Berenice I (c. 345 BCE–c. 275 BCE)

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Berenice I (c. 345 bce–c. 275 bce)

Macedonian-born queen of Egypt, whose children ruled as kings, queens, and the consorts of tyrants in Cyrene, Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, Anatolia, Sicily, and Egypt. Pronunciation: Ber-e-NEE-kay. Born in Macedonia around 345 bce; died around 275 bce; probably the daughter of Lagus (a Macedonian aristocrat) and Antigone (the niece of Antipater, who was well-connected in Macedonian circles); married a Macedonian named Philip (widowed); married half-brother Ptolemy I Soter (d. 283); children: (first marriage) Magas (who eventually became the king of Cyrene) and several daughters, including Antigone (who married Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus) and Theoxena (who married Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse); (second marriage) Arsinoe II Philadelphus (c. 316–270 bce); Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 285–247 bce).

Berenice was born about 345 bce. Her father was probably a Macedonian aristocrat named Lagus, although some have argued that his name was really Magas (in either case, the name has to be reconstructed from a source in a poor state of preservation). Her mother Antigone was the daughter of a Cassander and the niece of the Antipater who was the most important living Macedonian between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 and Antipater's own demise in 319. We know nothing of Berenice until her first marriage to another Macedonian noble named Philip, by whom Berenice had at least one son, Magas (who later would serve as the Ptolemaic ruler of Cyrene [northern Libya]), and two daughters, Antigone (whom Pyrrhus of Epirus would one day woo out of respect for Berenice) and Theoxena (who for a time would be a wife of the Syracusan tyrant Agathocles). Each of these children would play prominent roles in the administration and diplomacy of Ptolemaic Egypt, where his or her utility depended upon the status not of their deceased father but of Berenice.

We do not know how her first husband died, but Berenice was a widow in 322 when Antipater arranged the marriage of his daughter Eurydice to Ptolemy I, whose power base was in Egypt. This union was part of the attempt by Antipater, whose power base was in Macedonia, to stave off a debilitating round of civil wars in the wake of Alexander the Great's death. The sudden loss of Alexander—who was without a competent, legitimate heir when he died—threatened to set Macedonian against Macedonian until a new order could arise. In an effort to maintain harmony within Alexander's empire, Antipater arranged for the marriages of his several daughters to the most promising of his younger military and political peers, including the marriage between Eurydice and Ptolemy I, hoping thereby to weave an alliance which could protect the unity of the Macedonian empire until a competent member of Alexander's house availed himself. As luck would have it, Antipater's efforts to stymie civil war and maintain the unity of Alexander's legacy failed, but not before Eurydice and Ptolemy I wed.

Theoxena (fl. 315 bce)

Flourished around 315 bce; daughter of Berenice I (c. 345 bce–c. 275 bce) and a Macedonian noble named Philip; married Agathocles (the tyrant of Syracuse).

Eurydice (fl. 321 bce)

Macedonian aristocrat and third wife of Ptolemy I. Name variations: Eurydice I. Flourished around 321 bce; daughter of Antipater (a Macedonian aristocrat who died in 319 bce); sister of Phila and Nicaea ; married Ptolemy I Soter, king of Egypt, around 321 bce; children: several, including Ptolemy Ceraunus (or Keraunos, d. 279 bce); daughter Ptolemais (c. 315–?); and daughter Lysandra .

The first wife of Ptolemy I Soter, Eurydice was replaced by Berenice I (c. 345–c. 275 bce), then driven out of Egypt by the year 290 bce.

In the train accompanying Eurydice traveled Berenice, who would thereafter live her life not in her native Macedonia but in Egypt at the court of Ptolemy I, likely her half-brother. How soon after Berenice's arrival in Egypt (the new capital of which, Alexandria, was then under construction) she came to Ptolemy's attention, no one can say. However, if the two were half-siblings, as seems probable, there is a good chance that their reunion occurred almost at once upon Berenice's arrival. It is too melodramatic to believe that Ptolemy fell for Berenice at once or insulted Eurydice by immediately courting one of her maidsin-waiting. It is clear, though, that not too many years had passed before Berenice became a major figure at the Ptolemaic court. What attracted Ptolemy I to Berenice can only be surmised, but it is clear that she possessed both a charismatic personality as well as a formidable intellect. So strong and attractive was her character that not only was Ptolemy enthralled by her, but so too was Pyrrhus who would one day rule Epirus. When as a young prince Pyrrhus paid a visit to the Ptolemaic court seeking political contacts, he was so impressed by Berenice's intelligence and influence that he sought to tie himself to Ptolemaic interests through a marriage to Antigone, Berenice's daughter by her first husband. Clearly, if Berenice's status in the eyes of Ptolemy I had not been absolutely secure, such a tie would have not sufficed to satisfy Pyrrhus' ambitions. Ptolemy formally took Berenice as his second wife around 318 bce. Not long thereafter, Berenice had a daughter (c. 316), Arsinoe II Philadelphus . A second daughter, Philotera (who never married and about whom little is known), followed, as eventually did a son, Ptolemy II in 308.

[Berenice] had the greatest influence of Ptolemy's wives and surpassed the others in character and intellectual power.

—Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, 4

In 310 bce, Alexander the Great's house became extinct. Nevertheless, it was four years before any of Alexander's one-time generals dared to claim the title of king. The first Macedonian not of Alexander's dynasty to claim the royal title was Antigonus I (in 306), the most dominant warlord in Asia. Nevertheless, Antigonus' self-elevation was considered by all to be a risky declaration and was only attempted after he had won a major military victory against some Macedonian rivals. One of Antigonus' enemies at the time was Ptolemy, who feared that Antigonus might eventually be able to attract enough loyalty among the dispersed Macedonians to accomplish the dream of reuniting Alexander's empire under his personal authority. To counter the potential propaganda value of Antigonus' assumption of the royal title, Ptolemy and others who would be Antigonus' peers—not his inferiors—proclaimed themselves to be "kings." What Berenice thought about Ptolemy's elevation is not attested, but it seems evident that she enthusiastically supported her husband's decision, for within a few years of his accession (in about 300) Berenice fully endorsed the marriage of their daughter Arsinoe II to Lysimachus, the new king of Thrace and Anatolia. This new alliance was intended to stabilize the international situation and preserve for both parties their respective spheres of influence.

Although no source credits Berenice with an active role in the administration of Ptolemaic Egypt, Ptolemy's continuing affection for her and the increasing importance of her children in the public affairs of that state indicates that she retained influence over her husband out of the public's eye. Clearly Pyrrhus thought her important enough to court, as did Lysimachus and Agathocles of Syracuse, all of whom married her daughters. Two other indications of her importance manifested themselves: Ptolemy's selection of Magas, Berenice's son by Philip, as his man in Cyrene and, even more important, Ptolemy II's elevation to the Egyptian throne over the claims of Eurydice's son Ptolemy Ceraunus.

The affection between Ptolemy I and Berenice, which would be immortalized in the 17th idyll of the famous poet Theocritus, was so lasting that it was to eventually drive Eurydice out of Egypt around 290. When Eurydice left Egypt for Miletus on the Anatolian coast is unknown, but she certainly did not do so until it became clear to her that her son by Ptolemy was to be displaced as Ptolemy I's heir by his younger half-sibling, Berenice's child, Ptolemy II. This decision had been made at latest by 285, when Ptolemy I publicly raised Ptolemy II to the position of joint-king, from which status Berenice's son became Egypt's sole ruler when his father died two years later.

After Berenice's death (c. 275), she continued to enchant the citizens of Alexandria, an enchantment which was directly exploited by her son Ptolemy II. Playing on the popularity of his parents, and hoping to anchor the legitimacy of his dynasty through a manipulation of religiosity not uncommon in his era, Ptolemy II posthumously deified both Ptolemy I and Berenice as "savior gods" whose continuing beneficence would secure the peace of Egypt and the fortunes of its new royal house. In no way would such a step have been taken if the pair so honored had not been considered popular benefactors while still alive. Not only did Berenice, thus linked with Ptolemy, continue to receive traditional offerings of incense and the associated animal sacrifices as long as her dynasty ruled Egypt, but she also was singularly honored by the Alexandrians in her own temple, where her memory was merged into the persona of the goddess Aphrodite (not an inappropriate association, considering Ptolemy's longstanding affection for her). Associated in this manner with the divine, Berenice received all the trappings given to goddesses, perhaps the most impressive of which was her statue molded of ivory and gold which was publicly displayed at appropriate moments. Clearly, Berenice became a well-known model for the subsequent behavior of Ptolemaic queens. Equally as manifest, Berenice's appropriate handling of her royal responsibilities helped to forge a climate in Egypt which allowed the continuing participation of royal women in the politics of the realm to a degree tolerated nowhere else in the Hellenistic world.

sources:

Pausanias, Guide to Greece. Vols. 1 & 2. Penguin, 1971.

Plutarch, The Age of Alexander. Penguin, 1983.

suggested reading:

Green, Peter, Alexander to Actium. University of California, 1990.

Macurdy, Grace H., Hellenistic Queens. Johns Hopkins, 1932.

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