Monday, 18 April 2016

The Unknown Queen Cleopatra of Egypt

Many readers of the Banbury Man will know of my interest in the history of monarchs over the centuries, and I intend to start writing a series about female monarchs of various nations.  I have always found the queens regnant[1] to be more interesting than their male counterparts – how did they come to succeed in a male-dominated society?  How did they fare against more distant male claimants?  The marriage of a queen regnant is enormously important in a society where the wife is subservient to her husband – will she marry a foreigner, and subject the nation to overseas influence?  Will she marry a subject and divide the nobility?  Or, like Elizabeth I of England, will she resist both of these, and not marry at all (which then subjected the nation to a succession controversy).

I shall look at the various female rulers, and give a brief account of their life and reigns.  This will be, as ever, entirely at my caprice, and coupled with my own interests in history and genealogy. 

The first monarch I want to look at is called Cleopatra, and she was Queen of Egypt.  Everyone has heard of her, of course, but the Queen who seduced Julius C├Žsar and then Mark Anthony was Cleopatra VII.  I may well look at her later, but first, I shall take a look at Cleopatra I of Egypt.

When Alexander the Great died, his enormous conquered territories were divided up, and the two richest and largest portions went to Seleucus, who got the Persian Empire and Ptolemy, who got Egypt.  The next three centuries are a tale of internecine strife, with these families, and others descended from the Diadochi, successors of Alexander’s generals, fighting, inter-marrying, fighting, quarrelling, and eventually coming up against the rising power of Rome.  Both the Seleucids and the Ptolemies took on certain characteristics of the monarchies they inherited.  The Ptolemies, indeed, took on the ancient Egyptian custom of Pharoahs marrying their sisters, in order to keep the bloodline pure.  This was because the succession was often thought to devolve on the daughters of the Pharoah, and so it kept power in the family too.  Many women therefore had the title of Queen regnant, even when they did not exercise power themselves.

Egypt had had several female Pharoahs before, most notable Hatshepshut, who is possibly identified in the Exodus accounts, but Cleopatra I was the first woman to rule in her own right in the Ptolemaic monarchy.  This is all the more curious as she was not born Egyptian, but was the daughter of Antiochus III the Great, King of Syria[2], and his wife Laodice III[3].  The Seleucids and the Ptolemies had been at war with one another, and Antiochus III had taken some cities in Asia Minor[4] which had been part of the Ptolemaic dominions.  The Ptolemies had Rome on their side, so in 196BC, Antiochus III made peace with Egypt, and married the ten year old Cleopatra to the sixteen year old King Ptolemy V of Egypt[5].

The young Cleopatra was clearly capable and impressed her husband.  She dutifully produced three children[6] and was accorded honours as if she were the king’s sister, as well as his wife.  In 187, aged only seventeen, she was appointed Vizier, effectively Prime Minister.  When her husband died in 180, the twenty-four year old Cleopatra was proclaimed Queen and ruled also as regent for her oldest son, Ptolemy VI.  Ptolemy V had been planning to go to war against Cleopatra’s brother, Seleucus IV Philopator, and she immediately ended war plans, and ruled Egypt for another four years, dying in 176. 
Although not even thirty when she died, Cleopatra I was clearly a capable political operator.  For a foreign princess to rule her new country was no mean achievement.  She also seems to have avoided the familial strife that is so common in the Ptolemies, although it returned in the reigns of her three children.  She is known as Cleopatra I Syra, being born in Syria.




[1] That is ruling in their own right, as opposed to queens consort, who married a king.
[2] One of the most powerful of the Seleucid monarchs
[3] Like many, she has a number, but does not appear to have been a sovereign queen.
[4] Modern day Turkey
[5] He had inherited his throne at the age of five, and there had been successive civil wars and fights over the regency, which had significantly weakened Egypt.
[6] Ptolemy VI, Cleopatra II, and Ptolemy VIII, of whom more later.

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