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Arsinoe II, Queen of Thrace and Egypt

August 19, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
As queen of Thrace, then as wife to her brother, Ptolemy II, Arsinoe II gained great influence and power, and was honored with deification, her own throne name and her image on coinage.

Arsinoe II’s Early Life

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Arsinoe was born c. 316 B.C. in Macedonia to Berenice and Ptolemy I Soter. Macedonia was a northern Greek province that Alexander the Great had expanded. Due to the fact that Alexander failed to name a successor, after his death, his kingdom was divided among his generals. Arsinoe II’s father, Ptolemy, received Egypt and Libya, and the family settled in Alexandria, the great city that Alexander had founded.

In Alexandria, Arsinoe II “probably received a finishing-school education,” historian Rebecca Bartholomew reports. When she was just 16 years old, she married Lysimachus, the 45-year-old leader of Thrace, a Greek province. Lysimachus renamed Ephesus after Arsinoe II, and gave her cities on the Black Sea and Cassandreia, a city in northern Greece. The couple eventually had three sons: Ptolemy, Philip and Lysimachus Jr.

Arsinoe II's Reign

In 285 B.C., Arsinoe II’s father abdicated his throne to her brother, Ptolemy II. Soon after, her mother died, followed by her father in 283.

Arsinoe II was eager to ensure that her eldest son would succeed to the Thracian throne. In 282, she accused Agathocles, a son of Lysimachus from a previous marriage and his heir apparent, of treason. When “the old suspicious” Lysimachus ordered his son executed, an ally of Agathocles requested aid and a war broke out between Thrace and the Middle Eastern Seleucid kingdom, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Lysimachus was killed in battle in 281, and Arsinoe II fled to Cassandrea. There, she married her half-brother, Ptolemy Ceraunus, to ensure her own safety and that of her sons. Soon after, however, Ptolemy Ceraunus killed her two younger sons, and Arsinoe II and her eldest son fled to Alexandria.

After arriving in Alexandria, Arsinoe deftly maneuvered her way to the throne: She contrived for the wife of Ptolemy II to be accused of plotting her husband’s murder, an offense for which she was exiled. Around 277, brother and sister were married, a customary practice in Egypt at the time, but considered scandalous by the Greeks. From then on, both Arsinoe II and Ptolemy II had “Philadelphoi” or “Philadelphus” (“Brother-Loving”) added to their names.

Arsinoe was a capable advisor and administrator who heavily influenced the rule of Ptolemy. “It seems to have been an understood thing in the Greek world that the line henceforward followed by the Egyptian court in foreign policy was drawn by the firm hand of Arsinoe Philadelphus,” wrote E. R. Bevan in his 1927 work “The House of Ptolemy.”

She is credited with helping her husband achieve victory in the First Syrian War (274-271), for which Ptolemy had her deified, probably within her lifetime. She shared her husband’s titles, appeared on coinage, had towns named for her in Greece and dedications made to her at locations in Greece and Egypt.

Arsinoe died, according to a stele erected by Ptolemy II, under a new moon in the month of Pachon during the 15th year of Ptolemy’s reign. Scholars have long debated how this date approximates to the modern calendar; most estimates place the date in June or July between 271 and 268 B.C.

Arsinoe II’s Legacy

After her death, Arsinoe II’s cult was established in Alexandria with a shrine, the Arsinoeion, dedicated to her. At the end of Ptolemy II’s reign, Al-Fayym, a province southwest of Cairo, was renamed in her honor as the Arsinoite province.

Thousands of years after her death, images of Arsinoe II still exist. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to two representations of Arsinoe II: a statue and a head. The statue is made of limestone and was probably created after her death.

The head is believed to have been created c. 278-270 B.C. in the beginning of the reign of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemies. Made of indurated limestone, the head of Arsinoe II was constructed “in a style that is closely related to that of Dynasty 30, the last of the traditional Egyptian pharaonic dynasties,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site explains.

In June 2010, a coin bearing Arsinoe II’s image was found embedded in a stone wall in Israel. According to Dr. Donald T. Ariel, head of the Coin Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the coin was minted by Ptolemy V in Alexandria, in 191 B.C. The head of the coin portrays Queen Arsinoe II Philadelphus and the reverse side portrays two “overlapping cornucopias decorated with fillets,” described the IAA.
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