Dee L. Clayman, Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt

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Title: Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt

Author: Dee L. Clayman

Series: Women in Antiquity

Publication Information: Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, c2014

ISBN: 978-0-19-537089-8

Library of Congress Classification: DT92

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Berenice, Queen, consort of Ptolemy III, King of Egypt, approximately 270 B.C.-221 B.C.
Egypt—History—332-30 B.C.
Berenice, Queen, consort of Ptolemy III, King of Egypt, approximately 270 B.C.-221 B.C.—In literature

First, I want to say that I know Dee Clayman. I am the library liaison to the Classics Program at the Graduate and University Center, City University of New York, and Clayman is the executive officer of the program.

That said, this is an interesting piece of detective work. It’s easy when writing biographies of modern people; there’s a plethora of information out there in print and on the Internet, documents, newspaper articles, photographs, you name it and you can probably find it. However, the further back into history the person existed, the harder and harder it is to do a biography.

Bernice II, the wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes I (“benefactor”), was the princess of Cyrene, which ruled the Cyrenaica, an area that is now in Libya but at that time was, up until the time of the Alexander the Great, for the most part independent. A delegation from the city met Alexander in the Siwan oasis and surrendered the city to him. Since Ptolemy I Soter (“savior’”) saw himself as Alexander’s successor in Egypt, Cyrenaica was naturally viewed as being under Ptolemaic control even though in actuality the area regained its independence.

Bernice is portrayed as a very strong woman, operating within and without the traditional, limited roles assigned by women in the Greek world. Her father, King Magas, had planned on her marrying her cousin Ptolemy, thereby bringing Cyrenaica back under Egyptian control. Upon his death, however, Bernice’s mother, Apama, had other ideas. She repudiated the arranged marriage and instead had Bernice marry Demetrius the Fair, a prince from Macedonia. Demetrius was arrogant and scandalized the Cyrenean court by having an affair with his mother-in-law. (This was probably considered incest by the Greeks.) Taking advantage of the situation, Berenice rallied support behind her, and had Demetrius killed in his mother’s bed chamber; she spared her mother’s life. After this, Berenice sailed to Alexandria and married Ptolemy just as her father had planned.

And what do we know about Berenice? All that is known comes from the literature of the time. Callimachus, appointed head of the Alexandrian library, was one who would write poetry in praise of Berenice. This type of hagiography is typical for the time, but not all hagiographers were successful in their works. Apollonius Rhodius, the author of Argonautica which was about Ptolemaic times veiled in mythology, was driven from Alexandria and ended up in exile on the island of Rhodes. Callimachus, also from Cyrene, had a common background with Berenice that he exploited until he became close to her—as close as a servant could come to a queen.

Berenice, like her husband, was a highly cultured individual. Heads of sculpture identified as Berenice have been found in Alexandria and all over the Near East including the Athenian agora, thus serving as an example of the influence of Ptolemy III over the region. It was at this time that Ptolemaic Greek culture flourished; the Alexandrian library was well-funded, and Ptolemy and Berenice built temples all over Egypt. The Serapeum in Egypt was enlarged, with a library being added which was known as the “daughter” of the original Alexandrian library. The Ptolemaion, a gymnasium that also contained a library, was probably built by Ptolemy III and given as a gift to the people of Athens. There is even some evidence that Bernice may have played a role in foreign affairs.

How the Ptolemies portrayed themselves to their subjects and the world deserves mention. It was ancient Egyptian custom for the kings of Egypt to marry their sisters and daughters. These incestuous unions were common. Ptolemy I portrayed himself and his wife as brother and sister even though they were not. Ptolemy II actually married his full sister and had Ptolemy III and other children with her. Ptolemy III and Bernice’s marriage was cast in terms of a brother-sister union. Outside of Egypt, however, unions of this type (Ptolemy I and III’s marriages; Ptolemy II’s certainly) would considered incestuous; the Greeks would not have accepted them. Therefore, all three Ptolemies and their wives were referred to in traditional terms of king and queen. Only in Egypt was the brother-sister unions promoted and seen as a continuation of the dynasties that came before.

Clayman compares Berenice to Cleopatra VII—the Cleopatra known from her love affairs with Caesar and Antony. Both were daring, intelligent women. Unlike Berenice, Cleopatra ruled in her own right; like Berenice, Cleopatra’s end was tragic. Berenice was murdered by her son, Ptolemy IV who killed not only her but his younger brother Magas and his uncle to make sure there was no one to challenge his rule. And from here, Ptolemaic Egypt declined as Ptolemy IV, debauched and irresponsible, started the state on its way to ruin. Ironically, Cleopatra was not only the last of the Ptolemies but also a very intelligent, cultured and capable individual that, in better times, could have continued the expansion and influence of Ptolemy III and Bernice II. Unfortunately, she inherited an Egypt that already hampered by Roman interests, its greatness long gone.

This book actually supplements my research focus on ancient libraries. It was interesting to get a flavor of who was ruling Egypt at the time when the Alexandrian library and Museion (the scholarly building of which the library was a part) were at their height.

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