Ptolemy Women: Eurydice, Berenice, Arsinoe & Bilistiche

There is evidence from the ancient sources that the Macedonian queens of Ptolemy I and II were decidedly important to the running of these courts and governments in Egypt. Modern scholarship would go further and say that these Macedonian/pharaonic queens exemplified a substantial rise in the status of Greek women in the ancient world.[1] Macedonian queens were, generally, feisty female consorts to begin with, if Philip II’s Olympias is to be considered a role model. Surviving with their children, in the murderous environment of the Macedonian court, was a life and death concern; and bred ruthless queens like Arsinoe II, Ptolemy Philadelphus’s second wife. The paradigm established by the traditional Egyptian pharaohs seems to have elevated the Ptolemaic queens to a new level of influence and power within their courts and governments. I would mention at this point that the chronology of many of the dates given by sources, both ancient and modern, have been called into question by R. A. Hazzard. This is because the calendar systems of the Macedonians and the traditional Egyptian priesthood did not agree, and thus records differ on this basis.[2]

Eurydice was the daughter of Antipater, regent of Macedon in Alexander IV’s absence, and until his death in 319-18 BCE. Ptolemy I married her around 323-22, his third wife, and through her gained another link to the divine rulership of Egypt of Alexander the Great. The marriage was negotiated with Antipater, possibly around the time of the Triparadeisos conference.[3] They had a number of children, including Ptolemy Ceraunus, Ptolemais and Lysandra. It is unclear from the ancient sources whether the Ptolemies were monogamous or polygamous; and whether Eurydice was divorced prior to Ptolemy I forming a relationship with Berenice I. Berenice I was the daughter of Antigone; and travelled to Egypt in the retinue of Eurydice. She either married, or formed a liaison with, Ptolemy I around 317-14. They had three children: Ptolemy II, Arsinoe II and Philotera.

Ptolemy II instituted the divine worship of his parents, Ptolemy Soter and Berenice I; and this elevated Berenice I to even greater prominence.[4] The historical precedence for this was firmly in the pharaonic tradition in Egypt.

“How bright among dames discreet shone the frame of Berenice, what a boon to her progeny was she!”[5]

As this excerpt from The Panegyric of Ptolemy indicates, it is designed to reflect gloriously upon the son Ptolemy II as their rightful royal progeny. The Ptolemies were just beginning to create a rich tapestry of classical Hellenic religious allusions grafted onto an Egyptian base. Alexandria was set to become the new Athens of the Hellenistic age, with Library and Museum stockpiling both the work and the geniuses of the Greek world.[6]

Arsinoe I was the daughter of Lysimachus, the ruler of Macedon and Thrace. She was married to Ptolemy II around 284-81; and she was the mother of Ptolemy III Euergetes.[7] Arsinoe I was replaced by Arsinoe II, sometime around 273. Scholarship records that Arsinoe I was exiled to Coptos for conspiring against the king. The evidence for the exact details of this are slight, with Bevan informing readers that John Mahaffy identified a stele found at Coptos dedicated to Arsinoe. An Egyptian named Sennekhrud, her steward, dedicated it to Arsinoe, but her name is not enclosed by a royal cartouche.[8] There is debate over which Arsinoe is referred to in this stele. My own investigations failed to find the text of this stele; and could discover no credible ancient sources that mentioned this conspiracy. It may be an example of Bevan filling in historical gaps with some narrative colour. He does paint Arsinoe II as somewhat of a Macedonian monster, who, earlier had conspired to have her stepson Agathocles executed by his father Lysimachus, when she was the Macedonian queen. Ambition in women is not viewed as an attractive quality by the, almost exclusively male, generations of historians. The Ptolemaic queens from Arsinoe II to Cleopatra VII are often depicted as scheming and vicious.[9] Arsinoe II would subsume the children of the first Arsinoe’s marriage to Ptolemy II as her own.[10]

Arsinoe II is the most important and influential of the women under examination here. Her import is attested to by the quantity of temples, statues and epigrams dedicated to Arsinoe II throughout Egypt.[11] Cities and nomes were named after Arsinoe.[12] Posidippus immortalised her victories in three harnessed horse events at the Festival of Olympia in 272, which endowered her with a rare glory for a woman of the ancient world.[13] Arsinoe II was the first Ptolemy to marry her full blood brother, when she married Ptolemy II around 273.[14] It was this union which spurred the naming of Ptolemy II Philadelphus; and Arsinoe acquired this title first. Their union was in the tradition of the phaoronic brother and sister, kings and queens. It must have held some appeal for the priesthood and the indigenous population of Egypt on this basis. Why the Egyptians have so favoured a relationship, which is considered to be incestuous and taboo by the majority of human cultures and civilisations, remains a pertinent question.[15] Zeus and Hera were, of course, Greek sibling deities involved in this kind of relationship too. The poet Sotades would allude to the marriage of Ptolemy II and his sister Arsinoe II as ‘unholy’ in a poem. This would eventually cost him his life at the hands of Ptolemy II’s navy.[16]

Bevan, suggests that the existence of Ptolemy II’s numerous mistresses may point to his frivolous  nature as a ruler. It can be speculated that his marriage to Arsinoe II, and her substantially active role in the running of the state, was designed to complement his spasmodic rulership. She is credited with securing his court, which allowed him to successfully prosecute the First Syrian War. The Pithom Stele provides evidence that Arsinoe II accompanied Ptolemy II to the border of the east Delta to arrange defences there in 273.[17] The inference, in Bevan, is that Arsinoe II was strong and Ptolemy II was weak; and that her ruthless ambition was irresistible. The factual evidence seems less conclusive in my view. Arsinoe II was worshipped as a state deity after her death in 269; and both Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II were worshipped as the brother and sister gods.[18] This Theoi Adelphoi was associated with the Cult of Alexander. The substantial volume of evidence declares her importance to the second-generation Ptolemaic Empire, especially after her posthumous deification.[19]

The Mendes Stele states that Ptolemy II commanded that Arsinoe II’s ram image was to be placed in all temples in every nome. Arsinoe II had been made the priestess of the ram of Mendes whilst she was still alive.[20] It is apparent from this fact that Arsinoe II was to be utilised as a goddess to cement Ptolemy’s Egyptian subjects to the pharaoh and his deified queen.[21] The priesthoods were content to allow this, as it was an established phaoronic tradition. Egypt, being a two-tiered society of Greeks and Egyptians, meant that Arsinoe II was also elevated to that of a Greek goddess. This is attested to by a surviving fragment of a poem by Callimachus.[22] Arsinoe II is identified particularly with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.[23] There is an emphasis in the Ptolemaic propaganda that their union was a love match, and that, perhaps, Ptolemy II was harnessing humanity’s enduring fascination with romantic love.[24] The ancient Greek world regularly incorporated mythic allusions into its own interpretations of behaviours. If the power of love could be enfolded into the Ptolemy narrative, then it would add lustre to their reign. Coins were minted bearing the image of Arsinoe II; and she is wearing the ram’s horns of Amun.[25] Coins were one of the most effective instruments for public relations in the ancient world, because money is both desirable and in everyone’s hands.[26] Queen Arsinoe II is immortalised on the state currency and her image sends a message through her iconography to both Greeks and Egyptians. Herodotus had linked Zeus to the Ram in his Histories.[27] Ptolemy II, then, cleverly directed a substantial portion of the religious tax on fruit and vineyard production to her cult.[28] This would ensure the financial support for the cult of Arsinoe II, allowing it to endure into the future.

Dynastic marriages organised by the Hellenistic successor kings, Ptolemy I, Demetrius, Lysimachus and Seleucus were an important means of establishing treaties and some stability between their various kingdoms. Daughters would be married off to these rival kings in a bid to define existing territories and dampen further avaristic ambitions.[29] What happened with Berenice, the daughter of Ptolemy II, who was married off to Antiochus II, illustrates the political manoeuvring involving daughters and wives. Royal women, throughout the ancient world, were important for the heirs they could produce. In Berenice’s case the royal succession plan in the Seleucid Empire did not go accordingly. Berenice and her child were murdered by agents close to Laodice, Antiochus II’s former queen, and her son Seleucus II was declared king.[30]

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Bilistiche was one of Ptolemy II’s official mistresses. Thought to be either Macedonian or an Argive; she became his mistress in the early 260s. There is debate about her origins, with Plutarch condemning her as a barbarian slave bought in the market; she may have been Phoenician.[31] Another successful Olympian equestrian owner, she too loomed bright in the imaginations of the Ptolemaic world.[32] Ptolemy II deified her in death as Aphrodite Bilistiche.[33] This would seem to indicate that Ptolemy II felt genuine love and affection for her, and valued her lasting memory.

The role of women in the ancient world, and Greek women, in particular, should be considered when examining these Ptolemaic royal wives and mistresses. Greek women, generally, belonged in the home or, as courtesans, in the beds of kings. Political ambition was not encouraged, but denied in this patriarchal society. A woman’s star rose based on her beauty, virtue or fertility. Ptolemaic Egypt was a new world, in some ways, with Greeks emigrating there, for new opportunities, from right around the Greek world.[34] Alexandria was a rapidly expanding metropolis and fast becoming a Hellenic cultural watershed.[35] The emergence of powerful women at the very top of Ptolemaic society, may signal gender based changes occurring in this new world.

Greek royal women, in many ways, reached their apogee in the Ptolemaic Empire. The conclusion could be drawn that the traditionally greater state role afforded female pharaohs, and, perhaps, Egyptian women, more generally, within their society, contributed to this. The first two Ptolemaic kings were enthusiastic embracers of this enlarged courtly and stately role for their wives and girlfriends. Arsinoe II, from the available evidence, made the largest individual contribution to the Ptolemaic court and government. She, Berenice I and Bilistiche were deified; their import endured beyond their lifetimes. The Ptolemies may not have been true champions of gender equality for its own sake, but rather pragmatic kings, who employed whatever was at hand to promote their own authority, both internally and externally. Whatever the catalyst, there is no denying the prominence these women achieved within Ptolemaic Egypt, and, perhaps, beyond.

©Robert Hamilton

Ancient Sources

Athenaeus, http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus14.html#620 Viewed 16 December 2016.

Austin, M, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A selection of Ancient Sources in Translation, 2nd ed, (Cambridge, 2006).

Dittenberger, W, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum, (Oxford, 1883)

Halikarnassos, http://epigraphy.packhum.org/text/258027 Viewed 23 December 2016.

The Great Mendes Stela, Translation by S. Birch, after a German translation by Brugsch-Bey, (1875), Records of the Past, series 1, Vol 8,

http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/texts/great_mendes_stela.htm viewed 22 December 2016.

Herodotus, The Histories, Rev Ed, (London, 1972).

Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Translated by William Whiston,  http://lexundria.com/go?q=J.+AJ+15.89

Plutarch, Life of Demetrius, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Demetrius*.html#31.3 Viewed 17 December 2016.

Pausanias, Description of Greece. with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; (London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918).

Pithom Stele, http://www.attalus.org/docs/other/inscr_16.html Viewed 23 December 2016.

Ptolemy II, Revenue Laws, Papyri, Translation by B.P. Grenfell, (Oxford, 1896).

Strabo, Geography,  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Strabo/14C*.html#3.6 Viewed 22 December.

Theocritus, Idylls, Translation by J.M. Edmonds, http://www.theoi.com/Text/TheocritusIdylls3.html#17 Viewed 14 December 2016.

http://www.tyndalehouse.com/egypt/ptolemies/ptolemies.htm Viewed 22 December 2016.

https://www.vcoins.com/en/stores/artancient/218/product/unique_ancient_gold_octadrachm_mnaieion_coin_of_queen_arsinoe_ii__253_bc/609226/Default.aspx  Viewed 22 December 2016.

Modern Sources

Bevan, E R, The House of Ptolemy 331-30 BC, (London, 1927).

Clausen, W, Callimachus and Latin Poetry, (Harvard, 1964).

Harder, A, Callimachus: Aetia, (Oxford, 2010).

Hart, G, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, 2nd ed, (Abingdon, 2005).

Hazzard, R. A, “The Regnal Years of Ptolemy II Philadaelphos”, Phoenix, Vol 41, (Toronto, 1987), pp 140-158.

Holbl, G, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire, Trans. Tina Saavedra, (London, 2001).

Hopkins, K, “Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 22, No 3, (July, 1980) pp 303-354.

Johnson, C. G, “The Divinization of the Ptolemies and the Gold Octadrachms honouring Ptolemy III”, Phoenix, Vol 53, (Toronto, 1990), pp 50-56.

Lewis, N, Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt, (Oakville, 2001).

Lloyd, A. B, “Nationalist Propaganda in Ptolemaic Egypt”, Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschiche, Bd. 31, H. 1, (1st Qtr., 1982), pp 33-55.

Lusching, C. A. E, An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach, 2nd ed, (Indianapolis, 2007).

Manning, J.G, The Last Pharaohs: Egypt Under the Ptolemies, 305-30BC, (Princeton, 2012).

McKechnie, P, “Manipulation of Themes in Quintus Curtius Rufus Book 10”, Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschiche, Bd. 48, H. 1, (1st Qtr., 1999), pp 44-60.

Nisetich, F, The Poems of Callimachus, (Oxford, 2001).

Pomeroy, S.B, Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra, (Wayne State University Press, 1990).

Worthington, I, Ptolemy I: King and Pharaoh of Egypt, (New York, 2016).


[1] Pomeroy, S.B, Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra, (Wayne State University Press, 1990). p 3.

[2] Hazzard, R. A, “The Regnal Years of Ptolemy II Philadaelphos”, Phoenix, Vol 41, (Toronto, 1987), pp 140-158.

[3] Pausanias 1.6. 8.

[4] Athenaeus, 5. 196 ff.

[5] Theocritus, Idylls. 17. 34.

[6] Syll.3 390: Burstein 92.

[7] Pausanias 1.7. 3.

[8] Bevan, R, The House of Ptolemy 331-30 BC, (London, 1927). p 59.

[9] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 15. 89.

[10] Theocritus, Idylls, 17. 128.

[11] Athenaeus, 11. 497.

[12] Strabo, Geog, 14. 666.

[13] Posidippos, Hippika AB 78.

[14] Pausanias 1.7. 1

[15] Diodorus, Lib. 10. 31. 1.

Hopkins, K, “Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 22, No 3, (July, 1980) pp 303-306.

[16] Athenaeus, 14. 621.

[17] Pithom Stele,

[18] Hibeh, 99 & 128.

[19] OGIS; 55;Tituli Asiae Minoris II (Vienna, 1920), 1: Burstein 100.

[20] Mendes Stele

[21] Halikarnassos 39. http://epigraphy.packhum.org/text/258027

[22] Pfeiffer, frag. 228.

[23] Holbl, G, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire, (London, 2001), p 103.

[24]Theocritus, Idylls, 17. 130-132.

[25]https://www.vcoins.com/en/stores/artancient/218/product/unique_ancient_gold_octadrachm_mnaieion_coin_of_queen_arsinoe_ii__253_bc/609226/Default.aspx

[26] Johnson, C. G, “The Divinization of the Ptolemies and the Gold Octadrachms honouring Ptolemy III”, Phoenix, Vol 53, (Toronto, 1990), p 52.

[27]Herodotus, Hist, 2. 42.2

[28] Ptolemy II, Revenue Laws, Papyri, Trans. B.P, Grenfell, (Oxford, 1896).

[29] Plutarch, Dem. 32.

[30] Didyma II (Berlin 1958), 492 A-C, RC 19, 18, 20; OGIS 225 (B and C only); Burstein 24 (B only); BD 25.

[31] Plutarch, Moralia, 753e.

[32] Pausanias 5.8. 11.

[33] Athenaeus, 13. 576.

[34] Lloyd, A. B, “Nationalist Propaganda in Ptolemaic Egypt”, Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschiche, Bd. 31, H. 1, (1st Qtr., 1982), p 36.

[35] Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 5. 201b-f, 202f-203e (=Callixinus of Rhodes FGrH 627 F 2)