Sunday, November 20, 2016

Ian Worthington's "Ptolemy I"

Ian Worthington is Curators’ Distinguished Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Missouri. His books include Alexander the Great: Man and God, Philip II of Macedonia, Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece, and By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire.

Here Worthington dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, Ptolemy I: King and Pharaoh of Egypt:
We’ve all heard of Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt from 55 to 30 BCE. Her affairs with two of the most powerful men in the dying years of the Roman Republic – Julius Caesar and Mark Antony – and starring role in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra have cast her as one of history’s greatest seductresses. In reality she was far from a femme fatale; what she did was simply to preserve her dynasty (the Ptolemaic) and protect Egypt from the relentless sweep of Roman imperialism. Ultimately she was unsuccessful, and Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, folded Egypt into the Roman Empire in 30.

Egypt was one of the most powerful kingdoms of the Hellenistic period, that era from Alexander the Great’s death in 323 to the Roman annexation of Egypt, and with it, all of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. Egypt’s capital, Alexandria, was home to the great Library and Museum, the epicenter of cultural, scientific, and intellectual life, and the Ptolemaic dynasty was the longest-lived of all them. But who founded that dynasty and who transformed Egypt from a country ruled by Persia and Alexander in the Classical era into a Hellenistic powerhouse?

The answer is Ptolemy of Macedonia, the subject of my book, the first full-length treatment of this powerful and ambitious yet often marginalized figure. Ptolemy was one of Alexander’s boyhood friends, fighting with him in the epic battles and sieges to topple the Persian Empire, and becoming one of the king’s hand picked bodyguards. When Alexander died at Babylon, his ambitious senior staff, the Successors, carved up his empire among themselves, with Ptolemy laying claim to Egypt. For years he faced invasion and threats from the other Successors as they increased their slices of empire, but he always came out on top. He was Egypt’s king and Pharaoh, made Alexandria the capital, founded the Library and Museum, started building the lighthouse on Pharos (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), and proved himself to be a shrewd and efficient administrator, ruthless when needed, and ambitious, wanting to be a second Alexander. His remarkable life story and successes against the odds, I argue, make him the greatest of Alexander’s Successors.

So if there were going to be a movie about Ptolemy’s life and exploits, whom would we cast? I’ve already suggested actors for the movie version of my previous book By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire (Oxford, 2014 – now in paperback, so please go buy it), and I said that one reason why previous Alexander movies flopped was because the actors didn’t believably play the historical figures – we don’t need actors who are Adonis-like with perfect teeth and hair, but who look like they suffered a few hard knocks from growing up in the tough Macedonian society, where boys were taught to ride, hunt, and fight almost before they could talk, and men could not recline at drinking parties until they had killed their first deadly, wild boar with only a spear.

The Ptolemy movie should focus on his adult life, from Alexander’s death in 323 to Ptolemy’s in 283, with flashbacks to Ptolemy’s youth and campaigns with Alexander. So we need someone to play him credibly, from about his early 30s to 82ish, his age when he died. It’s crucial to get the right person as he will drive the entire movie, and for me the very gifted Jonathan Rhys Meyers would bring Ptolemy realistically alive.

There's a host of characters too numerous to mention in Ptolemy’s life, which began in Macedonia, took him as far east as India, ended in Egypt, and spanned decades of bloody history. Some of his rivals lived into their seventies and eighties, others only into their thirties to forties. Men such as the ambitious and powerful Perdiccas, who invaded Egypt in 320 to oust Ptolemy, but was killed in the process: I think Luke Grimes would fit the bill here. Then there is the equally ambitious Antigonus Monophthalmus (the one-eyed), a big man with an enormous laugh, scheming, ferocious, and tough as nails – oh yes, step up Sid Haig. Antigonus was ably accompanied by his son, Demetrius Poliorcetes (the Besieger), one of the more colorful characters, who even became king of Macedonia before falling from grace and drinking himself to death at the court of Seleucus of Syria: how about Chris Pratt for him?

Let’s turn to Seleucus. Like Ptolemy, he started off as a royal bodyguard, playing his cards close to his chest to outfox his rivals, but by the time he died in his early eighties he ruled an empire as big as Alexander’s with the exception of Egypt and a few other places. He founded the Seleucid dynasty, the second longest of the Hellenistic period. I think Tom Hardy would be a terrific Seleucus. Another Successor who powered himself from the ranks to rule an enormous territory was the cunning Lysimachus. He too lived into his early eighties, and to play him I tap Peter Capaldi (yes Dr Who himself). Finally, let’s not forget Cassander, king of Macedonia from 317 until tuberculosis finished him off in 297, at times Ptolemy’s ally, at others his opponent: Jesse Eisenberg for Cassander.

I suggested flashbacks to Ptolemy in Alexander’s invasion of Asia, which means casting that king and his various generals. I previously suggested Sam Worthington or Max Beesley for Alexander, but they’re a bit long in the tooth now (no offense) to portray someone who died just shy of his 33rd birthday. Now, I think Jack O’Connell has the sort of edge that would make him a convincing Alexander. As for Alexander’s generals, many of whom he inherited from his father Philip II and who were older men, I had proposed Ron Perlman for Parmenion, Muse Watson for Cleitus, but we should not overlook Brendan Gleeson or even Stacy Keach.

Ptolemy was married four times. The Macedonians were polygamous, and while he may have divorced his second wife he was certainly married to the other three at the same time. But now the problems begin. When Eurydice (his third) wife) gave birth to a son, Ptolemy Ceraunus, it seemed the succession was assured. But Ptolemy’s fourth wife (and former lover) Berenice decided her son (also named Ptolemy, just to add to the confusion), born some years later, should be the next Egyptian ruler, and worked on her husband to set Ptolemy Ceraunus aside. These two women hardly got along, and the scheming Berenice had a hold over her husband as he did make the younger Ptolemy his heir. (Interestingly, Berenice’s and Ptolemy’s daughter Arsinoe also wore the pants in her marriage, which was to her brother Ptolemy II, thus kicking off the Ptolemaic tradition of brother-sister marriages.) So who to play these two queens? For Eurydice, I think Margot Robbie, and for Berenice, I like the idea of Tina Fey.

So that is my dream cast. Of course, this is an age of diversity, quite right too, so maybe I should be asking where John Cho is?
My Book, The Movie: Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece.

My Book, The Movie: By the Spear.

--Marshal Zeringue