A New Take on the Old World
Curators Distinguished Professor of History Ian Worthington will discuss his research on Ptolemy as this year’s distinguished speaker for the 21st Century Corps of Discovery Lecture. His presentation, “Ptolemy I of Egypt: Alexander the Great’s Greatest Successor?” will be held on Sept. 29 at 4 p.m. in Stotler Lounge, with a reception to follow.
Curators Distinguished Professor of History Ian Worthington enjoys challenging conventional wisdom. Worthington teaches courses in Greek history, western civilization, and ancient history and has written what have been described by scholars as “the definitive histories” of Alexander the Great and Phillip II of Macedonia. Both of those books, By the Spear: The Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire (Oxford University Press 2014) and Philip II of Macedonia (Yale University Press 2008), offered reevaluations of the two kings, whom Worthington says have been misrepresented by both the ancient world and by modern scholars.
For example, Worthington says Phillip II of Macedonia was a better king than his son Alexander, but Alexander’s shadow is so great that the generations before and after Alexander tend to be overlooked. His latest reevaluation focuses on Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals and personal bodyguards, whom Worthington contends was Alexander’s greatest successor.
Worthington will discuss his research on Ptolemy as this year’s distinguished speaker for the 21st Century Corps of Discovery Lecture. His presentation, “Ptolemy I of Egypt: Alexander the Great’s Greatest Successor?” will be held on Sept. 29 at 4 p.m. in Stotler Lounge, with a reception to follow.
“Ptolemy is a very underrated figure,” Worthington says. “People think about Egypt and the ancient world and they think of Cleopatra, but she’s the end of the line—she’s the last ruler of the dynasty that Ptolemy started. Most people see him as this peripheral figure who didn’t do much but rule Egypt, establish a dynasty, and die in his bed. In actual fact, I think he was far more of a mover and a shaker than is normally made out, so my thesis is that Ptolemy is really a second Alexander.”
When Alexander the Great died, his generals and bodyguards carved up the empire, with Ptolemy choosing Egypt.
“He picked Egypt for his own after the death of Alexander because he thought it was the best part of the empire because Egypt was easily defensible, it was already wealthy, and it was far away from the areas where he knew the others would be going to war over,” Worthington says. “From the outset he was calculating, he was clever, and he played his cards close to the chest. He also had patience—the others quickly showed their true colors by going to war while Ptolemy bided his time. Slow but steady wins the race.”
Worthington’s most recent book, Ptolemy I: King and Pharaoh of Egypt (Oxford University Press 2016), will be released in October. In it, Worthington argues that Ptolemy deserves credit for establishing Alexandria as the intellectual center of the ancient world, rivaling or even surpassing Athens. He says Alexander tends to get credit for establishing Alexandria and for creating the first library and the first museum, but Worthington says Alexander considered the eponymous city nothing more than a trading center when he founded it. It was Ptolemy, Worthington says, who established Alexandria as his capital and built the great library and the museum, which attracted scholars from across the ancient world. It also was Ptolemy who began construction on one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—the Lighthouse at Pharos, the world’s first lighthouse.
Worthington says another reason Ptolemy was successful was because he respected local cultures and customs. Ptolemy ruled a country consisting of Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, and Macedonians, yet kept them all united and loyal to his regime. He allowed Egyptians in rural areas to collect taxes and to have their own police force and courts. Ptolemy also allowed Egyptians to practice their own religion, integrated others into his administration, and even called himself Pharaoh.
“I think he’s a good model of how to rule a multicultural subject population,” Worthington says. “You can still apply those lessons from the ancient world to today. You saw that after the Iraqi war when you started seeing clashes between the Sunnis and the Shiites because one group was being marginalized.”
The Ptolemaic dynasty was the longest-lived Hellenistic dynasty, coming to an end when Rome defeated Antony and Cleopatra and annexed Egypt in 30 BC.
The annual Corps of Discovery Lecture features an outstanding MU faculty member to commemorate the Lewis and Clark expedition and to inspire and unite the university community. The lecture is intended to represent MU’s diverse academics in science, art, humanities, law, medicine, engineering, education, journalism, and business.