Ptolemy II Philadelphus

Ptolemy II was the youngest son of Ptolemy I Soter. He had two elder brothers, Ptolemy Keraunos and Meleager, both of whom were Macedonian kings. He became his father’s co-regent in 284 BC and took over as the sole king of Egypt in 282 BC when his father died. During his reign, the Ptolemaic empire reached its greatest extent and Egypt was both wealthy and powerful.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus

Ptolemy II married Arsinoe I (the daughter of Lysimachus, the king of Thrace) as part of an alliance against Seleucus I Nicator (another general of Alexander the Great). She was the mother of his three legitimate children, Ptolemy III Euergetes (his successor), Lysimachus, and Berenice Phernopherus.

Lysimachus was married to Ptolemy II’s sister, Arsinoe II, but when he died she briefly married Ptolemy II’s elder brother Ptolemy Keraunos. When that alliance soured, Arsinoe II fled to Egypt to the protection of Ptolemy II. Shortly afterwards (and most likely at the instigation of Arsinoe II) Arsinoe I was accused of treason and exiled. Ptolemy II divorced Arsinoe I and married Arsinoe II and adopted the epithet Philadelphus (brother or sister-loving).

Ptolemy II was the first pharaoh to marry his full sister, but this form of marriage became standard for the remainder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. His marriage to Arsinoe II does not seem to have provoked any scandal. It was probably likened to the relationship between Osiris and Isis, and Zeus and Hera.

Arsinoe II seems to have adopted her husband’s children by his former wife (Arsinoe I) and there is no evidence that she had any children by Ptolemy. Perhaps because their marriage was political in nature it is not surprising that Ptolemy seems to have had a large number of mistresses, the most influential of whom seems to have been Bilistiche with whom he may have fathered Ptolemy Andromachou and who may even have been deified by Ptolemy after her death.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his sister-wife Arsinoe II

He was educated by Strato (of the school of Aristotle) and Philitas of Cos (an Alexandrian poet and scholar) and during his reign the royal court reached new heights of artistic and material splendour.

In 280 BC he inaugurated the Ptolemaieia, a festival held every four years to honour both his father and their dynasty. This festival was in part to rival the Olympic Games and in part to reinforce the power and popularity of the Royal Family. He also staged a lavish procession in Alexandria in honour of Dionysius involving twenty-four chariots and a large number of exotic animals and apparently he assembled an impressive zoo in Alexandria.

The Great Library of Alexandria was founded by Ptolemy I but completed and extended by Ptolemy II. Ptolemy was keen to support scientific research and was a generous sponsor of the arts. His court included many artists and poets, including Callimachus and Theocritus of Syracuse (who lavished great praise on his sponsor).

Most importantly, he commissioned an Egyptian priest, Manetho, to consult the records in the temples of Egypt and compile a history of Egypt. Unfortunately we do not have a full copy of Manetho’s work, only a list of the kings divided into a series of dynasties and excerpts which appear in the works of Josephus, Africanus, and Eusebius, but its importance cannot be overstated. Manetho’s work was originally written in Greek (possibly because Ptolemy did not read hieroglyphs).

Ptolemy II Philadelphus offering incense to a now missing deity at Sebennytos

The Letter of Aristeas (also known as the Letter of Philocrates) tells that Demetrios of Phaleron, a librarian in the Great Library, urged Ptolemy II to obtain a Greek translation of Hebrew laws. The king apparently sent lavish gifts to Jerusalem and granted freedom to numerous Jewish slaves and in return six members of each of the twelve tribes of Israel travelled to Alexandria to translate the Torah. The validity of the text is questioned by many scholars but there was indeed a translation of the Pentateuch during the early Ptolemaic Period and the text may also contain the earliest reference to the Great Library of Alexandria.

During the Ptolemaic Period there were a number of edicts published in which the text was repeated in Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic, and Greek. However, the reign of Ptolemy II is notable for the number of royal declarations which were produced purely in hieroglyphs. Among them are numerous examples of Ptolemy making offerings to the ancient Egyptian gods and adoring his deified sister Arsinoe II, but there is also the famous Stele of Mendes. This stele claims that Ptolemy made a pilgrimage to visit the sacred Ram of Mendes and stresses that his actions were in accordance with ancient rituals and traditions. It also confirms that he then took action to restore damage to the temple.

Ptolemy undertook a great deal of building work throughout Egypt. He enlarged the shrine of Renenutet at Medinet Madi, built a gate between the temple of Imhotep and the temple of Isis on Philae, made additions to the temples of Elephantine and Thebes, left his mark on the temple of Sobek at Medinet el-Fayyum, and built a new main temple at Koptos. He also completed the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria (also known as Pharos) and ordered the construction of a number of cities along the red sea coast (along with numerous temples and canals) which helped to strengthen trade links with the Mediterranean and boost the Egyptian economy.

Pliny the Elder also reported that Ptolemy established trade links with India, probably with the emperor Ashoka, as he is mentioned in the Edicts of Ashoka.

Ptolemy also undertook a reform of the tax system to increase his revenues. He introduced a new salt tax which was imposed on every woman and man with only a few exceptions. This tax may have replaced an earlier yoke-tax, which was only imposed on men but at a higher rate, and it is interesting to note that among those exempt to the new tax were teachers of writing and gymnastics and all of the winners in the Alexandrian games.

Ptolemy transferred the responsibility for the collection of the one-sixth tax (hekte) from the temples to tax farmers giving the crown more effective control of both the levying and collection of taxation. He also reformed bronze coinage, introducing new denominations and widening their circulation.

These moves were partly aimed at increasing state control over Egyptian society, but were also made necessary by the need to finance wars in Syria. However, although the measures may have increased revenues they also increased the scope for bribery and tax evasion which were rife throughout the Ptolemaic period.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus (copyright Marie Lan Nguyen)

Ptolemy reformed the judiciary and promoted royal law above Egyptian and Greek law. He created three distinct courts: the Chrematistai was the royal court and heard cases on an ad hoc basis; the Dikasteria heard cases involving Greek speaking parties; and Laokritai heard cases involving parties who spoke Egyptian and was overseen by Egyptian priests.

Informal disputes were still handled outside the courts under Egyptian law with no state interference. While there was a clear aim to centralise control of the legal system, Ptolemy also respected local traditions and much of the reform may in fact have been a codification of the existing situation.

Ptolemy had mixed military fortunes. Magas of Cyrene attacked Egypt from the west but was forced to withdraw by internal revolt. Shortly after, the Seleucid king, Antiochus I Soter, attacked Egypt in the First Syrian War (274-271 BC) but was soundly beaten by Ptolemy II who extended Egypt’s control to include most of Cilicia. Fearful that Macedonian power in the Aegean would prevent the expansion of his own power in the area, Ptolemy encouraged the other Greek states to enter into a coalition against Macedon which ultimately resulted in the Chremonidean War (267 BC – 261 BC).

Athens led the other states in declaring war against Macedon but they were defeated and besieged. Ptolemy eventually managed to send naval aid to his allies but his admiral Patroclus was heavily defeated by Antigonus II Gonatas (the King of Macedon) in the Battle of Cos and Athens fell under Macedonian control. Although many ships were lost in the battle and a useful ally defeated, this only really constituted a temporary lapse in Egypt’s position as the major naval power of the Aegean.

Ptolemy also suffered losses in the Second Syrian War against Antiochus II Theos (260-253 BC) but successfully negotiated a peace under which his daughter Berenice was married to the Seleucid ruler. Despite his mixed fortunes he showed himself to be both an able general and a skillful negotiator.

Pharaoh’s Names

Horus Name

Khunukeni (strong youth)


Userphety (greath of strength, whose strength is great)

Golden Horus

Sekhaensu itef (Who his father has raised to the throne)


Userkhaenre Meryamun (Who is made strong through the ka of Re, beloved of Amun)


tolemys (Ptolemy)

  • E. R. Bevan (1927) The House of Ptolemy
  • Alan K. Bowman (1989) Egypt After the Pharaohs: 332 BC-AD 642 : from Alexander to the Arab Conquest
  • Josephus Antiquities
  • J. G. Manning (2010) The Last Pharaohs: Egypt Under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC
  • Paul McKechnie, Philippe Guillaume (2008) Ptolemy II Philadelphus and His World

Copyright J Hill 2012