The Forgotten Ptolemy Sister
Born to Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes and Cleopatra V Tryphaena of Egypt (who may have been siblings – but that’s another story), Berenice’s early life would have been relatively comfortable compared to the majority of her parents’ Egyptian subjects who relied on the Nile’s annual flood to ensure their farms and families survived another year.
Trouble began for Berenice when her father Ptolemy XII attempted to raise taxes to pay for the debts he owed the Romans for their help in securing his rule. In 58 BCE, the Egyptian people rose up against him and Ptolemy, lacking an army to suppress the rebels, was forced to flee from Egypt. Accompanied by his favourite daughter, Cleopatra, Ptolemy went to Rome to beg their assistance.
Discovering that Ptolemy had escaped, Berenice took the throne and sent messengers to Rome who were tasked with detailing Ptolemy’s maltreatment of his people and counter his requests for Roman military aid. Unfortunately, Berenice’s plans were thwarted, as Ptolemy arranged for her envoys to be killed and bribed Roman officials to look the other way.
Although initially rebuffed by the Roman senate after they received a Sibylline message warning them against an alliance with Ptolemy, the former Pharaoh remained in Rome and continued to plot his return.
Back in Egypt, Berenice’s rule was proving to be successful, and she took steps to strengthen her position as Pharaoh. The quickest way to do this was through marriage to the leaders of neighbouring nations. To understand why these marriages were so important, and show how Berenice had an eye for strategy, we need only to look at Hillary and Bill Clinton. The Clintons have stayed together despite Bill’s ‘zipper problem’, his impeachment and continuing rumours of corruption. By showing a united front when faced with a barrage of media attention and public scrutiny, Hillary and Bill have managed to protect their careers from further scandal and retained, for Hillary at least, a strong network of supporters.
As with the Clintons, marriage was a political tool which Berenice used to secure her power, make alliances with nations who could support her claim against Ptolemy, and gain more desperately needed troops. Not long after she had ascended the throne, Berenice married Seleucus, whose nickname may have been Cybiosactes, meaning ‘salt-fish dealer’ (so glamorous…), a descendant of Syria’s former ruling family.
Unfortunately for Seleucus, Berenice quickly had him killed off because he was disliked amongst the Egyptians, showing Berenice’s awareness of popular opinion and the need to keep the people on side. Alternatively, the Greek geographer Strabo suggests that Berenice may simply have taken a disliking to the man, whom he describes as having ‘vulgar’ ways, and ordered that he be strangled to death. And this is why you shouldn’t eat with your mouth open, definitely mind your Ps and Qs, and generally avoid marrying the Queen of Egypt…
Seleucus’ death made room in Berenice’s life for an upgrade and in 56 BCE, Berenice married Archelaus. The son of a well-known general who fought King Mithridates of Pontus, Archelaus was not only a well-trained soldier, but had connections with a number of nations in the eastern Mediterranean and had previous dealings with Rome.
Meanwhile, Ptolemy had been biding his time in Rome and, by 55 BCE, Ptolemy had eventually convinced the Roman leaders Pompey and Gabinius, through promises of allegiance and bribery, to help him regain his throne against the wishes of the senate.
As Gabinius marched with his army from Syria, Berenice had little time to prepare for an invasion. Faced with an approaching army of highly-trained Roman soldiers, Berenice harnessed Archelaus’ military talents and appointed him the head of her army.
A fierce but decisive battle waged outside the gates of Alexandria with Archelaus’ forces fighting desperately for their Queen. Unfortunately, Archelaus and his troops were no match for the Roman army and Berenice’s troops fell in their hundreds.
With no chance of escape, Berenice could only wait until Gabinius marched into Alexandria and, in his wake, her father.
Berenice’s story does not have a happy ending and leads us to wonder what this fierce young woman could have become if Rome had not interfered on behalf of Ptolemy, a ruler who could not even raise his own army. Ptolemy seemingly shared this concern and, fearing that Berenice would rebel against him, Ptolemy ordered her execution in 55 BCE.
Clearly powerful and popular amongst the people, Ptolemy was unable to rule unaided after Berenice’s execution and his rule was constantly reinforced by the presence of Roman soldiers who remained stationed outside the palace walls.
You may be pleased to hear that, whilst Ptolemy returned to the throne, he only survived for another four years, dying in 51 BCE, which is when the troubles for Berenice’s sister Arsinoë began…
A few things to note:
Cassius Dio and Strabo are our main sources for Berenice’s rule, and they suggest that the people of Alexandria were responsible for her rise to power. However, given that Berenice was surrounded by strong female role models (the Ptolemy women were fierce), and was a woman in her late teens by the time she came to power, it seems unlikely that she just went along with the plans of others. By stripping Berenice of her autonomy, Dio and Strabo are able to cast Berenice as a pawn in the Egyptians’ and Romans’ political games, which further enables them to depict Ptolemy as a power-hungry villain who is willing to dispose of his own daughter to return to his throne.
There is some debate about whether Berenice ruled as a sole ruler, or alongside her ‘sister’ Cleopatra Tryphaena, as two queens are mentioned on a papyrus dating from the time (BGU VIII 1762.4-5). However, the Greco-Roman sources we rely upon for evidence of Berenice’s reign make no mention of a sister called Cleopatra Tryphaena. As such, references to a ‘sister’ may be the result of some confusion by later historians. As such, it is likely that, if Berenice did not rule alone, her mother, who was called Cleopatra Tryphaena, may have been a co-regent in the initial period of her reign.
Strabo, Geography 12.3.34, 17.1.11.
Cassius Dio, Roman History 39.12-14, 39.57-58
Pomeroy, S.B. 1990. Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Rea, J.R. (ed). 1988. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Volume 55. London: Egypt Exploration Society.