Berenice Syra (c. 280–246 BCE)

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Berenice Syra (c. 280–246 bce)

Queen of the Seleucid Empire whose arrival at Antioch stimulated a dynastic rivalry which led to the murder of her son and, soon after, her own bravely faced execution. Pronunciation: Ber-e-NEE-kay SEER-a. Born around 280 bce; murdered in 246 bce; daughter of Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Arsinoe I of Egypt (fl. 280 bce); married Antiochus II, king of the Seleucid Empire, in 252 bce; children: one son.

Berenice Syra's parents were Ptolemy II, the king of Egypt, and Arsinoe I , a daughter of Lysimachus, the king of Thrace and Anatolia. She was named after her paternal grandmother Berenice I , whose memory was revered in Alexandria at the time of Berenice Syra's birth. Exactly when Berenice was born is unknown, but it must have been no later than 280, for in the next year Ptolemy's sister Arsinoe II Philadelphus made her way back to Egypt where she would become Ptolemy's second wife. For whatever reason, soon after the return of Arsinoe II, Ptolemy II exiled Arsinoe I to Coptos in upper Egypt. (An ancient source claims that Arsinoe I plotted against her husband, but it is more likely that the rising status of Arsinoe II at court forced Ptolemy's move.)

Although Arsinoe I went into exile, her children remained with their father and stepmother in Alexandria, where they clearly retained their standing (Berenice's full brother, Ptolemy III, for example, succeeded his father as king of Egypt). We do not know what relationship Berenice maintained with her stepmother, but there is no indication of ill will, and Ptolemy II appears to have doted on his daughter. After Berenice's marriage and move to the Seleucid capital, her father would provide her with bottled water from the Nile River, so that she would never have to drink water from any other source. Whatever else might have been behind this gesture (it has been guessed that Nile water was thought beneficial to Berenice's fertility), it displays a personal concern of a father for a daughter not always demonstrated in royal circles.

In the 270s, Berenice's father Ptolemy II launched an aggressive naval policy to gain control for Egypt of the main maritime trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. For this policy to succeed, Egypt needed to control many of the strategic ports along the Anatolian, Syrian, and Palestinian coasts also coveted by the Seleucids. The resulting rivalry led to the "First Syrian War" (274–271) in which Egypt attained most of its essential objectives. This success, however, came at about the same time that Antigonus I secured the throne of Macedonia for his dynasty. As Ptolemy II pressed forward with a policy adversely affecting the concerns of Antigonid Europe as well as those of Seleucid Asia, an alliance based upon mutual self-interest naturally formed between his adversaries. Ptolemaic fortunes began to wane somewhat in the 260s, as a number of Ptolemaic allies in southern Greece (including especially Athens) suffered defeat in the Chremonidean War (268–262) at the hands of the Macedonians. Soon after this victory, Antiochus I died (261), leaving his son, Antiochus II, as the sole ruler of the Seleucid Empire. We know little about Berenice until her marriage to Antiochus II Theos (meaning, the god). Reportedly an alcoholic and certainly something of a "ladies" man, Antiochus II nevertheless inaugurated the "Second Syrian War" (259–253), an ambitious and largely successful assault upon the Asian components of Ptolemy's maritime empire. Losing large hunks of the Anatolian coast (Antiochus won the name "Theos" for his liberation of Miletus), by 253 an aging Ptolemy II wanted a firm peace to be forged with a dynastic alliance between his house and that of the Seleucids.

Learning that men had been sent to kill her, Berenice barricaded herself at Daphina, and when it was reported to the cities of Asia that she was under siege there with her little boy, they all sent help to her.

—Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, trans. J.C. Yardley

The key to the new peace was to be the never-married Berenice, who came to be called "Syra" as a testimony to the role she would soon play in Syria. Why Berenice had never wed before this time will never be known, but most Ptolemaic princesses were married no later than their late teens (some even before reaching puberty). Berenice may not have been physically attractive (this might explain why Antiochus II quickly abandoned her), but that would not much have diminished her desirability to a prospective son-in-law of the Egyptian king, Ptolemy. Perhaps Berenice stood too high in her father's esteem for him to consider allowing her to leave his court except under the most pressing of circumstances. Speculation aside, when she traveled to Syria to marry Antiochus II (252), she was so extravagantly dowered that many referred to her as Phernephorus (the Dowerbringer). Above and beyond the territory won by Antiochus II, Ptolemy surrendered to Berenice (not legally to Antiochus, for a dowry was the property of a wife until she passed it on to legitimate children) the revenues of the part of Palestine which Egypt continued to control even after the Second Syrian War.

A provision of the treaty which brought Berenice to Antiochus II forced him to divorce his first wife Laodice I (who was also his half-sister), by whom he had already fathered two potential heirs, so as to establish Berenice as the sole legitimate queen of the Seleucid realm. This was not to Laodice's liking, both because she seems to have been fond of Antiochus and because her rejection in favor of Berenice had the effect of dispossessing her sons. Regardless, Laodice departed Antioch for Ephesus so as to make room at the Seleucid capital for Berenice.

Within a year, Berenice had produced a son by Antiochus II, in whose person was the promise of a lasting peace between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. Nevertheless, only a few months after the birth of this child, Antiochus abandoned Berenice and Antioch for Laodice and Ephesus. For the next five years, Berenice remained in Antioch, raising her son and hoping for the return of her husband. Indeed, she had every reason to anticipate this return, as her father Ptolemy II applied increasing diplomatic pressure on Antiochus II to live up to the promises which had brought Berenice to his bed. While Berenice and Egypt were too important to humiliate, Antiochus remained too fond of Laodice to return to Antioch and thus did little for years but procrastinate.

Although Ptolemy II never effected a reconciliation between Antiochus and Berenice, his death in January 246 brought the more energetic Ptolemy III, Berenice's brother, to Egypt's throne. Unwilling to tolerate a continuation of Berenice's degradation, Ptolemy III upped the ante so that by August of 246, it began to appear as if Antiochus might cave in to Egyptian demands. Refusing to accept the total rejection of her and her sons which would result if Antiochus II returned to Berenice, Laodice had Antiochus II poisoned and her older son, Seleucus, proclaimed king. In order to save the Seleucid throne for her sons, Laodice bribed the appropriate officials in Antioch and orchestrated first the arrest and imprisonment of Berenice and her young son in a suburb of Antioch, and then the kidnapping and murder of Berenice's son.

Before Berenice learned of her child's fate, however, she frantically confronted the chief magistrate of Antioch, who was in Laodice's employ. Receiving no satisfaction from that quarter, and beginning to understand that he was more a part of the problem (perhaps because she had been made aware of a substitute look-alike for her son, produced so as to assuage the suspicions of those listening to Berenice's pleas for his return), the frenzied Berenice publicly struck and killed the obstructionist official. Then she threw herself—alone, amid a sea of dynastic enemies—as a suppliant before the assembled crowd, desperately appealing for the life of her son. Most present were not aware of the child's murder but soon began to pity the woman who was so obviously distraught not for herself, but for the life of her missing son. Ironically, the wave of sympathy which began to build for Berenice not only in Antioch but also throughout the Seleucid cities of Asia would insure her own execution.

Hoping to save his sister, a newly married Ptolemy III left his bride Berenice II of Cyrene to organize an army and rush to Antioch. By the time he arrived, however, Berenice Syra too was dead. A curious postscript to her life involved a few of her female attendants and eventually her brother, who for a while maintained the fiction that Berenice lived, so as to publish letters which permitted Ptolemy III to seize the lands and resources of Berenice's dowry without having to fight for them. The murder of Berenice Syra enraged her brother Ptolemy III, who as a result began the "Third Syrian War" (246–241) in which he vindictively ravaged much Seleucid territory and carried off much booty. Among the wealth that Ptolemy brought back to Egypt were religious icons which had been removed from Egypt about 300 years earlier by the Persian king Cambyses. For the return of these relics, Ptolemy III received the name Euergetes (the Doer of good things) by grateful subjects.

Although Berenice's son never sat on the Seleucid throne nor established a lasting peace between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires, her unselfish bravery in the face of insurmountable odds made her a model which at least several women of her family would subsequently come to emulate.


Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists. Vol. 1. Translated by C. Gulick. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927.

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

Polyaenus. Stratagems of War. Vol. 2. Translated by P. Krentz and E.L. Wheeler. Chicago, IL: Ares Press, 1994.

suggested reading:

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

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

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

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Berenice Syra (c. 280–246 BCE)

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