29 August 2010

The Uppity Queen Arsinoë II (Part II) [Updated]

(Part I, click here)

To Reign or Rule?

Some scholars pooh-pooh the idea of Queen Arsinoë II having had any share in real power.  They can't deny that some later Ptolemaic queens did rule in their own right, if often briefly (Cleopatra Berenice, Cleopatra Tryphena, another Berenice, and -- most exceptionally -- the glorious Cleopatra VII); but there seems to be an unspoken assumption that female rule was only possible because later male Ptolemies were degenerate -- and it serves them right for all that  incest!   

But when Arsinoë II was queen, the dynasty hadn't had nearly enough time to degenerate and, anyway, neither she nor Ptolemy II were children of incest.  So, they argue instead that the queen's power was more apparent than real: 

Philadelphos trusted her, possibly confided in her, and gave her a social role in the affairs of his kingdom". (emphasis mine)

The upshot is that she had no part in the formation of public policy.

 Arsinoë II Rules OK

Feminist historians look at it differently.  To their eyes,  Arsinoë's political sway was far above what was customary for royal consorts.  Some even suggest that Ptolemy II was a weakling and Arsinoë II the real power in the land.  Certainly, unlike his father, the king was not a military man; he started lots of wars but won few.  In fact, when Arsinoë married Ptolemy, Egypt was in the midst of losing a war against Seleucid Syria:
The new queen set her hand to rectifying the situation.  She reorganized the army; she accompanied it on its campaigns; she won the Syrian war.  Her grateful husband acknowledged his debt to her policies with a public inscription in 266 B.C.
Naturally, after she died, Ptolemy went on to lose a Second Syrian War because she was not there to help him.

Mimimize or Maximize? 

So which story is closer to the truth? 

Arguing the pro's and con's from our surviving sources can be devilishly difficult (below, I give some on-line sources for those who like the nitty-gritty). But, however deeply you go into it, the fact remains that there is no proof either way.  Whether you come down on one side or the other depends, in the end, more on hunches than the solid weight of evidence.  

Two new points might help: one, admittedly, a matter of opinion; the second,  a pictorial matter of fact.

Holy Incest

Brother-sister royal incest from the queen's point of view is a win-win bet.  That doesn't mean that it wasn't awfully daring for Arsinoë II to take this leap into the unknown (and, since she's seen as stronger and smarter than Ptolemy, historians generally assume that it was her idea and not the king's), but there's little doubt that the pairing was of great benefit to queenship: almost inevitably, it conferred greater power on the queen.   

Sibling incest for the Ptolemies, as also for earlier Pharaohs, established an equality between king and queen as co-rulers. Accordingly, Arsinoë shared every title of honour with her brother and was deified together with him. Brother-sister marriage did not of itself grant the queen political power and control, but it put her in a position to take power if and when the opportunity arose.  And this remained true for future queens of the dynasty: their power and prestige was related to the continuing prevalence of sibling marriage. 

After all, you are the daughters of gods

That's really part of the self-aggrandizing message of the Theoi Adelphoi coins (scroll down [or click] to see the images in Part I).  The title of 'gods' appears above the heads of their deceased parents on one side, while Ptolemy and Arsinoë, pictured on the reverse, are simply labelled 'siblings'.  However, anyone handling the coin would mentally link the titles and read it as a coin of the 'sibling gods'.  

The Ghost of Alexander the Great 

After Alexander had conquered Egypt, he wasted no time in crossing the western desert where he was said to have been led by two snakes to the Oracle of Amun at Siwa Oasis (winter/spring, 332/331 BCE).  This oracle of the ram-headed god Amun (left) was famous throughout the Greek world.  Almost certainly, Alexander went there to seek the god's approval for his plan to found a city on the shore of the sea

A city like the joyous spring.
In populousness and spaciousness like Paradise; 
For it was both a market-place and a sowing-place.
They [would give] to it even the name of Alexandria.

But Amun granted him even more than the future metropolis.

Just as Alexander approached the oracle, he was greeted by the priests as "son of Amun", their usual form of address to new pharaohs.  From this time on, like several Egyptian pharaohs, Alexander was pictured on  monuments (below) with the ram-horn of Amun to publicise his position as son of the god and legitimate king.

Naturally, all the Ptolemies desired to associate themselves with the glory of Alexander.  So much so, that the first Ptolemy hijacked Alexander's funeral cortege as it travelled, with astonishing pomp, from Babylon on its way home to Macedonia. When the cortege had reached the Mediterranean sea at Alexandria-ad-Issum (a city in Syria, founded by Alexander to celebrate his victory over the Persians), Ptolemy arrived with an army and forced the gold-and-jewel-covered cart with the coffin to take the road south to Egypt.

The gold-encased body of the hero was eventually transported to Alexandria and placed in what would become the royal cemetery of Ptolemy's line.  Over the next three centuries, as each of Ptolemy's descendants died, he was buried in an opulent mausoleum in the royal cemetery, near the central tomb of Alexander.  The dynasty's cult was celebrated there and Alexander's tomb, especially, was treated as a shrine.  Ptolemy I thus not only exalted his hero but, by doing so, elevated his own status as the guardian of the body of the greatest king, who was also a god.

Despite this close association, no Ptolemy ever adopted the divine ram's horns.  No male Ptolemy, that is, for the remarkable exception was Queen Arsinoë II.

On her coins (below), and on hers alone, the ram's horn appear below the ear  -- and you can just see the outline of the horn beneath her veil.  

The ram's horn is common on her posthumous coins but hardly ever appears on cult statues. I know of just one case: that's the head of a small basalt statue (below), carved in the Greek style with some slight Egyptian influence.*

Just as we  imagine it on the coins, here the horn emerges in 3-D from the hair to curl backwards and downwards behind the ear.  It seems to grow naturally from the wavy locks, yet its outline and striations clearly define it as a ram's horn. 

Why would a queen wear the ram-horn of Amun?

An inscription left by her brother-husband after her death, in a temple of Mendes (another god worshipped in the form of a ram) tells us a little of what happened: 
Princess great of favour, sweet of love, beautiful queen, who has received the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, whose loveliness fills the palace, beloved of the Ram, priestess of the Ram, sister of the king, wife of the king, his beloved, mistress of the Two Lands, Arsinoë.... His Majesty commanded that her ram-image be erected in all temples... at the side of the living rams.
So, Ptolemy II initiated the practice -- which makes sense since the great gold octadrachms which usually clearly show the tip of the horn are part of her posthumous honours. The horn is a sign of godhead, certainly, but Ptolemy II and his successors -- though living gods and given divine honours -- were never pictured with it.  So it is, at the very least, an exceptional mark of Arsinoë's divine status.  

But did the king also intend to associate his queen with Alexander?

One Coin Is Worth 1000 Words

I cannot see how any contemporary of theirs would fail to make that connection.  Just as the Theoi Alelphoi coins, described above, implied the 'sibling gods' (but didn't directly state it), the ram's horn would inevitably link Arsinoë II to the revered Alexander -- for they are only two rulers in the Ptolemaic world who shared this divine attribute.**   

It is entirely possible that Arsinoë herself chose this honour before she died.  She would have been acutely aware of its symbolism and the potency of the image: for the first coins showing Alexander wearing the ram's horn were struck by none other than her first husband, King Lysimachos, in Thrace, when she was still married to him.  So, yes, I do think it likely to be an intentional link, meant (in the royal minds at least) to raise the queen to the level of the one-and-only Alexander.  

If that isn't a statement of real power, what is?


* Published by D. Burr Thompson, "A Portrait of Arsinoe Philadelphos", American Journal of Archaeology 59 (1955) 199-206.

** Even if, on a higher plane, Alexander wore the symbol of Amun and Arsinoë that of the god Mendes, they were visually the same; it is doubtful if any but the priests of Egypt would have made a distinction.

For the minimalist position, see R.A. Hazzard, Imagination of a Monarchy: studies in Ptolemaic Propaganda, University of Toronto (2000) Ch. 2 & 5 (partly available on Google Books). For a maximalist argument, Julia K.W. Wong, Cleopatra I: the first female Ptolemaic regent, M.A. thesis,. Univ. of British Columbia, 1998, Ch. 3.1.  Other important sources included D. Burr Thompson's article (reference in the footnote above); C.G. Johnson, 'The Divinization of the Ptolemies and the Gold Octadrachms Honoring Ptolemy III', Phoenix 53 (1999) 50-56;  E. Teeter, 'Egyptian Art', Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 20 (1994), 27-29; and see references listed in Part I.


Upper left: Arsinoe II as Isis-Selene (Louvre Ma4891).  Photographer: Jastrow 2008, via Wikimedia Commons.

Upper middle left: black granite statue of Arsinoe II as Isis-Aphrodite.  Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation - Photos: Christophe Gerigk.  You can read about this extraordinary underwater find on my blog post, Will The Real Cleopatra Please Stand Up.

Lower middle left: gilded and painted limestone statue of Arsinoe II as goddess. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1920.

Below left: ram-headed Amun, Abu Simbel, via Africa Timeline Index.

Centre, upper (left): Thracian silver coin issued by Lysimachos, struck circa 280 BC. Diademed head of Alexander to right, ram’s horn over his ear. Photograph from CoinArchives.  (right): Silver coin issued by Lysimachos (thought to be a copy of a portrait of Alexander by Lysippus), reproduced by permission of trustees of the British Museum.

Centre, lower (left): Gold octadrachm of Arsinoë II, Year 6, struck at Ake-Ptolemais mint. Photograph by Wildwinds.  (right): Gold octadrachm of Arsinoë II, struck under Ptolemy II.  Photograph from CoinArchives .  Both sites have many other illustrations of her coins.

Updated 9 November 2010

As we said, many scholars argue that Arsinoë's royal titles were given to her posthumously as a part of a program instituted by Ptolemy II. If that is true, they need reflect little or nothing of her power during her lifetime.  But now, a new doctoral dissertation (Maria Nilsson, THE CROWN OF ARSINOË II, THE CREATION AND DEVELOPMENT OF AN IMAGERY OF AUTHORITY) identifies two, possibly three honorary scenes that date to Arsinoë's lifetime.  These scenes depict the queen's unique crown (made up of the red crown, ram horns, double feather plume, cow horns and a solar disc). 

Nilsson argues that Arsinoë's royal titles were embedded in the complex symbolic structure of her crown, and directly connect to her socio-political as well as religious role; all relate to the cult of Amun in one way or another.  These are the titles, she believes belonged to the living queen/female king:

1. Arsinoë's epithet “Banebdjedet” (the ram god) can be identified with the oldest conventional royal title, the Horus name. As a local form of Amun, Banebdjedet is depicted with horns identical to those of Arsinoë.  The ram horns symbolize her socio-political position as a (living) co-regent of Egypt (King of Lower Egypt), and her general associations with the ram god.

2. The second royal title, the Nebty name, signifies the Two Ladies, the vulture and cobra, Nekhbet and Wadjet, and their divine protection of the pharaoh.

3. The Golden Horus name in Arsinoë's title “Beautiful of appearance”, has its pictorial counterpart in the solar disc.

4.  Her throne name is identified with the designation “She who is in the heart of Shu/King, Beloved of all the Gods”. The symbolic correlation with the crown of Arsinoë is provided in her coronation prefix “King of Lower Egypt".  This is symbolized by the red crown, a fundamental element in
Arsinoë's crown.
5. Arsinoë‟s birth name prefix “Daughter of Amun” is expressed by the complete structure of the crown, describing her cultural position as the King of Egypt – the legitimate daughter of Amun.
Nilsson concludes that the crown of Arsinoë was created for the living queen and reflected three main cultural positions: her royal position as King of Lower Egypt, her cultic role as high priestess, and her religious aspect as thea Philadelphos. It indicates that she was proclaimed female pharaoh during her lifetime, and that she was regarded the female founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (pp. 497-501).

The full dissertation, The crown of Arsinoë II. The creation and development of an imagery of authority is available on-line at http://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/23417


  1. I'm working on an upper-level paper and yours is the only image I've been able to find of the suggested basalt head of Arsinoe II showing her with the rams horn. Where did you get your image? I would like to include it into my research but so far I haven't been able to find it elsewhere. Thanks!

  2. Moose, check out footnote *: that's the source. Good luck with your paper.


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