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The attempt to figure out the role that women played in Ptolemaic courts uncovered a radical transition regarding the significance of women from Ptolemy I, the first Ptolemaic king, to the beginning of the reign of Ptolemy II. In the beginning of the dynasty women were viewed just like their counterparts in Macedonia and Greece. However, after Arsinoe II married Ptolemy II, a distinct change occurred. At least three factors were identified, and these are: the socio-political elements in ancient Egypt; Ptolemaic kings embracing their role as divine rulers and the impact it created on their wives; and the need for inbreeding or incestuous relationship to consolidate the power of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Therefore, women’s role were typical under the rule of Ptolemy I, and shifted radically after Arsinoe II came to power due to her cunning and the socio-political forces that she used to her advantage, creating a change that affected the women that followed her footsteps later on.
Before going any further, it is imperative to establish the socio-political background of Egypt, prior to the emergence of a new political and religious system that usurped the one that was previously established by the pharaohs. It all began with Alexander the Great’s world-changing conquest and passionate desire to spread Greek culture into all the territories comprising the known ancient world. In Paul Stanwick’s book entitled Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs, the author highlighted the fact that Alexander the Great’s subjugation of the Persian Empire and the present day Middle East was made more dramatic by the fall of Egypt into the hands of the Macedonian king. Egypt has always been a land of fable and mystic, and the one who controlled it is perceived as more than a human being, especially in the eyes of the Egyptians.1 One can argue that the unexpected death of the young Macedonian conqueror when he was still in his thirties caused the creation of an immense political vacuum, paving the way for the emergence of separate kingdoms.
The kingdoms that were established after the death of Alexander the Great were the handiwork of his generals and trusted aides. In the aftermath of the confusion after the young warrior-king’s early demise, one of his personal bodyguards, a man marked in ancient history as Ptolemy Soter I or Ptolemy I quickly seized control of Egypt.
Ptolemy I became the undisputed ruler of an ancient land defined by the people’s adoration of their god-kings and their fascination with animal worship. It does not require an archaeological expert to pinpoint the animal likeness of some important Egyptian gods, such as those made into the image of jackals, crocodiles, birds, cats, and lions. However, in the context of Ptolemy I’s desire to consolidate power in his new kingdom, there were two issues that he had to contend with in the most decisive manner. First, he had to establish himself as a god-king just like the Pharaohs who came before him. Second, he had to understand the degree of interaction between Egypt’s religious and political life.
Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II made deliberate steps to ensure that they ingratiated themselves to the Egyptian people. Ptolemy I commanded the repatriation of images from Persia and performed religious acts in the Temple of Uto. His action was appreciated by the people, because Uto is a powerful goddess and linked to the deity of Egyptian rulers.2 On the other hand, Ptolemy II issued commands to enthrone the sacred ram of Mendes, an act that satisfied the fanatical interest of the people in animal worship.3 The Ptolemaic kings also worked closely with Egyptian priests and other members of the clergy in the creation of royal images that resulted in the enhancement of their status as god-kings. It is important to establish these facts in order to understand how women in the Ptolemaic courts were able to wield a great degree of political and religious power. In a book entitled Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook, the authors remarked on the extraordinary prominence of the women of the Ptolemaic courts when compared to their Greek counterparts.4 However, it is easy to clarify this issue with a simple review of the Egyptian people’s devotion to their goddesses and to their queens.
Women as Religious Symbols and Quasi-Religious Deities
Once the Ptolemaic kings secure their function and importance within the socio-political matrix of ancient Egypt, it paved a way for their respective queens to also assume critical roles in the day-to-day affairs of the country. An overview of Egypt’s way of life leads to the conclusion that it is impossible to separate the religious realm from the political realm. People in the modern word may find it difficult to grasp this concept, but for ancient Egyptians, the gods are with them and ruling over them. In this worldview, it takes little to transition from a position of royalty to a position of a goddess. On the other hand, if the queen is married to a child of a god, and treated as a goddess herself, it does not require much to also assume the role of a priestess.
In the attempt to understand the prominent roles of women in the Ptolemaic courts, Arsinoe II stands out because of her relationships, multiple roles she played in the courts, and the honor that was bestowed on her when she was still alive, and after she passed away. Arsinoe II’s inclusion into the royal courts began when she was born as the daughter of Ptolemy I. Her status was radically altered when she became the wife of her younger brother Ptolemy II. In Gunther Holbl’s masterful work entitled A History of the Ptolemaic Empire, the author described Arsinoe II’s varied roles in the context of Egypt’s religious system. First, she was a priestess of an animal cult known as the sacred ram of Mendes.5 As a priestess she served in the temple of the aforementioned deity. It also means that she became a powerful religious figure depending on how the Egyptian people valued the idol known as the ram of Mendes.
Arsinoe II’s first major transformation was when she transitioned from a princess to a queen after she married her brother. Her second major transformation occurred after her death. Due to her role as a queen and a priestess she went through a burial and deification process.6 After the performance of the necessary rites were completed, she became a powerful divine being, a goddess among the ancient Egyptian people. In fact, right after her demise, her husband made a royal decree to make statues and royal images of the dead queen, and these objects must be treated with honor inside Egyptian homes, in the same way that they pay obeisance to their other gods.7
It was not only Arsinoe II who was elevated to level of a goddess and consequently to the collection of Egypt’s ancient gods. Berenike II, the wife of Ptolemy III earned the same distinction as well. However, the cult that was created in her honor was far less important and groundbreaking compared to that of Arsinoe II. Nevertheless, she had the honor of being treated or perceived as more than a human being while she was still alive. This was made possible when Berenike presented a lock of her hair to worship the gods, and pleaded for the safe return of her husband from a military campaign. Legend has it that after her husband’s safe voyage home, the lock of hair that she offered disappeared only to be discovered by one of Egypt’s royal astronomer, who alleged that the missing hair was transformed into a constellation.8 Not long after, she was known as a living deity sharing similar characteristics of Isis, Egypt’s most important fertility goddess.9 If the nation’s religious leaders and devotees did not find it difficult to accept a woman sharing god-like importance in Egypt’s pantheon of gods, as well as the need to honor a living deity, it does not require much to accept them also as political rulers.
Women Displaying Religious and Political Power
It is imperative to point out the significance of queens playing the role of a priestess, as in the case of Arsinoe II and Berenike II. It is important to take a closer look at this aspect of Ptolemaic royalty not only to highlight the multiple functions fulfilled by the Ptolemaic queens, but also as a way of having a more nuanced understanding of the unique socio-political framework that was governing the life of the royal court. Consider for instance the fact that a priest or priestess is someone who stands before the gods and the people. Since ancient times priests and priestesses were considered as the mediators between the supernatural beings and the lowly mortals that they were supposed to rule over. When viewed from the context of the seamless integration of Egypt’s religion and her divine kings, the role of the priestess can never be simplified as a mere servant of the temple. In the case of the queens doubling as priestess, they also functioned as administrators presiding on both the religious and business components of a temple’s daily operations, such as the collection of offerings.
The Ptolemaic queens were not only conscious of the need to appear as legitimate divine rulers just like their spouses, they were also compelled to demonstrate their husband’s right to rule on the strength of their wealth and political clout. In Elizabeth Carney’s tome entitled Arsinoe of Egypt and Macedon: A Royal Life, the author described how Ptolemaic queens utilized strategies and machinations that are often associated with theater productions, in order to create awe-inspiring events and secure the loyalty of the people.10 Just like the discussion made earlier on the attempt of the Ptolemaic kings to harmonize Greek culture with Egyptian culture in order to secure their hold on the populace, it is also important to take a closer look at the role of women in assisting their husbands to project power, because this may help explain the Ptolemaic women’s elevated status in Egypt. In contrast to the queens of Greece that played minor roles in the political affairs of the state, the Ptolemaic queens of Egypt were perceived not only as divine rulers but possessing actual political power to impact the course of the nation’s history. For example, Arsinoe II was given a throne name, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, a title that seemed out of place, but a testament to the queen’s expanded role.11This epithet serves as one of the reminders how the women were accepted as co-rulers in Egypt.
Extension to the Political and Physical Realm
One can argue that the daughters of Ptolemaic kings wield significant power in the nation’s political affairs. This assertion is supported by how Arsinoe II shaped the course of Egypt’s history with her suggestions and insinuations. In the book entitled Arsinoe II Philadelphos: A Revisionist View, the author discussed the political maneuverings that were required in order to become one of the controversial and celebrated queens of ancient Egypt. If one will consider the incestuous relationships of the king and queen, due to their previous roles as brother and sister, this scandalous affair highlighted the level of Arsinoe’s political clout, because of how she persuaded the royal court to agree to her idea to marry her younger brother.12 On the other hand, her role as co-ruler of Egypt, with her brother at her side is not a matter of debate. For example, her image was engraved in copper coins.13 Her image appeared together with her husband in silver and gold coins.14 If taxation is closely linked to the nation’s economy and the country’s political system, the fact that her image formed part of the nation’s financial system is strong evidence that she was indeed a co-regent of Egypt.
Although the visible manifestation of the queen’s political capability can be accessed through her throne and her place during special events, her true political power emanates from her relationship with the king. Burstein made the argument that Ptolemaic kings, just like other ancient rulers, were never encumbered by legal frameworks that were established to curtail their power for the sake of the people’s interest.15 Therefore, the words that they uttered had the same impact as a royal decree. As a result, the people closest to them, those who can influence them to say things or to perform certain acts wield an uncanny type of power that shaped ancient Egypt and beyond.
Burstein pointed out that no one occupied that enviable position in the same manner as the Ptolemaic queens. Burstein revealed that the evidence of a co-ruler, such as, Berenike II and Cleopatra, was made plain after studying artifacts and inscriptions discovered in ancient Greek cities. He pointed out that some of the inscriptions described how the people feared the queen’s wrath.16 Nonetheless, majority of the inscriptions uncovered described the people’s gratitude to Ptolemaic queens using their influence on behalf of the cities.17 In addition, Burstein remarked that there was evidence to suggest that Arsinoe II played the role of a diplomat when she forged a political alliance between Rome and Egypt.18 At this point, it has been made clear that Ptolemaic queens are not just accouterments that enhanced the aesthetic aspects of the royal court, because they are powerful political leaders in their own right.
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It is imperative to highlight also the role that other women played in the Ptolemaic courts. Using this lens to examine the other roles, it is interesting to point out that a radical shift occurred after Arsinoe II became queen. Before this event, women fulfilled typical roles, mirroring the type of activities and role-assignments that one can find in Macedonia and Greece. For example, in an article authored by Daniel Ogden, he described the women in Ptolemaic courts using similar terms that one can find in other historical accounts recounting events in similar circumstances.
He discussed for instance the less glamorous background of the woman who became queen after Ptolemy I became the first Ptolemaic ruler. The author said that she was a courtesan or a high-class prostitute that was an important member of Alexander the Great’s entourage.19 In an article penned by Alan Cameron, the author discussed how the royal court viewed women as sex objects, a non-surprising comment based on the worldviews of the rulers during ancient times.20 Cameron’s account when contrasted with the description of the life and achievements of Arsinoe II and Berenike II, must compel researchers to analyze the root cause of the sudden changes that occurred after the ascension of Arsinoe II to the throne as co-ruler of Egypt.
After carefully considering the factors that shaped Egypt’s socio-political realm from Arsinoe II down to Cleopatra, the wife of Ptolemy V, one has to conclude that these radical shift was due in large part to Arsinoe II’s cunning, Egypt’s unique culture and religious system, and how Arsinoe and future queens took advantage of the opportunities and challenges that came their way. When remnants of a Macedonian army attempted to create a new government in ancient Egypt, they had to adjust to the new environment. It is through this process that they became divine rulers, transforming a way of life. These unexpected events after the death of Alexander the Great also affected the role that their wives had to play in order to secure the position as new leaders in a foreign land. Aside from these external forces, it is also important to highlight the consequence of the incestuous relationships that was made acceptable because of the need to consolidate power and the need to preserve a way of life that has its origins in Macedonia and Greece.
Due to the stark difference between the role and prominence of women in Ptolemaic courts when Ptolemy I was in power and the changes that occurred after Arsinoe II married Ptolemy II, one can make the argument that there were at least three factors that significantly altered the role that women played during reign of the Ptolemaic kings. First, Ptolemaic kings were influenced by the distinct socio-political world of Egypt, especially the people’s devotion to their god-kings. Second, after the Ptolemaic kings were able to transition from being former military leaders of Macedonia and became Egypt’s new divine rulers, the status of their respective wives had to evolve as well. Third, the self-isolation that Ptolemaic royal courts created to preserve a certain way of life made it practical and necessary to condone inbreeding or incestuous marriages between brothers and sisters or uncles and nieces. The incestuous relationship did not only consolidated power between the descendants of Ptolemaic kings, it also paved the way for a purification of the family lines to make it easier for them to be counted as gods and goddesses, thereby enhancing even further the value and role that women played in Ptolemaic courts.
Cameron, Alan. “Two Mistresses of Ptolemy Philadelphus.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 31, no. 1 (1990): 287-311
Carney, Elizabeth. Arsinoe of Egypt and Macedon: A Royal Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Holbl, Gunther. The History of the Ptolemaic Empire. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Ogden, Daniel. “Bilistiche and the prominence of courtesans in the Ptolemaic tradition.” In Ptolemy II Philadelphus and His World, edited by Philippe Guillaume, 353-385. Boston: Brill, 2008.
Rowlandson, Jane, and Roger Bagnall. Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Stanwick, Paul. Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
- Paul Stanwick, Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 6.
- Jane Rowlandson and Roger Bagnall, Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 24.
- Gunther Holbl, The History of the Ptolemaic Empire (New York: Routledge, 2003), 104.
- Ibid., 105.
- Elizabeth Carney, Arsinoe of Egypt and Macedon: A Royal Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 84.
- Ibid., 85.
- Stanley Burstein, “Arsinoe II Philadelphos: A Revisionist View,” in Philip II, Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Heritage, ed. W.L. Adams and E.N. Borza (Washington DC: University Press of America, 1982), 200.
- Ibid. 203.
- Ibid. 204.
- Daniel Ogden, “Bilistiche and the prominence of courtesans in the Ptolemaic tradition,” in Ptolemy II Philadelphus and His World, ed. Philippe Guillaume (Boston: Brill, 2008), 354.
- Alan Cameron, “Two Mistresses of Ptolemy Philadelphus,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 31, no. 1 (1990): 287.