Thursday, June 15, 2017


Altay Coşkun, Alex McAuley (ed.), Seleukid Royal Women: Creation, Representation and Distortion of Hellenistic Queenship in the Seleukid Empire. Historia Einzelschriften, 240. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. Pp. 322. ISBN 9783515112956. €62.00.

Reviewed by Branko F. van Oppen de Ruiter, Allard Pierson Museum, University of Amsterdam (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This collection brings together a selection of papers on Seleucid queenship delivered at the fourth "Seleucid Study Day" workshop held at McGill University, Montreal, on February 20-23, 2013. Apart from a preface, prologue and introduction, the volume's twelve chapters are divided into three parts: (1.) the first generation of queens, i.e., Apame and Stratonice I; (2.) the representation of royal women, i.e., Laodice I, Cleopatra Tryphaena, and female portraiture; and (3.) queenship on the periphery of the empire. In all, sixteen authors (eight of whom are from Canada) have contributed to the publication, which additionally comes with a substantial bibliography (31 pp.), three indices (13 pp.) and four genealogies.

The Seleucid Empire continues to fascinate students of (ancient) history because of its wide geographical span and its concomitant multicultural population—not to mention its unending political and dynastic turmoil. The study of the dynasty's royal women—queens and princesses—however, has not received the attention it merits. In fact, despite the work of Grace H. Macurdy, until that of Sarah B. Pomeroy and Elizabeth D. Carney, Hellenistic queens were generally discarded as insignificant. Over the last twenty-five years or so, however, the Seleucid queens have experienced a well-deserved reappraisal, and this collection of essays is another excellent step towards rectifying this long neglect.

The first four essays focus on Apame and Stratonice I. The first Seleucid queen consort, Apame, was married to Seleucus I at the wedding ceremony at Susa in 324 bce (see AncSoc 44 [2014], 25-41). She was the daughter of Spitamenes, a nobleman of Persian descent (not Sogdian, as is repeatedly stated). Ann-Cathrin Harders' restrained interpretation of the influence that Apame may have wielded, however, bears rather unrewarding results. There should be little reason to doubt that Apame, like her Achaemenid and Macedonian predecessors or her Hellenistic contemporaries, played an active role in diplomacy at the Seleucid court and in the education of her children. As a side note I would like to point out that the name Apamā (which occurs at least three times among Achaemenid royal women, and about half a dozen times among Hellenistic queens and princesses), was hardly rare—and may well have been a term of endearment, as it means "youngest (child)" in Avestan.

The conjectures of David Engels and Kyle Erickson are regrettably unsubstantiated. Their attempts at eking out historical truths from the literary fictions of Lucian or Ferdowsi (ca. 1000-1010 ce!), like Eran Almagor's contention that historical facts or royal ideology can be distilled from Plutarch, Appian and Lucian, are needlessly speculative. Engels and Erickson also seem unaware that OGIS 14 has been shown to be a Roman inscription that proves nothing about the relationship between Stratonice and the Ptolemies (cf. Ferrario, RIL 96 [1962], 78-82). It is Gillian Ramsey's chapter that stands out as truly exemplary, particularly for its definition of early-Seleucid queenship and for its treatment of the diplomatic importance of Apame and Stratonice I, as well as their agency.

Stratonice I, the second wife of Seleucus I, was the daughter of Demetrius I, but is better known for her subsequent marriage to Antiochus I. Her first marriage was publicly celebrated ca 300 bce. (The date itself proves that Apame had not yet died.) The question is not why Seleucus married again, because why wouldn't he? Most contemporary kings were polygamous (cf. CE 90 [2015], esp. 162: Seleucus had also brokered the betrothal of Ptolemais to Demetrius after the Battle of Ipsus). To be sure, Stratonice was hardly a mere pawn in dynastic marital affairs, as Ramsey rightly stresses. There is however no indication how she might have determined Antigonid or Seleucid political aims.

The three essays of the second part focus on the literary and iconographic representations of Seleucid queens. Altay Coşkun treats the portrayal of Laodice I, the first wife of Antiochus II, within the context of the Third Syrian War (for which now also see: van Oppen, Berenice II Euergetis [2015], 23-40). Coşkun argues cogently that the ancient historiography presents Laodice as the stereotypical "evil queen" rather than as a royal woman defending dynastic interests after the death of her husband, in order to secure the succession of their son. This distortion, Coşkun reasons, derives from Ptolemaic propaganda as well as the violent conflict of Seleucus II with Antiochus Hierax, in which Laodice became the easy scapegoat.

The next essay, by Brett Bartlett, takes us five or six generations later to some of the Ptolemaic princesses who married into the Seleucid royal house. The chapter focusses particularly on the dramatic rivalry between the sisters Tryphaena and Cleopatra, both daughters of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III. Justin is the only surviving ancient source for this sibling strife, which occurred at the time of the contentions over the Seleucid throne between their husbands, Antiochus VIII and Antiochus IX (who were half- brothers through their mother Cleopatra Thea, herself daughter of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II). Bartlett rightly stresses that an emphasis on female jealousy, rather than on dynastic or political importance, is common in the representation of royal women in ancient historiography. He does not address the question, however, of whether the rivalry between the Ptolemaic sisters must be understood as a fictitious fabrication designed to exonerate the rival Seleucid half-brothers.

Sheila Ager and Craig Hardiman discuss the general absence of royal female portraiture of the Seleucid dynasty—certainly before the coin portraits of Laodice IV. This is in stark contrast with the abundance of female Ptolemaic portraits. The authors are aware that the absence of evidence is not conclusive evidence of absence. They argue that the sudden appearance of female Seleucid portraits must be explained by the influx of Ptolemaic princesses, but cannot explain how the first female coin portrait is that of Laodice IV. That it is the prominence of the female Ptolemies that stands out and requires explanation—rather than the absence of Seleucid queens and princesses—is well taken. I take issue, nevertheless, with the authors' use of vague (namely undefined) terminology relating to portraiture, such as "classic," "generic," "idealizing," and "official"—with the implied connotation that they lack individual features, were made to look beautiful, followed standards of convention, and/or adhered to royal ideology (in implied contrast to "realistic" or "naturalistic") and that they are thus somehow false.

The third part of the volume consists of contributions dealing with dynastic marital relations with rulers on the periphery of the Seleucid empire from Cyrene to India. Apama, daughter of Antiochus I and Stratonice I, was one of the first Seleucid princesses to be married off to a local ruler, in her case Magas of Cyrene. Alex McAuley argues that Justin's negative portrayal of Apama must be the result of her failed affair with Demetrius after the death of Magas. (McAuley adheres to the conventional chronology of Apama's life, which requires revision; see van Oppen 2015, 7-22.) If Demetrius was assassinated by the army, on the order of the democrats and in collusion with Berenice, one might argue that he was set up by Apama exactly to be caught in the act; in other words, that she took an active part in the downfall of Demetrius, rather than falling romantically in love with him.

Next, Richard Wenghofer and Del John Houle present an interesting case for Seleucid intermarriage with local dynasts in Bactria and India, who in return for a wife would recognize the suzerainty of the Seleucid king. Examples include the Mauryan king Chandragupta, as well as the Bactrian vassal kings Diodotus I, Demetrius I, and indirectly Eucratides I. Through these dynastic marriage alliances, the authors explain better the politically turbulent events across the eastern part of the Seleucid empire and confirm recent chronological revisions. The question that persists is the extent of autonomy Bactrian dynasts acquired by their claim to basileia.

The ancestry that Antiochus I of Commagene displayed on Mount Nemrut not only laid claim to Achaemenid and Seleucid lineage, but even included four or five royal women of Seleucid descent. Rolf Strootman cogently suggests that Antiochus thus emphasized his matrilineal Seleucid ancestry in order to strengthen his claim to universal Great Kingship. The explicit reference to female ancestors of Seleucid descent confirms the legitimizing significance of such dynastic relations. Strootman further concludes that the rather Persianistic elements of the Commagene royal ideology are actually harder to explain than the Hellenistic aspects.

Turning to Judea in the wake of the Maccabean Revolt, Julia Wilker relates how Hasmonean women gradually acquired more authority, from the public roles of the unnamed wife and daughter of Simon Maccabaeus to the formal sole rule of Salome Alexandra, after the death of her husband Alexander Jannaeus (who had been established by Salina Alexandra, the widow of his brother Aristobulus). What seems problematic is determining kernels of historical truth in the often sensational accounts of the few surviving sources for Jewish antiquities.

In the final chapter, Adrian Dumitru surveys the various marriages of the last Seleucid queen, Cleopatra Selene, respectively with her brothers Ptolemy IX (116-107) and Ptolemy X (107-102), and then her cousins Antiochus VIII (102-96), Antiochus IX (96-95) and Antiochus X (94-92). The author also chronicles the often violent events surrounding Selene. The substantive contribution of Dumitru's analysis is not entirely clear to this reader, however, which is doubtless partially due to the confusing nature of the events.

As in most studies of the roles and positions of women in the past, ancient historians must here devise means to overcome the chauvinistic presumptions and patriarchic character inherent in the surviving sources. Moreover, despite their prominent social status, the general scarcity of evidence pertaining to the Seleucid queens may seem to render it well-nigh impossible to state any positive facts about them. The authors grapple with this scarcity each in their own way, from cautious skepticism to fruitful speculation about the queens' ideological, dynastic, diplomatic and/or political importance. Differences of opinion among the various authors, who range from graduate students to senior scholars, is to be expected. Scholarly disagreements make for interesting reading for specialists, but might also make the essays' worth harder to gauge for a more general reader.

Despite the dearth of explicit evidence, there should be no doubt that even publicly invisible queens may have wielded influence, advised their royal husbands, and engaged in diplomacy, patronage and/or benefactions. Seleucid queens will not have differed in that respect from royal women in other dynasties, Hellenistic or otherwise. An overarching definition or typology of female sovereignty still is highly desirable, not only for the Seleucid empire or the Hellenistic period alone. Future studies would do well to employ a comparative approach by incorporating general conclusions about royal and noble women from dynasties in periods for which more historical evidence is available. Recent scholarship on Elizabethan queenship may prove inspiring in that respect. A sociological or political scientific approach to queenship would counterbalance the fact that the word 'kingship' is, in current usage, practically synonymous with the term 'monarchy'. The present volume, at any rate, represents a welcome contribution to the study of royal female power in the Hellenistic period.

Table of Contents

Altay Coşkun & Alex McAuley, Preface and Acknowledgements 9
(1) Hans Beck, Noble Women in China, Rome, and in-between — A Prologue 13
(2) Altay Coşkun & Alex McAuley, Introduction 17
I. Experimenting with the Role of the Royal Consort: the First Two Basilissai of the Seleukids
(3) Ann-Cathrin Harders, The Making of a Queen — Seleukos Nicator and his Wives 25
(4) David Engels & Kyle Erickson, Apama and Stratonike — Marriage and Legitimacy 39
(5) Eran Almagor, Seleukid Love and Power: Stratonike I 67
(6) Gillian Ramsey, The Diplomacy of Seleukid Women: Apama and Stratonike 87
II. Representation, Visibility and Distortion of Seleukid Queenship
(7) Altay Coşkun, Laodike I, Berenike Phernophoros, Dynastic Murders, and the Outbreak of the Third Syrian War (253-246 BC) 107
(8) Brett Bartlett, The Fate of Kleopatra Tryphaina, or: Poetic Justice in Justin 135
(9) Sheila Ager & Craig Hardiman, Female Seleucid Portraits: Where Are They? 143
III. Dynastic Intermarriage and Hellenistic Queenship in the Shadow of the Seleucids
(10) Alex McAuley, Princess & Tigress: Apama of Kyrene 175
(11) Richard Wenghofer & Del John Houle, Marriage Diplomacy and the Political Role of Royal Women in the Seleukid Far East 191
(12) Rolf Strootman, 'The Heroic Company of My Forebears': The Ancestor Galleries of Antiochos I of Kommagene at Nemrut Dağı and the Role of Royal Women in the Transmission of Hellenistic Kingship 209
(13) Julia Wilker, A Dynasty without Women? The Hasmoneans between Jewish Traditions and Hellenistic Influence 231
(14) Adrian G. Dumitru, Kleopatra Selene — A Look at the Moon and Her Bright Side 253
Consolidated Bibliography 273
Index Locorum 305
Index Nominum 308
Index Rerum 312
Genealogical Tables Drafted by Alex McAuley
a) The Early Seleukids 319
b) The Late Seleukids 320
c) The Ptolemies 321
d) The Antigonids 322

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