Mysterious Cleopatra


Cleopatra – what do we really know?

from, August 8, 2011

What do you think of when you hear Cleopatra? Do you image a dark haired beauty, queen of sin, an enchantress?  Cleopatra was born in 69 BC and what we know of her was written by several historians – mostly Roman and some with a grudge against her.  From the few accounts that exist, movies and books have been born, adding speculation and fiction to the picture.

Did you know that Cleopatra was not Egyptian, but rather Greek? That she was not the first queen to be named Cleopatra?  In fact she was Cleopatra VII. That she may not have been beautiful in the way we imagine her?  There are few images of her to be found – mostly of coins with her portrait.  Take a look at the coin above – does she meet your definition of beauty?  Is she as beautiful as Angelina Jolie who will play Cleopatra in an upcoming movie?

Last fall, a new biography of Cleopatra was released written by Stacy Schiff.  The book is a fascinating reconstruction of what we know about Cleopatra using the original sources of the day and those written after Cleopatra’s death.  What makes this account different is that Schiff doesn’t take the sources at face value.  She digs deeper.  Typically if Cicero or Plutarch is quoted by biographers or college professors – there is a tone of reverence and absolute acceptance.  Schiff dares question these sources.  She quotes Cicero as “hating” the queen.  Schiff notes that Cicero, a Roman contemporary of Cleopatra’s, had taken a dislike to her – perhaps because she had promised him a book from her famous library in Alexandria and forgot to bring it to him, on one of her trips to Rome.  How might have the story of Cleopatra been different had she written the account and not a Roman who disliked her?

In Schiff’s book Cleopatra, we see a portrait of Cleopatra VII as a powerful queen, a master strategist, a cool pragmatist, a towering intellect, mother of four children, loyal lover of two famous Romans, woman of enormous confidence and daring,a commander of armies. Schiff describes the dichotomy of West and East – the Roman culture – male, war-like, judgemental, and based on fear and the Egyptian society – often ruled by women, rich, sensuous, imbued with the learning and history of the world as collected in the greatest library of its time in Alexandria.  Schiff says  “We still fight the battle of East and West, still lurch as uneasily as did Cicero between indulgence and restraint.  Sex and power continue to combust in spectacular ways.  Female ambition, achievement, authority, trouble us as they did the Romans, for whom Cleopatra was more a monster than a marvel, but undeniably a little of both.

Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank…’What woman, what ancient succession of men, was so great?’ demands the anonymous author of a fragmentary Latin poem, which positions her as the principal player of the age.”

Although Cleopatra and Egypt had maintained all parts of an agreement with Rome, (Egypt was an independent but subservient nation) Octavian – the designated successor of Caesar – declared war on Egypt.  The reason had less to do with breach of contract and more to do with the fact that Cleopatra had a son by Caesar and was currently involved with Mark Anthony – the only remaining rival of Octavian’s. Cleopatra was also the richest woman in the world and Octavian needed her treasure to settle his debts.

Octavian engaged the forces of Cleopatra and Anthony at Actium and defeated them.  The story has Cleopatra fleeing the battle and Anthony following her – to the disgrace of them both.  Not much is known about what really happened, but we do know that subsequently both Cleopatra and Anthony committed suicide. As Schiff says “The rewriting of history began almost immediately.”  Octavian was cast as the saviour of Rome, victorious over Cleopatra and Anthony, who had threatened the Roman Empire.  In reality, Octavian was the aggressor and Cleopatra and Anthony probably sought only to live in peace, with the three children born to them and the others from their previous relationships.

Cleopatra with Brains: Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life

by Katha Pollitt,, November 18, 2010

Who is the most famous woman of the Greco-Roman world? No contest: Cleopatra. In fact, you may have to think a bit to come up with someone for second and third place (Sappho? Pericles’ mistress Aspasia?). Queen of an ancient, exotic, immensely wealthy land, twice married to her much younger brothers, mistress of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, flamboyant flinger-about of royal treasure, international power player, glamorous suicide, Cleopatra has been poeticized, dramatized, painted, and prosed about countless times.

And yet, as Stacy Schiff shows in Cleopatra, a lushly written, highly entertaining biography, almost everything people think they know about her is wrong. She wasn’t Egyptian, she was Greek—the last ruler in the dynasty established by Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy in 305 B.C.—and she lived in Alexandria, a Greek city. She may not have been especially beautiful. A coin with her face shows a beaky-nosed, sharp-chinned woman with a rather cranky expression; if she took after her ancestors, she may even have been—wait for it—fat. A sexpot? She slept with only two men in her life. It is most unlikely that she killed herself with the bite of an asp hidden in a basket of figs. Did I mention that she had four children? No wonder she was worshipped as a goddess.

In separating the woman from the myth, Schiff has her work cut out for her. The historical record is remarkably thin: Not a lot of documentary evidence has survived from the Egypt of her day. Of her own writing only one word remains: the Greek for “let it be done,” appended to a tax-related decree. We know her mostly through Roman or Roman-influenced sources: Plutarch, Dio, Sallust, Suetonius, and others. All these men wrote many years after her death and were eager to burnish the greatness and glory of Rome in general and that of her enemy and conqueror Octavian, later Augustus, in particular. They were also huge misogynists, for whom the combination of women and power meant everything wicked and unnatural. In a trope Edward Said would find sadly familiar, Cleopatra represented the exotic, erotic, effeminate East ensnaring moral, manly Rome. Womanizing was one thing—both Caesar and Antony were prodigious adulterers—but that the two greatest warriors of the day were so captivated by a woman and a foreigner was deeply unsettling. It must have been through magic or drugs—Egyptian specialties both.

Schiff’s Cleopatra is tough, daring, and smart. She was a great conversationalist and well-educated. According to Plutarch, she spoke at least eight languages (really? I suspect a bit of royal image-making here), including Egyptian, which, remarkably, she was the first Ptolemy in almost 300 years to bother to learn. She ruled Egypt well, despite the fact that a staggering 50 percent of its GDP went as taxes into her own personal account; she had her relatives murdered (a family tradition) only when necessary.

Above all, she was a survivor. When a palace coup by her first brother/husband triggered a Roman invasion and sent her packing to the Syrian desert, she had herself smuggled back into the palace, now occupied by Caesar, in a sack (not a carpet, as legend had it). Whether their affair was driven by politics or passion (or both), she was soon paying a long visit to Rome. There Caesar installed her in a villa across town from the one in which he lived with his wife and put up a life-size golden statue of her in the temple of Venus. Cleopatra had a baby son, whom she daringly named Caesarion, or little Caesar, and whom Caesar acknowledged as his own. To the Romans, who allowed little independence to women, this was all very shocking and thrilling. Roman ladies eagerly copied her pretty “melon” hairdo of tiny braids gathered into a loose bun.

Cleopatra’s liaison with Mark Antony, whatever it may have done for Shakespeare, was her big mistake. A wise ruler should have striven to stay out of Rome’s ferocious civil wars, not jumped in with both feet as Cleopatra did, and in any case I will never understand the appeal of this drunken, boastful character, always going on about his descent from Hercules. Besotted, Antony divorced his wife, Octavian’s virtuous and beautiful older sister, Octavia, abandoned his children by her, and, in an ostentatious public ceremony known as the Donations of Alexandria, publicly promised Roman provinces and client states as kingdoms to the three small children he had fathered with Cleopatra. Their downward spiral had an undeniably campy quality, with much confusing military maneuvering, all-night revelry, and hysteria. As Octavian closed in after winning the Battle of Actium, Antony botched his suicide and ended up being ignobly hauled up half-dead into Cleopatra’s chamber by a jerrybuilt contraption of ropes. Cleopatra made a more dignified exit, having prepared for immortality by testing poisons on prisoners.

It’s little things like this that make it hard to relate to the ancients “as people.” One minute they seem just like us—Antony is a middle-aged fratboy, Cleopatra is a multi-tasking diva. The next they’re murdering some poor devil while a slave peels them a grape. It’s easier to get a handle on Cleopatra’s world than on the woman herself, and Schiff evokes her Alexandria in all of its gorgeous, multicultural splendor:

During the day Alexandria echoed with the sounds of horses’ hooves, the cries of porridge sellers or chickpea vendors, street performers, soothsayers, moneylenders. Its spice stands released exotic aromas, carried through the streets by a thick, salty sea breeze. Long-legged white and black ibises assembled at every intersection, foraging for crumbs. … Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality and high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world: superior in its ways, splendid in its luxuries, the place to go to spend your fortune, write your poetry, find (or forget) a romance, restore your health, reinvent yourself, or regroup after having conquered vast swaths of Italy, Spain, and Greece over the course of a Herculean decade.

How important was Cleopatra in history? Not very, according to the classical historian Adrian Goldsworthy, whose new book, Antony and Cleopatra, resists proto-feminist revisionism and argues for Antony as the more important figure. (Rather unfairly, Goldsworthy’s book has been overshadowed by Schiff’s, but it’s quite fascinating, and I enjoyed its clear and straightforward narration of often murky political and military doings.) Cleopatra may have been the last independent ruler of Egypt until modern times, but Hellenistic Egypt was already a kingdom—and a civilization—in decline and a Roman client state in all but name. It was a Roman army, after all, that restored her father to the throne after he’d been ousted in a rebellion. Much of her political strategy was aimed at keeping Rome from simply annexing Egypt outright, and in that she failed, although for a few years she controlled an enormous swath of the Mediterranean. If she had sided with Octavian, we might be celebrating her as the miraculous preserver of Hellenistic culture. As it is, it’s hard to say what kind of lasting mark Cleopatra made on her world.

Myth and legend, however, are something else again. There, Cleopatra has reigned supreme as dangerous queen and love goddess for 2,000 years. Hard as Schiff works to clear away myths (romantic, misogynist, or both), what lies beneath them—the dense web of disturbing feelings evoked by powerful women—is too strong to be banished by a different interpretation of the same patchy historical record. Schiff doesn’t so much dismantle the archetype as add another layer. Asp or no asp, carpet or no carpet, her Cleopatra is still a sexy Oriental temptress—only now she also has brains, courage, and a fine grasp of the Egyptian tax code. Some myths are indestructible, and the proof is that Sony will be turning Schiff’s book into a biopic starring Angelina Jolie. I doubt she’ll be wearing a beaky nose or a sharp chin.

The Queen of Denial

by Louisa Thomas, Newsweek, October 25, 2008

Cleopatra has always been a player in other people’s dramas, if in different roles: she can be a coquette or a feminist, a martyr or a villain, a goddess or a fallen woman, even blond or black. Horace called her the fatale monstrum—the fatal monster. Chaucer made her virtuous. Shakespeare turned her into a romantic heroine. In her own day, legions of Egyptians thought she was the reincarnation of the goddess Isis, while her nemesis, the Roman Octavian, called her a whore. It is that description—Cleopatra as a vamp, a seductress whose machinations led to the downfall of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony—that dominates the countless depictions in art, literature, theater, film and, not least, history books.

It is hard to know just who she was. When she died in 30 B.C., she left no writings behind, and much of her city, Alexandria, now lies beneath the Mediterranean and a sea of modern buildings. But the shards of evidence the Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley pieces together in her engaging new biography, “Cleopatra: The Last Queen of Egypt,” reveal why it is so easy, and so tempting, to misconstrue her story. Her death marked the end of ancient Egypt and the birth of the Roman Empire. For her, sex really was politics: her two most important political allies, Antony and Caesar, were also her lovers. Their deaths made it possible for her enemies to turn her legend into a cautionary tale about the unfitness and danger of having women as leaders. In the year of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, untangling the legend of Cleopatra has special urgency.

Cleopatra was, of course, more than a mistress; she was a queen—an ambitious and ruthless one. When her brother—who was also her co-ruler and probably her husband, in an arrangement typical among Egyptian monarchs—moved against her, she had him killed. She liked to throw decadent feasts to impress visiting dignitaries. With her lover and ally Antony at her side, she was a major player in Rome’s civil war. Soon after Antony’s suicide, following a devastating defeat to Octavian at the Battle of Actium, she died too, killing herself, according to the official story, by the bite of an asp.

The official story—Octavian’s version, promoted in speeches, rumors, pamphlets and the deft use of symbols—says that Cleopatra corrupted the innocent Caesar and Antony in order to ruin Rome and advance herself. (This is not so different from the depiction in the HBO series “Rome”—Cleopatra, a druggy strumpet, offers herself as Caesar’s “slave,” while secretly conniving for control.) The archeological record is thin, but it suggests something else: that Cleopatra was a competent ruler in difficult times, dealing with internal unrest and unstable neighbors. Tyldesley wants to “put Cleopatra back into her own, predominantly Egyptian context”—to see her as a ruler of Egypt, not as a consort of Romans. In this view, sex was one of the few tools available to women, and her use of it was “sensible,” not “weak.” In fact, Tyldesley writes that Cleopatra “probably had no more than two, consecutive relationships.”

Octavian was heavily invested in portraying Cleopatra as a harlot. Antony was his former ally; a power struggle tore them apart. Cleopatra, as a female and a foreigner, was a more obvious enemy. She became a scapegoat—dark to Rome’s pure light, woman to Rome’s man, a monarch to Rome’s republic. Cicero met her at Caesar’s house and found her intelligent but arrogant. “I hate the queen!” he wrote. The historian Plutarch, whose vivid and fascinating “Lives” continues to shape popular perceptions of antiquity, lived a century later, but he hated her too. His Cleopatra is devious and immoral. In one typically dramatic but probably fantastic scene in Plutarch’s telling, Cleopatra had herself smuggled into Caesar’s presence for the first time in a bundle of bedsheets. Later depictions—including the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor version—have her falling to his feet, tousled and sexy, as he unrolls an anachronistic Persian rug.

These portrayals of Cleopatra tell more about their own times than about the Egyptian queen herself (though she probably did have a flair for the dramatic). She has become a kind of Rorschach test. Renaissance painters depicted her as their pale blond vision of beauty, but in the 19th century, an era of imperialism, she was dark and exotic. Romantics loved the femme fatale Cleopatra, while early cinematic portrayals appealed to both men and women by making her smart and funny and scantily clad. Many scholars today fixate on Cleopatra’s looks (her profile, seen on coins, features a huge nose) and skin color (the Ptolemies were from a Macedonian line, but Cleopatra’s maternal ancestry and the race of her paternal grandmother are disputed). As Tyldesley points out, these squabbles are largely about society’s obsession with beauty and race. To regard Cleopatra as an Egyptian ruler instead of a male myth, and to assess her using scholarly and archeological tools, is a worthy goal. It seems long overdue.

See: The Story of Cleopatra on CBC Radio’s The Current

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