Karen Murdarasi is a Scottish writer based in Glasgow. She studied Ancient History at the University of St Andrews before spending a few years in Albania as a missionary. She writes fiction and non-fiction for young people and adults, and is working on a novel set during the Roman civil wars.
It can’t be easy having a sister who is much more famous and successful than you. Cleopatra VII Philopater is known throughout the world simply as Cleopatra – the woman who seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and who, instead of surrendering, took her own life using snake venom. But what about her sister, Arsinoe? Who remembers her?
Arsinoe IV was Cleopatra’s younger sister, by the same father and probably the same mother. Although popular culture only recognises Cleopatra, Ptolemy XII actually had five children, three girls and two boys, all of whom reigned, however briefly. It was a time of shifting allegiances and treachery. Rome was the Mediterranean superpower, but in the 40s BC it was shattered by civil war. Ptolemy XII’s oldest daughter, Berenice, had been executed a decade earlier, with Roman help, after she tried to take the kingdom away from her unpopular father. That left Cleopatra, Arsinoe, Ptolemy XIII (possibly Arsinoe’s twin), and little Ptolemy XIV who didn’t stand a chance in this shark pond.
Arsinoe is just a footnote in history these days – but such a fascinating footnote. Hiding between the lines is a young woman with her own agenda, capable of making and breaking alliances, raising an army, and bouncing back after defeat. This is what we know, or can deduce, about her career:
In 48 BC, Ptolemy XIII, who was Cleopatra’s brother-husband and co-ruler, became tired of being side-lined by his older sister and managed to drive her out of Egypt. Cleopatra fought back, and while the two rulers were occupied, Arsinoe set herself up as a rival pharoah – Arsinoe IV of Egypt. Julius Caesar waded into the conflict, declared Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII co-rulers again, and probably gave Cyprus to Arsinoe and her little brother Ptolemy as compensation.
But Julius Caesar was weak, still fighting a civil war to try and dominate Rome. Ptolemy XIII and Arsinoe allied themselves against their sister, Cleopatra, and her Roman protector. Arsinoe managed to escape from Caesar’s clutches and joined the general Achillas, who was carrying out a horribly destructive siege of the capital, Alexandria. She then had Achillas executed over some dispute, and put her mentor, Ganymede, in charge of the army instead.
But Arsinoe was not as popular as she hoped. Her troops betrayed her, negotiating with Julius Caesar to exchange her for Ptolemy XIII, whom Caesar still held. At that point Roman reinforcements arrived, and soon Caesar was victorious, Ptolemy XIII was floating dead in the Nile, and Arsinoe was on her way to Rome to be displayed in Caesar’s victory parade, along with the riches that had once been hers. The sight of the teenaged former queen, bound in gold chains, moved even the Roman mob to pity.
Meanwhile Cleopatra was safely ensconced on the throne. Instead of annexing Egypt, Caesar had given it back to her, although officially she was co-ruler with the powerless Ptolemy XIV. If anyone wondered why Caesar had been so generous, they might have looked for a reason in Cleopatra’s growing belly, which held Caesar’s child. Prisoners were often killed at the end of triumphs, but as the sister of two ruling monarchs, Arsinoe was spared, and sent to live in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus instead. If Julius Caesar thought that was the end of her story, surely both Cleopatra and Arsinoe knew otherwise. Their father had returned from exile to kill their older sister, Berenice, and there was no reason to assume Arsinoe would not follow his example. Cleopatra no doubt would have loved to have her sister disappear, but she still required the protection of Caesar, so her hands were tied.
A few short years later, Caesar was assassinated, his body punctured with twenty-three knife wounds, and the Mediterranean world was in turmoil once again. Cleopatra quickly had her little brother killed to make way for her infant son Caesarion (Little Caesar) as joint ruler, and the players prepared to make their moves. At first it looked good for Arsinoe; Mark Antony, Caesar’s friend and now the leading man in a post-Caesar Rome, seems to have awarded Cyprus jointly to both Cleopatra and Arsinoe, and after receiving no help from Egypt in the next bout of civil war, the Roman general angrily summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus in Asia Minor to give an explanation.
Unfortunately for Arsinoe, Cleopatra saw the summons as an opportunity. She arrived in style on a perfumed, gilded barge, invited Antony to a lavish dinner, and within days he was showing every sign of being in love with her. In Ephesus Arsinoe was being addressed as “queen” again, but Cleopatra saw room for only one queen in the Mediterranean, and with Mark Antony on her side she was able to take decisive measures. Arsinoe was killed on the steps of the Temple of Artemis, her blood staining one of the wonders of the ancient world. She was perhaps twenty years old.
So much for Arsinoe IV, the failed queen of Egypt. But what is it about Arsinoe that makes her just a footnote, worthy of only the odd line in Roman histories, while her sister fills whole books, not to say films, to this day, and inspired Roman historians to vituperate at length about her wantonness, cruelty and guile? Was is just that Cleopatra won while Arsinoe lost? Perhaps, but of course Cleopatra did not win in the end. She and Antony were beaten by Octavian, who would soon become the Emperor Augustus.
Was it that Cleopatra sided with Rome and Arsinoe opposed it? Again, perhaps, but there were plenty of other rulers who sided with Rome around that time – Ardavastes, Juba II, Mithridates I of the Bosporus – and they are hardly household names.
No, it seems that it was the nature of Cleopatra’s power that made her appear so dangerous to the Romans, and so perennially fascinating. Arsinoe raised an army, as did Cleopatra. Arsinoe made alliances with generals and commanded soldiers, as did Cleopatra. But it was the way in which Cleopatra made alliances and exerted power that outraged and fascinated Rome. She met Caesar when he seemed about to annex her country, but by the time he left he had handed it to her, and left her with his child. She was summoned to account for herself by a disgruntled Mark Antony, but soon he would find that he could not live without her, and would abandon Rome, including his wife and children, to start a new life as Cleopatra’s consort and the father to three of her children. There were even rumours of a liaison between Cleopatra and the son of Pompey, Caesar’s rival in the civil war.
Arsinoe was dangerous in the same way that a man could be dangerous. She was a threat that could be faced with an army, with force, with strategy and logic. But Cleopatra’s power seemed to be more like that of the mythical Gorgon. No one could face it without being enchanted – in the Gorgon’s case by being petrified, in Cleopatra’s by being seduced. Of course, Cleopatra was not an enchantress, and although she had the gift of making herself agreeable to whomever she chose, she did not cause every man who saw her to fall in love with her. But her amours certainly seemed uncanny to a watching Rome, and the idea that she controlled men through their desire for her was a useful narrative for Octavian when he decided to crush Mark Antony.
In a world in which important Roman men made political alliances by giving their daughters and sisters to each other in marriage, Cleopatra was a woman using her body, both her sexual attractiveness and her fertility, to be an agent in her own right. She was not dangerous despite her sex, she was dangerous because of her sex. In this arena, as in the arena of war, Arsinoe either could not or would not compete with her big sister. And although neither achieved her aims in the end, and the line of Ptolemaic pharaohs died out with them, Cleopatra’s legendary boldness, in love rather than war, meant that she would be the one that history remembered, for good or for ill.
Arsinoe was a woman who was dangerous, but Cleopatra was a dangerous woman.
David Stuttard and Sam Moorhead (2012), 31BC: Antony, Cleopatra and the Fall of Egypt, British Museum, London.
Cassius Dio, Roman History, books 42-43