Founding of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and Seleucid Kingdom

When Alexander the Great’s generals divided his empire, Ptolemy Soter and Seleucus I Nicator acquired major realms, which their successors ruled for nearly three centuries.

Summary of Event

Alexander the Great left no heir or obvious successor to rule an empire that extended from the Balkans to India when he died at Babylon on June 13, 323 b.c.e. On his deathbed, Alexander gave his signet ring to Perdiccas, his second-in-command. After rancorous debate, the generals present in Babylon accepted Perdiccas as regent for two members of Macedonia’s royal dynasty—Alexander’s mentally retarded half brother, who took the title Philip III Arrhidaeus, and Alexander’s posthumous son, Alexander IV. First-rank generals were assigned to govern various provinces of the empire as satraps under the direction of the regent. Ptolemy received Egypt as his territory. Seleucus, a second-rank officer, did not receive a satrapy in 323 b.c.e. but was promoted to command of the Companion Cavalry, the position previously held by Perdiccas. Perdiccas
Ptolemy Soter
Seleucus I Nicator
Antigonus I Monophthalmos
Demetrius Poliorcetes

Ptolemy, one of the first satraps to conclude that Alexander’s empire could not be held together, rapidly established his rule in Egypt. Ptolemy arrested the previous satrap, who had grown wealthy through corruption. After executing the offender, Ptolemy appropriated his fortune for himself. He sent forces to occupy Cyrenaica (modern-day Libya), asserting it was part of his territory. Perdiccas had arranged to send Alexander’s embalmed corpse to Macedonia for burial in the ancient royal tombs. Ptolemy, however, intercepted the funeral cortege and brought it to Egypt, where he planned to build an elaborate mausoleum in which Alexander’s remains would be exhibited.

Perdiccas, who wanted to keep Alexander’s empire together and may have hoped to become king himself, found Ptolemy’s independence infuriating. In 320 b.c.e., he set out with the royal army to attack Ptolemy but was unable to penetrate the Nile Delta and lost many men in the attempt. Perdiccas’s officers revolted against his leadership and assassinated him. At a second division of the empire later that year, Seleucus, who had joined the revolt against Perdiccas, received the satrapy of Babylon, Ptolemy was confirmed as satrap of Egypt, and Antigonus replaced Perdiccas as commander of the royal army in Asia.

While still calling himself satrap, Ptolemy began behaving as though he were king. He chose Alexandria for his capital and erected a magnificent palace. Ptolemy desired to have Alexandria replace Athens as the cultural center of the Greek world. Near the palace he established his Museum (House of the Muses), to which he attracted outstanding artists, poets, scholars, and scientists, whose creative work the Ptolemies supported. Ptolemy and his son attempted to obtain copies of every known book for the adjoining library, assembling a collection that ultimately contained some half million papyrus rolls. To attract commerce, Ptolemy improved the city’s harbor and started construction of an enormous lighthouse, the Pharos, which rose more than 350 feet (108 meters) and was celebrated as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Ptolemy began a religious policy designed to build support for his dynasty. During his satrapy, he carried out the religious duties that came with the office of pharaoh, rebuilding temples and carrying out the requisite sacrifices. It was not until his actual coronation, at Memphis in 304 b.c.e., that the Egyptian priests sacrificed to him as pharaoh, the living god who maintained the divine order on earth and who would join the immortal deities after death. Ptolemy also built temples to the Greek gods, especially Dionysus, whom he claimed as an ancestor. When the citizens of Rhodes established a cult of Ptolemy the Savior to honor him for his help in defeating a siege by Demetrius Poliorcetes, he accepted their deification and the appellation of Soter (savior). However, Ptolemy Soter was not worshiped as a god by Greeks and Macedonians in Egypt until after his death. Ptolemy also sponsored the invention of a new god, Serapis, who formed a divine pair with Isis, uniting Greek and Egyptian religious symbols for the polyglot population within his kingdom.

Seleucus did not establish his independence as easily as Ptolemy had. Babylon was a wealthy province but could not provide its ruler with effective manpower. Seleucus, therefore, depended on mercenary soldiers to defend his rule. When Antigonus, commanding an overwhelming army, arrived in Babylon in 316 b.c.e. and called on Seleucus to account for his administration, Seleucus fled to Egypt. Ptolemy, who suspected that Antigonus hoped to establish himself as ruler of Alexander’s entire domain, welcomed Seleucus and put him in charge of his fleet. Seleucus proved an effective commander at sea and on land. After operating successfully in the Aegean, he joined Ptolemy in defeating Demetrius at the Battle of Gaza in 312 b.c.e.

Seleucus I Nicator celebrated the victory by recruiting four thousand of Demetrius’s vanquished mercenaries and returned to Babylon. His successors dated the establishment of the Seleucid Dynasty as 312 b.c.e. Seleucus’s smaller force defeated two large armies Antigonus sent against him, and both times Seleucus added routed mercenaries to his army. He felt free to move east, where he took control of Media, Susa, Persis, Parthia, and Bactria. Unlike Alexander’s other officers, Seleucus did not repudiate the Persian wife he had married at Alexander’s command. He effectively used his wife and half-Persian son to portray his dynasty as legitimate rulers of his Asian, as well as his Greek and Macedonian, subjects. Seleucus earned the appellation Nicator (victorious) during his campaigns, being defeated only in India, where the winning general granted him many elephants (perhaps five hundred) when agreeing to a peace treaty.

Antigonus I Monophthalmos assumed the title of king in 306 b.c.e. after defeating Ptolemy’s fleet at the Battle of Salamis (both Philip III and Alexander IV had already been killed); he then made his son Demetrius co-king. The next year Ptolemy and Seleucus also proclaimed themselves kings—Seleucus had been acting as a king since 312 b.c.e. and Ptolemy since 323 b.c.e. The three major Hellenistic dynasties were now openly established: the Antigonid in Europe, the Ptolemaic in Egypt, and the Seleucid in Asia.


Ptolemy, unique among Alexander’s successors in dying a natural death, created a compact kingdom, protected by the outlying territories of Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and Palestine. It outlasted all other Hellenistic monarchies until the death of Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest in 30 b.c.e. His great city of Alexandria protected and expanded the Greek cultural and scientific heritage and then bequeathed it to medieval Europe and the Islamic world.

Of the various contenders, Seleucus came closest to reconstituting Alexander’s empire. When he was assassinated in 281 b.c.e., he held (except for Egypt) most of the Persian Empire that Alexander had conquered and was poised to invade Europe, hoping to add Macedonia and Greece to his dominions. His realm stretched from the Mediterranean Sea almost to the Indus Valley and included much of present-day Turkey, plus Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.

The Ptolemaic and Seleucid Dynasties influenced later religious and political ideas. The Ptolemaic cult of Isis and Serapis proved popular throughout the Greek-speaking world and spread across the Roman Empire. The worship of Isis, a gentle goddess and queen of Heaven, made it easy for believers to accept Christianity, with its cult of the Virgin Mary, mother of God. The Hellenistic principle of divine monarchs informed medieval and Renaissance theories of monarchy. Although Christian kings were not worshiped as gods, they considered themselves divinely chosen leaders whose acts could not be challenged by mortals.

Further Reading

  • Ellis, Walter M. Ptolemy of Egypt. New York: Routledge, 1994. Informative, favorable brief biography of Ptolemy.
  • Grainger, John D. Seleukos Nicator: Constructing a Hellenistic Kingdom. New York: Routledge, 1990. Detailed scholarly biography of the founder of the Seleucid kingdom.
  • Green, Peter. Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Provides an excellent overview of the Hellenistic world in which Ptolemy and Seleucus flourished. Includes a detailed chronology from 323 to 30 b.c.e. and genealogies of the Hellenistic dynasties.
  • Hölbl, Günther. A History of the Ptolemaic Empire. Translated by Tina Saavedra. New York: Routledge, 2001. Stresses the political significance of the Ptolemaic treatment of Egyptian and Greek religion. Provides a useful chronology of Ptolemaic Egypt.
  • Sherwin-White, Susan M., and Amélie Kuhrt. From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Contends that the Seleucid Empire was based on a partnership with many cultures, not just on Macedonian and Greek domination.

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