When Alexander died in Babylon in 323BC, the Macedonian leadership reassigned the Satrapies (governorships) of the empire. Ptolemy son of Lagos, Alexander’s childhood friend and one of the inner circle of “Bodyguards” and generals, was appointed Satrap of Egypt.
Ptolemy arrived with no soldiers and no treasury of his own. But he used the riches of Egypt to hire a large force of mercenaries; and wasted no time in stealing the body of Alexander as it passed through Syria on the way to burial in Macedonia. He took it first to Memphis and then to rest in the newly constructed capital of Alexandria. This act was a declaration of revolt against the regency of Perdiccas in Babylon; and set off the subsequent Wars of the Diadochi. Throughout the next 50 years of near-continuous conflict, Ptolemy alone showed no interest in reuniting the Empire of Alexander; but single-mindedly worked to build a self-sufficient kingdom centered on the Lower-Nile.
Ptolemy I Soter
After Alexander, the Eastern Mediterranean was awash in unemployed fighting men. These mercenaries were of various types; the most desired being Macedonian or others trained to fight like Macedonian phalangites. These were the battle-winners in the wars of the Diadachi. Cavalry were also prized, particularly the heavy cavalry lancers of Macedonian or Thessalian origin. These were in vary short supply, and when available served usually in the bodyguard regiments of the various Satraps, Successor kings and generals.
Light infantry were more readily available. Of these, Cretan archers, Rhodian slingers, and javelin-and-spear armed Peltasts/Thureophoroi (particularly those from Thrace) were the most valuable. In the 3rd century, after the Celtic invasion of Greece and Anatolia, these “Galatians” also became much sought after soldiers-for-hire.
With the wealth of Egypt to draw on, Ptolemy I was able to not only hire an army of such mercenaries and hold onto Egypt; he succeeded in creating the longest-lasting of all the Successor Kingdoms. He was remembered by his people and history as Ptolemy Soter (“The Savior”).
His first test came in 321 BC, when Egypt was invaded by Perdiccas, the Macedonian Regent for Alexander the Great’s infant child. Perdiccas led the “Grande Armee” of the Macedonian Empire, and should have had little trouble in unseating Ptolemy from his newly-held stronghold. However, he was daunted by the Nile; unable to cross in the face of resistance. Delay led to disaffection among his troops (who took particular exception to seeing comrades drown or eaten by Nile crocodiles!), who could see no reason they should be fighting the popular Ptolemy to further the ambitions of the haughty Perdiccas. The impasse was solved by Perdiccas’ subordinate generals: Seleucus (the future founder of the Seleucid Dynasty), Peithon, and Antigenes (commander of the elite “Silver Shields” regiment) murdered the Regent in his tent.
The two armies joined as one, and peace between Macedonians was (briefly) restored. Some of the soldiers of the Imperial Army stayed in Egypt to serve Ptolemy; many of which settled in the country, becoming the nucleus for a Macedonian colony.
In 312 BC Ptolemy faced yet another Diadachi foe at the Battle of Gaza; this time an Antigonid army led by the son and heir of Antigonus “One Eyed” (Monophthalmus), 23 year old Demetrius (not-yet Poliorcetes, “the Besieger”). Ptolemy (and his now-ally and guest, Seleucus) was triumphant, routing Demetrius and capturing all 43 elephants and some 8,000 infantry. Many of the latter were Macedonians or Greek mercenaries. These were taken back to Egypt as prisoners of war.
Demetrius’ Agema fighting Ptolemy’s Companions at Gaza, 312 BC
Throughout his reign, Ptolemy I Soter settled both discharged mercenaries and Macedonian and Greek prisoners-of-war in Lower Egypt (mostly in the Nile Delta region) as kleruch/military settlers. They and their descendents provided the “Macedonian” kleruch phalanx that was the infantry home guard of the Ptolemaic kingdom in its first two centuries; and the Kleruch cavalry. They were also recruited into the Royal Guards of the Ptolemaic kings. Fresh drafts of mercenaries from Greece, Thrace, and Anatolia were ever recruited to garrison far-flung outposts, provide marines for Egypt’s superb navy, and to bolster the fighting effectiveness of the indigenous Ptolemaic army.
Unlike the Seleucids, who were a land power and had a large pool of European military settlers to draw upon, the Ptolemies were primarily a naval power. Their wealth (in part) and power derived from their overseas’ interests in the Eastern Mediterranean (particularly Cyprus) and the Aegean islands, and from towns and cities they controlled along the Thracian and Anatolian littoral.
Reliance on Hellenic and “barbarian” mercenaries was to become a hallmark of the Ptolemaic kings that followed Soter on the throne. While money was seldom an issue, reliable indigenous troops were always in short supply. The Army reflected this, with the bulk of their forces comprised of mercenary garrisons holding towns and fortresses scattered across their empire; and serving as marines aboard their fleet.
As with the Seleucids, the army was comprised of three parts: The guards around the king in Alexandria; the reservists, at first predominantly Greco-Macedonian kleruchs, and later including Egyptian machimoi; and finally the mercenaries.
Unlike their rival Seleucids, the Ptolemies maintained a relatively small force of full-time soldiers to act as a Royal Guard around the sovereign. These were drawn from the Macedonian and Greek kleruchs, settled in Egypt by the first Ptolemy.
This consisted of a cavalry Royal Guard (Hetairoi?) 700 strong; and an infantry Royal Guard (Basilikon Agema) 3,000 strong. The cavalry were lance armed (xystophoroi), and as late as 200BC were shieldless. The infantry guard were phalangites, though a 1,000 man unit within the Agema may have been able to fight as more traditional hypaspists or as thorakitai (spear or spear-and-javelin armed, fast moving heavy infantry).
A further 2,000 “Peltast” are listed at the Battle of Raphia (217BC) as posted next to the Agema; and these too might have been a unit of the regular guards (though it is just as likely they were mercenaries). The name should not be confused with the traditional troop type called “peltasts” in Greek warfare; meaning light skirmish infantry. By the late 3rd century BC, the term was being used to mean phalangites carrying a small, bronze-faced round shield called a “pelta”. The traditional peltast-skirmishers of old were now called thureophoroi (having replaced their smaller pelta shields with a long, light oval shield called a thureos, and added a thrusting spear to their traditional javelins).
Royal Guard Cavalry(Illustration by Johnny Schumate)
After Raphia a “picked” unit of native Egyptians joined the guard, referred to in the sources as Machimoi Epilektoi. Neither their numeric strength nor armament are known; but it is likely they were originally trained as phalangites, as this is the role the Egyptian Machimoi played at Raphia. As with much of the Ptolemaic army after the reforms of the Ptolemy VI Philometor, from the 160s onward they may have been trained and equipped as Thureophoroi.
Finally, the sons of the kleruch military settlers received their military training in a corps of cadets, called the Epigoni (“Heirs”). How long the young men had to serve in this force is unknown; but since they are unlisted at Raphia, it is likely that this not a combat unit; and that following their training they returned to their father’s farms, to be mobilized as part of the kleroi phalanx when needed.
The Graeco-Macedonian kleroi provided the phalanx of the Ptolemaic Empire. At Raphia, these numbered 25,000 (according to Polybius). These were men of Macedonian or Greek descent. However, it should be noted that the term “Macedonian”, when used in the ancient sources to refer to a body of troops, only meant men who fought in the “Macedonian style”, as phalangites; and not necessarily to ethnicity.
The Ptolemaic “Macedonian” phalanx was equipped much as their counterparts in other Hellenistic kingdoms, with the two-handed sarissa (pike) and a smallish (22”-28”) shield (called a “pelte” in the later Hellenistic Period). While all phalangites were equipped with a helmet, at least the front rankers (if not all) wore cuirass and greaves. In battle they formed-up 16-32 ranks deep (at Raphia the Ptolemaic phalanx formed 24 ranks deep; perhaps to gain extra weight against their better-quality Seleucid counterparts). The phalanx had two two density orders: pyknosis, the standard battle order in which each man occupied 3’ of frontage; and synaspismos (“locked shields”), in which each man occupied a mere 1.5’ frontage. This latter density was only used to receive an assault, and was seldom used when a phalanx was advancing as it allowed little room for maneuver.
The phalanx aside, small numbers of kleroi settlements were assigned to discharged Thracian and Galatian mercenaries; so that such “ethnic” troops, fighting in their own unique national styles, would be available indigenously. 4,000 such “mercenary kleruchs” were available for battle in 217BC; fighting in their own style.
(Illustration by the late Angus McBride)
Cavalry kleruchs numbered about 2,300 at the Battle of Raphia. The army by that time had degenerated after decades of neglect; and in the previous generation may have numbered twice as many. While their equipment likely came from government armories, each man had to supply his own horse. They likely fought in their traditional fashion, as either xystophoroi or armed with shield and javelin.
As time went on, the quality of the Graeco-Macedonian kleruch soldiers deteriorated to the point where they ceased to be a military force. Mercenaries, particularly thorakitai and thureophoroi became the mainstay of the Ptolemaic army.
In 219 BC, the Fourth Syrian War began with the Seleucid king Antiochus III invading the Ptolemaic lands of Phoenicia and Coele-Syria (“Hollow-Syria”, Palestine). Fortunately for Ptolemaic fortunes, he paused to consolidate his control of these territories, rather than pressing on into Egypt. This gave the court of Alexandria time to prepare.
The Ptolemaic army had been idle for nearly a generation, and was in no condition to face the stronger Seleucid army under its energetic young king. Ptolemy IV, himself a young king newly risen to the throne (Ptolemy IV and Philip V of Macedon both came to their respective thrones in 221BC; just two years after Antiochus III). Unlike his Seleucid rival, he was a weak and dissolute creature, controlled by his corrupt ministers. However corrupt they may have been, they were resourceful. They used the time they had to prepare the army for battle.
The kleruchs reservists were called-up and drilled; mercenaries were hired from Greece and the Aegean. Most consequentially, for the first time, the Ptolemaic government began recruiting from the native Egyptian population.
Egypt was a very old land with a very long history. By the time Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt, the builders of the pyramids were as ancient to him as he is to our time! Under the Macedonians the hereditary Egyptian military caste, the machimoi, had not been called to fight in the army; though they did serve in the fleet.
But in face of Seleucid invasion, the Ptolemaic court made the decision to arm and train the Egyptian machimoi as phalangites. 20,000 were ready in 217 to face the invaders, to fight beside the 25,000 Graeco-Macedonian Kleruch phalangites. It was a bold (and, as it turned out, dangerous) move to arm the machimoi. Macedonian control of Egypt relied more on Egyptian apathy than on the loyalty of the people. Given arms and training equal to the Macedonians, the native Egyptians were soon agitating for greater equality. The next reign was plagued by revolts.
At the Battle of Raphia in 217BC, the machimoi phalanx gave good service; standing beside the Graeco-Macedonian kleruchs in the battle line against the Seleucid phalanx; ultimately routing it from the field.
As already stated, the bulk of the Ptolemaic army was comprised of mercenary garrisons and auxiliaries. Macedonian mercenaries were primarily available during the early years of the Diodachi Wars, while Macedon was in turmoil and remnants of Alexander’s army were still available for recruitment in Asia. However, as the political situation solidified in the early 3rd century, the later Ptolemies had no access to Macedonians; that kingdom now being ruled by their rivals, the Antigonids. Greek mercenaries were still both prized and available. 8,000 mercenary Greek phalangites fought in the Ptolemaic ranks at Raphia (217BC). At least 6,000 Aetolians were brought to Alexandria by the mercenary general, Scopas, in 200BC.
From their coastal possessions in Thrace and Anatolia, they were able to recruit the warlike peoples of the interiors: Thracians, Galatians, Lycians and Pamphlians. Most of these fought as thureophoroi. Libyans are also mentioned, but wither these are from Greek Cyrene or the Libyan desert-dwelling tribes is unknown. Cretan archers and Rhodian slingers were also prized specialist troops. Judeans and Idumean Arabs were also recruited, but seem to have been used mostly as police and border patrol forces.
Oddly, the Ptolemies seem to have made no use of the Nubian archers of the Northern Sudan; which had served to good effect in the ancient armies of the Pharaohs, and in the Medieval armies of Muslim Egypt.
As the kingdom became a virtual client kingdom of Rome following Pompey‘s “Eastern Settlement” in the first half of the 1st century BC, Roman and Italian soldier’s of fortune joined the ranks of the Ptolemaic mercenaries. In 51BC, Ptolemy XII was restored to his throne by Roman intervention. A force of 2,000 Roman troops were left in Alexandria to keep him in power. These came to be known as the Gabiniani (in reference to the Roman general, Aulus Gabinius who had led the Roman expedition to Egypt); and soon adopted the manners of their new country and became just another group of mercenaries.
So alienated had they become from their mother country that when in 50BC the Governor of Syria, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus sent his sons to Alexandria to summon them to Syria to oppose a Parthian attack, the Gabiniani (happy in their current station) not only refused; they murdered the Governor’s sons!
The Gabiniani became deeply involved in Alexandrian politics; and supported Ptolemy XIII against his older sister, Cleopatra VII. She had earned their enmity after she turned the murderers of Bibulus’ sons over to the Romans for justice. The following year, 49BC, they helped drive her out of Alexandria. When Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus in August 48BC, Pompey fled to Egypt. Ptolemy XIII’s powerful advisors had supported Pompey with troops in the civil war, and now sought to curry favor with the victor by murdering Pompey. It was two leading members of the Gabiniani, the former Tribune Lucius Septimius and the Centurion Salvius who carried out the bloody treachery.
Caesar was not pleased by with the murder of his former son-in-law; and upon settling into Alexandria with a small force, he brought Cleopatra VII back to the capital. This led to conflict with Ptolemy, his advisors and the army (led by a general named Achillas). Caesar and the single legion which had accompanied him found themselves besieged in the capital; which came to be called the Alexandrian War. The Gabiniani played an important role as the core of Achillas’ army; and were reinforced by “fugitive criminals and exiles” from the neighboring Roman provinces, swelling their ranks. Caesar triumphed in the end, and the Gabiniani suffered annihilation in the final battles.
After the Alexandrian War, Caesar carried on an affair with Cleopatra. He left three legions in Egypt to safeguard her reign when he departed to continue the fight against his remaining enemies. After Caesar’s assassination in 44BC, Marc Antony became the most powerful man in Roman Empire (along with his partner-in-power, Octavian Caesar). He soon became Cleopatra’s lover and ultimately her husband. While resident in Alexandria, he reorganized her guard, now comprised of Romans loyal to the two of them.
The Ptolemies maintained a large arsenal of artillery at Alexandria. Machines of various sizes were built and maintained. These ranged from stone throwing ballistae to bolt-shooting catapults. The torsion-powered catapult was perfected in the Hellenistic Period, with Alexandria and Syracuse the chief centers of scientific experimentation and development of artillery.
This type of engine was the supreme artillery weapon of the world until gunpowder. As late as the second decade of the 18th century, a French military writer (the Chevalier de Folard) argued for returning to torsion-powered catapults; as they were as accurate as the cannon of the day and cheaper to operate! Torsion-powered machines had great range and power, the longest shot recorded being 800 yards, firing a 6’ long bolt. This was an extreme range from a large machine; the average catapult shooting a bolt half that size and half as far. Torsion power was provided by tightly bound skeins of sinew or human hair (there was a great market in the Hellenistic Kingdoms for hair, and women of the poorer-classes regularly sold their long locks).
Engines of various size were used in siege warfare (both for attacking and defending cities and fortresses). Tarn argued that they were not used in Hellenistic naval warfare, that it was the Romans who first mounted engines on shipboard; but this view is not generally accepted.1 Artillery was only used in battle during the Hellenistic Period on two occasions: once by Alexander to force a crossing of the Jaxartes River against the Massagetae; and at the third Battle of Mantinea in 207 BC by the Spartan Tyrant, Machanidas (and had no appreciable effect on the outcome of the battle). The main reason that the powerful and accurate ancient artillery was not more widely used is likely because of their lack of mobility, the fluid nature of field battles, and the time it took to construct these wooden engines on the battlefield (they were never moved about in one piece; but assembled on site as needed).
Elephants were another specialty force within the Ptolemaic army. Originally, Ptolemy I Soter may have had a few Indian elephants taken from the army of Perdiccas the Regent; and 43 more were captured from Demetrius following the victory at Gaza. But when these died, no source for Indian elephants was available. Starting with Ptolemy II Philadelphos expeditions were sent out to capture and train the smaller Forest Elephant; found along the Red Sea coast and south as far as Abyssinia. Originally these beasts were trained by imported Indian mahouts. Later mahouts were Greek or Egyptian; though they were still referred to as “Indians”. No record exists for the size of the Ptolemaic herd; but at Raphia in 217BC there were 73 elephants on the Ptolemaic side.
During this battle, the larger Seleucid Indian Elephants dominated their Ptolemaic opponents. According to Polybius, even the smell of the Indian beasts intimidated the smaller African Forest Elephants.
With possessions sprawled across the Eastern Mediterranean, the fleet was perhaps the most important element in the Ptolemaic military. While not technically within the scope of this discussion, a few words about this vital arm are appropriate.
Successor Penteres/Quinquereme (5-rower), ship-of-the-line of the Hellenistic and Roman world
From the beginning of the Wars of the Diadochi, fleet actions had played an important part. Demetrius Poliorcetes was able to wrest control of the sea (and Cyprus) from Ptolemy by victory in the Battle of Salamis-in-Cyprus, in 306 BC. For the next twenty years, Demetrius and the Antigonids controlled the largest fleet in the Mediterranean. After his capture by Seleucus in Cilicia in 286 BC, the Antigonid fleet went over to Ptolemy. This gave the Ptolemies (on paper) somewhere between 300 – 400 warships; with Tarn’s estimate of 336 first-rate warships seeming persuasive.2
An Octeres (8-rower). Several of these formed the vanguard of Antony’s fleet at Actium in 31 BC. The hypothetical arrangement of the rowers here depicted arranges them in three tiers, as seen in a trireme. Most scholars suggest a two-tier arrangement.
For most of the 3rd century, the Ptolemaic fleet was the most powerful fleet in the Mediterranean; surpassing in size that of either Carthage (max of 200 ships) or Rome (250 ships)3; and possessing a variety of much larger and more powerful ships than either (including the largest warship built in the ancient world, a tessarakonteres, or 40-rower).
Artist speculative reconstruction of the tessarakonteres of Ptolemy II. Some scholars have speculated that this ship may, in fact, have been a double-hauled catamaran; with the deck overlaying the two large hulls.
During the reign of the dissolute Ptolemy IV, the fleet was allowed to deteriorate (wooden fleets rot if left without maintenance and replacement). From 201 BC onward, the fleet only took to the sea in small squadrons. Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, was able to furnish but 60 ships for service under Antony for the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. These included some large warships, including a number of deceres (10-rowers). Due to malaria sweeping through the Antonine camp, the entire fleet was undermanned during the battle. This depletion in rowers meant a lack of propulsion; accounting for the unusual sluggishness of the entire fleet, and particularly the great “dreadnaughts”, the larger warships. Octavian’s light libernians were able to maintain a safe distance.
Though neither the largest or best of the Successor Kingdom armies, the Ptolemaic forces were able maintain an empire that controlled much of the Eastern Mediterranean for nearly three centuries. At its “high-water mark”, in the 240’s, a Ptolemaic army under the mercenary general Xanthippus the Spartan marched as far as Babylon (and, by one account, into the Eastern Satrapies). At Raphia in 217BC it managed to win the greatest Successor battle since Ipsus, 84 years earlier. At sea, the Ptolemaic fleet ruled the Eastern Mediterranean for generations. Long after their rivals, the Antigonids of Macedon and the Seleucids of Syria had fallen under the control of the Romans, the Ptolemaic kingdom remained the last independent Hellenistic Kingdom.
(Illustration by the late Angus McBride)
Under the last Ptolemaic kings, Egypt became a virtual client-kingdom of Rome. Even so, the last Ptolemaic ruler, the famed Cleopatra VII, nearly managed to restore the lost glory of her dynasty through the skilled manipulation of the two most powerful Romans of her day: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. She was a woman of famous whit and charm, and undoubted intelligence. She has this distinction: Rome only feared two individuals. One was Hannibal; the other was Cleopatra.
1 See Tarn, W.W., Hellenistic Military and Naval Developments; Ares Publishers Inc, Chicago, 1930; P.120
2 Tarn, W.W., Antigonos Gonatas; Appendix X
3 Polybius puts the Carthaginian and Roman fleets in the First Punic War at an impossibly high number of 330 and 350 warships, respectively. But Professor W. W. Tarn’s careful analysis of Polybius’ figures (JHS, vol. 27) downsizes both to a more acceptable number.