We began this month with the first Queen of Egypt Merneithe, and so it seemed only fitting that we end the month with Cleopatra VII Philopator who was the last, and some might argue, most famous Queen of Egypt. Cleopatra’s life story has been told and retold, and the details corrupted and expanded until she has became “…a semi-mythological figure recognised throughout the world.” This post aims to unravel the mystery and discover the real Cleopatra.
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Before we can answer the question; who was the real Cleopatra? We have to look at why it is such a difficult question. On the surface it would seem simple as the story of Cleopatra is “…preserved in words rather than objects,” but it’s who wrote these words that make it difficult.
Firstly, there are no primary sources and as Joyce Tyldesley writes, this means we “…cannot hope to hear Cleopatra’s true voice, and are forced to see her through secondary eyes…” and so we are forced to rely on sources written by others.
There is only one surviving example of Cleopatra’s handwriting, an official document with just one word, ‘ginestho’ meaning ‘let it be so’ in Greek, but it’s authenticity is questioned by experts and it is hardly an informative source and as such we have to rely on others to tell us who she was, what she thought and what she felt.
Secondary sources always contain the bias, propaganda, and assumptions of their author, creating a source that must be treated with care. In Cleopatra’s case the historian who “….knew her most intimately…” was her ally and lover Julius Caesar, however, she features little in his accounts. The most frequently quoted source is Plutarch’s ‘Life of Antony’ in which Plutarch claims to have read the memoirs of Cleopatra’s physician Olympus, however these have long since been lost. Even if he had read the memoirs as claimed, he was writing at the beginning of the second century AD, and as such can hardly be considered an “eyewitness” an issue shared by Cassius Dio, sometimes considered ‘Cleopatra’s biographer’. Dio, wrote his Roman History between AD 200 and 222. They are full of bias, as Kara Cooney writes;
“(They) are colored by the deep wounds inflicted in costly Roman civil wars—not to mention the profound belief in Roman exceptionalism, Rome’s heartfelt xenophobia and distrust of the East, and its elemental opposition to kingship in any form…”
They tell us that Cleopatra was;
Extravagant and that her ostentatious displays of wealth led to her“…squandering her country’s precious resources on her own selfish whims…”
That she has the “…ability to seduce men so that they lost all reason and rationality…”
Suffered “…melodramatic bouts of hormonal fury…”
Had an “…insatiable sexual hunger…”
Yet, however, unreliable these sources may be they “…are the texts that have formed the western understanding of Cleopatra’s life.”
So, what do we know?
Cleopatra was part of the Ptolemy dynasty which came to power in 305 BC and ended three centuries later with Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC.
Cleopatra’s full name was Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator meaning “Cleopatra the Father-Loving Goddess”. She was likely born in the winter of either 69 or 70 BC as her date of birth was not recorded, the date is based on the account of her death as written by Plutarch, which he said occurred on the 12th of August 30 BC, when she was thirty–nine years old. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII and an unnamed mother, however, Joyce Tyldesley suggests that, “…the fact that Cleopatra was classed as a princess is a strong indication that her mother was a woman worthy of respect.”
Cleopatra’s looks are much discussed, however, as “…we will never know what she really looked like” there will never be a conclusive answer. Nethertheless, she was able to seduce two of Rome’s most powerful men and as such we can surmise that she was alluring, charming and ‘diplomatically astute’. Cleopatra was also recognised for her intelligence, even by those such as Cicero, disliked her, and this tradition of her as an intellectual would persist long after her death, with medieval Arab historians revering her as; “a philosopher, alchemist, mathematician and physician with a special interest in gynaecology.” There is no evidence to support this, other than her support for the temple of Hathor, which was associated with “female health and healing”. Perhaps the biggest proof that Cleopatra valued education is that she employed the scholar Nikolaos of Damascus to educate her twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, viewing education as just as important for girls as boys.
In 52 BC, Cleopatra was made co-ruler by her father Ptolemy XII, although the Ptolemy’s like many other dynasties relied on marrying within the family, father/daughter incest was not accepted so it is very doubtful she shared his bed. When Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, he named Cleopatra and his young son Ptolemy XIII (under the guardianship of the Romans) as co-rulers. Their co-rule was likely sealed by marriage, however there are no records to confirm it. They came to the throne with the support of the people of Alexandria and Rome.
As king Ptolemy should have been the dominant partner in their relationship but he was a minor and for the first eighteen months of their joint reign Cleopatra “…became the effective monarch, while her brother was pushed into the background.” Her solo rule is supported by documents dated to the first year of the solo queen ‘Cleopatra Philopator’ although these must be treated with a degree of caution, as Berenice III had also been a Cleopatra Philopator. It is not until October 50 BC that the first decree with Ptolemy’s name before Cleopatra’s was issued. By this time Cleopatra was becoming increasingly unpopular in Alexandria and Ptolemy’s advisors decided the time was right to act against her and persuaded the Roman general Pompey to legally renounce Cleopatra as co-ruler, which may have been an easy task, given Rome’s distrust of female leadership.
Cleopatra and her supporters were forced to flee Alexandria, she travelled first to Thebes and then on to Syria where she had allies who themselves had been betrayed by Pompey. She was able to raise an army against her brother, which as Joyce Tyldesley points out was “…no small feat for a woman in her early twenties, banished from her land.” It also suggests that outside of Alexandria, she was popular and seen as a viable candidate for the throne of Egypt. With her army behind her, she marched through the Sinai and back to Egypt, setting up camp in the eastern Egyptian Delta.
It was not just Egypt facing civil war, in Greece Caesar and Pompey were also at war. After a defeat Pompey travelled to Egypt to seek the support of Ptolemy however, the young king believed the best way to gain Caesar’s support in his fight against his sister was to kill Pompey, which he did and then sent his severed head back to Caesar in Rome. This turns out to be a fatal miscalculation. When he received the head, it is said that Caesar wept, and so travelled to Egypt to demand an explanation.
Cleopatra would have been aware of her brother’s actions and the arrival of Caesar in Egypt thanks to her network of spies, understanding that her brother had miscalculated so she knew she had a chance to gain Caesar’s support. Knowing she could not simply walk into Alexandria, Cleopatra famously had herself smuggled into the city, according to Plutarch’s account she was wrapped inside a bedsack (Hollywood later changed the legend to her being rolled into a carpet). Caesar was immediately more sympathetic and trusting of Cleopatra and the two quickly formed an alliance.
It’s said that when Ptolemy saw them together, he threw his crown on the ground in anger, he and his advisors were right to worry. Cleopatra’s negotiations with Caesar, whatever form they may have taken, was successful and led to Ptolemy, making his next mistake by launching an attack in his sister before Caesar had left Egypt, thus throwing Caesar and Cleopatra “…into each other’s defence (and arms) for about four months.” Ptolemy’s forces which included his sister Arsinoe IV blocked the Roman general in at the harbour, cutting off supplies and even had raw sewage added to the cities drinking water to try and force the surrender of Cleopatra and Caesar. However, their forces were no match for Roman reinforcements, Ptolemy was killed during the battle when he drowned in the Nile weighed down by his gold armour the princess captured and sent into exile to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Anatolia.
Despite Cesar being married, he continued his romantic relationship with Cleopatra, who became pregnant with his child. Caesar, only had one living daughter and the prospect of a son must have been tempting, however, as he had a wife in Rome, he could not marry Cleopatra, who was now married to her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, thus, the child would be illegitimate. Caesar left no account detailing how he felt about Cleopatra’s pregnancy, but he remained in Egypt longer than many believed was necessary, enjoying an elaborate Nile cruise with his lover. He ‘came to his ‘political senses’ and returned to Rome before the birth, however, he left four Roman legions behind to protect Cleopatra and his unborn child in his absence. The legions also served as a “…clear signal to Egypt that Rome was now in charge of its future and would watch closely over its investment.”
Cleopatra gave birth to a son in 47 BC, whom she named Ptolemy Caesar Theos Philopater Philometor, Greek-speaking Egyptians called him Caesarion, meaning “little Caesar” so clearly his parentage was no secret. With Caesar returning to Rome, Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV kept up the pretence of co-rule, traveling together to Rome in 46 BC, not that the young king could move against his sister whilst she was protected by Caesar. Although Caesar never recorded his feelings for Cleopatra or their son, he had a golden statue of Cleopatra installed in the Forum in his newly constructed Temple of Venus the Mother, thus “…proclaiming his Egyptian lover as maternal goddess to his Roman people.” Cleopatra travelled to Rome to see Caesar but whilst there on the 15th of March 44 BC, he was assassinated, leaving her alone in a foreign country where she was unpopular with the politicians.
Cleopatra returned to Rome, and with Caesar dead she was now without a Roman protectorate she would need to consolidate her power. Her first step was killing her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIV, likely with poison. Knowing that as a woman, she could not rule alone, she elevated her young son Caesarion to co-ruler.
Mark Antony, offered Cleopatra a second chance at having a Roman protector.
Antony who had been Caesar’s right-hand man and was now one of the most powerful Romans making him a “…perfect political match for Cleopatra.” He wrote to her several times requesting she visit him in Greece, however, she played ‘hard to get’ and ignored his requests, Cleopatra knew that whilst she needed a Roman protector she had the upper hand with Antony because he needed the money she could provide more. Anthony sent a personal messenger to Cleopatra in Alexandria, summoning her to Tarsus.
Knowing he needed money, Cleopatra made sure her arrival in Tarsus was “…a display of wealth and excess” and was said to have arrived:
“On a golden barge adorned with purple sails and rowed by oars made of silver. Cleopatra had been made up to look like the goddess Aphrodite, and she sat beneath a gilded canopy while attendants dressed as cupids fanned her and burned sweet-smelling incense.”
For Antony, who considered himself to be the embodiment of the Greek god Dionysus this display was captivating and he was instantly enchanted as Cleopatra wanted. With Anthony’s loyalty secured she asked him to kill her sister Arsinoe who remained in exile in Epheus, with her sister dead (killed on the steps of the Temple of Artemis where she had taken refuge) Cleopatra was able to rule Egypt free from the risk of further Ptolemaic threats. Antony spent the winter of 41-40 BC with Cleopatra records of the time in the Delta are filled with details of excess. Soon news of Cleopatra’s pregnancy began to spread and she gave birth to twins named; Alexander and Cleopatra after Antony had left Egypt.
Having left before Cleopatra gave birth, it would be three years before the lovers were reunited as Antony had a mess to attend to in Rome. His wife Fulvia had started a war against his rival Octavian, defeated she died soon after the battle leaving Antony a widow. In an attempt at peace, the Senate ordered him to marry Octavian’s sister Octavia. This was a common occurrence in the search for a strong Empire but did not lead to many happy marriages, Antony’s included.
What Cleopatra’s reaction to the news of Antony’s marriage was is unknown but as Kara Cooney suggests; “This was a woman who understood political alliance through marriage; she would have expected such a partnership between Roman Rivals.” She was secure in her power, her son was now approaching 10 and she had two further heirs, not having a husband was not a problem.
In 37 BC three years after leaving, Antony needed Cleopatra again, well, her money to fund his war against Syria and sent for Cleopatra to join him in Antioch. She arrived with her three children, with Antony meeting his children for the first time, adding “sun” and “moon” to their names Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selena, influenced by a total solar eclipse he had witnessed while abroad. He also bestowed large amounts of land on Cleopatra meaning she; “…ruled over nearly the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, from what is today eastern Libya, in Africa, north through Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, to southern Turkey, excepting only slivers of Judaea,” they spent the following two years travelling together. It was during this period that Cleopatra gave birth to their second child and Antony’s military prowess began to falter, causing him to lose thousands of men, failures which Plutarch blamed on Cleopatra rather than Antony. In 34 BC, Antony successfully conquered the kingdom of Armenia and “…triumphantly returned to Alexandria, where the Armenian royal family was paraded in chains.” Now reunited with Cleopatra, they staged an event that came to be known as “The Donations of Alexandria” in which two massive golden thrones stood on a silver platform;
“Mark Antony occupied one. Addressing her as the “New Isis,” he invited Cleopatra to join him on the other. She appeared in the full regalia of that goddess, a pleated, lustrously striped chiton, its fringed edge reaching to her ankles. On her head she may have worn a traditional tripartite crown or one of cobras with a vulture cap. By one account Antony dressed as Dionysus, in a gold-embroidered gown and high Greek boots… Cleopatra’s children occupied four smaller thrones at the couple’s feet. In his husky voice Antony addressed the assembled multitude. In an intentional provocation to Octavian, Antony distributed lands to his and Cleopatra’s children, making it abundantly clear that their family was the dynasty of the East.”
The following year, Antony divorced Octavia which was the final straw for Octavian and he declared war on “…Antony’s true partner – Cleopatra.” Yet even as Octavian and his forces marched towards them, Antony and Cleopatra continued their decadent parties, and were deserted by longtime advisors and much of Antony’s Army. In the August of 30 BC, Octavia and his ally Agrippa invaded Egypt, with no chance of escape, and believing Cleopatra had taken her own life, Antony stabbed himself with a sword. His allies brought him to Cleopatra, where she was hiding a temple to Isis, which Cleopatra called her mausoleum, reunited Antony died in her arms.
A victorious Octavian entered Alexandria, occupied the palace, and seized Cleopatra’s three youngest children. When he met with Cleopatra she is said to have told him, “I will not be led in a triumph” to which he promised to keep her alive, however, a spy informed her that Octavian intended to move her and her children to Rome within three days. Upon hearing this Cleopatra committed suicide, the popular theory is that she allowed an asp to bite her, however, no snake was found on her body. Although angered by Cleopatra’s suicide, Octavian had her buried in royal fashion with Antony by her side.
Before taking her life Cleopatra had Caesarion take to Upper Egypt, perhaps in the hope he could flee Egypt, however, just 18 days later he was murdered on Octavian’s orders. With his death the Ptolemaic dynasty was officially over and the Roman province of Egypt was established. Antony and Cleopatra’s three children were taken back to Rome and raised by Octavia. Their daughter Cleopatra Selene II went on to become queen of Mauretania.
Cleopatra continues to fascinate, the search for her lost tomb has filled hours of tv programming and many books and shows no sign of slowing down. However, it is little surprise she continues to intrigue us, she reached the top and held on to power when the slightest mistake would have seen killed and her relegated to nothing more than a footnote in history. She was intelligent, cunning and unapologetic about what she wanted, but this is too often overlooked in favour of focusing on her looks and the men she seduced, and this, is perhaps the biggest tragedy of Cleopatra’s story.