Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra
Written by Edith Hamilton, W.W. Norton Inc. 1986 now in the Library of Congress and reprinted by permission
b. 69 BCd. Aug. 30, 30 BC, Alexandria
"She captivated the two greatest Romans of her day, and because of the third she destroyed herself."
Cleopatra Ptolemy was the descendant of a line of Greeks stretching back to Ptolemy, the general of Alexander the Great. She was the last of this line and the last Pharaoh of Egypt. After her, Rome would rule Egypt.
Cleopatra was an Egyptian queen famous in history and drama, lover of Julius Caesar and later the wife of Mark Antony. She became queen on the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, in 51 BC, ruling successively with her two brothers Ptolemy XIII (51-47) and Ptolemy XIV (47-44) and her son Ptolemy XV Caesar (44-30). After the Roman armies of Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) defeated their combined forces, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Egypt fell under Roman domination. Her ambition no less than her charm actively influenced Roman politics at a crucial period, and she came to represent, as did no other woman of antiquity, the prototype of the romantic femme fatale.
The second daughter of King Ptolemy XII,
Cleopatra was destined to become the last sovereign of the Macedonian
dynasty that ruled Egypt between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 and
its annexation by Rome in 31. Alexander’s marshal Ptolemy had founded the
line. Cleopatra was of Macedonian descent and had no Egyptian blood,
although she alone of her house took the trouble to learn Egyptian, and for
political reasons regarded herself as the daughter of Re, the sun god. Coin
portraits of her show a countenance alive rather than beautiful, with a
sensitive mouth, firm chin, liquid eyes, broad forehead, and prominent nose.
Her voice, says the Greek biographer Plutarch, "was like an instrument of
many strings." He adds, "Plato admits four sorts of flattery, but she had a
thousand." When Ptolemy XII died in 51, the throne passed to his 15-year-old
son, Ptolemy XIII, and that king's sister-bride, Cleopatra. They soon had a
falling out, and civil war ensued. Ptolemy XII had been expelled from Egypt
in 58 and had been restored three years later only by means of Roman arms.
Rome now felt that it had a right to interfere in the affairs of this
independent, exceedingly rich kingdom, over which it had in fact exercised a
sort of protectorate since 168. No one realized more clearly than Cleopatra
that Rome was now the arbiter and that to carry out her ambition she must
remain on good terms with Rome and its rulers. Thus when Caesar, the victor
in the civil war, arrived in Egypt in October 48, in pursuit of Pompey (who,
a fugitive from his defeat at Phrasal in Thessaly, had been murdered as he
landed four days before), Cleopatra set out to captivate him. She succeeded.
Each was determined to use the other. Caesar sought money--he claimed he was
owed it for the expenses of her father's restoration. Cleopatra's target was
power: she was determined to restore the glories of the first Ptolemy’s and
to recover as much as possible of their dominions, which had included
southern Syria and Palestine. She realized that Caesar was the strong man,
the dictator, of Rome, and it was therefore on him that she relied. In the
ensuing civil war in Egypt Caesar was hard-pressed by the anti-Cleopatra
party, led by her brother, Ptolemy XIII, but Caesar eventually defeated them
and reestablished the joint rule of brother and sister-wife. Caesar, having
won his victory on March 27, 47, left Egypt after a fortnight's amorous
respite. Whether Caesar was in fact the father of Cleopatra's son whom she
called Caesarian cannot now be known.
It took Caesar two years to extinguish the
last flames of Pompeian opposition. As soon as he returned to Rome, in 46,
he celebrated a four-day triumph--the ceremonial in honor of a general after
his victory over a foreign enemy--in which Arsinoe, Cleopatra's younger and
hostile sister, was paraded. Munda, in 45, was the coup de grace. Cleopatra
was now in Rome, and a golden statue of her had been placed by Caesar's
orders in the temple of Venus Genetrix, the ancestress of the Julian family
to which Caesar belonged. Cleopatra herself was installed by Caesar in a
villa that he owned beyond the Tiber. She was accompanied by her
husband-brother and was still in Rome when Caesar was murdered in 44. She
behaved with a discretion that she was later to discard, and her presence
seems to have occasioned little comment; officially she was negotiating a
treaty of alliance. Cicero, the politician and writer, mentions her in none
of his contemporary letters, though his later references to her show that he
regarded her, as most Romans did, with rancor.
Caesar's assassination put an end to
Cleopatra's first campaign for power, and she retired to Egypt to await the
outcome of the next round in the Roman political struggle. When, at the
Battle of Philippi in 42, Caesar's assassins were routed, Mark Antony became
the heir-apparent of Caesar's authority--or so it seemed, for his
great-nephew and personal heir, Octavian, was but a sickly boy. When Antony,
bent on pursuing the eternal mirage of Roman rulers, an invasion of Persia,
sent for Cleopatra, she was delighted. Here was a second chance of achieving
her aim. She had known Antony when he had been in Egypt as a young staff
officer and she had been 14. She was now 28 or 29 and completely confident
of her powers. She set out for Tarsus in Asia Minor, loaded with gifts,
having delayed her departure to heighten Antony's expectation. She entered
the city by sailing up the Cydnus River in the famous barge that Shakespeare
immortalized in Antony and Cleopatra. Antony was captivated, and Cleopatra
subtly exploited his raffish and unstable character. Forgetting his wife,
Fulvia, who in Italy was doing her best to maintain her husband's interests
against the growing menace of young Octavian, Antony put off his Persian
campaign and returned as Cleopatra's slave to Alexandria, where he treated
her not as a "protected" sovereign but as an independent monarch. "Her
design of attacking Rome by means of Romans," as one historian put it, "was
one of such stupendous audacity that we must suppose that she saw no other
way." Her first effort had been frustrated by Caesar's death; she felt now
that she could win all by using the far more pliant and apparently equally
powerful Antony. In Alexandria Cleopatra did all she could to pander to his
weaknesses. They formed a society of "inimitable livers," whose members in
fact lived a life of debauchery and folly. Cleopatra, however, knew how to
handle her catch. Yet the final struggle for the dominion of Rome was to
last for 10 years and was to end in disaster for Cleopatra (no less than for
Antony), largely promoted by Cleopatra herself.
In 40 BC, Antony left Alexandria to return
to Italy, where he was forced to conclude a temporary settlement with
Octavian, whose sister Octavia (Fulvia having died) he married. Three years
later Antony was convinced that he and Octavian could never come to terms.
He went east again and again met Cleopatra; he needed her money for his
postponed Parthian campaign. He then took the fatal step of marrying her.
The union was not only utterly insulting to Octavia and her brother but in
Roman law it was also invalid. Henceforward all Rome was united against him.
Meanwhile, during Antony's absence,
Cleopatra had committed another act of disastrous folly. She had antagonized
Herod of Judaea, by far the ablest, richest, and most powerful of the
"protected" sovereigns, or "client kings," of Rome. Herod and Antony were
old friends; but in the year 40, after Antony's departure, Cleopatra
unsuccessfully tried to seduce Herod on his way through Egypt. Cleopatra
never forgave him for the rebuff. She went much further: when she and Antony
were reunited she persuaded him to give her large portions of Syria and
Lebanon and even the rich balsam groves of Jericho in Herod's own kingdom.
But Antony refused to sacrifice Herod wholly to Cleopatra's greed, whereupon
she hated Herod more than ever and even interfered in his unhappy family
affairs by intriguing against him with the women of his household. She made
a tour of her new acquisitions, on which Herod received her with simulated
delight; but she remained as jealous and hostile as ever, bitterly resentful
that anyone other than herself should influence Antony. The fruit of her
folly was soon to be gathered.
Cleopatra had merely acquiesced in the
Parthian campaign: she sought other ways of spending her money. The campaign
itself was a costly failure, as was the temporary conquest of Armenia.
Nevertheless, in 34 Antony celebrated a fantastic triumph in Alexandria.
Crowds beheld Antony and Cleopatra seated on golden thrones, with their own
three children and little Caesarion, whom Antony proclaimed to be Caesar's
son, thus relegating Octavian, who had been adopted by Caesar as his son and
heir, to legal bastardy. Cleopatra was hailed as queen of kings, Caesarion
as king of kings. Alexander Helios was awarded Armenia and the territory
beyond the Euphrates, his brother Ptolemy the lands to the west of it. The
boys' sister, Selene, was to be ruler of Cyrene. Octavian, now lord of the
ascendant in Italy, seized Antony's will from the temple of the Vestal
Virgins, to whom it had been entrusted, and revealed to the Roman people
that not only had Antony bestowed Roman possessions on this foreign woman
but had intended to transfer the capital from Rome to Alexandria, there to
found a new dynasty.
Antony and Cleopatra spent the winter of
32-31 in Greece amid revels and dissipation. The Roman Senate deprived
Antony of his prospective consulate for the following year. When it finally
declared war against Cleopatra the un-wisdom of her policy against Herod was
revealed, for she had contrived to embroil him with the King of Petra just
when his ability and resources would have been of the utmost value to Antony.
At the naval Battle of Actium, in which Octavian faced the combined forces
of Antony and Cleopatra on Sept. 2, 31, Cleopatra suddenly broke off the
engagement and set course for Egypt. Inevitable defeat followed. Antony went
on board her flagship and for three days refused to see her; but they were
reconciled before they reached Alexandria, styling themselves no longer
"inimitable livers" but "diers together."
Cleopatra with all her subtlety, all her
political foresight, had backed two losers, first Caesar and then Antony, to
whose downfall she had notably contributed. Octavian now became the magnet.
Cleopatra realized that she could neither kill Antony nor exile him. But she
believed that if he could be induced to kill himself for love of her, they
would both win undying renown. She retired to her mausoleum, and then sent
messengers to Antony to say she was dead. He fell on his sword, but in a
last excess of devotion had himself carried to Cleopatra's retreat, and
there died, after bidding her to make her peace with Octavian.
When Octavian visited her, Cleopatra tried
yet once again to captivate the leading Roman. She used all her arts; she
failed. She knew, then, that Octavian intended that she and her children
should adorn his triumph. Rather than be dragged through the city in which
she had been borne as a queen, she killed herself, possibly by means of an
asp, symbol of divine royalty. Octavian, on receiving her letter asking that
she might be buried with Antony, sent messengers posthaste. "The
messengers," Plutarch says, "came at full speed, and found the guards
apprehensive of nothing; but on opening the doors they saw her stone dead,
lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments." She was 39
and had been a queen for 22 years and Antony's partner for 11. They were
buried together, as both of them had wished, and with them was buried the
In retrospect, Cleopatra's political career ended in utter failure. Had she been less ambitious she might have preserved her kingdom as a client, as her rival Herod did with complete success. In overreaching herself she ruined all. And yet it was this political failure that was to be transmuted into the grand original of the great lover, consecrated by the art of Shakespeare himself. The best epitaph on Cleopatra is that of the historian Dio Cassius: "She captivated the two greatest Romans of her day, and because of the third she destroyed herself."