Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II

Story Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II

by Jimmy Dunn

The Name Cartouch of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II

(05/02/2006): Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Tryphon (also known as Physcon, meaning potbelly, Ptolemy the Younger and Ptolemy Kakergetes) was the eighth ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The reign of Ptolemy VIII has been referred to as a disaster in every way, and Ptolemy VIII has often been called a tyrant and repulsive. Acording to Athenaeus Deipnosophistani (XII 549e), "Through indulgence in luxury his body had become corrupted with fat and with a belly to measure it with one's arm..."

A black diorite statue head thought to be that of Ptolemy VIII, now in the Brussels Museum

The story of Ptolemy VIII's reign actually begins some years before. When Ptolemy VIII's older brother, Ptolemy VI Philometor, became king of Egypt, he was only a child. At first, his mother acted as regent, but when she died five years later, two greedy officials, Eulaeus and Lenaeus, appointed themselves as guardian and soon foolishly declared war on Antiochus IV in 170 BC. They were soundly beaten at Pelusium, and the younger Ptolemy VI was carried off as their prisoner. Hence, the Egyptians declared Ptolemy VIII and his sister, the wife of Ptolemy VI, Cleopatra II, queen and king of Egypt.

Now, Egypt had a curious problem, there being two Ptolemies, brothers, and both nominally declared rulers of Egypt. By now, Rome was already a dominant force, and the Egyptians, on behalf of Ptolemy VIII, and Antiochus, on behalf of Ptolemy VI, who was also his nephew, appealed to Rome for a decision on the matter. The outcome was that Ptolemy VI Philometor ruled the old capital of Memphis, while his younger brother Ptolemy VIII, with his sister, was given Alexandria.

Nevertheless, even though Antiochus IV returned to Syria in 169 BC, he was still a dominant force in Egypt, which was an anathema to the two brothers and their sister. They therefore joined forces and appealed to Rome for help against Antiochus. Antiochus' reaction was to march against Pelusium, where he demanded control not only of Pelusium, but also of Cyprus, an Egyptian possession. When he was denied, he marched on Memphis and then turned north to Alexandria.

A statue thought to represent Cleopatra II (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)

Though at first, Rome was distracted by its involvement in the Macedonian war with Perseus, that soon ended in the battle of Pydna. Rome was soon free to respond to the Ptolemaic plea, which they did by sending a three man mission, led by Caius Popilius Leanas, to Alexandria.

The famous confrontation between the Roman Senate's representatives and Antiochus IV took place in July outside Alexandria at Eleusis. The Senate's decree was that Antiochus should leave Egypt and Cyprus immediately. When he asked for time to consider this demand, Popilius refused and, taking his stick and drawing a circle in the sand around Antiochus' feet, demanded his answer before he left the circle. Realizing that Rome was now the dominant force in the Mediterranean, he had no choice but to comply with the Senate's demand. Afterwards, Ptolemy VI was confirmed as king of Egypt while Ptolemy VIII was made king of Cyrenaica. Although the arrangement lasted until Ptolemy VI's death in 145, it did not end the sparring. Ptolemy VIII convinced the Roman Senate to back his claim on Cyprus, but Ptolemy VI ignored this, and after younger brother's attempt to conquer the island failed, in 161 the Senate sent Ptolemy VI's ambassadors home. Sometime around 156/155 Ptolemy VI tried to have his brother assassinated, but this failed, and Ptolemy VIII went to Rome, displayed the scars of wounds he received in the attempt, and despite the opposition of Cato the Elder, received the Senate's support and some resources for another attempt on Cyprus. (An inscription records that Physcon had bequeathed Cyrenaica to Rome if he died childless, an act not mentioned by any literary source.) The second attempt on Cyprus also failed, and Ptolemy VI captured his brother, but spared him and sent him back to Cyrenaica.

A ptolamaic coin depicting the bust of Ptolemy VIII

However, some years later, in 145 BC, Ptolemy VI was mortally wounded in battle in Syria, leaving his widow, Cleopatra II in Alexandria with his young heir, Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator, with little protection. His army, which mostly consisted of mercenaries, had joined Demetrius II in Syria, and Ptolemy VIII saw this as his chance to return to Egypt. This forced Cleopatra and her young son to take refuge in Memphis, but soon a reconciliation was arranged and she agreed to marry her brother in order to protect her son's interests. However, as soon as she produced an heir for Ptolemy VIII, her husband promptly had his stepson and nephew killed.

A statue head of Cleopatra III (Wurttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart)

Ptolemy VIII was captivated by his niece, named Cleopatra III, who was the daughter of Cleopatra II. The niece agreed to the liaison so long as she could also become queen, so now mother and daughter, sister and niece of Euergetes, became joint queens as Cleopatra II and III. This situation clearly infuriated Cleopatra II, who had already had her son murdered by him.

Cleopatra II was greatly loved by the people of Egypt because the reign of her late husband had been seen as a good one in Egypt. Unfortunately, they had no such love of Ptolemy VIII. Though he had tried to gain the goodwill of the Egyptian priesthood and the populace by signing various amnesty decrees, he lashed out brutally against the Jews and the Greek intelligentsia in Alexandria, expulsing Aristarchus of Samothrace and Apollodorus, which of course angered the Alexandria mob and made Alexandria a changed city. Also, as early as 145 BC, he surrendered the last Egyptian strongholds in the Aegean (Itaanos, Thera and Methana). In fact, public resentment against him grew to such a point that he finally fled to Cyprus, taking the younger Cleopatra III, their two children and Memphites, his son by Cleopatra II, with him. It was not a moment too soon, for the famous Alexandria mob soon broke into the palace seeking his blood.

Another ptolamaic coin depicting the bust of Ptolemy VIII

Ptolemy VIII fumed in Cyprus, and plotted his return to Egypt where his sister, Cleopatra II, reigned as Cleopatra Philometor Soteira. So demented was he that, in a fit of maniacal revenge against his sister and the Alexandrian mob which had been busy destroying his statues and therefore the memories of him, he murdered Memphites, his own son by Cleopatra II, and sent the child's dismembered body to her as a present on her birthday.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Cleopatra II was having other problems. Harsiese, the last Egyptian to hold the title of Pharaoh, led a revolt in Thebes, whence he was rapidly expelled, although there is proof of his existence in el-Hiba as late as November of 130 BC.

A figurine thought to represent a caricature of Ptolemy VIII

By 129 BC, Ptolemy VIII was strong enough to invade Egypt. The ensuing civil war pitted Cleopatra's Alexandria against the countryside, who supported Ptolemy VIII. Cleopatra offered the throne of Egypt to Demetrius II Nicator, but he got no further than Pelusium, and by 127 Cleopatra left for Syria and the protection of her daughter, Cleopatra Thea, leaving Alexandria to hold out for another year. Afterwards, Ptolemy VIII took his revenge on the city with a bloody purge.

Strangely though, Cleopatra II returned to Egypt, though what happened to her afterwards is not known. Presumably she predeceased him and he managed to survive until 116, to be succeeded by her daughter and his wife, Cleopatra III, who inherited Egypt by Ptolemy VIII's will.

Ptolemy VIII was responsible for a number of small building programs. He built a small Ptolemaic sanctuary to the south of Medinet Habu, know known as Qasr el-Aguz, dedicated to Thoth (or a form of Thoth). Though unfinished, it is well preserved. Its decorative problem mostly depicts Ptolemy VIII accompanied by his first or second wives. This was not atypical. We also find Ptolemy VIII and his two queens recorded on the northwest wall of the hypostyle pronaos at Kom Ombo, where he was responsible for concluding the decorations of the inner temple.

Head of a statue thought to be Ptolemy VIII, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Ptolemy VIII was also responsible for a part of a shrine of Aphrodite, surnamed "on the mountain" to distinguish it from the temple of Aphrodite at Deir el-Medina. This chapel was build on the third terrace in the heart of the old Deir el-Bahri mortuary complex. Originally consisting of two rooms, Ptolemy VIII cut a third room in the rock for the worship of two healing deities. He also completed building a small temple dedicated to the goddess Satis on Elephantine Island that was begun by his brother, Ptolemy VI. Ptolemy VIII was also responsible for decorating the gateway of the Second Pylon in the Temple of Amun at Karnak.