Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.12

Dee L. Clayman, Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt. Women in antiquity.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xii, 270.  ISBN 9780195370898.  $27.95 (pb).  


Reviewed by Elizabeth D. Carney, Clemson University (elizab@clemson.edu)

During the peak of Alexandrian literary culture, Ptolemaic poets and intellectuals celebrated the life and virtues of Berenice II, daughter of Magas, king of Cyrene and wife of the third Ptolemy, Euergetes. Nonetheless, dynastic violence, not the glamour and renown generated by supportive poets, characterized the beginning and end of her life. Magas had arranged for her to marry the future Ptolemy III, but after Magas’ death, Berenice’s mother instead compelled her to marry Demetrius the Fair. Young Berenice killed the bridegroom her mother had chosen (she supposedly had found him in bed with her mother) and then took herself off to Alexandria to marry her father’s preferred groom, by now Ptolemy III. Berenice had six children by Ptolemy III, but soon after her husband’s death, Berenice’s son Ptolemy IV arranged his mother’s murder.

Dee Clayman has created the first lengthy study of Berenice’s career and place in literature. Clayman’s background and scholarship has been, primarily, in Hellenistic poetry so, not surprisingly, this study’s strength lies in analysis of the many texts that mention or allude to Berenice, though Clayman also deals with Berenice’s actions and policies, to the degree that the poor and largely absent narrative sources permit.

The introduction provides a brief sketch of Berenice’s life, her role in contemporary poetry (particularly Callimachus’ “Lock of Berenice”), overviews of relevant historical and literary sources, a discussion of Ptolemaic image-making (Clayman does not want to characterize it as “propaganda”), the methodology of her approach, and a note on conventions about dating, spelling, and naming employed in her monograph.

Chapter 1, “Birth in Cyrene,” though it certainly deals with the mythical past of Cyrene and Berenice’s father Magas and her Seleucid mother Apame, does not begin with either of these topics, but rather with the different versions of the mythical past presented by Callimachus and Apollonius, and ends with a discussion of the reorganization of Cyrene after the marriage of Berenice and Ptolemy III. The initial analysis of the murder of Demetrius the Fair happens in this chapter and Clayman argues that efforts to describe these events in a way favorable to Berenice began then and continued throughout her life.

Chapter 2, “Arrival in Alexandria,” starts with an overview of the physical city in Berenice’s time and turns to the intellectual city, specifically to discussion of the work and careers of Callimachus, Apollonius, and Eratosthenes. After a brief look at royal patronage, Clayman turns to an account of Ptolemy III’s ancestors and his succession to the throne.

Chapter 3, “Callimachus on Murder and Marriage,” examines the image of Berenice directly and indirectly generated by the poems of Callimachus, an image calculated to transform the murderous bride into the “dutiful daughter” and respectable royal matron and mother.

Chapter 4, “Apollonius on Murder and Marriage,” follows the same agenda for the work of Apollonius. Clayman understands Apollonius’ version of Berenice as more complicated and more negative and adduces that these features led to his replacement as the head of the famous library.

Chapter 5, “Ruling and Racing,” looks at many aspects of Berenice’s career in Egypt. This chapter contains Clayman’s only lengthy consideration of Ptolemy III’s reign and policies and of Berenice’s role in his rule. Clayman discusses the invention and function of the Ptolemaic myth that Berenice and Ptolemy III were siblings, children of Ptolemy II and Arsinöe II (though neither were). This chapter devotes considerable energy to Berenice’s racing victories and how these victories were celebrated in poetry from Alexandria. Clayman places both the victories themselves and the manner of their celebration in the context of other Ptolemaic victories but also in that of other royal women, particularly Cynisca of Sparta.

Chapter 6, “Berenice in Egypt and Another Murder,” is divided into three quite different sections. The first looks at Berenice’s image and role in the Ptolemaic pantheon, as displayed in various Egyptian monuments, objects, and documents, and argues that the theme of family is central to her presentation. The next section abruptly turns to her murder by her sons and the subsequently declining fortunes of the dynasty. The chapter concludes with a section called “Summing Up” that offers a final, synthesized look at her career and the poetry written about her.

Clayman also includes a few aids and supplements for the reader. Apart from the useful abbreviation list, two indices (a general one and index locorum), and helpful bibliography, there is also a family tree of Berenice II, a map of the eastern Mediterranean in her day, and a translation of Catullus 66. A collection of eleven black and white images relevant to Berenice appears in the middle of the printed text.

Clayman’s book is full of interesting and perceptive readings of poems and the intent of poets. Her analysis of Berenice’s image problem and how it was successfully solved is persuasive. While Clayman’s strength certainly lies in analysis of poetry and poets, she often employs that knowledge to good effect in topics not narrowly poetic, as in her fascinating discussion of the context for Cynisca of Sparta’s victory and the inscriptions created to commemorate it.

Though she writes clearly and sometimes vividly (for instance, she terms the Ptolemaic palace a “gated community”), the overall structure of the book as well as the internal structure of individual chapters is sometimes confusing and can hide or deemphasize important points and findings. Some issues of seeming importance for her topic get short shrift (e.g. female patronage or the reinvention of Berenice’s marriage as a sibling marriage or the motivation for the murder of Berenice). Despite these drawbacks, this monograph rewards even the non-literary reader with perceptive observations about a wide range of topics, many of them about Berenice’s image in cult. I was particularly struck by Clayman’s judgment that the cult for Berenice’s daughter of the same name (who died as a young child), not only involved her in “perpetual mourning” similar to that of Victoria for Albert, but that it also rendered her a more sympathetic figure by forcing the population to mourn with her each year.

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