Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Ruling Ptolemaic Queens
A Brief Overview

Egyptian Base Relief
Of Cleopatra

In a previous posting I discussed briefly the few ruling Queens of Ancient Egypt. Here I will discuss the ruling Queens of the last dynasty to rule Egypt; the Ptolemaic dynasty.1


In the year 332 B.C.E. Alexander entered Egypt having taken the Phoenician City of Tyre by siege and defeated the Persian King, Darius III at Issus in Northern Syria.  According to the official account he was welcomed by the Egyptians as a liberator, and this may even have been true.  If so the native Egyptians would have cause to regret the Greek conquest.  Alexander soon left Egypt and spent the rest of his life conquering the rest of the Persian Empire.  He died in 323 B.C.E. in Babylon of a fever possibly assisted by human agents tired of his erratic, temperamental and frightening personality.

After that his generals fought a series of wars among themselves for domination of his empire.  All except Ptolemy, a childhood friend of Alexander, who decided he wanted only Egypt.  All the other "Diadochi"2 died trying to get the whole empire, by battle, murder, suicide etc.  Ptolemy, settling for Egypt, died in bed.

After establishing himself Egypt Ptolemy married an Egyptian Princess of the last native dynasty, (30th). This attempt to incorporate Egyptians into the new government failed.  Ptolemy divorced the Princess and married a Greek.  He resided in the new city of Alexandria that was almost wholly Greek and practiced a policy of supporting massive Greek settlement and preferential treatment of Greeks.  The native Egyptian landed aristocrats and bureaucracy was almost completely replaced by Greeks.  The exception being the powerful Egyptian priesthood and temples whose loyalty was purchased by very generous tax policies and subsidies.  Further Ptolemy greatly strengthened the exploitative power of the bureaucracy.  The result was that native Egyptians were second class citizens in Egypt and a type of "Apartheid" in favour of the Greeks was instituted.  The native Egyptians were disparaged has "barbarians".  Ptolemy could not be bothered to learn Egyptian or to visit much of Egypt spending most of his time in Alexandria.3

The one area where native Egyptian influence was overwhelming was religion.  The Ptolemaic kings performed their religious duties as Pharaoh punctually and ordinary Greeks adopted many Egyptian religious and funerary customs.4

The other Egyptian custom that the Ptolemaic Dynasty adopted was the practice of close marriages within the royal family.  It should be noted that the Ptolemaic Kings and Queens were all of non-Egyptian ancestry.  Also with only one exception no Ptolemaic King or Queen bothered to learn Egyptian.5

The early Ptolemaic kings, (all the kings were named Ptolemy after the founder), were involved in endless wars with the other Greek states over possession of Palestine and Syria and also islands in the Mediterranean. To pay for this the Egyptian peasantry was mercilessly taxed.

In about 202 B.C.E. the Ptolemaic king lost control of their Asian empire.  Shortly after the Egyptians rose in revolt and Egypt was divided.  At the same time the royal family had duplicated many of the features of an Egyptian "divine" royal family with the Queens and Princesses acquiring power has members of a "divine" household.6


In this situation of chaos with weak kings and internal chaos and foreign invasion and crisis royal women began to fill the void of weak male leadership. Although it would be awhile before a Queen took the title of Pharaoh.  The Queens took advantage of their identification with Isis the Egyptian Queen of Heaven to argue that they were co-rulers of the state this would come in handy later.

The first Queen to assume the formal title of Pharaoh was Cleopatra III, who not satisfied with the reality of power wanted the appearance of power.  In 116 B.C.E. she became Pharaoh nominally sharing the rule with her brother and then getting rid of him when he tried to rule and then nominally sharing the throne with her son. Cleopatra III ruled until her son, another Ptolemy (X), tired of her interference had her murdered in 101 B.C.E.7

The second Queen to assume the formal title of Pharaoh was Bernice I who ruled less than a year with her brother, in 80-81 B.C.E. In a power struggle she was driven from power and murdered by her husband and likely actual son Ptolemy XI.8

In the middle of an unpleasant power struggle Bernice IV seized power from her father and ruled 58-55 B.C.E. Her father, Ptolemy XII, in turn overthrew his daughter, executed her and became Pharaoh again with Roman support.9

In 52 B.C.E. Ptolemy XII elevated another daughter of his, Cleopatra VII as Pharaoh and made her co-ruler with him. Ptolemy XII died the following year.  This is the Cleopatra of legend known through her legendary romances and tragic suicide.  What is forgotten is that Cleopatra was a competent administrator an able financier and a diplomat of genius.  Cleopatra was also the first (and only) Ptolemaic ruler to learn to speak Egyptian.  She also quite deliberately introduced Egyptian court etiquette into her court. Cleopatra visited Egyptian shrines, temples and cities frequently.  Cleopatra made a real effort to incorporate native Egyptians into the army and bureaucracy and court.  Cleopatra was rewarded with unheard of popularity with the native Egyptians.  Unfortunately Cleopatra had to contend with the overwhelming power of Rome.10


The above are very brief biographic references concerning the four Ptolemaic Queens further information is available in the sources listed below in the footnotes and hence not provided here.  Cleopatra VII has a huge and extensive literature that unfortunately concentrates on the romantic lurid aspects of her reign ignoring her quite considerable competence as a ruler.  It is interesting that given their foreign roots and their deliberate effort to maintain themselves as separate from the Egyptians that the Ptolemaic Dynasty still recapitulated many of the aspects and even history of previous native Egyptian dynasties.

With Cleopatra's suicide the history of ancient Egypt comes to an end and the process of the decomposition and disintegration of Egyptian civilization would start.  The process would be completed by the arrival of Islam so that by 800 C.E., ancient Egypt had truly become history, and with it the story of Egypt's Queens.

1. See Here.

2. Diadochi means successors.

3. Bingen, Jean, Hellenistic Egypt, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 2007, pp. 106-107, 217-239, Cary, M., A History of The Greek World: From 323 To 146 B.C., Second Edition, Methuen & Co., LTD, New York, 1951, pp. 55, 259-267, Green, Peter, Alexander To Actium, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990, pp. 190-192.

4. Bingen, pp. 240-255.

5. See for example Green, pp. 5, 536-554, Cary, pp. 222-225, 248.

6. Cary, pp. 83-85,  90-94,  262-267, Bingen, pp. 157-188.

7. Cary, pp. 222-223, Green 538-550.

8. Green, pp. 553-554, Carey, 223-225.

9. Cary, p. 224, Green 650-651.

10. Green, 661-665, Cary, 224-225, Bingen, pp. 52-79.

Pierre Cloutier 

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