Duncan Sprott

"The Ptolemies"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 22, 2004)

"Thoth will tell this great forgotten story of how the Greeks were Kings and Pharaohs of Egypt for ten generations. And thou shalt weep, and thy hair shall stand up upon its ends, if thou hast any hair, Reader, for this story drips with blood from end to end: it is like a shower of blood, horrible and marvelous at the same time. Read then, Reader, and be horrified. Read, and be delighted."

The Ptolemies by Duncan Sprott

Narrated by Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and magic, who was also the scribe of the gods, the bloody history of the Ptolemies unfolds. Ptolemy Soter, the first of the ruling dynasty, is described as a "yellow-haired Macedonian," and persistent rumors say that he is the "unnatural" son of Philip of Macedon and, therefore, the half-brother of Alexander the Great. When Alexander dies in 323 B.C. of a fever, caught in Babylon after he has conquered the entire eastern Mediterranean in battle, his empire is divided among his many generals, who spend the next fifty years fighting each other. Ptolemy Soter, who was always at Alexander's side, becomes Satrap of Egypt, Libya, and part of Arabia, and he and his heirs rule as the Greek Pharaohs of Egypt for ten generations.

When Ptolemy Soter first lays claim to Egypt, he believes Alexander protects him, even in death. Alexander, we learn, has been embalmed in the Egyptian manner and not cremated on a funeral pyre, as was customary among the Greeks, and he continues to "live" and not decay. Ptolemy has been toting his body around the eastern Mediterranean in a triple casket, as a talisman, and he builds the city of Alexandria in his honor and as a place where he can finally be buried. Aided, he believes, by the spirit of Alexander and protected by the Greek gods, Ptolemy has much to learn when he arrives in Egypt and puts himself in the hands of the Egyptian High Priest, Anemhor. Though he educates himself in the Egyptian ways, he nevertheless remains true to his Greek gods, attending to the Egyptian priests and honoring their customs but not accepting their gods as his own until late in his life, when he becomes the Pharoah of Egypt, with his wife Berenike as his queen.

Author Duncan Sprott brings the political, social, and religious life of Alexandria and Memphis under Ptolemy Soter into focus through the sometimes mischievous voice of Thoth. Sometimes berating or cajoling the reader who may not be interested in all the details he is about to reveal, Thoth teases the reader into paying attention while he controls the pace and level of detail: "How can you not desire to hear of the horrible past of Ptolemy? How can Thoth leave out the founding of the…most illustrious city of Alexandria? Or the story of how Ptolemy came to eat his dog? No more nonsense, Pupil-of-Thoth. The god would have you know every thing."

The forty years of Ptolemy's life after the death of Alexander are occupied fighting other kings—in Syria, Gaza, Cypris, and Phrygia—and with alliances he makes through the marriages he arranges for his daughters. Ptolemy has children by several women—his concubine Thais; his wife Eurydike, the daughter of Antipatros, who was regent in Macedon during Alexander's wars; and finally Berenike, a widow who was also Eurydike's aunt. His daughters, married to the King of Thrace, the King of Macedon, the Tyrant of Syracuse, and the ruler of Syria, are connected by birth or marriage with virtually all the ruling families throughout the Mediterranean. The succession to his own rule, however, is uncertain, since neither of his sons, Ptolemy Keraunos and Ptolemy Mikros, possesses the qualities of kingship that he himself espouses. His sons, daughters, and wives, all of whom become well known to the reader, have a penchant for assassination, and the bloody violence which occurs in the wake of Ptolemy's own death, after forty years in power, is not surprising.

It is ironic that Ptolemy's name is now almost forgotten, since he is associated with two of the Seven Wonders of the World--the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes. He also built the city of Alexandria, eventually moving his capital there from Memphis, and he created the Library of Alexandria, stealing scrolls from scholars to furnish it. Despite these immense and important monuments, history has not been kind to his memory, and the three hundred years of his family's rule as the Greek Pharaohs of Egypt remain little known and less studied.

Though Sprott's scholarship is daunting, Thoth tells tales about his characters informally, filling them with gossip, sex, and violence, and presenting a picture of everyday life among the highest levels of power. It is not a pretty picture. Ptolemy and his family, like the ruling families in other regions of the Mediterranean, are interested primarily in power, and there is almost nothing they will not do to attain it, from creating temples to fake gods, such as Sarapis, part Greek and part Egyptian, to killing their parents, children, brothers or sisters. As Ptolemy's wife Berenike says, "Too much niceness is the best way to destruction."

With maps, a chronology, lists of main characters and of the Greek pharaohs, genealogies, and a comprehensive glossary, Sprott and his editors have provided everything a student of the period needs to keep track of the characters and their fates. With a huge cast of characters to remember, some readers may find that the many details--weddings, the coronation processions, funeral rites, battles, relationships among foreign rulers, customs and religious beliefs--slow down the action, though others will find that they help bring this period to life and make the record of this neglected dynasty memorable. Many portents, dreams, and interpretations give realism to the characters by humanizing them and showing their fears of the unknown, and the details of war and destruction put the values of the times into perspective. Readable, often exciting, and full of scholarly research, this novel should keep those with an interest in post-Alexandrian history pleasantly occupied for hours.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Ptolemies at The Borzoi Reader

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About the Author:

Duncan SprottDuncan Sprott was born in 1952. He lives in Ireland.

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