What's in a Royal Nickname?

Ancient Appellations Come to Life

Antiochus I, later nicknamed "Soter". Print Collector/Contributor/Getty Images

Who doesn't love a good nickname? The Hellenistic kings of the ancient Near East sure knew how to give themselves masterful monikers. After Alexander the Great died, his successors divvied up his empire into smaller kingdoms, and their heirs gave themselves great epithets. These Greek names ranged from the ridiculous - like Lathyrus, or "chickpea,"  - to the geographical, such as "Cyzicenus," meaning "of Cyzicus," a town in Turkey - and even complimented the bearer's military success - "Poliocertes," or "besieger of cities."  You weren’t a real ruler without a nickname, but why did so many kings of the time period have them?


Who were these kings? The ones we'll examine mostly hailed from three dynasties: the Seleucids of Syria, Antigonids of Macedonia, and the Ptolemies of Egypt, although other Near Eastern rulers used epithets, as well. These ancient monarchs probably chose some of their own nicknames, while others were given to them by third parties. The royals used them to identify themselves in ways they wished to be known. For example, a rebel Seleucid lord was named "Diodotus surnamed Tryphon," says Strabo in his Geography. This title, meaning "magnificent," may have been a means of declaring the king's glory and justifying Diodotus's spurious claim to the throne. On official items like coins and inscriptions, rulers would probably use the nicknames they favored the most.

In their excellent essay “The Pattern of Royal Epithets on Hellenistic Coinages," scholars Francois de Callatay and Catherine C. Lorbery observe, "Royal epithets referred to in epigraphic inscriptions and on coins are presumed to reflect the official will of the kings, the way they chose to be qualified, as an important part of the way they wanted to be perceived (a view that may be disputed).” This is probably not universally the case, but official presentations of monarchical authority, like coins or inscript would utilize the most dignified of nicknames.

Nicknames eventually became synonymous with the kings they represented. Early historians like Polybius, who wrote in the second century B.C., didn’t give every king an epithet. Polybius was one of the first historians to record these names. Since he wrote for a contemporary audience, his readers wouldn't have needed nicknames to remember each king; they would have known whom he was discussing.

Later historians like Posidonius used far more epithets than Polybius, sometimes even subbing in the nickname for the monarch’s actual name, or mentioning the two in the same breath. This continued into Roman times, when Appian composed his Syrian Wars. At this point, readers might have had a hard time identifying one past ruler from another, so nicknames served to distinguish one from the next.

For example, when Strabo comments on the succession of Ptolemaic Egypt, he uses nicknames rather than each king's own appellation: “Alexander was succeeded by Ptolemy the son of Lagus, the son of Lagus by Philadelphus, Philadelphus by Euergetes; next succeeded Philopator the lover of Agathocleia, then Epiphanes, afterwards Philometor, the son (thus far) always succeeding the father. But Philometor was succeeded by his brother, the second Euergetes, who was also called Physcon. He was succeeded by Ptolemy surnamed Lathurus, Lathurus by Auletes of our time, who was the father of Cleopatra. All these kings, after the third Ptolemy, were corrupted by luxury and effeminacy, and the affairs of government were very badly administered by them; but worst of all by the fourth, the seventh, and the last (Ptolemy), Auletes (or the Piper).”

What purpose did these epithets serve? Scholars differ in their opinions. Some have opined that the people gave the kings nicknames, while others have postulated that kings received different monikers in different places - perhaps one city called him one name and another town dubbed him something else. By a certain point, most kings seemed to have multiple nicknames; each might have been used at a particular time.

If a ruler wanted to project a certain image of himself or his dynasty, coins would be the ideal locations to do so. They circulated all over the world and would see wide and varied audiences. Kings probably decided which ones they wanted to call themselves in which medium in order to project a particular image, notes Peter van Nuffelen in his essay “The Name Game: Hellenistic Historians and Royal Epithets."When Appian explains the alleged reasons for some royal nicknames, he attributes them to deeds – for example, Seleucus I was surnamed “Nicator,” or “Victor,”  because of his martial prowess.

Most evidence indicates this nickname was posthumous, so Seleucus's successors clearly had a vested interest in portraying their dynasty's founder as a conqueror, perhaps one worthy of Alexander himself.

The Ptolemies weren't stingy on nicknames, either. All male Ptolemaic rulers bore the same name - Ptolemy. So adding epithets to each king would distinguish one ruler from the next in popular memory. It's noteworthy that the Ptolemies in particular have epithets relating to the gods, though the Seleucid kings also bore such divine titles and instituted a royal cult of their own. According to van Nuffelen, the Ptolemaic kings bore such monikers, especially after death, because they adopted the ancient Egyptian tradition of deifying members of the royal family.

If the Ptolemies were divine like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs of yore, whom they strove to emulate in their iconography, their epithets needed to reflect that status. Therefore, they called themselves and their predecessors by names that evoked images of the gods. As a result, Ptolemaic pharaohs received nicknames like "soter," or "savior."  Names like “Philopator” or “Philadelphos” – “father-loving” or “sibling-loving” – tie into the image of a divine family, a royal cult. The latter, in particular, was important for the Egyptian pharaohs, who married their sisters. For example, after the death of his sister-wife Arsinoe II, Ptolemy II made her a goddess and dubbed the two of them “the fraternal gods.” These names propagated the idea that these rulers of Macedonian descent were real Egyptian rulers.

One must take into account the context of the society and ruler from which the epithet appeared to fully understand how it was meant to be used. In times of conflict, a name with a godly association would help kings “stress their credentials” and links to the divine, setting them apart from pretenders to their thrones, says van Nuffelen. For example, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV – the villain from the story of Hanukkah – dubbed himself “theos epiphanes,” or “god manifest” on his coins. Placing his nickname on his coins effectively made Antiochus IV a god among men – literally.

Later, he added on the epithet “nikephorou,” or “bringer of victory,” after he won a war against Egypt. Not only did that nickname proclaim his prowess in war, but it also further associated him with the gods. “Nikephoros” was a name sometimes attached to the goddess Athena, mistress of tactical warfare. By assuming this moniker, Antiochus IV placed himself on the same pedestal as Athena herself.  Even Cleopatra VII assumed such names as “Thea,” or “goddess,” and “Nea Isis,” or “the new Isis,” which made the claim that she was the manifestation of the mother goddess of Egypt manifest on Earth. Some have dubbed these religious nicknames "cult epithets."

But what about the silly nicknames for kings that appear in the records? In written sources, some kings get uncomplimentary nicknames. Presumably, these epithets, like “Physcon,” or “pot-belly,” weren’t official ones. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was surnamed “Auletes,” or “the flute player"; he who was known for his musical, rather than his political, exploits.

These monikers might reflect contemporary jests about rulers, names to which they were jokingly referred in their own lifetimes or thereafter. These unsavory sobriquets, of course, weren’t featured on official coins or statues, but in literary records that perhaps reflected a reality the kings probably weren’t keen to project publicly. Other scholars argue differently, though. Perhaps Physcon and other Ptolemaic rulers chose to portray themselves as overweight, both on coins and in the former’s nickname, to indicate the prosperity they brought to Egypt.

Hellenistic kings enjoyed playing the name game as much as anyone else. One only wonders if, years down the line, the monarchs of today will find themselves with such entertaining epithets.