Cleopatra’s Little Sister
With Berenice executed on her father’s orders in 55 BCE, two Ptolemy sisters remained: Arinsoë and her older sister, Cleopatra. Members of their own family had been the cause of plenty of grief throughout their short lives, but little did these two survivors know that they would soon become each other’s greatest enemies. An enmity which would leave one sister dead by the other’s hand.
Arsinoë in Egypt
Born sometime after 69 BCE, we know little of Arsinoë’s life until 51 BCE when Arsinoë’s father Ptolemy Auletes died, leaving the throne to his eldest surviving daughter Cleopatra and one of his two sons, Ptolemy XIII. The joint rule of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII was not meant to be, and by 48 BCE, the two siblings and their supporters were at war.
Meanwhile, Rome had become embroiled in its own civil war with Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus pitted against one another. Pompey was defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece and fled to Egypt in 48 BCE, searching for sanctuary. In Egypt, Ptolemy XIII and his advisors arranged Pompey’s assassination, possibly as a means of impressing Caesar, who had followed Pompey across the Mediterranean.
With Pompey removed from the equation, Caesar focussed his attention on Egypt, and attempted to bring the two squabbling Ptolemy siblings together. Upon reading Ptolemy Auletes’ will, Caesar ordered that, under Roman supervision, Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII should rule together, whilst Arsinoë and her youngest brother (later known as Ptolemy XIV) should rule Cyprus, which had previously been controlled by Egypt but had been annexed by the Romans in 58 BCE.
Neither the siblings nor their advisors could reach an agreement, leaving Egypt to bleed. Cleopatra had gained Caesar’s support, and Arsinoë was placed under house arrest. But, Arsinoë wasn’t going to surrender that easily. With the assistance of her advisor Ganymede, Arsinoë managed to escape Alexandria.
After meeting with her eldest brother Ptolemy XIII and his advisor Achillas, Arsinoë was declared Queen of Egypt, and set out to fight Cleopatra and Caesar’s forces. At this point, Caesar’s forces were limited, and he was waiting for reinforcements from nearby Syria. Caesar was becoming increasingly concerned as Arsinoë and Ptolemy’s claims were attracting supporters from across Egypt.
However, there was discord in Arsinoë’s camp. The Alexandrian Wars, a contemporary work attributed to Caesar, but probably written by his lieutenant Hirtius, tells us that Arsinoë was becoming increasingly frustrated with Achillas, Ptolemy’s chief advisor, who was commanding the army. Arsinoë ordered Achillas’ execution, and her advisor Ganymede struck the fatal blow.
Having done away with of Ptolemy XIII’s advisor, Arsinoë took control as Ptolemy’s position had been weakened by Achillas’ death. Arsinoë’s her first move was to give control of the army to Ganymede over Ptolemy, a clear indication of her power and the strength of her command – just think of (spoiler alert) Daenerys killing off Varys in Game of Thrones.
Arsinoë and Ptolemy faced off with Cleopatra and Caesar, and their forces clashed inside the gates of Alexandria. The war resulted in the defeat of Arsinoë and Ptolemy’s claims to the Egyptian throne. Ptolemy XIII was killed, supposedly drowning in the Nile, and Arsinoë was captured by Caesar’s forces.
Arsinoë: A Fallen General?
The ancient authors are split on the issue with Caesar claiming she was a commander in her own right, which would certainly have suited his agenda, and other authors suggesting she was a young woman manipulated by Ganymede, rendering her nothing more than a figurehead.
Yes, Arsinoë was in her teens when she fought for the Egyptian throne, but we need to remember that:
a) Arsinoë came from a long line of fearsome women who were forced to fight to retain power at a young age, including her sister Berenice, so she wasn’t without role models.
b) Youth does not automatically equal incompetence or timidity, just look at the incredible examples set by the activists Malala Yousafzai, Emma González, and Greta Thunberg.
So, we think that Arsinoë and the amount of power she wielded should not be underestimated!
Caesar considered Arsinoë to be enough of a threat to Rome and their involvement with Egypt that, after her defeat, he decided to display her in his triumph. The triumph, a lavish and highly staged military procession, involved a victorious general riding a chariot through the streets of Rome, accompanied by his soldiers, loot taken during the conflict, and prisoners of war.
With the whole of Rome looking on, Arsinoë was displayed in chains on a moving stage, alongside depictions of two famous symbols of Egypt: the river Nile, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World).
Despite the elaborate display, the Roman people were unimpressed with Caesar’s presentation of Arsinoë, and expressed their displeasure at seeing a female ruler displayed in such a manner. Given that ‘principal captives’, as Ida Östenberg calls the triumphs’ ‘headlining’ figures, were men, sometimes accompanied by their wives and children, the Roman public may have been unable to comprehend how a female ruler could pose a direct threat to Rome. Little did they know that Cleopatra, possibly watching the triumph whilst visiting Caesar in Rome, was about to cause the Romans far greater problems!
It was not uncommon for male captives to be executed at the end of a triumph, although the execution of was captives in the triumph was unheard of. However, ancient sources stress how Caesar chose to spare Arsinoë’s life. There are many possible reasons for this emphasis, but they say more about Caesar than Arsinoë:
- Caesar may have wanted to show his respect for the surviving Ptolemies (Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV), who had been declared joint rulers of Egypt.
- Or, because he wanted to exercise his clemency; a way of exhibiting power by choosing not to execute an individual to indicate that they were no longer a threat to Rome.
Whatever the reason (or reasons), Caesar allowed Arsinoë to live and sent her to the city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey where she served as a priestess at the Temple of Artemis.
Arsinoë at Ephesus
We hear nothing of Arsinoë for five years when her former position as Queen of Egypt became a concern to someone who had once been her nearest and dearest.
Whilst Arsinoë was serving as a priestess, Cleopatra’s power in Egypt had grown and with her brother’s death in 44 BCE, she held sole rule. For Cleopatra, Arsinoë was the only surviving threat to her position as Pharaoh.
In 41 BCE, Cleopatra made a request of Mark Antony, her lover and coconspirator . Soon after, a cloaked man appeared in Ephesus…
As Arsinoë was tending to the temple, kneeling before the altar, she saw a long shadow appear on the stone in front of her. She knew her time had come.
An overlooked princess, an upstart queen, a defeated enemy, a priestess, a conspirator, and a younger sister, Arsinoë had multiple identities throughout her short life. But we think she should be remembered as a complex and clever young woman who was powerful enough to make even the great Cleopatra quake in her boots!
A few things to note:
- We don’t know the exact date of Arsinoë’s birth, so we cannot be sure how old she was at key events. However, given what information we have about her siblings, it is likely that she was in her early to late teens during her brief reign as Queen and that she was well under 30 at the time of her death.
- As none of the sources agree, it’s very difficult to keep track of Ptolemy XIII throughout the Alexandrian War. Still very youthful, he may have been kept by Caesar in Alexandria before escaping to join Arsinoë, or he may have been killed at an earlier stage. This isn’t the time to go into it in more detail, but we’ve stuck with Caesar’s account which involves Ptolemy in the war, rather than Dio’s which suggests he was killed in the early days of the conflict.
- For Arsinoë’s picture, we’ve chosen to use a reconstruction of a skull discovered in a tomb in Ephesus in the 1920s. The skull has since been lost, but photographs of it were used to form a reconstruction in a BBC documentary Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer (2009). There are some serious issues with whether the tomb was Arsinoë’s, and the claim is based on conjecture as the tomb happens to be shaped a little like the Pharo’s lighthouse. However, as we don’t have a statue of Arsinoë, we’ve decided to use it. We’ll be discussing the tomb in more detail on our YouTube channel.
Appian, Civil War Book 5.9
Caesar, Alexandrian War 1-33
Florus, Epitome of Roman History, Book 2.13
Lucan, Civil War 10.520-533
Josephus, Against Apian 2.56-60
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.88-89
Strabo, Geography 14.6.