Ptolemy

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Anon. (1578)


Historical Records

Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse (1579), 23 (EEBO-TCP, open access):

And as some of the players are farre from abuse: so some of their playes are without rebuke... Ptolome, showne at the Bull, ... very liuely discrybing howe seditious estates with their owne deuises, false friendes with their owne swoordes, and rebellious cōmons in their owne snares are ouerthrowne: neither with amorous gesture wounding the eye, nor with slouenly talke hurting the eares of the chast hearers.



Theatrical Provenance

At the Bull Inn (Gosson)


Probable Genre(s)

Pseudo-history (?) (Harbage).


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

None known.


References to the Play

Only Gosson, above.


Critical Commentary

Harbage suggests this play might the same as "Telomo", performed by Leicester's Men at Court on 10 February 1583.

For What It's Worth

On the basis of Gosson's description, Wiggins (entry 648) conjectures that
There were many Ptolemies in antiquity who might have been the title character, including the fifteen belonging to the Ptolemaic dynasty which ruled Egypt from Alexander the Great's general Ptolemy Soter in the fourth century BC to Cleopatra's son Caesarion in the first. Probably the best known in the sixteenth century were Ptolemy VI Philometor (reigned 180—145 BC), whose story is told in 1 Maccabees 10—11 (and was retold by Anthony Munday in The Mirror of Mutability in 1579) and Ptolemy XIII (reigned 51—47 BC), the brother of Cleopatra and murderer of Pompey. However, Gosson's summary better fits Ptolemy V Epiphanes (reigned 204—181 BC), Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (182—116 BC) or Ptolemy XII Auletes (80—51 BC).


Although there cannot be any conclusive proof, it seems overwhelmingly likely that, if any playwright had to choose one among the various historical Ptolemies as the main character of a play, this would have to have been Ptolemy XII Auletes, as a concise summary should show.

Ptolemy XII (117–51 BCE) was an Egyptian king of Macedonian origins. The father of the famous Cleopatra VII (later a lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony), he is depicted in the sources as an effeminate and self-indulgent king, especially devoted to drinking and music. His passion for playing the pipes won him the sobriquet “Auletes” (“the flutist”).

The oldest among Ptolemy IX’s illegitimate sons, he ascended to the throne in 80 BCE, when Ptolemy XI was deposed by the Egyptian population for killing his coregent and stepmother Berenice III. Ptolemy XII reigned with his sister/wife Tryphaena and his daughter Cleopatra VI as coregents. As the Roman Senate was not interested in expanding into Egypt, it did not dispute Ptolemy’s succession, even though his predecessor had bequeathed his throne to Rome in his will.

Ptolemy pursued a pro-Roman policy as a way to secure his position. In 63 BCE, he sent riches to Pompey and invited him to Alexandria in order to form a patron-client relationship. Pompey accepted Ptolemy’s riches but did not want to go to Egypt. Soon afterwards, probably regarding this offer to Pompey as insufficient to guarantee his own permanence on the throne, Ptolemy decided to travel to Rome to negotiate a bribe of six thousand talents to Pompey and Julius Caesar for an official recognition of his kingship, which he obtained.

However, when the Romans conquered Cyprus (58 BCE), which was under the rule of Ptolemy’s brother, the Egyptian people, already aggravated by the heavy taxations imposed on them to pay for the Roman bribes, started an uprising. Ptolemy sought refuge in Rome, possibly with his daughter Cleopatra, and was succeeded by his other daughter Berenice IV.

At Rome, Ptolemy and Cleopatra were sheltered by Pompey, who tried to convince the Senate to help restore Ptolemy on the throne of Egypt. The Senate hesitated because the Sibylline books prophesised that if Rome provided military support to an Egyptian king asking for help, the consequences would be dire. They decided to help Ptolemy only because otherwise the Roman creditors would never get any returns on their loans to him.

As soon as rumours of the Romans’ possible invasion reached Egypt, a group of one hundred men were sent from Egypt to Rome to present their case against Ptolemy’s restoration, but Pompey had their leader poisoned and most of the others murdered before they even reached Rome.

Ptolemy had to pay Aulus Gabinius 10,000 talents to convince him to invade Egypt in 55 BCE. As soon as he set foot in the Egyptian palace, Ptolemy had Berenice and her supporters put to death. He then ruled Egypt with Cleopatra as coregent until 51 BCE, when he abdicated due to illness. In his will, he declared that she should rule the kingdom after his abdication together with her brother Ptolemy XIII. The people of Rome were appointed as executors.


These events are mainly passed down to us by Cassius Dio, whose Historiae Romanae had not been translated into English yet in 1578 but had been available for quite some time in Italian, French and especially in the 1559 Latin translation by Wilhelm Xylander, Romanae Historiae Libri (Tot Enim Hodie Extant) XXV. Nimirvm A XXXVI. Ad LXI (digital copy available via the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek).

Not only does the account above fit extremely well with Gosson's reference to "seditious estates", "false friends" and "rebellious commons", it would have also given the opportunity to divide the setting between Egypt and Rome and bring on stage popular characters such as Pompey, Caesar and a very young Cleopatra. This way, the audience would have easily been able to place this Ptolemy, one of the many effeminate rulers to appear on the early modern English stage, in his broader historical context as a contemporary of very well-known historical personalities.

Not much can be inferred on the plot itself, but Gosson's account seems to suggest that the play had a strong moralistic bent and focused on censoring betrayal, ingratitude and civil unrest. Moreover, Gosson mentions the play alongside "The Jew", the "The Blacksmith's Daughter" (a play about Turks) and his own "Catiline's Conspiracies", significantly grouping together plays with non-English settings featuring treachery among their main themes. The fact that he likens those plays to his own speaks volumes about his endorsement of them and his dramatic tastes.


Works Cited

Gosson, Stephen. The School of Abuse. Printed at London: for Thomas Woodcocke, 1579. EEBO-TCP, open access




Site created and maintained by Domenico Lovascio, University of Genoa; updated 20 July 2015.