Born around 185-187 BC, the only daughter of Ptolemy V and Cleopatra I, Cleopatra II makes her first notable appearance in the sources in March 175 BC, when she married her oldest brother Ptolemy VI (who was about 11 at the time). Cleopatra II ascended the throne with Ptolemy VI as his co-ruler, and her image as Egypt’s queen was celebrated enthusiastically. In temple scenes, the new queen was depicted carrying out rituals, always standing behind her husband, but embodying between them the important ancient Egyptian concept of duality. On the great pylon at Philae, the royal couple are shown offering wine, perfume, and flowers to Isis, Horus, Hathor, Harpocrates, and Meret; another Philae scene shows Cleopatra and Ptolemy make cult offerings to Khnum, Satet, and Anuket. At the Temple of Kom Ombo, Cleopatra once more plays a supporting role to her husband (who wears the double crown) as they both stand before Khonsu, Haroeris, and Sobek.
In reality, due to the youth and inexperience of both Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra, real power lay behind the throne, with two ineffectual ‘guardians’: Eulaeus and Lenaeus. Despite a total lack of military experience, these two Greek courtiers quickly set Egypt on a collision course with king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had just ascended to the Seleucid throne. Eulaeus and Lenaeus inaugurated a new form of rulership within the royal family when, in November 170 BC, they established a triumvirate of co-rulers: Ptolemy VI, Cleopatra II, and their youngest sibling ‘Ptolemy the brother’as he was known at the time, although he was later called ‘Potbelly’ because of his enormous size. The rationale for the unorthodox and momentous move to put three siblings on the throne together remains unknown – it certainly had no pharaonic or Hellenistic precedent. It is possible that Eulaeus and Lenaeus were attempting to quell the power which Ptolemy VI (now aged 18) was beginning to accrue for himself as he grew in age and experience. Unfortunately, when Potbelly was prematurely elevated to the joint throne of his siblings, a monster was born.
The official nature of the relationship between Potbelly and his two siblings is unclear, but he does not appear to have wed his sister, and there is no evidence that Cleopatra II entered a polyandrous marriage at this date – that notion was too much even for the incestuous Ptolemies. Instead, Cleopatra II found herself in the role of mediator. In her dealings with the brothers, Cleopatra II revealed herself to be a superb manipulator. The era of the tripartite co-rule ushered in the dawn of female supremacy – an age of ‘girl power’, which was to last until the sunset of the dynasty. Cleopatra II built on her mother’s reputation for solid governance, and she established herself as a notable authority in domestic and international politics. However, at the time of the triple monarchy, not even her talents for negotiation could end the discord within her own palace.
Early in 169 BC, Eulaeus and Lenaeus, full of misplaced bravado, sent their troops north out of Egypt towards Gaza. Antiochus IV was waiting for them there with his war elephants, and at Mount Casius he successfully overwhelmed the Egyptians, inflicting on them a crushing defeat. Antiochus swiftly marched his armies south, and succeeded in rapidly capturing the Egyptian border city of Pelusium. From there, he entered Egyptian territory: the first invasion of Egyptian soil since the conquest of Alexander the Great, more than 160 years earlier.
In the chaos that followed, Ptolemy VI was captured by the Seleucid troops and taken to Memphis to meet Antiochus IV who, as the brother of Cleopatra I, was Ptolemy VI’s uncle. Ptolemy was compelled to declare Antiochus as his co-ruler, ignoring his two existing co- rulers, Cleopatra and Potbelly. Meanwhile, in Alexandria, an overdue palace revolution ousted Eulaeus and Lenaeus from power (they disappear from history without further mention), and the city prepared itself for a siege as Antiochus’ forces approached. Antiochus attempted an assault on the city on three sides, but failed, and when news reached him in the autumn of 169 BC of domestic turmoil in Syria, he quickly departed for his homeland, leaving Ptolemy VI in Memphis to continue his campaign against Potbelly, Cleopatra, and the Alexandrians. He also left a garrison stationed at Pelusium on the Egyptian side of Sinai to maintain his toehold in Egypt.
In 168 BC, Antiochus IV once again moved against Egypt and occupied the Delta with his troops, marching into Memphis without a battle. His intention was to establish a Seleucid protectorate over Egypt in the name of his nephew Ptolemy VI Philometor, and therefore immediately headed towards Alexandria with his armed forces for the second time. As a knee-jerk reaction, the Egyptians appealed to Rome for help, which was duly dispatched by the Senate in the person of the venerable Gaius Popillius Laenas. The senator met Antiochus at Eleusis, a suburb of Alexandria. There, at the beginning of July 168 BC on what is now known as the ‘Day of Eleusis’, Popillius presented the king with a senatus consultum, ordering Antiochus to cease and desist in his interference in Egyptian affairs.
In the second period of tripartite rule, which seems to have lasted until 164 BC, the restored sibling-monarchs appear to have operated with relative amity. A relief from the pronaos of the small Ptolemaic temple at Deir el-Medina shows the three royal siblings offering homage to the gods Amun-Ra, Amun, and Amunet. In the relief, Cleopatra II echoes the position of Amunet, the female aspect of Amun. Interestingly, in the Ptolemaic period Amunet became associated with childbirth, and the visual synergy between the goddess and Cleopatra might be explained by the fact that the queen proved to be fertile and provided her husband with four children: Ptolemy Eupator, Cleopatra Thea, Cleopatra III, and Ptolemy the Younger.
The harmony of the tripartite rule collapsed when, late in 164 BC, Potbelly succeeded in ousting Ptolemy VI from Alexandria. Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra fled to Cyprus, taking their children with them. Without his sister’s calming influence, Potbelly soon began to reveal his true colours, persecuting and executing his brother’s chief supporters, and many of his courtiers. By May 163 BC, the Alexandrians had had enough of Potbelly’s cruel caprices: a mob stormed the palace, overpowered Potbelly’s bodyguards, and threw the fat king out of his palace. Suddenly, Ptolemy Philometor and Cleopatra II found themselves back in Alexandria and, over the summer of 163 BC, Ptolemy and Potbelly locked heads to try to hammer out a reconciliation, all the while under the watchful gaze of Cleopatra and, more threateningly, the eyes of an irritable Rome.
During the period of Potbelly’s usurpation, both brothers had repeatedly sought intercession from the Romans, begging the Senate to pronounce on Egypt’s internal affairs. Potbelly had gone so far as to draw up a will stating that Rome would inherit Egypt should he die (as king) without an heir. The importance of Potbelly’s will lies in the fact that, for the first time in history, a Hellenistic ruler made the Roman people his beneficiary in the case of his dying without a legitimate successor. The real purpose of Potbelly’s will was to rattle his siblings. It worked. Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra agreed that their brother needed to be ousted from official power and once again they called on Rome to intercede. The Senate sent an embassy to Alexandria to divide the remaining Ptolemaic territories into two: Egypt and Cyprus were handed to Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra, while Potbelly was bundled off to Cyrenaica (in modern Libya), which he was given as his own mini-kingdom. For the next decade and more, Potbelly would continue to bombard the Roman Senate with petitions to back his claim on Cyprus, but at least he was out of Egypt – out of sight, if not exactly out of mind.
With Potbelly gone, the royal titulary changed: the king and queen were known as ‘the pharaohs Ptolemy and Cleopatra, the Mother-Loving Gods’, a designation they would retain for the next 18 years of their married life. In every known example of the royal titulary, Cleopatra II was listed by name after her brother-husband, but as his equal in governance. The couple were great builders. They undertook repairs of existing temples throughout the Nile valley, and even inaugurated new ones. They completed works at Dendera (the erection of the original birth house of Isis), at Karnak (where the huge gate of the second pylon was restored), at Armant near Thebes, on the island of Elephantine (which saw the completion and decoration of the Temple of Khnum), and at the Isis temple at Philae.
Meddling in Syria
Now firmly back in power, Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II began directing their attention back to the Seleucid kingdom and the former Ptolemaic territory of Coele-Syria, which they were keen to regain, but through diplomacy, not warfare. They offered their eldest daughter, Cleopatra Thea, to the new Seleucid king – an ambitious and enterprising upstart named Alexander Balas. Balas had overthrown the lawful king, Demetrius I, and was quick to accept this unexpected token of Egypt’s support. Ptolemy himself escorted Cleopatra Thea to Ptolemaïs-Ake in Syria, where she wed Balas and became the Seleucid queen in 150 BC. Sadly, for all his smouldering good looks and magnetic charisma, Alexander Balas proved to be a profoundly ineffectual ruler, much to the chagrin of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II. Possibly following her parents’ wishes, after three years Cleopatra Thea abandoned her dead-weight husband (and their infant son) and married, with her parents’ consent, Demetrius II, the rival claimant to the Seleucid throne.
Ptolemy VI threw himself, body and soul, into a campaign to bring down Alexander Balas, but early in the summer of 145 BC, while waging war against his former son-in-law, the king was killed after a fall from his horse. Cleopatra II shed many tears and raised the ritual cries of lamentation as she began the lengthy process of leading the public mourning period in Egypt. Ptolemy and Cleopatra had been married for 30 years and she felt the ramifications of his death acutely, yet, during the next phase of her life, she would emerge as an even more formidable politician and an increasingly accomplished sovereign.
The return of Potbelly
Ptolemy Eupator, the eldest of the two sons of Cleopatra II and Ptolemy VI, had briefly occupied the throne alongside his father as a co-ruler. He is recorded as such in an epigraphic dedication to the god Apollo on Cyprus, where he is named as ‘King Ptolemy, the god Eupator’ alongside his parents. Ptolemy VI obviously intended Eupator to be his heir, and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever anticipated that his brother Potbelly would sit on the throne after him. But with Eupator’s sudden death in 152 BC (the young prince seems to have died from natural causes, with no suspicions about the circumstances of his death ever voiced), Cleopatra acted quickly and promoted her second son as pharaoh Ptolemy VII, confirming herself as the boy’s co-ruler and instructing him in the art of government. Yet within days of hearing the news of his brother’s demise, Potbelly was hurrying back to Alexandria from Cyrene, and entered Egypt just a month after the death of Ptolemy VI.
Potbelly assumed the title of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II (to associate himself with his popular ancestor Ptolemy III Euergetes I), but the ever-inventive Alexandrian mob, with a keen eye for satire, soon twisted the Euergetes-title (‘Benefactor’) into Kakergetes (‘Malefactor’). By 14 August 145 BC, Cleopatra had married Potbelly; that date is the first surviving attestation of the joint names of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II in the historical record. There is no mention of young Ptolemy VII. Cleopatra II’s feelings towards her new husband are not recorded either. The reactivation of the brother-sister marriage with Cleopatra II was of paramount importance to Potbelly, and the occasion was celebrated in a stone relief in the East Temple of Amun-Ra-Who-Hears-Prayers at Karnak, where an unrealistic portrait of an impossibly slender Potbelly is accompanied by that of Cleopatra II. Cleopatra was probably in her mid-30s at the time of her second marriage and, although her years of fertility were drawing to an end, there was, perhaps, hope that she might bear future offspring. This fact alone might have been a draw for Potbelly. But of more importance to him was Cleopatra’s longevity as a queen, for she was a resounding symbol of successful hereditary rulership.
Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator does not resurface in the epigraphic evidence after 21 August 145 BC, just one week after Ptolemy VIII had entered Alexandria. It is highly likely that he was murdered at the hands of Potbelly, directly or indirectly. Within a year of her son’s murder, Cleopatra II was pregnant – for the first time in over a decade. As the pregnancy developed, Potbelly began to plan his coronation: his intention was to have the child born at the holy city of Memphis at the time of the religious ceremony itself. Cleopatra duly travelled to the city, in the company of her teenage daughter Cleopatra III, and based herself in the Memphite palace to prepare for her confinement. Cleopatra’s healthy baby boy was born early in 143 BC, at Memphis as planned; Potbelly was delighted and named the prince Memphites.
Even before the birth of Memphites, the family was being torn apart from the inside, for during the time of Cleopatra II’s confinement, Potbelly had turned his sexual attention to his 16-year-old niece-and-stepdaughter Cleopatra III. Unusually for a princess of her age, Cleopatra III was unmarried. It is probable that she had been ‘betrothed’ to her elder brother Eupator before his death, and then destined to wed her younger sibling Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator, until the dramatic events of 145 BC put paid to that too. As the only daughter of Ptolemy VI to remain in Egypt, Cleopatra III must have envisaged her future as one in which she would sit next to a brother on the throne. Her uncle’s marriage to her mother, and the murder of her brother, had deprived her of this dynastic right, and it looked as though Cleopatra III could have no future in Egypt.
To judge from her actions as a mature woman, the teenage Cleopatra III was already an astute manipulator of circumstance. By the time her mother was pregnant with Memphites, she had come to realise that she needed to act with resolution, and so, drawing on her status as a blood-princess, Cleopatra III allied herself to the only man of power who mattered – her uncle Potbelly. By virtue of her own dynastic pedigree, Cleopatra III turned a hopeless situation into a personal triumph when she married the king. Potbelly and Cleopatra III joined together in sexual union not out of lust, but out of political expediency and dynastic necessity. Nevertheless, the news of her daughter having fallen pregnant to her own husband must have struck Cleopatra II like a lightning bolt.
In c.140/139 BC, Cleopatra III gave Potbelly a son. Known throughout his life by the endearing nickname ‘Chickpea’, he was destined to be the future Ptolemy IX. With the boy safely delivered and healthy, Potbelly acknowledged Cleopatra III as his second wife and pronounced her his second queen. Egypt now had one king, two queens, and two potential male heirs. Potbelly was clearly enjoying himself, behaving very much like an old-school polygamous Hellenistic king, flaunting his unconventional harem of wives and offspring. But beneath the smiles and the celebrations he must have realised that his matrimonial choices were certain to bring unending trouble to his throne.
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones studied Ancient History at Cardiff University, where he is now Chair of Ancient History. His research interests include ancient Greek socio-cultural history, especially women’s history and gender issues, dress, and visual culture. You can read his article on Cleopatra I in AE 137, and his recent Routledge book Sister-Queens in the High Hellenistic Period: Kleopatra Thea and Kleopatra III was reviewed in AE 136.