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Arsinoe II

316 B.C.-ca. 268 B.C.
From: Egypt, Greece
Fields: Government and Politics
Key Words/Phrases: Queen of Thrace, co-ruler of Egypt
Arsinoe (are-SIN-oh-uh) was born in Macedonia, the northern Greek province which had expanded under Alexander the Great to dominate much of the Mediterranean world. Because no single leader was influential enough to take Alexander's place, upon his death the kingdom was divided among his generals. Arsinoe's father, Ptolemy, received one of the prize pieces: Egypt and Libya. He and his family settled in Alexandria, the great new city set on a ridge in the Nile Delta. Here Arsinoe probably received a finishing-school education.

At sixteen, Arsinoe was married to Lysimachus, a 45-year-old military leader from the Greek province of Thrace. Thrace had often rebelled against Macedonian domination, and after Alexander's death it tried again. Arsinoe's father no doubt arranged this marriage to make Thrace an ally.

For fifteen years Arsinoe lived the relatively stable life of an upper-class military wife. But in 285 B.C. her father abdicated his throne to her brother. Shortly thereafter her mother died, followed by her father in 283 and her husband in 281. Arsinoe's three sons' lives were in danger as potential threats to Ptolemy II.

Arsinoe asked the Macedonian king, her half-brother, for asylum. According to custom, she married this brother to assure herself and sons safety and royal position. Apparently she helped to have her stepson (Lysimachus's son) killed so he could not preempt her children's presumption to the Macedonian throne. But the king subsequently had two of her sons put to death. Soon after this he himself died. Arsinoe and her surviving son, Ptolemaeus, returned to Egypt.

In Alexandria, Arsinoe married her full brother, Ptolemy II, whose power had presumably grown secure during her absence. Because of her popularity with the people, Arsinoe's presence enhanced his stature. But in addition Arsinoe was an able advisor and administrator. It was probably she who continued to attract to Alexandria the circle of brilliant scholars, writers and artists who expanded the library her father had founded. Only through Arsinoe's skill in foreign policy did Ptolemy II win his campaign against the other great Macedonian satellite, Syria. For her contribution, he had her deified.

In 271, only 45 and at the height of her powers, Arsinoe died. Ptolemy II continued to cite her name in connection with royal decrees, and some of his people continued to worship her as a goddess.

Contributed by Rebecca Bartholomew, author of Lost Heroines: Little-Known Women Who Changed Their World, in 1997.


Diana Bowder, ed., Who Was Who in the Greek World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982). A photograph of a bust of Arsinoe is seen on page 61.


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