GORY STORIES: Hellenistic rulers off their own


There was enough blood and intrigue in the Hellenistic courts to satisfy even a 21st century TV audience.

Incest went hand-in-hand with murder in the Hellenistic dynasties of Egypt and Syria in the first and second centuries BCE.


With unseemly relish, the Macedonian rulers of Egypt, enthroned in Alexandria,  adopted the Egyptian Pharaohs’ practice of brother-sister marriages. Ptolemy VI was married to his sister Cleopatra II. Their hugely fat younger brother Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, popularly known as Physcon (potbelly), struggled to usurp the throne. (The above bas-relief of Physcon with his two wives is way too flattering.)   Before Ptolemy VI died, he named his sixteen-year-old son, Ptolemy VII, as co-ruler with him and Cleopatra II.


After his brother’s death, Potbelly returned to Alexandria and insisted on marrying his sister, though she had been allied with her brother against Potbelly. Potbelly said he would rule beside his sister and his nephew/stepson Ptolemy VII. During the wedding feast, his assassins killed the boy.


Perhaps Cleopatra III’s character was shaped by the events of her childhood. Immediately after his wedding to Cleopatra II, Potbelly raped or seduced his step-daughter, nicknamed “Kokke,” who was perhaps twelve or fifteen years old. After her marriage to her step-father, who was also her uncle, Kokke proved to be as ruthless and ambitious as her husband.


Potbelly and Cleopatra II had one son, Ptolemy Memphitis. When a mob chased Potbelly from Alexandria, Cleopatra II named the twelve-year-old boy as her co-ruler. But Ptolemy Memphitis never made it to the throne. Potbelly captured his pre-teen son, dismembered the boy’s body, and returned it to Cleopatra II as a birthday present. Some historians speculate that Potbelly was encouraged in this murder by Kokke, who probably wanted her own children, rather than her half-brother, to be next in line for the throne.

A mistake, since she was later killed by her favorite son, Ptolemy X Alexander.

Potbelly’s lust and bloodlust was not directed only at his family. He instigated pogroms against the Alexandrian Jews and other intellectuals who had supported his brother in the struggles for the throne. In one case, his soldiers surrounded a gymnasium and killed every one of the young men inside.


Meanwhile, Cleopatra Thea, the other daughter of Cleopatra II, was married in turn to three different kings of Syria – while never actually being divorced from the prior husband they supplanted. She had sons by each of them. Rumor had it that she ordered the murder of her second husband, Demetrius. Her son by Demetrius, Seleucus V, assumed the throne, against her wishes. She killed him – the Roman historian Appian says she personally struck the fatal blow –  during “archery practice.”



Thea took the throne herself. She named another of her sons, Antiochus VIII Philometor (“Grypos”), to share the throne with her. “Grypos” (“hooknose,” pictured on coin at left) began to get uppity. When Grypos came in sweaty from hunting, she offered him a  drink of wine. Suspicious at this atypical hospitality, he forced her to drink it instead. She died from the poison. Philometor means “Mother-loving.”

Perhaps the bloodiest female of the family was Grypos’s wife Cleopatra Tryphaena. She not only killed her sister, Cleopatra IV, but chopped off the girl’s hands as Cleopatra IV embraced an altar, seeking sanctuary. A true daughter of Cleopatra III and Potbelly. Grypos then offered his wife Tryphaena as a sacrifice on the altar.

Was the royal family in Judea so different? Yes and no. The mutual loathing between Queen Salome Alexandra’s sons Hyrcanus II and Aristobolus II, was just as fierce as those of the Ptolemaic siblings of Egypt and the Seleucid siblings of Syria. And neither of Shalom-Zion’s sons could stand their mother. The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus accuses Queen Shalom-Zion of setting up the murder of her brother-in-law, but at least in my book, the queen denies it.  Shalom-Zion’s relationship with her alcoholic and violent second husband King Alexander Janneus (“Yannai”) was almost certainly as turbulent as marriages in the Ptolemy and Seleucid families. Yet Shalom-Zion stayed married to Yannai for 27 years. I wrote my novel, Queen of the Jews, partly so I could understand the passionate love-hate relationship Shalom-Zion must have had with Yannai and her sons. And partly to figure out how, unlike the Hellenistic royal families all around them, they all managed to keep from killing each other.

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