The Role of the Queen

The role of the queen in Ptolemaic Egypt was similar to that in Pharaonic Egypt, but was much more prominent than elsewhere in the Greek world. The queen was the pharaoh’s helper and her image combined elements of Isis, the divine mother goddess who gives birth to Horus, and Hathor, the goddess of beauty and sexuality. While the images of Ptolemaic queens on coins are Hellenistic in style, they represent powerful Ptolemaic queens, such as the last Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra VII, who wielded the power of a king before her defeat by Octavian in 31 BCE. In Macedonia, there were women who played a part in politics, for example, Eurydice, Phillip II’s mother or Alexander the Great’s mother Olympias, but neither of them appeared on Macedonian coins. Ptolemaic queens gained importance after Ptolemy II Philadelphos married his sister Arsinoe II and even more so after her death in 268 BCE when Ptolemy II deified her as a goddess in her own right. He built temples to her and struck a commemorative coin in her honor. This Ptolemaic worship of deceased queens built on the Egyptian association of the queen with goddesses, although the queen in Pharaonic times was never considered the living embodiment of a goddess. While there was a precedent for females involved in Macedonian politics, the deification of Arsinoe II was a turning point for the role of the Ptolemaic queen. Arsinoe II made it possible for later Ptolemaic queens to have royal power to pass it on to their daughters. The unprecedented power of the Ptolemaic queen and her celebration is reflected on coins depicting generations of Greek queens of Egypt.


Fig. 3 Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, Arsinoe II AV Oktadrachm or Mnaieion. Alexandria mint, struck under Ptolemy II, 253-246 BC. Diademed & veiled head right, lotus scepter behind head; K to left / APSINOHS FILADELFOY, double cornucopiae bound with fillet. Troxell 3, Svoronos 475.

Fig. 3 shows the commemorative coin minted after the deification of Arsinoe II. She is depicted in profile with a diadem, the Macedonian crown, and a veil over her head. The double cornucopia on the reverse is her symbol and was adopted by many subsequent images of queens. The cornucopia was a symbol of plenty associated with Greek deities, in particular the Greek interpretation of the Egyptian goddess Isis. The double cornucopia is the special symbol of Arsinoe II, although other deities use the single cornucopia. Although Arsinoe II is depicted in a stylistically Greek manner with her strong nose and chin, full lips, wide eyes and curled hair, her status as a queen associated with divinity and fertility makes her much more similar to the Egyptian queen than the Macedonian queen. Arsinoe II is the perfect example of a Greek Egyptian queen.


Fig. 4 Ptolemy II Philadelphos & Arsinoe II AV Oktadrachm. Alexandria mint, struck after 265 BC. ADELFWN, conjoined busts of Ptolemy II & Arsinoe II right; Ptolemy is diademed & draped, Arsinoe is diademed & veiled; Gallic shield behind / QEWN, similar conjoined busts of Ptolemy I & Berenike I.

The commemorative coin in Fig. 4 was struck by Ptolemy II Philadelphos to celebrate his father and mother (Ptolemy I Soter and Berenike I) and himself with his wife Arsinoe II in a portrait that resembles the Pharaonic Era paired portraits. These portraits (such as Fig. 5 and 6) show the pharaoh in the foreground with the queen in the background but depicted on the same scale. The coin (Fig. 4) is unique in the Greek world; double portraits were all but unheard of in Greek coinage and none of them featured both the king and the queen. The queens on this coin appear as supporters and partners of their king. The position of the queen to the side of the king directly echoes the great statues carved in hard Egyptian rock or painted statues of pharaohs with their sister-queens. She is so important to the king and the country that she is depicted by his side on this coin. The following statues are examples of the Egyptian precedents for this style of depiction of the queen so close to the king’s side that one can imagine her arm on his back, protecting and supporting him.


Fig. 5: King Menkaure and his wife, graywacke, Dynasty 4, 2490-2472 BCE Fig. 6: Ptahkhenuwy and his wife, painted limestone, 2465-2323 BCE

These two statues, while very different in size, show a good supportive Egyptian wife from the Old Kingdom. In Fig. 5, the woman is the queen. In Fig. 6 she is a wealthy man’s wife; private statuary took the same form as the royal statues. Looking at these statues, you and easily see the resemblance to the gold octadrachm with the portraits of Ptolemy I and II and their wives. Both show the queen by the side of the king on the same scale. Both have the portraits staggered and their expressions are solemn. The comparison between these statues and the coins shows that the native Egyptian Pharaonic gender roles influenced the roles of the Greek king and queen in Ptolemaic Egypt.

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