Why Was Murder Preferrable to Marriage in the Case of Cleopatra?

It is the year 308 BC; fifteen years after the death of Alexander the Great. During this time, his empire has been unofficially divided between his closest companions: Ptolemy, a Macedonian general and one of Alexander’s oldest friends, has control of Egypt; the one-eyed general Antigonus has Asia Minor and Syria, and Cassander – son of the late great general Antipater – has forcefully taken over as regent of Macedonia and the Greek city states. This arrangement, however, is far from secure and intermittent, bloody war rages throughout Alexander’s lands.

In Sardis, the capital city of Lydia (situated in modern-day Turkey), Cleopatra of Macedon plots her escape. She has been living as a guest-prisoner with Antigonus for more than ten years. She is a princess – the full sister of Alexander the Great. By now she is about fifty years old. Most of her family is dead – mother, father, brother and half-siblings all having met untimely deaths. Somehow, word has reached her that Ptolemy, ruler of Egypt and a childhood friend of her brother’s, has asked for her hand in marriage. Despite having rejected the proposals of many of Alexander’s other generals, she accepts. This is where we find her, attempting to make her way south to Egypt.

She never makes it. Antigonus’s men find her and she is brought back to Sardis, imprisoned and killed. The question is, why?


Alexander the Great depicted on the 4th century BC ‘Alexander Sarcophagus’ (Istanbul Archaeology Museum)

When Alexander died, he had no obvious successor. Potential candidates included his mentally deficient half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus, his unborn child, carried by his ‘barbarian’ wife Roxane, and his young son Heracles, born to Barsine, another ‘barbarian’. None of these options, therefore, were especially promising. The Babylonian Settlement of 323 BC decreed that Philip Arrhidaeus and the unborn child (if male), would co-rule the empire, until the latter came of age. In reality, though, this meant that the empire was very much up for grabs and it wasn’t long before the men who had once fought beside Alexander  turned on each other, each attempting to unofficially carve out a chunk of the empire for himself. (I say unofficially because, up until c.306 BC, none of these men – Alexander’s ‘successors’ – ever officially declared themselves as kings, for to do so was to deny Alexander’s legacy and risk incurring the wrath and rejection of his people).

It is not surprising, then, that Alexander’s female relatives were brought to the fore at this time – they could be married and would hopefully produce children, thus legitimising the seizure of royal power and lands. What is surprising, though, is that each of Alexander’s female relations met a violent death. Why was it that, at a time when legitimacy and a relationship with the late Alexander was so important, murder was preferred to marriage in the case of these royal women?

For women like Alexander’s mother, Olympias, and his half-sister Cynane, the answer is more straight-forward: they were ambitious and aggressive, operating in distinctly male spheres, and their fates were largely the result of the fiercely patriarchal society in which they lived. But Cleopatra had never deliberately tried to rock the boat; though sometimes her mother’s pawn, she had kept out of the wars that raged in the 310s. Why, then, was another of Alexander’s half-sisters, Thessalonice, utilised as a legitimising tool (married by Cassander in 316 BC) but Cleopatra, Alexander’s only full sister, was not? The ancient historian Diodorus tell us that she had been “the prize in a contest among the most eminent leaders” (20.37.3-6), so why did Antigonus keep her captive for over ten years, but never once attempt to marry her and have the upper hand against these “most eminent leaders”?

Historians like Elizabeth Carney have argued that Antigonus refrained from marrying Cleopatra because he feared that, if he did so, it would unite the other successors against him. There are several problems with this theory, however: firstly, Antigonus’s rivals were already firmly united against him. Secondly, if Cleopatra was so important to these men, then surely her captivity alone would be enough to prompt their action against him? Finally, it does not make sense that Antigonus would be too afraid to marry her, but not to kill her.


Map of Alexander’s Empire (Sardis and Egypt are circled)

While Thessalonice was eventually murdered by her own son (I told you they all met horrible deaths), her role in the war of the successors was very different to that of her half-sister, Cleopatra. Perhaps this says more, though, about the intentions of Cassander and Antigonus than it does about the women themselves. For Cassander, his road to kingship and power clearly lay in the arms of the Argead royal family: marrying Alexander’s half-sister in 316 (and later having his sons, Alexander IV and Heracles, murdered) was how he aimed to establish himself as Alexander’s successor. For Antigonus, it seems, his ambitions went beyond simply succeeding Alexander – he was more concerned with his own Antigonid dynasty, and so he had no interest in marrying into Alexander’s family. That said, he could not risk one of his rivals marrying Cleopatra and using her as a legitimising weapon against him, thus she was kept prisoner until her attempted escape. At this point, probably because imprisoning her was proving too much of a hassle, Antigonus had her murdered. But the world didn’t care. By then, all three of Alexander’s legitimate successors – his two sons and his half-brother – were dead. Succession was now concerned with land, wealth and military prowess.

Although the successors initially upheld the Babylonian Settlement naming Alexander’s half-brother and son as co-rulers, they also began to establish their own dynasties, cementing their rule through a new style of personal monarchy. Over time, this ‘personal monarchy’ depended less on legitimacy or birthright and more on the individual’s ability to prove himself as a successful and generous king to his religiously, culturally and racially diverse kingdom (Alexander’s empire included Greece, Turkey, Egypt, modern day Iran and even parts of India). While this style of kingship may have originated with Alexander, as time went on it no longer relied on his memory – rendering his surviving blood-line at at best irrelevant and at worst obstacles to be removed.

It is the year 308 BC, fifteen years after the death of Alexander the Great. His sister, Cleopatra, is dead because her one saving grace – her relationship to her late brother – no longer matters.




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