Did she really look like Elizabeth Taylor? We will never know, but the odds are she did not – what we know from coins and ancient busts speaks against it. She may have had red hair, as in the famous picture, but most likely she shaved all her bodily hair, as it was Egyptian custom, and wore elaborate wigs. It seems clear, however, that she knew everything about ancient make-up, using belladonna to dilate her pupils and stibium (also called kohl, antimony sulphide) to colour her eyebrows. Very little, however, speaks against Cleopatra VII Philopator‘s force of personality, wits and political shrewdness.
Although she was, technically spoken, survived for a few days by her and Caesar‘s son Caesarion as sole ruler, she was in practical regards the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, successor to the various Egyptian Empires in the lands of the Double Crowns.
Her descent features more than a few incestual, er, complications – within her last four patrilineal generations (father to father), there were three brother-sister marriages and the same number of uncle-niece marriages, so that in the end her family tree looks suspiciously like a vertical line – in fact, she only had two pair of (instead of four) great-grandparents – of which one was the son and daughter of the other!
In her youth as a scion of the royal Macedonian but thoroughly Hellenized family of the Ptolemies, founded in 305 BC by Alexander‘s general, companion and historian Ptolemy I Soter (c. 367 – 282 BC), she stood out by her talent for languages – she was the first of the family to learn the Egyptian language, but also spoke Ethiopian, Troglodyte, Hebrew or Aramaic, Arabic, some Syrian language – perhaps Syriac – Median, Parthian, and Latin in addition to her native Koine Greek.
From 81 BC on, mayhem, murder and very irresponsible financial planning within the royal family ended with the Romans’ – initially under Sulla – titular takeover of Egypt as collateral for outstanding loans. Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII succeeded as a client king of Rome hanging on to power – by his nails – from 80 to 58 BC and again from 55 to 51 BC with a small interruption when having been intermittently deposed by his daughter and Cleopatra’s elder sister Berenice IV.
After Berenice’s fall and subsequent beheading, Cleopatra was made co-ruler with her father some time in 52 BC, but faced serious problems after her father’s death in 51 BC. Irregularities of the Nile flooding had left the land in famine and a debt of 17,5 million drachmas to Rome (it is hard to assign a present-day value to the then-drachma, but for a long time in ancient Greek one drachma represented the daily wage of a skilled worker) petrified the state’s fiscus – aggravated by the lawless behaviour of the largely Germanic/Gallic-Roman garrison left by the financiers of the Empire.
Two factors further complicated Cleopatra’s new royal position – her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, whom she had initially rejected as co-regent but probably married for the sake of tradition – aspired to power and the ascendancy of the Roman civil war, which began to extend to Egypt.
By the summer of 49 BC, Cleopatra was fighting her brother and losing, when Pompey’s son Gnaeus Pompeius arrived from Greece with a request for military assistance against Caesar – which was granted by both Ptolemy and Cleopatra alike in their last concurrent decision. Eventually, she had to flee to Roman Syria, where she attempted to find troops for an invasion of Egypt. Yet the invasion soon stalled, and she was forced to camp outside the town of Pelousion in the Eastern Nile Delta over the winter.
Having lost the Battle of Pharsalus in August 48, Pompey decided to make Egypt the basis for his tactical retreat but was promptly murdered by agents of Ptolemy XIII soon after having made landfall near Pelousion. Ptolemy believed to have perfected nothing but a masterpiece – having removed Cleopatra’s supporter Pompey, thus weakening his sister, and simultaneously earning Caesar’s gratitude for the removal of his enemy.
Uh oh. Caesar was royally angry about the coward murder and ordered – from the royal palace – both Cleopatra and Ptolemy to stop the nonsense, end the war, kiss and make up. We know what happened then: Ptolemy decided on war and Cleopatra on love, arriving at Caesar’s quarters, as Plutarch recounts, in a rug or bed sack.
Caesar’s subsequent attempts to find a solution for Egypt momentarily fizzled, and he had to endure the famous siege of the palace – protected by 4000 guards and most likely in the arms of the queen – until reinforcements arrived in the spring of 47 BC. Ptolemy XIII, his sister Arsinoe IV (half-sister to Cleopatra) and their supporters were defeated quickly, but Caesar remained wary of the intricacies of Egypt and the preceding chaos of the sole-female-rulership of Berenice and proceeded to set up Cleopatra with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV as co-rulers. While his consulship had expired at the end of 48, Mark Antony had provided him the dictatorship of Rome until the end of 47, and thus he possessed the proper legal authority.
In April 47, Caesar departed for Rome, leaving three legions in Egypt, and his son Caesarion was born on June 23. In Rome, Caesar paid respect to his childless marriage with Calpurnia by keeping his mouth horkos odonton in public while Cleopatra blazoned forth the news of his paternity to everyone.
In late 46 followed the visit of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV to Rome which is so memorably depicted in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The queen had to remain outside the pomerium, i.e., outside the holy precinct of the inner city, for no monarch was allowed to enter; she was put up in a villa in Caesar’s garden.
They were still in Rome – unpopular with most of the senators – when Caesar was assassinated at the Ides of March 44. Perhaps she hoped for Caesarion to be named the heir to Caesar, but when that honour fell to Octavian, she left for Egypt, had her brother killed by poison (it is said) and elevated Caesarion to co-ruler.
In the Liberators’ Civil War, forced by Mark Antony and Octavian against the assassins of Caesar, she was initially courted by both sides but quickly declared for Mark Antony. Alas, one of her own lieutenants, the governor of Cyprus, defected to the enemy and subsequently she had to attend a possibly dangerous confrontation with Mark Antony at Tarsus – which she, however, defused easily by a few lavish banquets and her considerable personal charms. Mark Anthony fell for her hook, line and sinker, and Arsinoe IV, who had only been banished before, and the treasonous governor were duly executed.
The lovely couple was fond of parties, and even founded their own drinking club, the “Indestructible Livers” …
But the high life did not last long – trouble developed soon. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian faced the task of simultaneously providing land for the retirement of the pro- and contracaesarian veterans of the civil war – most of the latter having been pardoned by Caesar before his death. The choice was either to enrage the citizens by confiscating the required land or enrage the veterans, who then might easily decide to support a possible opponent of the triumvirate. Octavian resolved in favour of the veterans by confiscating no less than eighteen towns and their hinterlands for the soldiers – driving whole populations out – which, of course, resulted in civil unrest.
Enter Fulvia Flacca Bambula, widow of two former supporters of Caesar and third wife of Mark Antony (from 47 or 46 BC until 40 BC). She was, through her family connections, by far the most powerful woman in Roman politics ever, and managed even during Antony’s absence in Egypt to raise eight legions – formally commanded by Lucius Antonius, Mark’s younger brother – in Italy for a civil war against Octavian and his veterans, the so-called Perusine War. She apparently committed, however, the critical mistake of not telling her husband of her campaign and Anthony’s supporters in Gaul – for the want of orders – did not come to her aid. The rebels subsequently lost the war and Fulvia fled to her husband in Athens. It would appear that the triumvir, upset with his dear wife, sent her into exile, where she dutifully died, and sailed back to Rome to mend affairs within the triumvirate.
Antony thus had to return to Rome on urgent business and Cleopatra was absolutely not amused when he – in a scheme to lessen tensions within the triumvirate – not only married Octavia, the elder sister of Augustus, in Rome, but also produced two daughters with her. Yet the Perusine War had critically lessened his subsequent political influence and Octavian gained the upper hand, first in Italy, and then in Gallia.
This was documented by a new agreement between the triumvirs in the Treaty of Brudisium, in which the West fell to Octavian and the East to Antony, while Lepidus received Africa Provincia as a sort of junior partner. In this context also fell the above mentioned marriage of Antony and Octavia.
Anthony then set out on his grand design, war against the Parthian Empire – for which Cleopatra and Egypt had to chip in a most substantial contribution. The less is said about the campaign the better – there were a few successes but defeats as well and the “Endsieg” remained a chimaera. At least the campaign had a somewhat positive end when Anthony conquered Armenia in 35 BC.
Yet in the aftermath of this success, Anthony developed a clear case of megalomania – in addition to his infatuation, yes, besottedness with the queen. For a long time, he had followed a strategy to use the prestige and power of the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty to set up a Hellenistic follow-up state to the Seleucid Empire in Asia and in 36 BC had presented a plan of making pseudo-donations to titular Hellenistic rulers – client kings – which were to form buffer-states on the Parthian borders. At this time, Octavian had agreed and such donations were presented at Antiochia. In 34, however, as Jenny Hill describes …
“… During this triumph in Alexandria (for his victory in Armenia the preceding year) , Mark Antony proclaimed Cleopatra the ‘Queen of Queens’ and claimed that he, not Octavian, was the adopted son of Caesar. He also formally pronounced Cleopatra and Caesarion joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus, Alexander Helios (his first-born son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Media, Armenia and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene II (his daughter, twin of Alexander) the ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus (his second son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia.”
These declarations – usually called the Donations of Alexandria – meant not only the end of the triumvirate but were an invitation to war – not because of the titular land grants but because of Antony’s claim of the Caesarian inheritance for Caesarion – not Octavian. This Octavian could not suffer. His claim to rulership was adoption by Caesar – through which he not only had inherited possessions and authority but also the loyalty of Caesar’s veterans and personal popularity. This status being called into question by a biological son of Caesar – by the richest woman in the world – he could, politically, not possibly survive. Antony’s declaration meant war – but it hadn’t yet begun.
Sparks began to fly in earnest and a fully-fledged propaganda war began. Octavian basically argued – very much in public – that Anthony was not only giving away the spoils of the Armenian war but also possessions that legitimately belonged to Rome and had been paid for by the blood of the legions, that Antony was but the “slave” of a foreign queen, to whom he had bequeathed huge properties – and that to his children, a most non-Roman idea. By his giving away provinces he also deprived deserving senators of proconsulships and was starting wars, as against Parthia and Armenia, without the senate’s consent. The pro-Antony faction in the capital accused Octavian of unspeakable crimes in Gallia and Spain in addition to homosexuality and cowardice. Par for the course, one could say.
In the eyes of most Romans, Octavians arguments were better and thus the political battle developed very much to his advantage. He was also able to rouse the feelings of the citizens of the capital in regard to the various executions without trial that had become standard procedure in the East – and of course in Egypt.
In 32 BC, the senate formally deprived Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra – not Anthony. It was very important for Octavius not to appear to start another civil war – thus Cleopatra – still very unpopular in Rome – was the perfect target. Yet the political majorities were not clear and almost half of the Senate left Rome and defected to Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.
War finally broke out, and the naval Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, decided emphatically against the fortunes of the couple. In the August of 30 BC, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa led an invasion of Egypt which the wrought-out country was powerless to resist.
Antony committed suicide in the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had done so already. When he, lethally wounded, was informed of the fact that she was still alive, he was brought to her and died in her arms.
Octavian captured Cleopatra but allowed her to bury Antony in the usual fashion. She was destined to be led through Rome in Octavians’ subsequent triumph and afterwards ritually murdered. Robby House writes:
Another prevalent form of execution was that of Strangulation. This was perhaps the most popular form of execution for Rome’s greatest enemies although in those cases it was usually referred to as ritualistic strangulation which would often occur after the vanquished and shackled enemy was paraded through the streets of Rome as part of a Roman Triumph. While many of the victims were publicly strangled in the Forum area, perhaps the most famous war trophy was that of Gallic Chieftain Vercingetorix, arguably Caesar’s greatest foe in the field of battle. Perhaps out of some sort of pity, Caesar had him strangled away from the eyes of Rome’s citizens inside the confines of his cell in the Tullianum Prison (a.k.a. the Mamertine Prison).
Cleopatra knew very well what Octavian intended, and hence, after a few failed attempts, she took her own life – either on August 10 or 12, 30 BC.
The popular story goes that she died by the bite of an asp – an Egyptian cobra – but it is also quite possible that she took poison. Egyptian medicine knew many potent toxins, such as Hemlock, Opium, Belladonna or Aconitine, and combinations of them which yielded deadly potables or ointments. The snake story is, of course, the best copy, and hence it does not surprise that the subject was taken on by a plethora of painters, of which we show a few below.
And a few famous statues …
Thus ended the life of the last Pharaoh of Egypt.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)