When most people hear the name Cleopatra, they think of Cleopatra VII, the fabled ruler of Egypt and lover of Caesar and Antony. But there were six Cleopatras in Egypt before Cleopatra VII. Each was more ruthless and seductive than the one who came before.
Cleopatra I, daughter of the Syrian king Antiochus III, was betrothed as a child to Ptolemy V of Egypt. Her husband died suddenly at age 27 –poisoned, according to some. Her son Ptolemy VI was only five at the time. For eight years she ruled Egypt as regent. Following the Egyptian pharaohs’ custom of brother-sister marriages, her oldest daughter, Cleopatra II, married brother Ptolemy VI and ascended to the throne when he was 14 and she was 19. Their younger brother tried to overthrow their rule. When her husband died, to remain on the throne Cleopatra II had to marry this brother who became Ptolemy VIII. A hugely fat man who preferred dalliances with young boys and prepubescent girls, immediately after his wedding to Cleopatra II, he seduced and later married his wife’s pre-pubescent daughter, who became Cleopatra III. Cleopatra II was then known as the sister-queen, and Cleopatra III as the queen-wife. This tripartite throne did not enhance the relationship between mother and daughter. Cleopatra III’s reign briefly over-lapped the reign of Queen Salome Alexandra of Judea. As you’ll see in my next blog, Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III — both of them shrewd, ambitious and ruthless — were archetypes of everything Queen Shalom-Zion detested about the decadent Hellenistic era: hypersexual, lavishly and gaudily self-indulgent, fascinated by the violent, the grotesque and the bizarre. An era, in other words, not so different from our own.