The Cleopatras – Part 1: Cleopatra I, the Syrian

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones begins a new series exploring the lives and legacies of the Cleopatras of Egypt.


Queens are very much in fashion these days. They are receiving scholarly attention like never before, and queenship has emerged in recent years as a legitimate subject of serious academic study. Recently I published an academic book on Cleopatra Thea and Cleopatra III, sister-queens who dominated two Hellenistic royal dynasties: the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. Their intertwined lives were so extraordinary, and the times they lived through were so brutal and brilliant, that the writing experience set me thinking: might an exploration of the Cleopatras aimed at a more popular readership be of interest? I decided yes, it would, and so I have been spending my time writing The Cleopatras: Forgotten Queens of Egypt (due for publication in 2024). In this short series, I want to see if I can pique your interest in this group of exceptional Ptolemaic queens. I find them fascinating; I hope you will too. 

A statue head of a Ptolemaic queen, which has recently been identified as an image of Cleopatra I (Syra). Image: Brooklyn Museum Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund CC BY

There were seven Ptolemaic queens named Cleopatra, all of them direct blood-relatives reigning in direct succession. But there were other Cleopatras also born into the Ptolemaic family. These princesses became queens of the Ptolemies’ great rival state, the Seleucid kingdom, which lay to the east of Egypt’s border in what is now Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and parts of Jordan, Iraq, and even western Iran. The story of the Cleopatras is therefore the history of two competing yet interlocked dynasties that, between them, ruled half the Hellenistic world.

A map of the Ptolemaic world around the time of Cleopatra I, c.188 BC, showing a much-reduced Egyptian empire (compared to the beginning of the Dynasty), and the neighbouring Seleucid kingdom. Image: Peter Robinson

The first Egyptian Cleopatra

In 193 BC, an 11-year-old Seleucid princess named Cleopatra, the daughter of Antiochus the Great, was married into the Egyptian royal house. She became consort to the 17-year-old pharaoh Ptolemy V, and it is at this point that the name ‘Cleopatra’ entered the Ptolemaic tradition. Known to her husband’s court as Cleopatra Syra – ‘the Syrian’ – she was the first of the Cleopatras, and she was the one who set in motion a transdynastic vogue for the naming of successive generations of daughters of the Egyptian royal house. The name ‘Cleopatra’ was associated with several female figures from Greek mythology, but, most importantly, it was the name of Alexander the Great’s much-loved sister. This was reason enough for Cleopatra to be popularised as a dynastic Ptolemaic name: it resonated with mythical and historical kudos. The name Cleopatra was composed of two Greek words: kleos, a particularly weighty term meaning ‘glory’ and pateˉr (genitive, patros) meaning ‘father’. ‘Cleopatra’ therefore meant ‘Glory of her Father’. It was a big name to live up to – although each of the Cleopatras did just that, even if ‘glory’ sometimes turned into ‘infamy’. Incidentally, when used in an intimate familial context ‘Cleopatra’ might be rendered as ‘Daddy’s Girl’.

Early life

A statue head from the Louvre resembling Antiochus III, ruler of the Seleucid kingdom and father of Cleopatra Syra. Image: Carole Raddato, CC BY 2.0 via Wikicommons
The Rosetta Stone, a decree issued by a council of priests affirming the royal cult of the young Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation. Image: Robert B Partridge (RBP);

Cleopatra Syra – the first Cleopatra – was born in Antioch in Syria around 204 BC. She was the daughter of a formidable warrior king Antiochus III and a Pontic princess named Laodice. She had six siblings, and as a girl she shared a frantically peripatetic lifestyle that took her from garrison to garrison, following Antiochus on campaign. The Seleucid monarchy was military in character and its success was dependent on the king’s identification as war leader. Antiochus III was a born soldier. He had repeatedly attempted to subdue the armies of Egypt on the battlefield, but when he realised that a military triumph over Egypt was unlikely, Antiochus began making more friendly overtures towards his old enemy.

A tetradrachm depicting Ptolemy V. His marriage to Cleopatra Syra helped to form an alliance between the rival Egyptian and Seleucid empires. Image: ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikicommons
A drawing of Cleopatra I, with her birth name in a cartouche. Image: I monumenti dell’Egitto e della Nubia Ippolito 1800-1843, pl.XXII

On 26 March 196 BC, pharaoh Ptolemy V was crowned by the High Priest of Ptah at the ancient holy city of Memphis – he was 14 years old. The young pharaoh needed a queen, and Antiochus III moved quickly to secure the position for his daughter, Cleopatra Syra, despite her very young age. But such issues were trivial in the international game of royal politics. She was (it was hoped) fertile and would unite the warring factions of Seleucids and Ptolemies. In the spring of 193 BC, Cleopatra Syra headed for the town of Raphia near Gaza, where, escorted by her father, she met with Ptolemy V. There, the wedding was celebrated with all the glitz and glamour of Hellenistic royalty. A few days later, Cleopatra Syra, Queen of Egypt, bid farewell to her father and, with her new husband, set sail for Alexandria.

The obelisk at Kingston Lacy, originally from Philae, was erected by William John Bankes in the grounds of his home in Dorset. The cartouches of Ptolemy V can be read, but Cleopatra I’s cartouches are harder to see, being on a more eroded side of the monument. Image: RBP

Queen of Egypt

From the outset, it was important for Cleopatra to display her loyalty to her husband and the country that she now ruled as queen. She needed to Egyptianise. After all, a foreign queen may have suffered suspicion and isolation, so she strove to cultivate close relationships with the elite houses of the Alexandrian court. Cleopatra I also sought out the loyalty of a particular group of courtiers, the eunuchs, who were influential politicians, military experts, diplomats, and ambassadors; Cleopatra worked closely with them in order to uphold and strengthen her status, and further consolidated her position in Egypt by enacting the part of the supportive basilissa-consort to the pharaoh, her husband. A highly honorific title, basilissa (‘queen’, a feminine form of the Greek word basileus, ‘king’) bestowed great status, dignity, and authority on any woman who bore it. Early on in Ptolemy V’s reign, Cleopatra was attested in dedicatory inscriptions and on some temples and stelae with this honorific title and its Egyptian equivalent, ‘Lady of the Two Lands’. Some 26 Greek inscriptions and 14 Egyptian documents name the queen in conjunction with the king, and nine further dedicatory inscriptions bearing her name have been found throughout the Ptolemaic empire.

Following a rebellion in the south, Ptolemy V and Cleopatra I travelled down the Nile by boat and instituted various building projects, including a small chapel at Philae dedicated to the deified Imhotep. Image: Campbell Price

But early in her tenure as Egypt’s queen, Cleopatra and her husband faced the first great crisis of their reign: a violent rebellion in the Thebaid. Ptolemy V commanded his Greek troops to march south, and the Egyptian insurgents were defeated on 27 August 186 BC. To quell the tensions, on 9 October Ptolemy V and Cleopatra issued an amnesty decree, instructing all fugitives to return to their homes. Ptolemy commemorated the end of the rebellion on a stela that was erected at Memphis. Known as the ‘Decree of the Priests’, it depicts Ptolemy V in the standard pharaonic pose of the ‘vanquishing of the enemy’ – in this case, surely a representation of the Upper Egyptian insurgents. Cleopatra I is represented next to him, and the text of the decree grants her all the titles and honours of the previous Ptolemaic queens. More decrees issued at the Temple of Philae mention that:

The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Son of Ra, Ptolemy… and his wife, the female-ruler, the Lady of the Two Lands, Cleopatra, the two Gods-Made-Manifest, have been doing every good thing in [Egypt].

One decree went as far as specifically mentioning the kind benefactions of the queen, noting how:

the queen, Lady of the Two Lands of Egypt, Cleopatra, the sister and wife of King Ptolemy… gave presents of silver, gold, precious stones in great quantity for the other statues of the goddesses of Egypt, making sacrifices, pouring libations and the rest of the ceremonies performed in the temples of the gods and goddesses of Egypt.

A gold octadrachm coin depicting Cleopatra I wearing a stephane (diadem) and veil on the reverse of a depiction of her son, the young Ptolemy VI. Image: © Trustees of the British Museum; PHGCOM, public domain via Wikicommons

In other words, official propaganda used Cleopatra as a potent symbol for the return of good order: she was represented giving back to the gods and goddesses of Egypt all that had been destroyed or denied them during the rebellion.

In 185 BC, Ptolemy and Cleopatra boarded the ornate state barge and sailed from Memphis down the Nile towards Thebes, and on to Aswan. They wanted to give their subjects the opportunity to see them as a strong pharaoh and a devoted queen, united through their love of Egypt and its people. It was a PR exercise that would heal old wounds and unite the country again, and many subjects responded favourably.

Mother and regent

A ring engraved with a portrait of Ptolemy VI Philometer, son of Ptolemy V and Cleopatra I. Images: © Trustees of the British Museum (top); PHGCOM, public domain via Wikicommons

Cleopatra proved to be a suitably fertile queen, giving Ptolemy V three children: two sons (the future Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII) and a daughter, who was given her mother’s dynastic name. Although she was only distantly related to Ptolemy V by blood, in Greek and Demotic documents Cleopatra I began to be styled ‘the king’s sister and wife’, thereby creating the illusion that the royal marriage was an incestuous union in the time-honoured style of the Ptolemaic ancestors. Cleopatra’s acquisition of the title ‘sister and wife’ and her incorporation into the dynasty’s imagery was a momentous event in her life: with the birth of her children, she had become the undisputed matriarch of the Ptolemies. Accordingly, they declared themselves Theoi Euergetoi – ‘Beneficent Gods.’

In September 180 BC, the unthinkable happened. Ptolemy V, not yet 30 years old, was found dead by his servants. He had reigned for 24 troublesome years. With the heir to the throne, Ptolemy VI, still only a youth, Cleopatra was immediately recognised as regent. Under the careful and prudent guidance of his mother, in the third year of their co-rule (178/177 BC), Ptolemy VI was given the title Theos Philometor (‘Mother-Loving God’).

It was at this time that Cleopatra I declared that Ptolemy VI would marry his full-blood sister, Cleopatra II, and thereby reactivate the age-old tradition of brother–sister union that had slipped from practice when Ptolemy V (himself the offspring of brother–sister marriage) had ascended the throne without a sister to wed. That dynastic blip had brought Cleopatra I into Egypt, of course, and had led to her accession as the country’s regent, but it is interesting to note how keen the foreign queen was to get back to the marriage traditions that had been so instrumental in forming Ptolemaic identity. She resolved that no foreign bride would sit at the side of Ptolemy VI – not while he had a sister to fill that role more fittingly.


A stela dedicated to the Buchis bull by Ptolemy Vand Cleopatra I, showing an image of the king offering to the bull, with the cartouches of both rulers behind him. Image: Aidan Dodson

With wedding plans in mind, the future looked good when, in 177/176 BC, Cleopatra I died unexpectedly. Her sudden demise has led a number of scholars to surmise that she fell victim to some sort of court intrigue, and thus met with foul play, but this is very hard to confirm. She seems to have been popular with the masses, and as queen she endeared herself to many kinds of people, and so perhaps it is best to suppose that Cleopatra died of natural causes – after all, for a woman to have survived at all in the tempestuous court of the Ptolemies was not much short of miraculous.

The posthumous establishment of an eponymous priesthood for his deified mother followed on the orders of Ptolemy VI, and in Upper Egypt the cult ‘of Ptolemy and Cleopatra his mother’ was activated. By 164 BC, a special priestess was put in charge of the rites and rituals of the worship ‘of Cleopatra the Mother, the Manifest Goddess’, as Cleopatra I took her place in the pantheon alongside the other early Ptolemaic queens.

Cleopatra was a successful monarch. She took on the task of Egypt’s governance as her son’s regent with acumen and intelligence, and even during Ptolemy V’s lifetime she had been treated as his equal, if not his superior. With such a shining record, it is little wonder that following her death, ‘Cleopatra’ became the only female name of worth associated with the royal house of Egypt. Her legacy went further: at the time of Cleopatra I’s regency, a woman, writing to her daughter, was eager to send her congratulations on the birth of a granddaughter. She wrote:

Greetings! If you are well, it would be as I pray to the gods to see you well. I received the letter from you in which you inform me that you have given birth. I prayed to the gods daily on your behalf. Now that you have escaped from danger, I shall pass my time in the greatest joy… Do not hesitate to name the little one Cleopatra.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is Professor in Ancient History in the School of History, Archaeology, and Religion at the University of Cardiff. His recent book, Sister-Queens in the High Hellenistic Period: Kleopatra Thea and Kleopatra III, published by Routledge, is reviewed in AE 136.  In the next issue, Lloyd looks at the trials and tribulations of Cleopatra II.

Further reading:

  • E R Bevan (1927) The House of Ptolemy (London: Methuen).
  • G Hölbl (2000) A History of the Ptolemaic Empire(Abingdon: Routledge).
  • J G Manning (2009) The Last Pharaohs: Egypt under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC (New Jersey: Princeton University Press).