Cleopatra the Alchemist – 3rd Century – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

 

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We do not know this woman’s real name, as ‘Cleopatra’ is assumed to be a pseudonym for a woman alchemist and philosopher who authored a number of alchemical texts.

She lived in Egypt and is associated with the same school of alchemy as Maria Prophetissima. Like Maria, Cleopatra’s work was concerned mostly with transforming substances through the processes of distillation and sublimation.

Three texts on alchemy are attributed to Cleopatra:

  • Εκ των Κλεοπατρας περι μετρων και σταθμων. (On Weights and Measures)
  • Κλεοπατρης χρυσοποια (Chrysopeoeia of Cleopatra)
  • Διαλογος φιλοσοφων και κλεοπατρας (A Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers)

The most famous of these texts is the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra which is a sheet of papyrus illustrated with symbols for gold making, assumed to be drawn by Cleopatra herself.

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The drawings include an ouroboros (a snake eating itself), an ancient symbol which represents eternity. The text describes the ouroboros as follows:

“One is the Serpent which has its poison according to two compositions, and One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing.”

There is also a diagram of a dibikos, (an alchemical tool for distillation) and several images of stars and crescents.


Notes:

Not to be confused with Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt.


References:

Hypatia’s Heritage. A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

On Wikipedia:

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Hypatia – c.351/370 – 415 – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Hypatia

In the centuries since her death, Hypatia has become an icon for women in education and scientific thought. Her story has been told and retold, casting her as a pagan seductress, a prim school ma’am, an enlightened philosopher and a tragic heroine. Her brutal and untimely death is often told in gory detail without recounting the facts of her life.

This is largely because (as with so many women in this era) little is known about the life of Hypatia which can be confirmed. We know that she was a highly intelligent woman with a first class classical Greek education. She lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and headed the Neoplatonic School there, teaching philosophy and astronomy. Most remarkably of all, Hypatia was a woman in charge of her own life and who made her own choices.

A gifted mathematician, she inherited her passion for the subject from her father, Theon Alexandricus. Following her education in Athens, she relocated to Alexandria, at the time the home of the world’s largest and most comprehensive library. She taught Greek philosophy, including the works of Plato and Aristotle to students from all walks of life.

Hypatia occupied a respected position in Alexandrian society. Most sources report that she was well respected and admired for her wisdom and dignity. She refused to marry, though there are stories in which she turns down proposals from her enamoured students. Hypatia’s single status and dedication to her career enabled her to move more freely through male dominated environments than other women at the time.

Socrates Scholasticus, a contemporary of Hypatia’s, describes her self-assured nature and how her advice was well regarded and sought after by the leading minds of Alexandria:

“On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.”

Though no surviving work is attributed to Hypatia, classical scholars make mentions of a number of texts and commentaries which she may have collaborated on with her father.

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“Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria” (Source)

Hypatia’s murder took place in 415 in Alexandria. At the time there was an ongoing feud between the Roman Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril. Cyril had demanded that all of the Jewish citizens of Alexandria be banished. Alexandria was a city of multiple faiths at the time – Hypatia’s students included pagans, Jews and Christians – and Orestes was outraged by Cyril’s violent actions.

As previously mentioned, Hypatia was often asked for advice by prominent citizens of the city, and in this case Orestes asked for her input. Unfortunately, by this point the feud would not be solved with reason or debate, and Cyril’s followers felt that Hypatia was siding against them. A mob attacked her and dragged her through the streets to their church, where they brutally killed and mutilated her.


In Fiction:

Literature and theatre:

  • Hypatie et Cyril is a French poem by Charles Marie Rene Leconte de Lisle

    Hypatia_(1900_Play)

    An actress, possibly Mary Anderson, in the title role of the play Hypatia, circa 1900. (Source)

  • Hypatia – or New Foes with an Old Face – Charles Kingsley (novel)
  • In the 1893 performance of the play Hypatia by Stuart Ogilvie (based on Kingsley’s book) Hypatia was played by Julia Neilson, then by Mary Anderson in 1900.
  • The Heirs of Alexandria series by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer portrays am alternate history in which Hypatia is converted to Christianity, saving her life.
  • Fable of Venice by Corto Maltese has Hypatia as an intellectual in pre-fascist Italy.
  • Ipazia, scienziata alessandrina(Hypatia: Scientist of Alexandria) by Adriano Petta
  • Hypatia y la eternidad(Hypatia and Eternity) by Ramon Galí is also set in an alternate history.
  • Azazil by Dr Youssel Ziedan
  • Francis Itty Cora by D. Ramakrishnan
  • Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egyptby Brian Trent
  • Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandriaby Ki Longfellow
  • In The Plot to Save Socratesby Paul Levinson and the sequel Unburning Alexandria, Hypatia turns out to have been a time-traveller from 21st century America.
  • Heresy: the Life of Pelagiusby David Lovejoy includes Hypatia’s death.

Film and Television:

  • 1987 Doctor Who serial Time and the Rani features a brief appearance from Hypatia.
  • Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980 and 2014).
  • Agora (2009) stars Rachel Weiss as Hypatia in a fictionalised version of her last years.

Art:

  • Hypatia has a place setting at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

Science:

  • 238 Hypatia is a main belt asteroid named after the philosopher.
  • Lunar crater Hypatia.
  • A genus of moth.

References:

Rejected Princesses: Hypatia

Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle – Kathleen Wider

Medieval Sourcebook: The Murder of Hypatia (late 4th Cent.) from Ecclesiastical History,Bk VI: Chap. 15 – Socrates Scholasticus

On Wikipedia:

 

Maria the Prophetess – c. 1st Century CE – Egypt

Ancient Egypt

 

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Like so many women of her time, the details of the life of Maria Prophetissima are hazy at Prophetissabest. We cannot even be certain of her name, as she is referred to in turns as Maria Prophetissima (in Latin) Mary the Jewess and Miriam the Prophetess.

The little we do know about Maria is passed down to us by Zosimos of Panopolis, who authored the earliest known book on alchemy in the early 4th century. Zosimus describes Maria as ‘one of the sages’, and talks about her living in the past – so we can assume she lived between the 1st and 3rd centuries.

Most importantly, Zosimos describes Maria as not only a woman alchemist, but as an inventor. Alchemy was an early form of chemistry concerned mainly with purifying certain elements to create gold, medicines and even immortality. Though alchemy is generally no longer practiced, the inventions credited to Maria are still in use today.

The tribikas:

This instrument was a kind of still used to obtain substances purified by distillation. A metal or element would be placed inside the pot and heated so that the alchemist can

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An alemic – very similar to a tribikas

collect vapours from one of the three tubes.

Maria made the recommendation that the tubes used with this equipment to extract the purified substance should be copper or bronze and the thickness of a frying pan. She also advised to seal the still-head using flour paste – an early kind of glue.

Zosimos credits Maria with the first written description of the tribikas, though it is not known whether she was its inventor.

The kerotakis:

Also used for collecting vapours, the kerotakis was a container with a sheet of copper on its upper side.

If used correctly, the kerotakis should be airtight and form a vacuum. The aim was to create the same conditions in a laboratory as when gold is formed naturally deep in the earth.

The bain-marie:
This apparatus bears the name of its inventor – Mary’s Bath. Also known as a double boiler, it consists of two separate chambers, one inside the other. The outer chamber is filled with liquid – usually water – and heated to boiling point. This regulates the temperature of the inner chamber and its contents.

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A bain-marie illustration

The bain-marie continues to be used in chemical processes today, as well as in the kitchen where it is commonly used for foods requiring a gentle heat.

Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.- The Axiom of Maria

Though all of our information on Maria’s inventions and experiments in alchemy comes from male gnostic writers centuries later, we know that she authored alchemic texts herself – though they have since been lost.

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Medieval illustration of a mandrake root

One anonymous philosopher recorded an extract, known as The Dialogue of Mary and Aros and the Magistery of Hermes. This excerpt describes a number of operations which formed the basis of alchemy including the whitening and yellowing of elements. It is also the first document to mention an acid salt, and contains recipes for gold using mandragora (also known as mandrake).

As there is such sparse information on Maria Prophetissima, her life and contributions are often disputed. She is sometimes conflated with Moses’ sister, Miriam, placing her centuries earlier than Zosimos suggests. The popularity of the names Mary, Maria and Miriam in this time suggest that there might even have been more than one woman with this way in alchemical circles.

Regardless, Zosimus’ inclusion of Maria in his history of alchemy demonstrates some evidence of women working in science during the early Christian era.

References:

History of Alchemy podcast

The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book – Raphael Patai

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Maria Prophetissima By Michael Maier (1566-1622) – Symbola Aurea Mensae Duodecim Nationum, Frankfurt, 1617 Public Domain

An alemic from a medieval manuscript. The original uploader was Makemake at German Wikipedia – Own work (Original text: Eigenes Foto), Public Domain

An alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Hortus Sanitatis; mandrake Wellcome L0008134” by . Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

Cleopatra VII – 69 BCE – 30 BCE – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

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Kleopatra VII Philopator, known commonly as ‘Cleopatra’, is perhaps the most well-known woman so far in this project, and one of the most famous figures in history.

Though she was not the first woman to rule Egypt (see Merneith, Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Tausret), she was the last active pharaoh (only very briefly survived by her son) of Egypt as an independent country.

Cleopatra’s reputation precedes her. Thanks to hundreds of paintings, plays, operas, novels and films, the story of the ‘Queen of the Nile’ continues to be shared worldwide. She is remembered by turns as a great beauty, a seductress, a tragic lover, a passionate ruler and a cold, calculated femme fatale.

* * * * *

Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra was a Ptolemy; a Macedonian Greek family who had ruled Egypt for three hundred years and could trace their lineage back to Ptolemy Soter, General to Alexander the Great. (See other Ptolemies in this project: Arsinoë II, Bilistiche, Arsinoë III, Cleopatra II).

The Ptolemaic dynasty was marked by corruption and power struggles. Before she was even fourteen years old, Cleopatra had seen both of her elder sisters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice overthrow their father – both were killed; one executed, one found dead in suspicious circumstances.

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Ptolemaic princess, thought to be Cleopatra VII

Now the eldest living daughter, the teenage Cleopatra was elevated to co-regent beside her father.

Her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes died when she was eighteen. As was tradition, Cleopatra married her younger brother, ten year old Ptolemy XIII, with whom she became joint ruler. It was clear that this arrangement was not a happy one. To assert her authority over her brother Cleopatra withdrew Ptolemy’s name from official documents and issued coins which showed only her face.

This sole reign caused uproar among certain factions in the royal court, and in 48 BCE Cleopatra was chased out of Egypt along with her younger sister, Arsinoë.

Cleopatra was not without supporters. An intelligent young woman with a

Cleopatra VII as the goddess Isis

Cleopatra VII as the goddess Isis

political mind, she was the first Ptolemy ruler who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. (In fact, including her mother-tongue, Greek, Cleopatra spoke nine languages fluently, making her very popular with foreign diplomats as she rarely needed an interpreter). She also fully embraced the religion of Egypt like no Ptolemy before her, presenting herself as a reincarnation of the goddess Isis.

During Cleopatra’s exile, her thirteen year old brother-husband made a very powerful enemy. Julius Caesar had been at civil war with his General and co-ruler Pompey. When Pompey fled to Alexandria to seek sanctuary, the young pharaoh had him beheaded as he watched from a throne in the Alexandrian harbor.

Hoping that the execution would win him favor with Rome, Ptolemy cheerfully presented Caesar with the head of his enemy when the dictator arrived in Alexandria two days later. Caesar was furious. Though they had been political rivals, Pompey was a Roman consul and the widower of Caesar’s only legitimate daughter, Julia. Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

At this point, Cleopatra famously had herself smuggled back into Alexandria – many stories describe her being rolled up in a carpet and carried to Julius Caesar’s bedroom by her servants. However she arrived, the twenty one year old queen quickly managed to charm the Roman ruler and the two became lovers.

Nine months later, Cleopatra gave birth to her first child, a boy she named Caesarion (little Caesar) and Julius Caesar sent his army after Ptolemy. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile and Cleopatra was married to her other brother, Ptolemy XIV with whom she became co-ruler.

Cleopatra VII presenting her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera

Cleopatra VII presenting her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera

The young queen travelled to Rome to visit Caesar with their son in the summer of 46 BCE. There she was invited to stay in one of Caesar’s luxury country houses, causing scandal as he was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis. The dictator had a golden statue of Cleopatra as Isis built and displayed in the Forum Julium, but he refused to acknowledge Caesarion as his heir, preferring instead his grandnephew Octavian.

Cleopatra was forced to return to Egypt with her family when Julius Caesar was assassinated in March 44 and Rome erupted in civil war. Soon after, Ptolemy XIV died – some say poisoned – and Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent and successor.

Three years later, Marc Antony arrived in Egypt.

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Marc Antony had come to ask Cleopatra for Egypt’s allegiance as he prepared to fight the Parthians. She promised this and more as the two greatest political figures of their time came together and fell in love.

The queen had the Roman solider enthralled – she took him on an exotic pleasure cruise down the Nile, held lavish banquets and showed off her immense wealth.

In time, Cleopatra gave birth to Marc Antony’s twins – Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. In return, Antony had Cleopatra’s younger sister and last remaining rival Arsinoë killed.

Four years passed before Antony returned to Alexandria. He had clearly missed Cleopatra because this time he stayed for good. Though he was still married to Octavian’s sister Octavia, he married Cleopatra in an Egyptian ceremony and they had a third child – Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony on their coins

Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony on their coins

When Antony conquered Armenia in 34 BCE, Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of both Egypt and Cyrprus, and the other children were made rulers of Armenia, Media, Parthia, Curenaica, Libya, Phoenicia, Syria and Cicilia. Cleopatra became ‘Queen of Kings’ and Caesarion was declared a god king.

The people of Rome were not pleased. It looked as through Cleopatra and Antony were planning war, and Octavian decided to strike first. The battle of Actium took place in 31 BCE between the Roman and Egyptian naval forces. Egypt fell when Marc Antony’s armies defected and joined Octavian.

The details of what happened next are not clear, and differ depend on who is telling the story. We do know that both Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide rather than face their defeat. Marc Antony probably fell on his sword, while Cleopatra famously allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (cobra).

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur

Aftermath

Caesarion was proclaimed pharaoh by the Egyptians, but quickly killed by Octavian. The victorious Emperor returned to Rome triumphant with the three remaining children of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in chains.

Cleopatra’s death marked not only the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, but the end of all Egyptian pharaohs. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene, lived a long life and married Juba of Namidia, bringing a large dowry provided by Augustus. She and Juba went on to rule Mauretania. Their first son was named Ptolemy.


In fiction:

To this day, Cleopatra remains a popular figure in Western culture…

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatta 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra 1891

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in 'Caesar and Cleopatra' 1945

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ 1945

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

A full list of depictions of Cleopatra VII on film can be found here.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra –Joyce Tyldesley

The Reign of Cleopatra Stanley Mayer Burstein

Cleopatra: A Life Stacy Schiff


Image credits:

Click here for the image credits for this post.

Cleopatra II – c.185 – 116 BCE – Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt

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The Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt was defined by infighting and incest as every member of the family battled fiercely for power and sole rule of the country.

Cleopatra II (not to be confused with Cleopatra VII) is a prime example of this turbulent era as a queen (and briefly sole ruler) who married two of her brothers, saw her daughter marry her Uncle and survived the murders of several of her children.

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The young princess was married to her elder brother Ptolemy VI when she was 10. They had their first child together, Ptolemy Eupator when she was 19. He was followed by three sisters and a brother; Cleopatra Thea, Cleopatra III, Berenice and Ptolemy.

Cleopatra, her brother-husband and her second brother, Ptolemy Euergetes Physkon (Potbelly) ruled jointly together for seven years, until younger brother Potbelly deposed his siblings temporarily.

Ptolemy Eupator and his wife did regain power, but once Eupator died, Cleopatra wasted no time in remarrying immediately – this time to Potbelly.

By this time, Cleopatra II was 39, and while she did have a son with Potbelly – Ptolemy Memphites – the Pharaoh began to look elsewhere and married Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra III, three years later.

Ptolemy family tree

The two Cleopatra’s and Potbelly attempted to share power for a little while – but this was not a happy family. In 131 BCE Cleopatra II led a rebellion against her husband-brother and her daughter, driving them out of Egypt.

In retaliation, Potbelly murdered both his stepson and his son by Cleopatra, had them dismembered and sent the parts to Cleopatra as a birthday present.

Cleopatra II’s rule lasted only three years, from 130 BCE to 127 BCE when she was forced to flee to Syria, to join her other daughter, Cleopatra Thea, and her son-in-law Demetrius II Nicator.

A public reconciliation of Cleopatra and Ptolemy VIII was declared in 124 BC. After this she ruled jointly with her brother and daughter until 116 BC when ‘Potbelly’ died, leaving the kingdom to Cleopatra III. Cleopatra II herself died shortly after.

Other Ptolemy women in this project are: Arsinoë IIArsinoë III, Bilistiche


Notes:

Ptolemy VIII Euergetes was popularly known as “Physkōn“, meaning sausage, potbelly or bladder, due to his obesity.


In Fiction:

Played by Elizabeth Shepherd in the 1983 BBC drama ‘The Cleopatras’ (on youtube).


References:

The House of Ptolemy E. R. Bevan

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World Joyce E. Salisbury

On Wikipedia:


Image Credits:

Wall relief Kom Ombo15” by I, Rémih.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Ptolemy family tree – by myself

Arsinoë III – 220 – 204 BCE – Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt

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Arsinoë III Philopater (father loving) embodied many of the traits common among the women of the Ptolemy family. Strong willed, intelligent, fearless and a born leader, Arsinoë was easily the most powerful woman in the world in her lifetime.

She and her brother Ptolemy IV were the fourth generation of Macedonian Greeks to rule Egypt since Alexander the Great – and things were getting ugly.

After the death of Arsinoë’s father, Ptolemy III, her brother quickly had their mother Berenike killed in order to rid himself of her influence in government. According to Ptolemaic royal tradition, Ptolemy then married his sister, proclaiming Arsinoë queen.

At 26, Arsinoë proved herself a formidable leader. She ruled on equal terms with her brother-husband, taking an active role in government, as her mother had. Arsinoë did not stop there; when Syrian king Antiochus the Great declared war on her family Arsinoë stepped forward.

She dressed for battle and rode at the head of the Egyptian cavalry in the 217 BCE defeat of Antiochus at the battle of Raphias.

Unfortunately, not everyone was impressed with the hands on queen. The reign of Ptolemy IV and Arsinoë III was beset by factions and in-fighting at court.

When Ptolemy IV died in 204 BCE, his two favourite politicians feared that Arsinoë would attempt to claim the throne as regent for her five year old son. Threatened, Agathocles and Sosibus had Arsinoë murdered before she even heard the news of her brother-husband’s death.


References:

The House of Ptolemy: A History of Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty – Edwyn R. Bevan

On Wikipedia:

Bilistiche – fl. 264 BCE – Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt

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The few pieces of information we have about Bilistiche (sometimes Belistiche) carve a mysterious figure of a complex and interesting woman.

A courtesan and mistress of Pharaoh Ptolemy Philadeplphus (brother-husband to Arsinoë II), she won both the tethrippon (four horse) and synoris (two horse) chariot races in the 264 BC Olympic Games.

She was clearly a wealthy and important figure in the Egyptian court as it was often only the rich who could breed and train horses for racing. Bilistiche also held a truly affectionate place in her lover’s heart – the Pharaoh deified her (made her a goddess) as ‘Aphrodite Bilistiche’.

The truth of who she was and where she came from, however, is uncertain. The historian Pausanias describes Bilistiche as ‘a woman from the coast of Macedonia’, and Athenaeus says she was in fact a Macedonian Princess. Plutarch offers the most intriguing backstory, one of rags to riches, as he calls her ‘a barbarian from the marketplace’. This suggests that she was purchased as a slave, and was not Greek or Macedonian at all.

Though she is mysterious to us, Bilistiche was apparently a celebrity in her own time, a visible member of the Egyptian Royal household and a champion athlete.


References:

Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to CleopatraSarah B. Pomeroy

Description of Greece, 5.8.11Pausanias

On Wikipedia:

Arsinoë II – 316 BCE – 270/60 BCE – Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt

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It’s safe to say that the Ptolemy’s were not like other families. Rulers of Egypt for three hundred years, they were of Macedonian Greek heritage. Every male was called Ptolemy (pronounced ‘toll-uh-mee’) and every woman in the family was named Cleopatra, Berenice or Arsinoë (Ahh-seen-oh-way).

And it wasn’t just names they kept in the family. The Ptolemy’s were notorious for intermarrying.

"ArsinoeII" by PHGCOM - self-made, photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Licensed  via Commons -

“ArsinoeII” by PHGCOM – self-made, photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Licensed via Commons –

Arsinoë II was the eldest daughter of Ptolemy II ‘the Saviour’, founder Greek rule in Egypt. A high ranking princess, she was married to King Lysimachus of Macedonia at the age of fifteen. She had three sons – Ptolemy, Lysimachus and Philip. However, Lysimachus had a son from an earlier marriage, meaning than Arsinoë’s boys were second in line for the throne. To improve their chances, Arsinoë had the first son poisoned for treason.

Lysimachus died in battle in 281, leaving Arsinoë widowed at thirty-five. The queen acted quickly and went to Cassandreia to marry her half-brother Ptolemy Keraunos (Thunderbolt). The couple proclaimed themselves joint rulers of Lysimachus’ territories; Macedonia and Thrace.

The marriage was not a happy one. Displeased with the amount of power her brother-husband was amassing, Arsinoë conspired against him with her sons. Unfortunately, Ptolemy Keraunos found out and had the two younger boys killed.

Arsinoë fled back home to Egypt, while her eldest son escaped to northern Greece. Ptolemy Philadelphus (sibling-loving) was Arsinoë’s brother and King of Egypt. He granted his sister protection and she was soon conspiring again. First, she had her brother’s first wife, Arsinoë I exiled. Then she married him herself.

Now Arsinoë II was co-ruler of Egypt, the wealthiest country in the world at the time. She had all of her brother’s titles and became hugely influential, having towns dedicated to her, her own cult (as was Egyptian custom), and appearing on coinage.

Arsinoë did not rest once she was queen. She contributed to foreign policy,

"Oktadrachmon Ptolemaios II Arsinoe II" by User:MatthiasKabel - Pergamonmuseum Berlin. Licensed via Commons

“Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II” by User:MatthiasKabel – Pergamonmuseum Berlin. Licensed via Commons

including Ptolemy II’s victory in the First Syrian War (274-271 BC) between Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in the Middle East.

According to Posidippus, she won also three chariot races at the Olympic Games, probably in 272 BC.

Even after her death, Ptolemy II continued to refer to Arsinoë on official documents, as well as supporting her coinage and cult. He also established her worship as a Goddess, a clever move, because by doing this he established also his own worship as a god.


References:

Arsinoe of Egypt and Macedon: A Royal LifeElizabeth Donnelly Carney

On Wikipedia:

Arsinoë II

Tausret – d. 1189 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Ruling during the Trojan wars, Tausret was the last woman to rule Egypt as Pharaoh until Cleopatra VII, over 1000 years later.

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The story of Tausret (also known as Twosret or Ta-Usret, meaning powerful one) and her rise to power is in many ways very similar to her predecessors Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut, though she only ruled for a fraction of the time Hatshepsut did – approximately two years.

Like the two female Pharaoh’s who came before her, she was first the wife of a King; Seti II. When Seti died, he left behind only a ten year old boy, named Sitpah, as heir.

“Twosret” by en:User: John D. Croft – English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Like Hatshepsut, Tausret was regent on the behalf of the boy-king. This continued for around six years, before Sitpah died in his mid-teens. At this point, Tausret was the logical choice for Pharaoh, with her royal connections and experience in power. Similarly to Hatshepsut and Sobekneferu, Tausret used both female and male iconography to refer to herself in statues and carvings.

While her reign as an independent Pharaoh lasted around two years (c.1191 – 1189 BCE), there is evidence that she included Sitpah’s reign as her own, making it seem as though she ruled for close to eight years. The reason for this may have been Sitpah’s shaky parentage – which is still disputed. We know that he was not Tausret’s son, nor was he likely to have been Seti’s child. He may have been a nephew or cousin. Sitpah’s apparent illegitimacy may have been the cause of a civil war which marked the end of the 19th dynasty. Tausret’s absorbing his reign into her own might have been a way of asserting her own kingship, as her royal blood was not under question.

We do not know how Tausret’s reign ended – whether she simply died, or was overthrown by Setnakhtre, who founded the 20thdynasty. What we do know is that he really disliked her. He took over her tomb (which she shared with Seti), removed her body and plastered all of the walls, removing any trace of the female king.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Theban Tomb Mapping Project

On Wikipedia:

Nefertiti – c.1370 – 1330 BCE – Amarna, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Her face is one of the most well known in history and her striking beauty has been praised for thousands of years. But Queen Nefertiti was a lot more than just pretty. Together with her husband she instigated a religious revolution, founded a city, modernised Egyptian art, and may have ruled as Pharaoh herself for a time.

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As is the case with many Egyptian women, little is known about Nefertiti’s life before her marriage to Amenhotep IV. What is known is that the royal couple were radicals. They put themselves at odds with the Egyptian establishment by worshipping Aten, the sun disk, over all other Gods, turning their backs on Egypt’s polytheistic religion. Five years into Amenhotep’s reign, they both changed their names becoming Akhenaten and Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti (perfect are the beauties of Aten, the beautiful one has come).

“Nefertiti Standing-striding Berlin” by Photo: Andreas Praefcke – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The couple were not satisfied simply changing the nations belief system. Their next move was even more unusual, as they relocated the entire royal court from Thebes to a newly built city in the desert, Akhetaten (now known as Amarna). Akhetaten became the centre of the cult of Aten, with several open air temples and an enormous palace, from which Akhenaten and Nefertiti ruled during Egypt’s most prosperous era.

Turning a centuries old system on its head was an enormous undertaking, and Nefertiti proved herself to be an expert at PR. She left her mark everywhere. Never before had the face of a ruler been shared so widely – in fact Nefertiti appears in carvings twice as often as her own husband, the Pharaoh. In some images, Nefertiti is surrounded by her six daughters; in others she is shown smiting her enemies. She took up a string of titles including; Great of praises, Sweet of Love, Lady of All Women, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. Even her distinctive tall cap-crown was designed to flatter her beauty, following the lines of her face. She was a Queen who wanted to be known to her people.

Art changed entirely during this period – the images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti are unlike any other ancient Egyptian portraits, in that they are a clear attempt at realism. While the tradition was to portray the royal family as tall, lean, androgynous beings, like the Gods, images of Akhenaten present an extremely unusual looking man. He has a large jaw and cleft chin, spindly arms and a pot belly. Queen Tiye, his mother, has

“Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

visible age lines on her face. Nefertiti is the most striking of all, and her angular face and cylinder crown have become iconic symbols of ancient Egypt in western consciousness.

There is strong evidence that in year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti was elevated to co-regent, ruling alongside her husband with all the power of a Pharaoh. Though Royal wives had wielded power before, Nefertiti’s rise was unprecedented. In fact, it is believed that she outlived her husband and ruled alone, as the mysterious Pharaoh Neferneferuaten (who may also be Nefertiti’s daughter, Meritaten). If this is the case, it means that Nefertiti ruled three years into her stepson, Tutankhamun’s reign.

It was during Tutankhamun’s short reign that Amarna was abandoned and Thebes reinstated as the capital. The cult of Aten was disbanded and even art reverted back to its traditional style. Akhenaten was branded ‘the Heretic King’ and the new world that he and his Queen had fought to create was abandoned in the desert.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

On Wikipedia:


In fiction: