21. The First Ptolemy to Murder His Mother
The Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt might have been history’s most depraved and dysfunctional ruling family, but for all that, they managed to hang on to power for nearly three centuries. The dynasty’s rot and track record of depravity arguably began when Ptolemy II married his own sister. The consequences of introducing that tradition of incest into the dynasty were long-lasting, ultimately producing a long line of unfit rulers, and transforming the Ptolemies into objects of ridicule among Hellenistic and Roman contemporaries. Incest was arguably eclipsed, however, by Ptolemy IV (reigned 221 – 204 BC), who added intra-familial murder to the Ptolemaic dynasty’s repertoire, by murdering his mother, Berenice II.
Ptolemy IV had ascended the throne in 221 BC as co-ruler with his mother. Berenice II was a formidable woman, who had once stemmed a battlefield rout by mounting a horse, rallying her side’s surviving troops, and leading them in a countercharge that seized victory from the jaws of defeat. Feeling intimidated and wanting to rule alone, Ptolemy IV inaugurated his reign by murdering his mother. Notwithstanding that act of ruthlessness, he was a weak-willed ruler who was dominated by his mistress and court favorites, and an airhead who devoted himself to religious rituals. While Ptolemy IV devoted himself to fluff, Egypt was torn apart by serious rebellions that took decades to suppress. Since incest by then was a Ptolemaic tradition, Ptolemy IV also married his own sister, Arsinoe III, who gave birth to his heir, Ptolemy V.