Cover image for The Ptolemies
The Ptolemies
Sprott, Duncan, 1952-
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Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, [2004]

Physical Description:
462 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A Borzoi Book."
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"The Ptolemies is a story so layered, so dark and glittering and disastrous, that perhaps only Thoth the Ibis - the irreverent, riotously pompous narrator who is also the god of Wisdom and Patron of Scribes - could do it justice." "It begins with Ptolemy Soter, the Macedonian general who, after the death of Alexander the Great, takes all Egypt for himself - and hijacks Alexander's body to serve as his lucky mascot. Of humble origin, Ptolemy now becomes Satrap of Egypt, and he is soon to be Pharaoh, a god in his own lifetime. We follow this rise to divinity as it takes him from Memphis to Alexandria, and through a string of wives and concubines, bad-seed sons and tragic daughters, conniving High Priests and oracle-giving sacred bulls. And around him: a constantly shifting cast of Greeks and Egyptians - high and low, powerful and weak, honorable and evil - whose lives unfurl against a dense and vividly drawn backdrop of increasingly bizarre dynastic drama and turmoil."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The Ptolemy dynasty, founded by Alexander the Great's general Ptolemy Soter, ruled Egypt after the dissolution of Alexander's vast but unstable empire. The 300-year tale of this Greek line of pharaohs drips with blood from end to end. It is a larger-than-life yarn of family dysfunction, disorder, and dissipation as each generation of the Ptolemy family succeeded to the throne, which they seated in Alexandria, the city the great Macedonian king and conqueror founded. Of course, the Ptolemy family history includes the reign of the famous Cleopatra, who is not alone among her kin in her drive and chicanery. The novel's conceit is quite imaginative and effective: that this book you are holding in your hands is an account written by Thoth, the Egyptian god who serves as scribe to the other gods and chief chronicler of Egypt's history. Consequently, the prose style is rather grand and formal, but an accurate sense of the violence of daily life--on domestic and military levels--is masterfully presented. --Brad Hooper Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Sprott chronicles the calamitous, ill-fated reign of the first Greek pharaoh of Egypt in his fascinating but overstuffed third novel, a historical reconstruction that traces the rise and fall of Ptolemy, the alleged son of King Philip of Macedonia. The initial chapters chart Ptolemy's ascension from soldier to leader in Egypt, where he becomes a satrap, keeping the body of the late Alexander the Great around as a good luck charm. After consolidating his power, Ptolemy agonizes over the decision to declare himself pharaoh while facing military challenges from a parade of enemies; he also must overcome emotional fallout from his exhausting relationship with his two wives, Berenike and Eurydice. Sprott's sardonic style serves him particularly well in the over-the-top battle for succession that develops during Ptolemy's decline, with the tone of the clash determined by the incest between his daughter, Arsino? Beta, and his violent, unpredictable son Keraunos. Sprott's scholarship and his command of the material is formidable and impressive, and structurally the novel hangs together despite the author's insistence on documenting much of the historical minutiae of Ptolemy's reign. But readability suffers: Sprott writes largely in summary with almost no dialogue, and the combination of too many secondary characters and subplots and Sprott's insistence on revisiting over previously covered material turns an entertaining story into a long, monotonous trudge. With a narrowed focus this might have been an impressive novel, and amateur scholars will find the book a worthwhile addition to the body of work on this underexplored period. But mainstream readers face a difficult, tedious read, and many will find themselves hard-pressed to stay the course. 12 maps. Agent, Faber & Faber. (May 14) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A wickedly funny novel about a forgotten Greek dynasty in ancient Egypt? The publicist swears it's true. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 1.1 The Fingers of Thoth HO! Stranger! OHO! Ignorant One! YOU have been such a long time a-coming! You are so very late in time! YES! It is YOU I am speaking to, Reader, YOU. Because I think YOU know nothing of Ptolemaios-Ptolemy-the Greek who was Pharaoh of Egypt, or of the terrible tragedy of his House. You do not know who Ptolemy is, do you? You have never heard of him, have you? You cannot so much as pronounce his name (do not say the P, Reader!). Truly, what you deserve just now is a beating upon the soles of your feet. Yes, I think you have forgotten every last thing about the Black Land and the Red, the Two Lands that I called Kemet-the land the Greeks are pleased to call Aigyptos, that you may have heard called Egypt. You have forgotten Ra, the Sun god. You have forgotten Anubis, the dog-headed god, who is Pharaoh of the Underworld. You have not a clue who is Sobek, the crocodile god. Your ignorance is disgraceful-disgraceful-and the only Pharaoh you have ever heard of is the feeble Tutankhamun! Truly, THOTH will have to teach you everything. But do not fear. Be not afraid. Calm yourself, Reader; we shall save up the beating for later. Thoth will be pleased to be your guide. For you must know that I am THOTH. But, idiot that you are, you do not know who is Thoth either, do you? You have forgotten even Thoth, the Great Magician, Thoth the Ibis-headed god, Thoth the Dog-headed Baboon, Thoth the Ape, who is the Greatest of Scribes; who is the Memory of the Gods; who writes down the gods' every word. Thoth: he knows every thing. There is not one book about Egypt that Thoth has not written himself, with his own pen. Behold, then, Thoth, the Teller of Stories, for there is no man left upon earth who could unfold for you the whole horrid story of the Ptolemies, a story that men have been afraid of, that men have wanted to forget, because of its horrors-a real donkey-upon-the-roof of a story. But Thoth-Thoth has not the ability to forget; Thoth can only remember. For you, however, since you pray and entreat me, Thoth will tell this great forgotten story of how the Greeks were Kings and Pharaohs of Egypt for ten generations. And thou shalt weep, and thy hair shall stand up upon its ends, if thou hast any hair, Reader, for this story drips with blood from end to end: it is like a shower of blood, horrible and marvellous at the same time. Read then, Reader, and be horrified. Read, and be delighted. But first, before Thoth tells of Ptolemy, he must tell of Thoth. Because you, Reader, are Pupil-of-Thoth. You are He-Who-Wishes-to-Know, and you can know nothing if you do not know who and what is Thoth. For yes, I am THOTH, GREAT GREAT GREAT, THREE TIMES GREAT. Oho! Pupil-of-Thoth, it is I who have learned the Nineteenth Instruction, the Teaching of Making the Speech Calm. I am Thoth, Cool of Speech. Sweet-of-Tongue is my name. I am Thoth, Mighty in Dread, who bathes in the blood of his enemies. I am Thoth, Great in Slaughter, god of the dead. I am One Who Knows How To Repel Evil. I am the Peaceful One. Oho! Oho! I am the Beaked One, the one with the claws and wings. I am the Moon god. I am the Trickster. I am the Thief of Time. I am THOTH. Know that I am Thoth who swallowed the Two Lands, who knows every thing that can be known about Egypt. I am Thoth the Pretentious, Thoth the Pedantic, Thoth of the convoluted speeches. Know that it is Thoth who makes special pleading for every man with the Judges of the Dead; that it is Thoth whom you shall meet in the Afterlife, when I weigh your dead man's heart in the Scales, the Balance, against the Feather of Maat, the Feather of Truth, and that it is Thoth who shall write down the Judgement of the Gods. May your heart be light in the Balance, Reader! For it is Thoth who shall weigh YOUR heart when it is your turn. Is that enough to make you sit up and listen? Thoth I am to the Greeks, or Taautos. To the Egyptians I am Djehuty or Djedhuti or Tehuti, author of the Forty-two Books that are called the Tehutica, and have in them All the Wisdom in the World. Some have in them Laws of Egypt, of which Thoth is the guardian. Some are books of Magic, for Thoth is the Great Magician, rivalled only by Isis, Lady of Many Names; and some are books of History, for the annals of every reign are written by Thoth. The book you are holding in your two hands, Reader, is a book of History, the Forty-third Book of Thoth. It will fix your eyes upon the page until you are done reading, Thoth promises you. Every word of it is true. There is no place for fictions in the writing of Thoth. Thoth! Some times I take the shape of the ibis, and I fly upward. Now, though, I take the shape of the ape, and squat upon the shoulder of the writer. The Ape of Thoth chatters in every scribe's ear. The Ape of Thoth stares hard at every word. Every scribe, before he begins his daily work of writing, must pour out his drop of water upon the ground, out of the pot into which he dips his brush. It is his libation to Thoth, to me, Patron of Scribes; to Thoth, who is the greatest scribe of all. Thoth hears you, Pupil-of-Thoth. He knows even what are your secret thoughts. You do not believe a word? Thoth waxes angry, then. May I remind you, Pupil-of-Thoth, that I am the Tongue of Ptah, the creator god, and that Ptah created every thing. I am the Master of Chronology, Thoth, who reigned seven thousand seven hundred and twenty-six years exactly. Believe me, I am the All-Knowing One. I am Lord of Khemmenu, the Most Mighty God. I am the Heart and Tongue of Ra. I am the Lord of Books. I am the Author of Time. I can read the secrets of men's hearts. I have the power to cross every barrier. I am the very inventor of hieroglyphs, the inventor of reading and writing. I am the Lord of Kind-Heartedness. I am the Lord of the Stars. I am the Measurer of the Earth. My words take effect. I am Mighty in Speech. When I put on the mask of Thoth, I am Thoth, I am the god. And so I begin to write. Thoth watches over me. The ape is heavy upon my shoulder. Will you not believe me? Listen, Pupil-of-Thoth, it is the truth. Thoth beseeches you: Believe! YEA, Thoth has written these chapters with his own fingers. 1.2 Nobody Thoth asks, then, So who was he, this Ptolemy, this Greek, this yellow-haired Macedonian? Of what father was he the son? Where did he come from? And what did he want with Egypt? Ptolemy: was it not the truth that he was Nobody-Nobody, from Nowhere? Was it not true that this was a man who did not so much as know the name of his grandfather? Ptolemaios they called him, and his name meant Warlike, and there was never more fitting name for a House than the name of Ptolemaios. From the very start there were questions asked about his parentage. Some said the father was Lagos, an army commander of King Philip of Macedon or, at least, some soldier of his, and the mother Arsinoë. Lagos, his name meant Hare, after the creature that sleeps with his eyes open and is, above all things, fast. Because of it, some have always called the House of Ptolemy the Lagids or Lagidae. As for Arsinoë, it is all Greek to Thoth, but, Reader, you must say Ar-Sin-OH-ee or Ar-ZIN-oh-ay. Others swore, by Zeus, that Ptolemy was the son of Arsinoë but that his father was King Philip himself, and Arsinoë the victim of a rape-that rape is the privilege of kings, and Ptolemy was born a bastard. Who was he? A boy of noble birth? Or a boy of no birth? Even Thoth shrugs his shoulders. What if he was, indeed, a peasant boy from Eordaia in Macedon, a herder of sheep and goats, the next best thing to a barbarian? What did it matter? For the fate of the boy was to be a king, and a god in his own life time, and to be called Aionobios-Living for Ever, and Son of the Sun. At the moment of the birth the women screamed the ritual shout of joy, and the midwife made her examination to see that the child had the proper number of orifices, the proper number of fingers, his toes not joined up, his palate not cleft, his eyes both the same colour: blue. If such things were in order, the Greeks would rear the child, and if not, they would not, but cast him out, and the birds might peck his eyes and the dogs eat his flesh while he lived for all that anybody cared what became of him. Such was the habit of the Greeks, who would have no children but perfect children, beautiful like the immortal gods, every son handsome as Apollo, every daughter beautiful as Aphrodite. There were many stories told about the origins of Ptolemy, and they said that, yes, he was cast out, exposed on the hillside, because of the rape of his mother. They said he was rescued by an eagle, and that the parents took him back in again, for that the child fed by eagles must grow up to be a king, and it was an omen from heaven. Myth, or history? Thoth laughs. The Greeks!-they love to paint themselves grander, wiser, more generous than they really are. The Greeks are pretenders, actors, lovers of lies, and their stories are full of lies, because a story full of lies makes a better story-Thoth swears it. All the same, if it was the truth that this Ptolemy was Philip's son by his concubine, then he was half-brother to Alexander, and his blood was royal blood. It would suit the House of Ptolemy to let the world believe that it was true. On the first day of his life Lagos and Arsinoë made the proper offerings to the Fates: of bread, and salt, and drachmas. On the third day of his life they placed a honey cake beside his head, and a mirror of bronze, and silver drachmas under his pillow-gifts for the Fates, who must come that night to bestow upon a child his destiny in life. The Fates are three old women: Lakhesis, who sings the past; Klotho, who sings the present; and Atropos, who sings the future. Ptolemy would have time only for Klotho-for the present only-or so he liked to say; for the past he did not want to remember. Arsinoë swore by Pan and all the gods that she saw the old women that night, shadowy figures: the first spinning her thread, the second writing down her record of what was to come, the third waving the scissors that must cut the thread of Ptolemy's life upon the day he died. But every Greek mother swore such things. All the same, Ptolemy was in the hands of his fate from the moment he was born, and there was not a thing he could do to change it. Whatever happens to a Greek, it is the will of his gods. Thoth says, Greek nonsense, all of it. The only gods are the gods of Egypt, but the Greek will persist in his folly. Arsinoë, to be sure, fed this child of hers with milk from her own breasts, for to suckle the child is proof of a mother's devotion. It is the duty of every good woman to perform this service. Sure, it is tiring, but it will increase her affection for the child, and affection is a thing the Greeks do not possess in great measure. More important, the Greek child is influenced by what milk he drinks, or so they believe. A Greek child must never be fed upon the milk of the cow, for fear that he will drink in her spirit and grow up timid, obstinate, stupid, delighting to stand in his own filth. For the Egyptian the cow is sacred, imbued with the spirit of Hathor the Golden, the Divine Cow, Lady of the Turquoise, and she demands respect, and worship. Hathor suckles the Pharaoh himself, and what is good enough for Pharaoh is good enough for his people. The Egyptian does not hold such backwards and barbaric ideas about cow milk. For the same reason the Greek will have nothing to do with the milk of sheep or goats, and so Ptolemy sucked at his mother's breast. Nor was he handed to the wet nurse, who might pass on to him an undesirable character with her milk. No, Arsinoë did every thing according to the custom of the Greeks: to do otherwise would be to tempt the revenge of the gods. Even so, Thoth knows, the time would come when the women of this family got so vain, so proud, so rich, and yes, so stupid, that they would hand their children to the wet nurse, and feed their breast milk to the dogs, because women's milk will stop the dogs' going mad. Every Egyptian knows that to do such a thing is as fatal as climbing into your wife's dirty bathwater. Thoughts of Thoth: In the House of Ptolemy the madness would lie not in the dogs but in the humans. Wisdom of the Egyptians: The wise man knows the good from the ill action. Devotion in a mother is a goodly thing. And yes, they bandaged this child, wrapped him in bandages so that he was bound fast, arms and legs and body, and the head also: he was tied up for the first forty days of his life, then for a further twenty, so that his limbs grew straight. Ptolemy howled, as every Greek child howls, a prisoner in his swaddling clothes. It was as if these parents wished their son to grow up angry, which was, of course, the truth. They brought up every son to spill blood, to be a warrior. In this, at least, they were successful. By the end of it all, his story-the story of his House-would be spotted, splashed, then drenched in blood, like the papyrus of the apprentice scribe who has unthinkingly spilled his red ink. Excerpted from The Ptolemies by Duncan Sprott All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.