Some queens were celebrated as beauties, some revered as mothers, some respected as rulers. Tales about them became legends in retrospect. But there was once a queen who didn’t need to be dead before she could become a legend, almost a goddess. Stories of her wit, intellect, and charm remain unmatched by other queens in the pages of history.
She was born half-Macedonian Greek, but whether or not she was half-Egyptian, she sure reigned over Egypt like she was born for it. Twice, she almost lost her kingdom to her enemies, and twice she saved her reign with sheer tact and political diplomacy. Cleopatra VII, the 1st century BCE Egyptian queen, might have been portrayed as a seductress trying to save her crown in the 1963 American film Cleopatra. But history paints her rather differently.
The 1st century BCE Greek historian Plutarch writes in the biography of Roman emperor Mark Antony, Life of Anthony: “Her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it.” It’s interesting that Plutarch uses the phrase ‘persuasiveness of her discourse’. It’s a clear reference to Cleopatra’s intellect and persuasive conversational skills, even as he points out she wasn’t a striking beauty.
Two of the most powerful men in the 1st century BCE—Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Roman politicians and military generals—found a powerful ally in Cleopatra, rather than just a lover. She was not only highly intelligent, as Plutarch points out, but also very wealthy. This, despite inheriting a large debt from her father. She began her rule as co-regent with her brother Ptolemy XIII, but somewhere down the line rejected him, assuming the role of a sole ruler. Someone as bold as to remove a male heir from rule sure had to set herself up as a strong heiress. Given that her Egyptian blood was questionable, and that she was a female trying to gain the support and favour of her subjects, she found the need to establish herself as a legitimate Egyptian queen. This, Cleopatra achieved by likening her looks to her father’s on coinage.
The coinage was just the beginning. She took various measures to sharpen her political acumen and diplomacy. She was a Greek by heritage but managed to do something her ancestors never did. She learnt the native Egyptian language to try and understand the Egyptian culture better than her Ptolemaic family did. In fact, she was multi-lingual. Some say, this effort wasn’t merely about displaying her skills, but in fact, about restoring North African and West Asian territories that were once part of the Ptolemaic Empire.
When Cleopatra gave birth to Caesarion, she might have hoped that Caesar would marry her and recognise their son as his heir. But Caesar was already married to Calpurnia and probably didn’t want to irk the Roman Senate by marrying the Egyptian queen they saw as a threat. So, while he supported her in maintaining civil peace, he neither recognised their son Caesarion as his child nor did he officially declare his relationship with Cleopatra.
Seeing the need for protecting her son and elevating his status, Cleopatra made a clever move; she likened herself to the Goddess Isis, also a single mother. In his book, Cleopatra: A Biography, American archaeologist Duane W Roller, discusses a relief Cleopatra got sculptors to work on at the Temple of Hathor in a small town in Egypt. He writes: “The relief emphasises her role as a mother, appearing with the attributes of Isis, with Caesarion in front of her. (…) The symbolism on this relief deserves some attention. Cleopatra and Caesarion are making offerings to Hathor, who is the goddess of the temple, and her son Ihy.” He explains that what’s interesting about this depiction is that Hathor’s consort Horus is missing, as he lived at Edfu and would only visit the goddess once in a while. It’s an obvious parallel drawn to Cleopatra’s own life as a single mother.
Cleopatra’s marriage to Antony certainly cemented the Roman-Egyptian alliance, even as Anthony became the first Roman emperor. It not only helped repay a bulk of the huge debt the Egyptian crown owed Rome but also made Caesarion an heir to the new Roman throne.
Perhaps, this was why Cleopatra was smarter when she married Mark Antony. Together with him, she held an event ‘Donations of Alexandria’ to bestow upon their children and Caesarion the lands they were entitled to. There, dressed like Isis herself, Cleopatra declared she was the ‘Queen of Kings’, and her son Caesarion, ‘King of Kings’.
Cleopatra’s marriage to Antony certainly cemented the Roman-Egyptian alliance, even as Anthony became the first Roman emperor. It not only helped repay a bulk of the huge debt the Egyptian crown owed Rome but also made Caesarion an heir to the new Roman throne. When Caesar’s nephew Octavian began to view this as a threat, he waged an open war against Antony and Cleopatra. What was particularly special about this war was that Cleopatra led her navy herself! She and Antony fought until they could, before being captured by Octavian’s forces. But upon being captured, both committed suicide, unwilling to yield to Octavion.
Once Octavian took over the Egyptian Empire, he not only effectively ended the Ptolemaic Dynasty but also rewrote Cleopatra’s character. He painted her as an Egyptian seductress who had bewitched poor Antony, his close companion. He renamed himself Augustus and dedicated an entire month—August—to his name, in celebration of defeating Cleopatra! This way, Octavian ensured his civil war would seem justified to Roman eyes. It’s just how histories were written; one ruler would take over another’s empire and create the narrative that suited him best.
Cleopatra might have lost to Octavian in the end. But even Octavian didn’t dare try to erase the devotion her Egyptian subjects had for her during her 21-year-long reign. In the biography, Roller suggests that Octavian ensured he publicly respected Cleopatra in death, that he never tried to undo the goddess status Cleopatra had carved for herself through the Temple of Hathor. He observes: “Interestingly, after Cleopatra’s death, Augustus enlarged the temple and added his name, a subtle indication that whatever the official view in Rome, in Egypt, the queen was still a source of power.” Why wouldn’t she be? She was a devoted mother, a clever linguist, savvy politician, brave navy commander—a true queen. Suffice to say that Julius Caesar was a dictator, Mark Antony an emperor, Augustus a conqueror, but Cleopatra was—and remains to this day—a legend!