Biographies & Memoirs


The kingdom of the Ptolemies was at its height in the third century BC, helped by the longevity of the first three monarchs. Ptolemy I was well into his eighties when he died in 282 BC, and had ruled Egypt as satrap and then king for forty-one years. To last so long and die a peaceful death was no mean achievement for one of the main protagonists in Alexander the Great’s funeral games. He had already made one of his sons co-ruler several years before, and the succession was smooth and unchallenged. Ptolemy II ruled until 246 BC, when he was in turn succeeded by his son, Ptolemy III, who ruled until 221 BC.

It was more than chance – still less lack of imagination – that all the kings of Ptolemy’s line were also named Ptolemy. Alexander’s generals had carved up his empire and made themselves kings, but the new kingdoms they created lacked any obvious legitimacy or natural coherency. Egypt was well established as a kingdom, although the Ptolemies had no particular claim to it. They also added Cyrenaica to the west, and for much of the third century controlled Palestine, substantial parts of Asia Minor and Syria, as well as Cyprus and other Aegean islands. There was nothing apart from their rule to unite these regions, and there were plenty of competitors to challenge this. Apart from Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s empire was ‘spear-won’ land – the prize of conquest. This was effectively true of the new kingdoms, and the Successor kings ruled ultimately by right of conquest. Yet land taken in war could just as easily be lost in war, especially in wars fought against enemies who spoke the same language and came from the same culture. There was nothing obvious to unite the peoples of the Ptolemies’ realm against the Seleucid or Macedonian kings.1

Ptolemy was distantly related to the Macedonian royal family, but the connection was scarcely close enough to justify his rule. A rumour was spread – perhaps encouraged by the king – claiming that Philip II had seduced Ptolemy’s mother and was his real father. More emphasis was placed on the tradition that his family was descended from Hercules, just like the Macedonian royal family. None of this made him in any way a more legitimate heir to Alexander the Great than any of the other Successors. In the end it was up to Ptolemy and his heirs to make their own legitimacy.2

There were always two distinct aspects to his kingship. In Egypt he and his successors were pharaohs. Ptolemy II was crowned in an elaborate ceremony at the old capital of Memphis to reinforce this point, as were the later Ptolemies. The temple cults were generously supported and the rites and rituals they oversaw treated with respect. Plunder taken from the temples during the Persian occupation was recaptured and piously returned by the Ptolemies. Yet it is very hard to know how far any of the kings played an active role in the religious rites themselves. Much was simply done in their name – and at their expense – to preserve order and justice against chaos. Egyptians needed a pharaoh and, since there was no realistic alternative, the Ptolemies fulfilled this role, even though they and their court resided in the overtly Greek city of Alexandria.3

Greeks in a Greek city – well into the Roman period it was referred to as ‘Alexandria by Egypt’ not ‘in Egypt’ – from the very beginning the Ptolemies were far more concerned with winning recognition from the Hellenistic world. Like the other Successors they drew heavily on philosophical ideals of kingship, of monarchs as law-givers and generous benefactors. Ptolemy I was also inspired by Alexander’s example, but did not blindly follow it. Like almost all of the latter’s generals, he quickly repudiated the Persian wife he had taken in the mass wedding organised by the conqueror. The regime Ptolemy created was purely Hellenic, not a merging of cultures. Some images of Egypt were promoted to lend grandeur and antiquity to the new regime, but these were more the product of Greek stereotypes than the reality of Egyptian culture. Unlike Alexander, Ptolemy did have the advantage of decades of rule to establish his kingdom, and the process continued under his son and grandson. Founder of a new dynasty, there was much emphasis on the exceptional virtue of Ptolemy himself. Like Alexander, he received honours that were at least semi-divine and moved towards full divinity. He took the name Soter (‘Saviour’), having been proclaimed in this way by the Rhodians for aiding them in a war with one of the rival Successors.4

Culture was important to the public image of the Ptolemies. Ptolemy I’s history of Alexander was highly respected as a work of literature. The creation of the Museum and Library in Alexandria was intended to place them at the heart of the Greek intellectual world, and by extension the political world as well. The Museum – the name means literally, ‘shrine/temple to the muses’ – provided lavish accommodation and facilities to leading philosophers, who came from all over the Greek world. The Library was intended to collect all of Greek literature to ensure its preservation and purity – scholars worked on establishing the most accurate text of classics such as Homer’s epics. Ptolemy II was a particularly aggressive collector of books. The king paid Athens a massive surety to persuade them to loan him the original manuscripts of the great writers of the stage: Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. In the event, he kept the originals and sent back copies, preferring to give up his money. One of the later Ptolemies is supposed to have ordered that books be confiscated from any ship entering Alexandria. They were copied, and the copies returned to their owners while the originals remained in the Library.5

Ptolemy I created a new kingdom, and emphasised his power, wealth and beneficence as proof that he deserved to rule. Naming his son and heir Ptolemy reinforced the regal associations of the name. Ptolemy II honoured his father by founding a festival called the Ptolemaieia, modelled on the Olympic Games and held in Alexandria. A decree from Samos agreeing to take part explained that ‘Ptolemy Soter has been responsible for many great blessings to the islanders and the other Greeks, having liberated the cities, restored their laws, re-established to all their ancestral constitution, and remitted their taxes’ and that his son ‘continues to show the same goodwill’. The festival helped to confirm alliances, but more generally reinforced the grandeur of the name of Ptolemy. It was not the kingdom of Egypt – or indeed of any set region – but the kingdom of the Ptolemies. The name itself became effectively a title. Ptolemy II did much to shape the divine cult surrounding his family.6

The kings of Macedon tended to have more than one wife, mainly for political reasons. Existing wives were not usually divorced, but they and their children might lose favour and prominence. Philip II ’s marriage to a younger wife – coincidentally called Cleopatra – precipitated his murder and the accession of Alexander. The Ptolemies continued this practice, and Ptolemy II was not born until 308 and was neither the oldest son, nor the product of the earliest marriage. He in turn married twice. Both women were confusingly called Arsinoe, but what shocked opinion at the time was that his second wife was also his full sister. There was no precedent for such an incestuous union in Macedonian or Greek culture. At the time people may have believed that the pharaohs of Egypt offered a few examples of this, but there is little evidence that this inspired Ptolemy II’s decision.

Arsinoe II was a truly remarkable individual in an age of spectacular ambition. Her first husband was Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals and a contemporary of her father and some forty-five years her senior. It was believed that she encouraged him to execute his oldest son by an earlier marriage, but her plans to advance her own children’s claims were thwarted when her husband was killed in battle shortly afterwards. Arsinoe then married her own half-brother Ptolemy Ceraunos or ‘thunderbolt’. The latter was estranged from their father, and was making a particularly murderous career for himself in Macedonia. He seems to have seen her and her children as dangerous rivals. Ceraunos married Arsinoe and promptly killed two of her children. She managed to escape, and a year later Ceraunos was killed in battle fighting against an invading army of Gauls.

Eventually Arsinoe made her way to Egypt and a few years later married Ptolemy II, who was her junior by some eight years. He exiled his first wife, the other Arsinoe, although her children remained in favour – the future Ptolemy III was one of them. Propaganda celebrated the union of brother and sister. They appeared together on coins, making Arsinoe the first female member of the family to be depicted on a coin in her lifetime. She was given the name Philadelphus (‘brother-loving’). There were comparisons to Zeus and his sister and wife Hera, and for the benefit of Egyptians to the siblings Isis and Osiris. All of this added to the growing divinity of the Ptolemies. They were special, not bound by the same rules or restrictions as ordinary mortals.

There is no doubt that Arsinoe was fascinating, ambitious and politically experienced, and actively and capably assisted her brother until she died in 270 BC. Images on coins and statuary depict her as attractive, perhaps even beautiful. It is hard to believe that the idea of marriage did not originate with her, or equally that her brother did not feel a genuine passion for her. Perhaps it was even mutual. It is worth remembering that until her arrival in Egypt they had seen little of each other. There were also political advantages in the union. The emphasis on the special nature and majesty of the Ptolemies was reinforced by claims that only one of their own blood was worthy to become husband or wife. More practically, it prevented any other ambitious family from gaining a claim to the throne.7

This last concern may not have been foremost in the minds of either Ptolemy II or Arsinoe II. Ptolemy III married outside the family, but his son Ptolemy IV married his sister Arsinoe III. From then onwards it became the exception to marry outside the royal family. Brothers married sisters, nephews married aunts, and uncles married nieces, making the family tree of the Ptolemies remarkably complicated. The initial shock of the marriage between Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II faded, and later they were celebrated in the royal cult as the ‘sibling gods’ (Theoi Adelphoi). None of the other major Hellenistic dynasties copied the practice to anything like the same degree, but there seems to have been a general acceptance that this was simply what the Ptolemies did. Similarly, although the other dynasties tended to choose from a small selection of names, no other line called all of their kings by the same name.


Ptolemy IV was named Philopator (‘father-loving’), but clearly his attitude to his family varied. When his father died in 221 BC, Ptolemy IV had one of his brothers killed, along with his supporters, and promptly married his sister. Polybius accused the young king of drunkenness and being fonder of luxury than he was of administration. The results were defeats abroad and internal plots against him. This picture is not entirely fair, for Ptolemy IV had his successes – most notably defeating the Seleucids at the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC. Yet there were substantial losses of territory, while in Alexandria his court became dominated by favourites, and he left the kingdom weaker than he found it when he was murdered in 204 BC by some of his senior courtiers. His son Ptolemy V was a child of six and there followed an extremely savage contest to control the child and become regent. The boy’s mother Arsinoe III was just one of the victims. A succession of powerful ministers seized control briefly before falling to their enemies or the wrath of the Alexandrian mob.8

We know of a short-lived Egyptian rebellion soon after the accession of Ptolemy III, but far more substantial risings began to break out during his son’s reign. Large numbers of Egyptians had been recruited to fight in the Raphia campaign, serving for the first time in the infantry phalanx, the most important part of the army. Polybius claimed that these men returned home with a new sense of their own strength. The details of the rebellions that followed are unclear, but there does seem to have been a nationalistic element to them. There was a revolt in the Delta region, but by far the most successful rising was in Upper Egypt, where two Egyptian pharaohs were proclaimed and held power for some twenty years. It was not until 186 BC that they were finally defeated by Ptolemy V’s troops.9

The famous Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799 and now in the British Museum, carries a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC by an assembly of Egyptian priests. The text is repeated in hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek, and it was from this that Champollion and others were able to decipher the second and make substantial progress in understanding the first. The decree mentions that Ptolemy V punished men who had rebelled against his father, and refers to rebels as ‘impious’, while stating that a statue of the king was to be placed in every temple. Although there would never again be other Egyptian pharaohs, rebellions continued to occur every generation or so.10

The problems in Egypt were compounded by threats from outside, as the Macedonians, Seleucids and other lesser powers were quick to profit from the Ptolemies’ weakness. The Ptolemaic fleet ceased to dominate the eastern Mediterranean. Palestine was lost, along with most of Asia Minor and many of the islands. At one point the Macedonian and Seleucid kings formed a secret pact to carve up Ptolemaic territory between them, but mutual suspicion and the growing power of Rome stopped this from being altogether fulfilled. The Seleucid Antiochus III threatened Egypt and imposed a treaty by which Ptolemy V was married to his rival’s daughter.11

Her name was Cleopatra, the first member of the Ptolemaic royal house to have the name, although it was relatively common amongst Macedonian women. Apart from Philip II’s last bride, Alexander the Great had also had a sister called Cleopatra. (For all its exotic sound and associations, there was absolutely nothing Egyptian about the name.) The Romans had not been informed of this treaty until some time after it had been agreed and were more than a little suspicious of the new alliance. Yet for a while it kept the peace and Cleopatra I proved an able queen, ruling jointly with her infant son Ptolemy VI after her husband died in 180 BC, aged only twenty-eight and amidst rumours of poison. The new king received the name Philometor (‘mother-loving’). On her death in 176BChe was married to her daughter and his full sister Cleopatra II (for a detailed family tree of the Ptolemies of this period see page 399). Both king and queen were children, and real power rested with whichever courtier could control them.

Once again the Ptolemaic kingdom seemed vulnerable. The Seleucid Antiochus IV invaded and seemed determined on adding Egypt to his own realm. That the Romans were busy fighting the Third Macedonian War no doubt made the opportunity even more attractive. Unfortunately for Antiochus, the Romans defeated the Macedonians, and this knowledge put their ambassadors in bullish mood. When they reached Antiochus’ army and were presented to the king, he graciously offered a hand in greeting to the leader of the delegation, Caius Popillius Laenas. Instead of shaking it, the Roman brusquely gave him a scroll containing Rome’s demands. Shocked, the king said that he must consider these with his advisers before giving a response. Laenas used his staff to draw a circle in the earth surrounding Antiochus. He then demanded that the king answer before he stepped out of the circle. Antiochus backed down and gave in to all of the Roman demands. He withdrew and left Ptolemy VI to his kingdom.12

The Hellenistic world in 185 BC

The confrontation between Antiochus and Popillius Laenas quickly became famous – not least because Laenas and his family publicised it enthusiastically. The story also appealed to the senators’ belief that they were at least the equals of any king, and reinforced all Romans’sense of their power. Here was a king at the head of a powerful army, being treated like a naughty child by ambassadors with not a single soldier to back them. In truth, the threat of Rome’s military might – distant perhaps, but no longer committed to war with Macedon – was what forced the Seleucid king to accept both the behaviour and the demands of the Roman embassy. In the course of the second century BC the balance of power shifted steadily, and eventually overwhelmingly, in Rome’s favour. Macedonia was broken up and later turned into a Roman province. The Seleucids lost more and more territory, their empire fragmenting as smaller kingdoms flourished. Most were themselves essentially Greek states, although in Judaea the Maccabees led an overtly nationalist and religious rebellion against the Hellenisation policy of Antiochus. After a bitter struggle the Seleucids were defeated and an independent Jewish kingdom created.

The Ptolemies clung on to Cyprus and Cyrenaica as well as Egypt itself, but lost most of the rest of their other territory. They avoided direct confrontation with Rome and so did not suffer the consequences of defeat. Yet the contrast to the stability of the third century BC could not have been greater. Ptolemy IV had been weak and too readily dominated by advisers. His son and grandson both came to the throne as infants. For decades the royal court became a place of intrigue as its members plotted, manoeuvred and killed for power. Ptolemy VI for a while ruled jointly with both his sister/wife and his younger brother Ptolemy (who is known as Ptolemy VIII for reasons that will be explained below). Behind each of the brothers was a faction of courtiers, who saw their own interests as best served by gaining more power — ideally, exclusive power — for the one they could dominate. This vicious internal struggle was going on when Antiochus invaded and Popillius Laenas bludgeoned him into withdrawing.

In 164 Ptolemy VI fled to Rome, fearing that his brother would kill him. The Roman Senate took little decisive action to reinstate him and so after a while he went to Cyprus and set up court there. By this time his brother was unpopular in Alexandria and he in turn went to Rome to seek help. Several years of politicking and occasional violence followed, both men seeking Roman backing and trying to arrange a partition of the kingdom in their own favour. Ptolemy VI eventually captured his brother when the latter tried to invade Cyprus, but pardoned him and betrothed him to his daughter, Cleopatra III, although the marriage did not take place at this stage. The last years of his reign were more secure, until he opportunistically led an army to intervene in a Seleucid civil war and was killed.13

Ptolemy VI’s son was sixteen and swiftly proclaimed as Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator (‘new, father-loving’), joint ruler with his mother. However, his father’s younger brother was lurking in Cyrenaica to the west and through agents managed to incite the mob in Alexandria to call for his return. On his arrival he married Cleopatra II and had Ptolemy VII murdered during the wedding celebrations. The boy’s name was removed from all official documents for a generation. The new king took the name Euergetes (‘Benefactor’), like Ptolemy III, so that he is usually referred to by scholars as Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II. The population of Alexandria were a good deal less formal and would always show a fondness for nicknaming their rulers. To them he was Physcon (‘Fatty’), or the punning Kakerget’s, which meant ‘Malefactor’. He executed some of his opponents and drove many more into exile. Even his supporters were not safe, and accounts of his reign stress seemingly random acts of violence.

The marriage to his sister and his brother’s widow produced a son. However, Physcon was not satisfied and he had an affair with his wife’s daughter and his niece, Cleopatra III. They married and he fathered several children by her. To distinguish the two Cleopatras, inscriptions often list the daughter as ‘Cleopatra the Wife’ and the mother as ‘Cleopatra the Sister’. For a while the trio ruled Egypt together, but in 131 or 130 BC there was an outbreak of furious rioting in Alexandria, the crowd favouring Cleopatra II. Physcon and Cleopatra III fled to Cyprus, leaving the older Cleopatra in fragile control of Egypt. She proclaimed her son by Physcon as co-ruler. The boy was only twelve and was not with her. He fell into his father’s hands, who not only killed the lad, but also had his corpse chopped into pieces and sent to his mother.

Civil war followed when Physcon invaded Egypt and a desperate Cleopatra II summoned help from the Seleucid Demetrius II, who was married to one of her daughters with Ptolemy VI. He soon pulled back to Syria to face problems of his own and Cleopatra fled to join him. However, Demetrius was defeated and killed by a pretender to the throne whose spurious claim was backed by Physcon. Cleopatra II returned to Alexandria in 124 BC and, in public anyway, was reconciled to her brother/husband and daughter. Physcon died in 116 BC, survived by both of his wives. There was very quickly a fresh round of intrigue and murder as his family squabbled for power.14


Physcon had been especially hostile to the Greek elite and the Jewish community of Alexandria, since these were most inclined to support Cleopatra II. The Museum was virtually closed and the philosophers fled abroad, ensuring that his name was roundly damned in intellectual circles. In contrast, he was supported by large sections of the Egyptian priesthood. Greeks like Polybius believed he favoured the Egyptians over Greeks, but this was a considerable exaggeration. Over time the number of Egyptians serving in the royal bureaucracy had increased. Large numbers had also served in the army and been settled in cleruchies, although it is notable that on average they received significantly smaller plots of land than ‘Greek’soldiers. Yet as we have seen the cultural mixing of Greek and Egyptian was extremely limited. Roman and Greek observers alike were inclined to speak of the intermingling of Macedonians and Greeks with natives. For them this was a sign of decline, explaining the decay of the Ptolemaic kingdom and such judgements need to be treated with caution. As overseas possessions were lost, the Ptolemies became kings who controlled Egypt and little more, but remained in culture, language and education utterly Greek. Even Ptolemy Physcon wrote a work studying Homer.15

The Egyptian priesthood accepted the Ptolemies as necessary, and they were generous in their support of the temple cults. Some Greek-speaking Egyptians entered royal service and did well. As time passed the numbers who did this increased and a few reached more senior posts. None seems ever to have been employed to govern territory outside Egypt and the vast majority of senior officials were always of Macedonian or Greek stock. For the bulk of Egyptians life continued to be a round of toil working the fields – hard labour for modest reward, just as it had been for their ancestors and would be for their descendants. The Greek community remained distinct. Very few Egyptians showed any interest in such quintessentially Greek institutions as the gymnasia and none saw any reason to see Greek culture as anything other than inferior to their own traditions. Acceptance of the occupying power did not mean that they developed any affection or admiration for it.

At least some were actively hostile. Periodic rebellions continued till the end of Ptolemaic rule. We also know of prophecies – ironically enough preserved in Greek versions – foretelling the destruction of the ‘impious’ Greeks and especially their vice-ridden and corrupt city of Alexandria, which will be ‘abandoned like my kiln because of the crimes, which they have committed in Egypt’. An Egyptian pharaoh would return and usher in a better age of prosperity, health and righteousness, ‘when the Nile will run its proper course’. It is more than likely that such works – one is known as the Potter’s Oracle – were written by members of the priesthood. Yet in the end this resentment came to little. Rebellions were always limited, while the Egyptian population was divided by region and social class and there was nothing to unite them in concerted opposition. The Greek minority and the Egyptian majority had little choice but to tolerate each other. Their lives were not entirely separate, but the communities remained distinct.16

The Greeks had always associated Egypt with great wealth. They also expected kings to be rich and generous. All of the Successors of Alexander the Great paraded their prosperity and power. It was an age obsessed with size and spectacle. Lists of the Seven Wonders of the World were popular at the time and all of the monuments were invariably massive in size. Cities were built in grand, monumental style, with clear and wide grid-patterned roads. Ships – especially warships – were built to be gigantic, sometimes at the expense of practicality. Sheer scale impressed.

The Ptolemies embraced this obsession with as little restraint as they displayed for intrigue. As well as warships, they built massive pleasure boats. The Pharos lighthouse had a practical purpose in guiding ships to Alexandria’s harbour, but was also designed to be spectacularly huge. A description survives of a grand parade held by Ptolemy II in Alexandria, which had abundance as its main theme. Dionysus, the god of wine and plenty, was honoured, and revellers wearing gold crowns feasted as his followers were supposed to do. There were exotic animals, statues and gold in abundance. A huge wineskin made from leopard pelts contained 300,000 gallons of wine, which was allowed to dribble out along the procession’s route. Other floats had fountains of wine and milk, and on another was a huge mechanical statue. It is striking that much of the ingenuity of the philosophers in the Museum was devoted to clever displays such as this or the steam engine that moved under its own power. Few of the ideas were transferred into any significant practical use. There were also big versions of objects, such as a lance made of silver and some 90 feet in length. Even more bizarre, at least to modern eyes, was a gold phallus 180 feet long and 9 feet in circumference, painted and decorated with more gold. After the procession was a great feast held in a specially built and lavishly decorated pavilion.17

The splendour, even the excess, surrounding kings reinforced the sense that they were special. They were givers of law and justice, more than ordinary men and close to the gods in life, and after death deified. Luxury was celebrated as symbolic of a strong king and a prosperous kingdom. Ptolemy VIII was mocked as ‘fatty’ by the Alexandrians, but was himself proud of his massive weight. To show off this sign of plenty, he was inclined to wear light, almost transparent clothing. Polybius accompanied a Roman embassy to the king’s court in about 140 BC and shared the Romans’ disgust when Physcon greeted them at the harbour. To them Ptolemy was grotesque, and they made him accompany them on foot from their ship to the palace, their leader later joking that the Alexandrians were in his debt because now ‘they had seen their king walk’. They were far more impressed by the overall sense of Egypt’s wealth and productivity, deciding that it could be very powerful if ever it found decent rulers.18

Unrestrained luxury, weakness abroad and murderous competition for royal power characterised the career of Ptolemy VIII. The kingdom founded by Ptolemy I two centuries earlier had become far less stable and efficient. It is true that no serious challenger for the throne appeared from outside the Ptolemaic family. To that extent the celebration of the family, and the frequency of incestuous marriage, ensured that only blood relations were seen as capable of attaining the monarchy. Yet in spite of the incest, and the generally high rate of infant mortality in the ancient world, the Ptolemies remained numerous, their numbers thinned more by homicidal ambition than anything else. In spite of its best efforts, the family failed to wipe itself out, and the battles for power continued.

The shadow of Rome grew stronger as the second century progressed. The Romans did not want the wealth of Egypt to be taken over by any other power, but had limited interest in the family squabbles of the Ptolemies and, as yet, no desire to turn it into a province of their own. Both Ptolemy VI and Physcon at different times fled to Rome and tried to gain support. Foreign assistance was preferable to letting a rival win, as Cleopatra II also showed when she sought Seleucid help. The Hellenistic kingdoms decayed, spending their strength in struggles with each other or smashed by the Roman military machine. The Ptolemies survived, in spite of a succession of weak kings and bitter family in-fighting.

Cleopatra was born into the ruling house of a decaying kingdom in a world dominated by Rome. For generations her family had married and slaughtered each other as they struggled for power. None doubted their absolute right to rule, or questioned that luxury and excess were not admirable in themselves. To be born a Ptolemy brought unique expectations and dangers. Ambition, ruthlessness and an utterly self-centred attitude mingled with the ever-present fear of death at the hands of courtiers and family.

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