20 August 2010

The Uppity Queen Arsinoë II

Who's the Woman Behind this Giant Coin?

The news that a rare Ptolemaic gold coin was found in Israel -- weighing just under one ounce (27.71 grams) of almost pure gold -- seems to have overshadowed the woman whose portrait is literally heads-up on it.*  The coin  -- more a medallion, really, than money meant to be spent -- is  worth a cool $1,184 at today's price just for its gold (never mind a premium of $$$$ for antiquity and rarity).  It commemorates Queen Arsinoë II -- one of the feistiest Hellenistic queens ever.

And, believe me, the competition for 'feistiest Hellenistic queen' was stiff.

In many ways, Arsinoë II was their role model. 

The Early Ptolemies

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332-331 BCE.   When he died at Babylon in 323, his eight senior generals agreed to divide the empire among them, each to govern his respective territory as a vassal for the kings of Macedonia.  Ptolemy son of Lagus, was appointed to govern Egypt.  He declared himself king in his own right in 304, founding the Ptolemaic dynasty that would rule Egypt for almost 300 years. The dynasty lasted until the death of the great Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, easily the best-known event of ancient history.

Ptolemy I - Berenice I 'Of the gods'
Arsinoë was born in 316 BCE, the only daughter of Ptolemy I and his fourth wife, Berenice I.   The king became known as Ptolemy Soter, that is 'Saviour'.  He and Berenice were later deified, given a cult and priesthood, and described as 'gods' (ΘΕΩΝ on the coin above).   

At the age of 15 or 16, Arsinoë was sent to the Balkans and married to Lysimachus, king of Thrace and Macedon.  Lysimachus was another of Alexander's top generals: he had been married at least twice before and was old enough to be her father (about 55 when they married).  She was said to have been aroused rather by one of his sons, Agathocles, who virtuously rejected the young queen's advances.  Miffed at the insult, Arsinoë may have poisoned him or at least persuaded Lysimachus to do so.  The prince's death conveniently opened the way to Macedonian kingship for the sons of her own marriage.  Her husband finally died in battle in Feb 281 (fighting against yet another of Alexander's  generals), at the age of 74. Now, alone with her three young sons, Arsinoë commanded the garrison at Cassandreia, one of the most important Macedonian cities.

The Plot Thickens

Early in 280, her half-brother, Ptolemy Keraunos seized the Macedonian throne, thereby depriving Arsinoë's sons of the succession.  Now, in a move so characteristic of the future of this dynasty, Ptolemy Keraunos tricked his half-sister into a half-incestuous marriage,** took the city of Cassandreia for himself, and murdered her two younger sons -- though not for want of trying to kill the eldest too.  The marriage thus abruptly terminated, Arsinoë and her surviving son fled into exile on Samothrace.  Soon after, Ptolemy Keraunos was driven from his throne, and the immortal gods inflicting vengeance on him for so many perjuries, and such cruel murders, he was taken prisoner by marauding Gauls who killed him and carried his head about as a mascot on their further campaigns.

Arsinoë spent some time on Samothrace trying to regain the throne of Macedon  for her remaining son (yet another Ptolemy, perhaps Ptolemy Nios) but that prize eluded her.

The Tigress Queen

Arsinoë and son then sailed to Egypt where her younger brother, Ptolemy II had succeeded to the throne.  Ptolemy II was married to Arsinoë I (I know this is confusing, but I can't help it), a daughter of Lysimachus -- presumably by a wife or two before he had married Arsinoë II.  It didn't take long for Arsinoë II to get the better of Arsinoë I and boot her out: though the mother of his three children, Ptolemy II found her guilty of plotting against his majesty and exiled her to Coptos in Upper Egypt, where she vanishes from history.

Egyptian Bombshell

Now, the way to the throne was clear.  In winter 276/5, Arsinoë II took part in the first (but far from the last) full-sibling marriage of the dynasty, marrying her brother Ptolemy II.  There is no record of what their Egyptian subjects thought of this incestuous pairing but Graeco-Macedonian opinion was shocked.  To counter this, the royal couple commissioned the court poet, Theocritos, to explain why brother-sister incest was a great idea.  Theocritos (Idylls 17) obligingly likened the marriage to that of Zeus and Hera, brother and sister, king and queen of the gods.  It is toe-curling stuff:
From Zeus let us begin ..., for of immortals he is best; but of men let Ptolemy be named first, last and in the midst, for of men is he most excellent..., he and his noble wife, than whom none better clasps in her arms a husband in his halls, loving with all her heart a brother and a spouse.  After this fashion was accomplished the sacred bridal also of the immortals.
Common gossip saw it differently.  As a singularly imprudent poet named Sotades put it, "You are thrusting your prick into an unholy hole."  The royals were not amused: one of Ptolemy's generals arrested Sotades and, thrusting him into a leaden jar, carried him out to sea and sank him beneath the waves.

Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II 'Siblings'

On the reverse of coins dedicated to their parents as gods, they put their conjoined portraits with the added word 'siblings' (Adelphoi) -- just in case you missed the point. In fact, both king and queen took the title Philadelphos, 'Sibling-lover' -- used thereafter on documents and coins -- which deliberately highlights their incestuous union.  

Arsinoë added a touch of her own.  Instead of the typically Ptolemaic cornucopia (horn of plenty) -- a symbol of wealth, abundance, and the good things of life -- she depicted a new double cornucopia on  her coins (left) --  surely an allusion to the doubling of the royal blood.  That is the emblem on the reverse of the gold octadrachm (at the top of the post); she is named as Arsinoë Philadelphos. 

Why stress incest?

Full sibling marriage was, as Theocritus implies, the prerogative of the gods; and to behave like the gods is to assimilate oneself to them.  Not only Greek Zeus and Hera, but also Egyptian Isis and Osiris were mated sibling gods who provided the divine precedent (followed, too, by some earlier Egyptian Pharaohs). The king also bestowed on her the pharaonic title of 'royal wife and sister'.  In Egyptian, she was nsw-b'itj = "Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt", an exceptional title which had been given only very rarely to pharaonic queens.  In 272/1 BCE, the royal pair added the cult of the 'Sibling gods' to their dynastic priesthood, established shrines and publicly celebrated their own divine rites.  


Arsinoë became the most honoured Graeco-Macedonian woman during her lifetime with her deification as a goddess.  She received an abundance of cults, statues, priestesses, and dedications from her subjects and her husband, not just in Egypt but throughout the Greek world.  The Ptolemaic admiral of the fleet, to give just one example, dedicated a temple to her as the goddess Aphrodite:
While on the sea and when on land, keep in your prayers this shrine of Arsinoe-Aphrodite Philadelphos, whom admiral Kallikrates first consecrated here to rule over the headland of Zephyrium. She’ll grant good sailing or make the sea, for those who call upon her in the storm, smooth as oil. (Poseidippos, in Athenaios 7.318d)

In 267, her son, Ptolemy Nios, who was thwarted of the Macedonian throne, finally made it to the top, when he was named by her husband as co-regent.

Life must have seemed perfect.

Alas, despite being the daughter of divine parents and herself deified, Arsinoë was not immortal.  After about five years in power, the queen suddenly died.  The country was filled with lamentations; everyone was dressed in black.  Towns and streets were given her name so that she would be remembered and the great province of the Fayoum was renamed 'Arsinoë'.  Ostentatious  memorials were built.  The poet Callimachus wrote a dirge, The Deification of Arsinoë, still partly preserved:

O bride, already up under the stars of the Wain
snatched away ... you were speeding past the full moon...
Queen Arsinoë has gone... our star was quenched,
and overflowing grief taught the great husband 
to light fires as an offering for his wife...
It was all very sad.  Arsinoë's status as a cult figure after her death is not in doubt.  Not least, gold octadrachms continued to be produced in her name for well over a century.  The coin/medallion just found in Israel, which kicked off this post, was actually minted in 191 BCE by Ptolemy V -- whose wife, by the way (Cleopatra I), was the first queen-regent of the dynasty; she ruled on behalf of Ptolemy VI, who went on, in his turn, to issue octadrachms in Arsinoë's honour.  Her posthumous importance is undisputed.  

Much more contentious is the question of the nature of her power during her five years on the throne. Did she wield real political power or was she just a pretty cult face on the gold coins?

We will tackle that burning question next week in Part II, when I'll present the main arguments, pro and con -- and add what I think is something new to the mix.

* The coin was found at Tell Kedesh in Israel near its Lebanese border. It is technically an octadrachm (also called mnaieion, meaning a one-mina coin), equivalent to 100 silver drachms, or a mina of silver.  

** In Athens (and perhaps elsewhere in Greece and the Balkans),  marriage was allowed between half-sister and half-brother if they shared the same father -- as was the case here -- but not if they shared the same mother.

Trying to sort out the genealogy and chronology of the Ptolemies is like stepping into a morass: just when you think you are on firm ground, you slip into a hole instead.  Undoubtedly, the best guide is the website of Chris Bennett; but this is not for the faint-hearted (myself often included).  The question of Ptolemaic incest and its meaning is brilliantly examined by Sheila L. Ager, "The Power of Excess: Royal Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty" in Anthropologica 48 (2006), 165-186; and, aimed more at classicists, "Familiarity Breeds: Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty" Journal of Hellenic Studies, 125 (2005) 1-34.


Upper left & middle left: the Tell Kedesh octadrachm (both sides) photography by Sue Webb via the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Middle (above):  Gold octadrachm with Ptolemy I/Berenice I as gods on obverse; (below): Ptolemy II/Arsinoë II as siblings on reverse.  Photograph: Ancient & World Coins


  1. Very enjoyable and eye-opening post. My favorite line: "And, believe me, the competition for 'feistiest Hellenistic queen' was stiff." Love it.

  2. Anonymous15/9/10 13:15

    You'd think that,once the Queen had decided to give herself ram's horns, she would have made them clearly visible. But she as good as hides them, like someone who gets a tattoo and then is ashamed to show it. WE now know what and where they are on her bust but only because you told us.

  3. i think that Fayoum ,Egypt have alot of this coins


Blog Archive