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Was Cleopatra Beautiful? What the Ancients Said About Her Looks
Cleopatra is known as the ultimate seductress. She was charming, brilliant, and cultivated. She spoke several languages, was a mesmerizing conversationalist, and she was loads of fun. As if that were not enough, she knew how to dress for impact. She had a dazzling family tree full of famous ancestors, was incredibly wealthy -and she was a queen.
All that made for a heady combination that easily seduced men. But was she beautiful?
Let’s find out if the ancient authors considered Cleopatra physically beautiful.
Ancient Literary Sources
Ancient literary sources about Cleopatra are remarkably sparse. Women never fare well in ancient history, and there is no work specifically devoted to the queen, nor is there a major contemporary source. Plutarch’s biography of Marcus Antonius (see Plutarch 1988) is the closest to an actual narrative about the queen, but was written one hundred years after her death and is limited in its focus. Second in importance is the Roman History of Cassius Dio (see Dio 1914–1927), the only continuous extant history of Cleopatra’s era. Also of significance are the works of the Jewish historian Josephus (Josephus 1928 and Josephus 1930–1965), whose interest was limited to the southern Levant, but this was an area of importance to Cleopatra. Other historical sources have exceedingly limited references to the queen, although Cicero 1999 (#374, 377) is the only source for a possible miscarried pregnancy by Cleopatra in early 44 BCE . The poetry of the Augustan period, although eloquent, helped to destroy her reputation. For example, in Book 8 of the Aeneid (Vergil 2000) the Battle of Actium is described, but Cleopatra is not named, called only the “Egyptian mate” of Antony. Propertius 1990 (3.11), also not deigning to mention her by name, ranked her with the sorceress Medea. Horace 1999 (Ode 1.37), while also highly critical, showed some admiration for a woman who would not be humbled in a triumph.
Cicero. 1999. Letters to Atticus. Edited and Translated by D. R. Shackelton Bailey. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
These letters contain some contemporary notices of Cleopatra, especially from the 40s BCE .
Dio, Cassius. 1914–1927. Roman history. Translated by Ernest Cary. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
The original Greek with the only complete English translation, which is flawed because of its age. The era of Cleopatra is in books 42–51, with scattered references to the queen. Dio wrote over two hundred years after her death, and was not always sensitive to nuances of her career or era, but his is the only existing continuous narrative of the period.
Horace. 1999. Odes and epodes. Translated by C. E. Bennett. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Although firmly within the Augustan negative tradition, Horace was able to admire Cleopatra’s courage.
Josephus, Flavius. 1928. The Jewish War. Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
This and the following Jewish Antiquities focus on events in the southern Levant, an area of importance to Cleopatra because of her relationship with Herod the Great. The two were cautious allies and often rivals.
Josephus, Flavius. 1930–1965. Jewish antiquities. Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray and Louis Feldman. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
These parallel works were written a century after the death of Cleopatra. Although their focus is on events in the southern Levant, this was an area of intense interest on the part of Cleopatra, since she and Herod the Great were cautious allies and often rivals.
Plutarch. 1988. Life of Antony. Edited by C. B. R. Pelling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
The best edition of the most important ancient literary source on Cleopatra. Written a century after her death, the biography of Antonius provides the most detail about Cleopatra’s life and that of her children. Plutarch was not immune to the anti-Cleopatra propaganda that was well established by his time, but nonetheless also had access to sources within her circle (such as the memoirs of her personal physician) that were outside the Roman negative tradition.
Propertius. 1990. Elegies. Edited and translated by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Propertius compared Cleopatra to Medea.
Vergil. 2000. Aeneid 7–12, Appendix Vergiliana. Edited by H. R. Fairclough and G. P. Goold. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library.
A text and good translation of the second half of the Aeneid in the Loeb Classical Library series.
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Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer scheduled for BBC
Cleopatra is to be the focus of a new historical documentary for BBC One this winter, revealing dark and ruthless aspects of the "original femme fatale" and Queen of Egypt.
Known as one of greatest love affairs in history, the one-hour special says Cleopatra and Mark Antony's passion spilled into cold-blooded murder in their bid to hold on to power.
Cleopatra: Portrait Of A Killer is billed as a tale of rivalry, lust, incest, murder and power that destroyed an empire.
It brings to life scenes from the life and loves of Cleopatra - her marriage to Caesar, the murder of her brother Ptolemy and a boat where Mark Antony and Cleopatra draw up a "most wanted" list.
Richard Bradley, executive producer of Lion Television which made the programme, said: "We hope that this story will help the audience see Cleopatra as a real woman wrestling with power, rather than the semi-mythical figure of Liz Taylor and Carry On movies."
Using new and exclusive forensic evidence, the show is based on the discovery of a tomb containing human remains. Archaeologists are convinced that it is the skeleton of one of Cleopatra's victims, murdered by her Roman lover Mark Antony on her orders, the BBC said. - More
How Ancient Rome Viewed The Deaths Of Antony And Cleopatra
Beginning on July 31st of the year 30 BCE, the final battles were fought between Octavian and Mark Antony near the city of Alexandria in Egypt. The Battle of Alexandria would end with Antony's final defeat. In order to avoid being taken captive, Mark Antony and later Cleopatra would take their own lives.
Statue depicting the Death of Cleopatra (1876) by sculptor Edmonia Lewis, the first professional . [+] African-American sculptor in the U.S.
The story of the lives, love and eventual deaths of Antony and Cleopatra has been a point of fascination for millennia, but much mystery still surrounds the events that led to their deaths. Certainly, the forecast for the couple had been grim since their loss at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BCE, but many overlook the hope that Antony seized upon that he could turn things around by engaging the young Octavian at the Battle of Alexandria in 30 BCE. Although it was more a self-proclaimed victory than an obvious one, Antony left this first inconclusive cavalry skirmish believing he had at least won some of his valor back.
Yet the former triumvir knew that he would never win in a full-scale battle with Octavian and his troops. In order to play on his strengths, Antony offered to face Octavian in hand-to-hand combat. Octavian refused--and then refused subsequent offers of money or a deal wherein Antony could die and Cleopatra could go free. No, Octavian would settle for nothing less than Egypt itself.
On August 1, Octavian's troops again engaged Antony's, but this time there was to be no conflict. Antony's own fleet shifted sides and hailed Octavian as their leader. Antony's cavalry followed suit, and it was clear that the old general was finally finished.
Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Denarius (Silver, 3.45 g 12 mm), mint moving with Antony, 32 BCE.
Classical Numismatic Group via Wikimedia
What happened next is still up for debate. Allegedly, Cleopatra ran to seek refuge in her mausoleum with two of her female maidservants. The historian Cassius Dio (51.10) adds that she also had a eunuch with her and that a note was sent out leading Antony to believe she had died. Dio remarks that Antony immediately wished for his own death: " He first asked one of the bystanders to slay him but when the man drew his sword and slew himself, Antony wished to imitate his courage and so gave himself a wound and fell upon his face, causing the bystanders to believe that he was dead."Plutarch instead notes that he rammed the sword into his stomach, but still did not immediately die of his wound. In reality, the wound had not killed him and he was hoisted into the mausoleum, where he later allegedly died at her bosom, likely on the night of August 1.
For Romans, not all suicides were equal. For instance, it was considered far more ignoble to hang one's self rather than to fall on one's sword in the face of assured capture. There was little doubt that Antony would likely have been publicly killed for his trespasses against Octavian and Rome, and thus his suicide was a tactic to avoid a more disgraceful and public death. Perhaps it entered his mind that just a few years earlier, he had played a part in having Cicero's head and hand pinned to the speaker's podium in the city of Rome for all to witness.
And what of Cleopatra's own suicide? It appears that it was not until all attempts at bargains with Octavian had failed that on August 10 or 12 of 30 BCE, Cleopatra took her own life. Dio notes (51.14): " No one knows clearly in what way she perished, for the only marks on her body were slight pricks on the arm." Many Roman historians alleged that she died via the bite of an asp, though this was a later edition to the story.
In his biography of Cleopatra, ancient historian Duane Roller notes the prevalence of snakes in the history of Egyptian lore. He also remarks that snake handlers would have strategically had to have positioned the snake to bite the queen. The venom of the asp had to enter into a main artery or there was a risk of it being ineffective. The earliest report of her death was by the historian Strabo, who noted her suicide tactic was quite uncertain. Either it was by a snake or a poisonous ointment to his knowledge. The one asp became two in later retellings of the tale, and the death of Cleopatra entered into dramatic, mythical territory, as Roller points out.
Depiction of the tombs of Antony and Cleopatra from a 15th c. French manuscript now at the Getty . [+] Institute.
Getty Open Content Program
There was a common association of women and men with various instruments of death both in the ancient world and today. The deaths of Antony and Cleopatra clearly demonstrate these perceptions. It is interesting to see the gendering of weapons from antiquity men were associated with either giving or receiving a death by sword, whereas women were more frequently associated with poison and venom. Women used these substances for evil machinations or for suicide, an association we can still see today on shows like Game of Thrones. There were certainly famous male deaths by poison--Socrates' lethal dose of hemlock likely being the most infamous--but women like the later Julio-Claudian poison-mixer Locusta were often referenced in antiquity. Emperor Nero made use of a triad of female poisoners in order to kill his half-brother, Britannicus, and many others.
It is worth mentioning that Antony and Cleopatra were finally reunited in death. Their bodies were either embalmed according to traditional Egyptian customs, inhumed, or cremated, but they were interred together. Octavian had allowed Cleopatra to care for the body of Antony and to give it a proper burial first. Then he made sure the Egyptian monarch was laid to rest next to him when she too took her own life. We don't actually know where this fabled tomb is, though many have tried to find it. In 2009, archaeologist Zahi Hawass announced with little evidence that the tomb of Antony and Cleopatra might have been discovered. He claimed a temple dedicated to the god Osiris called Taposiris Magna (built under Ptolemy II) just west of Alexandria was where they were buried. However, this is highly uncertain and without much supporting evidence. The search for the final resting place of Antony and Cleopatra continues, as do our questions about how the mighty Egyptian queen really met her end.
Cleopatra (69 BC - 30 BC) was the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. She is perhaps best remembered for her looks and her personality, as well as her liaisons with both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. Although Cleopatra was the Queen of the Nile and the ruler of Egypt, she was, in fact, the last of a long line of Hellenistic (Greek) rulers from Macedonia.
Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the language of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs was Greek, not Egyptian. Thus, it was generally accepted that Cleopatra had Greek ancestry.
A new archaeological study, however, is raising questions about the ancestry of Cleopatra’s family. Apparently, Cleopatra had a younger sister named Princess Arsinöe who vied with Cleopatra for control of the Egyptian throne. Ancient Roman texts suggest that Princess Arsinöe was banished to the city of Ephesus after losing a power struggle with her older sister.
Ephesus was a Greek port city not far from Macedonia on the coast of what is now modern Turkey. In Cleopatra’s time, Ephesus was ruled by the Romans. Cleopatra is thought to have ordered the Roman general Mark Anthony (who was then her husband) to murder her sister, whom she feared as a rival for the Egyptian throne.
An archeological team headed by Hilke Thür of the Austrian Academy of Sciences believes that a tomb in Ephesus contains the remains of Princess Arsinöe. The tomb, which had unusual characteristics, was originally opened and explored in 1926. However, its significance to the Egyptian royal family was not discovered until recently.
Measurements of the skull taken from the tomb in the 1920s were combined with modern technology to create a computerized reconstruction of the face of the young woman who was buried in the tomb. The young woman is thought to be Princess Arsinöe and the computerized reconstruction showed that she had the physical characteristics of a mixture of white European, black African and ancient Egyptian (see image below).
According to Hilke Thür, this mixed heritage provides “a real sensation which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra’s family and the relationship of Cleopatra and Arsinöe”. Obviously, this raises the interesting question as to whether Cleopatra had African ancestry as well.
The story of the discovery of Princess Arsinöe’s tomb and the subsequent research linking the tomb to Cleopatra is the subject of a BBC television documentary entitled “Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer”, which you can view below.
Some Interesting Genealogy Facts about Cleopatra
• The Ptolemaic dynasty of Ancient Egypt owes its existence to Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt in 332 BC (some 300 years before Cleopatra’s time). Alexander the Great had a general named Ptolemy I, who ruled Egypt after Alexander’s death. Ptolemy I was the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
• In the Ptolemaic dynasty, the male children were always called Ptolemy and the female children were all called Cleopatra, Berenice or Arsinöe.
• Cleopatra’s mother was Cleopatra V and her father was Ptolemy XII (Cleopatra had an older sister also called Cleopatra, thus making the famous Cleopatra that we know as Cleopatra VII).
• Cleopatra’s mother and father were thought to be biological brother and sister.
• There was a huge amount of inbreeding in the Ptolemaic dynasty. Inbreeding was seen as a way to keep power within the family. For example, Cleopatra had only six (out of a possible 16) great-great grandparents.
• Cleopatra had four children in total: a son by Julius Caesar (who was 30 years her senior) and three children by her husband Mark Anthony. She also attempted to produce children by her two brothers but was unsuccessful.
• When the future Roman Emperor Augustus reconquered Egypt, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra both committed suicide. Augustus was the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar. He feared Cleopatra’s son because he was Julius Caesar’s only living heir. Augustus had Cleopatra’s son executed with the famous words “Two Caesars is one too many”.
• The month of July is named after Julius Caesar and the month of August is named after Augustus (see the related article Understanding Julian Calendars and Gregorian Calendars in Genealogy).
Cleopatra's mother 'was African'
Queen Cleopatra was a descendant of Ptolemy, the Macedonian general who ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great.
But remains of the queen's sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother had an "African" skeleton.
Experts have described the results as "a real sensation."
The discovery was made by Hilke Thuer of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
"It is unique in the life of an archaeologist to find the tomb and the skeleton of a member of Ptolemaic dynasty," she said.
"That Arsinoe had an African mother is a real sensation which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra's family and the relationship of the sisters Cleopatra and Arsinoe."
They lived at a turbulent time when the Roman empire was extending its power across the Mediterranean.
Cleopatra established alliances with the Roman leader Julius Caesar and, after his assassination, with his political supporter, General Mark Antony, to whom she was married.
"Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony - they are all iconic figures from history," said archaeologist Neil Oliver who presents the BBC documentary.
"It's almost impossible to remember they were real people and not the semi-mythical figures portrayed by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It was like a splash of cold water in the face to be confronted by them as human beings, " he continued.
"When I stood in the lab and handled the bones of Cleopatra's blood sister - knowing that in her lifetime she touched Cleopatra and perhaps Julius Caesar and Mark Antony as well - I felt the hairs go up on the back of my neck."
"Suddenly these giant figures from history were flesh and blood," said archaeologist Neil Oliver.
There was plenty of sibling rivalry between Princess Arsinoe and her powerful sister Cleopatra - many believe the queen ordered Mark Antony to murder her sister.
The film examines the life of Cleopatra - who had an affair with Julius Caesar - including her murderous intentions towards Arsinoe.
Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer is on BBC One at 9pm on 23 March 2009.
She died from an asp bite
The Death of Cleopatra by Juan Luna, 1881.
Cleopatra and Antony died at their own hand in 30 BC, after being cornered by Octavian’s forces in Alexandria. Antony would impale himself with a sword, but the method of Cleopatra’s demise is in doubt.
According to legend, she coaxed an “asp” — specifically an Egyptian cobra — to bite her arm, but there’s no proof to support that. Poison, however, was most likely her method of choice. Some believe she pricked herself with a pin dipped into a lethal ointment. (She was known to conceal a poison in one of her hair combs.)
German historian Christoph Schaefer has offered yet another theory: The queen may have used a potent mixture of opium, hemlock, and wolfsbane — a potion likely tested on a few unfortunate souls to ensure it was pain-free.
Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at thirty nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra’s end was sudden and sensational. She has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Many people have spoken for her, including the greatest playwrights and poets we have been putting words in her mouth for two thousand years. In one of the busiest afterlives in history she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra’s infinite variety. He had no idea.
If the name is indelible, the image is blurry. Cleopatra may be one of the most recognizable figures in history but we have little idea of what she actually looked like. Only her coin portraits — issued in her lifetime, and which she likely approved — can be accepted as authentic. We remember her too for the wrong reasons. A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine. An eminent Roman general vouched for her grasp of military affairs. Even at a time when women rulers were no rarity she stood out, the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to play a role in Western affairs. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean. And she enjoyed greater prestige than any other woman of her age, as an excitable rival king was reminded when he called, during her stay at his court, for her assassination. (In light of her stature, it could not be done.) Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved. She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the last time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one.
Like all lives that lend themselves to poetry, Cleopatra’s was one of dislocations and disappointments. She grew up amid unsurpassed luxury, to inherit a kingdom in decline. For ten generations her family had styled themselves pharaohs. The Ptolemies were in fact Macedonian Greek, which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor. At eighteen Cleopatra and her ten-year-old brother assumed control of a country with a weighty past and a wobbly future. Thirteen hundred years separate Cleopatra from Nefertiti. The pyramids — to which Cleopatra almost certainly introduced Julius Caesar — already sported graffiti. The Sphinx had undergone a major restoration, a thousand years earlier. And the glory of the once great Ptolemaic Empire had dimmed. Cleopatra came of age in a world shadowed by Rome, which in the course of her childhood extended its rule to Egypt’s borders. When Cleopatra was eleven, Caesar reminded his officers that if they did not make war, if they did not obtain riches and rule others, they were not Romans. An Eastern sovereign who waged an epic battle of his own against Rome articulated what would become Cleopatra’s predicament differently: The Romans had the temperament of wolves. They hated the great kings. Everything they possessed they had plundered. They intended to seize all, and would “either destroy everything or perish in the attempt.” The implications for the last remaining wealthy country in Rome’s sphere of influence were clear. Egypt had distinguished itself for its nimble negotiating for the most part, it retained its autonomy. It had also already embroiled itself in Roman affairs.
For a staggering sum of money, Cleopatra’s father had secured the official designation “friend and ally of the Roman people.” His daughter would discover that it was not sufficient to be a friend to that people and their Senate it was essential to befriend the most powerful Roman of the day. That made for a bewildering assignment in the late Republic, wracked by civil wars. They flared up regularly throughout Cleopatra’s lifetime, pitting a succession of Roman commanders against one another in what was essentially a hot-tempered contest of personal ambition, twice unexpectedly decided on Egyptian soil. Each convulsion left the Mediterranean world shuddering, scrambling to correct its loyalties and redirect its tributes. Cleopatra’s father had thrown in his lot with Pompey the Great, the brilliant Roman general on whom good fortune seemed eternally to shine. He became the family patron. He also entered into a civil war against Julius Caesar just as, across the Mediterranean, Cleopatra ascended to the throne. In the summer of 48 BC Caesar dealt Pompey a crushing defeat in central Greece Pompey fled to Egypt, to be stabbed and decapitated on an Egyptian beach. Cleopatra was twenty-one. She had no choice but to ingratiate herself with the new master of the Roman world. She did so differently from most other client kings, whose names, not incidentally, are forgotten today. For the next years she struggled to turn the implacable Roman tide to her advantage, changing patrons again after Caesar’s murder, ultimately to wind up with his protégé, Mark Antony. From a distance her reign amounts to a reprieve. Her story was essentially over before it began, although that is of course not the way she would have seen it. With her death Egypt became a Roman province. It would not recover its autonomy until the twentieth century.
Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time? Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative. Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power. Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous. A Roman historian was perfectly happy to write off a Judaean queen as a mere figurehead and — six pages later — to condemn her for her reckless ambition, her indecent embrace of authority. A more disarming brand of power made itself felt as well. In a first-century BC marriage contract, a bride promised to be faithful and affectionate. She further vowed not to add love potions to her husband’s food or drink. We do not know if Cleopatra loved either Antony or Caesar, but we do know that she got each to do her bidding. From the Roman point of view she “enslaved” them both. Already it was a zero-sum game: a woman’s authority spelled a man’s deception. Asked how she had obtained her influence over Augustus, the first Roman emperor, his wife purportedly replied that she had done so “by being scrupulously chaste herself, doing gladly whatever pleased him, not meddling with any of his affairs, and, in particular, by pretending neither to hear of nor to notice the favorites that were the objects of his passion.” There is no reason to accept that formula at face value. On the other hand, Cleopatra was cut from very different cloth. In the course of a leisurely fishing trip, under a languid Alexandrian sun, she had no trouble suggesting that the most celebrated Roman general of the day tend to his responsibilities.
To a Roman, license and lawlessness were Greek preserves. Cleopatra was twice suspect, once for hailing from a culture known for its “natural talent for deception,” again for her Alexandrian address. A Roman could not pry apart the exotic and the erotic Cleopatra was a stand-in for the occult, alchemical East, for her sinuous, sensuous land, as perverse and original as its astonishment of a river. Men who came in contact with her seem to have lost their heads, or at least to have rethought their agendas. She runs away even with Plutarch’s biography of Mark Antony. She works the same effect on a nineteenth-century historian, who describes her, on meeting Caesar, as “a loose girl of sixteen.” (She was rather an intensely focused woman of twenty-one.) The siren call of the East long predated Cleopatra, but no matter she hailed from the intoxicating land of sex and excess. It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend.
Our view is further obscured by the fact that the Romans who told Cleopatra’s story very nearly knew their ancient history too well. Repeatedly it seeps into their accounts. Like Mark Twain in the overwhelming, overstuffed Vatican, we sometimes prefer the copies to the original. So did the classical authors. They conflated accounts, refurbishing old tales. They saddled Cleopatra with the vices of other miscreants. History existed to be retold, with more panache but not necessarily greater accuracy. In the ancient texts the villains always wear a particularly vulgar purple, eat too much roasted peacock, douse themselves in rare unguents, melt down pearls. Whether you were a transgressive, power-hungry Egyptian queen or a ruthless pirate, you were known for the “odious extravagance” of your accessories. Iniquity and opulence went hand in hand your world blazed purple and gold. Nor did it help that history bled into mythology, the human into the divine. Cleopatra’s was a world in which you could visit the relics of Orpheus’s lyre, or view the egg from which Zeus’s mother had hatched. (It was in Sparta.)
History is written not only by posterity, but for posterity as well. Our most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra. Plutarch was born seventy-six years after she died. (He was working at the same time as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.) Appian wrote at a remove of more than a century Dio of well over two. Cleopatra’s story differs from most women’s stories in that the men who shaped it — for their own reasons — enlarged rather than erased her role. Her relationship with Mark Antony was the longest of her life, but her relationship with his rival, Augustus, was the most enduring. He would defeat Antony and Cleopatra. To Rome, to enhance the glory, he delivered up the tabloid version of an Egyptian queen, insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed. He magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions so as to do the same with his victory — and so as to smuggle his real enemy, his former brother-in-law, out of the picture. The end result is a nineteenth-century British life of Napoleon or a twentieth-century history of America, were it to have been written by Chairman Mao.
To the team of extraordinarily tendentious historians, add an extraordinarily spotty record. No papyri from Alexandria survive. Almost nothing of the ancient city survives aboveground. We have, perhaps and at most, one written word of Cleopatra’s. (In 33 BC either she or a scribe signed off on a royal decree with the Greek word ginesthoi, meaning, “Let it be done.”) Classical authors were indifferent to statistics and occasionally even to logic their accounts contradict one another and themselves. Appian is careless with details, Josephus hopeless with chronology. Dio preferred rhetoric to exactitude. The lacunae are so regular as to seem deliberate there is very nearly a conspiracy of silences. How is it possible that we do not have an authoritative bust of Cleopatra from an age of accomplished, realistic portraiture? Cicero’s letters of the first months of 44 BC — when Caesar and Cleopatra were together in Rome — were never published. The longest Greek history of the era glosses over the tumultuous period at hand. It is difficult to say what we miss most. Appian promises more of Caesar and Cleopatra in his four books of Egyptian history, which do not survive. Livy’s account breaks off a century before Cleopatra. We know the detailed work of her personal physician only from Plutarch’s references. Dellius’s chronicle has vanished, along with the raunchy letters Cleopatra was said to have written him. Even Lucan comes to an abrupt, infuriating halt partway through his epic poem, leaving Caesar trapped in Cleopatra’s palace at the outset of the Alexandrian War. And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.
The holes in the record present one hazard, what we have constructed around them another. Affairs of state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart. A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance fluent in nine languages silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors. She is left to put a vintage label on something we have always known existed: potent female sexuality. And her timing was lousy. Not only was her history written by her enemies, but it was her misfortune to have been on everyone’s minds just as Latin poetry came into its own. She survives literarily in a language hostile to her. The fictions have only proliferated. George Bernard Shaw lists among his sources for Caesar and Cleopatra his own imagination. Plenty of historians have deferred to Shakespeare, which is understandable but a little like taking George C. Scott’s word for Patton’s.
To restore Cleopatra is as much to salvage the few facts as to peel away the encrusted myth and the hoary propaganda. She was a Greek woman whose history fell to men whose futures lay with Rome, the majority of them officials of the empire. Their historical methods are opaque to us. They seldom named their sources. They relied to a great extent on memory. They are by modern standards polemicists, apologists, moralists, fabulists, recyclers, cut-and-pasters, hacks. For all its erudition, Cleopatra’s Egypt produced no fine historian. One can only read accordingly. The sources may be fl awed, but they are the only sources we have. There is no universal agreement on most of the basic details of her life, no consensus on who her mother was, how long Cleopatra lived in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether she and Antony married, what transpired at the battle that sealed her fate, how she died. I have tried here to bear in mind who was a former librarian and who a Page Sixer, who had actually set eyes on Egypt, who despised the place and who was born there, who had a problem with women, who wrote with the zeal of a Roman convert, who meant to settle a score, please his emperor, perfect his hexameter. (I have relied little on Lucan. He was early on the scene, before Plutarch, Appian, or Dio. He was also a poet, and a sensationalist.) Even when they are neither tendentious nor tangled, the accounts are often overblown. As has been noted, there were no plain, unvarnished stories in antiquity. The point was to dazzle. Even the fiction writers cannot agree about Caesar and Cleopatra. He loves her (Handel) he loves her not (Shaw) he loves her (Thornton Wilder). I have not attempted to fill in the blanks, though on occasion I have corralled the possibilities. What looks merely probable remains here merely probable — though opinions differ radically even on the probabilities. The irreconcilable remains unreconciled. Mostly I have restored context. Indeed Cleopatra murdered her siblings, but Herod murdered his children. (He afterward wailed that he was “the most unfortunate of fathers.”) And as Plutarch reminds us, such behavior was axiomatic among sovereigns. Cleopatra was not necessarily beautiful, but her wealth — and her palace — left a Roman gasping. All read very differently on one side of the Mediterranean from the other. The last decades of research on women in antiquity and on Hellenistic Egypt substantially illuminate the picture. I have tried to pluck the gauze of melodrama from the final scenes of the life, which reduce even sober chroniclers to soap opera. Sometimes high drama prevails for a reason, however. Cleopatra’s was an era of outsize, intriguing personalities. At its end the greatest actors of the age exit abruptly. A world comes crashing down after them.
While there is a great deal we do not know about Cleopatra, there is a great deal she did not know either. She knew neither that she was living in the first century BC nor in the Hellenistic Age, both of them later constructs. (The Hellenistic Age begins with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ends in 30 BC, with the death of Cleopatra. It has been perhaps best defined as a Greek era in which the Greeks played no role.) She did not know she was Cleopatra VII for several reasons, one of which is that she was actually the sixth Cleopatra. She never knew anyone named Octavian. The man who vanquished and deposed her, prompted her suicide, and largely packaged her for posterity was born Gaius Octavius. By the time he entered Cleopatra’s life in a meaningful way he called himself Gaius Julius Caesar, after his illustrious great uncle, her lover, who adopted him in his will. We know him today as Augustus, a title he assumed only three years after Cleopatra’s death. He appears here as Octavian, two Caesars remaining, as ever, one too many.
Most place names have changed since antiquity. I have followed Lionel Casson’s sensible lead in opting for familiarity over consistency. Hence Berytus is here Beirut, while Pelusium — which no longer exists, but would today be just east of Port Said, at the entrance to the Suez Canal — remains Pelusium. Similarly I have opted for English spellings over transliterations. Caesar’s rival appears as Pompey rather than Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Caesar’s deputy as Mark Antony rather than Marcus Antonius. In many respects geography has changed, shorelines have sunk, marshes dried, hills crumbled. Alexandria is flatter today than it was in Cleopatra’s lifetime. It is oblivious to its ancient street plan it no longer gleams white. The Nile is nearly two miles farther east. The dust, the sultry sea air, Alexandria’s melting purple sunsets, are unchanged. Human nature remains remarkably consistent, the physics of history immutable. Firsthand accounts continue to diverge wildly. For well over two thousand years, a myth has been able to outrun and outlive a fact. Except where noted, all dates are BC.
Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer
Cleopatra – the most famous woman in history. We know her as a great queen, a beautiful lover and a political schemer. For 2,000 years almost all evidence of her has disappeared – until now.
In one of the world’s most exciting finds, archaeologists believe they have discovered the skeleton of her sister, murdered by Cleopatra and Mark Antony. From Egypt to Turkey, Neil Oliver investigates the story of a ruthless queen who would kill her own siblings for power. This is the portrait of a killer.
This BBC hour-long docudrama focuses on Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe, whose recently-discovered skeleton suggested she may have been murdered. Did Cleopatra, assisted by Julius Caesar, murder her own sibling in a bid for power?
Presenter Neil Oliver thinks it’s possible, and sets out to paint a portrait of a beautiful, enigmatic, ruthless ego-maniac who will stop at nothing to preserve her place on the throne. His quest takes us to the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, where Arsinoe’s death is recounted in a dramatic reconstruction – Crimewatch-style.