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Cleopatra has fascinated us for millennia. The equal of Ramses, Alexander, and of course
Caesar in popular imagination, she has been depicted as many things: as an exotic enchantress
who used her beauty and sexuality to seduce the most powerful men in Europe;
as a woman making her way in a male-dominated world, fighting for the independence of her people;
or as a bringer of war and destruction, a real-life Helen of Troy. Today, we'll look
at the person behind the legend and one of the most famous noses in history.
I'm Indy Neidell, welcome to Battlefields.
Cleopatra VII was born into a Greek ruling family of a decaying ancient kingdom, at a
time when the whole Mediterranean was falling under the shadow of Rome. For generations,
the Ptolemies had been murdering each other in dynastic struggles. Charm, cunning, and
ruthlessness were crucial to survival in this world.
Cleopatra was thrust into the spotlight at a young age. When she was about 11 years old,
her father Ptolemy XII was exiled and her older sister seized power. When Ptolemy returned
to power with Roman help, he had the teenage Cleopatra appointed as co-ruler.
Four years after returning to power, Ptolemy died, leaving Cleopatra to rule jointly with her ten-year-old
brother, also called Ptolemy. While custom dictated that female co-rulers assume a supporting role,
this is not what Cleopatra had in mind. Within a year, her brother's name disappeared
from official documents and coinage, leaving herself as the undisputed monarch. However,
a coup in 48 BC left Cleopatra exiled to Syria and Ptolemy sole nominal ruler, plunging Egypt
into yet another dynastic civil war.
Then along came Julius Caesar. He seized control of Alexandria and declared that he would mediate
between Ptolemy and Cleopatra, subjugating Egypt to the will of Rome in the process.
Seeing an opportunity, Cleopatra decided to meet with Caesar personally to get on his
good side. Plutarch records that she had herself smuggled to his chambers hidden in a bed-sack.
Caesar was a known womaniser, and the intelligent and confident young queen figured
she knew exactly how to get him to support her claim. It must have worked, since the
following morning, Caesar ordered Ptolemy to reconcile with his sister and share power
with her once more.
Ptolemy's supporters were not at all pleased, and his royal army was soon marching to Alexandria
to restore his sole rulership. Caesar defeated the royal army outside the walls of Alexandria,
and the young Ptolemy drowned while trying to escape. Cleopatra's power finally secure,
Caesar would spend several more months with her in Egypt, and by the time Caesar left
for Rome, Cleopatra was pregnant with a son, who would later be nicknamed Caesarion after
his father, though Caesar never publicly acknowledged him. Instead, Caesar's will named his grandnephew
Gaius Octavius as his successor.
In 44 BC, while Cleopatra and Caesarion were visiting Rome, Julius Caesar was assassinated.
The Roman Republic was plunged into civil war, with Caesar's supporters pitted against
his assassins. Soon, Rome was under the control of the Second Triumvirate of Mark Antony,
Octavian, and Lepidus. For Cleopatra, though, who still relied on Roman support to stay
in power, her lover's death had left her dangerously isolated.
In 41 BC, she sailed to meet Mark Antony, who had taken control of the eastern Roman
provinces. She arrived in Tarsus in a luxurious pleasure craft with purple sails and silver-tipped
oars and invited Antony to join her in a great banquet. It was a magnificent entrance worthy
of a queen of Egypt, and though Antony, like Caesar before him, was married, he too could
not resist Cleopatra charms and would spend the winter in Alexandria, enjoying her company.
When he left in the spring, she was pregnant with twins and her rule was secure once more.
Antony spent most of the following years fighting enemies in the eastern Mediterranean as it
slowly became clear that the balance of power in Rome could not last. Octavian deposed Lepidus
and seized sole power in the capital city, and tensions rose between Octavian and Antony.
Antony had abandoned his wife Octavia, who was Octavian's sister, for Cleopatra, and
Octavian conducted a PR campaign accusing Antony of abandoning Roman virtue for a foreign harlot.
In 34 BC, Antony and Cleopatra further cemented their alliance by dividing the eastern provinces
between their children and acknowledging Caesarion as the true heir to the divine Caesar.
Now, Antony still had supporters in Rome, and Octavian was unable to respond immediately,
but when Antony married Cleopatra in 32 BC and rumours became public that he intended to establish
his own Senate, Octavian saw himself as within his rights to remove Antony from power.
Octavian declared war on the Egyptian Cleopatra, rather than Roman Antony, so as not to be seen as
starting yet another civil war. Antony immediately declared his support for Cleopatra upon hearing
the news, as Octavian knew he would.
Okay, Antony and Cleopatra moved their troops to Greece, ready for the final showdown with
Rome. Octavian crossed the Adriatic with his fleet to Actium on the west coast of Greece.
While Octavian’s and Antony's armies were roughly equal in strength, Octavian had the
advantage at sea, so he waited at Actium and began a war of attrition, harassing towns
on the coast and waiting for Antony to come to him. The strategy worked and on September 2, 31 BC,
Antony and Cleopatra finally attacked Octavian's fleet. Octavian's superior naval force prevailed.
With their fleet burned and their army deserting, Antony and Cleopatra retreated to Alexandria
as fugitives, having lost all support in Rome. A year later, Octavian invaded Egypt. Abandoned
by his allies and with no army to fight for him, Antony fell on his sword. Cleopatra was
captured, and Octavian made it clear to her that she would be taken to Rome and displayed
in his triumph. Her last act of defiance was to deny him that pleasure by taking her own life,
allegedly by the bite of an asp.
Octavian was now the undisputed first citizen of the Roman Empire. In 27 BC, he adopted
the name by which he is best known, Caesar Augustus. He set the standard for the centuries
to come, and is remembered today as Rome's first emperor.
Cleopatra left a rich cultural legacy. Even in her own time, she at once fascinated and
repulsed the Roman public. All historians agree that she was charismatic and highly
intelligent, although accounts of her beauty vary between being "brilliant to look upon"
and rather plain looking. In any case, her ability to gain the favour of two of Rome's
most powerful men spoke well for her charm, and the fact that she ended up on the losing
side meant that she was subject to a great degree of character assassination. The interpretation
of her as a "whore queen" continued into later generations: Dante depicts her in the second
circle of hell, along with Helen, Paris, Dido, and others guilty of the sin of lust.
On the other hand, she was much better regarded in the east. Syrian Queen Zenobia, who led a
revolt in the 3rd Century, proudly claimed descent from Cleopatra.
Cleopatra has continued to influence popular culture like few other characters from ancient history.
Shakespeare portrays her as an ambiguous character, and she is considered one of his
more challenging female roles. She has been portrayed in film by the likes of Theda Bara
and Elizabeth Taylor, with her court usually being depicted in a manner more reminiscent
of the earlier New Kingdom Egypt than the realities of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
As with many historical characters, interpretations of Cleopatra's character are subject to the
cultural sensibilities of the audience, which can make analysis of her character quite difficult.
This is certainly not helped by the fact that most sources on her life were written decades
or centuries after she died. However, her fictionalised persona has long entered the
public consciousness as the quintessential exotic femme fatale. Paris and Helen may never
have existed, but Cleopatra shows us just how real the power of sex can be.
And if you want to see more sex and war in the ancient world,
you can check out the Trojan War right here.
So what do you think? Was Cleopatra a brilliant politician? A scheming temptress? Or something
else entirely? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll see you next time on It’s History!
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The Power of Sex - Cleopatra, Caesar and Mark Antony l HISTORY OF SEX

20915 Folder Collection
Zihan Zang published on October 5, 2016
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