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Hellenistic Women III: Berenice I of Egypt

To conclude our weeklong celebration of the women from Greek Antiquity, we are looking at another important queen from the Hellenistic period: Berenice I of Egypt. She was the fourth wife of the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty but also the most important one as she was the mother of his successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his sister-wife Arsinoe II. While not much is known about her life, what we do know paints an interesting picture. Was she really the half-sister of Ptolemy I? Why did her son become Pharaoh and not one of Ptolemy’s older children? What was her connection to Magas the king of Cyrene?

Large head from a limestone female statue, possibly Berenice I. (c) British Museum

Born around 345 BC, Berenice was the daughter of Antigone, daughter of a Cassander and the niece of the Antipater. Her father was a Macedonian called Lagus or Magas. Nothing is known about Berenice’s youth and she first steps into the spotlight when she marries a Macedonian noble named Philip. This first marriage results in a son, Magas, and two daughters, Antigone and Theoxena. All of her children would have important roles in the administration and diplomacy of Ptolemaic Egypt as a result of their mother’s position as queen. Magas would eventually rule as the independent king of Cyrene, Antigone would marry Pyrrhus of Epirus and Theoxena married Agathocles the tyrant of Syracuse.

It is unclear how exactly this Philip died, but  by 322 BC Berenice had become a widow. When Antipater arranged the marriage of his daughter Eurydice to Ptolemy I, Berenice travelled with her to Egypt as her lady in waiting along with her children. The proposed union between his daughter and Ptolemy, was an attempt by Antipater to prevent the diadiochi from fighting against one another after Alexander’s death. Hoping to keep order and peace in Alexander’s former empire, Antipater married several of his daughters off to the most promising of of Alexander’s generals. Ptolemy and Eurydice ended up having several children: Ptolemy Ceraunos and Meleager among them. 

It is not clear exactly when Berenice and Ptolemy I became involved or married but if they were indeed half-siblings – this is actually not certain -, it is not unreasonable to see how they would be in contact. Berenice soon became a major figure at the Ptolemaic court. Apparently, Berenice was a woman who easily made a strong impression on someone. This is evidenced from a visit from Pyrrhus of Epirus to the Ptolemaic court in 297 BC.  While he was there, he was so impressed by Berenice’s intelligence and influence that he allied himself with the Ptolemies through a marriage with Antigone, Berenice’s daughter. This action would only make sense if Berenice had a firm position in the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Around 317 BC, Ptolemy made Berenice his second wife and their daughter Arsinoe II Philadelphus was born in 316 BC. They had another daughter Philotera and a son: Ptolemy II Philadephus, who would become the successor of his father. That the two enjoyed a affectionate relationship can be seen in Theocritus’ Idyll 17.34. as well as Plutarch’s life of Pyrrhus where he says this: ‘[Berenice] had the greatest influence of Ptolemy’s wives and surpassed the others in character and intellectual power. [Plut.Pyrr. 4].

A gold tetradrachm showing Berenice and Ptolemy as the saviour gods. (c) British Museum

When Alexander’s successors started naming themselves kings, Ptolemy was no exception. Of course, Berenice’s opinion on this move is not recorded but most likely she stood behind this decision. Although there is no actual attestation about the influence of Berenice on her husband’s rule: the roles of her children in the relations with other states as well as the continuation of the Ptolemaic line offer us some insight into her status. All of her daughters were married to important allies of the kingdom: Lysimachos, Agathocles and Pyrrhus. Her son Magas would rule Cyrene for Ptolemy, while her other would become his ultimate successor as the second ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty. When this decision was made around 290-285 BC, Eurydice left Egypt for good.

Berenice died around 275 BC, she was deified by her son Ptolemy II together with her husband. They were known as the savior gods” who would secure the peace of Egypt and the fortunes of its royal house. In Alexandria, Berenice had her own temple and was merged with the goddess Aphrodite and received several offerings including a statue made of ivory and gold. As the most important of the wives of Ptolemy I, she helped build the traditions of the Ptolemaic dynasty, while serving as the arch-type of the Ptolemaic queen: a strong woman who was actively involved in the political climate of the empire she helped rule.  

Further reading:

Green, P. (1990), Alexander to Actium.

Greenwalt, W. (2019), ‘Berenice I‘, Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia.

Macurdy, G. H. (1932), Hellenistic Queens. 

Perez, M. D. M. (2018), The Queen and her children: Royal motherhood in Hellenistic Greece.

Pomeroy, S. (1984),Women in Hellenistic Egypt.

 

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