Sister-Queens in the High Hellenistic Period: Kleopatra Thea and Kleopatra III (Routledge Studies in Ancient History)

Review by Sarah Griffiths

There are so very few books on female Ptolemaic rulers (with the exception of Cleopatra VII) that I was excited to see a new volume dedicated to two of the lesser-known and yet immensely important Cleopatras – ‘characters of such profound interest that Cleopatra VII fades into the background in comparison’ according to the authors.

Cleopatra Thea and Cleopatra III (spelt with a ‘K’ in the book), daughters of Ptolemy VI and his sister-wife Cleopatra II, were both caught up in the political manoeuvrings of the Egyptian and Syrian royal houses. Cleopatra Thea was first offered as consort to her uncle Ptolemy VIII (‘Potbelly’), who refused her. Instead, she became consort to three successive Syrian kings, ruled in her own right, was forced to kill one of her sons, and was poisoned by another son. Her younger sister Cleopatra III was destined to marry one of their two brothers and rule Egypt, but both were killed, probably by their uncle Potbelly. Some sources claim Potbelly raped her (although the authors disagree), but following the birth of a son, she became his second queen alongside her mother Cleopatra II. Fierce rivalry ensued: Cleopatra II incited the Alexandrian mob to drive her daughter and brother-husband out of Egypt, while Potbelly retaliated by having her son murdered, chopped up, and sent back in a box to his mother. Reinstated, Cleopatra III ruled Egypt after the death of Potbelly, driving out her elder son, only to be murdered by her younger son.

Were the sister-queens just passive pawns in Ptolemaic history? Not according to the authors, who argue that the two Cleopatras were strong-willed capable women who attained positions of supreme power by their own agency, and helped to shape the future of the Seleucid (Syrian) and Ptolemaic dynasties.

This is a highly readable work, written with a wide audience in mind, although the price of the hardback edition may put some people off (the e-book version is more affordable). I particularly enjoyed the occasional humorous asides (including references to The Simpsons and Game of Thrones), as well as references to the wonderful BBC TV series The Cleopatras. With its engaging writing style, Sister-Queens will appeal to scholars and to readers with no previous experience of this fascinating dynasty.

Find out more about the Cleopatras in a series of articles by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones in future issues.

Sister-Queens in the High Hellenistic Period: Kleopatra Thea and Kleopatra III (Routledge Studies in Ancient History)
by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and Alex McAuley
Routledge, 2023
ISBN 978-1-138-63509-8
Hardback £130; e-book £35