Arsinoe II Philadelphus (c. 316–270 BCE)

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Arsinoe II Philadelphus (c. 316–270 bce)

Daughter of Ptolemy I (founder of the Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt for almost 300 years) and three times a queen. Name variations: Arsinoë II Philadelphos (the name "Philadelphus" was added after her last marriage). Pronunciation: Ar-SIN-o-ee. Probably born in 316 bce; died in 270 bce; oldest child of Ptolemy I Soter and Berenice I (c. 345–275 bce); married Lysimachus (the 60-year-old monarch of Macedonia, Thrace, and Anatolia in order to secure an alliance for her father), in 300 (died 281 bce); married Ptolemy Ceraunus (her half brother); married Ptolemy II Philadelphus (her full brother, c. 275 bce); children: (first marriage) three sons, including Ptolemy.

She embraces her husband … cherishing him with all of her heart … he, who is also her brother.

—Adapted from Theocritus, Idyll 17.

Little is known about Arsinoe before c. 283 when she became embroiled in the vicious dynastic struggle that threatened Lysimachus' realm and led to his death (281). With her three sons, Arsinoe fled Lysimachus' Asian domain for the European city of Cassandrea, in which she fortified herself awaiting the opportunity to foster her children's interests. While she was there, Ptolemy Ceraunus offered marriage. This was nothing but a ploy, for this Ptolemy only proposed in order to murder Arsinoe's sons and thus fortify his claim to the dead Lysimachus' realm. Her oldest son escaped (fearing treachery, he fled before the carnage), but Arsinoe witnessed the slaughter of her two other sons (280–279). Immediately thereafter, Arsinoe sought refuge in Egypt. There, she eventually married her full brother, Ptolemy II (c. 275), eight years her junior. Their subsequent joint reign was successful and popular, but it ended with her death (270). Nevertheless, her memory lived on, especially since she received divine honors while still alive—at that time a novel development in a rapidly changing world.

The civil wars that dismantled Alexander the Great's empire were accompanied by a series of shifting marriage alliances among his Macedonian successors, each seeking to secure through matrimony the assistance of powerful friends who might otherwise become dangerous rivals. One beneficiary of matrimonial politics was Ptolemy I, who had already secured Egypt against all comers when Alexander the Great's 13-year-old son (and the last of his dynasty) was murdered in 310 in Macedonia. Much of Ptolemy's early success came as a result of his marriage to Eurydice (fl. c. 321), the daughter of Antipater (who died in 319, but who was the most respected Macedonian aristocrat in the years following the great Alexander's death in 323).

Ptolemy I had several children by Eurydice, the most notorious of whom was Ptolemy Ceraunus. Despite Eurydice's initial political importance, after the death of Antipater, her status at Ptolemy's court diminished. The woman who took Eurydice's place as Ptolemy I's chief consort was Eurydice's beautiful widowed cousin, Berenice I (c. 345–275 bce), who had originally come to Egypt at Eurydice's request. Although Berenice replaced Eurydice as Ptolemy I's chief wife, he is unlikely to have bothered with divorce, for Macedonian kings practiced polygamy. Ptolemy I's affection for Berenice proved long-lasting, and their first child, Arsinoe II, was born around 316.

Little is known of Arsinoe's childhood, but it must have been interesting. Among other things, when she was about ten (in 306) her father proclaimed himself king—thus assuming the royal status borne by his line until its extinction in 30 bce (with the death of the famous Cleopatra VII ). Arsinoe received the best education (both in and out of the classroom) available anywhere. Of course, anything less would have diminished Ptolemy I, a political genius who also established in his capital (Alexandria-"near"-Egypt) the famous Museum and Library—the world's then greatest collection of literature.

Arsinoe came to the fore in 300 bce, when her father brokered her marriage to Lysimachus, his 60-year-old ex-military comrade and recently proclaimed king of Macedonia, Thrace, and Anatolia. This union was arranged so as to frustrate the Aegean ambitions of Demetrius Poliorcetes and the Asian aspirations of Seleucus, both dangerous rivals of Arsinoe's father and new husband. The alliance between Ptolemy I and Lysimachus was critical to both of their foreign policies, a fact that is attested to not only by Arsinoe's marriage, but by two others as well: that between Lysandra (Ptolemy I's daughter with Eurydice) and Agathocles (Lysimachus' son with Nicaea ) in around 293; and that between Ptolemy II (Ptolemy I's son with Berenice, and thus Arsinoe II's full brother) and Arsinoe I (Lysimachus' daughter with Nicaea, and thus Agathocles' full sister) in around 285.

Although Arsinoe II gave Lysimachus three sons, perhaps her most historically significant contribution from this period of her life was her dedication of the "Arsinoeion" on the island of Samothrace. This architecturally significant building (it was the Greek world's largest walled, round building constructed to date) was erected within Samothrace's sacred precinct and thus was associated with the island's famed mysteries, about which, despite their ancient renown, we know little today. Nevertheless, her piety at this pan-hellenic site—and one especially sacred to the Macedonians at that—helped establish Arsinoe's name among her contemporaries. Although we cannot say for certain where Arsinoe got the money needed for her dedication, it probably came from the cities, including Heraclea on the Pontus (and perhaps Ephesus—renamed "Arsinoea" in her honor by Lysimachus—and Cassandrea), which Lysimachus gave to her upon their marriage. Regardless, the Arsinoeion proves that Arsinoe, like other women of her station, privately controlled considerable wealth and willingly spent it to foster their religious and political interests, and those of the dynasties with which they were associated.

In the long run, Arsinoe II's marriage did not achieve everything hoped for, but for 17 years it satisfactorily met all expectations. Serious dynastic rivalries, however, doomed Lysimachus' court, and some of the extant ancient sources attribute the tragedy to Arsinoe. Arsinoe was Lysimachus' third acknowledged wife. With his first wife Nicaea, he had fathered Agathocles, who was slightly older than Arsinoe and, as Lysimachus' only adult son throughout the 290s and 280s, apparently his heir. One tradition has it that in 283, after 17 years of living in close proximity, Arsinoe II could restrain herself no longer and sexually propositioned Agathocles. The story continues by reporting his rejection of the unnatural proposal, thus angering Arsinoe and prompting her, in a fit of jealousy, to plot his ruin. This she is said to have set in motion by accusing him of tendering sexual advances towards her. As a result of the charge, the outraged Lysimachus is reported to have executed his son Agathocles.

The truth appears to have been less lurid, but nevertheless revealing of the problems associated with the royal Macedonian custom of polygamy, especially as it affected the reigns of long-lived monarchs. Although by 283 Agathocles was mature enough, qualified enough, and ambitious enough to share with his father the responsibilities of royal rule, Lysimachus (then in his 70s) was as yet unwilling to anticipate his succession by sharing royal authority with his oldest and most experienced son. Undoubtedly, Arsinoe had some role in this decision, for her oldest son (another Ptolemy) was coming of age. Two factions developed at court behind these sons of Lysimachus by different mothers. Since Lysimachus did not stifle their intensifying rivalry, we can assume that he had it in mind to name Arsinoe's 16-year-old Ptolemy as his heir. Why this was the case can only be guessed, but it is likely that with Antipater (the grandfather of Agathocles) long dead and his direct line extinguished, Arsinoe's Egyptian connections (Ptolemy I had recently named her full brother, Ptolemy II, as his heir) were too important for Lysimachus to ignore in his own succession. By 283, Agathocles saw the handwriting on the wall and desperately attempted to assert his claim through a rebellion against the father he thought had betrayed him. The result was his own execution. A baroque sub-plot, however, posthumously offered Agathocles a modicum of revenge.

Lysandra (fl. 300 bce)

Macedonian princess. Flourished around 300 bce; daughter of Ptolemy I Soter and Eurydice (fl. 321 bce); full sister of Ptolemy Ceraunus; married Agathocles.

Nicaea (fl. 300 bce)

Queen of Macedonia, Thrace, and Anatolia. Flourished around 300 bce; daughter of Antipater (a great Macedonian general); sister of Eurydice (fl. 321 bce); first wife of Lysimachus, king of Macedonia, Thrace, and Anatolia (his third acknowledged wife was Arsinoe II Philadelphus ); children: son Agathocles and daughter Arsinoe I (fl. 280 bce).

In Egypt, Ptolemy I's decision to name Ptolemy II as his heir had recently "resolved" a similar rivalry between half brothers. Although Ptolemy I had several sons, the two with the strongest claims to succeed him were Eurydice's oldest son, Ptolemy Ceraunus (meaning the "Thunderbolt"; hereafter, simply, Ceraunus), and Berenice's only son, Ptolemy II (obviously a family with a limited imagination when it came to boys' names), who though younger than Ceraunus, was nevertheless old enough to rule when, in 285, Ptolemy I decided to name his heir. For a number of reasons, Ptolemy I had chosen Ptolemy II (recently married to Lysimachus' daughter Arsinoe I) over Ceraunus, and in early 284 elevated the newly designated legatee to a position of joint kingship. Ceraunus immediately went into exile at Lysimachus' court. Although at first glance Ceraunus' flight to Lysimachus' court might seem odd, in fact, it was clever, for although Arsinoe II (Ptolemy II's full sister) was Lysimachus' wife, Lysandra, Ceraunus' own full sister, was the spouse of Agathocles, who was in 284 still the leading candidate to succeed Lysimachus—especially if the succession could be arranged before Arsinoe's oldest son came of age. As a result, it is likely that Ptolemy Ceraunus' appearance at Lysimachus' court touched off the dynastic tragedy that soon struck there.

Certainly, Ceraunus and his sister Lysandra fought hard for Agathocles, thus making of Arsinoe a bitter enemy. With Agathocles' death and Arsinoe's (temporary) triumph, both Ceraunus and Lysandra fled to the court of Lysimachus' rival, Seleucus, where they were able to incite that opportunistic old monarch to invade Lysimachus' realm. Seleucus responded as quickly as he did in order to exploit the resentment of the many still in Lysimachus' kingdom who had backed Agathocles and who remained disgruntled at the savage turn of events. In early 281, the issue came to a head at the battle of Corupedion, where Seleucus defeated and killed Lysimachus. Sought by assassins, Arsinoe and her sons fled to Cassandrea in Europe (garrisoned by troops loyal to and paid by Arsinoe) by way of the port city of Ephesus (by then called "Arsinoea" in honor of Arsinoe). While still in Ephesus, Arsinoe managed a harrowing escape from the assassins at her heels—for it was only by dressing one of her slaves as herself, while she in turn adopted the slave's attire, that she was able to elude her pursuers. Unfortunately, the slave was not so lucky.

As for Seleucus and Ceraunus, their story was not yet over. Having induced Seleucus to remove Lysimachus, and, after Seleucus had crossed over to Europe to claim Lysimachus' European possessions, Ceraunus personally assassinated Seleucus (fall, 281), so as to put forth his own claim—as Agathocles' avenger—to Lysimachus' realm. Taking his time to secure his newly "won" kingdom, Ceraunus left Arsinoe and her sons alone until late in the next year. By the end of 280, however, Ceraunus began to float the idea of marriage with his half sister, arguing that they should let bygones be bygones for their mutual good. Threatened by many wishing to lay claim to all or some of Lysimachus' kingdom (including Antigonus Gonatus, the son of Demetrius Poliorcetes, in the west and Antiochus I, the son of Seleucus, in the east), Ceraunus made it clear to Arsinoe that neither her first husband's realm nor her royal ambitions for her sons could survive without a mature and able champion of their interests. Arsinoe warily considered Ceraunus' proposal, but eventually (over the strenuous objections of her oldest son, Ptolemy) accepted his offer, if Ceraunus would both promise to accept her children as his heirs and agree to a very public marriage ceremony. The latter was intended to diminish the potential for treachery, since Arsinoe hoped that some sense of public shame would constrain her half brother to live up to his promises. As for their co-sanguinity, although such marriages were rare in the Greek experience they were not taboo, since in this case they shared a common father, not a common mother. Had their relationship been through their mother, most Greeks would have been shocked by their union.

The marriage was thus arranged, but not before Arsinoe's son Ptolemy had escaped Cassandrea for Illyria, fearing that his mother had been duped. Still leery of Ceraunus' intentions, Arsinoe would not admit Ceraunus into Cassandrea until after their vows had been exchanged before her garrison assembled outside of the city's walls. Ceraunus went through with the ceremony and thereafter was admitted into her city with only a token retinue. In the meantime, Arsinoe attempted to assure her own safety and that of her sons by maintaining her garrison on the walls—at least until after the consummation of the marriage had been widely publicized. Unfortunately, no act was too brazen for Ceraunus. At the first opportunity, he personally butchered the two sons who remained with Arsinoe while she looked on in horror, so as to fortify his own claim to Lysimachus' legacy.

Arsinoe immediately fled her butcherous half brother for the haven of Egypt. Ceraunus, meanwhile, lay claim to what had been Lysimachus'—and more. His triumph, however, was short lived for he was cut down within the year trying to protect Macedonia from the ravages of an invading army of Gauls. On the other hand, Arsinoe was about to reach her political acme. In Egypt, Ptolemy II (their father had died in 283) welcomed his sister, Arsinoe II, although her strong personality soon put her at odds with his wife Arsinoe I. Factions formed around each woman, while the pleasure-loving, if diplomatically adept, Ptolemy II did little to encourage harmony. For reasons that were probably more political than personal, eventually Ptolemy II sided with his sister, banishing his wife Arsinoe I (but not his children by her) from court on charges of conspiracy. Not long afterwards, probably after Antiochus I (the Seleucid king in Asia) had dealt Ptolemy II a military defeat in 276, Ptolemy II married his sister. This was the earliest known marriage between politically prominent, full siblings among either the Macedonians or the Greeks, and it shocked most of the Hellenic world.

Although Arsinoe II prospered as a result of the marriage, it is equally clear that Ptolemy II gained much from it as well, and that he set the dynastic terms under which it would be joined. Immediately upon taking Arsinoe II as his wife, Ptolemy II had forced her to adopt his already existing children by Arsinoe I. Whether or not the two truly lived together as man or wife cannot be known, but it should be noted that although both had children from previous marriages, theirs produced no offspring.

But what did Ptolemy gain by the marriage? First, the Greeks thought (whether rightly or not is another matter) that full sibling marriages had been common among Egypt's native pharaohs, and thus the union on one level was an attempt to secure the allegiance of the Egyptians for the newly instituted, foreign dynasty. In this it was successful, for Arsinoe II was especially popular among native Egyptians—as her many statues executed in the local style and scattered throughout the countryside attest.

In addition, the marriage also was an act in a larger policy of dynastic consolidation with Ptolemy II and his children by Arsinoe I at its center. Besides the already dead Ceraunus, Ptolemy II had two other half brothers: one, Meleager, had fled Egypt with Ceraunus and was also killed fighting Gauls in Macedonia; the second, Argaeus was put to death in Egypt on conspiracy charges shortly after Ptolemy II's marriage to Arsinoe II. As a result of these deaths, there were no offspring of Ptolemy I who could themselves produce children who might one day challenge the children of Ptolemy II for the throne of Egypt, except Arsinoe II. Once Ptolemy II married this Arsinoe, forced her to acknowledge the dynastic claims of his children by Arsinoe I, and thereafter fathered no children by her, he had virtually eliminated the possibility of a nasty dynastic squabble the likes of which had already destroyed the realm of Lysimachus. Thus, Arsinoe's third queenship came at the expense of her dynastic ambitions.

Hence it is unlikely that Arsinoe II "forced" herself on Ptolemy II, or that she dominated Egypt as its "true" monarch during the years of their marriage. Nevertheless, although she made some sacrifices to regain the privileges associated with being the wife of a king, it is also true that Ptolemy II treated his sister as a royal colleague, both for propagandistic purposes and to exploit her very real political talents.

In terms of propaganda, ever since the deification of Alexander the Great, there had been a growing tendency among the Greeks of the Hellenistic diaspora to divinize their monarchs. This was largely so as to legitimize the newly established dynasties, which otherwise could only justify their authority by an appeal to military might—an appeal that virtually begged armed challenge.

During Ptolemy II's reign, both of his parents were declared gods and worshipped as such. Of course, having "divine" parents made Ptolemy II somewhat special himself—a status that fit neatly into the Egyptian tradition of recognizing the ruling pharaoh as Horus incarnate—that is, as a god in human form. It was a short step for Ptolemy II to elevate himself and his sister to the status of living gods—a status that brought them adoration both individually (Arsinoe II had temples dedicated to her all over Egypt) and as a couple (the divine Adelphoi, that is, "brother and sister"—from this both received the cognomen, Philadelphus, that is, "sibling lover"). Of course, being widely adored as gods by a population that seldom saw either face to face made rebellion difficult. Also, being gods freed Ptolemy and Arsinoe from the constraints of human morality. Their divinity, therefore, "legitimized" their marriage among their Greek subjects, who might otherwise view it as incestuous. Greek poets at the Alexandrian court, including the famous Theocritus and Callimachus (surely at the request of the royal patrons) glorified the marriage and in the process compared Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II to Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the gods who were also brother and sister. Few Greeks living beyond Egypt were satisfied by the comparison (although for political reasons Ptolemy and Arsinoe received divine honors at Olympia and Athens in Greece proper), but the mythological parallel helped to define as unique and separate the claims of the Ptolemaic dynasty to rule in Egypt, among both the Greeks and Egyptians living there. In terms of actual cult as opposed to poetic symbolism, Arsinoe was most frequently identified with Aphrodite (for the Greeks) and Isis (for the Egyptians), and was trumpeted as a special protectress of sailors (Egypt at the time ruled over a maritime empire encompassing much of the eastern Mediterranean). In addition, priestesses maintained her cult and there was even a religious festival, the "Arsinoeia," celebrated in her honor.

In secular matters, Arsinoe's influence over her brother was also manifest. On the symbolic level, her image was coupled with Ptolemy's on some of the gold and silver coinages of their joint reign, while hers alone adorned some of the copper. Also, Ptolemy named the area of the Fayum in her honor. Concerning more practical matters, she accompanied Ptolemy on military inspections, and he is known to have showered her with enormous wealth (in one case ceding her the immense revenues from the exploitation of Lake Moeris just to pay for her perfume and jewelry). In addition, her name was linked with his (even after her death) as an equal in the formation of certain diplomatic policies, while throughout Egypt—like Ptolemy—she was designated as a "Pharaoh": that is, as a "God-King."

Many of the domestic and foreign policies pursued by Egypt after 275 have bee attributed to Arsinoe. It is difficult, however, to discern Arsinoe's, as opposed to Ptolemy's, influence in such policies. In particular, it is difficult to know for certain how much Arsinoe may have been behind the First Syrian War (274–271), successfully waged against Antiochus I for control of much of the Syrian and southern Anatolian coast; or, Egypt's political recognition of Rome (272), the first such by an eastern Hellenistic state; or even, Egypt's peripheral involvement in the "Chremonidean" War (268–261), fought in southern Greece after her death in a vain attempt to limit Antigonus Gonatus' (by then the acknowledged king of Macedonia) control of the region. All have been attributed to Arsinoe's influence, with the third particularly tied to a possible attempt to establish her surviving son on the throne of some kingdom. Of course, for Ptolemy II to have been active in his nephew's "imperial" interests after he himself had denied Arsinoe's son a piece of Egypt, would be potent testimony to the strength of Arsinoe's influence over Ptolemy II while she was still alive. None of these policies, however, can be proven to have been the product of Arsinoe's ambition alone.

Still, given the recorded vigor of Arsinoe's personality, and given the extreme honors showered upon her by her brother-husband and by her subjects—proving that she remained a very public and popular figure even after her death in 270—it would be foolish to believe that Arsinoe had no role in the formation of such stratagems after she rose to share her brother's throne. Truly, Arsinoe II seems to have defined for Egypt the model of the strong-willed Ptolemaic queen and to thus have been responsible for a legacy not extinguished until the ambitions of the last of her kind, Cleopatra VII, were crushed by the military might of Rome.


The sources for the early Hellenistic world are extraordinarily fragmented, so that it is helpful to consult with the modern scholarship as suggested below. Nevertheless, see: Justin. The History of the World. Trans. by J.S. Watson. London: Bohn, 1875.

suggested reading:

Burstein, S.M. "Arsinoe II Philadelphos: A Revisionist View," in Philip II, Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Heritage. Edited by W.L. Adams and E.N. Borza. Washington DC: University Press of America, 1982, pp. 197–236.

Macurdy, G.H. Hellenistic Queens. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1932, pp. 111–130.

Pomeroy, S.B. Women In Hellenistic Egypt. NY: Schocken Books, 1984, pp. 13–40.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Arsinoe II Philadelphus (c. 316–270 BCE)

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