Queen, Goddess, Politician
By Henry Frost
Biography magazine, 2003
Alexandria stretched out below her, a seaport of 300,000 people, center of Egypt’s economy. Sailing ships lined the wharf. Men loaded the vessels with sacks of wheat for export to Rome and Athens. Businessmen haggled about prices, their white caftans billowing in the breeze, while the Lighthouse of Pharos, 40 stories tall, watched over the proceedings.
Alexandria, and Egypt, were wealthy by way of export products – grain, papyrus, exquisite gold jewelry, slabs of granite hewn from desert quarries. But for all its riches, the kingdom was weak at the core.
As the queen knew, much illegal activity occurred behind closed doors on the wharf – royal officials accepted bribes; chunks of profit were skimmed from the export trade. Meanwhile the country was plagued by frequent armed conflict between factions jousting for power. And Romans were a major presence in the land, making noise about annexation.
Egypt was a mere shadow of what it had been in centuries past, when pharaohs carved empires, when the approach of Egyptian chariots caused Syrians and Nubians to tremble. Ruling a weak kingdom was not acceptable to Queen Cleopatra. To make her country as strong and great as possible, she was prepared to roil the known world.
Cleopatra VII Philopator, the future queen, was born in Alexandria in 69 BCE. She was informed as a child that she was not merely royal but divine – a goddess incarnate, the “New Isis.” This knowledge didn’t ruin her, surprisingly enough. She grew up focused and ambitious, eager to satisfy the expectations not only of the royal court but of her heavenly peer group.
She applied herself to her lessons, developed a supple mind, delighted in philosophy, history, and languages, took an “almost sensuous pleasure in learning and scholarship,” writes historian Duane W. Roller. Ascending to Egypt’s throne at age 18, she reigned until her death at age 39 (she initially shared power with her father and brothers but eventually gained sole rule).
She was a strong monarch, an “admirable administrator,” says historian Mary Hamer. She was not at all like the kittenish ruler of the play “Caesar and Cleopatra” by George Bernard Shaw, written in 1901, a time, notes journalist Alessandra Stanley, of “Edwardian discomfort with female empowerment.” Cleopatra was fully empowered. In fact, she possessed a ruthless streak wide as the Nile at flood tide – she was willing to kill anyone who stood in her way. Her cold-blooded approach was just what a young woman needed to succeed in the ancient world, where royal folk stalked each other with knives (or, rather, ordered their minions to stalk).
The peasants of Egypt, eight million in number, were fond of their goddess queen. As they well knew, she was deeply immersed in the life of the kingdom, studying its every aspect, traveling its great river, contemplating its future not only from her balcony but from byways and back roads. One shrewd tactic used by Cleopatra to endear herself to the populace was learning the Egyptian language; she was the first member of her dynasty to do so. Her native tongue was Greek; her heritage was Macedonian/Hellenistic/Greek. As a member of the Ptolemy Dynasty she was strongly connected to Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt 300 years before her time and founded Alexandria to handle the grain trade.
Egypt’s laborers strove to please Cleopatra, producing an abundance of grain (if the river god smiled) along with many other products. Despite this wealth, and despite a thriving culture, Egypt, as noted, was not what it had been. The empire was gone, and with it, a large chunk of revenue. Foreigners invaded; the Seleucids, from a neighboring kingdom, attacked just a century before Cleopatra was born. Corruption was pervasive, and the kingdom was frequently beset by “murderous bouts of internecine strife,” writes historian Alan B. Lloyd.
The queen was tossed off her throne in 48 BCE in a complex squabble with rivals. In the wake of this embarrassment, her first goal was to return to her rightful place. She needed assistance. A helping hand arrived later that year with the arrival in Alexandria of Gaius Julius Caesar, consul of Rome.
Tricky. But possible. Perhaps, as a sort of mantra, she spoke to herself the powerful Greek word ginesthoi: “make it happen.”
Caesar was 52 years old when he arrived in Alexandria, at the peak of his life, the greatest statesman/warrior/scholar of antiquity – a brilliantly successful politician, superb general, and gifted writer of history. He was adored by his troops – he not only brought them victories and paid them well, he reputedly knew all their names, thousands of them, an interesting parallel to Cleopatra’s linguistic skill. He was a legendary lover of women (and, in his youth, of men, or so his army believed). He was somewhat corrupted by power; as author Ernle Bradford writes of him, “No man is capable of exercising so much power and receiving so much adulation without his head being turned.”
He came to Egypt in search of cash to finance the civil war he had instigated by crossing the Rubicon River, from Cisalpine Gaul into Italy, on January 19, 49 BCE. He was engaged in a massive task, trying to reform a corrupt and complacent Rome, serving as champion for a radical party in its struggle with the conservative nobility, meanwhile advancing his dreams of personal glory.
Caesar was ensconced at the palace in Alexandria. Cleopatra was denied access to the royal compound by her enemies, so, according to one version of events, she had herself smuggled into the Roman’s presence encased in a rug or sack, which was probably unfurled by her servant with great care.
There she stood. Caesar cast his eyes upon the 22-year-old goddess, and vice versa.
We don’t know exactly what she looked like. Crude portraits exist in busts and coins, but nothing as clear and definitive as, say, renderings of Caesar (or of Nefertiti). It’s not inconceivable that a sculpture is buried somewhere, today, that vividly captures Cleopatra’s features. If it’s out there, perhaps it will surface in one of history’s most interesting archaeological discoveries.
The ancient authorities say she was not drop-dead gorgeous. She seems to have burnished every gift she possessed. She exhibited wit and charisma. She spoke superb Latin, Caesar’s primary language. (Plutarch writes, “She tuned her tongue like a many-stringed instrument expertly to whatever language she chose.”) She had perfect taste in makeup and clothing – she was a trendsetter in the wearing of sheer silk to reveal, but conceal, her body. Also, Egypt’s perfumes were the finest in the world. (Did Caesar catch her lovely scent before the rug was unfurled?)
She was probably a virgin when she met Caesar; she shed this status with him behind a gauzy curtain, possibly on that first night.
Historian Ingrid D. Rowland writes, “The shiver of flirtation that allegedly accompanied the meetings of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher may be a chaste reminder of less inhibited times, when divine right permitted a more extensive range of royal behavior.”
Caesar and his troops restored Cleopatra to her throne, and he stayed with her in Egypt for eight months, even as his presence was sorely needed in Rome to negotiate the stormy political seas. Why did he tarry? Napoleon, centuries later, a devoted student of Roman history, was baffled by the sojourn. Was Caesar so obsessed with her that he couldn’t bear to part? Maybe. More probably, he remained in Alexandria to help Cleopatra strengthen her regime, calculating that this investment of time would pay dividends in the future, and that the problems in Rome could wait a few extra months. There’s also, of course, the possibility of mixed motives – perhaps he was obsessed with her and wanted to strengthen her hold on power.
They likely discussed their future together, and Egypt’s prospects. Michael Grant writes, “She probably influenced him more than is often nowadays believed” by scholars. Historian Will Durant speculates, “It is not impossible that she whispered to him the pleasant thought of making himself king, marrying her, and uniting the Mediterranean world under one bed.” If she and Caesar ruled the known world, Egypt would once again be great, and could find its way to complete independence.
On at least one occasion – probably several times – Caesar and Cleopatra paid respects to the remains of Alexander the Great, which were preserved in honey and encased in a glass coffin in Alexandria. We can imagine the two visitors on bended knees in a hushed candlelit hall before the Macedonian warrior. (The 1963 movie “Cleopatra” squashes all the magic out of this moment, as it does with several incidents. The excellent HBO/BBC series “Rome” inexplicably avoids this spectacularly interesting tableau.) Did Caesar feel a primal connection to Alexander, his idol, while making love to a woman so viscerally connected to the conqueror? Maybe so.
See here for more on Alexander’s mummy.
Caesar eventually returned to Rome; Cleopatra followed and took up residence on his estate.
In the Senate, Caesar allowed himself to be named dictator for life (a sort of super-president, not quite a king), possibly because he saw no other way to heal a chaotic government, or perhaps because he loved power so much. (Or, again, possibly because of some combination of these impulses. Julius Caesar was at once a reformer and an autocrat, much like Napoleon, and therein resides some of the fascination of these two men – so gifted and shrewd, so interested in changing the world for the better, yet obsessed with power, altered by their possession of it, and unwilling to walk away from it.)
Roman nobles watched Caesar and worried. They deduced, probably correctly, that he was inclining toward naming himself sovereign, which would mean an end to the republic and creation of a permanent ruling dynasty. In 44 BCE, in the Senate chamber, Caesar’s enemies assassinated him – history’s most significant, most-studied political murder. Cleopatra fled Rome for Egypt, probably grief-stricken, certainly focused on preserving her life and the life of a little boy named Caesarion, her child by Caesar.
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Marc Antony, consul of Rome and successful warrior, saw himself as Caesar’s heir. He and Cleopatra first met in 55 BCE when she was 14; they began an affair in 41 BCE, three years after Caesar’s death. She bore several of their children as they sought control of the Roman world.
Their quest met with opposition. A spectacular war broke out – Antony & Cleopatra vs. Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar who would later take the name Augustus Caesar.
Antony and Cleopatra wanted the Roman Empire to be ruled by a Roman/Greek partnership, with Antony having final responsibility for major decisions, and Cleopatra possessing vast territories and wealth in the East, able to bestow her throne upon Caesarion. Octavian, meanwhile, believed the empire should be ruled from Rome by Romans. Or, more precisely, by one Roman – him.
The Roman citizenry sided with Octavian. Cleopatra became the target of Roman propaganda, “one of the most terrible outbursts of hatred in history,” writes historian W.W. Tarn: “No accusation was too vile.” Octavian’s hack writers, notes Michael Grant, depicted Cleopatra as “the oriental woman who had ensnared the Roman leader (Antony) in her evil luxury, the harlot who had seized Roman territories, until even Rome itself was not safe from her degenerate alien hordes.” Historian Mary Hamer writes, “Our entire mind-set about Cleopatra was organized for us by the man who defeated her” – and hated her – Octavian. One common bit of propaganda was that Cleopatra was wildly promiscuous and perverted. This was nonsense. In all likelihood she took exactly two lovers in her 39 years – Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. The made-up stories about her sex habits live on today; they’re eternal, as juicy lies about sex often are.
Octavian (later Augustus Caesar)
The war climaxed in a sea battle in 31 BCE at Actium, in Greece, where Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra. Antony’s troops subsequently deserted him. The lovers fled to Egypt. In 30 BCE, at the royal palace at Alexandria, with Octavian closing in, Antony, believing that Cleopatra had killed herself, fell on his sword in a suicide attempt. The blade did not find its mark; the warrior’s heart still beat. Word came that the queen was still alive. Antony, in agony, was carried to her. He requested a glass of wine. He died in her arms.
Shortly thereafter, Octavian’s men captured Cleopatra. In the ruthless calculation of power, the Roman victor decided that his purposes would be best served by a dead queen. He allowed her the option of suicide. She took the bite of an Egyptian cobra, also known as an asp. (Various accounts exist of her death; most ancient sources say a snake killed her.)
As the venom coursed through her, as the chilly numbness reached toward her heart, were her last thoughts of Antony? Of Caesar? Of her children? At the very end – and here we enter a realm of pure speculation – perhaps she thought of a hot summer’s day when she was nine years old. She was running. She was running barefoot through a dimly-lit corridor in the Royal Library of Alexandria. The marble floor was cool to her feet; the ceiling was ever so high. At the end of the hallway stood her tutor, a wise old Greek clad in a graceful snow-white toga. He smiled and beckoned to his prize pupil. He held a scroll, two scrolls, three; he held ancient wisdom that offered answers.
She ran faster. But – how odd! – she didn’t move. Could she reach the scrolls in time?
In the wake of Cleopatra’s death, history, an unsentimental thing, proceeded on its course. Her son with Caesar, Caesarion, was murdered at the order of Octavian. The conqueror annexed Egypt and went on to brilliantly rule the Roman Empire for more than 40 years. ●