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,  belonged to the Ptolemy dynasty founded by one of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian generals,  Ptolemy I Soter, who took over the reign of Egypt after Alexander’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 Cleopatra’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 Ptolemy’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 51–47 BC). Ten years older than her brother/husband, eighteen year old Cleopatra became the dominant ruler of the two, embraced many of her country’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 “who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.” 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 Cleopatra’s beauty was “not altogether incomparable,” and that it was instead her mellifluous speaking voice and “irresistible charm” 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 her  public image just as celebrities do today changing her image to suit her political need. Her manly features, father’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 Ptolemy’s name preceded Cleopatra’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 Caesar’s support, if she were to regain her throne. In his turn, Caesar wanted repayment of the massive loan incurred by Cleopatra’s father, Auletes, which he had taken on to fight against rebel forces and regain his throne.

Knowing Ptolemy XIII’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’” 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 XIII’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 Caesar’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, Cleopatra’s younger  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, Caesar’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 Cleopatra’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 son’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 Cleopatra’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 Rome’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 Antony’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.

“In spite of his (Antony’s) hedonism,” Plutarch added, “After taking Rome without a fight, when Caesar turned his attention to Pompey’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 people’s wives.” A not too competent administrator, Antony managed keep the all important supply lines open to Caesar’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 Caesar’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 posthumously  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 “boy” as he often referred to him. He felt as Caesar’s second in command he was the natural successor. As Mark Antony pursued Caesar’s killers in Gaul, army legions supporting Octavian’s claim to the leadership scored a series of victories against Antony, forcing him to retreat to southern Gaul. Caesar’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.

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The three victors divided Rome’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 ropes….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 world’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 husband’s affairs against young Octavian, Antony returned to Alexandria with Cleopatra, treating her not as a “protected” ruler but as an independent sovereign.

Cleopatra needed Antony to help her maintain her crown and Egypt’s sovereignty, while Antony needed to access Egypt’s riches and resources to maintain the precarious balance of power in Rome.

Cleverly, Cleopatra studied the general’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 “Inimitable Livers.” 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) “…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, time….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 women’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 servant’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.”

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 Octavian’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.

Discarding Octavia, he returned to waiting Cleopatra’s arms. Once again, Antony needed Cleopatra’s financial support for his Parthian campaign, while in her turn she requested the return of Egypt’s former eastern empire of Syria, Lebanon and the rich balsam groves of Jericho (Palestine).

Regardless, due to political expediency, the Triumvirate was renewed in 37 BC. Meanwhile, Antony fathered another son with Cleopatra, Ptolemy Philadelphus. The couple became bolder and made their relationship more official, participating in deification ceremonies where they took the roles of the Greco-Egyptian gods Dionysus-Osiris and Venus-Isis. More crucially, their three children along with Caesarion were shown off publicly in Alexandria as legitimate royal heirs. But in Rome laws barred the acknowledgment of marriage with outsiders or foreign heirs.

To make matters worse, the Parthian campaign was a costly failure. In 34 BC, egotistical Antony celebrated a triumphal return to Alexandria despite this. “The Donations of Alexandria” was a public ceremony held in the city’s Gymnasium in which Cleopatra and Antony were seated on grand golden thrones on a silver platform with their children perched on lower thrones beside them. They may have even gotten married in an Egyptian ceremony. Antony proclaimed Caesarion to be Caesar’s son, foolhardily proclaiming Octavian to be the illegitimate heir. Doubtless he was encouraged by the wily Cleopatra in this. She had Caesarion, represented on the temple wall at Dendera alongside her, as sharing her rule. She herself was hailed as queen of kings, Caesarion as king of kings. Alexander Helios was awarded Armenia and modern day Iraq, the infant Ptolemy the lands to the west of the Euphrates. Cleopatra Selene was bequeathed Cyrene (Libya).

Octavian watched from Rome as Antony thumbed his nose at him, parceling off Roman territories. A clever tactician, Octavian tried to turn the common man’s bias away from the more popular Antony by taking his will (or a forgery) from the temple of the Vestal Virgins and revealing to the Romans that not only had Antony bestowed Roman possessions on a foreign woman but intended to be buried beside her in Egypt. A rumour spread like wild fire that Antony had abandoned his own people and intended to transfer the capital from Rome to Alexandria. Antony was seen as a traitor duped by a scheming seductress.

William Shakespeare ‘s play ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (Act III, Scene 11). ‘Antony: ‘Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates. All that is won and lost: give me a kiss; Even this repays me.’ Painted by Frank Dicksee, engraved by G. Goldberg. WS:l. English poet and playwright baptised 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Antony reacted by divorcing Octavia, a public disgrace for her brother. Meanwhile Octavian strengthened his grip on power in Rome by eliminating Lepidus from the triumvirate on a pretext of rebellion. While Antony and Cleopatra wintered in Greece in 32–31 BC, as a result of Octavian’s intense propaganda campaign, the Roman Senate deprived Antony of his prospective consulate the following year, and declared war against Cleopatra, but not Antony who still had support back home.

Much of the fighting took place in western Greece, where Antony had a large force. However, Octavian’s general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who later became his brother in law as well as son in law, outmaneuvered Antony’s men in a series of brilliant naval attacks. The conflict reached its climax in the naval battle at Actium on 2nd September, 31 BC. Cleopatra personally led dozens of heavily armed Egyptian warships alongside Antony’s fleet, but they were no match for Octavian’s navy. Cleopatra and Antony’s remaining ships were forced to flee to Egypt, pursued by Agrippa.

Cleopatra retreated to her mausoleum as Antony took a last stand. It was do or die for him. Octavian’s forces had followed them to Alexandria.

While fighting a losing battle, Antony received word that Cleopatra had died. All was lost to him and he threw himself on his sword, piercing himself in the stomach. A mortally wounded Antony had himself carried to Cleopatra’s retreat and there died in her arms, after bidding her to make her peace with Octavian and save herself and her children. But Cleopatra did not want to be paraded in the streets of Rome as her sister before her had been. She knew hers would be an ignominious life of lifelong imprisonment, degradation and humiliation.

After burying Antony, Cleopatra famously committed suicide by means of an asp, a symbol of divine royalty, probably a viper or Egyptian cobra that bit her on her arm. An alternative theory is that she pricked herself with a pin dipped in snake venom that she carried on her person at all times. According to Plutarch, we shall never know for sure as the suicide occurred behind locked doors in her mausoleum. At the time of death, the legendary queen aged only 39 had ruled Egypt for 22 years and had been Antony’s partner for 11. She had her priests bury her besides her lover as per their joint wish.

Egypt was finally annexed by Rome in 30 BC. Octavian had to make do with parading the effigies of Antony and Cleopatra through the streets of Rome instead. All the honours Antony had been rewarded in his lifetime for his bravery and service to Rome were revoked and his statues were destroyed. His rival in the Senate, Cicero went so far as to decree that no one in the dead general’s family would ever bear the name Marcus Antonius again.

There was a seismic shift in the civilized world three years later when Octavian was crowned as the Roman Emperor Augustus, rendering Rome no longer a Republic. In fact, when Augustus was given the choice of naming a month in his honour, instead of choosing his birth month September, he chose the eighth month in which Cleopatra and Antony died to create a yearly reminder of their defeat.

To consolidate his position, Augustus lured teenage Caesarion back with promises of power, but had him put to death upon arrival. Augustus expertly ruled Rome as Emperor for the next four decades, becoming one of Rome’s more successful emperors. Octavia rescued Antony’s children by Cleopatra, the twins aged 10 and Ptolemy six, and brought them up in her own household in Rome. In time, Cleopatra Selene was married to King Juba of Mauretania (Algeria and Morocco) and had a son, also named Ptolemy, named for his Egyptian heritage. Cleopatra’s only known grandchild, he was killed in adulthood by order of the Roman emperor Caligula.

In Egypt, the dynastic rule ended and hieroglyphic script was slowly lost, buried under Egypt’s shifting sands of time. But, to this day, the legendary love story of Antony and Cleopatra lives on.

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