Arsinoe of Egypt: A Retelling of The Royal Rebel Against Rome

Do you know the story of Arsinoe, a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a rebel against the Romans and the sibling of the infamous Cleopatra? No? That is because history is written by the victors. Arsinoe has always been overshadowed by her older and more seductive sister in our historical records, but this article will put forward that Arsinoe was just as ambitious, power-hungry and political as Cleopatra, only buried literally and figuratively before her true, tantalising and treacherous tale could be told.

In order to tell Arsinoe’s scandalous story, we must travel back to ancient Alexandria. Here, we find that the course of history was not following a trajectory, where Cleopatra becoming the iconic ruler of Egypt that we know today was apparent or assured. Indeed, Cleopatra’s ascension to the throne of Egypt as the bride of her younger brother Ptolemy, was unforeseen. This article proposes that this is when Arsinoe is free to take centre stage. Arsinoe’s role becomes significant when Cleopatra falls from a pedestal of power as a result of her contextually controversial political views on the contentious issue of the day: the Roman Empire. Most ancient history books fail to mention the adolescent Cleopatra’s fall from grace, instead merely skipping to the part where she gracefully climbed out of a rug, which was placed inside of Julius Caesar’s bed-chamber in the palace. Classicists and historians, however, usually fail to mention why Julius Caesar was in Egypt in the first place and fail to mention Arsinoe lurking in the shadows of this significant story. Cleopatra was exiled by Ptolemy, her brother and betrothed, as she believed that Egypt should deal with the ever-expanding Roman Empire by forming an alliance with it, instead of engaging the greatest military in the world in battle. Her younger sister, Arsinoe, disagreed. This life-changing political opinion should not be understated. This difference of opinion on the way to approach the Roman Empire between these two siblings would quite literally change the course of history. Ptolemy and Arsinoe forced their elder sister to leave Egypt because of their political disagreements. But, as we are all aware, Cleopatra would not stay away for long.

The Rescue of Arsinoe, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1555-1556.

Indeed, it is this sibling squabble that brought Julius Caesar to Egypt on a trip that would become legendary in the year 48 BC… For all of the wrong reasons. It was a trip that would involve intrigue, betrayal, sex, scandal, rebellion and power. Julius Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria set the stage for Cleopatra’s return to her homeland and fueled the flames for a showdown between the royal siblings, Cleopatra, Ptolemy and Arsinoe. The royal will of their father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, decreed that the famous Julius Caesar should be summoned to Alexandria to mediate any dispute in regards to the succession of the Egyptian throne. Arsinoe, who is estimated to have been in her mid-teens around the context of this time, was to be betrayed by her elder sister who was now twenty-two years old. It is widely known that Cleopatra used her ‘slender build’ to roll herself up into a ‘fine’ and ‘expensive’ rug, which was ordered to be placed inside Julius Caesar’s quarters. Ptolemy and Arsinoe were not aware of this until the morning. It is believed that Cleopatra begged Julius Caesar, the fifty-five-year-old friend of her deceased father, to restore her to her rightful place as queen of Egypt, making use of her famed beauty marked by her ‘full cheeks,’ ‘straight nose,’ ‘short neck’ and ‘small chin’ when she was ‘in the prime of her life,’ according to Cassius Dio. Arsinoe, who is believed to have been equally as ‘beautiful’ with similar physical features to her elder sister, did not use her feminine wiles to charm Julius Caesar. At the time, engaging in sexual intercourse with a Roman was considered to be an act of treason. 

Indeed, the gritty political drama between Cleopatra and Arsinoe truly takes shape here. When Ptolemy found his exiled elder sister in the bed of Julius Caesar the next morning, the soldiers who supported Ptolemy and Arsinoe’s belief in going to war with the military might of Rome launched an attack on Julius Caesar’s small force of men. If we examine this from the perspective of Arsinoe, it is understandable why she and her supporters would have felt betrayed by Cleopatra. It is apparent that they would have been under the impression that Cleopatra had sold Egypt to the Roman Empire. This led to the supporters of Arsinoe and Ptolemy besieging the royal residence, where Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Arsinoe and Ptolemy still remained. Cassius Dio informs us that ‘war besieged Caesar’ as brother fought against brother over the fate of this very nation and the state of its foreign policy. Amongst this chaos, we are aware that Julius Caesar took Arsinoe as a hostage, alongside Ptolemy. So, what does this tell us? It informs us that Julius Caesar himself did not doubt the political abilities of Arsinoe or Ptolemy, whom he feared could morph into leaders and figureheads for the men attacking Julius Caesar’s soldiers. Julius Caesar and his Roman forces were already outnumbered and he sent for reinforcements, which would take several weeks to arrive by sea. Thus, the balance of power was unclear amongst the flames and fury, and the tables of history could have easily turned. 

However, Julius Caesar told his own men to go and set the ships in the harbour alight. This, in turn, enabled an ‘inferno’ to sweep across the city, which led the men in support of Arsinoe and Ptolemy away from the palace, where they turned their attention to curbing the fire in the city. This was a move that would lead to a great opportunity for Julius Caesar/Cleopatra and Arsinoe herself. Whilst Julius Caesar used this moment to send his troops to one of the nine ancient wonders of the world, the Pharos Lighthouse, which controlled all of the ships entering into Alexandria, Arsinoe seized the opportunity to flee from her royal prison. This was a move of great courage undertaken by Arsinoe, who would have only been between thirteen to sixteen years old. She was rebelling against Rome and against the notorious Julius Caesar himself. Arsinoe was choosing the rebel army over the expansionist Roman army, risking her life for her political views. This is evidence that Arsinoe possessed as much ambition and drive as her more famous sister. The rebel forces who supported Arsinoe’s less peaceful foreign policy towards the Roman Empire had taken Arsinoe from Julius Caesar and Cleopatra’s clutches and brought her into their city-based headquarters. It seems apparent that the rebel forces were also not in any doubt that the younger sister of Cleopatra could be her match. We can verify this because the rebel forces declared Arsinoe their queen, not the eminent Cleopatra. In her name, the rebel forces launched a surprise attack on Julius Caesar at the Lighthouse of Pharos, which left Julius Caesar needing to swim for his life. Many books of the ancient world seem to have forgotten this part; an attack launched by a teenage girl left Julius Caesar in fear of his life. Arsinoe and her rebel forces took siege of the Lighthouse at Pharos, a motif of her own dynasty’s power, leaving Julius Caesar to stumble back to Cleopatra at the palace, having survived Arsinoe’s attack by swimming further out to sea. Arsinoe raised Julius Caesar’s purple cloak onto the Lighthouse of Pharos as a mark of her impressive victory. 

However, Arsinoe’s victory over Julius Caesar and Cleopatra did not last for long. Julius Caesar’s reinforcements arrived, whilst the rebels bickered amongst themselves about the affairs of Ancient Egypt. These reinforcements, brought across from Syria, launched a counter-attack against Arsinoe and her men. The Roman legions went into Egypt and drowned Ptolemy, as the young boy tried to flee across the Nile. One of Cleopatra’s main rivals for the throne was dead, thanks to the dirty work of her lover, Julius Caesar, who was determined to fulfil his promise to her that he would make her sovereign. 

Arsinoe remained alive… for now. The younger sister of Cleopatra was taken hostage by Julius Caesar once more and she was taken with him back to Rome. Arsinoe, the teenage rebel who dared to challenge the power of Rome was to become subject to its crowds. Julius Caesar sought to have Arsinoe strangled after she was paraded in chains through the streets of Rome as an example of what happened to those who fought against the powers of the Roman Empire, even if they were merely a teenager. However, the people of Rome were horrified at the notion of murdering this little girl, who had ‘tears streaming down her face’ and was miles from her homeland. Julius Caesar understood that killing Arsinoe would turn the crowds against him… And so he spared Arsinoe’s life. 

Instead of being murdered for taking on the Roman Empire, the younger sister of Cleopatra was provided with the promise of safety in the name of Artemis and her temple located in the large Roman province of Ephesus. Indeed, Arsinoe was to enter another one of the ancient world’s wonders by taking up residence in the Temple of Artemis. This Greco-Roman Goddess was the protector of political hostages and Arisnoe undoubtedly felt a huge relief that Cleopatra could not reach her here – In sacred walls and many miles away from Egypt. 

Unfortunately, Arsinoe’s safety was no longer assured after Julius Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times on the 15th March 44 BC. His death left Arsinoe within the grasp of her elder sister once again, as a certain Mark Antony had connections to Ephesus. When Mark Antony sought money from Cleopatra and Cleopatra sought the death of her younger sister, their relationship was suddenly mutually advantageous. This was evident when the dead body of Arsinoe was found on the Temple of Artemis’ steps.

Arsinoe’s teenage body was buried beneath a structure matching the Lighthouse of Pharos… A motif of her brief and short-lived victory against Rome and Cleopatra.

Sophie Overton

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