21 years of Egypt's Cleopatra

Although the Romans tried hard to co-opt her image, Cleopatra was a master of self-presentation which was a skill her family had honed over generations.

Published: 01st August 2013 12:48 PM  |   Last Updated: 01st August 2013 12:58 PM   |  A+A-

Egypt

Cleopatra is one of the most fascinating, alluring and mysterious historical characters. Was she really as beautiful as legend has us believe or was her beauty just a myth which became magnified in the sands of time? Not many know that Cleopatra was Egyptian only by birth and Greek by ancestry. Although Alexandria and the Nile delta formed crucial backdrops to Cleopatra’s short life, it was the blood of Macedon which flowed in her veins.

Her character and her actions were influenced by the genius, the courage and impulsiveness of the stock from which she derived her ancestry. The historical events and the unusual character of her adventures, her sufferings and her sins, were influenced by the circumstances that surrounded her. 

Cleopatra was clearly a woman who flirted with danger. Her life was eventful and her death was marked by unforgettable drama. We owe a significant part of our knowledge about Cleopatra to her enemy Octavian, the man who would become Rome’s first emperor Augustus. Because her life was so intertwined with the events in Rome, a lot of it has been preserved. Although historians were fortunate to have a wealth of information on the later part of her life, writing about Cleopatra was a challenge because they had to free her from the identity that sources sympathetic to Octavian had imposed on her.

Since Cleopatra’s life touches on important events of the late Roman republic and early empire, an account of her life has to explore the events and complex politics of Rome as well because Cleopatra on more than one occasion became a tool in the hands of the politicians of Rome.

She was painted as the terrible eastern menace who was bent upon destroying the Roman civilisation and values, she was a convenient foe for Octavian, whose real conflict was with Mark Antony for the control of Rome at the time that Rome was a superpower of the Mediterranean.

Although the Romans tried hard to co-opt her image, Cleopatra was a master of self-presentation which was a skill her family had honed over generations. The Ptolemies were a Macedonian dynasty that came to rule Egypt after Alexander the Great’s empire split up. They successfully inserted themselves into Egyptian culture as the new pharaohs and Cleopatra was particularly adept at communicating with the diverse population that occupied Egypt in the first century BC. She knew how to exploit her Greek heritage and enjoyed great popularity in Athens.

She became a legend in her lifetime and fascination with her has grown with the passage of time. One of the lasting impressions about her is as a great lover. Her powers of seduction have entered the realm of myth largely due to her relationships with two of Rome’s most powerful men, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar.

Although, the extent of her physical beauty is debatable, she must have most certainly possessed great charisma. 

As a ruler, Cleopatra skillfully preserved her kingdom through massive upheavals in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. This was a time when power could shift overnight and there were no dearth of scheming ambitious men. Thus, a country like Egypt had to choose its allies very carefully. Although it required the protection of a larger power to prevent Egypt from falling prey to ambitious imperialists, Egypt also had impressive resources to offer its allies.

For most of her 21-year-reign, Cleopatra used these alliances to her maximum advantage. Had her conflict with Mark Antony and Octavian ended differently, she would have become a partner in ruling the Roman Empire. In 323 BC, Alexander died suddenly in Babylon without naming a successor to rule his newly acquired empire. According to historians, when Alexander was asked to whom he had left his kingdom, he said,  “To the best man, for as I see as my funeral games, a great contest among my friends”.

His words were prophetic, because many competed for his power. One member of Alexander’s inner circle, Ptolemy 1, who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of which Cleopatra would be the final ruler, was instrumental in the outcome of this competition.

References

Cleopatra: By Susan Walker, Sally-Ann Ashton

Cleopatra: The Last Pharaoh: By Prudence J Jones

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