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Ptolemy VIII Physcon: Bad Blood in Ancient Egypt

Updated on March 26, 2017
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Dieselnoi studies the history and culture of ancient Egypt, and is also a collector Egyptian art.

In the Shadow of Rome

Ptolemaic power struggles are famous for their intrigue, treason, and murder, but this particular episode rises to new levels of bloodlust and gore. The volatile mix of inbred sibling rivalry, ever shifting alliances, territorial ambition and smoldering popular revolt would reduce the once mighty state of Egypt to a mere vassal state of Rome. With the death of Alexander the Great in 332 BC the empire was split into three parts and divided among his generals. Egypt fell under the rule of what was to become the notorious Ptolemaic dynasty for three centuries to come. Some 160 years after the demise of Alexander, against the backdrop of the rise of a new superpower in Rome and the disintegration of the Ptolemaic, Macedonian and Seleucid dynasties, the grand prize was up for grabs: the throne of Egypt itself. An epic family feud would lead to forty years of civil war and leave the Egyptian nation weakened and torn.

Ptolemy VI Philometor, wearing the double crown of Egypt
Ptolemy VI Philometor, wearing the double crown of Egypt | Source

The Ptolemiac and Seleucid Family Connection

The story revolves around the three siblings Ptolemy VI 'Philometor', Ptolemy VIII 'Physcon' and their sister Cleopatra II. They were the offspring of Pharaoh Ptolemy V and his wife Cleopatra I. During much of the reign of Ptolemy V his kingdom had been under attack by both the Seleucid and Macedonian empires, and many teritorial possessions were lost. But with the marriage to Cleopatra I, the daughter of the Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great, a fragile peace was brokered between the rival empires. When Ptolemy V died in 180 BC, the older of his two sons ascended to the throne of Egypt at the age of 6 to become Pharaoh Ptolemy VI. The mother of the boy, and now acting regentes, was a full sister of the new Seleucid king Antiochus IV, but when she also perished six years later, tensions rose again with the rivals in the north east. All bets were off, and to make matters worse the boy king and state affairs were now left in the hands of incapable palace officials.

Ptolemaic (in yellow) and Seleucid (in green) kingdoms, during the reigh of Ptolemy V and Antiochus III at approx. 195 BC
Ptolemaic (in yellow) and Seleucid (in green) kingdoms, during the reigh of Ptolemy V and Antiochus III at approx. 195 BC | Source
Antiochus IV
Antiochus IV | Source
Ptolemy VI Philometor
Ptolemy VI Philometor | Source

The Sixth Syrian War

Armed conflict between the uncle and his nephew was easily provoked. In two invasions, in what later became known as ‘The Sixth Syrian War’ (170-168 BC), Antiochus IV proved too much of a challenge, and only the intervention by the emerging Latin superpower saved the Ptolemaic independent state. With the first invasion in 169 BC Philometor was defeated near Pelesium. In the ensuing confusion popular support grew for the younger brother of the king to take over, and straighten out the mess. The somewhat chubby fellow nicknamed 'Physcon' (meaning 'potbelly') was put into power and declared Pharaoh Ptolemy VIII. He was to rule along side Cleopatra II, who was his sister and also the wife of his brother Philometor. In a curious turn of events Antiochus had to break off the invasion to attend to domestic troubles, and the two brothers and their sister reconciled and decided to share power amongst the three of them. This was a very uncharacteristic show of unity. No surprise, the architects of this arrangement were to be found in Rome, and with it their stranglehold on Egypt was growing. However the troubles didn't end there. The next year Antiochus returned and in his second invasion he lay siege to the capital Alexandria. Again the Romans intervened. Rome wanted to prevent at all costs that Antiochus could merge the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires. This would potentially create a huge rival for the Roman state and so the senate sent a diplomatic mission to stop it. The envoy Gaius Popilius Laenas met with Antiochus in Eleusis and Rome laid down the law. Antiochus was ordered to leave Egypt and Cyprus immediately. When he asked time to consider, Popilius drew a circle around Antiochus and demanded an answer before he set foot outside the circle. Antiochus knew that he was not yet in a position to provoke Rome and he withdrew to Syria. With what became know as the ’Day of Eleusis’ the Ptolemaic Dynasty was saved to live another day, but from this point on there could be no doubt who truly was in charge. Egypt was now left at the mercy of the Latin puppet masters.

Ptolemy VIII Physcon
Ptolemy VIII Physcon | Source

The Conflict Over Cyprus

After Antiochus was ousted, again the three Ptolemies reconciled. It was agreed that that the older brother and his wife would be restored to the throne of Egypt. On top of that they were given Cyprus to rule. The younger brother was to be king of Cyrenianca (in modern day Libya). No doubt Rome had a say in this, but intrigue would not end here. Dissatisfied with exile in Libya, Physcon got backing from Rome on a claim to Cyprus but the attempt to capture it from his brother (161 BC) failed. Philometor struck back in typical fashion: in 155 he ordered the murder of his younger brother. Sadly for him the attempt proved unsuccessful. The intended victim seized the opportunity and traveled to Rome to plead his case before the Senate, showing the scars that were the result of the assassination attempt. This had the desired effect and Rome gave its blessing for yet another attempt to conquer Cyprus. Again the battle was lost and this time Philometor was able to capture Physcon. In an extraordinary display of 'realpolitik' Philometor now decided not to opt for the usual barbarism, but he once more reconciled with his brother and showed him mercy. He even offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage and for the next 5 years or so everybody kept his place.

Cleopatra II
Cleopatra II | Source
Pharoah Ptolemy VIII between the goddesses Wadjet and Nekhbet. (Temple of Edfu, Egypt)
Pharoah Ptolemy VIII between the goddesses Wadjet and Nekhbet. (Temple of Edfu, Egypt) | Source

Child Murder

The order of things changed when Ptolemy VI Philometor died in battle in 145 BC. Most of his army was dissolved and this left Egypt dangerously exposed. After the death of her husband Cleopatra II was quick to act and she was able to put her 12 year old son Ptolemy VII on the throne. Needless to say, her brother in Cyrenianca had different plans and he invited himself to the now defenseless capital of Egypt. Physcon generously proposed to marry to Cleopatra II and he offered to rule jointly with his nephew. Cleopatra was in no position to refuse, but she must have suspected that things would not turn out as peacefully as they were projected. Still during the wedding, Physcon decided to add to the festivities by having his co-ruler murdered. He now proclaimed himself Pharaoh and sole ruler of Egypt. With the assassination of the boy a life long ambition was fulfilled.

Royal Inbreeding

From a modern day perspective the inbreeding amongst the royals may appear bizarre to say the least, but it was already common place in the ancient Egyptian world and it remained in fashion (admittedly in a somewhat milder form) amongst the royal houses of Europe until the start of the 20th century. Marriage throughout the millennias was used to forge alliances and there was also an underlying belief that keeping the royal blood as pure as possible would create a stronger bloodline. With few exceptions almost all the ptolemaic rulers were married to their sibling. Safe to say, with the murder of the child king at the wedding, this particular marriage did not get off to a very happy start. From the events that were to follow later it is doubtful that it was ever was a joyous union, however the couple did manage to produce some offspring in the form of a son. In 141 BC, without bothering to divorce Cleopatra II, Physcon also married his 12 year old niece Cleopatra III, daughter of his wife and now deceased brother. The girl was the sister of the boy he murdered at the wedding. Cleopatra II would have none of it and the struggle that followed eventually resulted in civil war.

Cleopatra III (left) and Cleopatra II (right), (Kom Ombo Temple, Egypt)
Cleopatra III (left) and Cleopatra II (right), (Kom Ombo Temple, Egypt) | Source

Epilogue

In 132 BC Cleopatra II was able to temporarily gain the upper hand and she succeeded in exiling her brother/brother-in-law/husband/son-in-law. Physcon, Cleopatra III, and their children found sanctuary in Cyprus. With Physcon gone, Cleopatra II took the opportunity to get the child that was fathered by him onto the throne. Of course, this didn't fit very well with the personal ambitions of daddy. What followed was even measured to Ptolemaic standards a particularly gruesome turn of events. Somehow the new boy king fell into the hands of his father, who then proceeded to murder the boy, dismember him and sent the body parts back to his mother in Alexandria as a birthday present. To add to the surrealism of the scene; Cleopatra decided to put her own son’s remains on public display in an attempt to arouse the sympathy of the crowd. In 129 BC Physcon had regained enough of his strength to retake Egypt and now it was Cleopatra's turn to run. She found refuge with her daughter in Syria. The tyrant was back and to make this clear he had the gymnasium set on fire, killing all those inside. He was able to establish a power base with the native Egyptian inhabitants by promoting them to positions of power. At some point Cleopatra II returned to Egypt but her fate is unknown. Most likely she predeceased Physcon who died in 116 BC. In his will he left Egypt to Cleopatra III and which ever of her son's she prefered: the stage was set and a new generation was ready to continue the infighting.

Cartouche of Cleopatra III
Cartouche of Cleopatra III | Source

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