More than two thousand years ago, a lady killed a bunch of people and attempted to rule Egypt on her own. That obviously didn’t end well, as we’ll see.
Berenice IV Epiphaneia was born around 76-77 BCE. The important thing to note for today’s story is that as time progresses, the year numbers get smaller since we’re still in BCE stuff. Berenice’s father was Ptolemy XII Auletes. There are tons of other Ptolemys in this family, but the only important one today is her father. Berenice’s mother was Cleopatra V, not the one we always hear about. Berenice was the only one out of her siblings that we’re sure was the child of Cleopatra V.
At the time, there were literally three names that you could name your child (of course there were more, but literally every woman had these names). Those names were Cleopatra, Berenice, and Arsinoe. Berenice was one out of four sisters, so her older sister was named Cleopatra VI, she was named Berenice, her next sister was named Cleopatra VII, and her last sister was named Arsinoe. I’m not even kidding, two of Berenice’s sisters were named Cleopatra. Cleopatra VII is the one we always hear about, but she’s not important today. Out of these three Cleopatras, just remember Berenice’s older sister, Cleopatra VI.
So, now that we’ve met Berenice’s family, let’s talk about what happened a long time before her. It’s said that Berenice’s younger sister, Cleopatra VII, is closer in time to us than to the building of the pyramids. You could say the same thing about Berenice. A few centuries after the kingdom of Egypt was created, the building of the pyramids began, and that lasted until about 2,100 years before Berenice.
There was the Old Kingdom when the pyramids were built, followed by the Middle Kingdom, followed by the New Kingdom. The New Kingdom wasn’t that new, and that whole thing happened a long time before Berenice. During the new kingdom, a lot of important women’s names come up, like Hatshepsut and Nefertiti. They both had quite a lot of power in Egypt, and that was completely okay with the Egyptians, as long as there was also a man there. The only thing that would be weird would be if there was no man and woman ruling.
About 300 years before Berenice, in 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt from the Persians, because everybody wanted to have Egypt, because why not. Then a bunch of really complicated stuff happened which ended in one of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy, ruling Egypt. The new Ptolemaic dynasty started doing stuff the other royal families had done. And that included inbreeding and another important thing we’ll see a lot of today: murdering each other.
If you were to draw out the family tree of the Ptolemys, it wouldn’t exactly be a tree at all. So this was the family Berenice was born in. A very inbred, very murderous family. Berenice inherited that last trait, of course, and she murdered a few people before and after she could get her hands on the throne.
Literally nobody in Berenice’s family knew the Egyptian language, it was only the last Pharaoh, Berenice’s younger sister, Cleopatra VII, who made an effort to learn it. Berenice had grown up seeing her family murdering her other family members, and she’d also seen what a great strategy it was. Then came the time to actually use it.
So basically, Cleopatra V, Berenice’s mother, died. There had to be another woman ruling alongside Berenice’s father, so the role went to Berenice’s older sister, Cleopatra VI. It’s also important to note that some people think that Cleopatra V and Cleopatra VI are the same person, but we’ll go with them being different people.
Before we can get to Berenice murdering a bunch of people, though, we’ve got to talk about Julius Caesar giving Berenice’s father some problems. Caesar said that Berenice’s father, Ptolemy XII, wasn’t the rightful Pharaoh because he was only an illegitimate child of his father, Ptolemy XI. Ptolemy eventually got Caesar to agree that he was the rightful Pharaoh, but then the Romans annexed Cyprus, which Ptolemy’s brother (also Ptolemy) ruled. Because a bunch of Egyptians were angry about this, there was a bunch of unrest, and in 58 CE, Ptolemy had gone to Rome to get military aid so he could sort this whole thing out.
But just before he left, Cleopatra VI had been probably killed by Berenice, so yes, here’s where the murder starts. Berenice took her sister’s position and was henceforth known as Berenice IV. While her father was gone, he was deposed and Berenice was declared the new Pharaoh of Egypt, a title she was all too happy to have.
Now, if this was going to be an acceptable and normal situation, Berenice was going to marry her younger brother, Ptolemy (she had two younger brothers named Ptolemy and Ptolemy, because literally everyone is named Ptolemy, so creative), and share the throne with him. Berenice was definitely not happy with that idea, so she just continued ruling on her own.
The husband hunt didn’t stop, though, since Berenice wasn’t going to be able to keep her throne without a husband and co-ruler. A bunch of men were considered, including someone who was actually prevented from marrying Berenice by the Roman governor of Syria. Finally, Berenice found a husband, named Seleucus.
Something funny I have to say about Berenice’s new husband: Seleucus came from the ruling family of the Seleucid Empire, which also started with one of Alexander the Great’s generals taking over. Also, just like how literally everyone in Berenice’s family was named Ptolemy, everyone in Seleucus’s family was literally named Seleucus.
Everyone hated this Seleucus, including Berenice. The people had no respect for him, and Berenice thought that everything would be better without this horrible husband of hers, so she murdered him. And nobody liked him anyway, so that was a good thing for her.
Berenice remarried, to a much better dude named Archelaus, with a bunch of confusing ties to Rome that I can barely understand. This whole time period is way too confusing. Berenice might have made Archaelaus her co-ruler, but we don’t know for sure.
But then, Berenice’s father finally got some Roman support to come back and fight his daughter. Berenice had been too powerful for him to overthrow on his own, and three years after going to Rome to ask for military aid to help quash some unrest, he came back with some military aid to get rid of his daughter.
Ptolemy XII, Berenice’s father, invaded Egypt in 55 BCE. Berenice was only married to her second husband, Archelaus, for a few months before her father came along and defeated them. Archelaus probably died in battle, and Ptolemy XII became Pharaoh of Egypt once more.
Berenice’s three-year reign was over, and she was executed by her father because this family literally had no problem murdering each other. Ptolemy died a few years later and left his kingdom to his next daughter, Cleopatra, the one we always hear about. She married her younger brother, Ptolemy XII, and has her own crazy story that we’ll talk about someday.