Queens of Ptolemaic Egypt

Hussein Bassir, Saturday 30 Apr 2022

The Ptolemaic Dynasty that ruled Egypt between the first and fourth centuries CE had many powerful and famous queens.

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great


The Ptolemaic Dynasty, sometimes referred to as the Lagid 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. Its rule lasted for 275 years from 305 to 30 BCE and was the last dynasty of ancient Egypt.

Ptolemy, one of the seven somatophylakes (bodyguard companions), 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 the Pharaoh Ptolemy I, later known as Soter or “Saviour”.

The Egyptians soon accepted the Ptolemies as the 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 her life and after her death. She was the most famous and most powerful woman in her lifetime.

Arsinoe was the first Ptolemaic queen to be officially deified during their lives — hers and that of her husband Ptolemy II — under the title Philadelphus, which means “loving for her brother” or “loving for his sister.” Her husband was the actual founder of the cult of the Ptolemaic royal family, when he declared the deification of his father and mother and Alexander the Great and of himself and his second wife Arsinoe II in his lifetime.

Arsinoe’s marriage to Ptolemy II was her third marriage. Since she had no children from Ptolemy II, she raised the sons of Arsinoe I 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 unchallenged queen of the country for five to seven years and the undisputed first lady. On many occasions, she was involved in Egypt’s domestic and foreign policy and participated in ruling the country.

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, sad at the death of his beloved, deified her using attributes strongly influenced by the religion of the ancient Egyptians and thereby increasing his 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 visibility, Arsinoe II presented a new model of queenship in Egypt’s long and civilised 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 Ptolemy III’s only wife. 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 Beautiful.

A sinful relationship arose between Apame II and Demetrius, and Berenice assassinated Demetrius in the bed of her mother. Berenice did not have children from Demetrius. However, she was rewarded by her marriage to Ptolemy III, with whom she bore about four sons and two daughters, most importantly king Ptolemy IV (221-205 BCE).

Berenice had several titles, namely the “Mother of the King” and “the Sister and Wife of the Son” of the Egyptian god Re. This demonstrates a strong interest in the ancient Egyptian religion. She was depicted in Alexandrian mosaic art as a symbol of the eternal city of Alexandria. She may have ruled Egypt on behalf of her husband, Ptolemy III, for about five years during his absence in his Syrian war. She owned land and racehorses, won victories in chariot races, and may have ridden on the battlefield.

Berenice II was murdered 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 lives under the royal title Euergetes, meaning “Two Benevolent Gods”. The queen was worshipped after her death in the city of Alexandria.


Queen Cleopatra II: Queen Cleopatra II (185-116 BCE) was the daughter of king Ptolemy V Epiphanes (meaning “the Apparent”) and queen Cleopatra I, of Syrian origin, whose reigns began a period of a weakened and unstable Ptolemaic state. Her brothers were Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes.

After Ptolemy V died in 180 BCE, queen Cleopatra I ruled with Ptolemy VI until her death four years later. On her deathbed, she appointed Eulaeus and Lenaeus, two of her close associates, as regents of the nine-year-old Ptolemy VI. Eulaeus, a eunuch who had been Ptolemy VI’s tutor, was the more senior of the two, even minting coinage in his own name. Lenaeus was a Syrian slave who had probably come to Egypt as part of Cleopatra I’s retinue when she got married. He seems to have been specifically in charge of managing the kingdom’s finances.

In early 175 BCE, Eulaeus and Lenaeus arranged Ptolemy VI’s marriage to his sister Cleopatra II. Brother-sister marriage was traditional in 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 the Ptolemaic dynastic cult as the Theoi Philometores (the Mother-loving Gods), named in honour of the deceased Cleopatra I.

In Egyptian religious contexts, this title recalled the relationship with the pharaohs as Horus and his mother Isis. Cleopatra II took the titles of the “Sister and Wife of the Son of Re” and “Lady of the Two Lands”. She bore Ptolemy VI four sons: two sons by the name of Ptolemy, and two daughters by the name of Cleopatra. She later married her other brother king Ptolemy VIII.


* The writer is director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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