Monday, May 19, 2014

Cleopatra, ambition and family networks

There is an old saying in English that "Behind every great man there is a woman ... telling him to be great". This is intended to indicate that even in patrilineal societies women have influenced history, even if history has chosen not to formally recognize them (or historians have, anyway). However, every so often a woman has also stepped into the spotlight for herself, and recognizably influenced events in a way that has brought her name down through history.

The most famous of these is probably Cleopatra (or more properly Kleopatra), the last ruler of Ancient Egypt (as Cleopatra VII). Sadly, her ambition to become Empress of the known world seems to have destroyed two successive Roman rulers (Julius Caesar and Marc Antony) as well as her own two brothers (who would have ruled in her place); and her failure seems to have lost the country of which she was queen, so that Egypt became a Roman dependency. She ruled from 51-30 BCE, and modern Egypt did not regain its independence until 1953. This was one seriously influential woman.

As noted by Schiff (2010):
She lost her kingdom once; regained it; nearly lost it again; amassed an empire; lost it all. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands ... Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra's end was sudden and sensational.
Her interest to us, however, is her role in a dynasty that favored incest, and thus had a "family tree" that was a hybridization network, as shown in the figure. This particular family history is rather complex. Note that Cleopatra herself had at least four liaisons, two with her brothers (who successively ruled jointly with her at Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, respectively) and two with Romans (Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony). Later, she also ruled jointly with her son by Julius Caesar (as Ptolemy XV).

Adapted from the Too Much Information blog, based on the information at Ian Mladjov's Genealogical Tables

The Ptolemaic dynasty was founded after the death of Alexander the Great (aka Alexander III of Macedon), when his empire was divided up among his Greek generals, and in 323 BCE Egypt ended up in the hands of Ptolemy, who subsequently ruled as the pharaoh Ptolemy I from 305-282 BCE. As Dray (2012) has noted:
His daughter, Arsinoe II, would start the tradition of incest. Married off to an old King of Thrace when she was still a teenager, she was the ultimate survivor. Her life was frequently in danger and she made many narrow escapes ... At some point, Arsinoe seems to have decided that if she wanted to be safe, she couldn’t trust anyone outside her immediate family. So, she returned to Egypt and married her full brother, Ptolemy II.
Now, the Greeks didn’t have a tradition of incest in their ruling families … but the pharaohs of Egypt did. By marrying her brother, Arsinoe was able to help create a link between the new Ptolemaic dynasty and the very old traditions of the native Egyptians. It served her extremely well as she became the first female pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty, ruling not just as the wife of the king, but as a king in her own right.
Meeg (2009) suggests that:
According to tradition, incestuous marriages between the pharaohs and their sisters were common. If this was the case, it could have been done to emulate the god Osiris and his sister / wife the goddess Isis (the product of that union was Horus, the alleged ancestor of the Pharaoh), and/or to keep the sacred bloodline pure. When Alexander the Great's general Ptolemy seized control of Egypt around 323 BC, his descendants would continue the local custom of pharaonic brother-sister marriages. This practice was unknown among Greeks and Macedonians.
Indeed, Wikipedia notes:
In ancient Egypt, royal women carried the bloodlines and so it was advantageous for a pharaoh to marry his sister or half-sister; in such cases a special combination between endogamy and polygamy is found. Normally the old ruler's eldest son and daughter (who could be either siblings or half-siblings) became the new rulers. All rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty from Ptolemy II were married to their brothers and sisters, so as to keep the Ptolemaic blood "pure" and to strengthen the line of succession. Cleopatra VII (also called Cleopatra VI) and Ptolemy XIII, who married and became co-rulers of ancient Egypt following their father's death, are the most widely known example.
Bevan (1927) continues the story [Note: he uses one number less for the Cleopatras and Ptolemies]:
Cleopatra VI found herself queen of Egypt at the age of seventeen or eighteen. By the custom of the house, and according to the will and testament of Ptolemy Auletes, the elder of her two brothers, then only nine or ten, was associated with her, as king (Ptolemy XII). They probably had, as a pair, the style of "Father-loving Gods" (Theoi Philopatores), though neither during the reign of Cleopatra with Ptolemy XII, nor during her reign, later on, with the younger brother, Ptolemy XIII (then about twelve), do the coins bear any head or name but that of the queen, and in Egyptian sepulchral inscriptions put up during the reign of Cleopatra with her younger brother (regnal years 5, 6, and 7 of Cleopatra) the regnal year of the boy-king is ignored. Ptolemy XIV was the acknowledged son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and ruled as child king with his mother.
The involvement of royalty in consanguinity and incest is widespread. As noted by Dobbs (2010):
While virtually every culture in recorded history has held sibling or parent-child couplings taboo, royalty have been exempted in many societies, including ancient Egypt, Inca Peru, and, at times, Central Africa, Mexico, and Thailand [and also Hawaii].
I have already discussed incest in the family "trees" of the Egyptian 18th Dynasty, in Tutankhamun and extreme consanguinity (the other set of pharaohs where this was common); and I have covered the persistent inbreeding in the downfall of the modern Spanish branch of the Habsburgs, in Family trees, pedigrees and hybridization networks.

Not unexpectedly, this phenomenon has received attention from modern evolutionary biologists. Conventionally, the evolutionary advantage of sexual over non-sexual reproduction is considered to be the creation of genetic diversity through heterozygosity. Inbreeding, by reducing heterozygosity, then seems to negate the advantages of sexual reproduction. So, the near universality of incest avoidance in humans has a clear genetic dimension. Indeed, as I have noted in previous blog posts this is easily demonstrated in well-known families — (i) Charles Darwin's family pedigree network, (ii) Toulouse-Lautrec: family trees and networks.

The presence of incest among royal families then requires biological explanation. Indeed, van den Berghe & Mesher (1980) have provided one:
Royal incest (mostly brother-sister; less commonly father-daughter) represents the logical extreme of hypergyny. Women in stratified societies maximize [evolutionary] fitness by marrying up; the higher the status of a woman, the narrower her range of prospective husbands. This leads to a direct association between high status and inbreeding. Royal incest is a fitness maximizing strategy if the following conditions are met: polygyny, patrilineal succession, and parental control of royal succession. Under those conditions, the genetic risks of close inbreeding are more than accounted for by the production of a highly related male heir who has, himself, access to a large harem. Data from Ancient Egypt, Inca Peru, Hawaii, Thailand, Monomotapa, Bunyoro, Ankole, Buganda, Shilluk, Zande, Nyanga and Dahomey confirm hypotheses derived from the sociobiological paradigm of inclusive fitness.
Finally, to return to Cleopatra, she is usually credited with being fatally attractive due to her great beauty. However, there is no evidence that this was actually the case. Her attractiveness to men seems to have come much more from a strong personality, including determined diplomacy and an easy facility with languages. Also, her ancestors were Macedonian Greeks, rather than native Egyptians, giving her a stronger genetic and cultural tie to Europe rather than to Africa, which must have helped when trying to woo the rulers of the Roman Empire. It was this ancestry that the dynasty's consanguinity and incest were intended to protect. The Egyptian populace certainly didn't benefit from it.

Indeed, Cleopatra seems simply to have been the ultimate expression of her dynasty's heritage, as noted by Ager (2006):
royal incest, as practised by the Ptolemies, was only one of a larger set of behaviours, all of which were symbolic of power, and all of which were characterized by lavishness, immoderation, excess and the breaching of limits in general.
Interestingly, the potentially negative aspects of inbreeding seem not to have affected this dynasty — there is no convincing evidence of infertility, infant mortality or genetic defects, for example (Ager 2006). Instead, their main historical legacy has been their bizarre juxtaposition of either marrying each other or murdering each other, and sometimes both. Cleopatra's activities in this regard were no different to those of her ancestors.


Ager SL (2006) The power of excess: royal incest and the Ptolemaic dynasty. Anthropologica 48: 165-186.

Bevan ER (1927) The House of Ptolemy. Methuen Publishing, London.

Dobbs D (2010) The risks and rewards of royal incest. National Geographic Magazine.

Dray S (2012) Keeping it in the (Ptolemaic) family: when incest is best.

Meeg (2009) Royal inbreeding in Ancient Egypt.

Ian Mladjov's Genealogical Tables — The Ptolemies, kings of Egypt.

Schiff S (2010) Cleopatra: a biography. Little, Brown and Co, New York. [excerpted in Smithsonian Magazine]

van den Berghe PL, Mesher GM (1980) Royal incest and inclusive fitness. American Ethnologist 7: 300-317.

Wikipedia. Inbreeding.


  1. Greeks did have a tradition of allowing marriage between half-siblings and marriages with paternal uncle and niece were common if the niece's father had die without a son, to keep the property in the family. Also, Indo-European Carians of Asia Minor, long-time neighbours of the Greeks and partly hellenized, had a tradition of brother-sister marriage among the elite and the last ruler of the Carians had allied with Alexander the Great and bequethed her kingdom to him and was well-known as a result among the Greeks and Macedonians.

    1. For more information on the Carians, see:

  2. For what it's worth, the portraits of Cleo on coins of the time picture someone who looks more like the actress who played Almira Gulch in the Wizard of Oz than Liz Taylor.