Marriage Practices - Part III

The Ptolemaic Period

As we come down into time, and the centuries preceding the birth of Jesus, we find the same marriage practices going on in Egypt. But now it is the Ptolemies, the Macedonian nobility, who follow that line. When Alexander the Great died he left behind a kingdom that was divided among four of his generals. The Ptolemies acquired Egypt and ruled it until the Romans came. For example, another General is described:

Seleucus I Nicator (Nicator, "the Victor") (around 358-281 BC) was one of Alexander the Great's generals who, after Alexander's death in 323 BC, established himself and his family in Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau, ruling as far as the Indus region. He founded Seleucia on the Tigris River (around 305) as a new royal capital.

I offer three different versions of the genealogy of the Ptolemies.

Version 1 from The Life and Times of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt

Version 2 from Cleopatra's Egypt: Age of the Ptolemies

Version 3 from Chris Bennett's Research

Much of what we know of this period is from Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918.

For a catalog of sources see Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, Yale University Press, October 24, 1996.

Following are various notes on the personalities of that age.

Diodorus Siculus, Library

Fragments of Book 10

Cimon, as certain writers say, was the son of Miltiades, but according to others his father was known as Stesagoras. And he had a son Callias by Isodice. And this Cimon was married to his own sister Elpinice as Ptolemy was at a later time to Berenice, and Zeus to Hera before them, and as the Persians do at the present time. And Callias pays a fine of fifty talents, in order that his father Cimon may not suffer punishment because of his disgraceful marriage, that, namely, of brother with sister. The number of those who write about this it would be a long task for me to recount; for the multitude of those who have written about it is boundless, such as the comic poets and orators and Diodorus and others. Tzetzes, Hist. 1. 582-593.

Elpinice was the half-sister of Cimon, and Nepos Cimon 1.2 states that Athenian law allowed the marriage of brother and sister who had only the same father.

Lysimachus (c. 361-281 B.C.) was a member of Alexander's Companion cavalry who particularly distinguished himself in India. Following Alexander's death he became governor of Thrace. After Perdiccas had rejected the hand of Antipater's daughter Nicaea, Lysimachus married her and in 315 he joined the coalition of Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Cassander against Antigonus. For many years he was obliged to occupy himself in pacifying his territory in Thrace against the rebellious Thracian tribes and the coastal Greek cities, and consolidating his authority. But in 301 he launched a perfectly timed surprise invasion of Asia Minor, and in the following year effected a junction of his forces with Seleucus to defeat and kill Antigonus at Ipsus. Lysimachus was the principal beneficiary of the partition of Antigonus' territories which followed the battle. His newly acquired dominions stretched from north to south of Asia Minor, shut out Seleucus from the western seaboard and thus sowed the seeds of future conflict. In the last years of his reign Lysimachus' autocratic and extortionate methods of government became intensely unpopular, and when Seleucus invaded his territory in 282, he met little resistance. Lysimachus made a stand at Corupedium near Magnesia in Asia Minor and was killed in the battle.

Pausanias, Description of Greece

This Lysimachus was a Macedonian by birth and one of Alexander's body-guards, whom Alexander once in anger shut up in a chamber with a lion, and afterwards found that he had overpowered the brute. Henceforth he always treated him with respect, and honored him as much as the noblest Macedonians. After the death of Alexander, Lysimachus ruled such of the Thracians, who are neighbors of the Macedonians, as had been under the sway of Alexander and before him of Philip. These would comprise but a small part of Thrace. If race be compared with race no nation of men except the Kelts are more numerous than the Thracians taken all together, and for this reason no one before the Romans reduced the whole Thracian population. But the Romans have subdued all Thrace, and they also hold such Keltic territory as is worth possessing, but they have intentionally overlooked the parts that they consider useless through excessive cold or barrenness.

Scol. Theocritus 17.34 gives her father's name (in the genitive) as Gamou (fr. Vaticanus) or Bagou (fr. Ambrosianus). This scholium is clearly corrupt, and the name requires emendation. The correction to Magou is straightforward for both sources, and results in her having children named after each of her parents. It is sometimes argued that the name should be amended to Lagou, making Berenice a daughter of Lagus, i.e. a half-sister of Ptolemy I. However, while marriage to non-uterine half-siblings was certainly permissible in Macedon, there was no necessity for it, and the theory is clearly anachronistic, being influenced by the later Ptolemaic custom of incestuous marriages. See G. M. Macurdy, Hellenistic Queens 104, F. Sandberger, Prosopographie zur Geschichte des Pyrrhos 56 n. 1.

Arsinoe II (316-270 BC), queen of Thrace Arsinoe II was first married to King Lysimachus of Thrace

In Egypt, she probably instigated the accusation and exile of her brother Ptolemy II's first wife, Arsinoe I of Egypt. Arsinoe II then married her brother; as a result, both were given the epithet "Philadelphoi" ("Brother-Loving") by the scandalized Greeks. Arsinoe II shared all of her brother's titles and apparently was quite influential, having towns dedicated to her, her own cult (as was Egyptian custom), and appearing on coinage. Apparently, she contributed greatly to foreign policy, including Ptolemy's victory in the First Syrian War (274-271 BC) between Egypt and the Seleucid.

This Ptolemy fell in love with Arsinoe, his full sister, and married her, violating herein Macedonian custom, but following that of his Egyptian subjects.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309-246 BC), was of a delicate constitution, no Macedonian warrior-chief of the old style. His brother Ptolemy Ceraunus found compensation by becoming king in Macedonia in 281, and perished in the Gallic invasion of 280-79 (see Brennus). Ptolemy II maintained a splendid court in Alexandria. After the death of Arsinoe II Ptolemy II continued to refer to her on official documents, as well as supporting her coinage and cult.

These excerpts from the ancient literature should give you some feel for how those people lived, and died.

If we examine the three charts above we can deduce how brother-sister marriages were practiced by the Ptolemys. You can see how this practice was held by some contemporaries as a despised act, and that they borrowed it from the Egyptians. But brother-sister marriages were practiced in Greece, Thrace, and Macedonia. The stipulation was that they be non-uterine, not from the same mother. You can see from the diagrams that these marriages produced offspring, which again married brother-sister.

Ptolemy II - Arsinoe II full brother-sister
Ptolemy III - Berenice II first cousin
Ptolemy IV - Arsinoe III full brother-sister
Ptolemy VII - Cleopatra II full brother-sister
Ptolemy IX - Cleopatra III uncle-niece
Ptolemy X - Cleopatra IV full brother-sister
Ptolemy XI - Berenice III uncle-niece
Ptolemy XIII - Cleopatra V/td> full brother-sister
(Brother ?) - Cleopatra VII full brother-sister

This practice went on for nearly 300 years, among the Ptolemies.