Ancient History & Civilisation

Section IX

Love Dilemmas & Lust at the Crossroads

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Family Affairs:
Incest, three ways

There was more than one type of incest in the ancient world.

One was the well-known Oedipus Rex scenario, now thought by some historians to represent a very ancient tradition of sacred kingship, in which the king was slain by his successor, who became the queen’s new bridegroom. It was discussed thoroughly in Sir James George Frazer’s Golden Bough.

Another was religious: incestum, which meant loss of religious chastity. This generally referred to priestesses or Rome’s vestal virgins.

But the most familiar form of incest to Greeks and Romans was dynastic incest, where brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces, mothers and sons, and fathers and daughters had intimate relations and/or openly married in order to preserve bloodlines and the right to rule within the family.

The eighteenth dynasty in Egypt, with famous names like Nefertiti, is the most spectacular and well-known example; it’s covered in the entry following this one.

Equally famed is the Ptolemy dynasty and its headliner, Cleopatra VII, the last of her line. True to form, she briefly married her two younger brothers, coolly arranging for their executions later.

The first Ptolemy, a Macedonian Greek and not Egyptian at all, took Egypt as his “prize” in the land-grab sweepstakes after Alexander the Great’s death. By 322 B.C., Ptolemy had kidnapped the mellified corpse of his former boss and brought it to Egypt for display and worship. (During his brief visit to Egypt, Alexander had been declared a pharaoh and thus a god.)

To make his own pharoahship more secure, Ptolemy I tied the knot with the daughter of the last Egyptian pharaoh. In a year or so, he shoved her aside to marry the Macedonian daughter of Antipater, one of his former enemies but now pals. Swapping female relatives for matrimony soon became a standard practice among the generals from Alex the Great’s inner circle.

Not until the reign of Ptolemy III were male rulers forced to make incestuous marriages within their family. (Students of Ptolemaic history are often subject to migraines, since this dynasty routinely gave its elite females one of only three names: Arsinoe, Berenice, or Cleopatra.)

And yes, to answer your burning question: the number of incestuous links during the three centuries of Ptolemies did seem to have led to an inordinate number of grossly obese male rulers. The women in the dynasty, however, were noteworthy for being lean, mean, shrewd, and often murderous.

In Asia Minor on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, royal marriages between brothers and sisters became common within the Hecatomnid dynasty. These Greeks ran Caria and tried to keep it out of Persian hands during the fourth and third centuries B.C. The founder, Hecatomnus, had daughters Ada and Artemisia, who happily wed their brothers Idrieus and Mausolus. Artemisia in particular was anguished at the early death of her brother-husband Mausolus and she set about completing a gigantic temple-tomb complex that became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. That wonder is no more but we still use the term mausoleum, named after that incestuous king of long ago.

In mainland Greece, the Spartans also engaged in royal incest; King Leonidas I, who led the heroic Spartan band at the battle of Thermopylae, took his niece Gorgo as wife.

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Queen Nefertiti, the most recognized face in Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty, was of nonroyal blood. Nevertheless, her marriage to Akhenaten triggered a wave of dynastic incest.

Romans frowned on incest, considering it unacceptable and against the laws of gods and humans, but it wasn’t until A.D. 295 that they got around to passing a pair of laws making it illegal; one that applied to Roman citizens, and another for non-Romans in the empire. (In the entry on Emperor Titus and Berenice, you can also learn more about incest in the Herodian clan of Judaea.)

In the interim, various members of the imperial families may have dabbled (some might call it “waded”) in incestuous activity. Already mentioned elsewhere in this book are Caligula’s relationships with his sisters. Nero too was accused of intimacy with his mother Agrippina, the main power behind the throne during much of Nero’s reign. Agrippina also married her uncle Claudius—an act that required the Roman senate to pass a law allowing it.

The law wasn’t just for fancy folk. From that time on, any Roman could legally marry his brother’s daughter (which Agrippina was). It was, however, still a crime for Romans to marry their sister’s daughter.

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