|Posted on July 23, 2010 at 9:15 AM|
Cleopatra VII was just 39 years old when she grasped the neck of an Egyptian cobra and plunged its fangs deep into her wrist. But as the gouts of venom coursed through her veins, and she looked back on all that she had seen and done and conquered in her final moments on earth, how would she have seen herself? There is little doubt that she played a fundamental role in the history of the ancient world. Legends of her beauty and cunning have echoed across the ages, and her name has become a symbol for “feminine power” in contemporary society. Renaissance historian, Blaise Pascall, claimed that “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed”. But who was she really? For someone so profoundly influential, her true nature is a thing clouded in mystery. Ancient interpretations argue that she is everything from “most illustrious and wise” to “a royal whore”. Was she a great ruler of a dying kingdom, which in one final act of majesty united her people against the tyranny of Rome? Or was she a self-serving usurper of the throne, a ruthless and manipulative seductress who toyed with the lives and fortunes of her own people, shattering the bloodline of her forefathers, and even slaughtered her own siblings in order to maintain sickly power? Perhaps neither; perhaps both.
Cleopatra VII was born in 79 BC, in Alexandria, to Ptolemy XII and his half-sister Cleopatra V, the king and queen of Egypt. Their dynasty had ruled Egypt for over 300 years, and could be traced back to Ptolemy I, a great general and trusted consort of Alexander the Great, who had conquered northern Africa, and given ruling powers to him. There, Ptolemy built the port city of Alexandria, a flourishing cultural and commercial center of the country. Cleopatra was descendant of a long and powerful line of Macedonian rulers. However, by the time she was born, Egypt had become a shadow of its former glory. The Ptolemaic dynasty was fraught with internal power struggles, and its grip over Egypt was weakening. In addition, the Roman Empire was relentlessly expanding its domains and wanted to control Egypt and its vast wealth. In 58 bc the Romans took over Cyprus, which had been part of the Ptolemies’ empire for more than 200 years. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, ascended to the throne and maintained Egypt’s nominal status as an independent Hellenistic kingdom only by giving generous bribes to powerful Roman senators. As described by the Encyclopedia Romana, “The Ptolemaic dynasty, it seemed, was going to peter out, in a few years, like the Seleucid. But destiny had determined that the fortune of the house of Ptolemy, before going out, should blaze up in a manner dramatic and astonishing.” The reign of the last sovereign would be the reign which men afterwards would remember evermore.
The young Cleopatra learned much of what it was to be in power from her father; by observing the way he dealt with his consorts and subjects, and through his struggle to maintain Egypt’s sense of autonomy and cultural identity in the face of Rome’s imposing might. But beyond the customs of government Cleopatra was influenced much more by the deeds and ideologies of those who had gone before her, yet bore the same name. Cleopatra I, II and III all taught this young aristocrat much about how to execute feminine power in a world dominated by masculine ambition. It is also important to note, that Cleopatra was the first Ptolemaic ruler in the history of Egypt to learn the countries native language and to read hieroglyphics. She became skilled in many different customs and tongues, which proved vital in communicating to the many different tribes of Egypt and uniting them against the common imperial threat of Roman colonization. The Greek historian, Plutarch, describes Cleopatra’s discourse as having “something stimulating about it” and that “there was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased”.
Ptolemy XII died in July 51 BC, and in accordance with his wishes Cleopatra ascended to the throne with her eldest brother, Ptolemy XIII, after the two were married. This was a common custom adopted by Egyptian royalty, and also served to maintain a pure Macedonian bloodline for the Ptolemy’s. She became queen at the age of 18, while her co-ruling brother was only about 10. At first Cleopatra dominated the throne, but Ptolemy and his advisors quickly conspired against her, forcing Cleopatra from the palace and driving her into exile in Syria. Undeterred by her brother’s traitorous ambition, Cleopatra raised an army to regain her rightful place on the throne; confronting Ptolemy’s forces on the Delta Nile. However, before a civil war could erupt between the two siblings, the Roman general Julius Caesar sent messages to them ordering they return to Alexandria, where he would personally arbitrate their quarrel. Caesar had arrived in Egypt in pursuit of his defeated rival Pompey, arriving to find that Ptolemy had already executed him in hopes of winning the general’s favor. Determined to present her case to Caesar, Cleopatra secretly sailed to Alexandria, entering the harbor at night in a small boat with her attendant Apollodorus. Then she rolled herself up in a carpet, and had Apollodorus smuggle her into Caesar’s quarters in the royal palace. Her ingenuity, intelligence, and powers of persuasion must have impressed Caesar, for the next day he had Cleopatra restored to the throne in joint rule with Ptolemy XIII. She formed a political alliance with the Roman dictator, and the two became lovers; a relationship which consummated Caesar’s only son, Caesarion, which means “little Caesar”. Cleopatra used this newfound clout to have Ptolemy and his advisors executed, and reinstate the lost province of Cyprus under Egyptian control. This union Cleopatra formed with Caesar finally confirmed her right to rule over Egypt, and helped centralize the Hellenistic government, which had, for decades, been torn apart by sibling rivalries and corrupt bureaucrat.
Much of the interest surrounding Cleopatra as a historical figure focuses on her ability to ensnare some of the most powerful men in history. Ancient and modern historians have claimed that, though she was certainly beautiful, it was her charming wit, engaging intellect and seductive nature that saw her collaborate with the ruler of Rome, Julius Caesar, and later his chief commander, Mark Antony. The Roman public servant Cassius Dio states in his records that she “was a woman of surpassing beauty”, and that “she possessed a most charming voice and knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone”. According to the Romana, “The former kings of Egypt, being men, had based their dominion on the power of their arms; but now, when the military power of Egypt had become contemptible beside that of Rome, the sovereign of Egypt would bring to the contest power of a wholly different kind — the power of a fascinating woman.” And that woman was Cleopatra, who employed her considerable skills of persuasion and manipulation in order to form key political alliances in order to consolidate her power, over the use of military force, which, under the shadow of Rome, would have been far less affective.
Shortly after his return to Rome in 44 BC, the Senate, led by Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, attacked Julius Caesar and stabbed him to death. The assassination was committed in hopes of restoring domination to the Roman Senate and taking power out of the hands of the generals. Caesar’s chief deputy and Co-consul Mark Antony and his named heir Gaius Octavian took up arms against the Senate in order to avenge Caesars death and reclaim empirical dominance. The so-called “liberators” were defeated by Antony, Octavian and their ally Lepidus in the Battle of Hilippi. These events were a harsh blow to Cleopatra’s ambitions, and she was forced to seem as assisting to both sides, while never actually committing enough to incriminate her before the eyes of the victor. She now turned he gaze to the victorious general Mark Antony, in the hopes of re-establishing an Eastern-Romana alliance. Antony summoned Cleopatra to meet with at the city of Tarsus, in Cilicia. After considerable delay she did comply, but on her own terms. Dressed as the Roman goddess Venus, she sailed up the Cydnus River to Tarsus in a magnificently decorated and perfumed boat. Crowds rushed to the river to see the spectacle of Cleopatra’s barge. The queen then received Antony as a guest on her barge, and they spent the following days in feasting and entertainment. Plutarch described their meeting as “being most splendid, and their intellects in full maturity”. Cleopatra’s charms and opulent display captivated Antony, who became her lover. He agreed Egypt would remain independent rather than become a Roman province, and in 41 BC he returned with Cleopatra to Alexandria. While the relationship between Ceasar and Cleopatra was primarily a political union, her courtship with Antony appeared to be genuinely loving. Plutarch again refers to their “rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve”. Antony and Cleopatra had three children together—Alexander Helios (which means “the sun”), Cleopatra Selene (which means “the moon”) and Ptolemy Philadelphus—and they were married at Antioch in 36 BC.
Now, it is said that every figure throughout history and legend has possessed one fatal floor which has led to their ultimate demise. If Cleopatra had a single defect in her character, it was in her love for Antony. Until their meeting she had done everything to ensure Egypt’s interest were guarded by carefully placed pacts, but when she gave into her love for him, everything came crumbling down. Antony’s miserable campaigns in the east sapped much of Cleopatra’s military funds, and their union infuriated Octavian, causing him to accuse Antony of betrayal and her of usurping. During the Donations of Alexandria, in which Cleopatra held festivals and processions for her people and celebrated Antony’s victory in Euphrates, Antony claimed her the “Queen of King’s” and announced that he would divide his conquered provinces between his three children. The gathering cemented Antony’s allegiance to Cleopatra and instigated a vicious propaganda campaign from Octavian, who was determined to seize full control of the Roman Empire. He painted Cleopatra as the true enemy of Rome, and Antony as her corrupted plaything. Octavian also produced a document that he claimed to be Antony’s will (apparently forged), and had it read aloud in the Roman Senate. Antony reportedly left everything to Cleopatra and his children by her. Octavian received a swell of support, and consolidated his power in the Senate. Antony finally severed all ties with Octavian by divorcing his sister Octavia, who had married to keep the peace.
In 32 BC the Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra. Antony assembled his at forces at Ephusus and Cleopatra joined him there with the Egyptian fleet. The forces of Antony and Octavian finally met at Actium in 31 bc. Octavian’s fleet, commanded by Marcus Agrippa, trapped Antony and Cleopatra’s ships in the Gulf of Ambracia. The battle began on September 2, 31 bc, when Antony’s ships emerged from the gulf to face Octavian’s fleet. The battle took a surprising turn when Cleopatra ordered the Egyptian contingent of 60 ships, including her flagship loaded with her royal treasury, to leave the scene, setting sail for Egypt. Antony followed her, and in the process so disrupting his forces that Octavian won a sweeping victory. The Battle of Actium was the last great naval conflict of the ancient world, and Octavian’s superior forces, combined with Agrippa’s strategic planning forced Antony and Cleopatra to retreat all the way back to Alexandria. The Roman poet Virgil described it as “the whole strength of the east” clashing into “the populace, the home gods and the great gods”. The rest of Antony’s men defected to Octavian’s legions, and upon wrongly hearing that Cleopatra had been killed, he stabbed himself in the chest out of sorrow. Octavian’s masses smashed through Egypt’s defenses in 30 BC and besieged Alexandria. Cleopatra knew that she had lost and Egypt was conquered, and that she would be taken back to Rome to be tormented and humiliated by her victors, and so, upon hearing of Antony’s suicide, she chose to end her life, rather than face utter defeat. Cleopatra VII committed suicide on the 31st of August, 30 BC, by provoking an asp to poison her. Virgil recounts the death as “a rhetorical flourish, certainly it was an exotic death, befitting a queen of Egypt”. She was buried by Antony’s side, as requested. Octavian had Caesarion put to death, but spared Cleopatra’s other three children. Their exact fates remain unclear.
So what did she really achieve? Sure, she unified her people against Rome and created a centralized government, increasing Egypt’s autonomy and regaining lost territory. And yeah, she may have stabilized the country’s economy, strengthened its military and breathed new life into its art and culture. But in the end, the house of Ptolemy was still broken, and Egypt was still conquered and colonized as a Roman Province, to be sucked clean of all its wealth and recourses. I guess in the end, Cleopatra failed, but before she did, she resurrected Egypt back from the brink of extinction and unified it’s many warring people in one final burst of fury against their common enemy. One last great act— that recalled the days of their former glorious kingdom—before the curtain was drawn … and that is why she will be remembered. It is somewhat impossible for us to determine what Cleopatra’s true design was. She was beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic, but she was also cunning, promiscuous, ruthless, homicidal, and suicidal. Part of what makes her such an intriguing and engaging character in history is the ambiguity of her nature. But in the end, when all is said and done, one thing is certain – Cleopatra died the way she lived, with the body of a serpent wrapped around her hands.