Ptolemy VIII Physcon
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Ptolemy VIII Physcon

Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Tryphon[note 1] (Greek: ? , Ptolema?os Euergét?s Tryphon "Ptolemy the Benefactor, the luxurious"; c. 184 BC - June 26, 116 BC), nicknamed Physcon ( "the Fat"), was a king of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. He was the younger son of Ptolemy V Epiphanes and Cleopatra I Syra. His reign was characterised by fierce political and military conflict with his older brother Ptolemy VI Philometor and his sister Cleopatra II.

Ptolemy VIII was originally made co-ruler with his older siblings in the run-up to the Sixth Syrian War. In the course of that war, Ptolemy VI was captured and Ptolemy VIII became sole king of Egypt. When the war ended and Ptolemy VI was restored to the throne in 168 BC, the two brothers continued to quarrel. In 164 BC Ptolemy VIII drove out his brother and became sole king of the Ptolemaic empire, but he was expelled in turn in 163 BC. As a result of Roman intervention, Ptolemy VIII was awarded control of Cyrenaica. From there he repeatedly tried to capture Cyprus, which had also been promised to him by the Romans, from his brother.

After Ptolemy VI's death in 145 BC, Ptolemy VIII returned to Egypt as co-ruler with his sister. His cruel treatment of opposition and his decision to promote his niece Cleopatra III to the kingship led to a civil war between Ptolemy and Cleopatra II which lasted from 132 to 126 BC. Ptolemy was victorious and ruled alongside Cleopatra II and Cleopatra III until his death in 116 BC.

Background and early life

Coin of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, the father of Ptolemy VIII.

Ptolemy was the younger son of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, who reigned from 204-180 BC. Ptolemy V's reign had been dominated by the Fifth Syrian War (204-198 BC), in which the Ptolemaic realm fought against the Seleucid king Antiochus III, who ruled the Near East and Asia Minor.In that war, Antiochus III had completely defeated the Ptolemaic forces, had annexed Coele-Syria and Judaea to his empire, and reduced Egypt to a subordinate position.[1] The new situation was solidified with a peace treaty, in which Ptolemy V was married Antiochus' daughter Cleopatra I in 194 BC.[2]Ptolemy VI Philometor was the eldest son of the couple, born in 186 BC, and was the heir to the throne from birth. The exact date of Ptolemy VIII's birth is unknown, but it was probably around 184 BC.[3] He also had an elder sister, Cleopatra II, who was probably born between 186 and 184 BC.

The defeat in the Fifth Syrian War cast a shadow over the rest of Ptolemy V's reign. One prominent faction within the Ptolemaic court agitated for a return to war in order to restore Egyptian prestige, while another faction resisted the expense involved in rebuilding and remilitarising the realm.[4] When Ptolemy V died unexpectedly in September 180 BC, at the age of only 30, he was succeeded by Ptolemy VI. Since the new king was only six years old, actual power rested with the regents - first Cleopatra I (180-178/7 BC) and then Eulaeus and Lenaeus (178/7-170 BC). These regents were more closely associated with the peaceful faction and, as a result, members of the warhawk faction seem to have begun to look to the young Ptolemy VIII as a potential figurehead for their movement.[5]

First reign (170-163 BC)

Accession and the Sixth Syrian War (170-168 BC)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes

The Seleucid king Seleucus IV, who had followed a generally peaceful policy, was murdered in 175 BC and after two months of conflict his brother Antiochus IV Epiphanes secured the throne.[6] The unsettled situation empowered the warhawks in the Ptolemaic court and Eulaeus and Lenaeus made efforts to conciliate them. By 172 BC, they seem to have embraced the warhawks' position.[7]

In October 170 BC, Ptolemy VIII, now about sixteen, was promoted to the status of co-regent and incorporated into the Ptolemaic dynastic cult as one of the Theoi Philometores (Mother-loving gods) alongside his brother and sister, who had now been married to one another. The current year was declared the first year of a new era.[3][8][9] John Grainger argues that the these ceremonies were intended to paper over the factional differences that had developed in the court and to promote unity in the run-up to war.[5] Ptolemy VI remained the senior king, as demonstrated later in 170 BC by the declaration of Ptolemy VI's adulthood and the celebration of his coming-of-age ceremony (the anakleteria), marking the formal (but not actual) end of the regency government.[10][11][3]

The Sixth Syrian War broke out shortly after this, probably in early 169 BC.[12] Ptolemy VIII probably remained in Alexandria, while the Ptolemaic army set out from the border fort of Pelusium to invade Palestine. The Ptolemaic army was intercepted and decimated by Antiochus IV's army in the Sinai.[13] The defeated army withdrew to the Nile Delta, while Antiochus seized Pelusium and then moved on the Delta.[14]

As a result of this defeat, Eulaeus and Lenaeus were toppled by a military coup and replaced with two prominent Ptolemaic generals, Comanus and Cineas.[15] As Antiochus advanced on Alexandria, Ptolemy VI went out to meet him. They negotiated an agreement of friendship, which in effect reduced Egypt to a Seleucid client state.[16][17] When news of the agreement reached Alexandria, the people of the city rioted. Comanus and Cineas rejected the agreement, rejected Ptolemy VI's authority and declared Ptolemy VIII the sole king (Cleopatra II's position remained unchanged).[18][19] Antiochus responded by placing Alexandria under siege, but he was unable to take the city and withdrew from Egypt in September 169 BC, as winter approached, leaving Ptolemy VI as his puppet king in Memphis and retaining a garrison in Pelusium.[20]

Within two months, Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II reconciled with Ptolemy VI and he returned to Alexandria astheir co-regent. The restored government repudiated the agreement that Ptolemy VI had made with Antiochus and began to recruit new troops from Greece.[21][22] In response, in spring 168 BC, Antiochus invaded Egypt for a second time. Officially, this invasion was justified by the claim that Ptolemy VIII had unjustly appropriated his older brother's authority.[23] Antiochus quickly occupied Memphis and was crowned king of Egypt and advanced on Alexandria.[24] However, the Ptolemies had appealed to Rome for help over the winter and a Roman embassy led by Gaius Popillius Laenas confronted Antiochus at the town of Eleusis and forced him to agree to a settlement, bringing the war to an end.[25][26]

From joint rule to sole rule (168-163 BC)

Ring of Ptolemy VI Philometor as Egyptian pharaoh (Louvre)

Initially, the joint rule of the two brothers and Cleopatra II, which had been established during the war, continued. But the complete failure of the Egyptian forces in the Sixth Syrian War had left the Ptolemaic monarchy's prestige seriously diminished and it caused a permanent rift between Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII.[27]

In 165 BC, Dionysius Petosarapis, a prominent courtier who appears to have been of native Egyptian origin, attempted to take advantage of the conflict between the brothers in order to take control of the government. He announced to the people of Alexandria that Ptolemy VI had tried to get him to assassinate Ptolemy VIII and tried to whip up a mob to support him. Ptolemy VI managed to convince Ptolemy VIII that the charges were untrue and the two brothers appeared publicly together in the stadium, defusing the crisis. Dionysius fled the city and convinced some military contingents to mutiny. Heavy fighting took place in the Fayyum over the next year.[28][29][27] This and another revolt in the Thebaid - the latest in a series of rebellions that had tempted to overthrow the Ptolemies and re-establish native Egyptian rule. Ptolemy VI successfully suppressed the rebellion after a bitter siege at Panopolis.[30][29][27]

Late in 164 BC,[3] probably not long after Ptolemy VI had returned from the south, Ptolemy VIII, who was now about twenty years old, somehow expelled Ptolemy VI from power - the exact course of events is not known. Ptolemy VI fled to Rome and then Cyprus.[31] In summer 163 BC, the people of Alexandria rioted against Ptolemy VIII, expelling him in turn and recalling Ptolemy VI.[32]

Reign in Cyrenaica (163-145 BC)

On his return to power, a pair of Roman agents convinced Ptolemy VI to grant Ptolemy VIII control of Cyrenaica. Ptolemy VIII departed for Cyrene, but from there he went on to Rome to request help. The Senate was convinced that the division was unfair, declaring that Ptolemy VIII ought to receive Cyprus as well. Titus Manlius Torquatus and Gnaeus Cornelius Merula were sent as envoys to force Ptolemy VI to concede this, but he procrastinated and obfuscated. On their return to Rome, they convinced the Roman Senate to abandon their alliance with Ptolemy VI and to grant Ptolemy VIII permission to use force to take control of Cyprus.[33] The Senate offered him no actual support in the expedition which Ptolemy VIII launched in 161 BC. The expedition lasted up to a year, but fierce Cypriot resistance forced Ptolemy VIII to abandon the enterprise.[34][35]

In 156 or 155 BC, Ptolemy VIII faced a failed assassination attempt, which he attributed to his older brother. Ptolemy VIII went to Rome and displaying the scars he had received in the attempt to the Senate. Despite opposition from Cato the Elder (an ally of Ptolemy VI), he received the Senate's support and further resources for another attempt on Cyprus. During his time in Rome he is said to have met Cornelia Africana (who had been recently widowed following the death of her husband, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus), and asked for her hand in marriage, which she refused.

As a result of the embassy, the Roman Senate agreed to send a second embassy in 154 BC, led by Gnaeus Cornelius Merula and Lucius Minucius Thermus, with troops, in order to enforce the transfer of Cyprus to Ptolemy VIII's control.[36] Ptolemy VIII was besieged by his older brother Lapethus and was captured. Ptolemy VIII was persuaded to withdraw from Cyprus, in exchange for continued possession of Cyrenaica, an annual payment of grain, and a promise of marriage to one of Ptolemy VI's infant daughters (probably Cleopatra Thea) once she came of age.[37][38]

An inscription of 155 BC records Ptolemy VIII's will, in which he bequeaths Cyrenaica to Rome if he died childless.[39] This act is not mentioned by any literary source but it fits with the very close alignment between Ptolemy VIII and the Romans that is attested in the literary sources. Similar testaments are known from other contemporary monarchs, notably Attalus III of Pergamum. They were often used by monarchs as an attempt to protect themselves from assassination or coup. However, L. Criscuolo has argued that the inscription of Ptolemy's will is actually a forgery produced by the Romans after they gained control of Cyrenaica in 96 BC.[40]

Stele attributed to Ptolemy VIII, glorifying his rule and describing his support of Egyptian gods. The stele was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs as well as Greek.

Second reign (145-132 BC)

Ptolemy VI died on campaign in Syria in 145 BC. The Alexandrians quickly recalled Ptolemy VIII from Cyrene, offering him the kingship and marriage with Cleopatra II. He assumed the epithet Euergetes ('benefactor'), which recalled his ancestor Ptolemy III Euergetes. The royal couple were incorporated into the dynastic cult as the Theoi Euergetai ('benefactor gods'). Ptolemy was proclaimed pharaoh in Memphis in 144 or 143 BC, during which the couple's first and only child, Ptolemy Memphites, was born.[41][42]

On his return to Alexandria in 145 BC, Ptolemy VIII is reported to have launched a purge of those who had opposed him and supported Ptolemy VI.[43] Among his victims were a number of prominent intellectuals, including Aristarchus of Samothrace and Apollodorus of Athens.[44] The extent of this purge is luridly described in the literary sources. Justin reports that Ptolemy let his soldiers rampage through the streets of Alexandria, murdering indiscriminately, until he was "left alone with his soldiers in so large a city, and found himself a king, not of men, but of empty houses."[43]Valerius Maximus says that when the young men of Alexandria took refuge in the gymnasion, Ptolemy set the building on fire.[45] Ptolemy VIII probably also had the twelve-year old son of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II, who was also called Ptolemy, murdered. According to Justin, Ptolemy VIII did the deed personally, on the night of his wedding to Cleopatra, and the boy died in his mother's arms.[43] Documentary evidence from papyri indicates that in reality, the boy was initially maintained as heir and only removed after the birth of Ptolemy Memphites.[42]

Around 140 BC, Ptolemy VIII married his niece Cleopatra III (daughter of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II) and made her a co-ruler, without divorcing Cleopatra II. This marriage was probably intended to prevent her from being married to someone else and used by them in order to claim the throne.[46] However, the new arrangement contributed to conflict with Cleopatra II.

Civil war (132-126 BC)

Coin of Demetrius II Nicator
Coin of Alexander II Zabinas

In 131 BC, the people of Alexandria rioted and set fire to the royal palace. Ptolemy VIII, Cleopatra III, and their children escaped to Cyprus. Cleopatra II had their son, Ptolemy Memphites, who was now twelve years old, acclaimed as king. Ptolemy VIII was able to get hold of the boy in 130 BC, killed him, and sent the dismembered pieces back to Cleopatra.[43][45][47]

Ptolemy VIII returned to Egypt in 130 BC. Most of the country supported him. Alexandria remained loyal to Cleopatra II and he placed the city under siege. Growing desperate, in 129 BC Cleopatra offered the throne of Egypt to the Seleucid king Demetrius II Nicator. He had just returned to power in the Seleucid realm after years in Parthian captivity and was the husband of to Cleopatra Thea (daughter of Cleopatra II and Ptolemy VI). Accordingly, Demetrius II launched an invasion of Egypt in 128 BC, but his forces were still in the eastern desert, besieging the border fortress of Pelusium, when news arrived that Cleopatra Thea had installed their son, the future Antiochus VIII as king. The Seleucid troops mutinied and Demetrius II had to return to Syria.[48][49] In order to prevent Demetrius from returning once he had dealt with these revolts, Ptolemy VIII agreed to a request that he had received from a group of rebels in Syria, who had asked him to send them a royal pretender to lead them. Ptolemy selected Alexander II Zabinas, whom he presented as the son of an earlier Seleucid king, Alexander I Balas (r. 152 - 145 BC).[50] The resulting conflict in the Seleucid realm continued for years and meant that Seleucid intervention in opposition to Ptolemy VIII was no longer possible.[51]

In 127 BC, Cleopatra II took her treasury and fled Alexandria for the court of Demetrius II.[52][53] In her absence, Ptolemy VIII finally reconquered Alexandria in 126 BC.[54]

Third reign (126-116 BC)

Wall relief of Cleopatra III, Cleopatra II and Ptolemy VIII before Horus

After this, Ptolemy began negotiations to reconcile with Cleopatra II and the Seleucid court. In 124 BC, Ptolemy VIII abandoned his support for Alexander II Zabinas and agreed to support Demetrius II's son and successor, Antiochus VIII Philometor instead. He sealed the agreement by sending his second daughter by Cleopatra III, Tryphaena, to marry the Seleucid king.[55] Cleopatra returned to Egypt from the Seleucid court and was once more acknowledged as co-regent with Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III. She appears along with them in papyrus documents from July 124 BC onwards.[53][56]

The reconciliation of the two siblings was nevertheless a long process. A formal amnesty decree was published in 118 BC, but it was insufficient to improve the government's relationship with the whole country. The Romans were forced to intervene in Egypt in 116 BC.

Ptolemy VIII died in 116 BC. He was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Ptolemy IX, alongside Cleopatra II and Cleopatra III. Justin reports that he left the throne to Cleopatra III and whichever of her sons she preferred. Although she preferred her younger son, Ptolemy X, the people of Alexandria forced her to choose Ptolemy IX. This account is probably a false one, invented after Ptolemy IX was deposed by Ptolemy X.[57]

Marriage and issue

Ptolemy VIII Euergetes married his sister Cleopatra II on his accession in 145 BC and had one son:

Name Image Birth Death Notes
Ptolemy Memphites 144-142 BC 130 BC Murdered by his father in 130 BC, possibly after a brief period as co-regent.

In 142 or 141 BC, Ptolemy also married his niece, Cleopatra III, daughter of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II. They had a number of children:

Name Image Birth Death Notes
Ptolemy IX Soter PtolemyIX-StatueHead MuseumOfFineArtsBoston.png 142 BC December 81 BC Co-ruler of Egypt alongside his mother and grandmother from 116-107 BC, when he was exiled to Cyprus, then co-ruler with his mother once more from 88-81 BC.
Ptolemy X Alexander -100 Ptolemaios X. Alexander I. anagoria.JPG 140 BC? 88-87 BC King of Cyprus from 114-107 BC, when he became co-ruler of Egypt alongside his mother, until expelled in 88 BC.
Tryphaena c. 140 BC 110/09 BC Married the Seleucid king Antiochus VIII Grypus.
Cleopatra IV 138-135 BC? 112 BC Married to Ptolemy IX and co-ruler with him from 116-115 BC, when she was divorced from him and remarried to the Seleucid king Antiochus IX Cyzicenus.
Cleopatra Selene Cleopatra Selene Obverse.jpg 135-130 BC? 69 BC Married to Ptolemy IX from 115 BC until probably 107 BC, when she was possibly remarried to Ptolemy X. Then married in succession to the Seleucid kings Antiochus VIII, Antiochus IX, and Antiochus X.

By a concubine, perhaps Eirene, Ptolemy had further issue:

Name Image Birth Death Notes
Ptolemy Apion Ptolemy Apion BM 1383.jpg 96 BC King of Cyrenaica from an uncertain date until 96 BC


Cultural references

In the 1983 TV mini-series The Cleopatras, Ptolemy VIII is portrayed by Richard Griffiths.[58]


  1. ^ Numbering the Ptolemies is a modern convention. Older sources may give a number one higher or lower. The most reliable way of determining which Ptolemy is being referred to in any given case is by epithet (e.g. "Philopator").


  1. ^ Grainger, John D. (2010). The Syrian wars. p. 274. ISBN 9789004180505.
  2. ^ Chris Bennett. "Cleopatra I". Tyndale House. Retrieved 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d Chris Bennett. "Ptolemy VIII". Egyptian Royal Genealogy. Tyndale House. Retrieved 2019.
  4. ^ Grainger, John D. (2010). The Syrian wars. p. 274. ISBN 9789004180505.
  5. ^ a b Grainger 2010, p. 294-5
  6. ^ II Maccabees 3.
  7. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 284-8
  8. ^ Skeat, T.C. (1961). "The twelfth year which is also the first": the invasion of Egypt by Antiochos Epiphanes". Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 47: 107-113.
  9. ^ Hölbl 2001, p. 172
  10. ^ Polybius 28.12.8
  11. ^ Walbank, F. W. (1979). Commentary on Polybius III: Commentary on Books XIX-XL. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. pp. 321ff.
  12. ^ Walbank, F. W. (1979). Commentary on Polybius III: Commentary on Books XIX-XL. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. pp. 321ff.
  13. ^ Porphyry, FGrH 260 F 49a
  14. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 296-7
  15. ^ Polybius 28.19
  16. ^ Polybius 20.23
  17. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 297-300
  18. ^ Polybius 29.23.4; Porphyry FGrH 260 F 2.7
  19. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 300-1
  20. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 301-2
  21. ^ Polybius 29.23.4; Livy 45.11.2-7
  22. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 303-4
  23. ^ Diodorus 31.1
  24. ^ Mooren, L. (1978-1979). "Antiochos IV Epiphanes und das Ptolemäische Königtum". Actes du XVe Congrès Internationale du Papyrologie. Brussels. pp. IV.78-84.
  25. ^ Polybius 9.27; Diodorus 31.2-3.
  26. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 305-8
  27. ^ a b c Grainger 2010, p. 310-1
  28. ^ Diodorus 31.15a
  29. ^ a b McGing, B.C. (1997). "Revolt Egyptian Style: Internal Opposition to Ptolemaic Rule". Archiv Für Papyrusforschung. 43 (2): 289-90.
  30. ^ Diodorus 31.17b
  31. ^ Diodorus 31.18
  32. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 312 & 319-320
  33. ^ Polybius 31.10, 17-20
  34. ^ Polybius 33.11.4-7
  35. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 325 & 327
  36. ^ Polybius 33.11
  37. ^ Polybius 39.7; Diodorus 31.33
  38. ^ Grainger 2010, p. 327-328
  39. ^ IG Cyr. 011200: text and translation at Dobias-Lalou, Catherine. "Will of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II". Inscriptions of Greek Cyrenaica. CRR-MM, Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna. Retrieved 2019.
  40. ^ Criscuolo, L. (2011). "I due testamenti di Tolemeo VIII Evergete II". In Jördens, A.; Quack, J.Fr. (eds.). Ägypten zwischen innerem Zwist und äusserem Druck: die Zeit Ptolemaios' VI. bis VIII.: internationales Symposion Heidelberg 16.-19.9.2007, Wiesbaden. pp. 132-150.
  41. ^ Justin 38.8.2-3; Diodorus 33.13.
  42. ^ a b Chris Bennett. "Ptolemy". Tyndale House. Retrieved 2019.; Chris Bennett. "Ptolemy". Tyndale House. Retrieved 2019.
  43. ^ a b c d Justin Epitome of Pompeius Trogus XXXVIII.8
  44. ^ Christian Habicht, Hellenistic Athens and her Philosophers, David Magie Lecture, (citing FGrHist; 270; F 9) Princeton University Program in the History, Archaeology, and Religions of the Ancient World, 1988, p. 9.
  45. ^ a b Valerius Maximus Memorable Deeds and Sayings IX.ext.5
  46. ^ Ogden, Daniel (1999). Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death: The Hellenistic Dynasties. London: Duckworth. pp. 96-98.
  47. ^ Chris Bennett. "Ptolemy". Tyndale House. Retrieved 2019.
  48. ^ Justin, Epitome of Pompeius Trogus XXXIX.1; Eusebius 1.257
  49. ^ Houghton, Arthur; Le Rider, Georges (1988). "Un premier règne d'Antiochos VIII à Antioche en 128". Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique. 112: 401-411.; Chrubasik 2016, p. 143
  50. ^ Eusebius, Chronographia I.257; Justin Epitome of Pompeius Trogus XXXIX.1
  51. ^ Grainger 2011, pp. 375-82
  52. ^ Justin Epitome of Pompeius Trogus XXXIX.1
  53. ^ a b Chris Bennett. "Cleopatra II". Tyndale House. Retrieved 2019.
  54. ^ Grainger 2011, pp. 382-3
  55. ^ Justin Epitome of Pompeius Trogus XXXIX.2
  56. ^ Grainger 2011, pp. 383-4
  57. ^ Chris Bennett. "Ptolemy IX". Tyndale House. Retrieved 2019.
  58. ^ The Cleopatras at

Further reading

External links

Ptolemy VIII Physcon
Born: 182 BC Died: 116 BC
Preceded by
Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II
Pharaoh of Egypt
169–164 BC
With: Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II
Succeeded by
Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II
Preceded by
Ptolemy VII and Cleopatra II
Pharaoh of Egypt
144–132/131 BC
With: Cleopatra II and Cleopatra III
Succeeded by
Cleopatra II
Preceded by
Cleopatra II
Pharaoh of Egypt
126–116 BC
With: Cleopatra II and Cleopatra III
Succeeded by
Ptolemy IX and Cleopatra III

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