Arsinoe is the most fascinating female figure of ancient Thrace: wife of three kings, mother to three heirs to the throne, two of them brutally murdered, and powerful queen of two kingdoms, Thrace and Egypt, she looms dominantly over the post-Alexander Hellenistic era (roughly the three centuries after his death). This is a period of constant conflict between the Successors of Alexander, i.e. his generals, and then between their own successors over the division of the vast new Empire (Alexander’s blood relatives had all been assassinated by 295 B.C.). Three major royal dynasties and three great kingdoms emerge in the Hellenic world after Alexander’s death: in old Greece the Antigonid dynasty of Macedon, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria. Next to them stand smaller kingdoms in Thrace, Hepirus, Bithynia, Pontus, Parthia and Pergamos in Asia Minor. The formal division of the empire did not put an end to the conflict of the Successors: the antagonism between the new dynasties is the basic characteristic of this historical period accompanied by an unprecedented political involvement of royal women.
The three most crucial female figures in the political power struggles of this era are Olympias, the fascinatingly complex mother of Alexander, then Arsinoe (born c.316 B.C.) and finally Cleopatra VII, the last great queen of Egypt. Despite her charisma, Olympias is mostly remembered for her tempestuous character (Her husband and father of Alexander considered her polemikotate, ‘extremely bellicose’), while Cleopatra is usually portrayed as an ambitious, uninhibited seductress. Arsinoe lacking these unfortunate traits, but not tragedy in her own life, pursued a successful career in the male realm of 3rd century politics, a period of intense intrigue, constant plotting and backstabbing and some tumultuous marriages- one could draw analogies with modern politics.
Her father, Ptolemy, was a childhood friend and classmate of Alexander’s under the tutorship of the great philosopher Aristotle and later became one of the most successful Macedonian generals who accompanied Alexander to his expedition. Alexander appointed him governor of the province of Egypt and after his death Ptolemy declared himself king of Egypt and became the founder (obtaining the name Ptolemy I Soter=Saviour) of the Ptolemaic dynasty which lasted until the death of Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. While married to his first wife, Eurydice, Ptolemy fell in love with Berenice, a beautiful Macedonian girl, who, however, could not offer any important political alliance, as was the ‘rule’ for men of power. In an unusual display of romantic passion he married Berenice and had three children with her, Arsinoe, Philotera and Ptolemy. The royal qualities of Arsinoe’s mother are praised by the historian Plutarch: ‘among all the wives of Ptolemy (three in toto) she was the most powerful and the most respected one for her virtue and kindness’. Ptolemy’s first wife, however, did not share Plutarch’s enthusiasm: the antagonism between the first and second wife was conveyed to their children and reached its zenith after Ptolemy named the son of Berenice, also named Ptolemy, his heir to the throne bypassing his oldest son from his first wife, another Ptolemy surnamed Keraunos,‘Thunder’ (we should note here that all the kings of this dynasty were called Ptolemies and the queens either Arsinoe or Berenice or Cleopatra, since the repetition of names offered a sense of continuity and stability of the royal oikos).
Arsinoe like her mother was a charismatic figure: beautiful, demure and well-educated, ‘as lovely as Helen’ in the verses of her contemporary poet Theocritus. Excessive praise of kings and queens is not of course unusual but coin and sculpture portraits also show a graceful yet austere figure. In the next few years Arsinoe will indeed prove that she was more than just a pretty face.
When she came of marriageable age (16 at that time) her father following the usual ‘marriage diplomacy’ arranged a union with the 60 year old King of Thrace, Lysimachos, another general of Alexander’s. Her years as Queen of Thrace have been formative for her future. The young queen committed fully to her new role and her new home: her love for Thracian culture and religion especially Samothraki and the Kavirian Mysteries continued throughout her life: Arsinoion, the rotunda south of the palace on the archaeological site of the island was her offer: it is the largest round building of ancient Greek architecture that has survived. We can still read the name ‘ΑΡΣΙΝΟΗ’ on the inscription that stood above its entrance. Lysimachos and Arsinoe lived happily as King and Queen of Thrace for many years and had three sons together. So happy was the King with his new Queen that he renamed the city of Efesos to Arsinoe to honour her and offered her two prosperous cities of the Black Sea and Cassandreia in Chalkidiki to have under her protection. This blissful period however was disturbed when their first son came of age. Lysimachos had an older son from his previous marriage, Agathocles. Agathocles married Arsinoe’s half-sister from her father’s first marriage, Lysandra. The two girls had no sisterly feelings for each other and Lysandra’s appearance at the Thracian court was the beginning of a series of horrid events.
The situation got even worse when Lysandra’s brother (and Arsinoe’s half brother) Ptolemy Keraunos who had lost the Egyptian throne to Arsinoe’s full brother, Ptolemy II, decided to migrate to the Thracian court. Arsinoe became increasingly worried that the new court dynamics might pose a serious threat against her and her children, especially if Agathocles, her husband’s oldest son, became king. She accused him of treason against his father. We cannot be certain if that was a fictitious accusation in order to get rid of whom she considered the most serious threat to her children or if there was actually a plot against the aged Lysimachos to speed Agathocles’ ascension to the throne. Her protection plan originally proved effective: Agathocles was executed at this father’s orders and his wife and children fled to seek protection in the kingdom of Syria, ruled by another one of Alexander’s generals, Seleucos. This was the perfect excuse for Seleucos to start war against the kingdom of Thrace. The final battle between the two former generals of Alexander, Lysimachos and Seleucos, took place at Kouropedion in February of 281 BC. Lysimachos lost the battle and his life. It was now Arsinoe’s turn to flee with her children. Accompanied by her own army of mercenaries she intrenched herself in her adopted city of Kassandreia in Chalkidiki. The winner Seleucos decided, on a lapse of good judgement, to trust Ptolemy Keraunos, which led to his savage death in front of his army. Keraunos had his own agenda and having lost the Egyptian throne to Arsinoe’s brother declared himself king with the help of Seleucos’ army and was now the ruler of Macedonia and Thrace. The only remaining obstacle to absolute power in the region was Arsinoe and her sons, the legal heirs to the throne. Keraunos’ idea to resolve the situation was to marry Arsinoe and adopt her children, who would inherit the throne from him. Arsinoe accepted on the term that Keraunos would seal this agreement with an oath witnessed by both their armies. Arsinoe’s army of mercenaries however was not difficult to be bought off: at the wedding party Keraunos murdered without any moral inhibitions the two children who were in Kassandreia with their mother. Their brutal killing in the arms of Arsinoe, who was trying shield their bodies with her own, is described by Justin (XXIV, 2 and 3) very movingly. The oldest son, Ptolemy, had luckily abandoned the city earlier opposing his mother’s marriage plans. The tragic queen was forced to abandon the city and seeked refuge in Samothraki. After a period of solitude and mourning on the island, the tragic Thracian queen will return to Egypt and become one of its most capable and popular leaders. Samothraki and the Kaviria remained her sanctuary for the rest of her life as witnessed by her various dedications there and also by the introduction of the Mysteries to her new kingdom.
After her return to Alexandria she married, following the Egyptian tradition of Royal Sibling Marriage, her brother and King of Egypt, Ptolemy II. We should try to understand that this marriage was above all a political union sealed with a ‘holy wedding’, following the model of their Egyptian predecessors and Alexander’s ‘cultural diffusion’ policy, the ‘marriage’ of Hellenic and local cultures. Poems of their time draw analogies between Ptolemy and Arsinoe and the divine sibling couple of Isis and Osiris and the Egyptian pharaoh couples, but also between the royal couple and Zeus and Hera, also brother and sister, born to Kronos and Rea who were siblings as well). Greek Mythology provided another parallel for the royal couple: Alkinoos and Arete, the Phaeacian royal couple who offered hospitality to Odysseus. Ptolemy and Arsinoe received the title ‘Philadelphoi’, those who love their siblings, and acquired divine status and the name ‘Theoi Adelphoi’ following in this case too the Egyptian religious tradition of divinization of kings (Alexander was proclaimed son of Ammon-Zeus). Arsinoe’s intelligence, political insight and confidence inspired by her husband turned her into the most valuable counsel of the King and finally his co-ruler (as denoted by their depiction side by side on surviving coins), ‘the first woman pharaoh’. And a hard-working pharaoh she was: her achievements in domestic and foreign affairs secured a period of peace and prosperity for the kingdom and the gratitude of her people who continued to worship her posthumously.
The Museum (‘shrine to the Muses’) and the Library of Alexandria were planned by her father and then completed and ‘adopted’ by the new Kings to become the largest cultural and scientific centres of the world: since their founding, the mathematician Euclid (c.300 BC), Herophilos (325-255 BC), the father of anatomy, the geographer Eratosthenes (c.276-195 BC) who calculated the circumference of the earth, Archimedes (c.287-212 BC) another mathematical genius, Callimachus (c.310-240 BC), chief librarian, poet and scholar and Theocritus (c.300-260 BC), the pastoral poet were some of the great men that flourished in these institutions.
The religious festivals organized by Arsinoe for her people intensified her perception as the Queen-Mother who cares for the well-being of her people and is close to them. These festivals also created a sense of security in this multi-cultural population by uniting elements from Egyptian and Greek religion: the two populations could co-exist in harmony and enjoy the peace and prosperity offered to them by their caring kings.
In the domains of warfare and high diplomacy Arsinoe also participated actively: she traveled to the Egyptian border with Syria to inspect the troops herself during the First Syrian War and is considered the mastermind behind its successful outcome. With her support Egypt developed a strong navy and became the world’s most powerful maritime power of the time.
Among her contributions to the global prestige of her kingdom we should also note her victorious mission to the 127th Olympics in the summer of 272 in the footsteps of her mother, Berenice who had also won a chariot race in Olympia. Arsinoe’s horses won all three events for harnessed horses and she was named an Olympic winner.
At the age of 45 she passed away of unknown cause. Ptolemy continued to include her name in all the royal decrees and also awarded her the pharaoh title “King of Upper and Lower Egypt’. Endowed with intelligence, beauty and admirable leadership skills and courage, Arsinoe played a major political and cultural role in the courts of Thrace and Alexandria and paved the way for the powerful Ptolemaic queens who ruled Egypt in the next two centuries.