Everyone knows of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile. Abd everyone seems to love Game of Thrones. History is rife with the struggles between kin for the crown. I’ve written about one or two of these dynastic struggles, the last one concerning the succession after Henry VIII. You can read about it here:
Today we will talk about Cleopatra’s family and particularly her younger sister Arsinoe. Though just a footnote in history in the shadow of her sister, it seems Arsinoe was quite the young woman, waging a serious battle for the throne of Egypt at the time of Caesar.
Cleopatra and her two sisters and two brothers were Ptolemys, to be the last of a Greek line of rulers in Egypt. Ptolemy I was one of Alexander the Great’s generals who divided up his empire after his death. Their father, Ptolemy XII, a direct descendent, reigned over a rich country independent of Rome and spent his life working to maintain Egyptian independence. Alexandria, the Ptolemaic capital city was a marvel with a light house and the greatest classical library in the ancient world. The Ptolemy’s didn’t change Egypt, they adapted to it. The old religion continued, some new gods were added, the language and hieroglyphs went on with the addition of Greek.
Basalt statue of Cleopatra in the Ptolemaic Egyptian collection of the Heritage Museum.
Now we all know that being a parent can be difficult and many times the children don’t turn out as we had hoped.
Ptolemy’s eldest daughter Berenice didn’t even wait for him to die before making her move to seize the throe. She forced her father to flee to Rome and ask for assistance in putting down the revolt and deposing his daughter. Ptolemy returned with a Roman army, reclaimed his throne and executed Berenice. And then there were four kids.
Before daddy died he designated his son as Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra as co-rulers which required the young Pharaoh to marry his older sister. Their father would pass in 51 B.C.
In 48 B.C. Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra’s brother-husband and co-ruler became tired of being side-lined by his older sister and managed to drive her out of Egypt. Cleopatra fought back and while the two rulers were occupied little sister Arsinoe set herself up as a rival.
At this time Rome was the power in the Mediterranean but was in the midst of civil war between Julius Caesar and his rival Pompey.
Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria in 48 BC pursuing Pompey, whom he had defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus. When he arrived in Alexandria, he was presented with Pompey’s head by young Ptolemy. Rather than being pleased (at least outwardly) Caesar expressed disgust and demanded the rest of Pompey’s body for a proper Roman funeral. The execution of his longtime friend and foe ended the possibility of an alliance between Caesar and Ptolemy, and instead he sided with Cleopatra’s faction. He declared that in accordance with Ptolemy XII’s will, Cleopatra and Ptolemy would rule Egypt jointly, and in a similar motion restored Cyprus, which had been annexed by Rome in 58 BC, to Egypt’s rule and gifted it to Arsinoë and her youngest brother, (eventually to be Ptolemy XIV) as compensation. Caesar had Ptolemy’s regent, the eunuch Pothinus, executed while the general Achillas escaped and began besieging Alexandria.
Still determined to depose Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIII allied himself with Arsinoe. Jointly, they organized the factions of the army loyal to them against those loyal to Cleopatra and the relatively small army that had accompanied Caesar to Egypt. The battle between the warring factions occurred in mid-December 48 BC inside Alexandria itself which suffered serious damage. Around this time, the burning of the Library of Alexandria occurred destroying priceless ancient Egyptian and Greek texts.
Arsinoe had General Achillas executed for thinking he could be ruler and put her own general, Ganymedes in charge. Her forces trapped Caesar in a section of the city, by the building of walls to close off the streets, and she now directed Ganymedes to order the drawing of water from the sea, which was poured into the canals that supplied Caesar’s cisterns, causing panic among Caesar’s troops.
Caesar countered this measure by digging wells into the porous limestone beneath the city that contained fresh water, which only partially alleviated the situation, so he then sent ships out along the coast to search for more fresh water.
Caesar realised he would soon have to break out from the city, and attacked the island of Pharos, upon which stood the great lighthouse, in order to gain control of the harbor. But Arsinoe’s forces drove him back, inflicting upon him a humiliating defeat, in which Caesar himself was forced to tear off his armor and his purple cloak, and swim to the safety of a nearby Roman ship in the bay.
However Arsinoe was not all that popular with the leading Egyptian officers, having executed their general and replaced him with Ganymedes, and under a pretext of wanting peace, negotiated with Caesar to exchange Arsinoe for Ptolemy XIII, who was subsequently released. Ptolemy continued the war, until the Romans received reinforcements and inflicted a decisive defeat upon the Egyptians. Ptolemy XIII was drowned as he tried to escape across the Nile.
And then there were three.
Why did Caesar make the swap? Because Caesar knew young Arsinoe was a more dangerous foe than her brother and Caesar desperately wanted to get his hands on her.
Captive, Arsinoe was transported to Rome, where in 46 BC she was forced to appear in Caesar’s triumph and was paraded behind a burning effigy of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which had been the scene of her victory over him.
The young teenage girl, in her chains carried herself with such regal deportment and dignity that the Roman crowds were clearly moved by her. This beautiful young royal was not the barbarian Vercingetorix, the Gaul who had been marched in chains in Caesar’s last Triumph and then strangled before the mob
Despite the custom of strangling prominent prisoners in triumphs when the festivities concluded, Caesar was pressured to spare Arsinoe and granted her sanctuary at the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Arsinoe lived in the temple for a few years, always keeping a watchful eye on her sister Cleopatra, who perceived Arsinoe as a threat to her power.
In 41 BC, at Cleopatra’s instigation, Mark Antony ordered Arsinoe’s execution on the steps of the temple. Her murder was a gross violation of the temple sanctuary and an act which scandalized Rome. The eunuch priest who had welcomed Arsinoë on her arrival at the temple as Queen was only pardoned when an ambassador from Ephesus made a petition to Cleopatra.
That left two children, Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV her baby brother. Again Caesar made both of them co-rulers and had them married. The young boy was shuffled off to the side-lines and eventually murdered when Cleo took up with Mark.
We all know what happened from there.
Cleopatra shows up in Rome (see Liz Taylor arriving!) with a son – Julius Caesar’s son allegedly. While Caesar never publicly acknowledged the boy as his, he did allow Cleopatra to name him Caesarion.
Now Roman generals were gone on campaigns for years at a time and everyone expected that they would take lovers. Even their wives. This however was different. Cleopatra was a Queen of a foreign country and the child could one day claim his Roman inheritance and show up at the Roman Senate where Caesar had been declared Dictator.
Octavian, his nephew and adopted son, was not pleased.
In any case, Caesar dies on the Ides and Cleopatra immediately sails for Alexandria with her young son.
Octavian and Mark Antony unite to defeat Brutus and Cassius and then proceed to murder all of their Senatorial supporters. They split the Roman world between them and Mark Antony (who is married to Octavian’s sister) takes up residence and more in Alexandria with Cleopatra. He father’s three children with her. That’s for another post.
Rome and Octavian, now incensed, declare war, defeat the two at Actium and march on Alexandria. Both Cleo and Mark commit suicide.
Caesarion, who had fled to India, was lured back with false promises and promptly dispatched by Octavian. “Too many Caesars are not a good thing.”
So how old was Arsinoe? Most sources indicate she was born in 63 B.C. which would make her about 15 when she defeated Julius Caesar and 22 at the time of her death.
A skeleton found by the Nazis at Ephesus in an octagon tomb and analyzed indicates she may have been as young as 12 IF the skeleton is the remains oa Asinoe.
Identification of the skeleton was based on the shape of the tomb, which was octagonal, like the second tier of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the carbon dating of the bones (between 200 – 20 BC), the gender of the skeleton, and the age of the young woman at death. It was also claimed that the tomb boasts “Egyptian motifs.”
Measurements of the skull were available from Nazi records and a face reconstructed from the measurements. DNA analysis is considered impossible as the bones have benn handled by too many hands.
Her actions in the brief war against Caesar naturally suggest that she was older than that, and her date of birth had been placed between 68 BC and 63 BC. However this in turn would have made it impossible for her to be the woman buried in the octagon, and it was speculated had the remains been hers she’d be younger, and that she may have been just a figurehead rather than an active participant in the war, or, more likely, a young person of inordinately high intellect, a quality already hinted at in her family by the multilingual and intellectual talents of her sister Cleopatra.[
Perhaps the strongest evidence that she was in fact exercising her own authority is that Caesar, after the Pharos debacle, was prepared to release Ptolemy XIII — a male, who continued the war against Caesar — just to get his hands on her.
In any case the skeleton has never been definitely proven to be the remains of Cleopatra’s sister.
I could not stay in Alexandria
the brilliant blue sea, the cloudless sky
the perfect yellow shore
all lovely; bathed in light.
Standing there day dreaming of Antony
lost was he between her limbs
High Priestess of Isis
What color were her eyes?
Blue? Perhaps Nile green
like the eyes of my lover
far away on another yellow shore.
I could not stay in Alexandria
the blue sea, the cloudless sky
I must hasten to my Isis
an intoxicated Roman lost between her limbs.