By Jack Beesley
Cleopatra I (c. 204-176 BCE) was born a Seleucid princess and became an Egyptian queen, as the daughter of Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire, and wife to Ptolemy V of Egypt. She was the first of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties to bear the name Cleopatra.
In 204 BCE, the five-year-old Ptolemy V succeeded to the Egyptian throne. Taking advantage of Egypt’s boy-king, Cleopatra’s father is believed to have established a secret deal with Philip V of Macedon to divide the Ptolemaic lands.
By 197 BCE, Antiochus III had seized many cities in Asia Minor. However, despite the hostility between Egypt and Syria, the threat from Rome appeared a greater danger to both kingdoms.
In response, Antiochus III and the guardians of Ptolemy V agreed to a marriage between Antiochus III’s daughter, Cleopatra, and Ptolemy V, thereby uniting both kingdoms. The couple were married in 194/3 BCE; Ptolemy was sixteen, while Cleopatra was just ten.
Cleopatra Syra (‘the Syrian’), as she became known in Egypt, was well liked, receiving an official titulary befitting a queen of outstanding excellence. Cleopatra and Ptolemy had three children, each of whom would go on to rule Egypt.
In 180 BCE, Cleopatra’s husband died, meaning Egypt was once again left with a boy-king, the five/six-year-old Ptolemy VI. Consequently, the young king assumed the throne under the guardianship of his mother, Cleopatra.
Alexandrian policy recognised Cleopatra as the supreme authority in Egypt, whereby her name took precedence over that of her son. Official protocol referred to her as Thea Epiphanes (the Manifest Goddess).
Significantly, Cleopatra was the first Ptolemaic queen to rule without a husband. Her unprecedented position was reflected in her right to mint coins in her own name, on which her son featured in secondary place on the reverse.
Upon becoming regent, Cleopatra ended war preparations arranged by her husband against her brother, emphasising her involvement in the political affairs of Egypt.
Cleopatra died in 178-176 BCE. On her deathbed, she selected two of her closest allies as regents for her son.
Wendy Cheshire, “Cleopatra “the Syrian” and a Couple of Rebels: Their Images, Iconography, and Propaganda,” Journal of the American Research Centre in Egypt 5 (2009): 349-391.