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Ptolemy III Chronicle (BCHP 11)

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Coin of Ptolemy III Euergetes. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.
Ptolemy III Euergetes
(British Museum)
The Chronicle concerning the invasion of Ptolemy III (the "Ptolemy III Chronicle"; BCHP 11) is one of the historiographical texts from ancient Babylonia. It tells how king Ptolemy III Euergetes invaded Mesopotamia and laid siege to Babylon in 246/245 BCE. For a very brief introduction to the literary genre of chronicles, go here.

The cuneiform tablet (BM 34428) is in the British Museum. On this website, a reading is proposed by Bert van der Spek of the Free University of Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Irving Finkel of the British Museum. Please notice that this is a preliminary version of what will be the chronicle's very first edition. This web publication is therefore intended to invite suggestions for better readings, comments and interpretations (go here to contact Van der Spek).

Babylonian Chronicles
Text and translation
General commentary
Commentary obverse
Commentary reverse
Related documents


Coin of the Seleucid king Seleucus II Callinicus.
Seleucus II Callinicus


The year number of the chronicle is lost, but it is practically certain that it is a chronicle concerning year 66 of the Seleucid era. It reports the invasion of an Egyptian army and that invasion can only have been the expedition of Ptolemy III Euergetes in 246/245 BCE in the Laodicean War or Third Syrian War.

This expedition was caused by the fact that shortly before his death in the summer of 246 the Seleucid king Antiochus II Theos had repudiated his second wife Berenice Phernephorus, daughter of the Ptolemaic king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (who died 28 January 246), in favor of his first wife Laodice and her two sons Seleucus and Antiochus Hierax. Antiochus resided with Laodice in Ephesus, while Berenice stayed in Antioch.

The news of Antiochus' death reached Babylon on 20 Abu (month V) 66 SE = 19 August 246 (see Astronomical Diary concerning year SEB 66, AD II, p. 70/1, no. -245 A r.5'-6'). Seleucus II Callinicus was proclaimed king, and immediately accepted as such in Babylon. No king list, nor a diary, or a chronicle knows any other king than Seleucus II after the death of Antiochus II. 

However, the Seleucid empire now became the bone of contention of two queens, Berenice in Antioch and Laodice in Ephesus. The prospected kings were all young. Laodice's children Seleucus and Antiochus were about 19 and 14 years of age, Berenice's son was a mere child (nêpios, Polyaenus 8.50). Laodice had partisans in Antioch. One of the chief magistrates of the city kidnapped the child and killed him (Valerius Maximus 9.10). The majority of the population seems to have been in favor of the queen. She established herself in the royal palace at Daphne (Polyaenus 8.50).

Meanwhile, the new Egyptian king, Ptolemy III Euergetes, decided to come to the aid of his sister. In September, he launched an attack on the Seleucid empire (Hauben 1990: 29). Ptolemy first arrived in Seleucia in Pieria, where he was welcomed, then proceeded to Antioch, where he was also received with enthusiasm, if the papyrus that reports this reception should not be dismissed as propaganda (Papyrus Gourob, Wilcken, Chr. 1 = FGrH 160; translation in Bagnall, Derow 1981, no. 27). Berenice, however, was so stupid as to leave her safe haven and was instantly killed; a sign that public opinion was not as favorable to Berenice as the pro-Ptolemaic sources suggest. According to this papyrus, Berenice was still alive when Ptolemy arrived, but this is probably untrue.

For our purpose, the continuation of Ptolemy's expedition is of the main interest. Several sources tell us that Ptolemy made a grand campaign into the interior of the Seleucid empire and even conquered it completely. 

The most eloquent source is this respect is the Adoulis inscription, found by the sixth century monk Cosmas Indicopleustes on the Persian gulf (OGIS 54). The text runs as follows:

Great King Ptolemy, son of King Ptolemy [II Philadelphus] and Queen Arsinoe, the Brother- and Sister Gods, the children of King Ptolemy [I Soter] and Queen Berenice the Savior Gods, descendant on the paternal side of Heracles the son of Zeus, on the maternal of Dionysus the son of Zeus, having inherited from his father the kingdom of Egypt and Libya and Syria and Phoenicia and Cyprus and Lycia and Caria and the Cyclades islands, led a campaign into Asia with infantry and cavalry and fleet and Troglodytic and Ethiopian elephants, which he and his father were the first to hunt from these lands and, bringing them back into Egypt, to fit out for military service.

Having become master of all the land this side of the Euphrates and of Cilicia and Pamphylia and Ionia and the Hellespont and Thrace and of all the forces and Indian elephants in these lands, and having made subject all the princes in the (various) regions, he crossed the Euphrates river and after subjecting to himself Mesopotamia and Babylonia and Sousiana and Persis and Media and all the rest of the land up to Bactria and having sought out all the temple belongings that had been carried out of Egypt by the Persians and having brought them back with the rest of the treasure from the (various) regions he sent his forces to Egypt through the canals that had been dug. 

[Bagnall, Derow 1981, No. 26]
The other major source for this campaign is Appian of Alexandria, Syriaca, 65, where Appian briefly treats the history of the Seleucid kings after Seleucus I:
But after the death of Seleucus, the kingdom of Syria passed in regular succession from father to son as follows: the first was the same Antiochus [I] who fell in love with his stepmother [Stratonice I], to whom was given the surname of Soter [the Savior] for driving out the Gauls who had made an incursion into Asia from Europe. The second was another Antiochus [II], born of this marriage, who received the surname of Theos [the God] from the Milesians in the first instance, because he slew their tyrant, Timarchus. This Theos was poisoned by his wife. He had two wives, Laodice and Berenice, the former a love-match, the latter a daughter pledged to him by Ptolemy [II] Philadelphus. Laodice assassinated him and afterward Berenice and her child. Ptolemy [III], the son of Philadelphus, avenged these crimes by killing Laodice. He invaded Syria and advanced as far as Babylon. The Parthians now began their revolt, taking advantage of the confusion in the house of the Seleucids.
[tr. Horace White; slightly adapted]
Polyaenus (8.50) speaks about a subjection without combat of a territory "from the Taurus to India". Justin (Epitome of Pompeius Trogus 27.1.9) claims that he would have obtained the whole kingdom of Seleucus, had he not been forced to return in view of a revolt at home (qui nisi in Aegyptum domestica seditione revocatus esset, totum regnum Seleuci occupasset). According to Jerome (Commentary on Daniel 11: 7-9) he subjected apart from Syria and Cilicia, the Upper Parts beyond the Euphrates (superiores partes trans Euphraten), where he appointed a certain Xanthippus governor. According to Catullus (66.12) Ptolemy set out to ravage "the territories of Assyria" and "conquered Asia and added it to the frontiers of Egypt" (36).

The extent of Ptolemy’s campaigns have been much debated. The claim that he reached the Indus is generally rejected and correctly so. In addition, the campaign into Babylonia was put in doubt, because no Babylonian source ever mentioned the invasion or acknowledged any other king than Seleucus. This chronicle now changes the situation entirely. The death of Antiochus II effected an eventful year for the Babylonians. The Egyptian invasion was a clear fact, though only short-lived. Appian seems to be right in that Ptolemy advanced as far as Babylon. Ptolemy's return may be attributed to the sedition in Egypt. The fact that the Egyptian troops were unable to conquer the palace of Babylon may have been a factor as well.

The chronicle contains no year number, only a month name, viz. Tebêtu (X), which is the second entry. The chronicle as preserved starts relating events of month IX. In view of the fact that the lower part of the tablet is preserved, we assume that the tablet contains a report of the very eventful year SE 66, either starting with month I or with month V, the month in which the death of Antiochus II was reported in Babylon. The arrival of the Ptolemaic forces in month IX (26 November-25 December 246 accords well with the accepted chronology. The troops were still in Babylon in month XI (24 January-22 February 245) or XII (23 February-22 March). The end of the campaign is not recorded in the preserved part of the chronicle. The story breaks off with heavy fighting and manslaughter in Babylon, where the palace could not (yet) be captured. Street fighting in Seleucia is also recorded. 

The first contemporary document dated to Seleucus II is from 22.III.67 SEB = 11 July 245 BCE. By that time, the Ptolemaic troops will have left the country. We should, however, not give too much weight to the meaning of this document. It is apparent from all Babylonian documents that Seleucus was accepted as king from the start, that the Ptolemaic king was treated as a foreign invader, an enemy, his troops indicated as Hanaeans, which word probably had a negative connotation, as is made clear by the apposition "who did not fear the gods". If it is true that Ptolemy was enthusiastically accepted in Seleucia in Pieria and Antioch on the Orontes, this certainly does not hold true for Babylon. The land grant of Laodice, Seleucus and Antiochus Hierax during the reign of Antiochus II may have rallied Babylonian support.

to part three (summary)
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