Ptolemys, poisons and Cleopatra

The Furies pursue a Ptolemy for matricide, from a painting by W.A.Bougereau / en.wikipedia.org

The Furies pursue a Ptolemy for matricide, from a painting by W.A.Bougereau / en.wikipedia.org

There was a lady of Egypt, I’m told

The barge she sat in was of burnished gold;

Her moral code made the sphinx perspire,

Her Roman scandals set the Nile on fire!

They tried to make her marry

Her brother Ptolemy,

She said ‘I won’t ptolerate Ptolemy

To collar me!

I only sell sell to the highest bid . . .

Now she’s hotting up the pharaohs

In the pyramid!

                                 (from Salad Days, a musical by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds)

Ptolemy was a childhood friend, confidant, soldier and general of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian King conquered Egypt in the 4th century BC, and Ptolemy was made the first of a long line of Ptolemaic Pharaohs, ruling Egypt under 30 BC.

   Ptolemy I was a man of outstanding diplomatic, military and organisational abilities. He rose from minor Macedonian aristocracy to become king of Egypt because of the absolute faith Alexander had in him. Many, many Ptolemys followed him in the dynasty he created, but they were a thoroughly bad lot.

Historians, authors and playwrights have given Queen Cleopatra a drubbing for centuries. She stands accused of murdering her brothers (among them a Ptolemy) to remain in power. If she did, and it is most likely that she did – it was nothing new in the family founded by Alexander’s great friend. Cleopatra’s ancestors were a murderous bunch, and Cleopatra herself used to amuse herself (and her maids-in-waiting) by watching the effects of selected poisons on condemned criminals, lazy servants or unsatisfying lovers.

   Ptolemy IV enjoyed a sybaritic life to the full in the company of his chief advisor Sosibius, his mistress the high priestess Agatocleia and his younger brother Agatocles. These charmers persuaded the weak-minded Ptolemy IV to poison his own father (Ptolemy III) and mother (Berenice), his brother Magus, his uncle Lysimachus, and his own wife Arsinoe (who was also his sister). When the King of Sparta Cleomeneses sought refuge in Egypt, he must have wished he could change his choice of refuge, for Ptolemy promptly had him killed.

   When Ptolemy VI died fighting, his son Ptolemy VII succeeded to the throne of Egypt. But the dead king’s brother (Ptolemy VIII) objected to the succession and challenged it. A reconciliation was reached however by arranging for the uncle to marry the nephew’s mother who was also the VIII’s sister! All parties seemed content with this incestuous agreement, until Ptolemy found that Cleopatra was pregnant, whereupon he killed his nephew to secure the throne for his descendents.

   Ptolemy X, son of Cleopatra III was King of Cyprus, but between 110 and 109 BC he shared Egypt’s throne with his brother Ptolemy IX. In 107 BC the latter went into exile, accused of trying to murder his queen. The attempt was a failure and Ptolemy X married the queen, although she was his mother . . . not that this stopped him from killing her, before going on to profane the tomb of Alexander the Great, stealing treasures Ptolemy I had placed with the body. The wife-murderer used these treasures to pay his armies. (See the illustration, which actually deals with the legend of Orestes)

   Ptolemy XI was a son of Ptolemy X. He was sent to study on the island of Cos, but King Mithridates invaded the island in 88 BC and took the youth into custody. Being young and energetic the boy escaped from the island prison and got to Rome, where he asked the Senate for assistance in recovering the throne of Egypt. This was agreed to if he married his cousin Berenice III, daughter of Ptolemy IX and widow of Ptolemy X. Only one month after the marriage the young man slew his wife in Alexandria, which infuriated the city’s citizens, who formed mobs. They found Ptolemy XI and lynched him, slicing his body to pieces in the process. Some historians claim this act of revenge was perpetrated because Berenice was born in Alexandria, but there is little evidence to prove it.

Cleopatra,

Held the key to every

Heartra;

And the secret of her artra

Was to keep her men at bay . . .

She used to tease her

Sugar Daddy Julius Caesar

By not allowing him to squeeze her,

More than once or twice a day.

But when this minx

Was up to her jinx

She recalled the words

Of that wise old sphinx;

‘Never let men become too chummy,

Or you’re sure to end up as an Egyptian mummy!’”

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