blues-jay a demandé: Hi! First off, your blog is great! Second, I have a very cynical acquaintance who is admittedly very intelligent but very opinionated so I take whatever he says with a grain of salt usually. Anyways, he was complaining about Cleopatra and was saying she was pointless to history and did not do anything special except sleep around with other world leaders (Not judging. Good for her). What I'd just like to know is was she extraneous to history or what is the best way to put her significance?
Ahh, see this requires me to be quite knowledgeable about Roman history as well as Egyptian history, since, at this juncture, they become deeply intertwined. So I’m gonna do my best, with the little Roman history I have (and I’m sure Roman historians who follow me will correct me if I’m wrong).
So of course we start with the beginning, Alexander the Great conquers Egypt and leaves his General Ptolemy in charge. Three centuries later and the power of these Ptolemies is waning, whereas the power of Rome is marching ever upwards. As his territory shrank, Ptolemy XII Auletes recognized that without an alliance, he would lose everything. He went to Rome to work it out. While he was gone, his wife and eldest daughter staged a coup. Happily for Ptolemy, he succeeded in getting the support he sought, and with Rome’s help he regained control, executed his daughter Berenice, and set his third daughter, 14-year-old Cleopatra, on the throne beside himself. (His wife had died in the interim).
So when her father died (in her late teens), she took the throne. But, as was custom, she also took her little brother (who wasn’t yet 13) as a consort and co-ruler. Being older than him, and not wanting to share power, she dropped his name from all official documents, and minted coins showing her face only, and made all decisions by herself. Bearing in mind she is only 18 years old at this point! After a few years of letting her do what she wanted, the Roman guards left in place by her father to protect her brother, forced her out. Thus began a civil war in Egypt, of sorts.
This is where we hit Roman history. Ptolemy XIII managed to get himself embroiled in the Roman civil war between Pompey and Caesar (Caius Julius). Of course, we all know that Ptolemy presented the severed head of Pompey to Caesar thinking that he’d done him a favour. (I’ll let this clip sum up that action) Knowing this went down, Cleopatra saw this as a way to get back into court and back into power (we’ll ignore the rug thing because no one is going to survive being in a rug in that heat for that long. They’ll cook). She then persuaded Caesar, because of his anger at her brother’s actions, to side with her in the civil war she was fighting with her brother/husband. She won this war, her brother was killed, she stopped Caesar from annexing Egypt, and had his son Caesarion, thus securing her place as Caesar backed her rule. This also kept Egypt somewhat independent from Rome for a little while longer. I’ll also point out that at this point Egypt the grain supply was excellent because every year the Nile would flood, leaving nice, fertile soil for farmers to plant and grow crops when the water receded. This made Egypt even more valuable to Rome who was always living off of a short grain supply thanks to a law that provided all citizens with free grain. Rome needed Egypt and Cleopatra knew this.
Then Caesar was assassinated (and coincidently so was Cleopatra’s last remaining brother, whom she had also married), thus allowing her to place her son, Caesar’s son, in power in Egypt alongside her. Great power move as Caesar had declared himself Dictator thus giving Caesarion a potential claim to be heir to this (of course Cleopatra must have known this too). But it was Caesar’s adopted heir (though not sole heir) Octavian (later known as Augustus) who took power under the Second Triumvirate, after the power vaccum caused by Caesar’s assassination. After the Triumvirate had defeated Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus at the Battle of Philippi (42 BC) and Lepidus was expelled from the Triumvirate (36 BC), Octavian and Antony were left as the two most powerful men in the Roman world. Octavian took control of the west, including Hispania, Gaul, Italia, and Africa. Antony received control of the east, including Graecia, Asia, Syria and Aegyptus.
She then dove into the Roman civil war (of which I admit I know nothing about!) and fought for some years, until Marc Antony called her before him to resolve some rumours he’d heard about her loyalties to the Republic. By getting close to him she could secure her power further, and did so, as he controlled the East of the Republic. Things were looking good. At the height of her power, Cleopatra was not only Pharoah but Isis herself, Queen of Kings, and a possible candidate for Empress of Rome. All her children were crowned rulers of one place or another. Little Caesar, for his part, was Son of God, King of Kings, and Horus.
Alas, Antony had Octavian as a rival (see the division of control of the Republic above). Octavian knew that Antony having an affair with Cleopatra, when he was already married to Octavia. Marc Antony and Octavia’s marriage was a political one, meant to cement the uneasy tension between Antony and Octavian (as Octavian was her brother). The fact that Antony was carrying on with Cleopatra, was not only a scandal (Ruler’s brother in law, carrying on with Queen of another country. Not good.), but a threat to the Empire itself. This was because all of Rome felt astonished when they heard word of Antony’s Donations of Alexandria. In these donations, Antony ceded much of Rome’s territory in the east to Cleopatra. Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of Egypt and Cyprus; Alexander Helios was crowned ruler of Armenia, Media, and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene II was crowned ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus was crowned ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia. Cleopatra took the title of Queen of Kings and Caesarion took the title of King of Kings. In response, Octavian increased the personal attacks against Antony, but the Senate and people of Rome were not convinced. Octavian’s chance came when Antony married Cleopatra in 32 BC before he divorced Octavia. That action combined with information that Antony was planning to establish a second Senate in Alexandria created the perfect environment for Octavian to strip Antony of his power. So Antony and Octavian were at odds, known as the Final War of the Roman Republic. Whomever won, would be in control of the Roman Republic. (It became the Roman Empire after Octavian/Augustus annexed Egypt and unites it under his rule)
Cleopatra knew she could use this to her advantage, as if Antony won then she would be by his side, and her children with him would be heirs to this empire. The battle of Actium was the final blow in the war which lasted 2 years (32 BC - 30 BC). Antony and Cleopatra each had a fleet, but Octavian had the edge (a better fleet and fresher crews that made quick work of Cleopatra’s tired troops) such that, as he pressed on toward Alexandria, Antony’s troops lost their nerve and defected, leaving the pair to defend themselves. We all know that didn’t go well.
Before she took her own life, as she did not immediately follow Antony’s suicide, Cleopatra opened negotiations with Octavian. Cleopatra begged Octavian to spare Caesarion’s life in exchange for willing imprisonment. Octavian refused. Within a week, Octavian informed Cleopatra that she was to play a role in Octavian’s Triumph back in Rome. This role was “carefully explained to her”, while Caesarion was “butchered without compunction”. Octavian supposedly said “two Caesars are one too many” as he ordered Caesarion’s death. According to Strabo who was alive at the time of the event, Cleopatra died from a self-induced bite from a venomous snake, or from applying a poisonous ointment to herself. With Cleopatra’s death, the final war of the Republic was over.
Why does Cleopatra matter? For starters, she was one of relatively few women to hold the title of Pharoah. Not only that, she was the last Pharoah in a long line of Pharaohs from a once great civilisation. She stood at the end of an age, and the story of Cleopatra is also the story of how Egypt crumbled from sunlight into dust. Furthermore, the degree of power she attained is fairly unbelievable. Despite the fact that female rulers were usually subordinate to their male consorts, Cleopatra held the reins independently; and despite the weakness of Egypt in the face of Rome, toward the end she was positioned to achieve the highest possible status in all the land; not only presiding over Egypt, but headed toward presiding over its conqueror, Rome, too.
To put it simply: An 18-year-old girl ascends the throne but is pushed out by a much younger brother/husband. This woman sees a way back to power and sends herself to Julius Caesar. Through political manipulation, and assassination, she secures herself further. A queen at the head of her fleet joins her partner in battle for the Roman empire. She is defeated. When she can’t secure a future for her children, she invites an asp to end her life. Cleopatra was a queen and a lover; she was shrewd, charismatic and ambitious; and she knew how to create power in the face of political weakness.
This is why she’s important.
I suppose it’s also appropriate that I’m posting this on Women’s day too :)