Ptolemy ‘The Thunderbolt’ and his Brutal Rise to Power | History Hit

Ptolemy ‘The Thunderbolt’ and his Brutal Rise to Power

Detail from Alexander's Sarcophagus.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Having defeated his last great rival Lysimachus at the Battle of Corupedium in 281 BC, King Seleucus – the last of the original successors of Alexander the Great – lead his army across the Hellespont into Europe. It was a continent that he had not set foot in since leaving its shores to fight in Alexander’s army over 50 years before. He occupied Lysimacheia, the capital of Lysimachus’ former empire situated at the top of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Theoretically, Seleucus’ empire now stretched from the borders of India to the Dardanelles. Driven by a desire to live out the rest of his years in Macedonia – the land of his birth – Seleucus continued marching west, leaving his son Antiochus in charge of his Asian empire.

The death of Seleucus

It is said that before reaching the Hellespont, Seleucus had been advised against crossing into Europe by the Oracle at Didyma. But determined to return to Macedonia, Seleucus ignored the advice. Yet just as Seleucus was reaching the borders of his ancestral homeland, the oracle’s warning came to fruition. As he neared the borders of Macedonia in 280 BC, Seleucus was murdered by an ambitious rival. The last of the Successors was dead.

His murderer was no hired killer. His name was Ptolemy Ceraunus, the first born son of Ptolemy I. Ceraunus had been forced into exile from Egypt, after his father overlooked him as his successor. But his desire for power remained.

Though he had served in Lysimachus’ army, Ptolemy Ceraunus had quickly joined Seleucus’ entourage following the latter’s march west. Ceraunus was treated with great respect by Seleucus due to his noble Ptolemaic heritage. This was a mistake. Ceraunus used his position to swiftly murder the ageing king.

Later relief of Macedonian army, Thessaloniki, Greece.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Ceraunus then wasted no time. He headed east towards Lysimacheia and, having gained the support of the army, had himself crowned King of Macedonia. This new proclamation would not go unchallenged.


The repercussions of Seleucus’ murder were serious and far-reaching. Very quickly, Ceraunus faced overwhelming opposition. To the east the young Antiochus, determined to avenge his father’s murder, ordered a large army to march against Ceraunus. Yet Antiochus was not the only concern.

News also reached Ceraunus that to the west, Pyrrhus, King of Molossia and the leader of an Epirote empire, was preparing to invade. To the south, a further threat loomed.

Antigonus Gonatas

His name was Antigonus, the son of the famed Demetrius ‘Poliorcetes.’ At that time, Antigonus was residing in Greece, having taken hold of many key city-states such as Corinth, Thebes and Athens.

However, upon hearing of Seleucus’ death and Ceraunus’ accession, Antigonus saw an opportunity. Assembling his forces, Antigonus headed to Macedonia. Yet he would not catch Ceraunus unawares. Ceraunus gathered a large fleet and set sail to confront Demetrius’ son at sea. The result was a clear victory for Ceraunus and Antigonus was forced to retreat to Greece. Ceraunus had seen off one challenge; two opponents remained.

Mosaic of a stag hunt from Pella, which likely depicts Alexander the Great and Peritas

Image Credit: Gnosis, whose signature is found on the work, or simply an anonymous ancient Macedonian artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Luckily for Ceraunus however, fortune reared its ugly head. Distracted by opportunities elsewhere – Antiochus in Asia and Pyrrhus in Italy – Ceraunus was able to take full advantage of the situation. Peace treaties were agreed with both neighbouring powers.

The treaty with Pyrrhus

Yet Ceraunus would not escape completely unscathed from his warmongering neighbours; Pyrrhus pushed for more than just peace that benefited his rival. He wanted more. To encourage his departure, Ceraunus therefore offered one great incentive. Ceraunus offered Pyrrhus formidable military aid for his campaign. Not only did he provide 5,000 of his veteran Macedonian phalangites (pikemen) and 4,000 cavalry, but he also loaned 50 of his war elephants to the Molossian for a two year period – such was the length he was willing to go to be rid of him.

Pyrrhus agreed, taking the force with him across to Southern Italy. The price Ceraunus had paid for peace seemed a high one – his army was now greatly depleted.

The failings of Ptolemy ‘Ceraunus’

Free from external threats for the time being, Ceraunus turned his mind to matters closer to home. His impulsiveness and criminality had not diminished however; he now desired to remove any other remaining threat to his rule. No-one was exempt, not even his own family.

At that time, Ceraunus’ half-sister and the widow of Lysimachus, Arsinoe, was residing in Cassandrea with two of her youngest children and a small army. Seeing her as a threat, Ceraunus had no intention of letting that remain.

Having tricked Arsinoe into believing she was to be his Queen and her sons his successors, Ceraunus arrived at Cassandrea with his army. One of Arsinoe’s sons, Lysimachus, had warned his mother not to believe Ceraunus’ promises. Yet his mother, although suspicious at first, was successfully fooled and ordered them to open the gates to her half-brother.

As Ceraunus entered the city and was met by Arsinoe’s children, the unstable Macedonian King committed the treachery. In an instant, the heartless king gave the fateful order; seizing the city, he ordered the two bemused children to be slain. The boys, fleeing for their lives, ran to their mother – the assassins being in close pursuit.

No mercy

Running to Arsinoe, the children begged for mercy; yet the assassins had only one thought on their mind. In one moment, they were slain in the arms of their mother.

Horrified by Ceraunus’ treachery, Arsinoe begged the assassins to take her life. Instead, Ceraunus had her dragged out of the city, not even allowing her the bodies of her dead children. Ceraunus sent his sister into exile to live the rest of her life in misery. Little did he know that his own judgement was fast approaching. A new threat was at that very moment descending from the north: a Celtic invasion.

Tristan Hughes