Cleopatra Thea (c. 165–121 BCE)

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Cleopatra Thea (c. 165–121 bce)

Queen of Syria. Born around 165 bce; died in 121 bce; daughter of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II (c. 183–116 bce) of Egypt; probably the older sister of Cleopatra III; married Alexander Balas, pretender to the Seleucid throne (r. 150–145 bce), in 150 bce (died 145 bce); married Demetrius II Nicator, Seleucid king (r. 145–138), in 146 bce (died 125 bce); married Antiochus VII Sidetes (died 129); children: (first marriage) Antiochus VI Epiphanes; (second marriage) sons Antiochus VIII Philometor Grypus and Seleucus V, and a daughter Laodice (fl. 129 bce); (third marriage) Antiochus IX Philopator Cyzicenus (r. 96–95 bce).

The daughter of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II of Egypt (and probably the older sister of that kingdom's Cleopatra III ), Cleopatra Thea renewed the link between Ptolemaic and Seleucid interests. As a result, she made her mark in Syria, where in succession she wed three Seleucid monarchs: Alexander Balas (d. 145), Demetrius II Nicator (d. 125), and Antiochus VII Sidetes (d. 129), the latter two of whom were brothers. Cleopatra Thea's first husband, Alexander Balas, usurped the Seleucid throne from his cousin, Demetrius I. Thereafter, the friendship of Cleopatra's father Ptolemy VI—made manifest through the gift of his daughter—helped Balas maintain his power for a time. Cleopatra Thea's marriage to him in 150 bce was accompanied by great pageantry, and she soon gave birth to Balas' son, Antiochus VI Epiphanes. An irresponsible monarch, Balas abandoned himself to debauchery, with the result that he lost control of his subjects and was challenged by royal pretenders, despite support from powerful foreign allies. By 146, Ptolemy VI had so lost faith in Balas' competency that he dissolved Cleopatra Thea's marriage in order to give her to the young Demetrius II (a few years her junior), whom the Egyptian monarch hoped would prove to be a more dependable ally.

A Seleucid dynastic war followed. Campaigning in Asia on behalf of his new son-in-law, Ptolemy VI died in 145 as a result of wounds he sustained when he fell from a horse. However, before breathing his last, Ptolemy learned of Balas' assassination by Balas' own disaffected troops. Unfortunately for the Seleucid kingdom, these two deaths did not secure a peace, for Balas' faction, led by Diodotus Tryphon, continued to agitate against Demetrius II in the interests of Cleopatra Thea's very young son, Antiochus VI, by her first marriage. For a time, Cleopatra Thea's second husband Demetrius held the upper hand against the forces of her son, but this he lost when he failed to live up to the expectations of the citizens of Antioch (the Seleucid kingdom's capital city). As a result, Diodotus established Antiochus VI in Antioch, where the youth "reigned" until 141 when Diodotus had him murdered so as to claim the throne for himself.

Before Demetrius fled Antioch in 144, he fathered two sons (Antiochus VIII Philometor Grypus and Seleucus V) and a daughter (Laodice ) with Cleopatra Thea. After fleeing the city, Cleopatra Thea's husband hoped to recoup his losses through a successful campaign against the Parthians who had established themselves in a kingdom to the east of the Seleucid realm. In this venture Demetrius was no more successful than he had been elsewhere, however, for he was captured and imprisoned by the Parthians in 140, and he would remain in captivity until he was released (to wreak havoc back at home) in 131.

Hating Diodotus for the actions he had taken to unseat both Demetrius II and Antiochus VI, Cleopatra Thea acted decisively against his reign in 138. In that year, holed up in Seleuciain-Pieria against Diodotus, and fearing that Demetrius II would never survive imprisonment, Cleopatra Thea proposed matrimony to Demetrius II's younger brother Antiochus VII, who until this time had lived privately and in relative safety in the Pamphylian city of Side. Accepting Cleopatra Thea's offer, Antiochus VII successfully rallied various anti-Diodotan interests. Within the year, he married Cleopatra Thea, defeated Diodotus in battle (Diodotus then committed suicide), and established himself on the Seleucid throne. Antiochus VII began as a vigorous monarch who restored order throughout much of his realm, even earning the respect of his Jewish subjects (frequently at odds with their Seleucid masters) because of his regard for their religion.

Antiochus VII and Cleopatra had a son, Antiochus IX Philopator Cyzicenus, and the couple seemed content with their relationship until fortune intervened. Having secured the western portion of his Seleucid domains, in 131 Antiochus VII was ready to flex his muscle in the unsettled east, which had received little Seleucid attention since Demetrius II's military debacle and imprisonment in 140. That failure had eroded Antioch's control over its eastern lands, but even more disturbing to Antiochus in 131 was the news that he received from the Parthian court. Far from abusing their captive, the Parthians treated Demetrius II with extreme favor, so much so that the Parthian king, Phraates, had arranged for Demetrius to marry a Parthian princess. This marriage infuriated Cleopatra Thea, less for reasons of the heart than because she understood its political implications for herself and her children. Phraates acted as he did in order to create an ally against an expected attack from the west, for if any assault was unleashed upon his realm from that quarter Phraates could free Demetrius II and support his claim (and that of anticipated half-Parthian children) to the Seleucid throne. As such, he could incite a civil war, which at a bare minimum could be expected to undercut effective Seleucid action in the east.

Antiochus undoubtedly suspected the purpose for which his brother was being kept, but, feeling strong enough by 131 to act decisively, he demanded Demetrius' release: nominally out of "brotherly love," but in fact in the hopes of quickly laying hands on Demetrius so that he could be put under wraps. Phraates complied with Antiochus' demand, but in the end it did not matter, because Antiochus VII was killed attacking Parthia in 129. With Antiochus on this inauspicious invasion went two of Cleopatra Thea's children by Demetrius II, Seleucus V and Laodice. Both were captured after Antiochus' death: Seleucus soon to be returned to Syria, while Laodice remained in Parthia to marry Phraates II, thus transfusing some Seleucid blood into the Parthian royal house.

Then began a struggle between Cleopatra Thea and Demetrius II for control of the Seleucid throne. Alienated from her second husband, and fearing that Demetrius would attempt to secure the future succession of the kingdom through the line of his Parthian wife, Cleopatra Thea entered the political fray on behalf on her children. She sent two sons (Grypus and Antiochus IX) away for safekeeping (to Athens and Cyzicus respectively), and then went about soliciting the support needed to repel Demetrius. With both Seleucid factions seeking allies, it was inevitable that support was sought from Egypt, where Cleopatra II (Cleopatra Thea's mother) was engaged in a war with her brother-husband Ptolemy VIII over royal authority. When Cleopatra II was temporarily driven from Egypt to Syria by Ptolemy VIII, she sought Syrian support from Demetrius, not her daughter. When Demetrius agreed to an alliance with Cleopatra II, Cleopatra Thea and those of her children still in Syria fled to Ptolemais, on the coast beyond Demetrius' control. Ptolemy VIII then jumped into the Seleucid fray to back one Alexander Zabinas, a purported son of Alexander Balas, who, in part as a result of his Egyptian backing, drove Demetrius from Antioch (127). Seeking some success, Demetrius then moved against Cleopatra Thea in Ptolemais, but he failed to breach that city's defenses. Thereafter, Demetrius took up residence in Tyre where he was murdered by the local governor at Cleopatra Thea's command. Cleopatra Thea's son Seleucus V, learning of his mother's complicity in his father's death, denounced Cleopatra Thea in a fury and assumed the throne on his own authority (126). This reign, however, was extremely short-lived, for Cleopatra Thea took the life of her alienated son with her own hand.

With Seleucus V exterminated, Cleopatra Thea assumed royal authority, fully exercising the prerogatives of rule. Still faced with the royal claims of Alexander Zabinas, and thus needing a masculine associate upon whom she could rely, in 125 she raised another son, Antiochus VIII Grypus, to the position of co-monarch, and then quickly formed an Egyptian association of her own by marrying him to Cleopatra Tryphaena (Thea's niece). In 123, Cleopatra Thea's boldness appeared to pay off, for Antiochus VIII defeated and executed Alexander Zabinas. However, this military victory created a tension between an overbearing mother and her ambitious son, who increasingly sought to be free of her control. By 121, Antiochus VIII had completely tired of Cleopatra Thea's presence and had her poisoned. Antiochus justified his matricide by claiming that he had merely turned the tables on Thea, that is, that he had merely forced her to drink a suspicious cup of wine that she had intended for him.

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

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Cleopatra Thea (c. 165–121 BCE)

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