How dull would the history books be without an enchantress? A femme fatale with charisma, allure, class and intelligence who, when she needed to, doubled as an astute politician and drove the right men directly into her ambitions?
When Cleopatra VII Philopater Nea Thea inherited the throne of Egypt at the age of 17 custom dictated she marry her 10-year old brother Ptolemy XIII. Her hand was forced. You see, the Ptolemies were Greeks; foreign interlopers, who usurped the throne of Egypt. To reduce the competitive claims they began the policy of pharaoh marrying sibling. This ensured that their progeny contained nothing but Ptolemaic blood. And since trouble was brewing to the north, Cleopatra did just that, for the expansionist Roman Empire was threatening the Ptolemaic dynasty in the form Julius Caesar’s arrival into Egypt…
Ah, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt; the last free Pharaonic potentate, she won the hearts of two of empirical Rome’s most powerful leaders – Caesar and Mark Anthony. Cleopatra – my complex heroine – a queen, a lover, mother of four, who spoke nine languages. Glamour and leadership caught in the hurricane of a dynastic demise, then the victim of turbulent times which saw Egypt fall to the power of the Roman Empire.
Born in 69BC, Cleopatra was a Greek. Her ancestor, the first Ptolemy, acquired Egypt when the empire of the deceased Alexander the Great was divided among his chief generals. From birth she had been identified as the daughter of a god, Dionysus,the only god to have a mortal parent, so she had the authority of a goddess.
With the arrival of Julius Caesar into Alexandria in 47BC the royal palace was now occupied. How to visit Caesar, curry favour, without risking capture and probable death at the hands of her brother’s supporters? Cleopatra plotted and intruiged with one of her close advisors who disguised himself as a servant, wrapped his mistress in a blanket roll, threw the bundle over his shoulder and walked boldly into Caesar’s room. This dramatic entrance captivated Caesar, but its effect would have ended quickly had she not had the wit and personality to go with it. With her Roman audience assured, Cleopatra appealed for help against her father who still controlled Alexandria.
Thunder-struck Caesar proclaimed Ptolemy and Cleopatra rulers but the General found himself trapped in the palace with his small army. Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe, escaped and quickly proclaimed herself Queen of Egypt, then led a full-scale rebellion against the Roman occupation. Months past before reinforcements arrived. Caesar then formally captured Alexandria, Ptolemy XIII becoming a casualty of war. The victorious Caesar installed Cleopatra and another brother, Ptolemy XIV on the throne.
Love of a certain description ensued, for after a trip up the Nile with Cleopatra in her luxurious 100-metre royal barge, Caesar returned to Rome leaving behind a pregnant Cleopatra. Their son, Ptolemy Caesarion was born in June 47 BC. She kept hold of her throne only with the aid of three Roman legions. Then the following year Cleopatra sailed for Rome, their son in tow, where she lived openly for two years as Caesar’s mistress.
Caesar openly spurned his Roman wife Calpurnia, installing a gold statue of Cleopatra as Venus in his new temple. He planned to marry her, legitimize their son and make Alexandria the second capital of the Roman world. Little wonder his assassins Brutus and Cassius cut his life short in 44 BC. Cleopatra and son, not welcome in Rome, returned to Egypt.
The second great love of the Egyptian Queen’s life was Mark Antony. In 41 BC he became controller of Rome’s eastern provinces. In order to gain access to Egypt’s gold and grain he ordered Cleopatra to Tarsus for discussions. She delayed enough to demonstrate that her visit was voluntary, and then arrived on a magnificent, gold encrusted royal barge.
Antony expected Cleopatra to come to his palace but it was he who attended the Queen once her barge had docked. Diplomatic relations turned romantic by all accounts: seduction over the abacus resulting in her retaining a kingdom and securing Antony’s military support. Moreover, they returned together to Alexandria she carrying his twins. A third child soon followed.
But once again sensibilities were offended. Antony’s open association with Cleopatra enraged Octavian, Rome’s Emperor, to whose sister Antony was married. They wed in 33 anyway though this marriage was illegal under Roman law, but this was, to them, besides the point: Antony had severed ties once and for all with Rome, for Cleopatra was Isis and he Dionysus and their heads appeared together on coins of both empires. He would acquire land not for Rome but for the revived Greek Empire of Alexander the Great.
Antony proclaimed Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya and Syria. Caesarion, Julius Caesar’s son, was her consort. To the Egyptians this was simply following Ptolemaic tradition: Cleopatra had no surviving brothers so she would share the throne with her son. To everyone else, however, this seemed very much like an attempt to bypass Octavian and have Caesarion take over his father’s empire. The remainder of the eastern portion of the Roman empire was divided among the three children of Antony and Cleopatra.
This was a challenge that Octavian-Augustus would not ignore: the Battle at Actium on the northwest coast of Greece in 31 BC would be a fight to the finish. As Octavian entered Alexandria, Cleopatra hid in her treasure house (which sadly converted into her mausoleum). When Antony was told the Queen had killed herself, he fell on his sword. The dying General was carried to her mausoleum where he was hauled through a window to die in Cleopatra’s arms. After a bath of asses’ milk, she put on a regal dress and consumed her favourite meal. Later, the Queen was discovered on a golden couch, poisoned by snakes.
My Greek Goddess-Queen and heroine. Icon of love, power and tragedy; mistress of strategem, subterfuge and the sensual arts. You remained classy to the end, and I prevail as your apprentice…