon his arrival in Egypt in early 322 BC was a brutal but popular move. The Egyptians celebrated the demise of this hated official.

A vast treasury lay at Ptolemy’s disposal, as did a sizeable garrison force – 4,000 soldiers and a fleet of 30 triremes. Ptolemy, however, needed even more manpower if he was to successfully oppose the might of Perdiccas and the royal army. Straight away he used state funds to attract mercenaries from far and wide to swell his ranks.

Within a short time, the governor had considerably bolstered his forces. Still, if Ptolemy was to have any hope of fending off a future Perdiccan invasion, he needed to do more.

Enhancing the bastion

Defences along the Nile River, particularly along its westernmost ‘Pelusiac’ branch, were considerably strengthened. Forts with strong palisades were maintained along all the key crossing points, each equipped with state of the art artillery.

But what about war at sea? Ptolemy’s fleet was small, dwarfed in size by the royal Macedonian armada Perdiccas could call upon. So the governor sent representatives to the maritime petty kings of Cyprus, establishing strong bonds of friendship with several of the island’s most powerful monarchs. Having their favour would be vital in any forthcoming war.

Cyprus was divided between several maritime petty kingdoms. The most powerful in 322 BC was King Nicocreon of Salamis, whose aid Ptolemy actively sought. (Credit: Badseed / CC)

Even at this time, expansion was also on Ptolemy’s mind. To the west, the wealthy city-state of Cyrene was in the midst of crisis fighting the Spartan adventurer Thibron and his mercenary army.

Ptolemy seized the initiative, sending an adjutant with an expeditionary force to secure Cyrene and its neighbouring city-states in his name. In doing so, remnants of Thibron’s defeated veteran force may well have been enlisted into Ptolemy’s service – more experienced soldiers to man the Nile frontier.

Hard work pays off

By the time Ptolemy finally provoked war with Perdiccas, when he embarked on one of the most successful heists in history seizing Alexander the Great’s funeral cart, his province had become a bastion of defensive strength.

In late 321 BC, a carefully-constructed plot was put into operation that would spark years of bloody conflict between rival warlords. The target of the operation was Alexander the Great’s elaborate funeral carriage and the conqueror’s talismanic corpse housed within.
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Garrisons filled with hardened mercenary soldiers protected all feasible crossing points along the Nile; Cypriot kings willingly offered the governor vital maritime aid in the war against Perdiccas. Ptolemy had prepared for this climactic showdown as best he could.

Perdiccas’ army was formidable, but the time and effort Ptolemy had invested into strengthening Egypt’s defences was a key reason why the regent ultimately failed to breach the Nile.

Of course, several other factors were also significant – Perdiccas’ poor generalship during this campaign being the most obvious. But no one can deny that Ptolemy prepared for this titanic encounter exceptionally well; none could claim he left anything to chance in repelling this invasion.

Perdiccas would meet his end on the eastern bank of the Nile near Memphis, murdered by his own chief subordinates after a terrible setback. Ptolemy prevailed. It was the governor of Egypt’s first big test. It would not be the last.

Find out more in Alexander’s Successors at War: The Perdiccas Years 323 – 320 BC.

Tristan Hughes