The Reason Cleopatra Married Her Brothers

To call Cleopatra impressive would be a serious understatement. Per Smithsonian Magazine, she is remembered for her influence and power as a female pharaoh and seductress. Naturally, future generations would obsess over her looks and love life because society's priorities are nothing if not backward. But Cleopatra was more than just a pretty face. Live Science explains that her empire encompassed Egypt, Cyprus, a portion of present-day Libya, and various other segments of the Middle East. Multilingual and intellectual, Cleopatra was a famously persuasive communicator and shrewd ruler. Ironically, the iconic Egyptian leader was not Egyptian; her family, the Ptolemies, had Macedonian Greek origins.

As a result, a different article from Smithsonian Magazine notes that the Ptolemies primarily spoke Greek and practiced Greek customs. Cleopatra believed herself to be incarnate of the goddess Isis and used this notion to her advantage. The Egyptian people adored her for learning their language and came to see Cleopatra as one of their own. Likewise, ThoughtCo notes that Cleopatra's relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are legendary for their romantic and political implications. However, it might be a surprise to learn that Cleopatra married not one but two of her brothers in her lifetime, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV (via Britannica).

According to Britannica, Cleopatra likely married Ptolemy XIII soon after the 51 BCE death of her father, Ptolemy XII. Live Science reports that Ptolemy XII's will stipulated that the two should marry and rule together. Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII did so, but the arrangement did not last. 

Cleopatra and her first brother-husband became embroiled in a civil war

Cleopatra married Ptolemy XIII when he was 10, and she was 18, per History. Their marriage devolved into the worst kind of sibling rivalry. Ptolemy's advisers conspired against Cleopatra, forcing her to leave Egypt (via Live Science). Cleopatra, however, did not give up easily. She seduced Julius Caesar, who came, saw, and conquered her brother. Smithsonian Magazine explains how these events unfolded. Cleopatra fled to Syria but knew that Caesar, who happened to be visiting her former palace, could help her win back the throne. Although her brother had barred her from entering Alexandria, legend has it that a servant rolled her up in a carpet and smuggled her back into the palace.

According to Live Science, 13-year-old Ptolemy XIII thought he had defeated his sister once and for all. He was shocked to learn Cleopatra had returned home and convinced Caesar to support her claim to the throne. Caesar enforced Ptolemy XII's will, which clearly stated that brother and sister would rule together. Ptolemy XIII later attempted but failed to overthrow his sister a second time.

Britannica reports that Ptolemy XIII decided to leave Alexandria but drowned in the Nile. With his death, History Hit notes that Cleopatra subsequently married her 12-year-old brother Ptolemy XIV when she was 22. By this point, Cleopatra and Caesar had become lovers and had a son named Caesarion (per HistoryExtra). Their marriage was short-lived, as Cleopatra likely had him murdered — the only fate harsher than puberty. She then ruled Egypt with her son Caesarion by her side.

Keeping it in the royal family

History writes that there was nothing taboo about Cleopatra marrying her brothers. The publication notes that it was common for the royals of antiquity to marry relatives to ensure their bloodline remained pure. According to Live Science, Cleopatra's family, the Ptolemies, ruled Egypt for three centuries. Tragically, Cleopatra would be the last of the Ptolemaic rulers but was definitely not the first to marry a family member. Several of her ancestors kept it in the royal family. In fact, ThoughtCo reports that Cleopatra's parents, Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V, might have had the same father and, thus, were half-siblings.

But why was incest so rampant among the Ptolemies? Sheila Ager, a professor at the University of Waterloo and a Ptolemaic expert, wrote in "All in the Family: Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty" that there are various reasons behind this decision. As aforementioned, the Ptolemies were ethnically Greek. Ager argues that perhaps the Ptolemies practiced incest to honor Egyptian royal traditions. Egyptologist Zahi Hawass explained (via Reuters), "A king could marry his sister and his daughter because he is a god, like Iris and Osiris, and this was a habit only among kings and queens."

Per "All in the Family: Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty," this proved the point that the Ptolemies ruled by divine right and were anything but average. Moreover, they likely practiced incest to avoid marrying into families they had political conflicts with. Interestingly, it's unknown if the Ptolemies' inbreeding led to any genetic issues.