Sheila L. Ager

Sheila L. Ager (University of Waterloo): “Dynastic Images: Royal Women in Early Hellenistic Age”


At first glance, a striking social difference between the Classical Greek world and the world of the Hellenistic monarchies is the public presentation of women, specifically the elite women in the new royal dynasties. Such an observation naturally necessitates acknowledgement of the Macedonian background of these monarchies, a background quite distinct from that of Classical Athens, where Pericles insisted that a woman’s greatest reputation was to have none at all.

Nevertheless, despite the prominence of some Argead women such as Olympias and her daughter Cleopatra, the Antigonid dynasty that ultimately came to rule Hellenistic Macedon apparently did not pursue a dynastic program that featured public celebration of the daughters, wives, and mothers of Antigonid kings. As for the Seleukid kingdom, it presents a shifting picture: in spite of the oft-repeated romantic tale of the love between Antiochos I and his stepmother Stratonike, it does not seem that Seleukid kings truly began to emphasize the role played by their women in the well-being of the realm until the time of Antiochos III a century later.

It is quite otherwise in the case of Ptolemaic Egypt. Literary, numismatic, and epigraphic testimonia combine to suggest that, almost from the very beginning of Ptolemaic rule, royal women played an important role in the public ideology of the dynasty. Arsinoe II, sister-wife of Ptolemy II Philadelphos, had a remarkable visual presence, and her brother’s establishment of a cult of Arsinoe is just one indicator of her significance. Ptolemy II is often seen as the originator of many Ptolemaic traditions, but his father, the dynasty’s founder Ptolemy I, had a reputation for uxoriousness that may suggest that already during his reign, emphasis on the royal women was an important part of the dynasty’s self-presentation.

The presentation of these women took a variety of forms: visual representations, coinage, inscriptions, cult, dynastic marriage patterns, and so on. What was the symbolism and purpose inherent in such presentation? What part might have been played by indigenous Egyptian traditions? How do we balance the nature of the evidence from the different kingdoms and ensure that we do not confuse differing evidence with differing practice? These and other questions will form part of a comparative examination of the unusual prominence of Ptolemaic women in contradistinction to the role women seem to have played in the public image of the other early Hellenistic monarchies.

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