The Ptolemaic dynasty, sometimes called the Lagide dynasty (after Ptolemy I’s father, Lagus) was a Macedonian Greek royal dynasty that ruled the Ptolemaic kingdom in ancient Egypt during the Hellenistic period. His reign lasted 275 years from 305 to 30 BCE and was the last dynasty of ancient Egypt.
Ptolemy, one of the seven somatophylacs (companion bodyguards), a general and a possible half-brother of Alexander the Great, was appointed satrap of Egypt after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE. In 305 he declared himself Pharaoh Ptolemy I, later known as Soter or “Savior”.
The Egyptians soon accepted the Ptolemies as successors to the pharaohs of independent Egypt. Ptolemy’s family ruled Egypt until the Roman conquest of 30 BCE, during which there were many famous queens of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Arsinoe II: Queen Arsinoe II had a strong personality and unparalleled ambition. She had a great influence on her husband Ptolemy II and his politics during his life and after his death. She was the most famous and powerful woman in his life.
Arsinoe was the first Ptolemaic queen to be officially deified during their lifetimes – hers and that of her husband Ptolemy II – under the title Philadelphus, which means “loving one’s brother” or “loving one’s sister”. Her husband was the true founder of the cult of the Ptolemaic royal family, when he declared the deification of his father and mother and of Alexander the Great and of himself and his second wife Arsinoe II during his lifetime.
Arsinoe’s marriage to Ptolemy II was his third marriage. Since she had no children from Ptolemy II, she raised Arsinoe I’s sons as her own. One of them ruled Egypt as King Ptolemy III Euergetes after the death of his father Ptolemy II. Arsinoe II was the undisputed queen of the country for five to seven years and the undisputed first lady. On numerous occasions, she was involved in Egypt’s domestic and foreign policy and participated in the country’s leadership.
Despite Ptolemy II’s love for Arsinoe II, he was not satisfied by her alone and he had a large number of beautiful concubines. After her death, her husband, saddened by the death of his beloved, deified her using attributes heavily influenced by the religion of the ancient Egyptians and thus increasing her popularity among the Egyptian people. The cult of Queen Arsinoe II flourished. Her priestesses performed rituals and commemorated her long after her death. With her political prominence and high profile, Arsinoe II presented a new model of queen in Egypt’s long and civilized history.
Berenice II: Queen Berenice II was the wife of the third Ptolemaic king, Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 BCE). A militarily active king like his grandfather Ptolemy I, Ptolemy III expanded the Ptolemaic kingdom to include parts of Syria, Libya and northern Nubia. The king himself led the Egyptian army in 246 BCE and occupied northern Syria.
Queen Berenice II was the only wife of Ptolemy III. She was the daughter of the Macedonian Greek Magas, king of Cyrene (Cyrenaica in present-day Libya), and Queen Apame II, of Syrian origin. After her father’s death, Berenice married a Macedonian prince known as Demetrius the Handsome.
A sinful relationship arose between Apame II and Demetrius, and Berenice murdered Demetrius in her mother’s bed. Berenice had no children by Demetrius. However, she was rewarded with her marriage to Ptolemy III, with whom she had around four sons and two daughters, most importantly King Ptolemy IV (221-205 BCE).
Berenice had several titles, namely “Mother of the King” and “Sister and Wife of the Son” of the Egyptian god Ra. This demonstrates a strong interest in ancient Egyptian religion. She was depicted in Alexandrian mosaic art as a symbol of the Eternal City of Alexandria. She may have ruled Egypt in the name of her husband, Ptolemy III, for about five years during his absence in his war in Syria. She owned land and racehorses, won victories in chariot races, and may have been on the battlefield.
Berenice II was assassinated in the power struggles that took place after the death of her husband Ptolemy III in 221 BCE. Berenice II and Ptolemy III were deified during their lifetime under the royal title Euergetes, meaning “Two Benevolent Gods”. The queen was venerated after her death in the city of Alexandria.
Queen Cleopatra II: Queen Cleopatra II (185-116 BC) was the daughter of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes (meaning “The Apparent”) and Queen Cleopatra I, of Syrian origin, whose reigns began a period of weakened and unstable Ptolemaic state. His brothers were Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes.
After the death of Ptolemy V in 180 BCE, Queen Cleopatra I reigned with Ptolemy VI until her death four years later. On her deathbed, she appointed Eulaeus and Lenaeus, two of her close aides, as regents to the nine-year-old Ptolemy VI. Eulaeus, a eunuch who had been Ptolemy VI’s tutor, was the older of the two, even minting coinage in his own name. Lenaeus was a Syrian slave who probably came to Egypt as part of Cleopatra I’s retinue when she married. He seems to have been specifically charged with managing the finances of the kingdom.
In early 175 BCE, Eulaeus and Lenaeus arranged the marriage of Ptolemy VI to his sister Cleopatra II. Brother-sister marriage was traditional under the Ptolemaic dynasty and was probably adopted in imitation of earlier Egyptian pharaohs. Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II were still young children, so the marriage was not consummated for many years. The couple were incorporated into Ptolemaic dynastic worship as Theoi Philometores (the mother-loving gods), named for the late Cleopatra I.
In Egyptian religious contexts, this title recalled the relationship with pharaohs like Horus and his mother Isis. Cleopatra II took the titles of “Sister and Wife of the Son of Rê” and “Lady of the Two Lands”. She gave four sons to Ptolemy VI: two sons named Ptolemy and two daughters named Cleopatra. She later married her other brother King Ptolemy VIII.
The writer is director of the Museum of Antiquities of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
*A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.