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Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt by Dee L. Clayman: A Book Review

Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt (Women in Antiquity)
Author: Dee L. Clayman
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Release Date: 2013
Pages: 288
Source: My Personal Collection
Synopsis: Berenice II (c. 264-221 BCE), daughter of King Magas of Cyrene and wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes, came to embody all the key religious, political, and artistic ideals of Ptolemaic Alexandria. Though she arrived there nearly friendless, with the taint of murder around her, she became one of the most accomplished and powerful of the Macedonian queens descended from the successors of Alexander the Great. She was at the center of a group of important poets and intellectuals associated with the Museum and Library, not the least of which was Callimachus, the most important poet of the age. These men wrote poems not just for her, but about her, and their eloquent voices projected her charisma widely across the Greek-speaking world. Though the range of Berenice's interests was impressive and the quantity and quality of the poetry she inspired unparalleled, today she is all but known. Assimilating the scant and scattered evidence of her life, Dee L. Clayman presents a woman who was more powerful and fascinating than we had previously imagined. Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt offers a portrait of a woman who had access to the cultural riches of both Greece and Egypt and who navigated her way carefully through the opportunities and dangers they presented, ultimately using them to accrue unprecedented honors that were all but equal to those of the king.

     My Review: Berenice II was one of Cleopatra VII’s ancestors. She was the daughter of King Magas of Cyrenaica (modern-day Libya). She was the step-daughter-in-law of Arsinoe II because she married Ptolemy III. She bore a son named Ptolemy IV. This biography portrays Berenice as a queen who was a patron of the arts. For the famous poets of her day helped project her image of a powerful queen.Through poetry, Berenice had helped establish a cult and became one of the most celebrated Macadeonian queens in Ptolemaic history.

     Just like Arsinoe II, Berenice II also had a colorful life. She was the granddaughter of Seleucus I, who was the founder of the famous Seleucid dynasty. When her father King Magas died, she married Demeterius who was the half-brother of the King of Macedonia. However, she murdered her husband once she caught him in bed with her mother. After the death of her husband she married her cousin Ptolemy III. They reigned together for 24 years until Ptolemy III died. However, she did not outlive her son for long because her son, Ptolemy IV, murdered her shortly after he ascended the throne. 

     This biography mostly focuses on Berenice II’s assassination of her first husband Demetrius and what the poets thought of the queen’s ruthless deed. Callimachus defends this queen for her actions. However, the poet Appolionius is more critical of Berenice II’s treacherous execution. I also found it interesting that the author presented Berenice II’s murder of Demetrius to be a fact becuase this has been disputed among historians. Joyce Tydesley believes it to be highly unlikely that Berenice II was ever involved in the murder of her first husband (For more information about this debate, read her biography of Cleopatra). Nevertheless, it provided an interesting debate on whether Berenice II was actually a murderer. 

     Overall, this biography relies heavily on speculation that is still being disputed among historians. There is not a lot of information on Berenice II except that she won a few chariot races. I like how this biography rarely focuses on Ptolemy III, and focuses exclusively on Berenice II. I also like reading about the poets of the era and how they helped influence a Golden Age in the Ptolemaic era. Thus, Mrs. Clayman shows a woman who was intelligent and as accomplished as her infamous descendant Cleopatra VII.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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