Ptolemy was born in 367, allegedly the illegitimate son of Philip II and a woman named Arsinoe who later married a nobleman named Lagos. In later years he took the name Ptolemy Soter (Savior or Preserver) and also Lagos. He was one of Alexander’s companions, serving as one of those who guarded the king’s person. He was four years older than Alexander. Like Alexander he studied under Aristotle at Mieza.
He took part in Alexander’s Persian campaigns from the very beginning, in 334 and was one of Alexander’s most trusted generals. During this time he was accompanied by his mistress, Thais, who he had first met when she was only 15, a temple maiden (hetaera) from Corinth. She later bore him two sons, Lagos and Leontiscus and a daughter named Irene (‘Peace’) but he never married legally so their offspring were considered illegitimate. He was given a Persian princess for a bride at the great marriage fete in Susan (324 BC) but like many of those other ‘token’ wives, she ssems to have vanished from his life. It was at Persepolis that Ptolemy’s mistress, Thais, was blamed for urging the men to set the Persian’s palace on fire which burned all their holy books.
Ptolemy rose to prominence in the army and held important commands during most of the campaigns. At one battle at the Indus he was wounded by a poison arrow but survived because Alexander knew the antidote.
When Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC General Perdikkas took control of the army and Ptolemy was opposed to this. He also objected to Alexander’s mentally deficient half-brother Arridaios being named joint king along with Alexander’s newborn son, Alexander IV (Iskander) by his Soghdian wife, Roxana.
Ptolemy left Babylon to return to Egypt and became satrap there. He was well liked by the Egyptians and supported by the Diadochi (Alexander’s Successors). When Alexander’s body was being taken back to Macedon, he hijacked the funeral carriage and took it back to Egypt (Memphis) because he said Alexander wanted to buried there. Perdikkas pursued him but ended up being assassinated by his men after a tactical disaster at the Nile River in which many of the soldiers were killed by crocodiles or drowned.
Ptolemy wanted to build the city that Alexander had dreamed of at the Nile delta, so he oversaw the building of Alexandria and later moved Alexander’s body there. He formed a strong alliance with the Macedonian regent, Antipater, and later married one of his daughters, Eurydike (Dika) in order to legitimize his connection with the royalty.
He is remembered not only as a king and general but as a distinguished historian and founder of the Library of Alexandria and the cult of Serapis, an Egyptian god who was recreated in such a way that it was acceptable to both Greeks and Macedonians. During his rule as Pharaoh, Ptolemy kept a journal to record the exploits of Alexander and the Successors. He abdicated at the age of 82 after a 38 year reign that founded a dynasty which would continue to rule until 321 BC. He was succeeded by his son, age 24, who ruled as Ptolemy II Philadelphus until 246 BC. Ptolemy died in 283 BC. His line ended with Kleopatra XIV, the so-called “Queen of the Nile” of Antony and Cleopatra fame.