Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus: Part One

In or around 278 BCE, another spectacular event was held in Egypt, this time in ancient Alexandria. Not long after he came to power, Ptolemy II, the son of Ptolemy I (a general and close friend of Alexander the Great), staged a monumental procession the likes of which had never been seen before in the ancient world. Indeed, it still may not have a match in sheer grandeur and expense even today.

At that time, Egypt was enmeshed in a series of struggles amongst the diadochi, the generals from Alexander's army and their successors who were competing for the remains of the gigantic empire that had been carved out across western Asia and northern Africa. Ptolemy and his son were part of this group of competitors. Egypt was rich in raw materials, precious gems, and food. It was one of the most sought-after regions of the empire.

This was not only a period of almost continuous war, it was also a fascinating time in history. Ptolemy I had claimed the body of Alexander after his death - rather he had forcibly "kidnapped" it - and taken it to Memphis, the then-capital of Egypt near modern-day Cairo. Supposedly, the thought was that possession of the body was tantamount to a final claim on the empire's crown. At some point it was decided either by Ptolemy I or by him and his son jointly, that the body should be repatriated to Alexandria, the city that Alexander founded. When and how this occured has never been confirmed. However, I believe it is possible that the body was returned as part of the massive celebration held by Ptolemy II about 278 BCE.

So that is the first interesting aspect to this event. Another is the sheer intrigue and mix of personalities involved. They include: Ptolemy I, the seasoned, battle-hardened general; Ptolemy II, a voluptuary and dilettante and the son of Ptolemy I; and Arsinoe II, a strong-willed beauty thirsting for political power, and a woman easily the intellectulal equivalent of her future more famous relative, Cleopatra VII. She was the daughter of Ptolemy I and, if history is to be believed, eventually the wife of her brother, Ptolemy II. It was this marriage that later resulted in Ptolemy II being forever known as "Philadelphus" or "loving one's sister."

Finally, all this takes place in Alexandria, the most beautiful, advanced city in the world at that time, thanks to the ingenuity of these same Ptolemies. For want of comparison, it was in those days a contemporary mixture of the debauchery of a Las Vegas and the sophistication of a Paris, London, or New York.

I'll get right into the story in the next post.

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