Cleopatra I and Her Impact on the Institutionalization of Power
for Royal Ptolemaic Women

Nori-Lyn E. Moffat

Clemson University

This paper will discuss the role of Cleopatra I in the growth of institutionalized power for royal Ptolemaic women. Scholars have alluded to her significance in this development yet their comments have been brief, personalized, and ultimately dismissive (Macurdy, 1927; Whitehorne, 1994). Evidence demonstrates that a critical shift occurred in the roles of royal women in the Ptolemaic monarchy during her lifetime.  A number of factors contributed to the critical part Cleopatra played in this process.

The dynasty's success began to unravel during the reign of Ptolemy IV and worsened during the reign of Ptolemy V. A rebellion in the Thebaid that produced a counter-pharaoh persisted for decades and was suppressed with difficulty only a short time before his marriage to Cleopatra.  Uprisings and discontent nonetheless continued, forcing Ptolemy V to focus his attention inward and to lose most of Egypt's foreign possessions.  Wars with the Seleucids intensified. The dynasty's treasury noticeably diminished.  When Ptolemy V died unexpectedly in 180 BC, his son by Cleopatra (Ptolemy VI) was only a minor. It was at this critical juncture that Cleopatra I led the way in establishing institutionalized power for royal women. 

Earlier scholars blamed lazy kings or extraordinarily violent and vicious queens for this turn of events and ignored the relevance of the general state of Egyptian internal and external affairs.  During Cleopatra's own lifetime events forced the monarchy to refocus attention within Egypt itself.  She came to live in a country where women had ruled as pharaohs and possessed more rights than in any other Mediterranean country.  In addition, earlier developments, the demilitarization of Ptolemaic kingship and the growth of royal sibling marriage, help to explain how royal women gradually increased their power and influence at court.

Circumstances specific to Cleopatra I also contributed to change. Her Seleucid and Macedonian heritage provided her with examples of women who stepped in to fill in the void left by the death of males.  She had a good relationship with the subjects of Alexandria and her name appeared in official documents alongside her husband's, as had those of the dynasty's previous queens.  She shared her husband's epithets and she was the first Ptolemaic queen to achieve official recognition in the governing of Egypt.  Cleopatra's authority clearly surpassed that of her predecessors and this enabled to her to become the first Ptolemaic queen to act, effectively, as a regent. 

After Cleopatra I's death, the established power of Ptolemaic women increased at the same time that the influence of the dynasty declined.  While Cleopatra I was never officially declared a joint-ruler or a ruler in her own right, her lifetime clearly marks the point in which royal women began to move towards just that.

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