History Hooks: Ptolemy VIII
Today on Hisory Hooks we are going to look at one of my favourite individuals from antiquity: Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II of Egypt and his rather complicated family history. He was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, which began after Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BCE and lasted until Cleopatra VII committed suicide in 30 BCE. Lets look and see what a GM can gleam from this troubled Pharaoh.
When Ptolemy VIII first came to the throne of Egypt in 170 BCE he was barely into his teen years, if that (dates of birth are notoriously hard to pin down for ancient figures). The people of Alexandria had declared him Pharaoh alongside his sister Cleopatra II (not the most famous Cleopatra VII who wouldn’t be around for another 120 years) to counter the claim of Ptolemy VI, their brother, who had been put on the throne by Antiochus IV of the rival Seleucid Empire. By 169 BCE, Antiochus had been chastised by Rome and forced to withdraw from Egypt, leaving the three teenaged siblings to work out an arrangement between them.
Ptolemy VIII, as the youngest, was forced out and given Cyrene to rule while his brother and sister married and ruled Egypt (sibling pairing were common by this point of Ptolemaic rule). Naturally a bit upset by this, Ptolemy VIII spent the next two decades plotting against his brother and sister, mostly attempting to seize the island of Cyprus. His brother, for whatever reason, showed remarkable clemency towards Ptolemy VIII, even after the latter was captured attempting to land troops on Cyprus. Ptolemy VI simply let hi go back to Cyrene.
All this changed in 145 BCE when Ptolemy VI died while on campaign in Syria. Cleopatra II declared their young son, Ptolemy VII, as Pharaoh but her brother had other plans. Arriving in Alexandria he forced his sister to marry him and killed his nephew, possibly during the wedding, becoming the ruler of Egypt once again. He chose for himself the title of Euergetes, which can roughly be translated as benefactor but the people of his realm had another name for him, Physkon, potbelly.
Physkon, who was so named because he was massively fat, ruled well despite his slide into personal excess. His strong relationship with Rome kept Egypt safe and his gifts and building projects kept the people happy. Well most of them. Cleopatra II may have been his sister, wife, and mother of their child but she was also his worst enemy. Their relationship was strained at the best of times and Physkon decided this would be a great time to make it worse.
Some time in the 130’s BCE, Physkon married his niece, Cleopatra III, the daughter of his siblings Cleopatra II and Ptolemy VI. So Cleopatra II found herself replaced by her own daughter and reacted in a way that most people would find reasonable: war. Cleopatra II and her son seized control of Alexandria, which had always supported her, forcing Physkon and Cleopatra III to flee. Physkon managed to get ahold of his son, however, but sent him back to his mother on her birthday…having first chopped him into pieces and stuffed in a basket.
The war would drag on for years with Physkon eventually gaining the upper hand and chasing Cleopatra II out of Egypt. She attempted to continue the war from Syria with help from another of her daughters but her plans fell apart. In 118 BCE peace was declared between Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II with the latter even returning to Egypt and ruling alongside her brother and daughter. I imagine they avoided family dinners whenever possible.
Two years later Ptolemy VIII Physkon would die and the war between his sons would soon tear Egypt apart once again. History tends to repeat itself.
Physkon’s life and personality can make great additions to a ruler in your setting, whether he be the king who sends your PCs out on quests or the ruler of an enemy nation they are tasked to stop.
Making Physkon into a bad guy is certainly easy enough to do. The armies under his command could invade your PC’s home and they could learn about this villainous king attempting to conquer them. Having your PCs discover that he schemed against his brother and murdered his nephew will make it clear that even family is not out of bounds for him. When they learn that he has married both his sister and niece, largely by force, that will spur the more heroic among them to try to rescue these women or your more practical PCs may see them as a way to get to the king from within. His very nature as Physkon helps make him seem villainous, the gluttonous king who engorges himself, living a life of pure hedonism.
Granted, a fat man who can barely stand and sweats excessively while he walks is not the most threatening of individuals but this is a fantasy world so it is easy enough to make him a powerful wizard. Alternatively, he could be controlled by someone or something even worse but that is a tad cliched. Perhaps the best thing would be to leave him as simply a fat, old man. The heroes must decide if they are willing to execute or assassinate a helpless man to end the threat he poses.
Of course, one could go the other way and have Physkon be a benefactor to the party. He is a good ruler who is respected by his people but still a flawed man. He is endlessly scheming but always for the benefit of his kingdom. He is enormous, sure, but who doesn’t enjoy the finer things in life? Married his sister? Of course! That has been the tradition for generations, who is he to break it now? The more the PCs learn about him, the more uneasy they become but he always seems so cheerful and wise when they talk to him. Creating that sort of tension where the PCs don’t know what to think of their benefactor can lead down plenty of interesting avenues.