We are all familiar with the passionate but doomed 2000 year old love story of the Egyptian Queen of the Nile Cleopatra and the Roman General Marcus Antonius who committed tragic double suicide. The story has been passed down by generations of story tellers from Plutarch in Parallel Lives to early Muslim historians, and from Shakespeare in his play Antony and Cleopatra to Hollywood in one of the most expensive epic films of all times Cleopatra (1963) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. Here is their intensely dramatic true story based on not just a sensual love but cold, hard and pragmatic politics
By Mahlia Lone
Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (Cleopatra the Father-Loving Goddess), born in Egypt in 69 BC,Â belonged to the Ptolemy dynasty founded by one of Alexander the Greatâ€™s Macedonian generals,Â Ptolemy I Soter, who took over the reign of Egypt after Alexanderâ€™s death in 323 BC. The dynasty of Greek-speaking rulers lasted for nearly three centuries and incestuous marriages became the rule to preserve the purity of their Macedonian bloodline. Many of Cleopatraâ€™s ancestors married their cousins or worse, siblings. Her own parents were probably brother and sister. Despite this interbreeding, long before Cleopatra was born, the Ptolemyâ€™s Greek blood had become mixed with Egyptian.
Her father Ptolemy XII Auletes (player of pipes) was an alcoholic music lover whose reign was marred by a great rebellion during which the royal family had to go into exile. The Ptolemy dynasty was in the last days of a long decline when she inherited the throne upon his death in 51 bc with her younger brother/husband/co-regent Ptolemy XIII (reign 51â€“47 BC). Ten years older than her brother/husband, eighteen year old Cleopatra became the dominant ruler of the two, embraced many of her countryâ€™s ancient customs and was the first member of the Ptolemaic rulers to learn Egyptian.
Cleopatra was renowned more for her intellect, charm, conversation and political acumen than her physical appearance. She spoke as many as a dozen languages and was educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy, and was a ruler â€œwho elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.â€ Muslim scholars dating from after the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640 AD recorded that Cleopatra had been a first rate scholar, scientist, chemist and gifted philosopher, in direct contrast to the history penned by her enemies, the Romans who portrayed her as a scheming seductress who used men to further her own ends.
In fact, strong evidence suggests that Cleopatra was not beautiful at all. Ancient Greek biographer Plutarch who lived just a century after her death wrote that Cleopatraâ€™s beauty was â€œnot altogether incomparable,â€ and that it was instead her mellifluous speaking voice and â€œirresistible charmâ€ that made her so desirable.
Egyptian coins with her portrait from her era display a lively countenance with a sensitive mouth, firm chin, liquid eyes, broad forehead, and prominent nose. Some historians argue that Cleopatra managed herÂ public image just as celebrities do today changing her image to suit her political need. Her manly features, fatherâ€™s strong jaw and large, hooked nose on the coins were a display of strength and emphasized her inherited right to rule. At ceremonial events, she would appear dressed as the goddess Isis, showing that she too was semi-divine.
The murder of immediate family members and power plots were rife in the Ptolemaic royal house. In 50 BC, her brother/husband/co-regent Ptolemyâ€™s name preceded Cleopatraâ€™s and soon after he forced his sister/wife who was trying to take sole possession of the throne to flee Egypt for Syria. Not to be daunted by a younger sibling, she raised an army and in 48 BC returned to face her brother in a civil war.
The arrival of Roman Consul and General Julius Caesar brought a temporary peace between the warring siblings. Cleopatra realized that she needed Caesarâ€™s support, if she were to regain her throne. In his turn, Caesar wanted repayment of the massive loan incurred by Cleopatraâ€™s father, Auletes, which he had taken on to fight against rebel forces and regain his throne.
Knowing Ptolemy XIIIâ€™s forces would thwart her attempts to meet with the powerful Caesar, Cleopatra had herself famously wrapped in a carpet and smuggled into his personal quarters. Dazzled by her audaciousness and originality, the two soon struck up a bargain that was sealed in love.
The exotic Egyptian female pharaoh with her infamous femme fatale reputation, elaborate hairdo and makeup as well as fabulous pearl studded gold jewellery made the Roman women swoon and scramble to emulate her glamorous style. Cleopatra had the most powerful man in Rome wrapped around her little finger. Who wouldn’t want that? According to the historian Joann Fletcher, “so many Roman women adopted the ‘Cleopatra look’â€ thereby setting off a fashion trend.
Caesar and Cleopatra spent that winter holed up together in besieged Alexandria till Roman reinforcements arrived the following spring and defeated Ptolemy XIIIâ€™s forces. After his defeat, the Egyptian Pharoah drowned in the Nile. Cleopatra married her youngest brother Ptolemy XIV (later also murdered by her order) and regained the throne.
In June 47 BC, Cleopatra gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar (known as Caesarion, or Little Caesar). This was Julius Caesarâ€™s only son, though he had been married three times, including to his current wife the honourable Calpurnia. The most powerful Roman had produced an Egyptian heir named after him. Powerful Romans sat up and took notice.
When Caesar returned to Rome, in 46 bc, he celebrated a four-day triumph, his victory over a foreign enemy, in which Arsinoe, Cleopatraâ€™s youngerÂ sister who had sided with her brother Ptolemy was paraded in chains, a fate that she bore with such dignity that she impressed the watching Romans. Cleopatra had her killed too.
Julius came back full of plans to change Rome. He not only made plans to distribute land to about 15,000 war veterans that had aided his campaigns and were loyal to him, but also replaced the traditional Roman calendar regulated by the movement of the moon (like the Muslim calendar) with the Egyptian calendar regulated by the sun with 365.25 days, same as the modern western calendar today.
To add insult to injury, Caesarâ€™s foreign mistress Cleopatra accompanied by their son and her latest co-regent, youngest brother and new husband Ptolemy XIV visited him in Rome in 46 BC and stayed at his private villa beyond the Tiber River. In honour of his royal mistress, Caesar erected a golden statue in Cleopatraâ€™s likeness in the temple of Venus Genetrix, his Julian family ancestress.
Having made himself the most powerful man in Rome with the Army, Senate, Roman citizens and even foreign powers behind him, Julius Caesar had himself proclaimed dictator for a year. Afraid that he would make himself a ruler for life and then pass on his throne to his Egyptian born son, 60 Senators led by Brutus and Cassius successfully plotted and assassinated the great Caesar who thought himself untouchable in 44 BC in the Senate building on the Ides of March.
Cleopatra was in fact in Rome at the time and fearing for her and her sonâ€™s lives she disguised her group and escaped in secrecy to the safety of Alexandria. Soon after, Ptolemy XIV died prematurely under mysterious circumstances., perhaps having been killed at the order of his sister. Cleopatra now ruled with her infant son, Ptolemy XV Caesar.
Marcus Antonius was born in 83 BC, nine years after Cleopatraâ€™s birth, to a noble Roman family. Plutarch wrote that Antony gave brilliant promise in his youth until his friendship with the wastrel Curio fell upon him like a pest. Curio himself was aimless and unrestrained in his pleasures, encouraging Antony in drinking bouts, with women, and incurring extravagant expenditures. His carousing involved Antony in a heavy debt before he turned twenty of two hundred and fifty talents (the equivalent of five million dollars today).
Deep in gambling debt and pursued by creditors, Antony fled to Greece in 58 BC and took part as a cavalry officer in military campaigns in Judea (called Syria Palaestina by the Romans), where he performed exceptionally well. He was sent to Gaul and was promoted to the personal staff of Julius Caesar. Antony played a key figure in helping bring the province under Romeâ€™s control. Though a brilliant commander, his appetite for indolence, drink and sexual excesses marred his military discipline much to the dislike of Caesar and the other officers. The common soldiers all naturally rallied to Antonyâ€™s side though and followed his lead. As a reward for his military conquests, Antony was appointed tribune back in Rome and represented the interests of the people. His popularity with the common man helped him gain support for Caesar, whose imperiousness was being challenged in the Roman Senate.
Plutarch wrote: “What might seem to some very insupportable, his vaunting, his raillery, his drinking in public, sitting down by the men as they were taking their food, and eating, as he stood, off the common soldiers’ tables, made him the delight and pleasure of the army. In love affairs, also, he was very agreeable: he gained many friends by the assistance he gave them in theirs, and took other people’s raillery upon his own with good-humour. And his generous ways, his open and lavish hand in gifts and favours to his friends and fellow-soldiers, did a great deal for him in his first advance to power.”
With further victories under his belt, his growing popularity and his unquestionable loyalty to Caesar, Antony was appointed his second in command.
â€œIn spite of his (Antonyâ€™s) hedonism,â€ Plutarch added, â€œAfter taking Rome without a fight, when Caesar turned his attention to Pompeyâ€™s forces in Spain, he left Antony in charge of the city. Though an effective military leader, Antony had little skill as a politician. He was too lazy to pay attention to the complaints of persons who were injured; he listened impatiently to petitions; and he had an ill name for familiarity with other peopleâ€™s wives.â€ A not too competent administrator, Antony managed keep the all important supply lines open to Caesarâ€™s forces and to send reinforcements in a timely fashion.
In 45 BC, Antony with his ear to the ground heard rumors of a plot against Caesar but was unable to warn his mentor in time. On the Ides of March (notable for the Romans as a deadline for settling debts) when Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in a very public assassination, Antony fled Rome dressed as a slave. He returned with soldiers and took charge of Caesarâ€™s will, handed over to him by Calpurnia, gave a stirring eulogy for the fallen leader, turning the tide of popular opinion against the conspirators, and drove them from Rome.
In his will, Caesar had bequeathed his wealth and title to his nephew and teenage posthumouslyÂ adopted son Gaius Octavius Thurinus (Octavian) who promptly appeared to claim his inheritance. But Antony was reluctant to hand over the reins of power to a â€œboyâ€ as he often referred to him. He felt as Caesarâ€™s second in command he was the natural successor. As Mark Antony pursued Caesarâ€™s killers in Gaul, army legions supporting Octavianâ€™s claim to the leadership scored a series of victories against Antony, forcing him to retreat to southern Gaul. Caesarâ€™s assassins, Brutus and Cassis, were preparing to descend on Rome with their troops when Octavian, Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (a Roman patrician statesman and close ally of Julius) hastily called a truce and formed the Second Triumvirate, jointly defeating the traitors in the battle of Philippi in October 42 BC.
The three victors divided Romeâ€™s territories between them. Lepidus got Africa to rule, Octavian the west, and Antony the east. In 41 BC, Antony firmly in charge in the east summoned Cleopatra to appear before him on a charge of sedition against Rome. He planned on fining her a substantial sum in gold to help pay his army. She received several letters, both from Antony and from his friends, to summon her, but she took no account of these orders only setting sail when she was good and ready. She set out for Tarsus in Asia Minor loaded with gifts. By this time, Antony was agog with curiosity to see her. She stage managed her entrance, fashionably late of course, in such a way that Antony was instantly spell bound and smitten.
Plutarch described the scene as: “And at last, as if in mockery of them, she came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropesâ€¦.On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good-humour and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equaled for beauty.”
Cleopatra had promised Antony the most expensive feast he had ever attended and when Antony took in the entire splendor he said, he had seen never seen anything to equal it, but doubted that it was the worldâ€™s most expensive feast. Cleopatra, always one to create dramatic moments, took off one of her earrings with a huge dangling pearl and dropped the pearl in a gold goblet of wine. The pearl rapidly dissolved in the liquid, she downed the glass and said that now it was certainly the most lavish banquet ever. Antony was stunned.
Antony liked to think of himself as an embodiment of Dionysus (the god of wine, festivity and fertility) so when Cleopatra appeared before him dressed as Venus (the goddess of (love, beauty, desire, procreation and prosperity), they seemed to be the ideal fit for each other. Instantly forgetting his faithful wife Fulvia who in Italy was working hard to maintain her husbandâ€™s affairs against young Octavian, Antony returned to Alexandria with Cleopatra, treating her not as a â€œprotectedâ€ ruler but as an independent sovereign.
Cleopatra needed Antony to help her maintain her crown and Egyptâ€™s sovereignty, while Antony needed to access Egyptâ€™s riches and resources to maintain the precarious balance of power in Rome.
Cleverly, Cleopatra studied the generalâ€™s likes and dislikes and participated in all his excesses, not leaving his side for a minute, even when he participated in military exercises she would stand by and watch. They spent a raucous winter together in 41-40 BC steeped in hedonism even by Ancient Egyptian and Roman royal standards. They formed their own bacchanalian drinking society known as the â€œInimitable Livers.â€ The group engaged in nightly feasts and wine-binges, and its members participated in elaborate games and contests, such as wandering the streets of Alexandria in disguise and playing pranks on its residents. The citizens would recognize Cleopatra and Antony but wisely forbore any comment and patiently played along.
Plutarch described: (Antony was) â€œ…carried away by her (Cleopatra) to Alexandria, there to keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away in enjoyment that most costly of all valuables, timeâ€¦.She had faith in her own attractions, which, having formerly recommended her to Caesar and the young Pompey, she did not doubt might prove yet more successful with Antony. Their acquaintance was with her when a girl, young, and ignorant of the world, but she was to meet Antony in the time of life when womenâ€™s beauty is most splendid, and their intellects are in full maturity. She made great preparations for her journey, of money, gifts, and ornaments of value, such as so wealthy a kingdom might afford, but she brought with her surest hopes in her own magic arts and charms.
…she came sailing up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along, under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like Sea Nymphs and Graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes.
…perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal; while the word went .through all the multitude, that Venus was come to feast with Bacchus for the common good of Asia.
On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good humor and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equaled for beauty.
The next day, Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it, that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit, and his rustic awkwardness. She, perceiving that his raillery was broad and gross, and savored more of the soldier than the courtier, rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve.
For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter.
Antony was so captivated by her, that while Fulvia his wife maintained his quarrels in Rome against Caesar by actual force of arms, and the Parthian troops…were assembled in Mesopotamia, and ready to enter Syria, he could yet suffer himself to be carried away by her to Alexandria, there to keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away in enjoyment that most costly, as Antiphon says, of all valuables, time.
Were Antony serious or disposed to mirth, she had at any moment some new delight or charm to meet his wishes; at every turn she was upon him, and let him escape her neither by day nor by night. She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him; and when he exercised in arms, she was there to see.
At night she would go rambling with him to disturb and torment people at their doors and windows, dressed like a servant woman for Antony also went in servantâ€™s disguise, and from these expeditions he often came home very scurvily answered, and sometimes even beaten severely, though most people guessed who it was. However, the Alexandrians in general liked it all well enough, and joined good humouredly and kindly in his frolic and play, saying they were much obliged to Antony for acting his tragic parts at Rome, and keeping his comedy for them.â€
In 40 bc, Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, fathered by the general. During her pregnancy, Antony had already left Alexandria to return to Rome to conclude a temporary settlement with Octavian. As Fulvia had passed away, he sealed the deal by marrying Octavianâ€™s sister, Octavia. For three years, Antony tried to make his marriage and the settlement work but was finally convinced beyond a doubt that he and Octavian could never come to terms.