Berenice II of Cyrene (c. 273–221 BCE)

views updated

Berenice II of Cyrene (c. 273–221 bce)

Co-ruler of Egypt with her second husband Ptolemy III, then her son Ptolemy IV, until he had her murdered. Name variations: Berenice of Cyrene. Pronunciation: Ber-e-NEE-kay. Born around 273 bce; died around 221 bce; daughter of Magas, the ruler of Cyrene (and stepson of Ptolemy IV of Egypt) and Apama (a daughter of the Seleucid king Antiochus I); betrothed to Ptolemy III, Euergetes, of Egypt; married Demetrius (half-brother of the Macedonian king Antigonus I); married Ptolemy III (died, 222 bce); children: (second marriage) five, including Ptolemy IV, Magas, Alexander, an unnamed son, and a daughter, Arsinoe III (who married her brother Ptolemy IV and shared his throne).

Born in 273 bce, Berenice represents several unsuccessful attempts by the Macedonian dynasties of the early Hellenistic period to forge diplomatic relations among themselves by virtue of marriage alliances. Her father Magas was the son of Berenice I of Egypt by her first husband, a Macedonian named Philip. Magas owed his position in Cyrene (now coastal Libya), which he was expected to rule as a dependent of Egypt, to Berenice I's influence over her second husband Ptolemy I and their son Ptolemy II, who was Magas' half-brother. Her mother Apama , however, was a Seleucid princess, the daughter of Antiochus I and thus the sister of Antiochus II.

Though Magas owed his position in Cyrene to his Alexandrian kin, when the First Syrian War erupted between his half-brother Ptolemy II and Apama's father Antiochus I (274–271), Magas rebelled against Ptolemy and Egypt. This gambit succeeded so that at war's end Magas was recognized officially as Cyrene's king, although nominally he remained under the suzerainty of Ptolemy. A near-autonomous Cyrene under Magas was tolerated because, either at the same time as Magas' assumption of the royal title or shortly thereafter, Ptolemy II betrothed his heir, Ptolemy III, to Magas' daughter, Berenice; thus, Ptolemy II expected Cyrene to be returned to Egypt through marriage, negating any need for him to consider alternative means of securing Cyrene.

However, when Magas died (c. 255?), the Seleucid sympathies of his wife Apama and the general sentiment of the people of Cyrene opposed an Egyptian marriage for Berenice. As a result, Apama arranged for Berenice to be married to a Macedonian prince named Demetrius (nicknamed "the Fair," for he was very handsome). Although Berenice and Demetrius' marriage was arranged against the interests of Egypt, Demetrius was not without some Ptolemaic blood; his mother was Ptolemais , a daughter of Ptolemy I by his first wife Eurydice . This made Demetrius the second cousin of Berenice.

Apama (c. 290 bce–?)

Seleucid princess. Name variations: Apame. Born around 290 bce; daughter of Antiochus I and Stratonice I (c. 319–254 bce); sister of Antiochus II, Stratonice II (c. 285–228 bce); married Magas; children: Berenice II of Cyrene (c. 273–221 bce).

Ptolemais (c. 315 bce–?)

Daughter of Ptolemy I and Eurydice ; cousin of Magas and Ptolemy II; married Demetrius Poliorcetes ("the City Besieger"); children: Demetrius the Fair (who married Berenice II of Cyrene (c. 273–221 bce).

Demetrius was chosen not so much because he had Ptolemaic ties as because he was also the half-brother (sharing the same father) of Antigonus I, who had firmly established himself as the king of Macedonia. Demetrius worked closely with Antigonus who himself had allied with the Seleucids against Ptolemy II's ambition to control the sea lanes of the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, it was hoped that Demetrius could sustain the autonomy of Cyrene. Such was the dream, but the dream turned into a nightmare for Berenice when, not long after her marriage, she caught Demetrius in bed with her own mother. Taking a bitter revenge, Berenice had Demetrius murdered in her mother's arms, while Berenice remained in a forechamber until the deed was done. Apama escaped execution, for it was Berenice's intention that her mother should live with her horror and shame, but from that time on Berenice wielded authority in Cyrene.

Several years later, Berenice completed her revenge when she arranged for the second time to be married to Ptolemy III, heir to the Egyptian throne. The union was accomplished in 247, and, much to Apama's dislike, Cyrene returned to the Ptolemaic fold. Within a year of Berenice's arrival at the Alexandrian court, Ptolemy III had both succeeded his father and begun to put pressure on his brother-in-law, Antiochus II of Syria, to live up to his obligations as the husband of Ptolemy III's sister, Berenice Syra . Antiochus married Berenice Syra in an effort to join the interests of the Seleucids with those of the Ptolemies, but Antiochus soon grew tired of his Ptolemaic wife and abandoned her and his son by her, in order to return to his first wife, Laodice I , and their two sons. This rejection of Berenice Syra humiliated her and dishonored her family. After months of cajoling by Ptolemy III, it so appeared that Antiochus might accede to his demands until Laodice had him poisoned. A nasty dynastic spat followed, with Laodice determined that neither Berenice Syra nor Berenice Syra's son live to threaten the royal inheritance of Laodice's two boys.

When Ptolemy learned of the death of Antiochus II, he knew that his sister and nephew, virtually alone in an alien land, were in danger. Because he was fond of his sister, and because he didn't want the murderous Seleucids to seize Berenice Syra's enormous dowry, Ptolemy III mobilized an army and rushed to his sister's defense. Although he came too late to save either Berenice Syra or her son, he did ravage the Seleucid countryside and start another war (the Third Syrian War) to avenge their fates.

Although Berenice II and Ptolemy III would make evident their affection for one another throughout their marriage, Berenice II had no assurances that Ptolemy III would return from his Syrian war. Yet, far from opposing his effort, she sent him on his way with a much publicized dedication of a lock of her hair to the goddess Aphrodite at a temple in Alexandria. This episode would later by glorified in the poetry of Callimachus and, much later, in that of the Roman Catullus. When Ptolemy returned unscathed from his war, laden with booty and religious icons which had been removed from Egypt centuries earlier (the return of which procured for him the epitaph "Euergetes," meaning "the Doer-of-Good Deeds"), he had a star in the firmament named "The Lock of Berenice."

Unlike many of their family, Ptolemy III and Berenice II seemed to have been faithful to one another. At least, theirs was not a scandal-ridden court, and they were always on the closest of terms in public. Ptolemy shared power and titles with Berenice (she, too, was hailed "Euergetes"), and the two ruled jointly as virtual co-rulers until Ptolemy III's death in 222. By all accounts, Berenice II and her husband were relatively decent monarchs who strove to reign competently. Although accountable, Berenice and her husband did not deny themselves the pleasures of life, and Berenice is known to have loved exotic perfumes. Lavish in their public displays, the two sponsored much religious building through their generally serene reign.

However near idyllic the rule of Ptolemy and Berenice might have been, it was not without its sorrows. In 237, they lost a young daughter, another Berenice, for whom they staged an opulent funeral which was long remembered. More important for the future of Egypt, their excessive spending necessitated a debasement of the coinage in 225, a sign that, for all of their good intentions, they were not the best of financial managers.

Berenice and Ptolemy produced at least five other children: Ptolemy IV, Magas, Alexander, an unnamed son, and a daughter, Arsinoe III (who would marry Ptolemy IV and share his throne)—not all of whom inherited their parents' more responsible qualities. In particular, Ptolemy IV grew up to be little better than a pampered hedonist.

For about a year after Ptolemy III's death, Berenice shared royal authority with her oldest son Ptolemy IV. As it became increasingly clear that regal authority was corrupting Ptolemy IV, Berenice began to waver in her support for his continuation as king. Unfortunately, as a faction began to develop around Ptolemy's brother, Magas, the new king reacted viciously. First, Ptolemy IV removed his potential rival by scalding him to death, and then he exterminated several other members of the ruling house, including his mother Berenice whom he murdered before the end of 221. Though responsible for Berenice II's execution, Ptolemy IV, perhaps at the prompting of his new sister-wife Arsinoe III, appointed a special priestess to oversee the establishment of an official cult in his mother's honor only a few years after her death.


Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists. Vol. 8. Translated by C.B. Gulick. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1941.

Justin. Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. Translated by J.C. Yardley. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by F.W. Walbank. Penguin, 1979.

suggested reading:

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

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

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

About this article

Berenice II of Cyrene (c. 273–221 BCE)

Updated About content Print Article