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Move over, Lannisters: No one did incest and murder like the last pharaohs

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This week’s entry: List of pharaohs, Ptolemaic Dynasty

What it’s about: An unbroken line of Egyptian pharaohs stretches from the mists of time (the earliest kings are believed to have ruled around 3100 B.C.) until Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC. The Egyptian kingdom stood for so long that Cleopatra is closer in time to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s 24th-century setting than to the construction of the Pyramids of Giza. As a result, the list of Egyptian kings is so long that it makes for the rare Wikipedia page that we can’t cover in one entry. So this week, we focus on the tail end of that line, the Ptolemaic Dynasty, so named for Ptolemy, the Greek general who took over Egypt after Alexander The Great’s empire collapsed.

Biggest controversy: Just your garden-variety incest and murder (more on that later). In fact, Ptolemy I might be the least controversial pharaoh of the bunch, as he left his second wife for her cousin, but at least neither of them were related to him. He was a childhood friend (and possibly half-brother) to Alexander The Great and one of his most trusted generals. When Alexander’s empire broke apart after his death, Ptolemy moved swiftly to take over Egypt and defend it from Alexander’s other would-be successors. He succeeded, and his heirs ruled Egypt until it was absorbed into the Roman Empire 275 years later.


Strangest fact: All off the Ptolemic pharaohs were named Ptolemy, and in a sense, none of them were. Ptolemy became an honorary title, the way Roman emperors not descended from Octavius would still be referred to as “Caesar.” Ptolemy I’s full name was Setepenre-meryamun Ptolemy I Soter. His heir was Weserkare-meryamun Ptolemy II Philadelphos (“Philadelphos,” more of a nickname, meaning “lover of his sister,” which, honestly, makes us look at Philadelphia in a whole new light). After that, the names calm down a bit, as the third in line was Ptolemy III Euergetes I, and they mostly stick to a manageable two names after that.

Thing we were happiest to learn: There’s no shortage of good stories with the Ptolemys. Ptolemy II was actually the youngest of I’s 11 kids (his third wife, Berenice, co-ruled with her husband, so only her three children were seen as legitimate heirs, and the elder two were girls). II married Arsinoe, daughter of another of Alexander’s generals, but he divorced her (Wikipedia uses the term “repudiated”) so he could marry his older sister, also named Arsinoe. Wikipedia also lists 10 known mistresses, including an actress, a cup-bearer, a harp player, and a few flautists.


Ptolemy III seems to have been a one-woman man, co-ruling with wife (and cousin) Berenice II. Berenice had been previously married to a Macedonian prince, Demetrius The Fair, but he cheated on Berenice with her mother, so Berenice had him murdered in front of her, and then married Ptolemy III. (She also, at some point, competed in the Olympics and led troops into battle on horseback.) However, shortly after III’s death, she was murdered on the orders of her son, Ptolemy IV. Matricide wasn’t IV’s only vice; the year before he had married his older sister, Arsinoe III, the first Ptolemaic queen to have her brother’s baby. When IV died, his top two advisors had his sister-wife murdered so that they, not she, would be regent to that baby, Ptolemy V.

V took the throne at age 5, so his early rule was marked by infighting among those who would step into the power vacuum, including Hugronaphor and his successor, Ankhmakis, who led a revolt in the southern part of the kingdom, and were powerful enough to make the list of pharaohs. When Ankhmakis was defeated, V had a proclamation distributed in three languages. One surviving copy was the Rosetta Stone, which was essential in decoding and translating hieroglyphics.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: We only now just realized that the Cleopatra was just one among many Cleopatras. Ptolemy V made the radical move of marrying a non-relative, a Seleucian princess named Cleopatra. From then on, every remaining Ptolemian queen but one would be named Cleopatra—the one we think of when we hear the name was Cleopatra VII. The O.G. Cleopatra outlived her husband by four years, and ruled on her own for that time, after which her kids—Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II, who unsurprisingly married each other—took over.

Also noteworthy: The timeline gets murky here, as Wikipedia puts Ptolemy VIII before VII. VIII was Cleo II’s brother. His full story isn’t well-understood by historians, but it seems he co-ruled with his sister and brother-in-law. When VI died, his wife had their son, Ptolemy VII, put on the throne. But her brother proposed joint rule and marriage with Cleo II, and she accepted. To further consolidate his power, VIII had his new bride’s son assassinated during their wedding, and then seduced and married her daughter, Cleopatra III, while still married to Cleo II.


VIII also purged intellectuals, sparking riots and eventually a civil war. He and Cleo III escaped the capital; Cleo II put their 12-year-old son on the throne, but VIII killed him and sent him back to his wife in pieces. (The poor lad didn’t rule long enough to get a number or a Wikipedia page; he’s known as Ptolemy Memphites.) When VIII died, Cleo III took the throne, ruling alongside her son Philometer, who changed his name to Ptolemy IX.

The mother-son dynamic wasn’t a good one. Unsurprisingly, by this point, IX was married to his sister, Cleopatra IV. But his mother disapproved, so she broke up the marriage and fixed him up with his other sister, also named Cleopatra. (For reasons that aren’t clear, she wasn’t given a number and is known as Cleopatra Selene.) In 110 BC, Cleo III deposed her son, chased him out of the capital, and replaced him with his brother, Ptolemy X. IX took the throne back the following year, but two years later X and their mother were back on top (and Cleopatra Selene divorced IX and married X). As a show of thanks for Mom’s support, X had her killed in 101 BC, and co-ruled with wife Berenice III, IX’s daughter by Selene (and therefore X’s niece).


X managed to turn the populace against him, fled to Syria, paid for mercenaries by melting down Alexander The Great’s golden sarcophagus, a sacrilege that turned people even further against him. He was exiled and then killed, and attempts were made to wipe him out of all records (as happened to Hatshepsut in last week’s installment). When he died, IX took over for a third stint as pharaoh, and upon his death was succeeded by his daughter/sister-in-law, Berenice III.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Who needs links when you’ve got more incest and murder? Berenice was forced to marry Ptolemy XI, her late husband’s son, who was also her stepson, cousin (her father was X’s brother, IX), and half-brother (their mother was Cleopatra Selene, who both brothers had married in turn). The marriage only lasted 19 days, at the end of which, XI murdered his new bride. The people were outraged, and he was killed by an angry mob.


XI had no children, and left the Egyptian kingdom to Rome in his will. The Roman senate actually turned down the offer, so XI was succeeded by his closest surviving male relative, Ptolemy XII, who was either a bastard son of IX, or his child by his first wife. XII’s wife, Cleopatra V, was either his sister or his cousin. When XII sided with the Romans over his own brother (who ruled Cyprus), the Egyptians chased him out, and his daughter, Berenice IV, took over. After a few years, XII paid the Romans to invade Alexandria, where XII retook the throne and had his daughter executed. He fell ill, so his daughter, Cleopatra VII, was named co-regent. (It’s not clear whether Cleopatra VI existed; she may have been an older sister to VII, or the same person as V.)

Further down the Wormhole: Cleopatra VII is the Cleopatra, and as well as the final ruler of ancient Egypt, she was a naval commander, linguist, and medical researcher. When she took the throne, she co-ruled with her younger brother/husband Ptolemy XIII, but they had a falling out that led to civil war. Julius Caesar himself tried to broker peace, but XIII and their younger sister, Arsinoe IV, surrounded Cleo and Caesar in the palace. Reinforcements arrived, and XIII was killed in battle. Arsinoe was exiled, and Cleo married another brother, Ptolemy XIV, though she continued an affair with Caesar, which produced a son, Caesarion, a.k.a. Ptolemy XV.


When Caesar died, Cleopatra pushed Caesarion as his heir, but Octavian won out. So Cleo did what anyone would do: murdered her husband and co-ruled Egypt with her son. She allied herself with Octavian and his co-ruler Mark Antony, having an affair with the latter that resulted in three more children. Antony eventually divorced his wife (Octavian’s sister Octavia) and married Cleopatra, which led to the Final War of the Roman Republic. Octavian’s forces defeated the two, and both committed suicide, bringing the Ptolemic dynasty to an end, and placing Egypt under Roman control.

Although Cleopatra’s considered the final pharaoh, her 17-year-old son Caesarion technically succeeded her and ruled for 11 days before Octavian had him killed. Caesarion lived on in fiction, however, in comic Asterix And Son, TV series Rome, and the Doctor Who novel State Of Change, in which the Roman Empire steals the TARDIS and uses it to create advanced technology that saves the empire from collapse. Doctor Who’s theme song is iconic, but while less-well-known, the series’ incidental music has also drawn critical praise. At certain points, the series even shelled out for songs by pop groups like The Beatles and theremin enthusiasts The Beach Boys. That group began singing simple songs about surfing and cars, but peaked with 1966’s complex masterpiece Pet Sounds. The group planned to follow it up with Smile, an equally ambitious project that was a casualty of lead songwriter Brian Wilson’s worsening mental health issues. We’re off next week for Thanksgiving, but we’ll return in two weeks to examine the collapse of Smile.