During the Ptolemaic Period the kings of Egypt employed the traditional iconography of an Egyptian pharaoh, but spoke Greek. Although Greek women were not afforded the same freedoms and legal rights as Egyptian women, the Ptolemaic queens wielded more power than traditional Egyptian queens and for the first time had a title (bassilisa) which directly translated as queen. Many queens were also co-regents and sometimes sole rulers. However, this period is very complicated, with power regularly changing hands between family members following assassination or exile.
Berenice was the daughter of Magas of Cyrenaica. She orchestrated the murder of her first fiancé or husband, Demetrius of Macedonia, who may also have been her mother’s lover! She subsequently married Ptolemy III and they ruled a prosperous Egypt for some time. She was a skilled rider who may have competed in the Olympic games. According to legend (but possibly not fact) she also rode into battle with her husband. When her husband left Egypt to avenge the murder of his sister in Syria, Berenice ruled Egypt for five years in his absence. She survived her husband’s death but was poisoned by her son. She was deified after her death.
Following the death of her husband Ptolemy V, Cleopatra I acted as regent for her son Ptolemy VI. She was a skilled diplomat whose four-year regency was a welcome period of calm.
When she died her son came under the influence of two courtiers who arranged his marriage to her daughter Cleopatra II.
Cleopatra II had the unenviable role of mediating between her brother (Ptolemy VI) and her brother-husband (Ptolemy VIII). At one point, all three were joint rulers!
However, the two Ptolemy’s could not work together and Cleopatra became a semi-permanent feature ruling alongside first Ptolemy VIII then Ptolemy VI, then ruling with Ptolemy VIII and her daughter Cleopatra III.
After ruling alongside her mother and husband (and brother) Ptolemy VIII, Cleopatra III ruled as regent for Ptolemy XI and Ptolemy X. Under the terms of the will of her husband (Ptolemy VIII) she was to choose his successor, but (like her mother) she ended up sharing power with one then the other until finally Ptolemy XI fled after being accused of plotting her murder.
She then ruled with her other son (Ptolemy X) until dying in her sixties, probably following an assassination ordered by Ptolemy X.
Bernice III was the daughter of Ptolemy IX and had been married to her uncle, Ptolemy X. When her father died she became ruler of Egypt, but unwisely married her step-son Ptolemy XI to reinforce her position.
She was murdered by him three weeks later.
Bernice IV was the daughter of Ptolemy XII. When her father fled to Rome, to beg for help quashing an uprising by the people of Alexandria, she was left to rule Egypt along with Cleopatra Tryphaena (possibly her sister or mother). When Cleopatra disappeared, presumably having died, she was left to rule on her own. Needing a consort, she married her cousin, Seleucus, but had him strangled only a fortnight later. She then married Archelus and they ruled together for two years.
Her father could not talk Rome into supporting him against his daughter, but did manage to bribe the Governor of Sicily to lend him a Roman Army to march into Alexandria. Archelus was killed in the fighting and Berenice was executed by her father. He died four years later, leaving his throne to his son Ptolemy XIII and his daughter Cleopatra VII.
Cleopatra VII was arguably the most famous Queen of Egypt. She ruled Egypt first as co-regent with her brother Ptolemy XIII but he plotted her assassination causing her to flee. Ptolemy XIII tried to curry favour with Caesar by presenting him with the pickled head of his rival Pompey, but Caesar was not at all impressed and supported Cleopatra VII instead.
The people of Alexandria proclaimed Arsinoe IV queen instead of Cleopatra and besieged Cleopatra and Caesar in the palace. When Roman reinforcements arrived Cleopatra VII became sole ruler and Arsinoe was taken to Rome in chains.
Cleopatra VII married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV but was already pregnant with Caesar’s child. Following the death of Caesar Ptolemy XIV also passed away (possibly the victim of yet another assassination) and Cleopatra ruled with her son, Ceasarion, until her ill-fated alliance with Mark Anthony. Unfortunately, for her (and for Egypt) she and Mark Anthony were unable to triumph against Octavian and she tragically took her own life.
- Capel, Anne K and Markoe Glenn E. (Editors) (1996) Mistress of the House, Misteress of Heaven
- Dodson, Aidan and Hilton, Dyan (2004) The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt
- Graves-Brown, Carolyn (2010) Dancing for Hathor
- Hawass, Zahi (1995) Silent Images: Women in ancient Egypt
- Robins, Gae (1993) Women in Ancient Egypt
- Shaw, Ian (Editor) (2000) The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt
- Tyldesley, Joyce (2006) Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt
- Ziegler, Christine (Editor) (2008) Queens of Egypt: From Hetepheres to Cleopatra
Copyright J Hill 2018