Few names evoke more fascination than that of the famous Queen Cleopatra, the last independent ruler of the Hellenistic world. She was, however, a descendant of a long line of powerful queens in Ptolemaic Egypt, whose names have been all but forgotten. One of the Ptolemaic queens, Berenice II, ruled together with her husband Ptolemy III, when the kingdom was at the height of its power – dominating most of the eastern Mediterranean.
Berenice (ca. 267–221 BC), the daughter of the Macedonian dynast Magas and his Seleucid wife Apame, was born in Cyrene, a Greek city in Libya. Ptolemy I had installed Magas, a son of his fourth wife Berenice I by a previous marriage, as governor of Cyrenaica (the northern coastal region of Libya). Magas eventually wrestled a measure of independence from Ptolemaic sovereignty, but still had to acknowledge their suzerainty – and betrothed his daughter to the son and heir of Ptolemy II as a diplomatic and dynastic assurance.
His half-Persian wife Apame was the daughter of Antiochus I and Stratonice. After his death (ca. 252/251 BC), Magas’ widow married Berenice to the Macedonian prince Demetrius the Fair – who, however, offended the soldiers of the Cyrenean army and was assassinated in the bedroom of Apame. Whether this capture in flagrante delicto was a plot set up by Berenice in tandem with her mother or not remains a mystery. Cyrene briefly attempted to establish a republic (ca. 250/49-249/8 BC).