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Arsinoe of Egypt and Macedon: A Royal Life by Elizabeth Donnelly Carney: A Book Review

Arsinoe of Egypt and Macedon: A Royal Life (Women In Antiquity)
Author: Elizabeth Donnelly Carney
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Release Date: 2013
Pages: 240
Source: My Private Collection
Synopsis:The life of Arsinoë II (c. 316-c.270 Bce), daughter of Ptolemy Soter, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, is characterized by dynastic intrigue. Her marriage to her full brother Ptolemy Ii, king of Egypt, was the first of the sibling The life of Arsinoë Ii (c. 316-c.270 Bce), daughter of the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, is characterized by dynastic intrigue. Her marriage to her full brother Ptolemy Ii, king of Egypt, was the first of the sibling marriages that became a dynastic feature of the Ptolemies. With Ptolemy Ii, she ended her days in great wealth and power. However, prior to that point she was forced to endure two tumultuous marriages, both of which led her to flee for her life. Arsinoë was the model for the powerful role Ptolemaic women gradually acquired as co-rulers of their empire, and her image continued to play a role in dynastic solidarity for centuries to come. Although Arsinoë was the pivotal figure in the eventual evolution of regnal power for Ptolemaic women--and despite a considerable body of recent scholarship across many fields relevant to her life--there has been no up-to-date biography in English of her life. Elizabeth Donnelly Carney, in sifting through the available archaeological and literary evidence, offers here an accessible and reasoned portrait. In describing Arsinoë's significant role in the courts of Thrace and Alexandria, Carney weaves discussions of earlier Macedonian royal women, the institution of sibling marriage, and the reasons for its longstanding success in Hellenistic Egypt, ultimately providing an expansive view of this integral Hellenistic figure

        My Review: Arsinoe II was an early Ptolemaic queen who has been greatly eclipsed by the infamous last pharaoh in the Ptolemy dynasty, Cleopatra VII. Even though she was not as well-known as Cleopatra VII, Arsinoe II’s life was just as dramatic and colorful as Cleopatra’s. Arsinoe II’s story has inspired many operas to amplify her life with much pomp and fanfare, depicting her as scheming, manipulative, and murderous while also harboring romantic feelings for her brothers. Other operas have also portrayed her as a victim rather than a villain. In this biography of Arsinoe II, Elizabeth Carney proves that Arsinoe’s true story is more captivating than fiction.

        I had read numerous books on Cleopatra VII ever since I had to write a book report on her in middle school. So, I was pleasantly surprised and elated when I found out that there was a biography on an early Ptolemaic queen! Arsinoe was the daughter of Ptolemy I, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty and a general of Alexander the Great, and Berenice II. She married Lysimachus, the eventual ruler of Macedon and became one of his many wives. She bore him three sons. When Lysimachus eventually died in battle, Arsinoe and her three sons lived in Cassandreia, a powerful Macedonian city, and ruled there.

      However, Arsinoe was not satisfied with her position. She wanted her eldest son, Ptolemy to become king of Macedonia. This encouraged her to marry her half-brother Ptolemy Ceraunus, King of Macedonia. Ptolemy Ceraunus promised to make Arsinoe his queen, that he would take no other wives, and make her sons his heirs. Ptolemy, Arsinoe’s son, disapproved and resented his mother’s marriage and left the city of Cassandreia, which would prove to be his great fortune. Shortly after Ptolemy Ceraunus arrived in Cassandreia and crowned Arsinoe queen of Macedonia, he killed her two sons who stayed behind with her and forced Arsinoe to flee the city. Elizabeth Carney believed the reason why Ptolemy Ceraunus tricked Arsinoe is because he wanted revenge on Arsinoe’s full brother Ptolemy II, whom he believed stole the throne of Egypt that belonged to him. Ptolemy Ceraunus did not reign long as king because he was killed and defeated by the Gauls.

      Arsinoe gradually moved back to Egypt. Elizabeth Carney states that Arsinoe’s move to Egypt was her last resort and she believed that she went back in failure and disappointment because she could not make her son king of Macedonia. Therefore, what came after her move back to Egypt was truly a surprise for her. Arsinoe married her full brother Ptolemy II, which was an unprecedented move, and became his queen. Elizabeth Carney states that the reason the siblings decided to marry each other was to deify their dynasty. The marriage would greatly benefit Arsinoe and provided financial security for her last surviving son.

       Overall, this was a very brief and comprehensive biography of Arsinoe. However, Arsinoe remains an elusive figure. This biography shows that there is still plenty we do not know of her and Arsinoe of Egypt and Macedon barely touches the surface. It is hard to define how much power she actually exercised with her husband Ptloemy II. Thus, the biography had to rely on speculation for Arsinoe’s motives. Still, Arsinoe’s story proves that her life was just as fascinating as Cleopatra VII. My hope is that more authors both fiction and nonfiction will continue to explore other Ptolemaic women and not just solely on Cleopatra VII so that they can bring stories of these forgotten women to the general public.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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