Who were Cleopatra’s parents?

Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator is a historic figure known for her beauty and intelligence and was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. The Ptolemaic dynasty was of Macedonian Greek origin, and Cleopatra, while Egyptian queen, was Greek in descent. But who really were the Egyptian queen’s parents? And what influence did they have on Cleopatra?

READ MORE: Notable Accomplishments of Queen Cleopatra, the Last Ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty

Who was Cleopatra’s father?

Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, more commonly known simply as Cleopatra, was born to Ptolemy XII Auletes, a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and is believed to be the daughter of Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, though there is some uncertainty regarding her mother due to limited historical records.

Ptolemy XII Auletes was the father of the famed Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. His reign was characterized by political instability, and he faced exile and restoration. Image: Bust of Ptolemy XII housed at the Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris

Ptolemy XII, a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Ancient Egypt, had a somewhat uncertain lineage. His father, Ptolemy IX, had multiple marriages, notably to his sisters Cleopatra IV and then to Cleopatra Selene. These marriages were typical in the Ptolemaic dynasty, aimed at preserving the royal bloodline.

The uncertainty around Ptolemy XII’s birth revolves around the identity of his mother, as his father had multiple relationships. The mention of Ptolemy IX’s marriages to his sisters could imply that one of them could potentially be Ptolemy XII’s mother, but there is no concrete evidence or consensus to definitively identify his mother.

To add to the ambiguity, several ancient sources, including Cicero, Pompeius Trogus, and Pausanias, suggest that Ptolemy XII was illegitimate. Pompeius Trogus labeled him a “nothos,” which means bastard, emphasizing his illegitimate status. Pausanias even went further to say that Ptolemy IX had no legitimate sons at all, reinforcing the uncertainty around Ptolemy XII’s lineage.

This uncertainty and the claims of illegitimacy surrounding Ptolemy XII’s birth are indicative of the complex and often controversial familial relationships within the Ptolemaic dynasty, and they reflect the broader political and familial intricacies and the murky nature of royal lineage during this period in Egyptian history. The intermarriages within the royal family and the possible relationships with individuals outside the royal family create a convoluted picture of familial connections, leading to disputes and differing interpretations among historians and scholars about the exact lineage and legitimacy of various members of the dynasty.

Time as a hostage in the court of Mithridates VI of Pontus

Bust of Mithridates in the Louvre

In 103 BC, Ptolemy IX sought to regain the Ptolemaic throne by initiating an invasion into Judaea. In an endeavor to protect her grandsons and her treasure from the ensuing conflicts, Cleopatra III relocated them to the island of Kos. However, in a twist of fate during the outbreak of the First Mithridatic War in 89 BC, Ptolemy XII and Ptolemy of Cyprus found themselves captured by Mithridates VI of Pontus. Intriguingly, this incident coincided with their father’s reclamation of the Egyptian throne.

Mithridates VI held the two Ptolemaic princes as hostages until 80 BC. During their captivity, around 81 or 80 BC, marriage engagements were arranged between Ptolemy XII and Ptolemy of Cyprus and two of Mithridates’ daughters, Mithridatis and Nyssa.

Ascension of Ptolemy XII

While they were entangled in these complex political and personal situations, Ptolemy IX passed away in December 81 BC, and his succession was marked by a series of rapid and turbulent changes. Berenice III ascended the throne but soon found herself coerced to share power with Ptolemy X’s son, Ptolemy XI, in April 80 BC. The shared rulership was short-lived, as Ptolemy XI swiftly orchestrated the assassination of Berenice III, only to meet his demise at the hands of an outraged Alexandrian populace.

Subsequent to these upheavals, the Alexandrians reached out to Ptolemy XII, inviting him to return to Egypt and ascend to the throne. Simultaneously, his brother, who also bore the name Ptolemy, was appointed as the king of Cyprus, maintaining his reign until 58 BC.

Relief of Ptolemy XII from the double temple at Kom Ombo

Spouses and Children

The details around Ptolemy XII’s marriages and his children’s lineage are somewhat ambiguous and speculative due to the lack of definitive historical records.

Ptolemy XII is known to have married his sister Cleopatra V, and it is confirmed that she is the mother of his eldest known child, Berenice IV. However, Cleopatra V disappeared from court records a few months after the birth of Ptolemy XII’s second known child, Cleopatra VII, in 69 BC, adding uncertainty about the motherhood of his subsequent children—Arsinoe IV, Ptolemy XIII, and Ptolemy XIV.

Berenice IV Epiphaneia was the oldest daughter of Ptolemy XII. This made her the sister of Cleopatra VII

A hypothesis proposes that these children, and perhaps Cleopatra VII, might have been born to a woman who was half Macedonian Greek and half Egyptian from a priestly family in Memphis, although this remains speculative and unconfirmed.

Porphyry, a philosopher from the third century AD, referenced another daughter of Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra VI, suggesting that she reigned alongside her sister Berenice IV.

Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra VII

The Berlin Cleopatra is a Roman sculpture of Cleopatra wearing a royal diadem, mid-1st century BC (around the time of her visits to Rome in 46–44 BC). It was discovered in an Italian villa along the Via Appia. The sculpture is now located in the Altes Museum in Germany.

However, Strabo, a historian who lived around the same time as the Ptolemies, reported that the king had only three daughters, with the eldest being Berenice IV. This discrepancy leads to speculation about the identity of Cleopatra Tryphaena mentioned by Porphyry. She might not have been a daughter of Ptolemy XII but could have been his wife, Cleopatra V. Presently, many experts indeed identify Cleopatra VI with Cleopatra V due to the inconsistencies and ambiguities in the historical records available.

Reigning from 51 BC to 47 BC with Cleopatra VII and Arsinoe IV, Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator was the son of Ptolemy XII and the brother of and co-ruler with Cleopatra VII. Image: An engraving by Élisabeth Sophie Chéron, published c. 1736, based on a 1st century BC medallion.

Who was Cleopatra’s mother?

The identity of Cleopatra’s mother remains uncertain. Cleopatra VII was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes, but historical records are not clear about the identity of her mother. It is generally presumed that her mother was Cleopatra V Tryphaena, who was possibly the wife of Ptolemy XII.

Cleopatra V Tryphaena may have been the same person as Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, although the evidence is not conclusive. The confusion and uncertainty surrounding the lineage of Cleopatra’s mother stem from the inconsistent and scarce historical records from that period.

A likely sculpture of Cleopatra V Tryphaena (also known as Cleopatra VI), 1st century BC, from Lower Egypt, now in the Musée Saint-Raymond

Alternative theories about Cleopatra’s mother

The identity and existence of Cleopatra’s mother, and whether she was Cleopatra V Tryphaena or Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, have been subjects of debate and confusion due to inconsistencies in historical sources. Several scholars and historians have varying opinions on this matter.

Scholars like Michael Grant, Joann Fletcher, and Stanley M. Burstein have identified the wife of Ptolemy XII Auletes as Cleopatra V Tryphaena. On the other hand, English Egyptologist and historian Aidan Dodson and American historian Duane W. Roller identify her as Cleopatra VI Tryphaena. This difference in identification stems from the confusion and conflation of these two figures in primary sources, and they might have been the same person.

English historian John Whitehorne has proposed that Cleopatra VI might have been a daughter of Ptolemy XII, appearing in 58 BC to jointly rule with her purported sister Berenice IV while Ptolemy XII was in exile in Rome. According to this explanation, Ptolemy XII’s wife, possibly Cleopatra V, may have died around the winter of 69–68 BC, coinciding with her disappearance from historical records.

Roller speculates that Cleopatra VI, whom he believes to be Ptolemy XII’s wife, could have been absent from the court for about a decade after being expelled for unknown reasons, subsequently ruling jointly with her daughter Berenice IV.

Joann Fletcher’s account posits that Cleopatra V Tryphaena was recalled from a ten-year exile from the court to co-rule with Berenice IV after the Alexandrians deposed Ptolemy XII Auletes. She argues that later historians might have erroneously assumed this queen to be another daughter of Auletes, thus numbering her as Cleopatra VI.

Frequently asked questions about Ptolemy XII

Ptolemy XII before Hathor and Philae, at the Hathor Temple, Dendera, which he built in 54 BC

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What was Ptolemy XII’s character like?

Ptolemy XII is generally characterized in historical accounts as a ruler who was indulgent in his personal pleasures and was perceived as weak. Several descriptions depict him as being drunk, self-indulgent, or excessively fond of music. The historian Strabo provided an anecdote which emphasizes Ptolemy XII’s passion for playing the flute. This flute-playing hobby was seemingly unconventional or inappropriate for a monarch of his stature and earned him the nickname “Auletes,” which means ‘flute player’ in Greek.

Such a depiction indicates that Ptolemy XII may have been more invested in his personal indulgences and leisure activities rather than exhibiting the traditional image of strength and leadership expected from a ruler, contributing to a legacy remembered more for his weaknesses and unconventional behaviors than for any significant accomplishments or statesmanship. The negative portrayal could be reflective of the political turmoil and instability during his reign and his dependency on Roman support to maintain his rule, shaping the perceptions and narratives about him in historical accounts.

Why was Ptolemy XII deposed in 58 BC?

Ptolemy XII Auletes was deposed due to a combination of internal dissatisfaction and external pressures. Here are a few key reasons:

To fund his extravagant lifestyle and pay bribes to Roman politicians, Ptolemy XII imposed heavy taxes on the Egyptian population. This led to widespread discontent and resentment among his subjects.

His reputation as a ruler who prioritized luxury and indulgence over governance further eroded his popularity and led to a lack of support among the Egyptian populace.

His pro-Roman stance and dependency on Rome were unpopular with the native Egyptians, who perceived this as a compromise of Egypt’s sovereignty and autonomy.

The annexation of Cyprus by Rome and the subsequent suicide of its ruler, Ptolemy XII’s brother, intensified anti-Roman sentiment and dissatisfaction with Ptolemy XII’s rule due to his failure to respond.

His ineffective rule also resulted in the loss of Egyptian territories and weakened Egypt’s influence in the region, diminishing his standing.

Amidst this backdrop of internal discontent and external pressures, local unrest escalated, culminating in Ptolemy XII’s eventual deposition. He was forced to flee to Rome in 58 BC, and his daughter, Berenice IV, took the throne in his absence. The deposition was essentially a reflection of widespread displeasure with his policies, economic mismanagement, and perceived subjugation to Roman interests.

What was Ptolemy XII’s early life like?

By 109 BC, Ptolemy IX, a ruling pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, initiated the process of acclimating his supposed son, Ptolemy XII, to public and official life, potentially preparing him for future responsibilities and leadership.

In this context, Ptolemy XII was granted the role of the Priest of Alexander and of the Ptolemaic kings, a significant religious and possibly political position. This office was normally held by Ptolemy IX himself throughout his reign, indicating the importance of the role and the likely intention of familiarizing Ptolemy XII with notable duties and public appearances.

Furthermore, a festival was established in Ptolemy XII’s honor in Cyrene, a city in Libya. The establishment of a festival in his honor would have served to elevate his status and reputation among the populace and the elite, reinforcing his public image and perhaps solidifying his association with the royal family and its traditions.

The initiation of Ptolemy XII into public roles and the homage paid to him through the festival were likely strategic moves to integrate him into the socio-political structure of the Ptolemaic dynasty and to familiarize the public with him, potentially in anticipation of his future ascension to the throne.

When was Ptolemy XII born?

The uncertainty surrounding the date of Ptolemy XII’s birth is due to the ambiguity concerning his mother’s identity. If Cleopatra IV, one of Ptolemy IX’s wives, was his mother, it is theorized that he would have been born around 117 BC. This estimation is also coupled with the assumption that he had a brother known as Ptolemy of Cyprus, who would have been born approximately a year later.

However, due to the lack of concrete evidence and the various conjectures regarding Ptolemy XII’s lineage, any proposed date of his birth remains speculative. The suggestion that he could have been born around 117 BC is based on inferred information, considering the potential maternal link to Cleopatra IV, but it is not definitively corroborated by historical documents or conclusive evidence.

As such, discussions around his date of birth, mother, and potential siblings are reflective of the broader uncertainties and debates surrounding the familial structures and relationships within the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Ptolemy XII before Isis and Osiris, at the Hathor Temple, Dendera

READ MORE: The Myth of Isis and Osiris

How did Ptolemy XII get the epithet “Auletes”?

Ptolemy XII, the father of Cleopatra, was bestowed with the epithet “Auletes,” which translates to “the flute-player.” This moniker was associated with him due to his inclination to actively participate in Dionysian festivals, events dedicated to Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, pleasure, and festivity.

Ptolemy XII didn’t just assume the title of “New Dionysos” to express his devotion to the god, but he also reportedly played the flute during these celebrations. This engagement in musical festivity was significant enough to warrant a distinctive epithet, highlighting a personal aspect of Ptolemy XII’s character and reign.

The indulgence of rulers in such cultural and recreational activities was not just a personal pastime but also had implications for their public image and relationships with the religious and cultural sentiments of their subjects.

What was Ptolemy XII’s reign like?

Ptolemy XII, a ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, was known for his disposition towards a life marked by opulence and indulgence. He is perceived as an indifferent and detached ruler, more engrossed in the pleasures of royal extravagance than in the affairs and well-being of his realm.

Who was Ptolemy of Cyprus, Cleopatra’s uncle?

Ptolemy IX’s relations with his mother reached a point of severe strain, leading to consequential shifts in power within the Ptolemaic dynasty. In 107 BC, the conflict escalated to a point where Ptolemy IX was compelled to leave Alexandria and seek refuge in Cyprus, and he was supplanted as co-regent by his younger brother, Ptolemy X.

The tumultuous turn of events and the abrupt departure of Ptolemy IX imply that he left abruptly, leaving his presumable sons, Ptolemy XII and Ptolemy of Cyprus, behind in Alexandria. The speculation that these were the sons he left behind is grounded in the surrounding historical context and the sequence of events within the royal family, as both Ptolemy XII and Ptolemy of Cyprus are believed to be associated with Ptolemy IX.

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