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  • The Most Dysfunctional Family in History: the Ptolemies December 25, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    ptolemaic dynast

    The most dysfunctional family in history? The Tudors in England showed peturbing signs of genius. The line of Augustus in ancient Rome degnenerated into madness and murder. The Neo-Flavians were pretty confused too. The Borgias bless them… But, let there be no ambiguity, no one comes close to the Ptolemies,  the last dynasty of Greek Egypt, who make Caligula look like a pouty teen, drunk on root beer. The first three monarchs in the dynasty were capable, vigorous sorts who did things like build the great library at Alexandria on their weekends off. But from the fourth to the fourteenth monarch things got very nasty indeed. The Ptolemies didn’t really live family life as we understand it. Rather they lived a kind of domestic safari in which you tried to kill as many of your close relatives as you were able, preferably in as painful and as public a way as possible. This was made all the more surreal by two other factors. First, the Ptolemies were very conservative in the names they gave their children. In fact, the men were ALL called Ptolemy. The women on the other hand were not all called Cleopatra, but most were. (Epiphets were necessary and someone somewhere decided to add some low comedy by referring to many of the Ptolemies as ‘father-lover’ or ‘mother-lover’. This usually meant that the person in question had not murdered their father or mother.) Second, the Ptolemies married each other: following the Egyptian tradition brother and sister wed and had children. So to difficult inter-family relations you had to add ‘genetic issues’ and sexual tensions. (HBO really should do a series.) It also means that it is not easy to explain who is killing whom: ‘Ptolemy killed Cleopatra, his wife/sister/niece’ would, for example, be a true sentence in certain Ptolemaic palace plots. What follows is offered as a kind of prose poem dedicated to the most bestial family in history. There is a crescendo of kinds so by all means skip over the early tame monarchs.

    Ptolemy IV murdered his mother (who had killed her husband who was having a love affair with her mother), married sister Arsinoe III (who was murdered immediately after Ptolemy IV’s death). Ptolemy V was the nicest of the later Ptolemies and thoughtfully had his mother’s murderers ripped apart by a mob. Ptolemy VI fought his own brother for the throne and married his sister Cleopatra II. Ptolemy VII was murdered by his uncle the next Ptolemy (VIII) at a wedding feast or he may have been murdered by his own father (Ptolemy VI); scholars disagree. Ptolemy VIII was the great enemy of Ptolemy VI and probable murderer of Ptolemy VII. He also married Cleopatra II, then began an affair with Cleopatra’s daughter Cleopatra III. He had his son dismembered and the pieces sent to the mother, Cleopatra II. Incidentally his daughter Tryphaena had her own sister Cleopatra IV murdered, for which she was in turn killed by Cleopatra’s husband. Ptolemy IX apparently tried to kill his mother, Cleopatra III (or so she claimed), married first one and then another sister, both called Cleopatra. He fought his brother Ptolemy X for the throne, their mother Cleopatra changing sides frequently. Ptolemy X killed his mother Cleopatra III and fought his brother Ptolemy IX for the throne. He married the daughter of Ptolemy IX, Berenice III. Ptolemy XI also married Berenice III, who was either his sister or mother but had her killed after nineteen days: for which he was lynched by a crowd of angry Greeks. Ptolemy XII annoyed his children so much, particularly his daughter, Berenice IV, that they rebelled against him and drove him from Egypt. Berenice IV ruled briefly. She probably had her sister killed. She certainly had her husband strangled, who, quelle horreur!, wasn’t a family member. She was beheaded on the orders of her father, Ptolemy XII. Cleopatra VII, daughter of Ptolemy XII, was the famous Caesar-loving, Mark-Anthony-loving Cleopatra. She may have had a brother killed, she certainly fought another brother, and allowed Caesar to bring a sister, Arsinoe, in a triumph in chains through Rome, later having Arsinoe gutted in a temple sanctuary. Ptolemy XIII was married to his sister Cleopatra VII, who he fought. He, then, drowned while trying to escape his wife/sister’s wrath. Ptolemy XIV was the younger brother of Cleopatra VII, possibly poisoned by the same. Certainly he disappears from the records with suspiciously little noise at just the right date. And, yes, most of the sources are uncontroversial.

    A prize to anyone who can rewrite Philip Larkin’s ‘Your Mum and Dad they f**k you up’ for the Ptolemies or any graphic artist who can redraw the geneaology above with relevant murder weapons. Other messed up families from history: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Now go and have a long cold shower…

    26 Dec 2013: Tacitus from Detritus writes in: Regards families one would not wish to be born into, I think the Ptolemies have a rival in the House of Constantine. Comparing the two, the allegations of incest are fewer with the Constantinians (but by no means absent altogether!), and the overall casualty rate is similar. But if you compare the collateral damage, i.e. the number of innocent lives lost in tandem with this “Dallas on the Tiber” it requires you to factor in a larger number of civil wars with their attendant disease, famine, barbarian incursions, economic disruption. One has pause to wonder what historians of generations yet to come will make of our times.  Given their possession of at least rudimentary nuclear weapons it is possible that the Dear Leader clan of North Korea may rise from being mere comic opera fratricidal despots and attain that central place in History that they seem so psychotically convinced is theirs.’ Thanks Tacitus!

    29 Dec 2013: Judith writes in from Zenobia: Yes, probably the Ptolemies win the title but the Seleucids run them a very close second; and of course they intermarried P’s and S’s and then really created havoc: Andy the Mad Monk: ‘You mentioned “HBO really should do a series” – The BBC actually did a series in the 1980s. It looks like they changed the names to make things less confusing. First episode is here:  Thanks Andy and Zenobia!