Today we tell about the life of one of the most famous and powerful women in history. She was a goddess, a queen, and a skilled diplomat and negotiator. She was a great politician who knew how to show off her and her country’s power and influence. At the height of her rule more than two thousand years ago, she controlled Egypt and other lands including most of the eastern Mediterranean coast. She was also one of the richest people in the world. She was known for her striking personality, her sharp intelligence and her alliances with the two most powerful men of her time. Her name was Cleopatra.
Many people remember Cleopatra as the beautiful and fiery woman played by Elizabeth Taylor in the nineteen sixty-three movie “Cleopatra.” “Do as you say, literally? As if I was something you had conquered?” “If I choose to regard you as such.” “Am I to understand then that you feel free to do with me whatever you want, whenever you want?” “Yes, I want that understood.” She is also the subject of one of William Shakespeare’s great tragic plays, “Antony and Cleopatra.” Shakespeare describes Cleopatra with these lines: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety; other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies.”
The story of Cleopatra has influenced countless historians, painters, writers and filmmakers. But much of the story of her life is based on descriptions that are not true. She is often described as an evil and sexy beauty who liked to take control of men. To learn the truth about this famous ruler requires separating fact from centuries of storytelling. Most historical documents describing her life were written long after she had died. They were written by historians who never knew her and who were loyal to her enemies. Remembering this famous woman as an evil beauty discredits her role as a wise and intelligent ruler who lived during an important period in history.
Cleopatra the Seventh was born over two thousand years ago in sixty-nine B.C., or sixty-nine years before the birth of Christ. Her ancestors came from a long line of rulers that began with Ptolemy the First and ended with Cleopatra. This family is known as the Ptolemies. Although Cleopatra ruled Egypt, she was not Egyptian. She was Macedonian Greek. Her first language was Greek, but historians say she spoke eight others including Hebrew, Latin, Parthian and Egyptian.
Cleopatra became queen of Egypt at the age of eighteen. Egyptian tradition required that a female rule alongside a male family member. She ruled jointly, first with her younger brother, Ptolemy the Thirteenth. She was also married to him. After his death, Cleopatra ruled with her other brother Ptolemy the Fourteenth. Later she ordered that he be killed.
The Ptolemies were famous for marrying within their family. They were also well known for their murderous aims and often plotted to kill one another to gain power. Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe attempted to have herself declared queen of Egypt. So Cleopatra ordered that her sister be killed. Cleopatra was not interested in sharing power and was not going to risk any threats from her family members.
One of Cleopatra’s main concerns throughout her reign was Egypt’s relationship with the powerful Roman Republic. The Romans had taken control of most of Europe and parts of North Africa. Cleopatra had good reason to be concerned that Rome would try to take over Egypt. She worked hard to create strong alliances with Rome’s leaders. She offered them her financial support and resources such as grain, warships and soldiers. Egypt was an extremely rich country, and Rome began to depend on its wealth. Throughout her more than twenty years as ruler, she kept Egypt allied with, but independent from, Rome.
Starting in the year forty-eight B.C., Cleopatra allied herself with the Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar. She had been exiled by her brother Ptolemy the Thirteenth and was fighting to take back power. Rome was going through a period of civil war. Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar were fighting each other for control of Rome. After Pompey was murdered, Cleopatra decided it was important to make friends with Caesar for her safety and that of her country. Tensions were high in Egypt’s main city, Alexandria. She had a servant secretly bring her into Caesar’s home while hidden in a cloth bag.
Cleopatra supported Caesar during fighting between the Egyptian supporters of Ptolemy the Thirteenth and the Roman military. And upon his victory, Caesar gave control of Egypt back to Cleopatra. The queen would soon give birth to Caesar’s child, a boy named Caesarion. Cleopatra knew this child would deepen ties between Rome and Egypt.
Caesar and Cleopatra continued their relationship although he was often travelling on military campaigns. She visited him twice in Rome. But many Romans did not like that a queen from the East was interfering in Roman affairs. And, some Romans felt Caesar was becoming too powerful. In forty-four B.C., Caesar was murdered by a group of Roman senators. Rome was later controlled by three rulers -- a triumvirate. The rulers were Octavian, Marcus Lepidus, and Mark Antony. Cleopatra would ally herself with Mark Antony. They would also become lovers. She had three children with him. But their alliance would come at a huge cost.
Stacy Schiff is an award-winning writer who published a book on Cleopatra in two thousand ten. It is called “Cleopatra: A Life.” Ms. Schiff’s aim is to separate fact from fiction in telling Cleopatra’s story. She says Cleopatra was smart and powerful. She has been misrepresented by history as a liar and someone who used men for her own gain. Ms. Schiff’s book helps bring to life not only this famous queen, but also the richness of ancient Egyptian culture and society. Her description of Alexandria helps explain why the city was one of the most famous and beautiful in the world. Alexandria was a capitol for learning and culture. Its library was the largest and greatest in the ancient world.
Cleopatra would have been a part of this learned environment. She grew up studying and memorizing literary works which taught about history, religion and philosophy. She also studied public speaking, math, music, astronomy and geometry. She used this knowledge in her many duties as queen. She organized an army, acted as a judge, controlled the value of the country’s money, secured Egypt’s economy and was a huge supporter of the arts.
Stacy Schiff also describes how Cleopatra successfully used her image as a powerful queen and goddess to influence others. Ms. Schiff explains that the power of imagery was huge in a world where only some people knew how to read. For example, Cleopatra made herself into a representation of the goddess Isis. Isis was a goddess of motherhood, righteousness and justice.
Ms. Schiff describes how Cleopatra used the power of imagery for her first official meeting with Mark Antony at his base in the town of Tarsus. She arrived in a golden boat with a team of musicians and servants. This had an unforgettable effect on Mark Antony. The two would remain a couple for the rest of their lives. Mark Antony controlled the eastern part of the Roman Republic. He gave many rich lands to Cleopatra to rule. In return, she helped him pay for his military campaigns.
However, Mark Antony began to spend more and more time in Alexandria with Cleopatra and less time planning his military invasions. People in Rome feared Mark Antony’s growing loyalty to Egypt. He received increasing criticism from the powerful Roman ruler Octavian. A huge battle between Octavian’s troops and those of Mark Antony and Cleopatra took place at Actium in modern day Greece. Octavian’s forces quickly defeated his enemies.
Mark Antony’s soldiers deserted him as Octavian’s troops entered Alexandria. Mark Antony soon killed himself, dying in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra killed herself by poison several days later to escape watching her kingdom become a province of Rome. The golden age of ancient Egypt and its rulers ended with her death. But Cleopatra’s timeless story would live on.