Cleopatra: Madness or Greatness?
*Recently written history essay. I did a lot of study on the life of Cleopatra this semester (just for kicks).
History has painted her a sorceress and seductress, she has been immortalized through the ages for prostituting herself before two of the greatest Roman generals who ever lived. She has been named a siren, a great leader, an inspiration, a whore, a goddess, an abomination. Sexualized by Hollywood and immortalized by Shakespeare, she is a central figure in history, and one people can’t quite agree upon. Was she a worthy leader? A cold, calculated strategist? An enchanting seductress? A brilliant mind? A passionate mother? A jealous queen? The possibilities are as varied as Cleopatra herself seems to be.
So who was this queen of Egypt? This last Pharaoh? What was she really like? What were her true motives and what is her lasting legacy?
To discover this person, we need to go back to her childhood. Born in 69 BC into a family with a history of backstabbing and murder, she was raised in true Ptolemaic fashion. A life of luxury laced with apprehension and mistrust. Her education was thorough and unparalleled, she became fluent in multiple languages and was known as the only Ptolemy to speak the native Egyptian tongues.
Her young life was fraught with political turmoil and family trouble. Her father was not a well-loved monarch, and was often betrayed by his other daughter’s, Cleopatra Tryphaena, Berenice and Arsinoe. One more than one occasion he was forced into hiding. On a trip to Rome with Cleopatra, his eldest daughter, Tryphaena, stole the throne, shortly after dying under mysterious circumstances. It is believed she was poisoned by the next daughter, Berenice, who assumed the throne after her. Ptolemy Auletes returned with Roman support to retake Alexandria, executing Berenice and making Cleopatra his fellow ruler, though her power was likely to be limited.
She was only fourteen at this time, already well-versed in the fine art of treason as her sisters had demonstrated and now a sovereign Pharaoh of Egypt. When Auletes died in 51 BC he left the now eighteen year old Cleopatra and her ten year old brother Ptolemy as joint rulers of Egypt in his stead. This arrangement quickly dissolved into civil war as Cleopatra had no desire to rule as the weaker partner under a boy and those supporting and advising her brother had no desire to be ruled by a woman. Thus, conflict arose.
With the aid of the eunuch Pothinus, the general Achillas and Theodotus of Chios, Ptolemy managed to kick his sister out of Egypt and Cleopatra was forced to flee with Arsinoe.
This uneasy childhood likely had some detrimental effect on the young Egyptian queen. We see later that she is not against the murder of her own siblings, a Ptolemaic tradition, nor is she a particularly gentle-hearted woman. Her strength comes from her ambition and her machinations.
However, it is during this time of exile that she truly comes into her own, establishing herself as a worthy opponent and someone who deserved to be taken seriously as a player in the game. It is in her darkest moment, when she is far from home and far from her rightful place as queen that she meets the man who will change the course of her life, for better or worse. It is this point that Cleopatra’s destiny in intricately intertwined with Rome.
Julius Caesar, leader of the Roman world, arrived on her shores following his enemy, Pompey, whom the young Ptolemy, just thirteen and seeking to bring himself closer to Rome in friendship, beheaded and presented to Caesar when he arrived. Though the act had been one of goodwill and endearment, it had the opposite effect, and Caesar settled in Rome, making himself arbiter between the rival claims of Cleopatra and Ptolemy.
Seeking an audience with Caesar but being unable to access him because of the continuing tension between her and her brother, Cleopatra arranged to have herself delivered personally to Caesar, rolled up in carpet. Thus began one of the most interesting and complex romances in history, as Cleopatra came to be Caesar’s young foreign mistress, even bearing him a son who was called “Caesarion” meaning “little Caesar”.
This was the turning point in Cleopatra’s history, cementing her status as a great queen and bringing her power. At this time, Caesar dismissed his plans to annex Egypt and instead returned Cleopatra to her rightful place on the throne. Ptolemy was defeated by Caesar’s armies and drowned in the Nile, and the younger Ptolemy, Auletes’ youngest son, became Cleopatra’s joint ruler.
One of Cleopatra’s defining attributes is her passion for her oldest son. She always attested that Caesar was his father and wished him to be named Caesar’s heir, however, that honor was given to Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian, a young boy who would soon grow up to become Cleopatra’s most hated rival.
Both she and Caesarion joined Caesar in Rome for a time where Cleopatra’s relationship with the Roman leader was considered a scandal and frowned upon because of Caesar’s marriage to Calpurnia. This time in Rome was under heavy scrutiny, her obvious influence on Caesar was visible to all and helped make her a stench in Roman nostrils and spurred the hatred and the rumors that were directed about her ever after. When Caesar was assassinated in the forum she was forced to flee for Egypt, her shield and her link to Rome destroyed. There she stayed, watching and waiting.
In the meantime, Ptolemy eventually died, leaving Cleopatra as sole monarch. It is believed she had him killed but no one truly knows. This opened up the second throne of Egypt for young Caesarion, a boy that all of Cleopatra’s hopes and dreams rested upon. She named him her co-ruler and successor and gave him the epithets Theos Philopator Philometor “Father and motherloving god”.
While this was happening close to home, Rome was in turmoil over Caesar’s death. Caesar’s heir, Octavian, and general Marcus Antonius joined forces to go against the leaders of Caesar’s assassins Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. Cleopatra took some part in the war, declaring for Octavian and Marc Anthony and even attempting to send them ships, but that hope was never realized due to bad sailing weather that destroyed part of her fleet.
Marc Antony, curious about her, sent his delegate, Quintus Dellius to question her loyalties, though he truly wanted her support in war against the Parthian kingdom. Cleopatra came to see Antony herself and so charmed him that he chose to return with her and winter in Alexandria, where he fathered twins by her, Alexandros Helios and Cleopatra Selene and later a son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. She had him execute her sister Arsinoe for leading rebellion and later, when he returned to Alexandria during his war on the Parthians, married him according to Egyptian rites, though he was already wed to Octavian’s sister, Octavia. During this time, Antony also crowned his wife, children and stepson as various kings and queens over the world in an even later called the Donations of Alexandria. Cleopatra was also given the title of "Queen of Kings" by Antony. Her enemies in Rome feared that Cleopatra, "...was planning a war of revenge that was to array all the East against Rome, establish herself as empress of the world at Rome, cast justice from Capitolium, and inaugurate a new universal kingdom." This was one of the moments that set Marcus Antonius on a path of destruction and one of the defining points of his changing allegiances.
Marc Antony was Roman triumvir in the east but all this served only to alienate him from Rome and give his enemy, Octavian, right to speak against him and incite both rumors and hatred about him and Cleopatra. Antony himself, though long considered a great general and leader, was fast losing his reputation as he was given to drunken binges during which he was easily manipulated by the ever ambitious Egyptian Queen and also had acclimated himself so completely with the Egyptian culture that Rome had begun to doubt his loyalties in significant ways. When he and Cleopatra launched their campaign against Octavian and, by extension, Rome, this was the last straw that truly gave Marc Antony the label of “traitor”. Assembling the people against the “Eastern Whore” and the “poor, besotted Antony”, Octavian met them in naval battle off the cost of Actium. Cleopatra was present with her own fleet and when the battle turned against them, she fled, and Antony followed, a mistake that he later regretted as it forever after labelled him for cowardice.
The defeated couple fled to Alexandria where, with their armies destroyed and deserting to Octavian who had followed them and invaded Egypt, they spent a last winter together, mostly depressed and despaired, waiting for Octavian and waiting for death. During this time, Cleopatra sent Caesarion east to India to save him from Octavian’s wrath, knowing that any rival heir of Caesar’s would not be allowed to live.
The manner of their deaths is often disputed though both are generally believed to have committed suicide in some form or fashion. Going out against Octavian one final time and finding himself utterly at a loss, Marc Antony returned to the palace searching for Cleopatra, hearing she had killed herself, he fell on his sword. Tradition dictates that he did not die instantly and rather, learning that Cleopatra was still alive, had himself brought to her. Eventually his wounds killed him and Cleopatra was captured by Octavian, who did not want her killing herself, instead wanting to parade her in Rome for his Triumph.
Though it is not truly determined how she did this, the sources agree that she did manage to commit suicide despite Octavian’s best intentions, traditionally with the bite of an asp. A true Egyptian death it seems, befitting of Octavian’s title for her, the “Queen of Beasts”.
As for her children, left behind by parents driven to madness and despair, Caesarion was hunted down and killed in the deserts of India. Antony’s children, Alexandros, Selene and Ptolemy, were shipped off to Rome and cared for by Octavian’s sister, Octavia, Antony’s Roman wife. The two boys faded from record and their fates are uncertain, however, Selene was married to the Nubian king, Juba, and spent her life as a queen, like her mother before her.
Cleopatra’s life was fraught with tragedy and danger and darkness. Raised on blood and vengeance and mistrust, she was merely a product of her upbringing, coldly ambitious and fiercely determined to a point that took her down dark paths and into tight situations. Dehumanizing her to merely a villainess or seductress is easy to do when we look at the facts of her life. It is not hard to believe that she loved no one, that she answered to no one, that her life was lived for no one. After all, she murdered more than one member of her family, she appeared only interested in using the two men in her life, and as for her children, seemed to view them as tools for her ultimate goals of conquest.
But is that truly the case? Can we, thousands of years after her time, ever really know for certain what kind of person she was and what her deeper, truer intentions were?
Perhaps not. But if we read between the lines a little, I think we would realize a few very simple and basic facts of her humanity.
The question of madness or greatness can be applied to many ancient monarchs, Cleopatra only one of many whose life could be considered either a mess or a tragedy. Was her rule one to be celebrated, to be looked up to? Is it one to be scorned and rejected?
Perhaps if we stepped back and looked at the bigger picture of her life we would see something else, perhaps we would see a woman, a daughter, a sister, a mother, a lover and even a wife. A woman who, despite leading a life of hardship and struggle and despite a bitter end, managed to pull through and rise up, managed to make a name for herself that has lasted into the ages.
So who is Cleopatra truly? A victim of circumstance? A tragic heroine? A player in the game of kings and kingdoms? A goddess? A seductress? A good queen? A loving mother? A passionate lover? A ruler seeking to better her kingdom? A woman who reached too far and paid the price?
Maybe, she is all those things, and maybe we should avoid applying her with one trait or one characteristic. Above all, she was human, and humans are capable of a vast array of feelings and desires and characters. Cleopatra no exception.
Maybe she was neither mad nor great. Maybe she was merely a human. A human who wanted more for herself, for her children, for her people. A human who tried and failed.
And in the end, what could be more human than that?