The first Hellenistic queen

The little known wife of the Successor King Lysimachus, Amastris, is arguably the first true Hellenistic queen as she embodies the entanglement of Persian and Greco-Macedonian traditions.

Written by Branko van Oppen on

Amastris was a niece of Darius III through her father Oxyathres. She was married in succession to Alexander’s general Craterus, the tyrant Dionysius of Heraclea, and finally to Lysimachus of Thrace. She founded an eponymous city in Paphlagonia and was the first queen to issue coins with her own portrait.

Amastris was the mother of three children, was supposedly divorced so that Lysimachus could marry Arsinoe, and was allegedly murdered by her sons for interfering in their affairs. Despite their divorce, Lysimachus still avenged her death by killing her sons.

Scholars have mostly ignored Amastris and left the few known details of her life as contradictory as the ancient sources present them. This article aims to re-evaluate the extent of her agency in her remarkable career.

The last Achaemenid princess

As the daughter of prince Oxyathres, the brother of the last Achaemenid king Darius III Codomannus, Amastris (ca. 340/339-285 BC) was the last surviving Achaemenid princess.Show The sources on Amastris are: Diod. 20.109.6-7; Memn. ap. Phot. Bibl. cod. 224 §5-7 (884-888 PGM) = FGrH 434 F 4-5. Although her mother is unknown, the only woman associated with her father is an Egyptian concubine called Timosa.

Map of the Hellenistic world during the Age of the Successors (ca. 300 BC), taken from the Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd (1923), p. 18. Thrace is located on the southwestern Black Sea coast, Bithynia and Paphlagonia on the southern coast (the northern coast of modern Turkey).

After the Battle of Issus (333 BC), Alexander the Great found Amastris among the other royal and noble women left by Darius at Damascus. During the grand wedding ceremony at Susa almost a decade later (324 BC), when the Macedonian high commanders were married to Persian and Median women, Alexander gave Amastris to his general Craterus – the only Companion besides Hephaestion to wed a Persian princess.

Historians maintain that Craterus, famously devoted to Macedonian tradition, repudiated Amastris in order to marry Phila, the daughter of the regent Antipater. As Macedonian nobility practiced polygamy, Craterus did not have to separate from one wife to marry another. Craterus, at any rate, would soon fall in battle (321 BC).

Dionysius of Heraclea

Historiography (Memn. FGrH 434 F 4.4) actually implies that Amastris was not abandoned, as she offered herself in marriage to the tyrant Dionysius of Heraclea Pontica (ca. 360-305 BC) – with Craterus’ consent. She would bear him three children, named Amastris, Clearchus and Oxyathres. The given names are significant as they exemplify her high standing as Persian princess.

Amastris would be able to offer Dionysius valuable information about the inner workings of the Persian nobility: she had received a Greek education in the years before the Susa wedding, and she may have acquired a fair impression of the affairs in Macedon through her first husband. Dionysius took advantage of his marriage to further expand his sphere of influence in Bithynia – as he had been doing since the Battle at the Granicus (334 BC) and the eventual collapse of Persian power.

Indeed, in the same passage, the ancient historian Memnon writes that through his marriage with Amastris, Dionysius was able to greatly increase his good fortune and wealth, to strengthen and expand his power, and to improve the welfare and goodwill of his subjects.

Shortly before his death, Dionysius followed Antigonus I Monophthalmus and the other Successors by laying claim to the title of basileus (“king”; ca. 306/5 BC). The nature of his death was apparently a popular cautionary tale against wanton luxury and gluttony, for the story is preserved in Athenaeus, Aelian, and Photius (all three accounts likely go back to Nymphis of Heraclea, who was Dionysius’ near contemporary).Show Memn. FGrH 434 F 4.7; Athen. 12.72 (549a-c); Ael. Var. Hist. 9.13.

It is said that Dionysius died at the age of 55 from asphyxiation as a result of his enormous obesity, after his physicians had tried keeping him alive by piercing him with large needless. Before his death in ca. 305 BC, Dionysius had installed Amastris as regent for their underage sons Clearchus and Oxyathres. Initially, she ruled with the support of Antigonus, until he became heavily distracted by the grand coalition formed against him by the Successor Kings Cassander, Ptolemy, Seleucus and Lysimachus.

Lysimachus of Thrace

Three years Amastris remained in power at Heraclea. Meanwhile, Lysimachus (ca. 355-281 BC) had been assigned to Thrace after Alexander’s death (323 BC); he claimed kingship like the other Successors (ca. 305 BC), and then aimed to expand his dominion. He thus crossed the Hellespont and invaded Asia Minor in 302 BC. At the end of the campaign-season, the ancient historian Diodorus relates (20.109.6-7):

Lysimachus divided his forces to go into winter quarters in the plain of Salonia. He sent after many supplies from Heraclea, having made an additional marriage with the Heracleotes; for he had wed Amastris, […] who was dynast of the city at that time.

Evidently their marriage was political, as both stood to gain from their marital alliance. For Amastris the advantage of switching her allegiance from Antigonus to Lysimachus was foremost to secure her own position and that of her children by avoiding the annexation of Heraclea.

Lysimachus, for his part, was in need of support against Antigonus. Marriage precluded a military confrontation and the need for garrisons in the region. Amastris could also offer him her treasury, not to mention further diplomatic relations with the Persian nobility and a symbolic connection to the Achaemenids, which Lysimachus might eventually require to strengthen his position against Seleucus. Heraclea also provided Lysimachus a harbor in the Black Sea with control of access routes from the east and the west. To be sure, Lysimachus was already married – and was explicitly acknowledged to be polygamous (Plut. Comp. Demetr. Ant. 4.1).

Like the other Macedonians, Lysimachus, a close friend of Alexander and one of the highest commanders in the army, must have received a bride at the Susa wedding ceremony; he later married Nicaea, Antipater’s younger daughter, around the time of the Settlement at Triparadisus (320/19 BC).

After the Battle of Ipsus (301 BC), in which Antigonus was killed, Lysimachus summoned Amastris to the Lydian capital, Sardis (Memn. FGrH 434 F 4.9). Her son Clearchus was established as ruler of Heraclea Pontica in succession to his father and would later share power with his younger brother Oxyathres.

The extent to which they were able to retain a measure of autonomy from Lysimachus is debatable. It might be assumed that Amastris would join Lysimachus at his court in Thrace, though there is no supporting evidence. Soon (ca. 300/299 BC), he would additionally marry Arsinoe, a daughter of Ptolemy I of Egypt.

Most scholars maintain that Lysimachus was serially monogamous, and thus divorced Amastris. It is true that Amastris did eventually return to Heraclea from which it might be deduced that she had separated from her third husband.

From Bithynia to Paphlagonia

Queens did not normally leave the king’s court – as wives were expected to remain with their husbands. Amastris, however, had at least initially resided at Sardis; and Arsinoe was later installed by Lysimachus as his royal representative in Ephesus.

It would actually have been in Lysimachus’ best interest to retain Amastris, and it could be suggested that (like Arsinoe later in Ephesus) Amastris was established on the Pontic coast to rule on her husband’s behalf. Moreover, her son Clearchus joined Lysimachus’ campaign against the Getae (Thracian tribes located along the Lower Danube; ca. 293/2 BC). Such an alliance seems unlikely if Lysimachus had repudiated Clearchus’ mother several years before.

Amastris’ return to Heraclea upset her sons’ standing because her presence meant that she regained control of the city. She could hardly have done so without Lysimachus’ consent. She is indeed said to have revived the city upon her arrival. She then personally founded a new city in her own name (present-day Amasra) beyond the River Parthenius (Bartın Çayı) on the Paphlagonian coast between Heraclea and Sinope. What is more, Amastris issued spectacular silver coinage in her own name with the reverse legend “Basilissês Amastrios.” Although the word basillisa more broadly denotes “royal woman,” here it can only mean “queen”.

Various suggestions have been proposed who may be depicted on the obverse reverse of this coin issued by Amastris (Heritage 3061, 7 January 2018, lot 29140). Neither the youthful portrait nor the enthroned goddess may be a direct portrait of Amastris, but in both Greek and Persian terms they express her claim to rule as queen. Photo courtesy of David S. Michaels, Heritage Auctions.

While Phila, the wife of Demetrius, was the first woman to receive the title basilissa (ca. 305/4 BC), these were the first coins ever to be issued in the name of a queen or any living woman and should thus be interpreted as a bold statement of female authority.

It would be remarkable, to say the least, if the Persian Amastris would reign independently – that is, as female sovereign, rather than a king’s wife. She was royal by birth; Dionysius had claimed kingship shortly before his death; and Lysimachus had likewise laid claim to kingship. It appears, then, that Lysimachus had arranged for Amastris to rule as queen along the Paphlagonian coast.

The obverse of Amastris’ silver staters features a vigorous youthful head, wearing a Phrygian or Persian-type cap, decorated with a laurel wreath and on posthumous issues a star with eight rays; on some of the earliest issues a bow and quiver can be seen behind the nape of the neck. The portrait has been variously attributed to Attis, Men, Mithras, Perseus, and Amastris herself or her Amazonian namesake.

A veiled female figure, dressed in chitôn, seated on a pillowed throne, cradling a floral scepter to her left is presented on the obverse. In the palm of her out-stretched right hand she either holds a little winged Eros or a Nike. The Eros figurine offers a ribbon to a radiate head of Helios above; the Nike figurine offers the woman a wreath. The enthroned woman has been identified as Aphrodite, Anaïtis (Anahita), Inanna (Ishtar), and again as the queen herself. These reverses in fact correspond with the seated Athena Nikephoros of Lysimachus’ coinage struck after the Battle of Ipsus. Amastris thus adapted her husband’s imagery and suited it to her own setting.

The headdress on the youthful portrait represents a Persian cap rather than the Phrygian type. This cap appears regularly on satrapal coinage of the Achaemenid Empire. The obverse of Amastris’ coinage thus expresses the queen’s right to rule as the king’s representative; but does so in Persian terms and thus proudly proclaims her royal heritage. The enthroned woman on the reverse types is wearing a veil – not a common attribute of Aphrodite, but a symbol of chaste and maternal status, so that an assimilation with Anaïtis is likely.

The obverse and reverse of different coins illustrate the Persian and Hellenistic inspiration for the coinage of Amastris. Left a bearded portrait electrum sixth-stater from Ionian Phocaea issued by the Persian satrap Pharnabazus (ca. 478-387 BC) (Nomos 1, 5 May 2009, lot 107); right an enthroned Athena Nikephoros on a gold stater struck by Lysimachus after the Battle of Ipsus (CNG 108, 16 May 2018, lot 42). Photos courtesy of Victor England, the Classical Numismatic Group.

Both in Persian and Hellenistic ideology the headband that Eros offers to Helios is an attribute denoting the royal prerogative to rule. The radiate head of the sun god might then best be interpreted as an assimilation with Mithra. In Hellenistic style, in short, Amastris announces her claim to queenship, as representative of the king as last surviving descendant of the Persian royal house, and as intermediary of the gods Helios-Mithras and Aphrodite-Anaïtis.

Death and aftermath

It is unknown how many years passed since Amastris returned from Lysimachus’ court, had taken over control in Heraclea, founded a new city, and issued coinage of at least ten subtypes that proclaimed her authority (though somewhere between five and ten years seems likely). Her sons Clearches and Oxyathres must have failed to reach an accommodation with her and Lysimachus. Perhaps as an act to proclaim their independence, the brothers murdered their mother by drowning at sea.

At Amastris’ death (ca. 285 BC), Lysimachus arrived at Heraclea as if to approve the succession of Clearchus and Oxyathres, showing his usual “friendship” and “fatherly affection” (Memn. FGrH 434 F 5.4). He then avenged Amastris’ death by having the matricides killed. Lysimachus replaced the Heraclean tyranny with a democratic government and placed the city under his direct protection. He carried away the tyrants’ treasures and returned to Thrace.

Marital relations at dynastic level discussed here served pragmatic, diplomatic and political, rather than personal purposes, despite the ancient sources’ repeated claims to the contrary. Alexander and his Successors did not marry for the sake of love, although affection or attraction might have played its part. The belief in romance severely impedes our understanding of Hellenistic dynastic practices. The ancient and modern notion about the supposed serial monogamy of the kings is more over seriously misguided.

Like the other Successors, Lysimachus was involved in propagating his dynastic glory by dotting the landscape of his kingdom with settlements named after himself and his wives. These cities include: Lysimachea in Thrace (mod. Gallipoli), Nicaea in Bithynia, and Arsinoea on the site of Ephesus, in addition to the city of Amastris. City foundations served symbolic and ideological purposes, in addition to economic and military functions. Founding cities across the kingdom and circulating coins in his wives’ names was a dynastic policy to enhance the glory of his royal family. The policy meant to increase the presence of his power and augmented the appearance of his wives’ influence.

In sum, Amastris rose to power and prominence in the early third century and was in a very true sense the first Hellenistic queen. Other royal women received the title basilissa before her, perhaps – notably Phila and Apama. No other Hellenistic queen founded cities or issued coins before her, and none were of royal Persian descent.

Reviewing the surviving, though contradictory, evidence allowed for a reappraisal of the life of Amastris. Rather than a pawn in dynastic marital games, her remarkable career and the circumstances of her death present her as a formidable agent who was invaluable for the men she married. Lysimachus, whose royal aim certainly was to enlarge his kingdom as far as possible, more generally employed his queens as representatives of his power. Amastris, moreover, seems to have promoted her Persian heritage with pride.

Note: This article is a summary of a paper of the same title given on The Long Third Century BCE panel, organized by Eran Almagor, Tim Howe and Borja Antela-Bernadez, at the 11th Celtic Classics Conference held at the University of St. Andrews (July 11-14, 2018).

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Stanley M. Burstein, Outpost of Hellenism: The Emergence of Heraclea on the Black Sea (1976).
  • François de Callataÿ, “Le premier monnayage de la cité d’Amastris (Paphlagonie)”, 83 Schweizerische numismatische Rundschau (2004), pp. 57-86.
  • Helen S. Lund, Lysimachus: A Study of Early Hellenistic Kingship (1992).
  • Christian Marek, “Amastris: Geschichte, Topographie, archäologische Reste”, MDAI(I): Istanbuler Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts 39 (1989), pp. 373-389.
  • Branko F. van Oppen de Ruiter, “The Susa marriages: a historiographical note”, Ancient Society 44 (2014), pp. 25-41.

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