Arsinöe II

Arsinöe II

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The Sibling Gods

In this image, we can see clearly that Ptolemy II and Arsinöe II were called 'Siblings.' The Greek word for "siblings" is adelphoi - ΑΔΕΛΦΟΙ. This article about the incestuous marriages of the Ptolemies reads,

For some reason, there are those who claim that adelphoi means "brothers." But this is an image of a man and a woman.

Several couples in history and mythology were called Theoi Adelphoi - siblings gods - Cleopatra and Ptolemy, Zeus and Hera, Isis and Osiris, and Ptolemy II and Arsinöe II.


I'm no Greek expert, but "ΠΗ" should probably be "Φ" instead.

Not to doubt a near cousin Brethren.

The “homo religiosus" of my dear Eliade now confused in the asexual Sia Indians? – the tactic of asexuality a part of the process of theological abstraction which transforms nasty down and dirty local divinities into transcendent metaphysics. I want my gods -- clean! And abstract!

Now – adelphoi – too the end of metaphysics?

Say it ain’t so. Filthy lucre.

Forget metaphysics (please). I guess I like my Vajrayana Buddhism rough and tough. Forget that too,

Since religion is where the coin-trail is! After all.

Cheers (and peace - slinking off),

Yes, it came to me this morning. I was up in the night worrying about my kids, and used an English to Greek inputter. Corrected now.

Hope your kids are ok, Suzanne.

They are fine. Just one of those worrisome things that keeps a mother up nights.

What prompted the Greek Ptolemaic Pharaohs to adopt brother-sister incest within a single generation?

Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the second Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, married his full-blooded sister Arsinoë II. What were the Greek views regarding brother-sister marriage during this period? Was there a great scandal over the marriage in Egypt with the Greeks living there, or in the broader Hellenistic world?

A major misconception about the adoption of full-sibling marriage by the Ptolemaic dynasty is that it was mostly an attempt to legitimise their Pharaonic rule and uphold Egyptian tradition. This is incorrect for two reasons, the first being that the practice of Pharaohs marrying their royal sisters was neither mandatory or even all that common throughout Egyptian Dynastic history, it did occur and royal princesses were often wed to relatives rather than have them marry below their rank, but the idea of Egyptian dynasties simply marrying into themselves in an unbroken line is in no way accurate. Second, is that Ptolemy II had a strong political reason to marry Arsinöe II that had nothing to do with Egyptian traditions to deny her to their half-brother Ptolemy Keraunos.

Arsinöe II had first been married to Lysimachus as part of the alliance between him and Ptolemy I (father of Ptolemy II, Keraunos and Arsinöe II), and she bore Lysimachus three sons. Through her marriage to Lysimachus she had a potential claim to his kingdom of Macedon and Thrace which was strengthened once she arranged for Agathocles (Lysimachus' son from a previous marriage) to be killed. So having established Arsinöe's position, let us move on to Keraunos.

Ptolemy Keraunos was actually the oldest son of Ptolemy I but he was passed up in the succession and his younger half-brother Ptolemy II was named heir apparent instead so Keraunos fled Egypt and found sanctuary at the court of Lysimachus as he did not want to be in the position of a potential rival for the throne. Lysimachus was eventually killed in battle when he was defeated by the forces of Seleucus Nicator. Keraunos later had Seleucus killed and asserted control over Thrace and Macedon. This however had the unfortunate effect of leaving Arsinöe II and her sons in a precarious position because of their potential claims so to neutralise this tense situation Keraunos married her. This sounds shocking by our standards but in many Hellenic societies like Athens and Macedon it was perfectly acceptable for paternal (but not maternal) half-siblings to marry, and in other Greek city-states the marriage of nieces to uncles was nothing to bat an eye at. In Roman societyfirst-cousin marriage was permitted. Even their rivals the Seleucids had half-sibling unions in their dynasty. This marriage would prove to be an unhappy one, and Arsinöe II plotted against Keraunos with her sons which he punished by murdering the two youngest while her firstborn escaped.

It was now Arsinöe's turn to flee and she went to Egypt seeking the protection of her brother Ptolemy II who was at the time married to Arsinöe I a distant cousin of theirs who happened to have the same name. Arsinöe II then turned her apparently formidable talent for intrigues and political machinations to work by building alliances in the Alexandrian court and convincing Ptolemy II to divorce Arsinöe I and marry her instead. Although the Macedonians practiced polygyny and the divorce and dismissal of Arsinöe I was not necessary for the marriage to Arsinöe II to occur, it was necessary for Arsinöe II to establish herself as Ptolemy's undisputed queen-regent. It was said that this marriage was genuinely loving and that Ptolemy at least was interested in the marriage for personal as well as political reasons. However this was also a smart move for Ptolemy II as by marrying Arsinöe II he prevented someone else from marrying her and claiming any territories as part of her dowry, and it seems that Arsinöe II was able to aid Ptolemy's cause on the political front in Egypt as well since she was fairly popular in Alexandria.

The union of Ptolemy II and Arsinöe II was received with shock and distaste from their Greek subjects as full-sibling unions fell outside of what was acceptable to Hellenic sensibilities. According to the Roman Alexandrian historian Plutarch, a poet named Sosibius the Obscene mocked the union in a poem which accused Ptolemy II in a most ah, uncouth manner with the line

you are sticking your prick in an unholy hole

Needless to say, neither Ptolemy II or Arsinöe II found this as amusing as Sosibius did and one of Ptolemy's admirals by the name of Patroklus had him sealed in a lead box and tossed into Lake Mareotis outside of Alexandria. Roman sources also express distaste for what they saw as an outgrowth of "Oriental" degeneracy and the incestuous heritage of the Ptolemies was frequently invoked to demonstrate their tyranny and moral decay.

But poetry was also used to justify the union as in the case of Theokritus, a patron of the Alexandrian court, who composed poems praising the union and comparing it to the divine sibling-spouses Zeus and Hera. By making a connection to Greek mythology the union was taken out of the context of a sordid disgrace and instead cast in the light of that which is pure and godlike.

From Zeus let us begin, and with Zeus in our poems, Muses, let us make end, for of immortals he is best but of men let Ptolemy be named, first, last, and in the midst, for of men he is 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 her brother and her spouse. After this fashion was accomplished the sacred bridal also of the immortals whom Queen Rhea bore to rule Olympus and single is the couch that Iris, virgin still, her hands made pure with perfumes, strews for the sleep of Zeus and Hera.

The emphasis on purity and divinity through sibling-marriage would continue to be used throughout Ptolemaic dynastic history but it was more a call-back to the reign of Ptolemy II and Arsinöe II than to the Pharaonic traditions that had passed. The comparison to the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris was also made of course, but even here they tended to view and present these deities in Hellenic terms as the Egyptian equivalents of Zeus and Hera. In general, whenever the Ptolemies used Egyptian ideology to justify their peculiarities to Greek subjects, it was closer to Greek perceptions of Egypt than to the realities of Egyptian culture. It is also worth noting that although we have evidence that in the Roman period upwards of 20% of marriages were between siblings, this is thought to have increased from in the Ptolemaic period and although the reasons for this is very unclear it seems that many of the practices that were so specifically "Egyptian" were specific to decidedly un-Egyptian periods.

Arsinöe II and Ptolemy II had no children, despite their apparently happy marriage and Arsinöe I's son Ptolemy III would inherit the throne and marry the Cyrenean princess Berenike. The reasons why this practice was continued is that it was useful to limit the amount of claimants to the throne, and on many occasions civil wars or rivalries between vying siblings were resolved through marriage. Take the case of the infamous marriage between Ptolemy VIII, Cleopatra II and Cleopatra III. At first glance, the marriage of Ptolemy VIII to his sister and then to her daughter who was herself the daughter of Cleopatra II their deceased brother Ptolemy VI is horrifying. To be fair, it remains distasteful in context but it was not motivated by incestuousness or depravity. Ptolemy VIII first married Cleopatra II to secure his claim on the throne since he had unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow her and Ptolemy VI before the latter's death in a war in Syria. By marrying her he ended the civil war between them but he would end up murdering her sons so he would have no rivals and also married her 14 year old daughter Cleopatra III before exiling Cleopatra II. This was almost certainly forced on Cleopatra III but the young queen still actively vied with her mother for the throne, and after Cleopatra II returned to power she exiled her daughter and husband both. This led to further conflicts which plunged Egypt into anarchy until a settlement was reached where the three reconciled and ruled jointly, with Cleopatra III's children by Ptolemy VIII coming to power after his death. This knotted web of incest was directly caused by the internecine conflicts of the time, which were in turn fueled by the ambitions of the claimants and the various officials and courtiers who jockeyed for royal favour and greater influence.

The overall situation was not so much a conscious decision to adhere to any Egyptian politico-religious standard as it was a series of instances where monarchs and the advisors guiding them found it useful to employ an (eventually) unobjectionable means of neutralising rival successors.

It is relevant to point out that the first Ptolemaic ruler born of a full-sibling marriage was Ptolemy V and he married a Seleucid princess named Cleopatra I, so in all, the amount of inbreeding in the Ptolemaic dynasty is often overestimated since it is assumed that each full-sibling marriage produced children who then wed which was simply not the case.

Ancients: Classic Greek Coins, Part IV

As our survey of Greek silver coins continues, we’ll depart from the geographical format and investigate the coins of the Hellenistic Kingdoms. With the expansion of the Macedonian Kingdom under Philip II (359-336 B.C.) and his son Alexander III (336-323 B.C.), the Greek world underwent a great transformation. The Persian Empire was toppled and much of the Greek world came to be ruled by kings. Though the era of the prideful city-state had largely passed, there were many opportunities throughout the Hellenistic Age (c.350 / 336-30 B.C.) for individual cities to assert their independence.

A large percentage of Hellenistic coins show on their obverse the portrait of a ruler – either the current monarch or a revered ancestor – and most of the coins described below fit into that category. It is no easy task to narrow down such rich and diverse coinages to merely 10 issues, but the ones selected are important types that provide a good cross-section of the major kingdoms and regions of issue.

Cleopatra, Arsinoe, and the Implications

Just before bed last night I was deluged with bloggables, chief among which was a report in numerous newspapers about tests having been done on the bones of someone believed to be Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s murdered sister. This one presents numerous difficulties and the press might be jumping the gun (once again), although it is clear this is hype for a television program masquerading as news. In any event, let’s begin with a bit from the Times‘ coverage on the identification of the bones as Arsinoe:

The distinctive tomb was first opened in 1926 by archeologists who found a sarcophagus inside containing a skeleton. They removed the skull, which was examined and measured but it was lost in the upheaval of the second world war.

In the early 1990s Thür reentered the tomb and found the headless skeleton, which she believed to be of a young woman. Clues, such as the unusual octagonal shape of the tomb, which echoed that of the lighthouse of Alexandria with which Arsinöe was associated, convinced Thür the body was that of Cleopatra’s sister. Her theory was considered credible by many historians, and in an attempt to resolve the issue the Austrian Archeological Institute asked the Medical University of Vienna to appoint a specialist to examine the remains.

Fabian Kanz, an anthropologist, was sceptical when he began this task two years ago. “We tried to exclude her from being Arsinöe,” he said. “We used all the methods we have to find anything that can say, ‘Okay, this can’t be Arsinöe because of this and this’.”

After using carbon dating, which dated the skeleton from 200BC-20BC, Kanz, who had examined more than 500 other skeletons taken from the ruins of Ephesus, found Thür’s theory gained credibility.

He said he was certain the bones were female and placed the age of the woman at 15-18. Although Arsinöe’s date of birth is not known, she was certainly younger than Cleopatra, who was about 27 at the time of her sister’s demise.

The lack of any sign of illness or malnutrition also indicated a sudden death, said Kanz. Evidence of the skeleton’s north African ethnicity provided the final clue.

Caroline Wilkinson, a forensic anthropologist, reconstructed the missing skull based on measurements taken in the 1920s. Using computer technology it was possible to create a facial impression of what Arsinöe might have looked like.

“It has got this long head shape,” said Wilkinson. “That’s something you see quite frequently in ancient Egyptians and black Africans. It could suggest a mixture of ancestry.”

The Thür mentioned is Hilke Thür of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The tomb in question is actually in Ephesus and we know that Arsinoe was actually killed there at Cleopatra’s request and on Marcus Antonius’ orders. The identification of the tomb as belonging to Arsinoe seems reasonable (if not exactly secure) enough. As might be expected, though, the ancestry side of things is what the press is latching on to … Dr Thur is quoted in the Telegraph (and there’s a similar quote in the AFP coverage):

“It is unique in the life of an archaeologist to find the tomb and the skeleton of a member of Ptolemaic dynasty. The results of the forensic examination and the fact that the facial reconstruction shows that Arsinoe had an African mother is a real sensation which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra’s family and the relationship of the sisters Cleopatra and Arsinoe.”

The headlines of both the Telegraph (“Cleopatra had African ancestry, skeleton suggests”) and the AFP coverage (“Cleopatra ‘was part-African'”) show the leap the press is taking with this one, despite the fact that we are not entirely sure who Cleopatra’s mother was (she is not named in any Classical source as far as I’m aware and the suggestion that it was Cleopatra V (Arsinoe’s mother) is a long-standing conjecture) — she and Arsinoe did not necessarily have the same mother. But beyond that, we get this skull business and having Arsinoe’s ethnicity actually being determined from a reconstructed skull based on measurements taken in the 1920s? Although I fear being labelled as one having the “brainpan of a stagecoach tilter”, can there not be some actual DNA tests on the skeletal material? Was it even suggested? I think the jury’s still very much out on this one …

UPDATE I (03/16/09) : I note that Mary Beard agrees with me – The skeleton of Cleopatra’s sister? Steady on.

UPDATE II (03/16/09) : Late last night a synapse fired and I remembered we had some hype on this back in September, but it was rather vague. Just to refresh folks memory (if you didn’t click the link), we were promised that, “This film, based on riveting new archaeological evidence, gives a fresh perspective on the world’s original femme fatale.” We were told that, “… more details will be announced about the forensic evidence at a later date.” Back in September I wondered what this “riveting” evidence might be and wondered at Zahi Hawass’ silence on the matter. I still wonder about that, but what really was keeping me awake last night was the question of whether a member of the Egyptian royal family — albeit in exile and as a result of a political murder — would have been funerated non-Egyptian style (sans mummification) or Egyptian style. Not something we can know, alas.

Outside of that, other synapses insisted on firing and I remembered from back in my undergrad days not the much-hyped reconstruction of (purportedly) Philip II’s skull, but rather the less-hyped one which followed thereupon – that of a skull purported to belong to Midas, found in the so-called Midas Mound at Gordion. That skull also was ‘elongated’ and so I dug up A.J.N.W. Prag, “Reconstructing King Midas: A First Report”, Anatolian Studies 39 (1989) and on pp. 160-161 we read:

The face that emerged was somewhat long, with the upper part rather lightly built but the lower part and the jaw fairly substantial: the face of an elderly man with a particularly long back to his head: both Mr. Neave and Professor Alpagut had noted an unusual elongation to the back of the skull, so that the sides were somewhat flattened and the top pushed up almost into a ridge: Professor Alpagut suggests that this is the result of bandaging the skull tightly while the individual was still a baby, a “cosmetic” practice noted on other skulls found in Turkey.

We’ll have to wait and see if the BBC ‘documentary’ mentions this sort of thing … I’d also like to know if anyone involved in this has studied skulls from Macedonian burials to see whether there might be some evidence of elongation within that culture.

UPDATE III (03/16/09) : Dorothy King has some useful observations on elongated skulls – Strange Skulls: Arsinoe’s So-called Tomb at Ephesus

UPDATE IV (03/20/09) : Katherine Griffis-Greenberg has tracked down an abstract of a paper by the folks who did some DNA testing on the skeleton (paper to be delivered at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists on April 3, 2009). From p. 216-217 of the abstract collection comes:

Cleopatra identified? – Osseous and molecular challenges. F. Kanz, K. Grossschmidt, J. Kiesslich.

Arsinoe IV of Egypt, the younger sister of Cleopatra, was murdered between the ages of 16 and 18 on the order of Marc Antony in 41 BC while living in political asylum at the Artemision in Ephesus (Turkey). Archaeological findings and architectural features point to the skeletal remains found in the socalled Oktogon – Heroon in the center of ancient Ephesus – to being those of Arsinoe IV. Respective remains were dated and investigated by forensic osteology, radiology and ancient DNA analysis to assess identification: Radiocarbon dating (VERA-4104) isolated the period between 210 and 20 BC (94 % prob.). Morphological features suggest a female with an estimated body height of 154 cm (+/- 3 cm) and 217 with limbs in good proportion to one another. Epiphyseal closure and histological age estimation (femoral cross sections) revealed a consistent age at death between 15 and 17 years. The whole skeleton appeared to belong to a slim and fragile individual (soft tissue reconstruction was applied and compared to ancient sources). Stress markers, like Harris’ lines were absent and no sings for heavy workload or pre- or perimortal traumas were found. Ancient DNA analysis was carried out for several bone samples. No nuclear DNA was detected, most likely due to diagenetic factors and storage conditions. Endeavors to find mitochondrial DNA are currently in progress. Investigations could neither verify nor disprove the theory on the origin of the remains. However, after successful mtDNA typing a maternal relative reference sample would be required for final identification.

So I guess we do have the answer to our DNA testing … clearly any results will not help in regards to identification, unless perhaps this DNA can be compared to some Macedonian burials. But just to complicate things, I’m pretty sure that EVERYONE has some African mtDNA, no?

The Hermits Populated the Deserts of Egypt

We have all heard of the Desert Fathers, those hermit monks who, following the shining prototype St. Anthony of the Desert (251-356), retired to the wilderness to offer their lives to God as solitaries in prayer and sacrifice. The rush to the desert got underway in the 4th century, and soon there were enormous numbers of monks. By 390, when the persecutions had long ceased, there were over 50,000 solitaries – men as well as women – in just the Desert of Nitria, one of the three major centers of Christian monastic activity in the East.

The selection below is from the Historia Monachorum, an early source for 4th century Egyptian monasticism. The anonymous author, who was a monk in Jerusalem, travelled to the deserts of Egypt and reported on the monks there.

What he found amazed him: not just solitary monks in isolated hermitages, but large communities of monks, some living under the guide of one master, others in smaller communities, some dedicated solely to prayer but others hiring themselves out for service to maintain the community and to provide for the poor. Everywhere he was edified by the virtue, courtesy and hospitality of those desert dwellers.

Below, we will follow him in a short part of his travels where he described the different lifestyles of the desert monks.

In the country round about Arsinöe, we saw a certain Serapion, a priest and the father of many monasteries. Under his care he had more than 10,000 monks, in many and diverse groups, and all of them earned their bread by the work of their hands. The greater part of what they earned, especially at harvest time, they brought to this Father for the use of the poor.

By the 5 th century the Nitria Desert was populated with communities of monks

For it was the custom not only among these, but almost all the Egyptian monks, to hire themselves out at harvest time as harvesters, and each one among them would earn 80 measures of corn, more or less, and offer the greater part of it to the poor, so that not only were the hungry folk of that countryside fed, but ships were sent to Alexandria laden with corn to be divided among those who were prisoners in galleys or foreigners in need. For there was not poverty enough in Egypt to consume the fruit of their compassion and their generosity. .

And so we came to Nitria, the place most famous among all the monasteries of Egypt, about 37 miles distant from Alexandria and named after the neighboring town where nitre (potassium nitrate) is collected, as if in the Providence of God it was foreseen that in these places the sins of men would be washed and utterly effaced, even as stains are cleansed by nitre.

In this place there are about 50 habitations, set near together and under one Father. In some of these many brethren live together, in some a few, and in others a brother lives alone. But though they be divided in their dwelling, yet do they abide bound and inseparable in spirit and faith and loving kindness.

So then, as we were drawing near the place, as soon as they knew that strange brethren were coming, straightway they poured out like a swarm of bees, each from his cell and ran to meet us, joyous and eager. Most were carrying pitchers of water and bread, because the Prophet rebuking certain folk had said, "Ye come not forth to meet the children of Israel with bread and water." .

But of their humanity, their courtesy, their loving kindness, what am I to say, when each man of them would have brought us into his own cell, not only to fulfill the duty of hospitality, but still more out of humbleness, of which they are indeed masters, and from gentleness and its kindred qualities which are learned among them with diverse grace but one and the same doctrine, as if they had come apart from the world for this same end. .

Deep in the desert were the solitaries who lived completely remote from any society

Beyond this (Mount Nitria) there is another place in the inner desert, about nine miles distant. And this location, because of the multitude of cells dispersed through the desert, they call Cellia, The Cells. To this place those who have had their first initiation and who desire to live remoter life, stripped of all its trappings, withdraw themselves. For the desert is vast and the cells are sundered from one another by so wide a space that none is in sight of his neighbor, nor can any voice be heard.

One by one they abide in their cells, a mighty silence and great quiet among them. Only on Saturday and Sunday do they come together to church, and there they see each other face to face as folk restored in heaven.

If by chance any one is missing in that gathering, they understand that he has been detained by some malady of his body, and straightway they all go to visit him: Not indeed all of them together but at different times, and each carrying with him whatever he may have by him in his cell that might seem helpful to the sick.

But for no other cause dare any disturb the silence of his neighbor, unless perchance to strengthen by a good word, as it might be to anoint with the comfort of counsel the athletes set for the struggle.

What was the relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar like?

Although the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra has been enshrined in Western literature there is relatively little that we actually know about their interactions with each other, let alone their relationship or feelings towards each other.

To begin with it is important to understand the background of their meeting. Her father Ptolemy Auletes had a pro-Roman policy during his reign, forming an alliance with the First Triumvirate but in particular with Pompey the Great whom he gave not only monetary bribes, but gifts, supplies and cavalry to carry out his campaigns in Judaea. Caesar and Crassus were more passive members of this arrangement as they took his financial "gifts" but did not offer much else besides their tacit support, however Ptolemy Auletes still got what he needed as they named him an ally of the Roman Republic which brought Egypt into the Roman fold. The relationship between Rome and Egypt was hardly warm during her lifetime as popular resentment towards the bribes being paid out to Roman politicians and the extreme taxation that warranted led to riots and revolts, Cyprus another Ptolemaic possession ruled by her uncle was annexed at the behest of the Roman tribune Clodius Pulcher who held a vendetta against the Cypriot king and wanted to take advantage of its agricultural output, her father failed to prevent the killing of a Roman ambassador by an Alexandrian mob after he inadvertently committed sacrilege, and a Roman military intervention by Aulus Gabinius to restore Ptolemy Auletes to the throne. By the time she took the throne at the age of 17-18 there was already harsh feelings and rivalries between political factions in both states. The Gabiniani (Roman mercenaries left over by Gabinius) only compounded the issue as they got into altercations with the Alexandrian locals and attempted to take part in the dynastic politics of Egypt.

In 50 BCE the Gabiniani murdered the sons of Pompey the Great's supporter Bibulus who were sent to call upon the Gabiniani in the civil war against Julius Caesar, when Cleopatra learned of these events she had the lieutenants responsible imprisoned and delivered to Bibulus. In 49 BCE when Gnaeus Pompeius Minor, the son of Pompey the Great, asked her to send him supplies and reinforcements to support his father in his war against Caesar she was initially hesitant to drag Egypt into a Roman civil war but she did eventually agree to send him 500 Gabinian cavalry and 60 ships with supplies. These actions directly led to her usurpation and exile as they alienated the Gabiniani and key Alexandrian military commanders who sided with the courtiers interested in removing Cleopatra and ruling through her young brother, and Pompey's forces would be vanquished at the battle of Pharsalus. At the same time it is hard to blame her for her actions as not only had Pompey been a long-time ally of her father, but he had the support of the Roman Senate (making him the more legitimate player in the war) and the other client-kings like Juba I of Numidia and Pharanaces II of Pontus (actually a very distant relative of Cleopatra) had sided with Pompey the Great and there was not much reason to assume that Caesar would win.

Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt in pursuit of his fleeing rival Pompey only to find him murdered on the orders of Cleopatra's brother and his advisors, the same individuals who had previously exiled her and whom she had gathered an army to vie with. When Caesar chose to remain in Alexandria with his relatively small force of 2,500 men he quickly came to be loathed not only by Ptolemy XIII's court but by the Alexandrians for his imperiousness and his demands for the money that Ptolemy and Cleopatra's father owed him, which ultimately led to hostilities between Egyptian and Roman forces in the city.

When he invited Cleopatra to a personal audience with him in Alexandria he might have wanted to arbitrate the succession and see Ptolemy XII's will carried out as he was in a position to legally accomplish this, he might have wanted to replace Ptolemy with a more pro-Roman ruler who could and would be more likely to pay off their debt to him, or he might have wanted to ensure that Egypt was not in the midst of civil war while there were so many other fires to put out.

For Cleopatra's part she had little choice in allies and was currently an exile, although she had been able to gather some armed forces thanks to her supporters in Syria she was realistically unable to carry on a war with her brother's supporters at the time. Although her decision to smuggle herself into Alexandria was a gamble but from her perspective a necessary one. The circumstances of their meeting are shrouded in rumor and speculation but are most detailed source on the matter, the Roman historian Plutarch, describes how she took a small boat into the Alexandrian harbour with a freedman known as Apollodoros the Sicilian, and was wrapped into a carpet, bedsheet or bag for carrying carpets or bedsheets and delivered to Caesar's quarters by Apollodoros and was able to win him over through charm

It was by this device of Cleopatra's, it is said, that Caesar was first captivated, for she showed herself to be a bold coquette, and succumbing to the charm of further intercourse with her, he reconciled her to her brother on the basis of a joint share with him in the royal power.

Now this arrangement did not go over well with Ptolemy's advisors, one of whom allegedly conspired against Caesar who had him killed. Civil war within the city itself soon broke out and Caesar found himself fighting a much larger force which at many points had the upper hand. It was after all a perilous war, the two were besieged by the forces Ptolemy and then Arsinöe IV and at one point were cut off from cut-off from freshwater by having their water supply poisoned with saltwater.

Plutarch gives numerous possible motives for Caesar's involvement but even he refrains from making a judgement one way or the other

As for the war in Egypt, some say that it was not necessary, but due to Caesar's passion for Cleopatra, and that it was inglorious and full of peril for him. But others blame the king's party for it, and especially the eunuch Potheinus, who had most influence at court, and had recently killed Pompey he had also driven Cleopatra from the country, and was now secretly plotting against Caesar.

Roman sources repeatedly stress that Cleopatra's interest in a relationship with Caesar was motivated by necessity and there is no reason to discount this given the circumstances. Having already been exiled and with little hope of regaining the throne without the aid of Caesar it appears that she felt she had little to lose besides her life, else why risk even that to enter Alexandria where she could easily be killed on the orders of her brother? Despite the atmosphere of serendipity that most films and literature likes to place around their meeting it is unlikely that she fell in love with a man she had never met, who was more than 30 years her senior, and who had been less than friend (though not an enemy) to her father, in the perhaps handful of hours that she knew him before they became lovers. It may not be romantic but there is no reason why we should naïvely assume that she fell in love with him when no ancient author even suggests as much. For Caesar it was not out of character for him to have had an affair with Cleopatra as he had numerous affairs with aristocratic women. Whether he was necessarily in love with her is debatable, after all during the extended period that they were involved on and off between the spring of 47 BCE and his death in 44 BCE he had no difficulty engaging in multiple other affairs or maintaining a loving relationship with his wife Calpurnia. The Roman historian Suetonius in his Live of the Twelve Caesars mentions the attentions and gifts he paid to Cleopatra but this is in the same paragraphs where he describes Caesar treating other mistresses of his in a similar fashion

It is admitted by all that he was much addicted to women, as well as very expensive in his intrigues with them, and that he debauched many ladies of the highest quality among whom were Posthumia, the wife of Servius Sulpicius Lollia, the wife of Aulus Gabinius Tertulla, the wife of Marcus Crassus and Mucia, the wife of Cneius Pompey. For it is certain that the Curios, both father and son, and many others, made it a reproach to Pompey, “That to gratify his ambition, he married the daughter of a man, upon whose account he had divorced his wife, after having had three children by her and whom he used, with a deep sigh, to call Aegisthus.” But the mistress he most loved, was Servilia, the mother of Marcus Brutus, for whom he purchased, in his first consulship after the commencement of their intrigue, a pearl which cost him six millions of sesterces and in the civil war, besides other presents, assigned to her, for a trifling consideration, some valuable farms when they were exposed to public auction. Many persons expressing their surprise at the lowness of the price, Cicero wittily remarked, “To let you know the real value of the purchase, between ourselves, Tertia was deducted:” for Servilia was supposed to have prostituted her daughter Tertia to Caesar..

..In the number of his mistresses were also some queens such as Eunoe, a Moor, the wife of Bogudes, to whom and her husband he made, as Naso reports, many large presents. But his greatest favourite was Cleopatra, with whom he often revelled all night until the dawn of day, and would have gone with her through Egypt in dalliance, as far as Aethiopia, in her luxurious yacht, had not the army refused to follow him. He afterwards invited her to Rome, whence he sent her back loaded with honours and presents, and gave her permission to call by his name a son, who, according to the testimony of some Greek historians, resembled Caesar both in person and gait.

Having said all that, do not take my cynical analysis of their initial motives as a definitive proof that they had no affection or even love for each other. After all not only did Caesar essentially rescue from her death or exile against all odds, but he was a charismatic, intelligent and apparently fairly attractive man who must have had some appeal with the ladies if we go by his track record, and the age gap between them was actually standard for Ptolemaic Egypt (particularly Hellenised spheres) and not really all that far off for aristocratic couplings in the ancient Mediterannean as a whole. Caesar also was said to be genuinely charmed by her conversation and to have taken pity on her plight when they first met, and his actions towards her exceed that which seems likely if it was mere lust that guided him, which leads one to suspect a political agenda, true affection, or a combination of the two.

The divide between modern societal norms and those of Graeco-Roman culture, in particular that of the aristocracy, is that the fact that Cleopatra needed him regardless of her personal feelings is analagous to the experiences of virtually all of her female ancestors with one major exception: Cleopatra chose Caesar as opposed to having that choice made by her father, uncle, brother or other male guardian. Her own namesake was married to a Ptolemaic king she had never met to bring an end to one of the periodic clashes between the Ptolemaic kingdom and Seleucid Empire. And the idea that women should marry out of their own personal preference was not emphasised or taken for granted by Hellenistic or Roman authors and yet it was seen as an ideal that spouses would love each other as real life and mythological examples that were held up bear out. For instance, Arsinöe II, Cleopatra I and Julia Caesaris all married for political reasons and yet their marriages were held up as examples of loving relationships in spite of, or because of, this. To be clear I am not espousing Graeco-Roman values in the areas of love and marriage but it is important not to take Caesar and Cleopatra out of their context.

At this point you are probably thinking "Wait! They were never married so is this not a false equivalency?" Not necessarily. For Cleopatra at least. To properly understand how she would have viewed her relationship to Caesar we need to temporarily set aside cultural biases from ourselves and from Roman authors who we tend to rely on. The two largest cultural influences on her and the society she inhabited were Hellenistic/Macedonian culture and Egyptian culture which both saw no issue with polygyny and in which royal or aristocratic mistresses were afforded high status and value. This extends from the examples set by men like Alexander the Great and Philip II of Macedon, to her own mother who may well have been one of her father's lesser wives or mistresses. Her marriages to her younger brothers are believed to have gone unconsummated but even had they been the Ptolemids (and many other Hellenistic dynasties) played fast and loose with love and marriage once politics got involved. Roman culture on the other hand did not permit polygamy and, despite the broadly equivalent trend of extramarital relations (among aristocratic men), mistresses were in no way comparable to the status and legitimacy of their wife. So we should also consider the often neglected issue that Cleopatra was not approaching the issue from a Roman mindset, regardless of what her familiarity with Roman culture may or may not have been, so automatically assuming that she saw her relationship to Caesar or Antony as a sordid affair rather than a legitimate political relationship is not irrefutable given that she seems to have expected the benefits that such a connection would entail.

If the allegations that Cleopatra bewitched Caesar that Roman poets put forth tells us anything it is that he at least felt a genuine affection for her that, while perhaps not true love, was powerful enough for him to take risks and damage as a result of it. It is next to impossible to speculate about Cleopatra because her relationship to Caesar has been overshadowed by her longer lived and ultimately dooming relationship to Marc Antony, but it may not have been as purely ambitious as I painted it out to be, Cassius Dio in an episode intended to demonstrate how she tried to manipulate Octavian actually gives us some insight here as he claims that Cleopatra attempted to use the letters that she and Julius Caesar had exchanged as proof of their mutual love in a bid to gain sympathy from the dead Caesar's now triumphant successor, and that she claimed (falsely according to Dio) to have regretted not dying with him previously. I myself am highly suspect of this account given that it is not repeated elsewhere and Dio is extremely hostile to Cleopatra but if it is based on genuine events then it has curious implications that Dio may not even have intended. For one thing that she kept the letters of Caesar for what would have to be around 15 years despite the likelihood of them being of particular practical value being slim which would point to some sincere emotion, and if we accept that she was willing to pretend to have loved Julius Caesar to his grand-nephew then she she is likely to have been willing to have pretended to love Caesar while he lived. Given what evidence we have from Roman sources we can conclude one of two things, that she feigned love of Caesar as part of a political ploy, or that she was in reality affectionate of him and that hostile Roman authors twisted this into the legend of her boundless ambition and heartlessness or some combination of these, with each actually being quite compelling in their own way.

After the war was concluded Caesar apparently delayed his return to campaigning in order to take an extended cruise down the Nile with the young queen which lasted about two months until, according to Roman sources, his legions refused to go any further. On this trip they made use of Cleopatra's royal yacht, which in true Ptolemaic tradition was a naval monstrosity of grandeur and extravagance that would not be outdone in scale or lavishness until Nero, and they spent the majority of this time in luxury and revels together. Given the unflattering nature of these accounts we can not be certain of their veracity as they are aimed at demonstrating Caesar's procrastination and the opulence and extravagance of both him and Cleopatra. The trip may also have been politically motivated as the impressive retinue which accompanied them demonstrated their military strength and the control they had over Egypt, the course of their journey from Alexandria to the Thebaid (supposedly with intentions to go as far as Nubia) would have given them the opportunity to visit each major city and hub in Egypt to help heal the damage that civil war had done, reward loyalists, deal with rebels, and show their alliance.

Besides this, Cleopatra visited Caesar at least twice in Rome when she resided at his villa near the Tiber but outside of Rome proper. During this time they apparently continued to have an affair but it was not Caesar alone that brought her to Rome, she also renewed the alliance between Rome and Egypt, and received recognition of her reign with Ptolemy XIV and possibly XV. That she met several prominent Roman politicians at Caesar's villa, such as Cicero, is also known so this was not a mere romantic getaway, it was a series of wel timed diplomatic visits, coinciding with Caesar's triumph in 46 BCE and with the fraught political climate of 44. But there is yet another dimension to these visits that was occurring because in 46 BCE when Caesar dedicated a temple to his alleged ancestress Venus in the new Forum Iulium he commissioned a gilded statue of Cleopatra as Isis-Venus within it. This is made even more meaningful because the temple was not dedicated to Venus Victrix the patron of victory and fortune or some other aspect of Venus but to Venus Genitrix, the ancestral aspect of Venus who was a patron of maternity and marriage. By placing that statue in the temple he drew a connection between the Egyptian and Roman pantheons, between Cleopatra's alleged status as the reincarnation of Isis-Aphrodite and his alleged status as the descendant of Aeneas (son of Venus), and between her person and the ancestress of his family line. Exactly why he would have done this has received a lot of speculation but it may have been part of a political ploy to increase his own clout as a semi-divine figure in the Hellenistic East by connecting himself to an established player, it could have been a gift to her that was just a little too over the top for his contemporaries (I doubt he was that tone deaf), it could have symbolically been a bridge between Egypt and Rome through their relationship, or it could have commemorated the recent birth of what may have been the Roman dictator's only biological son, Ptolemy Caesar. This would be especially poignant given the difficulty Caesar had had with conceiving in the past, being unable to have a child with Calpurnia in the 15 years they were married and having his daughter Julia, from his marriage to the (now deceased) Cornelia, die giving birth to his only known biological grandchild.

Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt. Women in antiquity

During the peak of Alexandrian literary culture, Ptolemaic poets and intellectuals celebrated the life and virtues of Berenice II, daughter of Magas, king of Cyrene and wife of the third Ptolemy, Euergetes. Nonetheless, dynastic violence, not the glamour and renown generated by supportive poets, characterized the beginning and end of her life. Magas had arranged for her to marry the future Ptolemy III, but after Magas’ death, Berenice’s mother instead compelled her to marry Demetrius the Fair. Young Berenice killed the bridegroom her mother had chosen (she supposedly had found him in bed with her mother) and then took herself off to Alexandria to marry her father’s preferred groom, by now Ptolemy III. Berenice had six children by Ptolemy III, but soon after her husband’s death, Berenice’s son Ptolemy IV arranged his mother’s murder.

Dee Clayman has created the first lengthy study of Berenice’s career and place in literature. Clayman’s background and scholarship has been, primarily, in Hellenistic poetry so, not surprisingly, this study’s strength lies in analysis of the many texts that mention or allude to Berenice, though Clayman also deals with Berenice’s actions and policies, to the degree that the poor and largely absent narrative sources permit.

The introduction provides a brief sketch of Berenice’s life, her role in contemporary poetry (particularly Callimachus’ “Lock of Berenice”), overviews of relevant historical and literary sources, a discussion of Ptolemaic image-making (Clayman does not want to characterize it as “propaganda”), the methodology of her approach, and a note on conventions about dating, spelling, and naming employed in her monograph.

Chapter 1, “Birth in Cyrene,” though it certainly deals with the mythical past of Cyrene and Berenice’s father Magas and her Seleucid mother Apame, does not begin with either of these topics, but rather with the different versions of the mythical past presented by Callimachus and Apollonius, and ends with a discussion of the reorganization of Cyrene after the marriage of Berenice and Ptolemy III. The initial analysis of the murder of Demetrius the Fair happens in this chapter and Clayman argues that efforts to describe these events in a way favorable to Berenice began then and continued throughout her life.

Chapter 2, “Arrival in Alexandria,” starts with an overview of the physical city in Berenice’s time and turns to the intellectual city, specifically to discussion of the work and careers of Callimachus, Apollonius, and Eratosthenes. After a brief look at royal patronage, Clayman turns to an account of Ptolemy III’s ancestors and his succession to the throne.

Chapter 3, “Callimachus on Murder and Marriage,” examines the image of Berenice directly and indirectly generated by the poems of Callimachus, an image calculated to transform the murderous bride into the “dutiful daughter” and respectable royal matron and mother.

Chapter 4, “Apollonius on Murder and Marriage,” follows the same agenda for the work of Apollonius. Clayman understands Apollonius’ version of Berenice as more complicated and more negative and adduces that these features led to his replacement as the head of the famous library.

Chapter 5, “Ruling and Racing,” looks at many aspects of Berenice’s career in Egypt. This chapter contains Clayman’s only lengthy consideration of Ptolemy III’s reign and policies and of Berenice’s role in his rule. Clayman discusses the invention and function of the Ptolemaic myth that Berenice and Ptolemy III were siblings, children of Ptolemy II and Arsinöe II (though neither were). This chapter devotes considerable energy to Berenice’s racing victories and how these victories were celebrated in poetry from Alexandria. Clayman places both the victories themselves and the manner of their celebration in the context of other Ptolemaic victories but also in that of other royal women, particularly Cynisca of Sparta.

Chapter 6, “Berenice in Egypt and Another Murder,” is divided into three quite different sections. The first looks at Berenice’s image and role in the Ptolemaic pantheon, as displayed in various Egyptian monuments, objects, and documents, and argues that the theme of family is central to her presentation. The next section abruptly turns to her murder by her sons and the subsequently declining fortunes of the dynasty. The chapter concludes with a section called “Summing Up” that offers a final, synthesized look at her career and the poetry written about her.

Clayman also includes a few aids and supplements for the reader. Apart from the useful abbreviation list, two indices (a general one and index locorum), and helpful bibliography, there is also a family tree of Berenice II, a map of the eastern Mediterranean in her day, and a translation of Catullus 66. A collection of eleven black and white images relevant to Berenice appears in the middle of the printed text.

Clayman’s book is full of interesting and perceptive readings of poems and the intent of poets. Her analysis of Berenice’s image problem and how it was successfully solved is persuasive. While Clayman’s strength certainly lies in analysis of poetry and poets, she often employs that knowledge to good effect in topics not narrowly poetic, as in her fascinating discussion of the context for Cynisca of Sparta’s victory and the inscriptions created to commemorate it.

Alexandria, Egypt: The Legacy of Its Great Founder

Alexandria is a port city located on the Mediterranean Sea in northern Egypt founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great. It is most famous in antiquity as the site of the Pharos, the great lighthouse, considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, for the Temple of Serapis, the Serapion, which was part of the legendary library at Alexandria, as a seat of learning and, once, the largest and most prosperous city in the world. It also became infamous for the religious strife which resulted in the martyrdom of the philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria in 415 CE. The city grew from a small port town to become the grandest and most important metropolis in ancient Egypt.


After conquering Syria in 332 BCE, Alexander the Great swept down into Egypt with his army. He founded Alexandria in the small port town of Rhakotis by the sea and set about the task of turning it into a great capital. It is said that he designed the plan for the city which was so greatly admired later by the historian Strabo (63 BCE-21CE) who wrote,

The city has magnificent public precincts and royal palaces which cover a fourth or even a third of the entire area. For just as each of the kings would, from a love of splendour, add some ornament to the public monuments, so he would provide himself at his own expense with a residence in addition to those already standing.

The palaces and grand homes Strabo mentions did not exist at the time Alexander founded the city. Although he was greatly admired by the Egyptians (and was even declared a demi-god by the Oracle at Siwa), Alexander left Egypt only a few months after his arrival to march on Tyre in Phoenicia. It was left to his commander, Cleomenes, to build the city Alexander had envisioned. While Cleomenes accomplished a great deal, the full expansion of Alexandria came under the rule of Alexander’s general Ptolemy and the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332-30 BCE) which followed. After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, Ptolemy brought his body back to Alexandria to be entombed and, following the wars of the Diodachi, began rule of Egypt from Alexandria, supplanting the old capital of Memphis. Tyre had been an important city for trade and commerce in the region and, after its destruction by Alexander, Alexandria filled the void which had been left. Carthage (which largely became so prosperous owing to the sack of Tyre) was still a young port town when Alexandria began to thrive. The historian and scholar Mangasarian writes,

“Under the Ptolemies, a line of Greek kings, Alexandria soon sprang into eminence, and, accumulating culture and wealth, became the most powerful metropolis of the Orient. Serving as the port of Europe, it attracted the lucrative trade of India and Arabia. Its markets were enriched with the gorgeous silks and fabrics from the bazaars of the Orient. Wealth brought leisure, and it, in turn, the arts. It became, in time, the home of a wonderful library and schools of philosophy, representing all the phases and the most delicate shades of thought. At one time it was the general belief that the mantle of Athens had fallen upon the shoulders of Alexandria.

This massive gold coin weighing approximately 27.7-8 grams was known as an octadrachm (equivalent in worth to 8 drachmae). Under the Ptolemies, mints in cities like Alexandriaand Ptolemais produced ever larger denominations in gold, silver and bronze. This coin was minted in Alexandria, Egypt between 260-40 BCE. On its obverse it bears the diademed heads of Ptolemy II and Arsinöe II with the legend “Adelphon” (literally Greek for “Siblings”). On the reverse, Ptolemy I and Berenike I are depicted. (British Museum, London) / British Museum

The city grew to become the largest in the known world at the time, attracting scholars, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, and historians. Eratosthenes (c.276-194 BCE) calculated the circumference of the earth to within 50 miles (80 km) at Alexandria. Euclid taught at the university there. Archimedes (287-212 BCE) the great mathematician and astronomer may have taught there and was certainly studied there. The greatest engineer and mathematician of his day, Hero (also known as Heron, 10-70 CE) was born and lived in Alexandria. Hero was credited with amazing feats in engineering and technology including the first vending machine, the force-pump, and a theatre of automated figures who danced, among his other inventions.


The library, begun under Ptolemy I (305-285 BCE) was completed by Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE) who sent invitations to rulers and scholars asking them to contribute books. According to historians Oakes and Gahlin, “There was room for up to 70,000 papyrus scrolls. Most of the items were bought but other means were sometimes used. In order to procure coveted works, all ships entering the harbour were searched. Every book found was taken to the Library where it was decided whether to give it back or confiscate it and replace it with a copy” (230). No one knows how many books were held in the library at Alexandria but estimates have been made of 500,000. It is said that Mark Antony gave Cleopatra 200,000 books for the library but this claim has been disputed since antiquity. Mangasarian writes,

After its magnificent library, whose shelves supported a freight more precious than beaten gold, perhaps the most stupendous edifice in the town was the temple of Serapis. It is said that the builders of the famous temple of Edessa boasted that they had succeeded in creating something which future generations would compare with the temple of Serapis in Alexandria. This ought to suggest an idea of the vastness and beauty of the Alexandrian Serapis, and the high esteem in which it was held. Historians and connoisseurs claim it was one of the grandest monuments of Pagan civilization, second only to the temple of Jupiter in Rome, and the inimitable Parthenon in Athens. The Serapis temple was built upon an artificial hill, the ascent to which was by a hundred steps. It was not one building, but a vast body of buildings, all grouped about a central one of vaster dimensions, rising on pillars of huge magnitude and graceful proportions. Some critics have advanced the idea that the builders of this masterpiece intended to make it a composite structure, combining the diverse elements of Egyptian and Greek art into a harmonious whole. The Serapion was regarded by the ancients as marking the reconciliation between the architects of the pyramids and the creators of the Athenian Acropolis. It represented to their minds the blending of the massive in Egyptian art with the grace and the loveliness of the Hellenic.

When Carthage rose to the height of her power, Alexandria was relatively unaffected as trade had long been established and the city posed no threat to the sea power of the Carthaginians. Even after the fall of Carthage following the Punic Wars (264-146 BCE), when Rome became supreme and Alexandria fell under her sway, the city remained prosperous and continued to attract visitors from all over the world. The increasing tensions in Rome between Julius Caesar and Pompey first impacted Alexandria negatively in 48 BCE. Prior to this date, though the city certainly experienced its share of problems, it remained a stable environment. Following the Battle of Pharsalus, however, at which Caesar defeated Pompey, Pompey fled to Alexandria seeking sanctuary and was killed by the co-regent Ptolemy XIII. Caesar arrived and, whether real or feigned, claimed outrage at the death of his former friend and ally. He then declared martial law, took over the royal palace, and sent for the exiled co-regent Cleopatra VII. In the civil war which ensued much of Alexandria was burned including, according to some scholars, the famous library.

The Roman theatre of Alexandria, Egypt / Photo by Daniel Mayer, Wikimedia Commons


Following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, his right-hand man, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) became Cleopatra’s consort and left Rome for Alexandria. The city became his base of operations over the next thirteen years until he and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavian Caesar at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The next year, Cleopatra and Antony both committed suicide and, with her death, the Ptolemaic line came to an end. Octavian became first emperor of Rome and took the title `Augustus’. Alexandria now became a simple province of the Roman Empire under the rule of Augustus Caesar.

Augustus consolidated his power in the provinces and had Alexandria restored. Scholars who argue against Julius Caesar’s role in the burning of the great library point to the fact that there is evidence it was still extant under the reign of Augustus and that visitors were still attracted to the city as a seat of learning. Alexandria was again ruined in 115 CE in the Kitos War and was again restored, this time by the Emperor Hadrian, who, as a man of learning, took great interest in Alexandria. According to tradition, the Greek Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible) was composed in Alexandria, completed in 132 CE, in order that it could take its place among the great books of the library in the city. Religious scholars were said to frequent the library for research and Alexandria had long attracted people of many different faiths who vied for dominance in the city. Under Augustus’ reign there were disputes between Jews and pagans and, as Christianity grew in popularity, the Christians added to the public unrest. After the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (272-337 CE) passed the Edict of Milan in 313 CE (decreeing religious tolerance), Christians were no longer liable for prosecution under the law and began to not only demand more religious rights, but more vociferously attack the pagans and the Jews.


Alexandria, which had been a city of prosperity and learning, became an arena of religious contention between the new faith of the Christians and the old faith of the pagan majority. The Christians increasingly felt bold enough to strike at the symbols of the old faith in an attempt to topple it. Magasarian writes,

It is not so much religion that makes the character of a people, as it is the people who determine the character of their religion. Religion is only the resume of the national ideas, thoughts, and character. Religion is nothing but an expression. It is not, for instance, the word or the language which creates the idea, but the idea which provokes the word into existence. In the same way religion is only the expression of a people’s mentality. And yet a man’s religion or philosophy, while it is but the product of his own mind, exerts a reflex influence upon his character. The child influences the parent, of whom it is the offspring language affects thought, of which, originally, it was but the tool. So it is with religion. The Christian religion, as soon as it got into power, turned the world about.

Perhaps nowhere more than in Alexandria was this turn-about more apparent. Under the reign of Theodosius I (347-395 CE) paganism was outlawed and Christianity encouraged. In 391 CE the Christian Patriarch Theophilus followed Theodosius’ lead and had all the pagan temples in Alexandria destroyed or converted into churches. By the year 400 CE Alexandria was in constant religious turmoil and, in 415 CE, this resulted in the murder of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Hypatia and, according to some scholars, the burning of the great library and the complete destruction of the temple of Serapis. Alexandria declined rapidly after this date with scholars, scientists, and thinkers of all disciplines leaving the city for safer locales.

This ivory pyxis (round box) shows the saint Menas with camels. His shrine near Alexandriain Egypt was a popular pilgrim site in the Byzantine Empire. Menas, an Egyptian soldier, was executed by Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305 CE) for practising Christianity. When the camels carrying his body to burial refused to move beyond a certain spot, it was taken as a sign that he should be buried there. Byzantine, 6th century CE. Made in Alexandria, Egypt. Found in Italy, Rome, San Paolo Fuori le Mura. (The British Museum, London). / Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, Creative Commons

The city became steadily impoverished after the rise of Christianity, both financially and culturally, and became increasingly a battlefield for warring faiths. It was conquered by the Sassanid Persians in 619 CE. The Christian Byzantine Empire under Heraclius re-claimed the city in 628 CE but lost it to the invading Arab Muslims under Caliph Umar in 641 CE. The forces of the Christian Byzantines and the Muslim Arabs then fought for control of the city, and Egypt, until the Arabian forces prevailed in 646 CE and Egypt fell under Islamic rule. The churches were now destroyed or transformed in mosques and Christian legend claims that it was at this time that the great library was burned by the Muslim conquerors.

What was not destroyed by war was taken down by nature and, by 1323 CE, most of Ptolemaic Alexandria was gone. The great lighthouse was steadily destroyed by earthquakes as was much of the port. In 1994 CE the first discoveries were made known of a number of relics, statuary, and buildings in the harbor of Alexandria. These have been steadily excavated by Professor Jean-Yves Empereur and his team who continue to bring to light the lost golden age of Alexandria.

Based on the information available, what do you think Cleopatra looked like?

I've seen conflicting ways Cleopatra has been described from her looking average or ugly, to her having red hair or dark hair. I know there isn't much hardcore evidence, but I wanted to hear others' opinion on the matter and your reasoning for it.

Few suspected portraits of Cleopatra survive and ancient accounts are quite vague about her appearance. We know that as a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty (which came long after the period traditionally thought of as "ancient Egypt") she was of mostly Graeco-Macedonian descent with some Persian, Sogdian and Anatolian ancestors in her female line. Duane Roller suggested that her mother may have been of partially Egyptian descent but this is purely speculative. In any case, she would have been anywhere from fair to tanned but it really is not that interesting either way.

I only know of a handful of painted representations of (possibly) Cleopatra, with most featuring dark hair and one red. There are no Roman accounts of her being strawberry blonde however, although I have seen this myth on the internet. Some of her ancestors, like Ptolemy II, were blond but dark hair was generally more common.

Contrary to popular belief, Cleopatra was not considered to be ugly by ancient historians. Roman accounts invariably play up her legendary charm and intellect when explaining her appeal, but she is still described ad being fairly lovely if not devastatingly beautiful (see: Dio, Plutarch, Appian et al). Whether she would be judged this way under modern standards of beauty is less clear however. Most representations of her on coins and busts portray a pronounced hook nose, large eyes, and a mouth which has been described as "generous" by some modern commentators. Portraits from later in her reign tend to have more stern, masculine features which is generally attributed to a desire to appear more commanding and authoritative to her subjects.

Roman and early Medieval Byzantine and Islamic historical accounts imply that she was short and slight. The famous story of her being concealed in a carpet or bag also seems to suggest this as a taller woman might not be so easily hidden and carried. I would also point out the "Esquiline Venus", a Roman statue of a nude woman surrounded by Egyptian and Venusian iconography that has been suggested as a possible Cleopatra. The figure is unusually short, reinforcing the idea that this might be Cleopatra, but is otherwise conventionally shapely by ancient standards with small breasts and a semi-androgynous figure.

Her most iconic hair style from an archaeological and historical perspective is known as the "melon coiffure". This hairstyle derives its name from its appearance, as braids or rows of hair are pulled back from the forehead into a bun which resembles the ridges on a melon's gourd. Usually, in statuary and coin portraits of the queen we also see corkscrew curls behind and/or in front of the ears and around the forehead.

The Vatican portrait of Cleopatra (view from side here ), portrays this hairstyle quite prominently. The Berlin portrait has a similar but simpler style with the hair in wavy curls pulled back into a bun, while the small corkscrew curls ring the forehead. On coins it is quite prominent, as seen here and here. This silver 80 drachm denomination looks most similar to the Berlin portrait with its looser style of curls.

This coiffure hairstyle was also associated with some Hellenistic representations of the divine Aphrodite or the Egyptian goddess Isis which fits in well with Ptolemaic queens, and Cleopatra in particular, who identified with these goddesses. Alexandrian portraiture is particularly well known for sharing divine and royal iconography in portraiture.

Her association with Aphrodite/Isis/Venus makes identifying depictions of her somewhat difficult. For example the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus in Pompeii, a mural was excavated which portrays a statue in the temple of Venus Genitrix within the Forum Julium. The subject of the statue is Venus but it has been suggested as being the controversial statue of Cleopatra as Venus that Julius Caesar placed within the temple in 44 BCE. The female divine figure is wearing a diadem with a translucent mantle beneath which the melon coiffure is vaguely visible. She has the infant Cupid clinging to her solidifies her link to Venus Genitrix (the maternal aspect of Venus) and jewelry is representative of mid-1st Century BCE fashion. Her features, such as the large eyes, dark hair and long aquiline nose, are very reminiscent of depictions of Cleopatra and "Cupid" in this context would indicate her infant son Caesarion.

Interestingly, "Cupid" in that portrait is golden haired, which might just be an artistic choice but if it really were a portrait of Caesarion it might indicate that he took after his father who is generally thought to have been Julius Caesar. Many of Caesar's relatives, like Octavian, had blonde hair although I do not know of any references to Julius Caesar's hair colour.

Many other Hellenistic rulers and elite women were depicted with the coiffure hairstyle and even Roman portraiture features this hairstyle going back to the 3rd Century BCE. Coin portraits, reliefs and busts of Ptolemaic queens predating Cleopatra also feature this hairstyle, like this coin portraying Arsinöe II and this gem cameo of Berenike II.

This late 4th Century BCE Athenian funerary portrait of a young woman provides good detail of the often simple hairstyle. A bust from the mid-40s BCE was found in a Roman villa and in all likelihood depicts a lady of Cleopatra's court. It is often misattributed as a portrait of Cleopatra VII but the facial features and lack of a royal diadem make this very unlikely. Beyond this, the woman's hairstyle is actually more elaborate than how Cleopatra's relatively simple coiffure is usually depicted.

The style's increase in popularity in portraits of aristocratic Roman women from roughly the 40s BCE has even been noted by some historians (like Diane E. E. Kleiner) to demonstrate the degree of popularity she had in the city in 46-44, during which time she made multiple visits. Kleiner also demonstrates in Cleopatra and Rome that the style retained popularity in elite and non-elite circles for sometime afterwards thanks to its new associations with the Roman elite. For an example of a Roman portrait with this style see this statue of a woman from Herculaneum dating to the late 1st Century BCE and this later portrait from Herculaneum from the 1st Century AD.

She is also possibly depicted in one scene on the Portland Vase along with Marc Antony. The nude figure in question has long wavy hair that seems to have a bob of hair pulled across the forehead. That said, alternative interpretations of the scene exist and it is more than likely it could portray a different couple like the parents of Achilles, Peleus and Thetis (which I personally believe).

In addition to this, statuary more directly inspired by Egyptian motifs rather than Graeco-Roman motifs portrays Cleopatra with a coiffure which is not drawn into a bun. Other statuary, like the submerged "Dark Queen" statue which portrays one of her ancestors, bear similar styles.

As you may have noticed, she is typically shown in Greek attire which as far we can assume is probably what she would have worn most frequently. Many of her ancestors struggled with obesity but this does not appear to have been a problem for her in her younger years. It is technically possible that she may have had issues with weight gain due to genetics or pregnancy but we do not have much evidence for this. The fact that she died at a reasonably young age (probably around 39) should also be taken into account.

So basically, she was pretty average for her time period and culture with the obvious exception that she was prone to extravagant and luxurious costumes (but nothing like you see on TV).

Watch the video: Human (November 2022).

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