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The Ptolemies: Egypt's Last Pharaohs

Updated on November 4, 2014
Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy Caesar
Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy Caesar | Source
Ptolemy I Soter
Ptolemy I Soter | Source
Death of Alexander the Great
Death of Alexander the Great | Source
Thais and Alexander drinking
Thais and Alexander drinking | Source

The Death of Alexander

When Alexander the Great entered Egypt, he did so with his trusted general and childhood friend, or possibly half-brother, Ptolemy by his side. Ptolemy left Egypt with Alexander and continued on to India with his king, but when Alexander died in 323 BC, it was Ptolemy who suggested that the kingdom be ruled by a regent for Philip III Arrhidaeus, Alexander's half-brother who suffered from disabilities, and Alexander IV, the unborn son of Alexander and Roxana. This became known as the Partition of Babylon. Perhaps he thought that regent would be him, but when Perdiccas, another one of Alexander's generals, was chosen, Ptolemy knew better than to trust the man.

Ptolemy was appointed the position of satrap of Egypt making him the governor. As he left for his new territory, he took two important things with him. The first was Thais. She was a hetaera, an educated prostitute, who accompanied Alexander's army. The second was Alexander's dead body. Under Macedonian law, the person who buried the prior king stood a greater claim to the kingdom when there was no living heir, and there was no way Ptolemy was going to let Perdiccas return to Macedon with Alexander's body, as the group had decided. He stole Alexander away from the caravan traveling back to Macedon and took the body to Alexandria.

As for Thais, she had been Ptolemy's lover during his time away from Macedon. Some say she had also been Alexander's lover, as he kept her quite close to him at all times. In fact, it was Thais who convinced Alexander to burn down the palace in Persepolis during a night of heavy drinking. Once in Alexandria, however, Ptolemy married her. She gave birth to three children in Egypt, Lagus, Leontiscus and Eirene.

Ptolemy was not without oversight when he arrived in Alexandria. The original satrap, Cleomenes, who was left behind when Alexander's army left Egypt, remained in Alexandria as second to Ptolemy. Ptolemy soon entered into open rebellion against Perdiccas with some of the other generals. Perdiccas believed Ptolemy was after the throne, and he may well have been right. When Ptolemy killed Cleomenes for spying on him for Perdiccas, Perdiccas tried to invade Egypt and remove Ptolemy. He failed so badly that his own men killed him in disgrace. At the death of Perdiccas, Ptolemy was offered the position of regent for the infant Alexander. He turned it down. Ptolemy, who had been a student of Aristotle, just as Alexander had been, realized he was in no position to take Alexander's place without a constant fight to hold on to it. He decided to secure his position in Egypt and build his own empire from there.

Diadochen Map
Diadochen Map | Source

On Alexander the Great's deathbed, he was asked to whom his vast empire should be given. His reply was, "To the strongest." The first attempt at shared rule by his generals, known as the diadochi, resulted in constant battles for more land and more power among the generals. Following the death of Perdiccas, the first regent for Alexander's young son, the generals agreed to meet again, this time in Triparadisus in modern day Lebanon. As Ptolemy had turned down the position of regent, Antipater, who had served as regent for Philip II, Alexander's father, during the king's absence for war, was chosen. Under the terms of the Partition of Triparadisus in 321 BC, Antipater then tried once again to divide the kingdom among the satraps. The peace did not last long. Ptolemy was again fighting his fellow diadochi for control of the parts of Alexander's kingdom closest to him, namely Syria, Jerusalem and Cyprus. The land would be won, lost and won again many times.

Demetrius I of Macedon - Ptolemy's son-in-law
Demetrius I of Macedon - Ptolemy's son-in-law | Source

Once Antipater was name regent, Ptolemy wasted no time marrying the regent's daughter Eurydice. They had three sons and two daughters all but one of which would become wrapped up in Macedonian politics rather than Egyptian. Sons Ptolemy Keraunos and Meleager, through a series of cunning and malicious acts, both became kings of Macedon, the Greek portion of Alexander's former empire, one after the other. Their third son, whose name is lost to time, was killed by a half-brother. Their daughters, Ptolemais and Lysandra, both married Macedonians. Lysandra was married off to the son of Cassander, who became the first Macedonian king following the deaths of Philip III and Alexander IV, the latter of which he had executed at the age of 12. Ptolemais's mother would give her to her father's enemy, Demetrius I, who was King of Macedon at the time, out of spite for his favoring another wife over her.

Colossus at Rhodes
Colossus at Rhodes | Source

Following the death of Alexander IV, many of the satraps claimed kingship over their respected regions. Ptolemy was no different. In 309 BC, he named himself King of Egypt and Eurydice was his first queen. His battles continued, mostly with Demetrius, before he became king or Ptolemy's son-in-law. In 305, Demetrius tried unsuccessfully to invade Egypt, but Ptolemy prevented it. When Demetrius seized the Greek island of Rhodes, Ptolemy came to their aid and forced Demetrius to agree to peace while giving up a huge cache of military equipment. The people of Rhodes sold the equipment and built a HUGE statue of the sun god Helios, known as the Colossus of Rhodes. For his help in freeing them from Demetrius, the Rhodians gave Ptolemy the name Soter, which means savior.

Berenice I - Queen of Egypt
Berenice I - Queen of Egypt | Source
Ptolemy II and his first wife Arsinoe I
Ptolemy II and his first wife Arsinoe I | Source
Ptolemy II and his sister/wife Arsinoe II
Ptolemy II and his sister/wife Arsinoe II | Source
Ptolemy II Philadelphus
Ptolemy II Philadelphus | Source

Ptolemy II Philadelphus

Ptolemy had married yet another Macedonian woman. Her name was Berenice and she was the grandniece of Antipater. Ptolemy was Berenice's second husband. She had come to Egypt following her first husband's death to serve her cousin Eurydice who was Queen of Egypt. It was Berenice that drove the wedge between Ptolemy and Eurydice, resulting in the marriage of Ptolemais and Demetrius against Ptolemy's will. Ptolemy and Berenice had three children, daughters Arsinoe II and Philotera and a son Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Once Ptolemy's two older sons by Eurydice relinquished their rights to the throne of Egypt in order to claim the throne of Macedon, Ptolemy Philadelphus was named heir to the throne of Egypt. At no time were the children of Thais considered heirs to the throne, probably because their mother had been a prostitute. When Ptolemy died in 283 BC, Philadelphus took the throne.

Philotera is known to have died fairly young before marriage. Arsinoe, on the other hand, can be considered nothing but a conniving witch. She was first married to Lysimachus, King of Macedon and Thrace. She had three sons with him, but Lysimachus had a son, Agathocles, by a previous marriage. Arsinoe wanted him gone so her sons would rule. She worked with her half-brother Ptolemy Keraunos, and they accused Agathocles of treason against his father and poisoned him. Agathocles's family ran to Seleucus I, one of the diadochi and King of Asia Minor. Seleucus went on the attack, and Lysimachus was killed in the battle. Arsinoe married her half-brother Ptolemy Keraunos and assumed the thrones her husband had held. The two just could not get along however. Eventually, she convinced her sons to kill Ptolemy Keraunos. Instead, her husband killed two of her boys. Her oldest son, Ptolemy fled to the north while Arsinoe went home to Egypt hoping her brother, Ptolemy II Philadelphus would protect her. Once back in Egypt, she started making accusation against her brother's wife, Arsinoe I, who just happened to be the daughter of her late husband Lysimachus. She kept it up until Ptolemy II Philadelphus sent his wife into exile. He then married Arsinoe. Unlike other queens, Arsinoe II ruled as an equal by the side of her brother. He was probably afraid to tell her no.

Ptolemy II had several war issues during his reign. The first of which was with his half-brother Magas. Magas was the son of Berenice I and her first husband. He was made governor of Cyrene, but when his stepfather Ptolemy I died, he went to war with his brother to gain independence. It took him several attempts, but he eventually succeeded and named himself King of Cyrene in 276 BC.

Antiochus I, son of Seleucus I, also attempted to snatch parts of Syria away from Ptolemy II, but the new King of Egypt showed he had the naval power to defend his kingdom. Ptolemy then decided it was payback time for the murder of Arsinoe II's sons and hired 4,000 Gauls to go kill his brother Ptolemy Keraunos. When they were successful, the Gauls returned to Egypt and promptly tried to overthrow Ptolemy II. He left them on a deserted island in the middle of the crocodile infested Nile River where they died of starvation.

Ptolemy II also had issues with Antiochus II Theos over control of the Aegean Sea. Antiochus was the son of Antiochus I and Stratonice. She was the daughter of Ptolemy II's half-sister Ptolemais's husband, but her mother was Phila, the daughter of Antipater and sister of his stepmother Eurydice. Just wait, it gets better. To settle the matter over control of the Aegean, Antiochus II agreed to divorce his first wife, Laodice I, and marry Ptolemy II's daughter Berenice. He also agreed to give her children preference to the throne. It was all going fine until Ptolemy II died in 246 BC. Antiochus II then took up with his ex, Laodice I, who poisoned him and had men loyal to her kill Berenice and her young son, Antiochus. Laodice then claimed the throne for her oldest son, Seleucus II Callinicus. In retaliation, Ptolemy III, Berenice's brother, invaded Syria and took control of a large territory giving Egypt its largest footprint yet.

Ptolemy II had three children with his first wife, Arsinoe I. Their sons were Ptolemy III Euergetes and Lysimachus, named after his grandfather. Their daughter was Berenice Phernopherus. He also had an illegitimate son, Ptolemy Adromachou, with one of his many concubines. He had no children with his sister Arsinoe II.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria
The Lighthouse of Alexandria | Source
Ptolemy II with scholars at the Royal Library of Alexandria
Ptolemy II with scholars at the Royal Library of Alexandria | Source
Ptolemy II Philadelphus as Pharaoh
Ptolemy II Philadelphus as Pharaoh | Source

During his father's reign, a lighthouse had been started along the Alexandrian coast. Though the lighthouse no longer stands, it was hailed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was the tallest manmade structure at time. It consisted of three tiers. The first tier was a large square. The second tier was a smaller octagon. The final tier was circular. There was a furnace at the top for the fire used as the light. Each corner of the first two tiers was topped with a statue of Triton, messenger god of the seas. The top of the lighthouse had a statue of Triton's father, Poseidon. Unfortunately, several earthquakes, in 956, 1303 and 1323 AD, destroyed it. This is ironic as Poseidon is the Greek god of earthquakes as well as the sea.

Another building project that may have been started by Ptolemy I and completed by his son was the Royal Library at Alexandria. As part of a larger museum complex, it served not only as a library but also as a university. Some of the most noted ancient scholars studied there including, Archimedes, Euclid, Herophilus and Hero. All of whom created far more math than I care to think about. Ptolemy II and the library were said to have been responsible for translating the Hebrew Bible into the Septuagint, the first Greek version of the Old Testament. This is disputed however. The Library received some damage from fire during the siege of Alexandria at the time of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, but it was completely destroyed by fire in the 270s AD when Roman Emperor Aurelian ordered the entire royal section of Alexandria burned.

Ptolemy also accepted the Egyptian religion in addition to his own Greek and worshiped both sets of gods. This made him more acceptable to the Egyptian people.

Ptolemy III Euergetes
Ptolemy III Euergetes | Source
Ptolemy III as Pharaoh
Ptolemy III as Pharaoh | Source

Ptolemy III Euergetes

When his father died in 246 BC, Ptolemy III Euergetes became Pharaoh and King of Egypt. He married his half-brother Magas's daughter Berenice three years later. Berenice II's mother was Apama II, the daughter of Antiochus I and granddaughter of Demetrius I. I guess all that murder does not affect the rest of the family, or perhaps some people never learn.

Ptolemy III and Berenice II had six children. Their two daughters were Arsinoe III and Berenice. Berenice died as an infant. Their sons were Ptolemy IV Philopator, Lysimachus, Alexander and Magas.

Very little is known about the rule of Ptolemy III, which compared to his ancestors is probably a good thing. Besides his invasion of Syria as an act of revenge for the murder of his sister and nephew, we do know that he continued the policies his father started of embracing Egyptian culture. He was responsible for having all of his decrees posted trilingually in demotic, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek. The Canopus Decree, a decree honoring Ptolemy's parents, was the best known example, however the coronation decree of his grandson would become essential for the translation of forgotten hieroglyphics. Ptolemy III also added a leap day to the Egyptian calendar.

Berenice II Queen of Egypt
Berenice II Queen of Egypt | Source
Ptolemy IV Philopator
Ptolemy IV Philopator | Source

Ptolemy IV Philopator

I suppose the Ptolemy family needed Ptolemy III's 24 years of peace to recover from the chaos of his father and grandfather, but if the Egyptians thought their royal family was done with the nonsense, they were so far from right. Ptolemy IV Philopator would make his ancestors look like saints.

If you or I were to become Pharaoh of Egypt, I doubt the first thing we would do is execute our mother, but you and I are not Ptolemy IV. Why he had Berenice II murdered is unknown. She did have problems with her own mother, Apama II, who stole her husband, Demetrius the Fair. She had Demetrius murdered, in her mother's bedroom no less, but that was before coming to Egypt and marrying Ptolemy III. After marrying a second time and having children, she seems to have been a normal Queen of Egypt, if there is such a thing. For some reason, however, Berenice ran afoul of Sosibius, a minister of her son. Unfortunately, Ptolemy's little brother Magas was also a problem for Sosibius, so Ptolemy had him put to death as well. Nothing like scalding you brother as he takes a bath.

How Sosibius got his hooks into Ptolemy IV is unclear, but the pharaoh was your classic spoiled rich kid who would not stop partying long enough to attend to little matters like running a country. Even when Antiachus III, who was now the Seleucid king, declared war on Egypt, Ptolemy left it up to Sosibius to somehow arrange an army. How Sosibius created an army strong enough to fight a war let alone win it, since the finances of Egypt had been ignored by both Ptolemy IV and Sosibius, is amazing.

The only thing that saved Egypt was Sosibius stalling Antiochus long enough to arrange an army 70,000 strong in infantry, another 5,000 in cavalry and 73 African elephants. When they appeared at Raphia, near Gaza, Antiochus had 62,000 infantry, in addition to 6,000 cavalry and 102 Indian elephants. While the increase in elephants sounds impressive, the difference between African and Indian elephants was significant not just in the increased side of the African animals but also in their ability to handle the effects of war.

The Battle of Raphia
The Battle of Raphia | Source

In a sign that neither side was really interested in fighting, they faced each other about a kilometer apart for five days with little action, save for a nighttime attempt to sneak into Ptolemy's tent and kill him. He was not there so the attempt failed, but to his credit, the young king and his queen both showed up to fight. In a scene fit for a movie, once the kings lined up against one another and the elephants charged, Ptolemy's African elephants got spooked and started running through their own infantry. Antiochus's cavalry took advantage of the chaos caused by the elephants and started driving back Ptolemy's right wing. Ptolemy, however, jumped in front of his remaining infantry and ordered an attack. They started driving Antiochus's infantry back. At the same time, Ptolemy's cavalry, of which his wife, Arsinoe III, was riding in front, was destroying Antiochus's troops.

Antiochus thought his troops had won because his unit had done so well, but the rest of his forces were destroyed by Ptolemy. They broke and ran for the safety of the city walls leaving Antiochus no army with which to continue fighting, but the success of Ptolemy's Egyptian troops would come back to bite his son.

Arsinoe III - Queen of Egypt
Arsinoe III - Queen of Egypt | Source

Even after his victory in battle, Ptolemy IV was more interested in his wild lifestyle than running Egypt. He was also more interested in his relationship with his favorite harem boy, Agathocles, then with his sister/wife Arsinoe III. Arsinoe tried her best to take control of the country and do what was needed, but could only as much as Sosibius would allow, since he was still overseeing much of the administration of the country. By this time, her husband was also under the control Agathocles. Arsinoe did give birth to a son, Ptolemy V Epiphanes.

How Ptolemy IV Philopator died is not known, but when he did, Agathocles and Sosibius hid the fact that the pharaoh was dead long enough to kill an unsuspecting Arsinoe. The plan was to become regent over the five-year-old Epiphanes, who was now pharaoh, and steal everything they could. One conspirator soon turn on the other, however, as Agathocles killed Sosibius. Now both the Greek and the Egyptian citizens of Alexandria had seen enough. They ordered the military leader, Tlepolemus, to take action. He stormed the palace. Agathocles had his friends kill him before Tlepolemus could do it, but his sisters were dragged out of the palace and given to the citizens of Alexandria who tore them apart. The rest of Agathocles family and anyone else closely associated with him were also executed.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes
Ptolemy V Epiphanes | Source
The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone | Source
Cleopatra II
Cleopatra II | Source

Ptolemy V Epiphanes

Tlepolemus then became regent for the young boy, but all of his advisors had their own interests at mind. Being a young king made Ptolemy V and Egypt like blood in the water of a pool of diadochi sharks. Despite Rome's warnings to stay out of Egypt, Antiochus III of Syria and Philip V of Macedon quickly took all of Egypt's land outside of Africa to split between themselves.

Within Egypt, the young Ptolemy did not fare much better. Upper Egypt saw the pharaoh's youth as an opportunity to break away and declare their independence. As a boy, Ptolemy Epiphanes now had less income and fewer warriors because he had only half of Egypt, but more need for a strong military to hold off the rest of the Mediterranean's rulers. When some Lower Egypt villages revolted against him, however, he showed no mercy. After reaching an agreement to end the revolt peacefully, the pharaoh had the people executed.

Ptolemy V actually received the pharaoh's crown at age twelve, and for the first time ever, a Ptolemy was crowned in Memphis. The record of his coronation was recorded, as had become customary in the time of his grandfather, in three languages demotic, hieroglyphics and Greek. There would have been copies placed all over Egypt announcing the new pharaoh, but a copy of this decree found in 1799 during the invasion of Napoleon into Egypt, would become vital to the eventual translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, as the language was forgotten following Roman rule over Egypt. The copy of the stone was found in the village of Rosetta and became known worldwide as the Rosetta Stone.

In an effort to retain what was left of his kingdom, Ptolemy V entered into a peace agreement with Antiochus III. To seal their relationship, Ptolemy married Antiochus's daughter Cleopatra I. Their children were sons Ptolemy VI Philometor, Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, who was also called Physcon, and a daughter, Cleopatra II.

Ptolemy V would regain control of Upper Egypt before his death at age twenty-eight, by what historians believe was poisoning. Cleopatra then became regent for their oldest son Philometor.

Ptolemy VI Philometor
Ptolemy VI Philometor | Source
Horus with Cleopatra II, Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII
Horus with Cleopatra II, Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII | Source

Ptolemy VI Philometor and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II (Physcon)

Ptolemy VI Philometor was six when his father died. The first four years of his reign were under the watchful eye of his mother, Cleopatra I, as regent. When she died in 176 BC, Philometor married his sister Cleopatra II. The two of them had five children. Their sons were Ptolemy Eupator and Ptolemy Neos. Their daughters were Cleopatra Thea, Cleopatra III and Berenice.

By 170 BC, however, Cleopatra I's brother, Antiochus IV, took the opportunity and invaded Egypt, although, some claim that Ptolemy VI's advisors declared war on Syria first. During the war, Ptolemy VI was captured. Assuming he would never be released, they named his brother Ptolemy VIII pharaoh. Rome then ordered Antiochus to relinquish the throne to his nephews. Now Egypt had a problem, both Ptolemy's had been declared Pharaoh and neither brother was willing to resign. They went to Rome for an answer, as the Romans were now the powerhouse of the Mediterranean. Rome declared that the brothers should share Egypt with Ptolemy VIII Physcon on the throne in Memphis to rule Upper Egypt and Ptolemy VI Philometer with his sister/wife Cleopatra II on the throne in Alexandria to rule Lower Egypt.

Antiochus then left Egypt but was still trying to control his sister's children and therefore Egypt. The Ptolemies asked Rome for help against their uncle. Rome agreed to help, but when Uncle Antiochus returned, the Romans were busy fighting in Greece. Antiochus marched through Egypt taking Memphis while his troops also took Cyprus. Before Antiochus could reach Alexandria, however, the Romans were freed up enough to send troops to help the Ptolemies. The Roman senator Popilius ordered Antiochus out of not only Egypt but Cyprus as well. Antiochus asked for time to think about it, so Popilius drew a circle around the feet of Antiochus and told him he had until he stepped out of the circle to make a decision. Antiochus knew he was no match for Rome and gave up his claim to Egypt and Cyprus.

The brothers and sister tried to share control of Egypt as they had before, but Physcon seemed to be more powerful than his older brother. In addition, he was cruel, and his appearance was referred to as repulsive. In fact, Physcon means potbelly. Philometor, growing tired of his dominating brother went to Rome. He wanted help without actually asking for it, so he started living and working among the lower classes until someone noticed. When they did, Rome agreed to help. The Senate sent representatives to Egypt with Philometor to work out an agreement between the brothers. When they arrived, the Egyptian people were begging Philometor to return, Rome did little else to resolve the problem. Ptolemy VI Philometor then went to Cyprus, but soon Alexandria sent messengers begging Philometor to return and save them from Physcon. Finally, Rome was tired of the situation, and in 163 BC, they agreed to let the brothers divide what was left of their holdings. Ptolemy VI Philometor would stay as Pharaoh of Egypt while Ptolemy VIII Physcon would take Cyrenaica.

This still did not stop the fighting between the two brothers. Physcon now wanted Cyprus in addition to Cyrene. Rome agreed, but Philometor ignored the ruling. Physcon then went to Rome claiming that his brother tried to kill him and had the scars on his body to prove it. Historians believe this claim was true. Rome gave Physcon military support that he promptly used to try to take Cyprus by force. He failed and was capture by Philometor. Philometor was afraid of what Rome would do if he killed his brother, so he released him, but in an effort to reconcile, he also offered his daughter Cleopatra Thea to his brother as a wife, poor girl, but Physcon returned to Cyrene without Thea, and Philometor sent his son Ptolemy Eupator to rule over Cyprus where he would die in 150 BC. The brothers seem to have stopped their fighting at this point, and Egypt started to recover from years of unrest.

Alexander Balas and Cleopatra Thea
Alexander Balas and Cleopatra Thea | Source
Demetrius II of Syria
Demetrius II of Syria | Source
Cleopatra II, Cleopatra III, Ptolemy VIII and Horus
Cleopatra II, Cleopatra III, Ptolemy VIII and Horus | Source
Cleopatra III
Cleopatra III | Source
A funeral stele for Memphites
A funeral stele for Memphites | Source

Also in 150 BC, a young man named Alexander Balas appeared in Egypt and claimed to be the son of Antiochus IV and Laodice IV. He was out to get the Seleucid throne in Syria. After Rome recognized the young man, he went to Egypt. Ptolemy VI Pilometor did not know if the young man was telling the truth or not, but he saw it as chance to get a foothold in Syria and offered his daughter Cleopatra Theo, who ended up not marrying her uncle, as a wife. Balas eventually defeated Demetrius I Soter and claimed the throne, but he was not a good ruler and relied on his father-in-law for help. Finally, Demetrius II pleaded with Ptolemy for help in getting his rightful throne back. Ptolemy agreed and helped Demetrius defeat his son-in-law.

Initially, the Syrians offered Ptolemy their throne. He desperately wanted to accept it, but knew that Rome would never agree, especially after all the interference he had done. He decided to back Demetrius II, and declared his daughter Thea's marriage void despite her having a son, Antiochus VI Dionysus. Cleopatra Thea then married Demetrius and ruled Syria with her new husband. Balas went to war against Ptolemy over the betrayal, but both men were killed in the 145 BC battle. Ptolemy from falling from his horse.

Back in Alexandria, the new pharaoh, Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator and his mother Cleopatra II, had little military protection because the army was all in Syria with Ptolemy VI. It did not take long for Ptolemy VIII Physcon to show up and force his sister to marry him. He promised to protect Ptolemy VII until he was old enough to rule, but instead he had the boy killed. Shocking, I know.

Now that he was Pharaoh of Egypt again, Uncle Physcon took a liking to his nice Cleopatra. She agreed to marry him if she would be named queen along with her mother. Ptolemy agreed, which majorly upset her mother, Cleopatra II. After all, she lost her son by agreeing to be married to her fat brother. She should at least get to be the only queen.

The people of Egypt adored Cleopatra II, but the same could not be said for her new husband. He was hated before, and he was hated now. At first, he tried to smooth things over with the people, but his true colors started coming out again and was abusing people. After a few years, an angry mob was building in Alexandria. Ptolemy VIII took his young wife, Cleopatra III, their children and his son, Memphites, by Cleopatra II and fled to Cyprus to escape a violent end.

Cleopatra II now ruled Egypt on her own as Cleopatra Philometor Soteira, but her brother was so angry at being run out of Egypt that he killed Memphites, cut him up and sent him to his mother as a birthday gift. You cannot make this up.

Ptolemy VIII was back by 129 BC and started a war with his sister/ex-wife. Fearing a loss, she offered the throne of Egypt to her son-in-law Demetrius II in Syria, but he never made it back to Egypt, as he was having his own problems, including issues with his wife, Cleopatra Thea, who eventually got him killed. Cleopatra II eventual fled to Syria. Ptolemy VIII ruled Egypt for the remainder of his life though Cleopatra II did return in 124. Arguing continued until Rome decided to step in yet again in 116 BC, but Ptolemy VIII died soon after, leaving Egypt to Cleopatra III and whichever one of their sons she preferred. Do you see it coming?

Before continuing the soap opera in Egypt, it is vital to discuss what happened with Cleopatra Thea over in Syria, because her sister, Cleopatra III's, children became completely entwined in their lives. To recap: 105 BC Thea married Balas, had a son, Antiochus VI, then Balas was killed in a war against Demetrius II and her father. Next in 145, she married Demetrius II, had two sons, Seleucus V and Antiochus VIII, then Demetrius was captured, and she married Antiochus VII Sidetes, Demetrius's little brother, in 137 BC. They had a few kids including Antiochus IX Cyzicenus. In 129, Demetrius was released from captivity and came home to reclaim his throne and his wife from his brother who was killed in the battle. Destroyed by years of captivity, Demetrius was failing as a king, and following a defeat in battle, Thea locked him outside the city gates. He was capture again then killed. In 125, Seleucus V took the Syrian throne, but Thea had him killed the same year. She ruled for four years with her son Antiochus VIII Grypus. Thea's sister Cleopatra III even sent her oldest daughter Cleopatra Tryphaena to marry Antiochus VIII. When dear old Mom could not control him, however, she decided he had to go. She sweetly offered him a cup of wine one afternoon, but since his mother was not sweet, he knew it had to be poisoned and forced her to drink it. She died.

Ptolemy IX Lathyros
Ptolemy IX Lathyros | Source
Cleopatra Selene I
Cleopatra Selene I | Source
Ptolemy X Alexander I
Ptolemy X Alexander I | Source

Ptolemy IX Lathyros and Ptolemy X Alexander I

Cleopatra III and Ptolemy VIII Physcon had five children. Their sons were Ptolemy IX Lathyros and Ptolemy X Alexander I. Their daughters will have to be listed as bullet points, or it will be far too confusing.

  • Cleopatra Tryphaena, who married Antiochus VIII Gryphus, the king of Syria and son of Demetrius II and Cleopatra Thea
  • Cleopatra IV, who married her brother Ptolemy IX then Antiochus IX Cyzicenus, the son of Antiochus VII and Cleopatra Thea
  • Cleopatra Selene I, who married Ptolemy IX, then Ptolemy X, then Antiochus VIII Grypus, then Antiochus IX Cyzicenus and finally, Antiochus X Eusebes, the son of Antiochus IX Cyzicenus and grandson of Cleopatra Thea.

If you think those husband names are all the same, you are right, but I will get into that.

When Physcon died, he left it up to Cleopatra III to decide which son should rule. She had two sons, but, of course, she liked the younger better than the older. She sent Lathyros to run Cyprus, but the people of Alexandria were sticklers on birthright, so Cleopatra had to name Lathyros as pharaoh. She brought him back to Alexandria and sent her favorite son Alexander to take his place in Cyprus.

When Ptolemy IX Lathyros was named pharaoh, he was married to Cleopatra IV, his sister. The two had a son, Ptolemy XII Auletes, but soon their mother forced the siblings to divorce. Now, Cleopatra III had Cleopatra Selene I marry her brother. Selene and Lathyros had a daughter, Berenice III, but before long, Cleopatra III accused her son Lathyros of trying to kill her. Historians believe this was an excuse made up by their mother to get rid of him and bring Alexander back as pharaoh.

Antiochus IX Cyzicenus
Antiochus IX Cyzicenus | Source
Berenice III and her mother Cleopatra Selene I, her mother
Berenice III and her mother Cleopatra Selene I, her mother | Source

In the meantime, Cleopatra IV went to her other brother Alexander in Cyprus and tried to marry him. He refused, most likely knowing their mother would not like it. Rejected, Cleopatra went to Syria and married her cousin, Antiochus IX Cyzicenus, her Aunt Cleopatra Thea's son. Those Syrian boys should have learned to stay away from those Greek/Egyptian girls, but I guess not.

In 110 BC, back in Egypt, the boys switched places on the basis of their mother's charges of attempted murder. Lathyros stayed in Cyprus and Alexander went to Egypt where he now married Cleopatra Selene I. Alexander and Selene had a son, Ptolemy XI Alexander II, but it was only a year before Mom was tired of Alexander and made the boys switch places again.

Now in 101 BC, Alexander I was tired of their mother and her abuse of her power. He had her murdered, which seems to be a popular choice in this family. Ptolemy X then took the throne back from his brother Ptolemy IX and married Ptolemy IX's daughter Berenice III, but after nineteen years, Alexander was killed in a naval battle. Lathyros came back once again to rule as pharaoh, but in seven years, he was in desperate need of gold. He took the body of Alexander the Great and had it placed in a class sarcophagus. He then used the original gold sarcophagus to make coins. This however was more than the people of Alexandria would stand for. Alexander the Great was a god, and desecrating his resting place would not be accepted. They soon killed Ptolemy IX.

Ptolemy XI Alexander II
Ptolemy XI Alexander II | Source

Ptolemy XI Alexander II

Being the oldest living Ptolemy, Berenice III, the daughter of Lathyros and Selene I and widow of Alexander I, assumed the throne. Within a few months, however, Sulla, dictator in Rome ordered Berenice to marry Alexander II, her cousin/stepson. Despite the fact that the people of Egypt loved Berenice III or maybe because of it, Ptolemy XI Alexander II had her murdered after nineteen days of wedded bliss. Did I mention that the people loved Berenice? They were furious over Alexander II killing her, and an angry mob killed him within a matter of days.

Ptolemy XII Auletes
Ptolemy XII Auletes | Source
Ptolemy XII Auletes
Ptolemy XII Auletes | Source
Pompey of Rome
Pompey of Rome | Source

Ptolemy XII Auletes

The only one left to take the throne was Ptolemy Auletes. As the son of Lathyros and his sister Cleopatra IV, who was runoff by their mother, Cleopatra III, just after little Auletes was born, he was often called the bastard. He assumed the throne in 80 BC as Ptolemy Neos Dionysos Theos Philopator Theos Philadelphos. Because so many people considered him illegitimate, Auletes went so far as to go to Rome to bribe Julius Caesar and Pompey, so they would recognize him as the rightful ruler of Egypt.

When Auletes assumed the throne, he married Cleopatra V Tryphaena. It is most widely believed that she was the daughter of Ptolemy X Alexander I and Berenice III, but this is not certain. Their children included three daughters; Berenice IV, Cleopatra VII and Arsinoe IV. Their sons were Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV.

In 58 BC, the people of Egypt turned against him when he did nothing to stop the Romans from claiming Cyprus or even condemn them for doing it. Already unhappy with the pharaoh over taxes, they saw him as weak, always drunk and caring more about music than running the country. He ran to the safety of Rome, with his daughter Cleopatra VII. In his absence, his wife Cleopatra V took the throne, but his oldest daughter Berenice IV is believed to have poisoned her to rule Egypt herself.

Ptolemy XII tried to regain his throne, but the Senate in Rome would not grant it until Pompey finally pushed the action through. Even then, it only happened because Ptolemy owed Rome so much money they knew they would never get any of it back unless he returned to the throne. Still the Romans refused to fight a war to put him back on his throne, because a prophecy from the Sibylline Books warned against it.

When the Egyptians heard that Rome was planning on returning Ptolemy XII, they sent men to argue against it to the Senate. Pompey, however, had them killed before they could testify. Eventually Ptolemy XII bribed his way into an army and fought his way back onto the throne of Egypt. Once back on the throne in 55, he had his daughter Berenice IV executed. Ptolemy also had to find a way to payoff not only Rome but also Aulus Gabinius the Roman whose army put him back on the throne. Ptolemy placed the Romans in charge of collecting taxes for two reasons. First, it would ensure the Romans were getting paid, but it would also take the heat for increased taxes from Ptolemy and put it on the Romans. In the end, Ptolemy XII lost Cyprus and Cyrene, devalued Egyptian money by fifty percent and alienated the citizens.

Ptolemy XII became ill and made preparations for his heirs. He placed Cleopatra VII on the throne as his co-regent and ordered that she marry her brother, Ptolemy XIII upon his death, which occurred in 51 BC.

Cleopatra VII
Cleopatra VII | Source
Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar | Source

Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII

At eighteen, the last thing Cleopatra VII wanted was to marry her ten-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII, but she did. Within six month, Cleopatra and Ptolemy were completely at odds with one another, and the economic mess their father left, along with famine, made the situation worse. She soon started making decisions without her brother/husband and was leaving his name off of official documents in an attempt to assume complete control of the throne for herself.

In 50 BC, however, Cleopatra had a run in with the Roman soldiers Aulus Gabinius left in Egypt following their war to put her father back onto the throne. When the Roman governor of Syria, Marcus Bibulus, who had a hatred of Caesar and Pompey since his time as Caesar's joint consul in Rome, sent two of his sons to Egypt to order the Romans out of the country, Gabinius's men killed them instead. When Bibulus ordered the killers sent to him, Cleopatra obliged. Gabinius's men then turned against the girl, eventually forcing her out of Alexandria and placing Ptolemy XIII on the throne as pharaoh and sole ruler. It was 48 BC.

Immediately, Ptolemy XIII ordered all the grain in Egypt sent to Alexandria hoping to starve his sister out, but Cleopatra took their younger sister Arsinoe and went to Syria. It was not long, however, before the civil war between Pompey and Caesar came to the shores of Egypt. Pompey was seeking shelter in Egypt, but Ptolemy XIII was afraid of what Julius Caesar would do if he allowed Pompey to hide there. At only thirteen, he relied heavily on the advice of Theodotus, Pothinus and Achillas, his council of regency. The decision was made to kill Pompey instead of giving him refuge. Thinking he was being welcomed ashore, Pompey left his wife and children onboard his Roman ship and took a boat to shore. As soon as he stepped on land, he was stabbed to death in front of his family waiting in the harbor. He was then beheaded.

When Caesar, who was already on his way to Egypt, arrived, Ptolemy had Pompey's head handed over thinking the Roman general would be pleased. He was not. Despite being at war, Pompey had been a long time ally and son-in-law of Caesar. He was furious that he was killed in such a brutal way and in front of his family no less. Ptolemy fled Alexandria and Caesar moved himself into the royal palace.

Cleopatra meeting Julius Caesar
Cleopatra meeting Julius Caesar | Source

Cleopatra learned that Caesar was in Alexandria and that he was upset with her brother's handling of Pompey. She saw this as her opportunity to get into the Roman's good graces. She had her Syrian bodyguards roll her up in a carpet and smuggled into Caesar. After telling the Roman her side of the story, Caesar ordered both Cleopatra and Ptolemy to appear before him the following day.

Ptolemy appeared the following morning not knowing that his sister/wife spent the night with Julius Caesar. It didn't take him long to figure it out, however, and he ran through the palace screaming. Caesar's men grabbed him and brought him back for the meeting. Caesar had intended to make Egypt a province of Rome, but now that he was sleeping with young Cleopatra and she was pregnant with his child, he decided to place her back on the throne knowing she would be more loyal to him than a Roman governor.

Pothinus, one of Ptolemy's advisors raised the pharaoh's army and seized the palace and much of Alexandria. The standoff lasted for months because Caesar did not have access to his full military, but he did manage to get a messenger to Cypress for help, and he took control of the lighthouse which prevented Ptolemy's men from using the harbor. Arsinoe escaped the palace and ended up with Achillas, who had her named Queen of Egypt, the title her sister Cleopatra held. When Caesar's reinforcements from Cyprus arrived, a battle was fought along the Nile. The library built by Ptolemy I and II was badly damaged by fire, Pothinus and Achillas were both killed and Ptolemy XIII drowned trying to escape.

Caesar placing Cleopatra back on the throne of Egypt
Caesar placing Cleopatra back on the throne of Egypt | Source

Caesar now named his lover, Cleopatra VII, Pharaoh or Egypt. Because of Egyptian law, however, Cleopatra was forced to marry her even younger brother Ptolemy XIV. He was eleven at the time and the marriage was in name only, as she was clearly in love with Julius Caesar.

Historians have long believed that the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra was more about each using the other. Though the young Egyptian certainly used the Roman ruler to regain her place on the throne of Egypt, she was completely in love with him. Caesar also used the girl to place himself in control of Egypt, but to have a son that would someday claim the throne of Egypt was right down his self-absorbed ally. Still, Caesar seemed to love Cleopatra and her intelligence. She was fluent in nine languages including Egyptian, as she was the only Ptolemy to learn it, she was brilliant at math and made good business decisions. He cared enough to bring her and their son Ptolemy Caesar, better known as Caesarion, back to Rome when he eventually returned.

When Caesarion was a year old, Caesar returned to Rome with his Egyptian mistress and their son. There was much fanfare, as the now dictator received a triumph upon his return. Many Romans were unhappy that Cleopatra was there in Rome living in one of Caesar's homes. She was considered rude by most, and it was an insult to Calpurnia, Caesar's wife. Still, Caesar seemed happy to have her there and showed her and their son, who he fully claimed as his, off to the people of Rome. One of his early orders, upon being named dictator for ten years, was to have a temple built in the Forum. It was in honor of his ancestor, the goddess Venus, but inside he ordered a gold statue of Cleopatra done up as the goddess Isis.

Assassination of Julius Caesar
Assassination of Julius Caesar | Source
Ptolemy XIV
Ptolemy XIV | Source

Cleopatra was in Rome on March 15, 44 BC when Caesar was assassinated by several senators. Realizing that her protection from the Roman aristocracy was now gone, she took Caesarion and quickly returned to Egypt. Despite the fact that Caesar wrote a new will upon his return from Egypt, he named his grandnephew Octavian as his heir and left Cleopatra and Caesarion out knowing the Romans would never accept an illegitimate Greek/Egyptian as their leader. Upon his sister/wife's return to Egypt, Ptolemy XIV mysteriously died.

Cleopatra bided her time in Egypt watching to see what would happen in Rome. She knew that once Octavian and Antony defeated Brutus and Cassius, the main conspirators of Caesar's murder, that one of them would be taking over control of Rome. It was Antony who came to Cleopatra for troops and money. Though history claimed Cleopatra to be one of the most beautiful women of the time, recent finds have proven that it was more about her instincts, her intelligence and her ability to tell exactly what makes a man tick that enabled her to seduce both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

Cleopatra meeting Marc Antony as Aphrodite
Cleopatra meeting Marc Antony as Aphrodite | Source
Marcus Antonius
Marcus Antonius | Source
Octavia sister of Octavian and wife of Marc Antony
Octavia sister of Octavian and wife of Marc Antony | Source

Cleopatra now staked her future with Marc Antony, Caesar's former second in command, and when she learned he was close, she put on a lavish show for his pleasure. She commissioned a boat decked out with silver oars and purple sails. She was dressed as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, and her attendants were dresses and Eros, her son, the god of love. Antony quickly saw her offering herself to him, and the idea of his getting a Ptolemy for himself delighted him.

In no time at all, Cleopatra had Antony wrapped around her finger. She offered him not only her love but also her money. All he had to do was kill her sister Arsinoe, whom she had never forgiven for turning away from her during the siege of Alexandria. In 40 BC, however, Antony had to leave Egypt. His wife, Fulvia, had gotten into an argument with Octavian and left Rome for the safety of Greece. Not long after Antony found her there, she became sick and died. Antony now went to Rome to deal with Octavian. Trying to cool down the tension between the two, Octavian offered his sister to Antony. He had no choice but to accept the marriage to Octavia while back in Egypt, Cleopatra delivered twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II. In Rome, Antony also had two daughters with Octavia who already had three children with her late husband.

When Antony returned, he went to Syria instead of Egypt, but he quickly sent for Cleopatra and their children. He announced the children as his and offered Cleopatra land. Now when a Roman leader acknowledges his children and gives their motherland, it is not a few acres. Antony gave her Cyprus, Phoenicia, Coele-Syria, Judea, Arabia and the coast of Cicely. Antony then used Cleopatra's support and attacked Parthia in modern day Iran, but he was defeated. That same year, 36 BC, he had another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus, and Antony and Cleopatra were married, despite the fact that he was still married to Octavia.

Despite the loss to Parthia, Cleopatra was providing for her husband's troops, but Octavia was in Athens gathering supplies as well. When she tried to bring them to Egypt, Antony told her to stay where she was. Now Octavian was getting upset at the disrespect Antony was showing to his sister. The only way Marc Antony could prevent a war with Octavian would be to return to Rome with Octavia and stay away from Cleopatra, but he chose to stay in Egypt. Octavia still sided with her husband, and Octavian held off on any attack.

Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra
Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra | Source
Marc Antony commits suicide
Marc Antony commits suicide | Source

Antony led an attack on Armenia in 34 BC. Upon his great victory, Cleopatra threw a grand triumph through Alexandria for her husband. She dressed as Isis while Antony dressed as Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. A few days later, a grand banquet was thrown by Cleopatra in which their children were given royal titles. Antony spent much of this party sitting on the throne of Egypt. Cleopatra named Caesarion her co-ruler, Ptolemy XV Caesar King of Kings. Alexander Helios was named Great King of the Seleucid empire. Cleopatra Selene was named Queen of Cyrenaica and Crete, and Ptolemy Philadelphos was named King of Syria and Asia Minor. He was two years old.

In 32 BC, Marc Antony divorced Octavia and Octavian declared war against Cleopatra. Without mentioning her husband at all, Cleopatra's name was dragged through the mud, and she was called every nasty name around at the time. As far as Rome was concerned, Cleopatra and Marc Antony were trying to take over the world, which was not far from the truth. It did not take much for Octavian to defeat Antony in a naval battle in Actium. Antony then killed himself with his own sword, it was 30 BC.

The Death of Cleopatra
The Death of Cleopatra | Source
Ptolemy XV Caesar (Caesarion)
Ptolemy XV Caesar (Caesarion) | Source

Cleopatra was then captured and taken to Octavian. Refusing to let her try to use her feminine ways on him, he calmly told her that he, Octavian, would have a triumph through every major city she had once controlled. As part of every triumph, she would be paraded through the streets as his slave. Cleopatra was determined to never let that happen to her. That night she had her keepers bring an asp into her chamber hidden in a basket of figs. She committed suicide by snakebite on August 12, 30 BC. The religion of Egypt claimed that a person who died by snakebite would automatically receive immortality in the Field of Reeds. Not only she but her name would live forever. Now that Antony and Cleopatra were both dead, Caesarion was killed, but Antony's children were raised by Octavia.

With Cleopatra VII's death, the Romans claimed rule over Egypt and there would never be another pharaoh.

The Ptolemy Family Tree
The Ptolemy Family Tree | Source


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    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      You navigated your way through that torturous history magnificently. Congratulations on an erudite and wittily entertaining article.


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