Few characters in history have been as romanticized, mischaracterized or mythologized more than Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt. In his new biography, Duane W. Roller, professor emeritus of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University, attempts to set down the facts of Cleopatra’s life, as best as can be reconstructed purely from the historical record. His stated purpose is to portray the many other dimensions of Cleopatra — the skilled linguist, battle commander and formidable diplomat and ruler.
However, his compulsively readable biography confirms, rather than dispels, most of the myths. If you’ve seen the 1963 Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Burton, then you already know most of the storyline. The only difference is that instead of being a spoiled seductress who stamps her feet when she doesn’t get what she wants, Roller says that Cleopatra is a canny schemer, who sleeps with some people and kills others to get what she wants. Roller, for example, conjectures that Cleopatra seduced Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius (more commonly known as Mark Antony) for strategic purposes. It doesn’t change the fact that she arranged to have herself brought into Caesar’s chambers in a bag, though. The facts are pretty colorful, even when thoroughly academized.
To recap: Cleopatra was the last ruler in a long line of Greek kings, who traced their lineage all the way back to two companions of Alexander the Great. She was, perhaps, one-quarter Egyptian and three-quarters Greek. Her illustrious heritage was belied by her predecessors, including her own father, Ptolemy XII, who was a weak-willed playboy that did his best to bankrupt the country and who was known, derisively, as “The Flute Player.”
By the time Cleopatra turned 20, she had maneuvered herself onto the biggest throne in the world, contending with a father that bumped off his own offspring, a historic drought that was causing mass starvation, wars among her territories, and Rome, looming at Egypt’s edges and eying its wealth hungrily. She used a combination of intelligence, charisma, wealth, fearlessness and her uterus to maintain her throne and to increase her territories. Given the treacherous political waters of the time, it’s a marvel that she held on to her throne as long as she did.
Roller packs a ton of information into not very many pages, covering topics as varied as the history of the Ptolemiac kings, the melding of Egyptian and Greek religions, scholarship at the Library of Alexandria and the details of Cleopatra’s tableware — gold and silver, with crystal cups, and she wrote love letters to Antonius on crystal tablets.
In the course of doing so, Roller also explains the background of some of the myths: Yes, it’s true that Cleopatra had herself smuggled into Caesar’s quarters in a bag, and conceived a son with him over the course of several months that remained Caesar’s only acknowledged offspring. But she didn’t do it because she was some lascivious groupie.
At that point, Cleopatra was joint ruler of Egypt with her brother, who was the puppet of several older administrators. She knew she needed to cement her hold on the throne, and what better way than to form an alliance — the most unbreakable kind — with the most powerful man in the world? Plus, Cleopatra was in a double bind. She needed to conceive an heir, but she couldn’t do so with someone who was of lesser stature than she. As a queen and Egyptian goddess, the incarnation of Isis, there was literally no one who matched her rank.
She even outranked both Caesar and Antonius, but who else was left? And who better to help protect Egypt from Rome than two of the three triumvirs? It’s not her fault she couldn’t marry them. They were both already married.
It’s not actually known whether or not Cleopatra was beautiful — there are no exact portraits of her, except the profile printed on her coins. What Plutarch said, and what everyone who met her agreed upon, was that the force of her personality and her charm far outweighed any physical attractiveness. She was a forceful, gripping orator. She was incredibly educated; she spoke seven languages and was probably the first Ptolemaic ruler to speak Egyptian. She wrote several pharmacological treatises. She was a skilled naval commander who personally led her ships in battle.
When her kingdom fell apart, it was because she was allied with the wrong of the two triumvirs. The situation in Rome was dicey. Octavian, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, had inherited Caesar’s position in the triumvirate with Marcus Antonius and Marcus Lepidus over Cleopatra’s and Caesar’s son, Caesarion. This did not encourage Cleopatra to ally herself with Octavian, and further actions convinced her of this even more. Octavian proceeded to exile Lepidus, and when Antonius protested, Octavian launched a propaganda war against Antonius and his Egyptian mistress that continues, almost to this day. That eventually culminated in an actual war.
And yes, it’s true that Antonius committed suicide after the Battle of Actium, which was the deciding battle in the final war for the Roman Republic, and that Cleopatra killed herself a month later. But hers wasn’t a romantic decision. Antonius’s suicidal tendencies were well-known, and Cleopatra manipulated him into stabbing himself. She wanted to eliminate what had become a serious liability, because she had options that he did not.
She had hopes of regaining her kingdom. Cleopatra was the was the last living descendant of two Greek dynasties, a goddess in Egypt and the mother of four children, all of whom were the offspring of two triumvirs. Octavian couldn’t kill her without rendering Egypt extremely unstable and turning her orphaned children into martyrs and the focus of a rebellion; he wanted her alive but powerless. She only killed herself when it became clear that Octavian wanted to lead her in a Roman triumph, or a procession that would display her as one of Rome’s conquests. And no, she didn’t kill herself with an asp. Asps are too unreliable. The only evidence was some pinpricks in her arm, probably a poison administered through needles.
Common Myths About Cleopatra
-She was Egyptian-
Nope, she was Greek. Her family lived in Egypt for three hundred years or so, which might make her Egyptian in your eyes and mine, but to the Egyptians she was still Greek. She was descended from the general Ptolemy who served under Alexander the Great during his conquests. Following Alexander’s untimely death, Ptolemy and two other generals divided up his empire and he got Egypt.
-She was beautiful-
Depends on who you ask, but most would agree that she wouldn’t have won any beauty contests. She had a large hooked nose and fleshy face. You can see this in the Roman coins Antony had minted in her honor. Elizabeth Taylor she wasn’t.
-Cleopatra wore her hair with bangs-
Watching any of the Hollywood movies based on her “life,” one would assume it was the height of Egyptian fashion to wear bangs. Not so, Cleopatra wore a wig of tight curls on her shaven head. Claudette Colbert in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 classic wore bangs because she had a personal fondness for them. In the early 1960′s bangs were ‘in’, so Elizabeth Taylor wore them in the 1963 re-make.
-Cleopatra was so wickedly decadent she dissolved a monstrously expensive pearl in a cup of vinegar (or wine).-
Maybe they made vinegar differently in those days, but currently, pearls do not dissolve in vinegar.
-Julius Caesar was in love with her-
Doubtful. If he was interested in her, it was for her money. Egypt was a rich country and the Roman civil wars were expensive. Of course, he claimed the money was owed to him anyhow due to a large debt Cleopatra’s father ran up. In fact he was so enamored with her he made sure she got a proper marriage – to someone else, her brother.
-Antony fell in love with Cleopatra at first sight-
They knew each other for years before they ever fell in love; assuming that he loved her at all.
-Antony loved Cleopatra-
This one could be true, but let’s examine the evidence. There was the time they met in Asia Minor and made love. Afterwards, Antony agreed to kill Cleopatra’s sister so that she wouldn’t have any challenges to her authority. Then he went back to his wife.
Luckily for Cleopatra, his wife died about this time, so he immediately married – someone else. His second wife Octavia was the sister of his rival, Octavian. The marriage helped Antony maintain his political position. Of course, as soon as he found the time, he ran off to see Cleopatra and the twins he fathered. Cleopatra was irritated. It had been three and a half years since he had visited.
-Cleopatra killed herself out of grief after the death of Antony-
No doubt she was upset at her lover’s death, however it seems that she killed herself because she was led to believe that she was going to be disgracefully paraded through Rome in chains.
-Cleopatra died from the bite of an asp-
Again, this is an iffy one. The story of the asp first comes to us from Plutarch, but he didn’t say it was actually true. All we know for sure is that there were two tiny marks on her arm when her body was found.