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Cleopatra: Egyptian Queen

The Cleopatra Myth

Cleopatra is one of the most controversial figures in ancient history. She has been used as a peg on which to hang a host of historical, moralistic, prurient, romantic, tragic, pornographic, racist, sexist, imperialist, feminist, Africanist, liberationist narratives. This myth-making began in her own life time and has continued ever since.

We know relatively little about her. Of he serious historical sources, she appears in Plutarch’s Life of Antonyin Dio’s histories (49 , 50 and 51), and Appian, Civil Wars 5. She also appears in some of Cicero’s Letters to Atticus (bks 14 and 15) [14.8; 14.20; 15.1; 15.4; 15.15], which make abundantly clear that Cicero did not like Cleopatra, in large part because she took, so he thought, an arrogant attitude towards him. Later poets were drawn to writing about her, notably Lucan (10.53 and following), and Propertius (3.11; 4.6), and Virgil, notably Aeneid 8.671-713.

The ancient sources  retell the story of Antony and Cleopatra as a love story, but always with the emphasis on power, and particularly on the power of Cleopatra. It is Cleopatra who lures the innocent Antony to his doom,  in Propertius and Dio. In Plutarch, the story is one of morality and  tragedy. Antony is the Roman hero whose fatal weakness is his desire for a woman. It is that story that we read in Shakespeare. There is a hint, especially in Virgil, of West versus East, in which the forces and values of Rome are pitted against those of a barbaric Egypt.

But it is also a story that is nonsense.

Neither Antony nor Cleopatra were innocents. Their relationship was always deeply political. Over the decade of their relationship, they spent long years apart. The nature and strength of their feelings for each other cannot be assessed.

But we should also be careful about sources. It suited Propertius to write about a great Roman man enslaved by love, because he was writing love poetry about a great Roman poet (him) enslaved by love. It suited Virgil to invent a depiction of the battle of Actium as depicted by Vulcan on a shield as a battle on a divine plane to show that his hero (Aeneas) would win. Everyone knew that it was different and that image and reality did not meet. It suited Plutarch to write history as a moral exercise, and we may suspect the same of Dio and Appian.

In reality, the Romans did not have a fear of Egyptian corruption. They do not appear to have engaged in culture wars. Many found Cleopatra an attractive figure. Members of Eastern elites and Romans had been mixing amicably for centuries. In reality, Roman men might be promiscuous without there being much moral concern: the adulteries of Caesar, Antony, and Octavian were well documented. morality in very different ways from us. Cleopatra bore Caesar a son and Antony twins without Rome entering a moral panic. Antony and Cleopatra were lovers  when at the end of the Perusine War Octavian married his sister to him. It was not until 33 or 32 that the relationship became a problem. Are we to believe that Octavian had not noticed his brother-in-law’s regal lover?

Sad as it may seem, the history of Antony and Cleopatra is driven not by amour fou, but realpolitik.

The Ptolemaic Queen

Cleopatra VII was born into the turbulent Ptolemaic dynasty. Since 55 BC, the Romans had been influential in Egypt and the Ptolemaic kings required Roman acquiescence in their rule. Cleopatra was no different. The Ptolemaic dynasty looked both to the Mediterranean and the traditions of Macedonian kingship, and to the older Egyptian traditions. They presented themselves in both styles. As Ptolemaic queen she was queen in the Greek style and pharaoh in the Egyptian style.


Cleopatra as Greek Queen (Berlin Altes Museum: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro: Commons)

Ptolemaic dynastic politics were brutal. In dispute with her brother, she had looked to Julius Caesar to out her on the throne. Caesar obliged. One might suspect the lusts of an older man for young princess, but there was a political rationality behind choosing Cleopatra and establishing an amatory relationship with her. Cleopatra depended on Caesar’s support. Their relationship was important to her. She proved herself able to deliver Egypt. Their closeness added lustre to Caesar’s position in Rome. The people of Rome do not seem to have reacted with moral outrage and xenophobia.


Cleopatra and Kaisarion on the Temple at Dendera (Commons)

Cleopatra was staying  in Rome in March 44. She departed soon after the assassination and returned to Egypt. She identified with the cause of the triumvirs and attempted to support Antony and Octavian at sea in the Philippi campaign (though her fleet was wrecked in a storm).

Her rule in Egypt appears to have been broadly traditional. She came to associate her rule with that of her eldest son, Kaisarion. Like most of the Ptolemies her political imagery used  Egyptian and Hellenistic cultural traditions, presenting her as Pharoanic and Greek queen.

Egypt was an agriculturally rich area of the Mediterranean basin, fed by the rich waters of the Nile. The kingdom was prosperous and allowed the Ptolemies a degree of luxury and ambition. Their cultural ambitions had made Alexandria one of the cultural centres of the Eastern Mediterranean. Their military and political ambitions had extended beyond Egypt into Syria and Asia Minor. But these last had been restricted by the rise of Rome. The dynasty may have been based in Egypt, but looked culturally and politically to the wider Greek world.

Egypt was a major player in the Eastern Mediterranean and deployed formidable resources. Caesar’s alliance with Cleopatra was prestigious for the Roman and provided him with a measure of personal access to the resources of Egypt. It also cemented Cleopatra’s position as ruler and ensured that Egypt was part of any settlement in the East.

A similar logic applied in her relationship with Antony. Antony’s Egyptian ‘wife’ was a powerful ally and his relationship would necessarily differentiate him from other Roman nobles: not many Romans had a royal lover. But it also meant that when Antony needed resources, such as for his campaigns against the Parthians, Cleopatra would provide, and this she did regularly and loyally. In her relationship with Antony, she could also appear as loyal Roman wife.

Cleopatra & Antony BM

A bejewelled Cleopatra and her Roman husband Antony (British Museum)

But there was always a potential paradox in the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. Antony was, in law, a magistrate of Rome. His relationship with Cleopatra was Roman and regal. In reality, it seems that there was no expectation that Antony would lay down his power, as a Roman magistrate should. There was thus a question as to how Roman rule in the East. Should he rule as a king? Antony seems to have wanted it both ways, to be a magistrate and to share a quasi-regal authority with Cleopatra? But what role Cleopatra might have in that arrangement?

These issues came to a head in a ceremony to celebrate the end of the war with Parthia, the Donations of Alexandria, an event which contributed directly to the tensions leading to the war of Actium.


Triumvirate                                              Donations of Alexandria                        Cleopatra: Myths and Legends

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