berenice ii

Berenice, Queen of Egypt by Frederick Sandys.

The Queen is depicted holding her long blond hair, which is an integral part of a myth told about her. During the absence of her husband, Ptolemy III, she is said to have dedicated her hair to Aphrodite for his safe return, cutting it off and placing it in the goddess’ temple. The hair somehow disappeared, and it was said that it was whisked away into the heavens by the goddess herself, pleased with the offering, becoming the constellation Coma Berenices (Meaning Berenice’s hair).


The Ptolemaic Dynasty, as with many Royal Houses, had a tendency to re-use names over the generations. The women of the dynasty were either named Cleopatra, Berenice, Arsinoe, or some combination of those names, often with other epithets added to them.

These are the four Queens who had the name of Arsinoe (The accompanying pictures are said to be them, but I can’t absolutely guarantee that as it can be difficult to determine who is being portrayed in Ptolemaic imagery. Arsinoe IV is represented by Kassandra Voyagis, who played her in the 1999 Cleopatra miniseries, since it was difficult to even find an image claiming to be her):

Arsinoe I: A Macedonian Greek Princess, she was married to her distant cousin, Ptolemy II. They had three children together, two sons (Ptolemy and  Lysimachus) and a daughter (Berenice). She was repudiated when her husband’s sister, also called Arsinoe, arrived in Egypt and likely convinced her brother his wife was trying to assassinate him. Ptolemy divorced her and she was sent into exile, marrying his half sister afterwards. Arsinoe I lived very comfortably as a former wife of the Pharaoh and her son, Ptolemy III, would succeed her former husband on the throne when he died.

Arsinoe II: The daughter of Ptolemy I by his second wife, Berenice I. She married King Lysimachus when she was 15, and had 3 sons with him (Ptolemy,  Lysimachus, and Philip). Trying to ensure her eldest son would inherit the throne, she had her husband’s eldest son poisoned. When her husband died she fled the country and married her half brother, Ptolemy Keraunos, in a political union to claim her former husband’s throne. The relationship soon soured, and she conspired with her sons to kill him. Ptolemy Keraunos killed the two younger ones; Ptolemy having managed to flee the country. Arsinoe herself fled to Egypt, seeking the protection of her full brother, the Pharaoh Ptolemy II. Convincing him his wife was trying to assassinate him, she had him divorce her and married him herself. Arsinoe became a very influential Queen, and according to legend even won chariot races at the Olympic Games. After she died, her brother/husband continued to refer to her on official documents and supported her cult, where she was worshipped as a goddess.

Arsinoe III: Daughter of Ptolemy III and Berenice II, she married her brother, Ptolemy IV. They had one known child, a son named Ptolemy V. She was active in government, even accompanying her brother/husband on campaign. When one battle went badly, she appeared in front of the troops and encouraged them to fight harder to defend their families, promising them gold if they won the battle, which they did. Arsinoe was murdered in a coup, shortly after her husband’s death, by men who wanted to secure the regency of her then 5 year old son for themselves.

Arsinoe IV: She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII by an unknown woman. This Arsinoe had two full younger brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, along with three elder half sisters from her father’s first wife: Cleopatra VI, Berenice IV, and Cleopatra VII. When her father died, he left the throne to his eldest surviving children, Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII. The young Ptolemy forced his co-ruler to flee the country, but when Caesar arrived in Egypt he sided with Cleopatra. Arsinoe herself fled the city with her tutor Ganymedes, and joined the army besieging it under General Achillas. The men fought and she had the general executed, placing her tutor in charge. Eventually they negotiated to exchange Arsinoe for Ptolemy, but Ptolemy was later released and is said to have drowned in the Nile, weighed down by his armour. After receiving reinforcements, Caesar’s men won the war and Arsinoe was taken to Rome where she was forced to appear in his Triumph Parade. It was customary to have prominent captives murdered after the parade was over, but Caesar was persuaded to spare Arsinoe and she was given sanctuary at the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. She lived there until 41 B.C. when her sister Cleopatra, who had always been convinced Arsinoe was a threat to her power, convinced Marc Antony to have her murdered on the steps of the temple, violating sanctuary and horrifying the Roman people.

Carved Garnet Portrait, Hellenistic, Mid-3rd Century BC. Likely Queen Berenice II, wife of the 3rd ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt who was murdered after his death. Emory University.

Posted by Samantha Rucko