BMCR 2001.03.02

Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death: The Hellenistic Dynasties

, Polygamy, prostitutes and death : the Hellenistic dynasties. London: Duckworth with the Classical Press of Wales, 1999. xxxiv, 317 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715629301 £40.00.

In this book, Daniel Ogden attempts to come to grips with the dynastic problems of succession and legitimacy at the courts of the Macedonian and Hellenistic kings, where polygamy or serial monogamy resulted in numerous candidates for the throne but rules of political inheritance were virtually non-existent. Thus, we get the apparent ‘whimsical violence of half-crazed princelets’ (p. ix) that characterises the period. Whether the accession of a given individual was engineered or merely confirmed by the army, the court or an élite group of megistoi, it was vital for the new ruler to establish his legitimacy through various means. O. concentrates on two important aspects of dynastic politics: amphimetric strife and levirate marriage.

The sons of the same father by different mothers are sometimes termed (e.g. by Hesychios) amphimetores. But in a world where polygamy, or more precisely polygyny, was practised but where there was often no clear indication of which wife was the official ‘queen’ or first wife, ‘royal wives hated each other; the various groups of paternal half-siblings hated each other; but the most intense hatred of all was reserved for the relationship between children and their stepmothers’ (p. x). To confuse matters further, primogeniture appears to have been the rule only amongst full siblings: thus, of the children of Amyntas III, Eurydike’s sons (Alexander II, Perdikkas III and Philip II) ruled in order of age; but there is no clear indication of whether the children of Gygaia were older or younger than those of Eurydike, and scholars have been divided on the matter.1 At the Ptolemaic court amphimetric strife occurred right from the beginning with the children of Eurydike (the daughter of Antipatros) and Berenike; the sons of the courtesan Thais, Lagos and Leontiskos, clearly had no (realistic) regal aspirations. A solution was sought in brother-sister marriage. This may have solved the problem of amphimetric strife, but succession struggles continued nevertheless, the most famous involving Philometor and Euergetes II (Physkon), and the two sons of Kleopatra III, Lathyros and Alexander. In fact, the female partner became the dominant and ‘more stable element’ and O. sees an ‘inversion’ of the normal process (p. 84).

Levirate marriage stands in curious contrast to the problems of polygamy, since new rulers often attempt to establish legitimacy by marrying the wife of the deceased king. The term ‘levirate’ normally refers to the marriage of the widow to one of the king’s brothers—which is, of course, prohibited in Judeo-Christian societies (at least, if the first marriage was consummated)2 on the basis of Leviticus xxviii:16, xx:21—and O. uses the term loosely, for convenience and not out of ignorance: cf. p. 205, where he speaks of Attalos II’s attempt ‘to legitimate his own position by levirate (in the full sense of the word, since the bride was passed between brothers) marriage.’ O. makes sense of Justin’s claim (7.4.7-8, 5.4-7: usually dismissed as scandalous nonsense) that Ptolemaios Alorites married Eurydike by supposing this to be an example of levirate marriage. It is, of course, not the only example of mothers supplanting their daughters, and too often these elder women have been dismissed as lustful Mrs Robinsons, with the exception that they display a greater appetite for power than for sexual pleasures. At first glance, it may not be obvious why a union with the king’s widow should be preferable to one with his daughter, who at least has the advantage of royal blood. But by marrying his widowed mother-in-law, Ptolemaios could at least act as regent for her under-aged children, whereas the claims of Eurynoë were insignificant in relation to the rights of her brothers. Hence it is surprising that O. does not make more of the otherwise bizarre story of the affair of Demetrios the Fair with is mother-in-law, Apama (Justin 26.3.2 wrongly calls her Arsinoë), the widow of Magas of Kyrene. Here there is not only the apparent advantage of legitimacy through levirate marriage but also the prospect of undermining Ptolemaic authority in Kyrene through the marriage of the Seleukid Apama to the Antigonid Demetrios.3 By contrast, Ptolemy Keraunos’ marriage to Arsinoë, the widow of Lysimachos, which O. rightly observes can be ‘construed as levirate-legitimation of Ceraunus’ claim to the Macedonian throne’ (p. 77), was entirely a family affair.

This, of course, raises the question of how the status of individual wives was determined in the ancient world, and on the basis of what evidence this can be understood by modern scholars. Indeed O. (pp. 23-24) puts an interesting twist on one possible method of measuring a wife’s importance, the practice of renaming. Instead of supposing that a ‘dynastic name’ (which is how I would define ‘Eurydike’ in fourth-century Macedon) bestowed special status on the female, O. suggests that ‘Philip II renamed his wife, Audata, [Eurydice]…after his mother, and, more significantly, his father’s wife, as a means of expressing his succession to his father’ (p. 23). But what do we make of Adea, then, who was given the name Eurydike when she married Arrhidaios (himself renamed Philip)? Surely, the name-change was, in effect, the same as calling her basilissa; and, as I observed in Glotta 61 (1983) 41-2, the only female in this line (Audata-Kynnane-Adea) who did not take the name Eurydike was Kynnane, whose husband Amyntas son of Perdikkas did not rule (or, at least, was never ‘king’ in the years that the two were married).4

The idea that Macedonian and Hellenistic rulers practised serial monogamy rather than polygamy is laid to rest: in most cases this view was based on modern Christian prejudices rather than a proper evaluation of the evidence. The problem of which partners were actually what we would call ‘wives’ (to call them ‘legitimate wives’ begs the question) persists and so does the concomitant matter of bastardy, a subject which O. has tackled in a previous book.5 Since royal bastards were not clearly defined by Macedonian law, as far as we know, charges of bastardy originated inevitably with the crown prince and his faction or with the new king as a means of legitimating his own position by undermining the status of his rivals (and by extension their mothers). Alexander’s agents reported to Pixodaros that Arrhidaios was a bastard ( nothos), even though both princes were the sons of foreign mothers, i.e., they were metroxenoi. And, since Philinna of Larisa was certainly not a whore or dancing-girl but rather a woman of the Aleuadai (cf. O. p. 25), the status of the mother and the legitimacy of her son were not necessarily determined by ethnicity. Attalos’ prayer that Kleopatra-Eurydike would produce ‘legitimate successors’ was rightly taken by Alexander as a charge of bastardy, but whether it was based on the belief that Kleopatra’s status as a Macedonian was greater than that of the Epeirot Olympias is a thorny question.6 What is clear from the respective comments of Alexander (regarding Arrhidaios) and Attalos is that legitimacy and bastardy were matters of perspective rather than law or custom. But it was not just the winner of the contest for succession who leveled charges of bastardy against his rival: Demetrios son of Philip V made a similar attack on the ruling Perseus, a charge which survived because Rome defeated Perseus and her historians cast Demetrios in a favourable light, even though the Romans may not have cared much for the prince himself. O. observes that it was a ‘classic example of a legitimacy dispute and a policy dispute becoming aligned’ (p. 186).

The book is divided into two main parts: Part I, ‘Polygamy and Death in the Macedonian and Hellenistic Courts’ occupies seven chapters and over two hundred pages (1. Argead Macedonia: 3-40; 2. Alexander: 41-52; 3. Cassander and Lysimachus: 53-66; 4. The Ptolemies: 67-116; 5. The Seleucids: 117-70; 6. The Antigonids: 171-98; 7. The Attalids: 199-213); Part II, ‘Hellenistic Royal Courtesans’ comprises three chapters on ‘Methodology and evidence’ (215-30), ‘Status and career’ (231-58) and ‘Courtesans at Work'(259-77). There are three appendices: ‘Women’s quarters in Hellenistic royal palaces’; ‘Repertorium of sources for Hellenistic royal courtesans’; and ‘King lists of the Argead and Hellenistic dynasties’. These are followed by an extensive bibliography and index.

Whereas Part I moves logically and effortlessly from chapter to chapter, Part II seems to be tacked on as an afterthought. This is perhaps necessary, given the nature of the evidence and the notorious difficulties associated with determining the status of hetairai. A study of the royal courtesans reveals that very little is in fact known about them as individuals and that most stories are intended as (usually, negative) judgments on not the courtesans themselves but the men with whom they are associated. But what we do know about certain individual courtesans is carefully collected and discussed in the chapter on ‘Status and Career’. We know the father’s names of only three royal courtesans: Lamia, Bilistiche and Agathokleia. And, not surprisingly, these are also the ones about whom we are best informed in general. In the majority of cases we cannot even say with certainty what their own birth names were.

O. handles his sources with skill and manuoeuvres carefully through this historical mine-field. Some conclusions or suggestions strike me as unlikely: for example, I doubt that Ptolemy I’s mistress and later queen, Berenike I, ‘may have begun her relationship with him as a courtesan’ (p. 231); she was an attendant and kinswoman of Eurydike, and although she may have been considered Ptolemy I’s concubine at some early stage, even the most hostile contemporary source would have found it impossible to convince his readers that Berenike was a whore, if indeed anyone would even have dared to do so. Similarly, I consider it highly unlikely that Kratesipolis, the widow of Alexandros son of Polyperchon, may have been a courtesan (p. 219); first of all, her attempts to attract a powerful second husband are not much different from those of Kleopatra, the sister of Alexander the Great, and second, I can think of no courtesan in the ancient world—leaving aside the legendary Semiramis, who is at any rate a composite of several female types—who commanded an army (Diod. 19.67).7

O’s book provides a valuable companion to Macurdy’s Hellenistic Queens 8 and Beth Carney’s excellent new study of Macedonian Royal Women (n. 1): as well as keeping the reader abreast of who’s who and who belongs to whom in the Hellenistic world, it engages in ample, and generally fruitful, speculation. Jakob Seibert’s Historische Beiträge zu den dynastischen Verbindungen in hellenistischer Zeit, Historia Einzelschriften 10 (Wiesbaden 1967) laid the groundwork, but failed to examine the impact of these dynastic marriage-alliances on the courts themselves. Ironically, these attempts at creating security in matters of foreign policy were internally disruptive. O’s book puts internal disputes into perspective and introduces a certain amount of method to the apparent madness of Hellenistic domestic affairs. It is a prosopographer’s delight, and goldmine of information for every student of Hellenistic history.


1. My own view, for what it is worth, is that Gygaia was Amyntas’ first wife, and that her sons were not ‘born into the purple’ (see Glotta 61 (1983) 41). For the opposite view, see Elizabeth Donelly Carney, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000) 47-8.

2. Hence Katherine of Aragon’s sworn testimony that she had not had sexual relations with Henry VIII’s brother, her first husband, put a kink in the king’s plans for an ‘easy’ divorce.

3. Demetrios was, admittedly, the grandson of Ptolemy I Soter — his parents were Demetrios Poliorketes and Ptolemais, a daughter of Soter and Eurydike (Plut. Demetr. 53) — but the daughter of Antipatros had been displaced by her kinswoman, Berenike, and Demetrios’ loyalty was undoubtedly to the Antigonid house. The marriage of Apama (Arsinoë) to Magas was arranged at the time when Magas attempted to become independent of his half-brother Philadelphos. But O’s concerns are primarily with the internal aspects of dynastic marriage rather than with their implications for foreign policy.

4. Whether Aristoboulos’ claim that Dareios III’s daughter was called Barsine indicates that Alexander renamed her Stateira in order to enhance his own position (p. 24) is debatable. Maria Brosius, Women in Ancient Persia (Oxford, 1996) 77 n. 68, thinks that Alexander may have renamed her Stateira since levirate marriage to the wife of Dareios was preempted by her premature death. Alexander could not have married Dareios’ daughter in 333/2, when the offer was first made, without placing himself under an obligation to his father-in-law and thus limiting the scope of his conquest; nor could he marry Dareios’ wife while the Persian king still lived.

5. Greek Bastardy in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods (Oxford, 1996).

6. O. flirts with the idea that ‘Philip could himself entertain the idea of a metroxenic kind of bastardy’ (p. 22), which is plausible only if we accept (as O. does) that Philip’s own mother had no Illyrian blood, and O. makes a strong case for the latter point.

7. I mean, of course, real courtesans rather than queens (e.g. Kleopatra VII) who were later maliciously labeled harlots.

8. Grace Harriet Macurdy, Hellenistic Queens. A Study of Women-Power in Ancient Macedonia, Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt, Johns Hopkins University Studies in Archaeology, no. (Baltimore, 1932). This important book is now eclipsed by the publication of Carney’s book (see n.1), J. Whitehorne’s Cleopatras (New York, 1994: cf., and Ogden’s study (which is the subject of this review).