Cleopatra Berenice III (c. 115–80 BCE)

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Cleopatra Berenice III (c. 115–80 bce)

Queen of Egypt and one of the most beloved Ptolemies of the last century of that dynasty's rule in Egypt. Name variations: Berenice III. Born Berenice but took the name Cleopatra when she married. Born Berenice around 115 bce; murdered in 80 bce; daughter of Ptolemy IX Philometer Soter II Lathyros (meaning Ptolemy the Mother Loving; also known by the population of Alexandria as "Physcon," that is, the "Pot-Bellied") and Cleopatra IV or Cleopatra Selene; married her uncle Ptolemy X Alexander I, in 102 or 101 bce (died 88 bce); married her father Ptolemy IX (died 80 bce); married Ptolemy XI Alexander II, in 80 bce; children: (first marriage) one daughter.

Few royal dynasties anywhere in the world have ever achieved the level of decadence attained by Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty during the last century of its existence (c. 130–30 bce). General incompetency, however, did not prevent the emergence of a monarch worthy of the royal title. Although the most famous member of the Ptolemaic house was its last scion, Cleopatra VII , Cleopatra Berenice III overcame the prevailing faults of her line to act as a responsible queen, when every obstacle imaginable stood in her way.

Due to omissions in the extant evidence, we do not know the precise kinship relations among important members of Cleopatra Berenice III's close family. As a result, we cannot be absolutely certain about the factions that split the royal house, which presents a problem for interpreting the politics of the Ptolemaic court during the three generations prior to Egypt's absorption into the Roman Empire.

To understand Cleopatra Berenice III, one must first understand her dynastic context. Her father was Ptolemy IX Philometer Soter II Lathyros (that is, Ptolemy the "Mother Loving," "Savior" and, oddly enough, "Chickpea"). Cleopatra Berenice III's paternal grandparents were Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Physcon (the "Benefactor" and "Pot-Bellied") and Cleopatra III . Cleopatra Berenice III's mother is not known for certain, but the two most likely possibilities are her father's first and second wives, Cleopatra IV and Cleopatra Selene , respectively. If Cleopatra Berenice III's mother was Cleopatra IV, then Berenice was born before 116 bce when her father Ptolemy IX assumed the Egyptian throne. If Cleopatra Berenice III's mother was Cleopatra Selene, then she was born after 115 bce, thus after her father became the king of Egypt.

Cleopatra Berenice III's story begins either about the time of her birth or slightly earlier (depending upon which of these women was her mother). In 116 bce, Ptolemy VIII died, leaving his wife, Cleopatra III, to rule Egypt in conjunction with whichever of their two sons she preferred. Although the deceased king had hoped that his older son, Ptolemy IX, would follow in his footsteps, Cleopatra III favored the elevation of her younger son, Ptolemy X Alexander I (hereafter, Ptolemy X). Obviously the court was divided into at least two significant factions, but it is impossible to say whether these were distinguished primarily by policy disagreements, or merely by personalities.

It should by now be clear that "Ptolemy" was an established dynastic name—as would become "Cleopatra" after the elevation of Berenice Cleopatra III, for, although other Cleopatras preceded her on the throne, Berenice was the first to take the name upon her accession. It should also be noted that as far as royal was conceived and symbolized in Egypt, queens were as important as their male consorts. Both kings and queens were the objects of worship both by the Ptolemies' Greek subjects and by indigenous Egyptians. In fact, royal power was largely associated with a unification of male-female opposites come together in (supposedly) perfect harmony, following, on one plane, the model of the Osiris and Isis. The union of these two deities (who were both brother and sister and husband and wife) represented the perfect union upon which all proper order was thought to rest. In one aspect, Osiris represented all of the good that accompanies well-arranged social order, while Isis represented primal nature perfectly managed. The masculine and the feminine thus intimately wed were thought essential for the health and well being of Egypt. Although the importance of Osiris and Isis to Egypt was greater than royal legitimacy alone, and although Ptolemaic kings and queens were frequently associated with other divinities (for example, Ptolemaic queens were often styled "Aphrodite"), it is clear that the inhabitants of Egypt expected royal authority to be shared by a man and a woman.

Although Cleopatra III would have had it otherwise, Ptolemy IX (with the support of the Alexandrian population and a developing Ptolemaic tradition of primogeniture) assumed his father's kingship. Nevertheless, hoping to secure an advantage over Ptolemy IX upon his accession, Cleopatra III forced him to divorce his sister-wife, Cleopatra IV (whom he loved), and to marry another of his sisters (and another daughter of Cleopatra III), Cleopatra Selene. This demand antagonized Ptolemy IX, but perhaps was justified by the aftermath, for clearly Cleopatra IV had little love for her mother: split from her brother-husband, Cleopatra IV went to Cyprus (long a possession of the Ptolemaic house) where she raised an army, seemingly to overthrow her mother Cleopatra III. On Cyprus, Cleopatra IV met up with her younger brother, Ptolemy X, who had previously made his way to the island having had his royal ambitions temporarily frustrated by the accession of his older brother. Although no source says so, the two might have made common cause, and perhaps were married (see below for a possible child from this possible union). If so, Cleopatra IV's ambition soon took another tangent, for she abandoned an attempt to return to Egypt in favor of venturing with her army to Syria, where she offered herself and her troops to Antiochus IX Cyzicenus, himself locked in a dynastic struggle against his half-brother, Antiochus VIII Grypus, for a control of the Seleucid Empire. Thus wed, we will leave Cleopatra IV to her own entry, although perhaps it should be mentioned that Grypus was already married to her sister Cleopatra Tryphaena and that Cleopatra IV soon met her death at the hands of said sister.

Why Cleopatra Selene was more to the liking of Cleopatra III than Cleopatra IV is not said, but it is certain that Cleopatra III believed Selene more malleable in her interests than the more independently minded, Cleopatra IV. Regardless, for several years after Cleopatra IV's exile, Ptolemy IX vied with his mother for superiority in Egypt, where for a time, since neither was able to be rid of the other, their supporting factions appear to have been evenly balanced. Cleopatra III made at least two unsuccessful attempts (in 110/9 and 108 bce) to oust Ptolemy IX in favor of Ptolemy X, before finally achieving that aim in 107 bce. In addition, as their relationship deteriorated Cleopatra III for the second time broke up Ptolemy IX's marriage—this time by forcing Cleopatra Selene to abandon her husband. Cleopatra's eventual success in ousting Ptolemy IX involved turning the loyalties of Alexandria's citizenry, for after having had a number of her own eunuchs wounded, she publicly accused Ptolemy IX of plotting her murder. Hoping that an enraged mob would tear Ptolemy IX to pieces, Cleopatra was partially frustrated. Instead of losing his life, Ptolemy IX fled to Cyprus where by 105 bce he had established himself as a king in exile, and where he almost immediately began plotting his return to Egypt. For his part, Ptolemy claimed that he left Egypt not because he was the weaker party, but because he was too "pious" to fight with his mother, and as a result he assumed as an official title, "the Mother-Loving." This propaganda would eventually bear fruit in Egypt, but it did not prevent Ptolemy IX from plotting against his mother while she lived. Chief among his attempts to unseat her involved a use of Syria as a staging ground. With the dynastic rivalries of the Seleucid Empire already intertwined with those of Egypt, Ptolemy IX sought Seleucid complicity in a conquest of Egypt between 103 and 101 bce. This effort was successfully turned away by Cleopatra III and Ptolemy X, with the result that Ptolemy IX returned to rule Cyprus until after Ptolemy X's death in 88 bce.

Ptolemy X's fortunes were initially the reverse of his older brother's. Openly antagonistic to Ptolemy IX's accession in 116, Ptolemy X initially fled Egypt for Cyprus where, from 114 until 107 bce, he ruled as king. From Cyprus, Ptolemy X intrigued with his mother until she engineered his return to Egypt in 107 (after which, as noted, Ptolemy IX replaced him on Cyprus). In Egypt, Ptolemy X ruled alongside his mother until late 101 bce, when, seemingly tired of Cleopatra III's continual manipulation, he planned her murder. Knowing that matricide would be difficult to justify to an Alexandrian population that had previously expressed a preference for his older brother, Ptolemy X had paved the way for Cleopatra III's death by marrying Ptolemy IX's daughter, his niece—Cleopatra Berenice III, either in 102 or 101 bce. (The marriage occurred before October 31, 101, for it is attested on that date in a papyrus fragment.) At the time of her marriage, Cleopatra Berenice III was at most about 15 and perhaps no more than 13. Nonetheless, she had already proved herself to be popular at court and with the people of Alexandria. Cleopatra Berenice III had not fled Egypt with her father, but remained with Cleopatra III (her grandmother) and Cleopatra Selene (possibly her mother) in Alexandria after his flight.

Ptolemy X's marriage to Cleopatra Berenice III (upon which, Berenice adopted the name "Cleopatra") was considered a diplomatic triumph by Cleopatra III, whose relationship with her younger son had gradually been slipping since his return to Egypt, which is proven by at least two incidents. The first of these involved religion. Although it was tradition for the Ptolemaic king to preside as a priest over a cult honoring Alexander the Great, Cleopatra III replaced Ptolemy X with herself in this capacity in 104 bce. Then, in the next year came certain disagreements between Cleopatra III and Ptolemy X over how the war against Ptolemy IX should be waged in Syria. In addition, this marriage also had the advantage of trumping the aspirations of Ptolemy IX after his aborted invasion of Egypt, for it redirected what was left of his support in Alexandria to Ptolemy X through the person of the popular Cleopatra Berenice III. Whatever hope the old queen might have invested in this union, however, she herself was at last subjugated, for Ptolemy X, fortified by the support brought to him by his new wife, murdered his mother.

For a reason that is not explained but which probably had something to do with cutting Ptolemy IX out of the succession as much as possible, Cleopatra Berenice III was hailed in official titulature (for both Greek and Egyptian audiences) as Ptolemy X's "sister." Hence, she became "Philadelphus" ("Brother-Loving"). Perhaps also Ptolemy X thus chose to claim a closer intimacy with his new wife because he felt that her popularity could fortify his rule. Why Cleopatra Berenice III was so popular can only be gleaned from a variety of fragmented sources, but it appears to have been the case that she was somewhat modest in her personal behavior, that she was reverent of the gods (both Greek and Egyptian) while simultaneously giving the influential Jewish population of Alexandria its due, and that she did what she could to limit Egypt's foreign involvements.

On the other hand, Ptolemy X's reputation sank after the murder of his mother. Not only was that deed resented, so was the revolting nature of his behavior and his undisguised loathing of the inhabitants of Alexandria. No longer kept in check by the worthy rivalry of his mother, Ptolemy X went to seed in the decade after her death. Always prone to heaviness, Ptolemy X came to be so obese that, when sober, he could no longer even walk without his body being supported by a slave under each arm. Emphasizing his pathetically sober incapacity, moreover, was Ptolemy X's surprising agility when he was drunk—a not infrequent occurrence. While inebriated, he was credited with being especially adept at a game that involved a kind of dance from drinking couch to drinking couch—perhaps not the most useful talent for one who would be king. Yet, while Ptolemy X appeared to rot before his peoples' eyes, the reputation of his wife grew. Noted for her loyalty and piety, Cleopatra Berenice III produced at least one daughter by Ptolemy X, but none of her children (if she ever gave birth to more than one child) is known to have survived her.

However, not even Cleopatra Berenice III's popularity sufficiently masked her husband's debauchery, so that by the end of the 90s bce many began to scorn the monarch who was best known for murdering his mother. Cleopatra Berenice's success as the royal consort of Ptolemy X should not be under-appreciated. On whim, the population of Alexandria was capable of acting the role of a mob and taking the matter of political succession into its own hands. By 89 bce, the patience of Alexandria's population with Ptolemy X had been exhausted, and he was driven from Egypt. Temporarily elevated above a stupor, Ptolemy X raised a mercenary army in Syria, which he "triumphantly" led back to Alexandria. However, in order to pay his new army, Ptolemy X was reduced to plundering the revered tomb of Alexander the Great, which had been a sacred monument in Alexandria since its construction during the time of the first Ptolemy. In fact, Alexander's remains were not only worshipped by the local population, they also were the anchor of the Ptolemaic royal burial-ground, and thus, an important element in the legitimization of the entire dynasty. None of this counted much to Ptolemy X, who seized the gold coffin in which Alexander had rested for almost 200 years and had it melted down so that he could mint its gold and pay off his foreign troops. (Ultimately a new coffin would be piously recrafted from alabaster, but the memory of what happened to the original sarcophagus shamed the Alexandrians for centuries.) This impiety infuriated an Alexandrian mob that drove Ptolemy from Egypt a second time—this time, however, he was accompanied by Cleopatra Berenice III and their daughter. First, the royal family made their way to Syria. From there, they made their way to Lycia in Anatolia to prepare an invasion of Cyprus—by this date, long the possession of Ptolemy IX (Cleopatra Berenice's father and Ptolemy X's brother). Here fate intervened, for the Alexandrians raised a navy (surely with the connivance of Ptolemy IX) and won a naval battle off the coast of Cyprus against Ptolemy X, in which the latter also lost his life.

Playing upon his brother's infamy, and his own propaganda, which increasingly emphasized his piety toward his mother (even as he waged war against her), in 88 bce Ptolemy IX made his way back to Egypt as king. With him came his daughter, Cleopatra Berenice III, whom he married. This was an unprecedented incest as far as the Ptolemaic dynasty was concerned (although there were pre-Ptolemaic precedents for such marriages—during the New Kingdom both Akhenaten and Ramses the Great married daughters), for although brother-sister marriages were common from the reign of the second Ptolemy, no father-daughter union had previously occurred. Whatever else induced Ptolemy IX to take his daughter as his wife, there was an excellent political reason to break with precedent. Shortly after Ptolemy IX's return to Alexandria, there was a revolt against his authority in Upper (that is, southern) Egypt, led by the influential priests in the ancient city of Thebes. This revolt lasted three years and only succumbed as Ptolemy IX virtually razed the city of Thebes in 85 bce. It is clear that Ptolemy IX was only able to amass the resources to defeat this revolt by exploiting his daughter-wife's popularity, especially in Alexandria. In addition, Ptolemy IX—who took pains to dot the "i's" and cross the "t's" by embracing every ritual associated with royal legitimacy—needed a wife before he underwent for a second time the native Egyptian ritual at Memphis that would elevate him again to the status of a pharaoh. Who could be trusted more than his daughter during a period before Ptolemy IX's authority had been firmly reestablished?

Ptolemy IX's instincts concerning Cleopatra Berenice III proved accurate, for after the reduction of Thebes, he ruled without incident with his daughter-wife at his side, and she clearly was the primary reason for his welcome home. The rest of his reign (85–80 bce) saw Ptolemy IX striving desperately to keep his realm free from entangling foreign alliances—especially difficult with the expansion of Rome. Rome had come to dominate the Mediterranean, having extended its direct and indirect control throughout the East as well as the West. Roman greed had become infamous enough to spark widespread resentment. A champion of this resentment in the person of Mithradates, a hellenized king of Pontus (in north central Anatolia), had arisen, and in 88 bce Rome found itself fighting a major war in Greece and in Asia Minor. For its part, Rome sent its most ruthless general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to regain control of the eastern provinces and client kingships. As a result of the widespread destruction brought on by this conflict (epitomized well by Sulla's sack of the city of Athens), it was becoming increasingly clear that anyone not actively supporting Rome was its enemy. Nevertheless, Ptolemy IX generally succeeded in his neutrality while the war was being fought, although he betrayed his basic philhellenic sympathies by financially assisting in the reconstruction of Athens after Sulla's army had its way. For this help, Athens erected bronze statues honoring not only Ptolemy IX, but Cleopatra Berenice III as well, specifically noting that the latter was her husband's only "legitimate" offspring. (Obviously, she took some active role in the Egyptian philanthropy.) Another indication of Cleopatra Berenice III's prominence at the time came in the form that her and Ptolemy IX's official titulature took, for both came to be hailed as "the gods Philadelphus Philometores Soteres." Since the first of these epithets was originally Cleopatra Berenice III's, it appears that Ptolemy IX hoped to bask at home in the glow of his daughter-wife's popularity.

Although Ptolemy IX apparently had at least two other children, when he died in March of 80 bce, Cleopatra Berenice III was his only surviving offspring. For about six months, she ruled Egypt by herself, but foreign politics in conjunction with the preference of the Egyptians to have both a male and a female ruler conspired to force Cleopatra Berenice III to accept a joint-monarch. This was no criticism of Cleopatra Berenice III, but not even one so beloved (she is praised as one "dear to her people and established in their affections") to those over whom she ruled could escape the weight of tradition.

The male elevated to equality with Cleopatra Berenice III was Ptolemy XI Alexander II, whose name clearly denotes his paternity, for his father was Ptolemy X, Cleopatra Berenice III's late and unlamented husband. The new Ptolemy (hereafter, Ptolemy XI) was the only living male of the royal family in 80 bce, probably having been born about 105 bce to an unknown mother. Perhaps Ptolemy XI's mother had been Cleopatra IV who had briefly known her brother on Cyprus before she went on to Syria. Whether or not Cleopatra IV was Ptolemy XI's mother, most believe that Ptolemy XI was born before his father married Cleopatra Berenice III in 102 or 101 bce, thus making it unlikely that Cleopatra Berenice III was Ptolemy XI's mother. (Although this possibility cannot absolutely be ruled out, for he is referred to in Egyptian texts as her sr, a term that can mean either son or stepson.) Regardless, Ptolemy was not only associated with Cleopatra Berenice III because he was the only living male Ptolemy, he was so also through the agency of Sulla—at the time, the sole master of Rome.

In 103 bce, as Cleopatra III was preparing to fight with Ptolemy X against Ptolemy IX in Syria, she had deposited the young Ptolemy XI (and much treasure) in the sanctuary of Asclepius on the island of Cos (in the Aegean). She did so to minimize potential losses, not yet knowing that her war would be successful and that she would keep Egypt. There Ptolemy XI remained, for what reason we cannot be certain. Apparently, however, Ptolemy XI posed an embarrassment, not to Cleopatra III, but to Ptolemy X. This embarrassment seems not to have disappeared when Ptolemy IX returned to Egypt, but whatever the long term fate of Ptolemy XI might have been, shortly after Ptolemy IX resumed his kingship in Egypt the great anti-Roman crusade led by Mithradates broke out. In 88 bce, Mithradates plucked Ptolemy XI from Cos, and "entertained" him, until Ptolemy XI escaped to Sulla in 84 bce. Thereafter he returned with Sulla to Rome, where Ptolemy was bombarded with Roman "hospitality" until such time as he would become useful. This time came in the fall of 80 bce, when Sulla decided to return Ptolemy XI to Egypt, thus to increase Rome's leverage there. There, Ptolemy assumed his status by marrying Cleopatra Berenice III. After a joint rule of only 19 days, Ptolemy XI assassinated his newly acquired bride. This murder of a beloved monarch—certainly the most responsible to have been associated with the Ptolemaic throne in over a generation—incensed the Alexandrian people, who immediately avenged Cleopatra Berenice III by killing Ptolemy XI, who had attempted to hide in a public gymnasium.

Thus did Cleopatra Berenice III die, and, along with her, the last vestige of Ptolemaic independence. After her death and that of Ptolemy XI, the only existing scions of the royal house were two illegitimate sons of Ptolemy IX by common concubines. Although the Ptolemaic dynasty would continue for another 50 years through one of these—Ptolemy XII (the self-styled "New Dionysus, Father Loving, Sister Loving, Flute Player")—his claim to the Ptolemaic throne could only be enforced through the intervention of Rome, an intervention that cost both Ptolemy XII and Egypt dearly: Ptolemy XII by rendering huge bribes to the likes of Crassus, Pompey and Caesar, and Egypt by being forced to accept a Roman financial "advisor" through whom the wealth of the land was increasingly funneled to Rome.


Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History, esp. Book 39. Translated by J.C. Yardley. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

suggested reading:

Bevan. Edwyn R. The House of Ptolemy. Chicago, IL: Ares Press, 1995.

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

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Women in Hellenistic Egypt. NY: Schocken Books, 1984.

Whitehorne, John. Cleopatras. Routledge, NY, 1994.

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

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Cleopatra Berenice III (c. 115–80 BCE)

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