Williamson County Public Library Blog

The Scandalous Cleopatra

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By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Cleopatra is still an enigma even after 2000 years. So much so that books are still being written about her. Everyone knows the story of Cleopatra, who by the way was the 7th Cleopatra to rule Egypt. She read the writing on the wall when Rome began to conquer nation after nation. Plus she wanted to win the Egyptian throne, and rule alone, not with her brother/husband. She wanted to get on the good side of Julius Caesar when he was in Alexandria. Knowing that her brother Ptolemy XIII would keep her from meeting with Julius Caesar, she had herself wrapped in a rug and delivered to Julius. And thus she outwitted her rival brother. She and Julius had a good relationship; she became his mistress, even having his child. When Julius Caesar was murdered, she chose to back Mark Anthony against Octavian (soon to be Augustus Caesar). Octavian, upset that Mark Anthony has chosen Cleopatra over his own sister Octavia, broke the second triumvirate and declared war on Cleopatra (and Mark Anthony). After his defeat at the Battle of Actium, Mark Anthony fell on his sword in defeat and Cleopatra committed suicide by death by poisonous snake on August 12, 30 B.C.

This is what history tells us. Here are some facts you may not have known:

Cleopatra may not have been Egyptian, or maybe she was. Ptolemy I, a general in Alexander the Great’s army, became ruler of Egypt after Alexander died. His line, the Ptolemaic line, lasted for several centuries, ending with the death of Cleopatra. Greek was the language of the ruling family in the beginning; our Cleopatra (VII) knew the Egyptian language, but also spoke Greek and Latin and many others. Outside Europe, in Africa and in Islamic tradition, she was remembered very differently. Arab writers refer to her as a scholar; 400 years after her death her statue was still honored at Philae, a religious center that also attracted pilgrims from outside Egypt.

A tetradrachm of Cleopatra VII, Syria mint

Many scholars believe that Cleopatra wasn’t as beautiful as once believed. She was intelligent and well educated, speaking as many as a dozen languages and was familiar with mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy. She reportedly enjoyed talking to learned men and women and could hold her own with them. Coins with her portrait show her with manly features and a large, hooked nose (however, she might have intentionally portrayed herself as masculine as a display of strength). Plutarch claimed that Cleopatra’s beauty was “not altogether incomparable,” and that it was instead her mellifluous speaking voice and “irresistible charm” that made her so desirable. So it may have been only Roman propaganda that portrayed her as a debauched temptress as shown in the movies.

Members of the Ptolemaic dynasty often married within the family to preserve the purity of their bloodline. Cleopatra’s parents were probably even brother and sister. Cleopatra eventually married both of her younger brothers, each of whom served as her ceremonial spouse and co-regent at different times during her reign. Her first sibling-husband, Ptolemy XIII, defeated her and ran her out of Egypt after she tried to become sole ruler, and they faced off in a civil war. Cleopatra regained the upper hand by teaming with Julius Caesar, and becoming his mistress. Nine months into their relationship, she gave him a son, naming the baby Caesarion – little Caesar.  After Caesar’s son was born, he backed Cleopatra’s claim to the throne and helped her regain it.  Because of this alliance, Ptolemy drowned in the Nile River after being defeated in battle. Following the war, Cleopatra married to her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, but it is believed that she had him murdered in a bid to make her son Caesarion her co-ruler. She also engineered the execution of her sister, Arsinoe, whom she considered a rival to throne.

Cleopatra’s relationship with Caesar caused quite a scandal in Rome: Egypt and its pleasure-loving culture were despised as decadent by the rule conscious Romans. But the real reason their relationship was so scandalous was that Caesar had no other sons. He was married to Calpurnia, and had had two wives before her, but he had no son, until now. The worry that Caesarion, an Egyptian, might grow up to claim to rule over Rome as Caesar’s heir was a direct threat to Rome.

Antony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Eventually, Cleopatra married Mark Antony and had three children with him, which made the Romans even angrier with her. Antony’s rival Octavian portrayed him as a traitor under the sway of a scheming seductress, and in 32 B.C., the Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra. The conflict reached its climax the following year in a famous naval battle at Actium. Cleopatra personally led several dozen Egyptian warships into the fray alongside Antony’s fleet, but they were no match for Octavian’s navy. The battle soon devolved into a rout, and Cleopatra and Antony were forced to break through the Roman line and flee to Egypt.

Augustus (Octavian) founded his reign on the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. When he had the chance to have a month named in his honor, he chose the eighth month, in which Cleopatra died to create a yearly reminder of her defeat. She chose to die rather than suffer the violence of being paraded and shamed, led through the streets of Rome as a defeated enemy. Augustus had to make do with an image of her that was carried through the streets instead.

Most scientists thought the grave was under the sea near Alexandria (in or near a temple that fell into the sea after too many earthquakes), but others are not so sure. Kathleen Martinez, a criminal lawyer who became an archaeologist to find Cleopatra’s tomb, has found promising signs at some of the sights Cleopatra was known to visit of a possible gravesite. At the close of the program, the search was still on. I suppose we’ll know when the world knows. In the meantime, learn more about her at the library.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra


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