There Was More Than One Cleopatra in Ancient Egypt
Very few people have failed to hear of Cleopatra, one of the most well known women in history. Remembered as a seductive temptress, not only the lover of Julius Caesar but also the wife of Mark Antony, her suicide famously marked the annexation of Egypt into the Roman Empire. But did you know that there was more than one Cleopatra in ancient Egypt?
During the Ptolemaic dynasty, the last independent Egyptian dynasty, Cleopatra was a popular name amongst female royalty. Members of the dynasty were all descendants of Ptolemy I Soter, one of the generals of Alexander the Great from Macedon who incorporated Egypt into the Macedonian Empire in 332 BC.
Like many royal families throughout history, they were so obsessed with the idea of purity that they tended to intermarry to maintain a pure bloodline. A quick peek at their family tree shows that the Ptolemaic pharaohs often married their sisters and that they really liked the names Ptolemy, meaning “warlike,” and Cleopatra, which meant "glory of the father."
There were actually seven Cleopatras. The one you’ve heard of was Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt. An expert in using propaganda to her advantage, Cleopatra VII followed the trend and, to the horror of the Romans, when she had a son by Julius Caesar she named him Ptolemy Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion or “little Caesar.”
Cleopatra I, known as the Syrian, was the daughter of Antiochus II, King of the Seleucid Empire. Having married Ptolemy V in 193 BC, after he died in 180 BC she became the first queen to rule without a husband as co-regent for her son, innovatively named (wait for it) Ptolemy VI. Her other two children were named Cleopatra II and Ptolemy VIII.
Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners. Public domain
Even though many of them shared the same name, the clan of the Cleopatras and Ptolemys was a pretty vicious one and their dynasty was marked by continuous interfamilial struggles for power. In one gruesome example, Ptolemy VIII had his son by his older sister Cleopatra II, another Ptolemy, killed and then sent dismembered pieces of his body to Cleopatra II as a birthday gift. He also married Cleopatra III, (his niece and daughter of his wife) to prevent anybody else from having access to the throne.
The situation ended up in warfare with Cleopatra II gaining the upper hand, forcing Ptolemy VIII to escape to Cyprus and then becoming the first female and sole Ptolemaic queen to take the throne. When Ptolemy VIII returned in 126 BC, he enacted what has been called a “bloody purge” of all those who had supported his older sister in his absence.
If you’re starting to feel a little confused, you’re not alone. The reign of Cleopatra VII continued the barbarous trend, and is said to have taken part in the assassination of three of her siblings; her brother-husband Ptolemy XIII, her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, and her sister Arsinoe. Lovely.
Top image: Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse. Source: Public domain