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Cleopatra testing poisons on condemned prisoners.

Finding the Lost Mother of Cleopatra VII - Cleopatra V Tryphaena of Egypt


There is no inscription or papyrus to confirm who the mother of Cleopatra VII was, but the information that exists about her and the world of the Ptolemaic period suggest that it was Queen Cleopatra V Tryphaena. Otherwise, the girl who grew up a half orphan, wouldn't have had a chance to create such an incredible life.

Cleopatra V Tryphaena vanished around the same time as when the future last queen of Egypt was born. She continues to be one of the most mysterious queens of the Ptolemaic Period. She may have lived in Alexandria. The oldest known papyri mentioning her comes from 79 BC. That was the year when she married Ptolemy XII, king of Egypt.

In some books, she appears as Cleopatra V, and in others she is Cleopatra VI. The difficulty connected with the number of the queen comes from the popularity of this name in the Ptolemaic Period. In this article Cleopatra Tryphaena is called Cleopatra V.

Mother of the Last Queen of Egypt

It is also unknown how long Cleopatra V lived, however it is certain that she lived in the palace of the king, in Alexandria for 10 years. She married Ptolemy a few months after he became the ruler of Egypt. He was 35 years old and wasn't the best candidate to become king. His predecessor, Ptolemy XI was removed from the throne and lynched by the Egyptian people, who punished him for murdering a very popular and beloved queen – his co-regent and stepmother Berenice III. After his death, there was only one available male descendent of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Ptolemy XII smashing his enemies with a royal mace. Relief from the first pylon in the temple at Edf.u (Public Domain)

Ptolemy XII smashing his enemies with a royal mace. Relief from the first pylon in the temple at Edf.u (Public Domain)

The mother of Ptolemy XII was an unknown Greek woman, one of many who lived in the harem. The future Ptolemy XII lived part of his life in exile in Sinope, Pontus. During the reign of his predecessor, he had to live at the court of Mithridates VI. When he returned to Alexandria in 80 BC, the people of Egypt saw a new hope in him. In those times, Egypt was already a shadow of the old and powerful country it used to be. A debt owed to the Roman Empire, many inner struggles, and the danger of becoming a province of Rome, were just a few of the problems facing Egypt at the time. This was the atmosphere when the new king married his cousin Cleopatra Tryphaena.

Rome did not challenge Ptolemy's XII's succession but they had already planned for Egypt to become a part of their empire, so they didn't treat Ptolemy as a real ruler. His personal cult name was Neos Dionysus, but he was known as Auletes – the flute player. According to Strabo:

(…) Auletes, who, apart from his general licentiousness, practiced the accompaniment of choruses with the flute, and upon this he prided himself so much that he would not hesitate to celebrate contests in the royal palace, and at these contests would come forward to vie with the opposing contestants.

Tryphaena was a daughter of either Ptolemy IX and Cleopatra Selene I or Ptolemy X Alexander and Berenice III. The answer to this confusion may be found in the name of the last queen of Egypt’s daughter– Cleopatra Selene II. It is very possible that Cleopatra VII wanted to commemorate her grandmother by naming her daughter after her. There is no other explanation for such a name for her only daughter.

Berenice III y Cleopatra Selene I. (Public Domain)

Berenice III y Cleopatra Selene I. (Public Domain)

Ptolemy and Tryphaena ruled as a divine couple  theoi Philopatrores kai Philadelphoi (father-, brother- and sister-loving gods). According to many historians, they probably had three daughters: Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, Berenice IV, and Cleopatra VII. Auletes also had three children with another unknown woman: Arsinoe, Ptolemy XIII, and Ptolemy XIV. Some researchers believe that the mother of all the Ptolemy's children was Tryphaena, but this is just a speculation. Contradicting these ideas, Strabo reported that Ptolemy XII had only three daughters: Berenice IV, Cleopatra VII, and Arsinoe IV.

The first pylon at Edfu Temple was decorated by Ptolemy XII in 57 BC with figures of himself smiting the enemy. (Public Domain)

The first pylon at Edfu Temple was decorated by Ptolemy XII in 57 BC with figures of himself smiting the enemy. (Public Domain)

According to another theory, Ptolemy divorced her and she had to stop being a part of public life in Alexandria. There is also a suggestion that her life after 69 BC is hidden in a story about co-rulers who supported Ptolemy XII. If Strabo is right, and there was no daughter called Cleopatra Tryphaena, the co-regent of the pharaoh was his wife. This means that her role in the court changed, which would have influenced the life of their family.

In 58 BC, the people of Egypt wanted Ptolemy to abdicate and he left the throne to save his life. When Auletes escaped from Egypt, his co-rulers became the official rulers of the country. Tryphaena died a few months later, in 57 BC, poisoned by Berenice IV, who didn't want to share the throne of Egypt. History doesn't fully explain what happened, but when three years later Ptolemy XII returned to Egypt and took the throne back, he sentenced Berenice to death.

The Shadow of a Queen

 When she died, Cleopatra V Tryphaena was probably buried in a mausoleum in Alexandria. It is unknown if she was buried in a tomb of the Ptolemies, or in Soma – the tomb of Alexander the Great, which became a grave for many Ptolemaic rulers.

It is significant that her daughter’s personality was very different from her father's. Is that a key to finding out who Tryphaena was? Was Cleopatra VII similar to her mother? The complicated and incomplete genealogical tree of the last Ptolemaic family is still lacking information and much of it has been forgotten over time.

Top image: Cleopatra testing poisons on condemned prisoners. Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak


Dodson, A. and Hilton, D. 2004.  The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt.

Świderkówna, A. 1978.   Siedem Kleopatr.

Joann Fletcher, 2008.  Cleopatra the GreatThe woman behind the legend.




Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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