Berenice IV (fl. 79–55 BCE)

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Berenice IV (fl. 79–55 bce)

Egyptian queen who was murdered by her father Ptolemy XII Auletes. Pronunciation: Ber-e-NEE-kay. Born after 79 bce; died in 55 bce; reigned between 58 and 55; eldest child of Ptolemy XII Theos (or Auletes) and Cleopatra V Tryphaeana; older sister of the famous Cleopatra VII; briefly married to a man nicknamed Cybiosactes (fishmonger) by the Alexandrians; briefly married to Archelaus; no children.

Berenice IV's father was Ptolemy XII Theos Philopater Philadelphus Neos Dionysus (meaning the Father-loving, Sister-loving God, the new Dionysus), although he was known around Alexandria as Nothos (the Bastard) and even more commonly as Auletes (the Flute-player). Her mother was Cleopatra V Tryphaeana (meaning, the extremely sumptuous). Ptolemy and Cleopatra were apparently full siblings, but incestuous unions had long been common at the Ptolemaic court by the time of their marriage in 80 bce. Although the year of Berenice's birth is unknown, it may have been as late as 75, for Ptolemy XII (hereafter, Auletes) was only 15 in 80, while Cleopatra V seems to have been even younger. Even by Ptolemaic standards, Auletes and Cleopatra were young at the time of their union, but their marriage was mandated by a crisis which significantly threatened the continuation of the Ptolemaic dynasty and Egypt's very independence.

Egypt at this time was very vulnerable to a takeover by the Roman Republic which, for the past 75 years, had been swallowing up autonomous states throughout the eastern Mediterranean and turning them into provinces from which a lucrative tax income had been harvested. The first Hellenistic kingdom to fall directly under Roman rule had been Macedonia (in 148), but several other states both great and small had since succumbed. Ironically, what had kept Egypt free of direct Roman rule as late as 80 was the general willingness of the later Ptolemies to be recognized as clients of the Roman Republic, thus surrendering at least some autonomy in the arena of foreign affairs in return for a minimum of Roman interference in Egypt's domestic affairs.

In addition to the Roman threat, Egypt had recently faced a debilitating intra-dynastic feud and the libertine lifestyle of Auletes' father, Ptolemy IX. Deposed in 107 in favor of his younger brother, Ptolemy X, Ptolemy IX returned to power in 87 and ruled until his death in 80. Since he fathered no legitimate heir by either of his two official sister-wives, when Ptolemy IX died his daughter Cleopatra Berenice III —a popular figure whose association with the reigns of both Ptolemy IX and Ptolemy X had helped to mollify otherwise indifferent subjects to their rule—occupied the throne. Though Cleopatra Berenice III was among the most popular of the later Ptolemies, tradition mandated that a male consort from her family should share her royal authority. Thus, she married Ptolemy XI, a son of her first husband, who was the last living, legitimate, male of the Ptolemaic royal house. Seventeen days into his marriage with Cleopatra Berenice, Ptolemy XI had her murdered. This carnage enraged the citizens of Alexandria, who as one rose up in rebellion. When the dust settled shortly thereafter, Ptolemy XI had been lynched.

When Berenice IV had been enthroned, [the Alexandrians] sent to Syria for a husband worthy of her. There arrived in Egypt a certain Cybiosactes (a purported member of the Seleucid family) whom the queen had strangled within a few days because she could not bear his uncouth vulgarity.

—Strabo, The Geography, 17, 796

The double murders of Cleopatra Berenice III and Ptolemy XI led to a dynastic crisis, necessitating the accession of the young Auletes, who was a manifestly illegitimate son of Ptolemy IX by an unnamed concubine. (Hence, the Alexandrians nicknamed him "Nothos.") Seeking legitimacy in ostentatious titles and as many connections with his royal predecessors as possible, Auletes wed his sister Cleopatra V, another illegitimate offspring of Ptolemy IX, probably by the same mother as Auletes. Although the citizens of Alexandria acknowledged Auletes as Egypt's monarch out of necessity, few liked him and his hold on the throne was always tenuous. Contributing to Auletes' unpopularity was his ancestry, his notoriously spendthrift and hedonistic lifestyle, and his identity as a devoted musician in an age when musicians ranked with thieves and prostitutes insofar as social status was concerned. Auletes' preferred instrument was a flute-like reed which he insisted on playing in public, thus demeaning in the eyes of his subjects the office for which his already dubious ancestry had barely made him eligible.

By the mid-60s, Auletes' antics had begun to wear thin in Alexandria, at a particularly inopportune time. The Roman Pompey spent the years between 66 and 62 in the East where he defeated Mithradates of Pontus for the last time, extended Rome's sphere of influence throughout Anatolia, besieged Jerusalem, and turned the once independent Seleucid Empire into the Roman province of Syria. With the threat of annexation and with his popularity at home at an all-time low, Auletes realized that his continuation as Egypt's king would mandate Rome's official recognition of his royal status, a recognition which had never been officially granted. In 59, Auletes finally accomplished his desire, but only after a huge bribe had been paid to Julius Caesar (then a Roman consul) to sponsor the necessary legislation. So angered were some of Caesar's political rivals when news of this deal began to circulate that in the next year Cato (one of the most tenacious of the anti-Caesarians), seeking to penalize Auletes for enriching Caesar, saw a bill passed which annexed the one-time Ptolemaic possession of Cyprus to the Roman province of Cilicia.

This latter action was a serious blow to Auletes in Egypt, for, returning home with Rome's recognition in hand, Auletes was forced to collect the money owed to Caesar by force from his subjects. In 58, the Alexandrians violently opposed Auletes' tactics and expelled him from Egypt when he would not, as a condition of any revenue collection, demand that Rome either return Cyprus or lose Egypt's "friendship." Auletes secretly fled to Rome, where, in order to finance an extravagant lifestyle and raise enough cash for the additional bribes it would take to get him restored, he borrowed huge amounts of money from a banker-partisan of Pompey's named Rabirius Postumus.

Meanwhile in Egypt, Aulete's wife Cleopatra was probably dead and Berenice IV assumed the throne she would hold until her own demise three years later. When Berenice learned of her father's whereabouts and his intention to reclaim the throne, she inaugurated a power struggle by sending an embassy to Rome to present her grievances and initiate a defense of her royal accession. When this delegation arrived, Auletes provoked a scandal by assassinating some of its members and bribing others. After news of this activity reached the Roman Senate, a cry arose for a formal investigation until Auletes, picking his targets carefully, managed to derail the effort by bribing important members of that house. But when rumors of bribe-taking Senators circulated, popular outrage followed, especially after a statue of Jupiter was struck by lightening, which many interpreted as a sign that the gods did not look favorably upon such corruption. Frustrated that his bribery was producing no tangible results, in 57 Auletes left Rome for Ephesus where he took sanctuary in that city's famous temple of Artemis while attempting to make contact with Gabinius (the Roman governor of Syria and another partisan of Pompey's) so as to financially induce that commander, far from the eyes of Roman peers, into action.

In Egypt, the Alexandrian court did everything it could to fortify Berenice's position, including engaging in a frantic search to find her a husband whose ties could make it much more difficult for Auletes to realize his restoration. The initial choice as Berenice's spouse was a less-than-promising Seleucid cousin of Auletes' who had once unsuccessfully made his way to Rome (in 75) to put forward a weak claim to Egypt's throne. When he died before marriage arrangements could be made, another Seleucid (Philip, the son of the king whom the Romans had deposed so as to transform Syria into a province) was pursued, but Gabinius, not anxious to see Berenice's cause strengthened while Auletes still had so much money to spend, forbade the match as against Rome's interests.

In 56, with Gabinius poised to intervene on Auletes' behalf, a husband of Seleucid ancestry was finally procured for Berenice. This man, who is known today only by the nickname Cybiosactes (the Fish-monger) given to him by the Alexandrians, was apparently so unspeakably vulgar that after only a few days of marriage Berenice had him strangled. Expecting Gabinius to lead an invasion, Berenice's backers quickly arranged a second marriage for their queen. This man, named Archelaus, claimed to be the son of Mithradates of Pontus who had been Rome's greatest antagonist in the East. However, in reality, this Archelaus bore the name of his father, the elder Archelaus, who had been one of Mithradates' generals. Although Archelaus senior had in his day made his peace with Rome, his son leapt at the chance to seek Egyptian power through Berenice. In a breathtaking bit of double dealing, as Gabinius accepted Auletes' coin so as to invade Egypt, he also accepted Archelaus' bribe to allow the latter to make his way to Berenice's side. Undoubtedly, Gabinius did so knowing full well that the powerful army at his own disposal was more than a match for any possible Egyptian resistance.

By this time, Auletes' flagrant efforts had won over not only Gabinius, but also Pompey, to whom the exiled king once more appealed. Traveling to Rome where Pompey was able to cow the Senate into submission, Auletes was once again hailed as Egypt's legitimate king in Rome's eyes, while most of Berenice's embassy (still in the city) were ruthlessly eliminated at the demand of the vindictive Auletes. To enforce Rome's decision, in 55 Gabinius invaded Egypt where he easily overcame local opposition. Archelaus was either killed defending the fortress at Pelusium or murdered at Auletes' command. As soon as Auletes returned to Egypt, he had his daughter Berenice murdered. So too did Auletes, now deeply in debt, see to the execution of Berenice's supporters, especially the wealthy ones, whose property he immediately made his own. Back on the Egyptian throne, Auletes was nevertheless little more than a Roman puppet during the last four years of his life. Firmly established at his side as his "finance minister" was Rabirius Postumus, the Roman banker to whom Auletes' owed great sums. Thus, the riches of Egypt were pumped directly through Roman banks into the coffers of Rome's most powerful politicians.


Dio Cassius. Roman History. Vol. 3. Translated by E. Cary. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914.

Strabo. The Geography. Vol. 8. Translated by H.L. Jones. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932.

suggested reading:

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

Macurdy, Grace. Hellenistic Queens. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1932.

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

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Berenice IV (fl. 79–55 BCE)

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