Welcome back to our series on interesting personalities from history. In our first post, we considered Julius Caesar, the Roman leader who brought the Roman Republic to the brink of evolving into an Empire. It would fall to his son, the adopted Octavian, to lay the foundation for that transition, however. Caesar prepared the ground.
One character who inhabited Caesar's world towards the end of his career was the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. She has long fascinated poets, playwrights, novelists, and film directors due to the lascivious nature of her reign. She was married to her father and at least one brother, oversaw a rebellion against him, employed her wiles to seduce Julius Caesar and, subsequently, his second-in-command, Mark Anthony, in a calculated bid to further her aims. So involved was she in Roman politics that the Aeneid, a propaganda piece during the reign of Octavian (also called Augustus), dedicates an entire chapter about her, under the name Dido, where she attempts to keep Aeneas from his destiny of founding Rome. This piece demonstrates the Roman conception of the wealthy, foreign, seductress; Romans were meant to be stoic and pragmatic. They were not meant to fall prey to corruption by overt wealth and the allures of despotic kingship - both of which were part and parcel of the monarchy of Egypt. Romans grew increasingly upset at her relationship with Caesar and then Anthony, until Octavian finally defeated Anthony and become the 'first among equals' in the Senate (effectively the first emperor).
This biography is one with twists, turns, intrigue, deception, seduction, wealth beyond imagining, power, the creation of an empire, and is the epitome of a Greek tragedy. Amazingly, all in the rather brief life of one woman who would be queen. I will not cover every aspect of her life, but merely the sections I find to be most interesting or helpful in understanding who she is and what she achieved and believed, and why I find her to be a fascinating figure in world history.
For a greater understanding of the religious life in Egypt, see my post on the Egyptian pantheon. Cleopatra was a pragmatic, skilled, leader, but she was also a true Egyptian. She would have believed the gods of Egypt were her gods and she worshipped them as a responsible Pharaoh should.
I hope that you enjoy this post and find it illuminating and interesting. Please feel free to leave comments and reflections.
For some of the background details, see my post on Julius Caesar, towards the end, where his narrative interacts with the live of Cleopatra. Other significant points to note are the following:
Firstly, Egypt had been, historically, the longest-standing absolute monarchy in history. It had weathered the storms of famine, drought, invasion, corruption, coups, defeats, successes, economic failure, divine retribution, and a myriad of other dangers throughout its millennia-long history. There were a number of critically important milestones in the history of Egypt; the creation of written language by way of hieroglyphs, the development of a complex and ornate religious system, and even the building of massive architectural wonders that astounded everyone who saw them and which remain visible to this day. Yet, I submit, that of all that Egypt developed and implement, none was as successful, historically, than the cult of the Pharaoh. He was not only the primary authority in all of Egypt, being the absolute monarch, but the Pharaoh eventually came to be seen as the embodiment of Ra, the sun god. He was, as later emperors of Rome claimed to be, divine, and thus it was appropriate to worship him. The power of the state, therefore, was joined indissolubly with the power of the religious experience; to be a faithful Egyptian was to respect and honour the power of the gods whose direct overseer was the Pharaoh.
Of the Pharaohs, I suspect none was ever as powerful as Queen Hatshepsut, who reigned around 1479-1458 BC. Her successor, Thutmose III, reigned for 54 years, but shared 22 years as coregent with her, and so, to some degree, he can be said to share in her power. In my opinion, it was during these two reigns that Egypt hit its zenith of power, prosperity, and position on the world stage. It was during the reign of Thutmose III, I assert, that the Exodus took place. Of course, the Ramesside period was also one of significant growth and prosperity for Egypt, and often is seen as the high point of Egyptian power. The significance of these two periods of prosperity is that they coincided with remarkably long, and relatively stable, reigns. The power of the monarch was supreme (even if, in the case of Hatshepsut and Thutmose, it was a shared power), and their impact on the larger geopolitical front was discernable as far away as Mittani, Anatolia, and Assyria.
For Egypt, it was understood that chaos was restrained by the gods; when the Pharaoh lived long and in obeisance with the gods, Egypt would prosper, the lot of the common folk would, in some ways, improve, and Egypt would become important. Though, it should be noted, most of the Pharaohs did not have an empire-building mentality; rather, they were mostly content to expand the borders to what were considered historically 'theirs' and then simply maintain the peace, extol their greatness through building projects, and prepare for death. Egyptian's tended to think of their legacy in civilization as what was left behind rather than what was conquered. Think of the pyramids, the sphynx, the cities. These would forever declare the ambition, the wealth, the power, of the god-king in his eternal rest.
So the monarch was considered the absolute ruler of the nation as well as a god. This solidified his control over Egypt, but, as will be shown below, it brings problems with it.
Secondly, Egypt had always been extraordinarily wealthy in terms of gold, due to the mines in the west and south of the country, and grain, due to the annual inundation of the Nile. For centuries, millennia even, Egypt had been the major producer of gold and precious metals for the entire ancient world. When the major empires conducted trade deals (through the art of gift-giving - gifts that weren't really gifts), Egypt gave gold, the Greeks gave weapons and ceramics, the Syrians gave horses, and the Babylonians gave textiles. Each had their speciality and Egypt's was evidently gold. It was bounteous. This can be seen in the jewellery worn by women in the hieroglyphs as well as in the many historical records discovered (the Egyptians were meticulous record-keepers). There's a reason why the graves were robbed, after all - people were buried with extravagant wealth to aid them in the afterlife.
Beyond gold, of course, the Nile gave a predictable(ish) seasonal flood. As the waters rose each year, the land around the Nile would be watered, debris and waste would be taken away and flushed downstream, and, when the waters receded, mounds of extraordinarily fertile silt would be left behind. So intrinsic to Egyptian life was this annual inundation that a Pharaoh's duty as a god-king was to ensure the flood happened appropriately (not too much nor too little). Indeed, the entire creation myth of Egypt's religion centred around the pyramidic shape of these silt deposits and the Nile's inundation. This fertile land gave Egyptian agriculture a significant boon each year; the crops didn't need to be rotated, and the crops almost always grew well, if the inundation had been good.
Other nations would appeal to Egypt for her crops each year to make up their own shortfall, making Egypt a powerhouse in terms of importance to the global economy. When Egypt struggled, the world soon felt it. Thus, it was often in the best interests of most empires to attempt to assist Egyptian stability, even while trying to curtail any hint of expansionism. The earlier Mesopotamians did this by bringing Egypt into their brotherhood of kings. Later empires attempted to bring Egypt to heel so as to control the grain and gold flow. Rome eventually, as we shall see, succeeded in this endeavour.
Thirdly, Egypt, though once a historical empire that threatened the potential to rule the entire Mediterranean and beyond, was now in a serious state of trying to survive by carefully choosing which new empire to side with: Rome or a mixture of Easterners. Due to numerous reasons, Egypt had lost her position as preeminent, leading, nation in the world.
After the death of Alexander, Ptolemy took over as king of Egypt and would start the final dynasty of Egyptian Pharaonism. The Ptolemies comprised the Hellenic, or Grecian, period of Egyptian history and demonstrated the frailty of Egyptian power by the time of Alexander. Despite numerous minor rises and falls, the Ptolemaic dynasty was to prove weak and ineffectual in comparison with the likes of the Ramesside or Thutmosian periods. Cleopatra, who was by all accounts, a deeply gifted woman, and who could have ruled as well as Hatshepsut, was unfortunately made to make the best of the hand she had been dealt; which, ultimately, was to oversee the death of Pharaonic Egypt.
Fourthly, Egypt was still a powerhouse when it came to culture, wealth, religion, and mystique, due to the amazing artefacts, scarcely-believable architecture, and extravagant opulence of its higher classes. This remains the case, even today (and, of course, it helps that we are now able to understand what the hieroglyphs mean thanks to the Rosetta Stone). For nations who, despite the best efforts, cannot erect anything that lasts a millennia anymore, it is a remarkably humbling experience to stand at the foot of the pyramids and realize these have lived longer than the doctrine of democracy. By the time we get to the foundation of Biblical Israel with Saul and David, for example, the pyramids were already about 1500 years old.
The culture, the religion, the power, the history, and the (relative) stability of Egypt led to many people in antiquity being deeply awed and reverent towards the Egyptian world, in a way that was not offered towards other cultures. This, plus the importance of having Egyptian grain and wealth, arguably are the reason why Rome endeavoured so drastically to preserve positive relations with Egypt. And, in due course, when Egypt was firmly established as a province of the empire, Egypt would become the bread basin of Rome, feeding the city for centuries. As with the empires before Rome, a stable Egypt was in the best interests of the entire world.
Finally, the Pharaohs no longer had the prestige or power that they once wielded; often reduced to incestuous relationships to preserve the purity of the family lines (after all, if Pharaoh was a god, how could that god intermarry with lesser beings?), they were ill-suited to the important tasks of governance, military service, and administration. Thus, when the well-prepared armies of Greece, and, subsequently, Rome arrived on Egyptian soil, Egypt was neither prepared, equipped, nor able to mount a solid resistance. Indeed, poor leadership often compromised any hint of potential rebellion.
Part of this failure, of course, resides in the absolutism of the monarchy. When the Pharaoh was untouchable, he was often unteachable. And, when he lost a battle, or his diplomatic touch lacked humility, his bargaining position was weakened both to the outsiders and to his own people. Why? Because he was meant to be the peace maker. It was his duty to keep Egypt strong and in balance. If he was failing to do so, it suggested the gods were not with him, and perhaps he was not truly the incarnate Ra. For an absolute monarch who was also a god, failure increased the risk of rebellion or murder because to fail meant you were seen as a fraud, and the gods would be against you.
It is into this cultural maelstrom that Cleopatra was born.
Rome had come into contact with Egypt much earlier than Cleopatra's birth, in 69 BC. In 81 BC, Ptolemy IX died and his daughter, Berenice, became Pharaoh. However, it was considered un-Egyptian for a woman to be Pharaoh and there was rebellion fomenting towards her rule. She eventually accepted Roman arbitration by Sulla, the dictator of Rome at this time, and acquiesced to rule jointly with her cousin, and stepson, Ptolemy XI. This arrangement also meant that she would marry Ptolemy, thus making him her husband also.
It was not a happy arrangement, and, in an attempt to secure the throne as a sole leader, he had Berenice assassinated. However, he was soon given mob justice by the angry population who had resented his behaviour towards his wife and took to rioting. It was undignified and barbaric to so kill your wife, stepmother, and aunt (the family trees are amazingly complicated, for obvious reasons).
In the will of either Ptolemy IX, Ptolemy X, or Ptolemy XI, the Pharaoh had bequeathed the right to rule Egypt to the Romans as a surety against Egyptian debt, as collateral should they be unable to pay. (Presumably, this was also meant to be an incentive to gain Roman military support; after all, how am I to pay back the debt if I'm dead?) Despite this will granting Rome the legal grounds for occupation and direct rule, the Romans, at this point, decided it would be better if Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies. Thus, they divided the rule of Ptolemaic lands between the two sons of Ptolemy IX. Ptolemy of Cyprus became ruler of, surprise surprise, Cyprus, while Ptolemy XII Auletes became ruler of Egypt.
Ptolemy XII was the father of Cleopatra, though we are unaware of the identify of her mother.
Youth and Rise to Prominence
Cleopatra was born in 69 BC, into a family twisted by politics, power, and inbreeding. The monarchy was in disarray, the nation was in debt, and true power over Egypt resided in the senate of Rome rather than the palaces of Thebes or Memphis. Despite her inauspicious upbringing (by Pharaonic standards, at any rate), Cleopatra was a unique member of the Ptolemaic dynasty. She could read and speak at least 4 languages, including Egyptian (her predecessors refused to learn it, sticking with the Koine Greek of their heritage), and evidently had an aptitude for learning that outstripped her siblings. This little fact suggests that she harboured a desire to unite the peoples back under the Egyptian crown who had, historically and traditionally, been part of the sprawling Egyptian hegemony: Ethiopian in the south, Hebrew and Aramaic to the East, Median and Parthian, further to the East, and Greek towards Sicily.
She was a child of the king, so it stands to reason that she was given one of the best educations Egypt had to offer. I imagine this meant that she was able to read some of the many texts kept in the library at Alexandria and that she was taught by some of the greatest philosophers and educators of her time. We know that she learnt oration and philosophy under her tutor, Philostratus, and presumably she was also given lessons in leadership and administration. For all the Ptolemies' history of being Grecian, they had in many ways acclimated to being kings by this point. Power belonged to he (or she) who occupied the throne.
As she was growing up, her father was trying to play the field, politically. There were at least two attempts to annex Egypt and bring it under the direct control of the Republic, one by Crassus and the other by Rullus. In an attempt to deflect attention from annexation, Ptolemy XII tried to bribe significant leaders in the Senate so that they would support Egypt's 'independence' from Roman control. Such bribes, however, came with a cultural cost: by the time Caesar would instigate a relationship with Cleopatra, Roman pragmaticism and stoicism was convinced that the wealth of Egypt was a dangerous corrupting influence.
In due course, Ptolemy XII's attempts to bribe Pompey (with whom Caesar both worked and, subsequently, fought), Mithridates (a significant enemy of Rome) and even Caesar led to Egypt's bankruptcy, and he had to beg a Roman banker to loan him money to pay off his due debts. However, his ongoing extravagance (and thus his increasing debts) led to a general distrust of his abilities as leader. His aides and his people disliked his ostentatious use of money for his own, private purposes. This was nothing new, however.
The problems for Ptolemy XII developed after his brother was driven to suicide by the Romans who annexed Cyprus and charged Ptolemy (of Cyprus) with piracy. For some reason unknown to us, Ptolemy kept silent concerning the death of his brother. We can surmise it probably had something to do with his desire not to upset Rome, who had already argued for annexing Egypt as well. Regardless, his silence was seen as spineless and unbecoming of a Pharaoh of Egypt. Thus, the charges of corruption and cowardice led to his being driven from Egypt by the people and he eventually made his way to reside in the villa of Pompey the Great. It is most likely that Cleopatra was with him at this time.
Whilst there, he intentionally had supporters kill the leaders of the Egyptian embassy to Rome. This embassy was intending to convince the Senate to legitimize another Pharaoh and discredit Ptolemy. The murder was hidden, however, by the moneylenders in Rome who felt that Ptolemy would be a more pliable Pharaoh. Thus, they not only protected him from the charge of murdering an embassy, but were also eager to return him to power in Egypt where they could treat him as a client king and enrich themselves at Egypt's expense. All of this, it is believed, was done whilst Cleopatra was with her father living at the outskirts of Rome.
In an amazing twist, though, Pompey offered 10,000 talents to the governor of Syria, Gabinius, to restore Cleopatra's father to the throne, despite the fact it would be illegal. Gabinius marched through Judea and did just that. Cleopatra would have been part of this invasion, with her father, and would have seen the blood spilt to restore her father to the throne of Egypt, and she would have learnt that the true power of Egypt lay in the hands of Rome.
Rather dramatically, a young officer in this army at this time was none other Mark Anthony who, later, would claim that he had fallen in love with Cleopatra (now about 13 or 14) during this campaign. Whatever the truth of this, it was quite a line. It helped, obviously, that the invasion was successful, and that Anthony acted with great courage and even ensured that the corpse of the usurper, Berenice's husband, was protected and given a royal funerary ceremony, showing an adept wisdom for the Egyptian sense of honouring tradition.
Thus restored to the throne, it was time for Ptolemy XII to begin rewarding his supporters. Although Gabinius was placed on trial in Rome for breaking the law in attacking Egypt, he was exiled for corruption instead, being found guilty of accepting bribes. Julius Caesar eventually recalled him to Rome, but by then his influence had waned. Who replaced Gabinius in Syria? Marcus Crassus, who would expand his authority to Egypt until his ill-fated campaign to the East where he was killed, in 53 BC.
The banker who had loaned Ptolemy the money all those years ago was made a financial officer in Egypt for about 1 year before he was exiled for embezzlement (he stole a lot of Egyptian money and still the debts weren't paid off). Despite this amazing amount of theft from the country's coffers, Ptolemy was still in significant arrears at the time of his death, and the burden of the debt fell to Cleopatra and her new brother-husband.
In spite of the clear weaknesses in Ptolemy as a leader, nevermind as a king, he undertook grand projects in an attempt to cast himself as one of the great Pharaohs of the past. It is surprising, however, that it does appear that Ptolemy was able to bring the country's debts under control and even stabilized the economy. Nevertheless, the people knew that the real power resided in the Senate of Rome, not the palaces of Egypt.
In May 52 BC, Cleopatra was made coregent with her father. She was officially the Pharaoh.
Cleopatra: the Pharaoh
As a coregent to her father, it is fair to surmise that Cleopatra was the junior monarch in this arrangement. Presumably, this coregency was to prepare her and train her to be a leader in Egypt once Ptolemy XII died. Which he did in March 51 BC, much sooner than anticipated. This left Cleopatra as the sole Pharaoh, unexpectedly, and with numerous problems.
For one, the Nile's inundation had been poor and thus famine was looming for her people. For another, there was the rather large matter of Egyptian debt to both Gabinius and Rome. For yet another, Gabinius was inciting civil unrest in an attempt to coerce the Pharaoh to pay up. These garrisoned Roman soldiers were not loyal to Egypt but to the one who paid their fees. And if Egypt owed their paymaster money, then their own pay was threatened.
Cleopatra responded to these challenges as best she could. But she also endeavoured to further her own political ambitions at the same time.
After attempting to get the Syrian Governor, Bibulus, on her side (who was in the midst of attempting to repel the Parthians from Syria), she began to style herself as the sole queen of Egypt. I don't know of any serious scholar who suggests that Cleopatra did not marry her brother, Ptolemy XIII, as it was the tradition amongst the Ptolemies (and Egyptians before them) to marry siblings in order to preserve the family line and ensure the dynasty survived. However, despite most likely being married to her brother, she evidently refused to enter into a coregency with him: she would be the Pharaoh.
This, for obvious reasons, did not sit well with her brother. He was a male and he was married (most likely) to Cleopatra, and so it was his divine, his biological, his marital, right to be at the very least coregent, if not the superior, Pharaoh. At least, that is how he and his allies understood it.
There appears to be the beginnings of a civil war and Cleopatra attempted to work with another brother, Ptolemy XIV. This short alliance failed however, and by 50 BC it is clear that Cleopatra's power is waning under the position and power of her husband-brother, Ptolemy XIII. He begins to sign legislation and documents with his name before hers. Petty but poignant.
During 49 BC however, things take a dramatic turn.
Elsewhere in the Republic, the Triumvirate had become a Duumvirate (sort of). Remember, Crassus had died in battle in 53 BC. Caesar had triumphed in Gaul and, despite the politics, had refused to bend his knee to the Senate. He crossed the Rubicon with a legion, effectively declaring civil war on Rome (which, in reality, meant on Pompey). Pompey, you'll remember, was the leader who had brought Cleopatra's father back to the throne by paying 10,000 talents to Gabinius.
Well, in 49 BC, in the midst of the Egyptian scuffle, Pompey's son arrived on the shores of Egypt and sought support for his father in preparing to fight against Caesar. Pompey, at this point, had fled to Greece where he was trying to bring an army together that could match Caesar and defend the Republic. In response, both Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra agreed to help Pompey and sent 500 troops and 60 ships. This was a clever move as they were able to use this support to diminish some of their debts, and, more importantly still, the soldiers they sent were those disaffected soldiers of Gabinius. It seemed like a win-win.
Despite their show of unity in supporting Pompey, Cleopatra lost the internal fight with her husband-brother and was forced to flee. She went to Thebes first, but then to Roman Syria where she, herself, amassed an army and prepared to attack Egypt to restore herself as Pharoah. She found, however, that she was blocked by the stronger army of her brother and had to make camp as she pondered what to do.
Meanwhile, however, in another turn of fate, Caesar had decisively beaten Pompey at Pharsalus in Greece. Pompey had fled the field and was making his way to a safe place where he intended to rearm and rebuild. Ultimately, he opted for Egypt due to his history of having helped the Ptolemies. This was a dangerous mistake. Ptolemy VIII was trying to play the game of politics like one of the big boys and so he lured Pompey to Egypt with promises of safety and security from which to rebuild his army and then had Pompey killed. The body was decapitated and the head taken to Caesar.
It was meant to be a gift to Caesar that would bring about peace between the nations whilst establishing Ptolemy as the strong, decisive leader that Egypt had yearned for.
Caesar, however, was horrified. Pompey may have been an enemy, but he was a Roman, a soldier, a fellow commander, and a general fighting for Rome. This cowardly, ignominious, and treacherous death was something that Pompey did not deserve. Caesar did not take positively to Ptolemy VIII.
He arrived in Egypt, immediately occupied the royal palaces and demanded that Cleopatra and Ptolemy unite once more and end their petty squabbling. In doing so, they were to disarm and disband their soldiers. Rome was once again occupying Egyptian territory. But at least Cleopatra would be back in the seat of power, even if it was shared with her hated brother, and even if it was under the true leadership of Rome.
Ptolemy did not listen. He brought his army to Alexandria where he attempted to attack Caesar. Cleopatra sent an embassy to Caesar but then, it seems, learnt that Caesar enjoyed loving powerful women. Armed with this information she, somehow, made her way to him and began to use her femininity to win him over to her side. He enjoyed her wit and intelligence. Eventually they began a relationship.
Incensed at this flagrant insult, Ptolemy tried to get Alexandria to riot. Social upheaval was always a good method to humiliate would-be kings. Caesar, however, revealed the written will of their father to the crowd. It was in this will that Ptolemy VII had declared Cleopatra and Ptolemy VIII were to rule together, not separately. This placated the crowd. It did not placate Ptolemy.
Some of the powerful supporters eventually marched on Caesar, who only had about 4,000 troops in Egypt. The Ptolemaic allies could muster about 20,000 men and they besieged Alexandria for an entire year, hoping to bring Caesar and Cleopatra to the point of surrender. This backfired spectacularly. Firstly, it left Cleopatra and Caesar together for a year. Their romance blossomed and she eventually became pregnant with his child. Secondly, Caesar didn't run from fights; he usually waited it out and then took rather gruesome revenge.
True to form, the following year Caesar's forces landed and suddenly the Egyptians were now on the back foot. They were forced to flee and Ptolemy drowned when his boat capsized. His allies were either executed or died in battle. Some fled, also.
Caesar and Mark Anthony ensured that Caesar was made dictator for another year, through which he was able to, finally, settle the Egyptian internal politics (as best he could) by decreeing that she marry her younger brother Ptolemy XIV (12 years old) and thus she would be coregent with a male, and married to a member of the dynasty, but still warming his own bed.
Thus she was, finally, at the top of the food chain of Egyptian politics. But she remained under Caesar, literally and figuratively. Her power derived from his control of Egypt and the Senate. This was not like the Pharaohs of old.
Cleopatra: the Prize
In the subsequent years, through to the death of Mark Anthony, Cleopatra was heavily involved in the Roman sphere, though her influence appears to have been minimal. She had a child by Julius, Caesarion, who Julius did not publicly accept. Nevertheless, Cleopatra made it clear, often, that her child's father was Julius. It was, for Caesar, a politically fraught issue because his own wife, Calpurnia, was without child, and she was from a powerful Roman family. It simply would not do for her to be slighted by her husband in terms of a bastard child who would now have a strong claim of inheritance.
Nevertheless, it is not really disputed that Caesar was the father of the child. There is even a stele that records this child's name as Pharaoh Caesarion. This would not have gone down terribly well in Rome; rather, it would suggest that Julius was harbouring ambitions of power that were beyond his station, and above the Republic. It's one thing, perhaps, to bed a queen; it's quite another to aim to become a king.
Towards the end of 46 BC, Cleopatra visited Rome with her husband and they stayed in Caesar's private villa. They were both given the formal title 'Friend and Ally of Rome' which was a designated name that gave protection to the rulers as client kings of Rome. They were firmly under the authority of the Republic. During this trip, Cleopatra had a gold statue placed in the temple of Venus. This tied the Egyptian goddess, Isis, to the Roman religion and continued the symbiosis and syncretism of the pagan religions towards a larger, cohesive unity. During this time, Caesar increased the military presence in Egypt to four legions; this would be an important factor later on.
Unfortunately for Cleopatra, Caesar was making enemies faster than he was securing political support. In a scripted ceremony, he had Mark Anthony offer him a crown, in public, whereupon he rejected it. The purpose of this dramatic event was, most likely, to gauge whether the people wanted a king or not. Regardless of the popular opinion, such actions, as well as Caesar's coddling up to a foreign, incestuous, queen were beyond the pale. Caesar had to go.
Thus, on the Ides of March, Caesar was murdered by members of the Senate. And suddenly, Cleopatra's future looked decidedly uncertain once more. Her protector, lover, and the father of her child, was gone. She was in a now-hostile city, surrounded by politicians, like Cicero, who hated her and all that she stood for. Despite this, however, she remained in Rome for about a month; she tried to get her son named as Caesar's heir.
In Caesar's own will, however, he named his nephew, Octavian, as his heir. Octavian was a young man, but he was a Roman, and he was an ambitious young man. He, himself, is a fascinating individual who will have a post of his own in the future. Nevertheless, for Cleopatra, this revelation was disastrous.
She left Rome feeling betrayed and furious with Caesar and with Rome. She had effectively prostituted herself for nothing. Now everything that she had worked for was in jeopardy. Octavian returned from military service shortly after Caesar's death and immediately began to play politics. He gave money to the people of Rome from his uncle's estate and he vowed that the murderers would be brought to justice.
However, there was a wrinkle in this plan. There was another, close, individual who felt that his relationship to Julius gave him the natural right to become the leader of Caesar's faction in the Senate, the army, and in Rome. Thus, just as Octavian promised to bring justice to the murderers of Caesar, now Anthony made a similar vow. Indeed, it seemed likely that Anthony would be the true inheritor of Caesar's legacy considering his position in the army and his position in Caesar's court over the years.
Initially, they sought to work together. They tracked down and waged war on the murderers along with another leader, Lepidus. By the defeat of Cassius and Brutus (of 'Et tu, Bruteii? fame) in 42 BC, Octavian had become the dominant power in the West and Anthony had hegemony over the East. Time would tell, now, which of the two would become the real heir to Julius's ambitions.
During these conflicts, Cleopatra had attempted to help Octavian and Anthony by sending the Roman troops that Caesar had placed in Egypt, though her assistance was frequently unhelpful. She appeared to genuinely want justice for Caesar's murder and she appears to truly have sought to assist Anthony and Octavian in this manner without thinking of other purposes. Anthony, however, was besotted with her.
Mark Anthony had known Cleopatra and had watched her for decades by this stage. He had supported her father's attempt to reclaim the throne, he had watched as his father-like commander had bedded her and then screwed her over in his will. He saw, too, that her wealth and position in Egypt would give him power and the potential to do what Caesar had failed to do: become a king.
And so, in due course, he himself sought a relationship with Cleopatra. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius, he sent letters to Cleopatra, urging her to come to him to defend herself and clear her name from the slur that she had offered to help Cassius. She refused repeatedly until an embassy arrived in person and convinced her that it wasn't a trap. It is highly probable that Anthony wanted to initiate a relationship with her more than anything else.
I personally think that Anthony truly was besotted with Cleopatra. However, it is also very probable that he was trying to gain her position, her power, her political assistance, and her wealth at the same time. The key aim in the post-Caesar world was not who was the best Roman, or the greatest politician. Rather, Anthony was staking his fight against Octavian on the premise that he was the true heir to Caesar's legacy. And one critical way would be to continue in Caesar's path: Cleopatra provided Anthony with wealth, with position, with power, and with soldiers. If he could properly united the might of Rome with the potential of Egypt, he would restore Egypt and bring with it Rome. He could forge an empire that would cover the entire Mediterranean.
Cleopatra was the key.
Unfortunately for Anthony, Octavian was the better politician. He read the mood of Rome better than Anthony ever could, and he realized that the Romans distrusted the foreign queen. She had corrupted Caesar, it was said, and now Anthony was equally prone to her sultry seductions. This was seen in how he enjoyed the lavish lifestyle that unadulterated power could bring. He feasted heavily on Egyptian foods and his appetite for wealth continued to grow. He was beginning to exhibit dictatorial qualities.
By 38 BC, Cleopatra, too, had firmly decided that Anthony was her best bet at bringing power and prestige back to Egypt. He was deemed the most powerful Roman after Caesar's murder, and as such he had the power to give her the lands of Cyprus and Cilicia back to her. She even had children by him, Selene and Helios. Unlike Caesarion, Anthony acknowledged his paternity of these twins and thus gave them credibility as his heirs.
It seemed that little could stop her now. Except that, again, Roman women got in the way. Anthony's wife, Fulvia, resented Octavian's control over the 'important' territories of the West, which included Rome itself. She instigated a conflict between Octavian and Anthony with the hope of forcing Octavian into a fight with Anthony. Octavian was the better politician, by far. But Anthony was the better general.
Part of the reconciliation between the two Triumvirs was that Anthony would marry the sister of Octavian. This sister was a powerful Roman woman, from Caesar's own family, and would given Anthony two children. The relationship between Cleopatra and Anthony began to weaken, it seems, though it mattered little to Cleopatra at that time. By 38 BC she was in a position of strength in Egypt; she had reclaimed Cilicia and Cyprus, and Herod the Tetrarch, ostensible leader of Palestine, was under her authority. Egypt was regaining its territory and was becoming a major player once more.
Anthony, now, wanted to destroy Parthia to extend Roman dominion into the East. Octavian sent him legions, but Anthony also wanted Egyptian support (and wealth) to ensure victory. Thus, he summoned his lover back to him and, in a deal, she sent him wealth and soldiers in return for granting Egyptian control over large sections of Ptolemaic territory, such as Phoenicia. Cleopatra was exploiting this relationship exceptionally well! Of course, she remained a client king, but it was becoming evidently clear that she and Anthony were laying the foundations for a vast empire stretching from Thebes all the way to the Euphrates.
And, to boot, she was pregnant again!
But Octavian was no fool. He used this extravagant gift-giving to full political advantage. The people of Rome disliked Cleopatra and the Senate distrusted her. Octavian utilized this to turn the people and the Senate against Anthony. It also helped his cause that Anthony failed in his war. He lost over 30,000 men in his campaign and eventually returned, not to Rome, but to Alexandria. He was no Julius. This defeat weakened his claim to be the greatest general after Julius Caesar; it appeared he was more in the mould of Crassus.
And this shift in the dynamics of power eventually led Octavian to declare war on Anthony. Octavian was continually strengthening his hand in the West and Anthony's failure, coupled with his 'neglect' of his Roman wife (Octavian's sister), resulted in popular opinion firmly falling towards the 'legitimate' heir, Octavian. The war began through the Donations of Alexandria, where Anthony demanded Rome cede territory to Cleopatra, and, although the populace didn't know the details, it soon became evident that Anthony and Octavian were engaged in a battle for the minds and will of Romans through a heated propaganda campaign.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, Cleopatra didn't help Anthony's PR problem; she had a ceremony where she claimed to be Isis and her son, Caesareon, was declared King of Kings alongside her as Queen of Queens. This ceremony may well have been a wedding ceremony for her and Anthony, but more likely it was following the tradition of Pharaohs from ages past who tied their legitimacy and power with their identification with the gods. For Anthony, however, the optics were incredibly poor: he was associated with a foreign queen, empowering her, and now, apparently, trying to reign alongside her. This would never do.
At the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Anthony and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavian's fleet, under Agrippa. Having thus defeated the 'superior general,' Octavian swiftly moved to apprehend Anthony and become the leading power in Rome. Despite fervent attempts at negotiations with Octavian, it became clear that Cleopatra had backed the wrong horse.
Eventually, hearing that Octavian planned to have her exiled to Rome (a huge embarrassment to her for she would likely be paraded at Octavian's Triumph as a conquered political enemy) and fearing that her son would not inherit Egypt from her, she retreated to her palace where she took poison and died. She had come tantalizingly close to restoring Egypt to its former glory. And yet, she failed.
18 days later, her son, now Ptolemy XV, was executed by Octavian and Egypt was brought into the Roman Republic as a province, ending the reign of the Ptolemies, and, more poignantly, ending the rule of the Pharaohs.
Cleopatra: the Person
The person Cleopatra is, to me, an enigma. I remain absolutely captivated by her. She is one of the most amazing, convoluted, maligned, and impressive women in history, alongside Hatshepsut and Elizabeth I. Her intellect was clearly exceptional. Her vision for Egypt was larger than that of any of her male contemporaries and, amazingly, she came exceptionally close to restoring Egypt's power and prestige in an era when kingdoms were falling to Roman might all over the place.
Yet, it cannot be denied that she used her femininity in a way that perhaps made her position simultaneously stronger and weaker. For one, a man couldn't have appealed to Julius Caesar or Mark Anthony the way that she did. Yet, on the other hand, her sex meant that she was never seen as a powerful leader in her own right; she had to sidle up to Caesar or Anthony. This meant that she had to gamble on who to support; and her gamble failed.
Despite this fact however, it is equally remarkable that, in an era where women were primarily bargaining tools, Cleopatra was able to sit at the table of the strongest empires and forge alliances, bend men to her will, and truly threaten the Roman Republic. She was a trailblazer who was exceptional for her time.
As an Egyptian Pharaoh, she was the primary power for decades. She ruled as an absolute monarch over the vast territories under Egyptian dominion and, as a figure of Isis, her religious position was equally powerful. She stood as the image of her nation at a time when the people were tossed and turned by the larger geopolitical events that would come to define the era. Her illustrious reign was one of mixed failures and triumphs.
And yet, she was also a woman and a mother. Her ambition and position often leaves us thinking of her in terms of abstraction rather than personality. She was a woman who understood the times and the difficulties she faced greater than most; she was forced into marriage with her father, and at least one of her brothers, yet she carved her own path by rejecting her husband-brother in favour of wooing Caesar and then Anthony.
She feared for her son's legitimacy and survival and did all that she could in an effort to preserve his life and his kingship, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice herself if Octavian would save Caesarion. She had the fire of a lover, and yet the tenderness of a mother.
She was truly a remarkable woman.
Cleopatra: the Preoccupation
The preoccupation with Cleopatra comes to us, I think, from a fascination with her as a powerful female leader in an era of incredible male political and military giants. She stands, in many ways, as equals alongside Caesar and Octavian. In this era of the Roman Republic, that is no small feat.
Yet, it must also be acknowledged, that a large part of our fascination comes from her sexual femininity. She seduced Caesar and Anthony, whilst also being married to at least two family members, and was thus maligned as a dangerous, witchly, seductress who led these great men astray from the principles of Roman pragmatism and stoicism. This was, of course, largely propaganda as, only two generations later, the Emperors of Rome were as despotic and depraved as ever the Pharaohs had been.
Nevertheless, there is truth to the fact that she was responsible, in part, for the direction of the Republic. Her power of Anthony, in particular, appears to have been truly impressive. He seemed to truly love her and yet there is also the reality that her wealth and position were equally as intoxicating to him. He was using her, even as he loved her, just as she was using him.
In many ways, her relationship with Anthony brings back thoughts of Romeo and Juliet. So close to joy, so close to happiness, so close to success, but always just, painfully and tantalizingly, out of reach. Their romance, like that of Cleopatra and Caesar, was always in the shadow of politics and more powerful Roman women. In the end, her downfall came, not from political failure or military catastrophe, but in allowing herself to side with one leader who, himself, was no match for Octavian.
Our fascination is tied to her as a person. She is not an abstract personage from history, but an exceptional leader of Egypt, a powerful symbol of Egyptian sexual allure, and a story of tragic pathos. There are not many women in history who achieved so much as she did, and yet, for whom so much hatred and derision was poured. Her detractors hated her with a merciless vengeance as the corruptor of Rome and the catalyst for the end of the Republic, while her lovers used her and betrayed her, all in the name of politics.
It is truly difficult to understand just who Cleopatra was. As a Pharaoh she was an Egyptian. Yet, as a Ptolemaic Pharaoh, she was a Grecian leader (indeed, there is a school of thought that suggests her threat to Rome was not as an Egyptian queen but as an enlightened Greek). As a woman, she was a mistress and pawn for two Roman leaders. As an Egyptian queen, she was a rebel against Roman incursions and claims to power. As a woman, she was clearly powerful and attractive, able to sway the minds of men by the allure of her intellect, wit, and body. As a mother, she was protective and careful. As a visionary, she stood alone in recognizing Egypt's glory days were not completely gone. At least, not quite yet. She was so close to realizing her ambitious dreams for a rejuvenated, restored, and powerful Egypt. Yet, for all of these concepts, who she truly was remains a mystery. And this reality simply adds to her provocative mystique. It really is no surprise that men like Caesar and Anthony found her irresistible.
Hers truly is a remarkable story of intrigue, deception, betrayal, and, ultimately, failure.
I hope that you enjoyed this brief consideration of Cleopatra. If you wish to know more about Ancient Egypt I strongly advise reading The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson.
Please leave a comment with any reflections or thoughts that you may have.