Ptolemy III, who was given the title Euergetes, “Benefactor”, was born in 284 BCE. Euergetes married Berenike II of Cyrene (whom he was not related to). They had six children, including Ptolemy IV Philopater, who succeeded him. He was 30 years old when he became Pharaoh. His Egyptian title, which I’m never going to even try to pronounce, is Iwaennetjerwysenw Sekhemankhra Setepamun. It means “Son of the Brother-Sister Gods, Living power of Ra, chosen by Ammon”. The Brother-Sister Gods, of course, refers to Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Arsinoe II, but he is the son of Arsinoe II only through adoption.
Euergetes ascended to the throne in 246 BCE when his father Philadelphus died. Ptolemy III is credited with the creation of the Serapeum. There were many of these Temples to Serapis, and all of them were called a Serapeum (or in more proper Greek serapeion). The plural is Serapea. When one speaks of THE Serapeum of Alexandria, they are referring to the Temple which housed an offshoot of the Library of Alexandria. It was the largest and most magnificent Temple complex in Alexandria, housed many gardens and pools, and became a site of great pilgrimage. Today nothing remains but the foundations and a single column, a heartbreaking thought. There are, however, two sets of ten plaques along the foundations, one set each of gold, of silver, of bronze, of faience, or sun-dried Nile mud, and five sets of opaque glass. All the plaques are inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs proclaiming that it was Ptolemy III Euergetes who built the Serapeum, and that Parmeniskos was the architect. There are cave-like subterranean galleries beneath the Serapeum, where the mysteries of Serapis were most likely carried out.
Ptolemy III Euergetes was also the first to put up the Rosetta Stone series, bilingual inscriptions on huge stone blocks in three writing systems. The famous one that we think of as being “the” Rosetta Stone was actually erected by his grandson, Ptolemy V Epiphanes. Euergetes’ stone, called the Canopus degree, contains decrees regarding several priestly orders, as well as deified his daughter Berenike, who had died very young. But it also contains orders that one day be added every four years to the calendar, in order to keep the festivals at the right time. By doing so Euergetes invented the leap year, likely on the advice of the mathematician Eratosthenes. However, the leap year failed to be accepted outside of Egypt, and was not used in some parts of Egypt either.
Until Euergetes the Ptolemies had done their best to stay out of the wars of the other Diadochi (Alexander’s successors). Euergetes’ older sister Berenike Phernophorus was married to Antiochus II Theos, a monarch of the Seleucids, in the farthest eastern reaches of Alexander’s empire. After Antiochus died, his first wife, Laodike, poisoned Berenike and her infant son. In a rage, Euergetes invaded Syria and didn’t stop till Laodike was dead. This was called the Third Syrian War, or the Laodikean War. Euergetes sacked Antioch in revenge and occupied the city from 246 to 244, then laid siege to Babylon for 5 years. He could not hold on to all the land he had conquered, and lost an important naval battle. However, he did remain in control of Trace, Ephesus, and Lebedos, which he renamed Ptolemais. Despite his losses, when he had held the Port of Antioch he made 1500 talents of silver, with was about 10 percent of his yearly income. Also, while he was campaigning here, he made a point of retrieving more statues and sacred objects that had been stolen from by the Persians a century earlier. This is actually how he got his title of Benefactor. The Egyptian people were so grateful to have their sacred statues and Temple items returned.
Ptolemy III had left his wife Berenike in charge of Egypt when he left, along with a few trusted advisers. Berenike was no blushing flower. She was a strong and capable woman who bred race horses and had even fought in battles herself, from horseback. Euergetes was gone for 6 or 7 years. There’s a beautiful story of when Euergates went off to fight a dangerous battle, and Her heartfelt prayer to Aphrodite for his safe return:
The Lock of Berenike [c. 243 B.C.]
“Conon, the mathematician, and Kallimakhos call the constellation the Lock of Berenike (Coma Berenices). When Ptolemy had married his sister Berenike, daughter of Ptolemy and Arsinoe, and after a few days had set out to attack Asia, Berenike vowed that if Ptolemy returned as victor she would clip off her hair. She placed the lock, consecrated by this vow, in the temple of Venus Arsinoe Zephyritis, but on the following day it couldn’t be seen there. When the king was distressed by this, Conon the mathematician, whom we mentioned above, desiring to win the favor of the king, said that he had seen the lock among the constellations, and pointed out seven stars without definite configuration which he imagined were the lock. Some authors along with Kallimakhos have said that this Berenike raised horses, and used to send them to Olympia. Others add that once Ptolemy, Berenike’s father, in panic at the number of the enemy, had sought safety in flight, but his daughter, an accomplished horse woman, leaped on a horse, organized the remaining troops, killed many of the enemy, and put the rest to flight. For this even Kallimakhos calls her high-souled. Eratosthenes says that she ordered returned to the girls of Lesbos the dowry left to them by their parents, which on one had released, and she established among them right to bring action of recovery.” – Hyginus, Astronomica 2.24
After this event, Berenike herself was equated with Aphrodite and Temples to Aphrodite-Berenike were built.
Despite this war, for the most part Euergetes was a peaceful ruler. He ruled for 25 years, and in his time Egypt prospered. He governed prudently and justly. He funded many Egyptian Temples and festivals, particularly those of the Apis and Mnevis bulls. He also built the great Temple of Horus at Edfu, although this project was so large that it was not finished until the reign of his son Ptolemy IV Philopater, not officially opened until Ptolemy VIII, and even as late as Ptolemy XII, they were still carving the incredibly detailed reliefs on the great pylon and the walls. He continued the work on the ever expanding Library of Alexandria. He ordered that any book being unloaded from the docks be seized, and copied, before the owner could get it. He borrowed from Athens the official editions of all the plays of three famous tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. He paid a huge deposit for the loan, but, like it father and his grandfather before him, decided to keep the books and forfeit the money. You would think that by now the Athenians would have gotten wise to this trick, but apparently not!
One year the Nile didn’t flood enough, and there was famine. Euergetes fed the people out of his own pocket, paying highly to have grain imported for the people, and he did not ever ask them to return the money he spent. His kindness was so legendary that both he and his wife were worshiped as the Theoi Euergetai, the “Benefactor Gods”. Ptolemy III Euergetes died and was buried in the Alexandrian royal cemetery in 222 BCE. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Ptolemy IV Philopater.