Cleopatra III (c. 155–101 BCE)

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Cleopatra III (c. 155–101 bce)

Queen of Egypt. Name variations: Cleopatra III Euergetis. Born around 155 bce in Egypt; died in 101 bce; daughter of Ptolemy VI Philometor and Cleopatra II (c. 183–116 bce); married her uncle-stepfather Ptolemy VIII Euergetes; children: two sons, Ptolemy IX Philometor Soter II and Ptolemy X Alexander I; three daughters, Cleopatra Selene, Cleopatra IV, and Cleopatra Tryphaena (d. after 112 bce).

Cleopatra III was the daughter of Ptolemy VI Philometor and Cleopatra II of Egypt, who were brother and sister as well as husband and wife. Cleopatra III's political life began when she was very young, for as an infant she was betrothed (but not sent) to her uncle Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (the younger sibling of her parents), then established on Cyprus. The death of her father Ptolemy VI in 145 bce brought on the reign of Cleopatra III's brother, Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator under her mother's regency. This government quickly failed, however, because the death of Ptolemy VI also sparked the return of Cleopatra III's uncle Ptolemy VIII to Egypt. In short succession, Ptolemy VIII married Cleopatra III's mother, murdered her brother, and elevated himself to the Egyptian throne on a par with Cleopatra II, his sister and new wife. At the first opportunity (probably in 142), Ptolemy VIII then married the young Cleopatra III who had been betrothed to him over a decade earlier. It is not known how willing a partner Cleopatra III was in her union with Ptolemy VIII; but, emerging as a woman of ruthless character, she would have five children with him, likely overcoming any initial qualms for the sake of power. Although polygamy had long been known among the Macedonians, Ptolemy VIII's union with Cleopatra III nevertheless raised eyebrows, for, as a result of this second marriage, he was wed to both mother and daughter simultaneously. Whereas the debauchery of Ptolemy VIII was infamous—distinctly pot-bellied, he was an exhibitionist who enjoyed wearing see-through gowns while lolling about the palace—he married Cleopatra III less for her charms than for politics, seeking to play daughter off against mother in order to check the latter's influence within Egypt's royal administration.

In the years that followed, the rivalry between Cleopatra III and her mother intensified, with both producing children with Ptolemy VIII: Cleopatra II had a son, Ptolemy Memphites; Cleopatra III had two sons, Ptolemy IX Philometor Soter II and Ptolemy X Alexander I, and three daughters, Cleopatra Selene, Cleopatra IV , and Cleopatra Tryphaena (d. after 112 bce). The number of children born to Cleopatra III clearly demonstrates that Ptolemy VIII marginalized Cleopatra II, probably in an attempt to replace her in the affections of their subjects with her daughter. Tensions among the triple monarchs exploded into civil war in 132, with Cleopatra II enjoying initial success by driving Ptolemy VIII, Cleopatra III and their children to Cyprus; but the exiles also whisked away Cleopatra II's son Ptolemy Memphites, whom Ptolemy VIII brutally murdered to send his dismembered remains back to Cleopatra II as a birthday present. Despite Cleopatra II's early success, in 127 the forces of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III drove her from Egypt to Syria. Their victory, however, was a hollow one, since Cleopatra II managed to smuggle the Egyptian treasury to Asia, and since most of Upper Egypt remained loyal to the exiled queen. For three years, both sides did everything within their power to overcome the other, but neither had the strength to do so decisively. As a result of their stalemate, and with Seleucid affairs turning against Cleopatra II's interests, a reconciliation was arranged. Cleopatra II returned to Egypt to rule again at the side of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III, who, for their part, "welcomed" Cleopatra's return for the wealth she had in hand and for the peace she brought to Upper Egypt. The three monarchs then collectively reigned for eight relatively quiet years. Of note from this period was the Edict of 118, which made a significant effort to reform Egyptian law after years of neglect and irresponsible rule.

In 116, Ptolemy VIII died, leaving the two Cleopatras to rule with Cleopatra III's older son, Ptolemy IX. Three months later, Cleopatra II also died. Thereafter, the independent personality of Cleopatra III fully emerged as she strove to arrange Ptolemaic affairs to her own liking. Seizing control of the court, she made certain her subjects knew of her status by demanding that she always be awarded first mention in official documents. Though she did not care much for the older of her two sons (perhaps because she found him difficult to manipulate), she was incapable of disassociating him from royal authority because of his popularity among the Greeks of Alexandria. Cleopatra III nevertheless fostered the interests of the younger son Ptolemy X Alexander as much as possible. For example, Cleopatra took pains for him to escape the shadow of his older brother's status, by establishing him in Cyprus (116) where he could cultivate an independent power base. As much as she inclined toward her younger son, Cleopatra III also jealously guarded her control of Ptolemy IX; when he began to rely on the support of his sister-wife, Cleopatra IV, in an attempt to liberate himself somewhat from their mother's influence, Cleopatra III quickly arranged their divorce. Cleopatra III then forced Ptolemy IX to marry another, more tractable younger sister named Cleopatra Selene (115–114). Intrigue thereafter followed intrigue as Cleopatra III and Ptolemy IX sparred for control of Egypt.

Attempts by Cleopatra III to oust Ptolemy IX in 110 and 108 in favor of the younger Ptolemy Alexander failed, but in 107 she took decisive action after Ptolemy IX sent troops to a Syrian ally in order to war upon the Jews of Palestine without Cleopatra III's approval (Jews made up a large part of her support in Alexandria, thus inclining her to look favorably on Jews elsewhere). Staging the events carefully, Cleopatra III had some of her own supporters roughed up so that they could claim that they had received their wounds defending her from an assassination attempt planned by Ptolemy IX. Fanning passions thereafter, Cleopatra III inflamed the city of Alexandria against Ptolemy IX, forcing him to flee for the relative safety of Cyprus.

Seizing the moment, Cleopatra III had Ptolemy Alexander recalled to Egypt where he was installed as her colleague, Ptolemy X. Hoping to stave off an attempted return of Ptolemy IX, Cleopatra III ordered him seized before he could establish himself. When this order failed to be carried out, Cleopatra was so displeased that she had the officer responsible executed. Though Ptolemy IX would live to return to Egypt some time after his mother's death, he came to flourish on Cyprus while she was still in power in Egypt to such an extent that Cleopatra III did everything she could (including marrying her daughter Cleopatra Selene to the Seleucid Antiochus VIII in 102) to secure Egypt against his return.

Meanwhile her relationship with her younger son Ptolemy X, who proved not to be as docile as she expected, began to deteriorate. By 103, Ptolemy X had become so disgusted with his mother's will to dominate his life that he withdrew from Alexandria to raise an army against her. Unable to hold out against two hostile sons, Cleopatra III attempted a reconciliation with the younger. Feigning a willingness to comply, he returned to the city in 101, only to murder his mother shortly after his return.

An imperious queen whose career did little to foster the health and well-being of Egypt, Cleopatra III nevertheless was not an entirely political being. She was a devoted follower of the goddess Isis and lavished funds to foster that goddess' worship. Also, realizing the potential political and economical benefits to be had from the establishment of a regular trade between India and Egypt, she sponsored voyages of exploration and trade under the maritime adventurer, Eudoxus of Cyzicus.

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

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Cleopatra III (c. 155–101 BCE)

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