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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

“The Ptolemies”, by Duncan Sprott


496 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13: 978-1400041541

The Ptolemies by Duncan Sprott was, in a word, unputdownable (and I don’t care if it isn’t a real word or not). Narrated by Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and magic who was also the scribe of the gods, the almost-forgotten story of the Greeks’ rule of Egypt unfolds. Ptolemy I Soter (meaning “Savior”), the first Greek Pharaoh, is thought to have been the son of Philip of Macedon, and, therefore, the half-brother of Alexander the Great. When Alexander dies in 323 B.C. after having conquered the known world (known to the Greeks, that is), his empire is divided among his many generals, who spend the next fifty years fighting each other. Ptolemy Soter, who was always at Alexander’s side, becomes Satrap, or Governor, of Egypt, Libya, and part of Arabia, and he and his heirs retain that territory, ruling as the Greek Pharaohs of Egypt, for almost three hundred years. Battles with other Satraps – in Syria, Gaza, Cyprus, and Phrygia – occupy much of Ptolemy’s life, his maneuvering for power sometimes facilitated through the marriages he arranges for his daughters – to the King of Thrace, the King of Macedon, the Tyrant of Syracuse, and the ruler of Syria. His own succession, however, is uncertain, since neither of his sons, Ptolemy Keraunos (meaning “Thunderbolt”) and Ptolemy Mikros (meaning “Little”), seemed to possess the qualities of kingship that he himself espouses. His sons, daughters, and his wives, all of whom become well known to the reader, have a penchant for assassination, and the bloody violence which occurs in the wake of Ptolemy’s own death, after forty years in power, is not surprising.

Sprott focuses on the political, social, and religious life of Alexandria and Memphis during Ptolemy’s rule, using the sometimes mischievous voice of Thoth to tell informal tales about his characters, filling them with gossip, sex, and violence, and presenting a vivid picture of everyday life in the highest levels of power. When he thinks that details may overwhelm the reader, Thoth, the narrator, berates and cajoles, while controlling the pace and continuing the historical background (“Pay attention, Pupil-of-Thoth. The god would have you know everything”, he says at one point). With maps, a chronology, a list of main characters, genealogies, and even a comprehensive glossary, Sprott and his editors have provided everything a student of the period needs to keep track of the characters and their fates. Readable, often exciting, but filled with more characters and detail than some readers may want, this novel should keep those with an interest in post-Alexandrian history pleasantly occupied for hours.

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