Dawn, The Review, 5-11 October 2000


Half-Greek, half-Persian and all Egyptian, Cleopatra was a woman who asserted her authority in a man’s world on her own terms. Historians, mostly men, have rarely forgiven her for that, while the fascination she has held for generations is comparable to that of Alexander the Great.

A descendant of the Greek rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra came to the throne in 51 BC, at the age of eighteen, as Cleopatra VII, and began with a dream to restore the glory of her empire by fusing the heritage of Greece with Egypt. She learnt nine languages, including Egyptian.

Although the Egyptian tradition dictated that she share her power with her 12-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII, whom she was also compelled to marry, it was she and not her brother, who was crowned and worshipped as Pharaoh. She identified herself with the mother goddess Isis – considering herself to be an offspring of hers – and was all set to restore the glory that was ancient Egypt when the mercenaries ousted her to declare Ptolemy as the sole ruler of Egypt. They believed that this meant an opportunity of furthering their own interests under the feeble-minded king. Hence, after a rule of just two years, the young Egyptian queen had to escape with her life and her younger sister Arsinoe. Once outside Egypt, the two sisters recruited an army of mercenaries and developed their plans to defeat the forces of Ptolemy. That was when Julius Caesar appeared on the scene in Egypt.

Julius Caesar had already established himself as a powerful general in the Roman Republic, which was then a guardian of a declining Egypt. Caesar saw it his duty to carry out the will of Cleopatra’s father, the dead king Auletes. Even during his lifetime, Auletes had used Roman support to subdue his own daughter, Berenice when she had revolted. We don’t know whether the fifteen-year-old Cleopatra had chanced to meet the young Roman officer, Mark Antony who defeated Berenice when her father was ruling, but the execution of her twenty-one year old sister on the orders of her father must have taught Cleopatra that the first duty of a pharaoh was always to himself. He was supposed to be the incarnation of gods, how could he choose to do anything less? Cleopatra devised a plan to introduce herself to Caesar and coaxed her friend, Apollodorus, to roll her up in a carpet and smuggle her to Julius Caesar, past the watchdogs of Achillas. When the carpet was unrolled, the twenty-year old Cleopatra (though not quite as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor) unveiled herself. Her mesmerizing charms were her high dreams of glory and an extremely melodious voice that sounded sweeter than any musical instrument.

What happened between Caesar and Cleopatra is anybody’s guess. Traditional historians are of the view that Caesar was seduced by the young enchantress, but that might not well be an authentic explanation given that Caesar was a man of fifty-two and Cleopatra, a woman of twenty. Also, especially when the man is Caesar who was known for his cunning as well as womanizing. Throughout the history, less powerful kings have presented their daughters to conquerors, with or without marriage, as political bribes, and if Cleopatra’s father had offered her to Caesar, Cleopatra would perhaps have gone down in history as a virtuous woman. What the male historian finds difficult to forgive is that by beguiling men through her beauty (and brains) she advanced her ‘own’ political power rather than letting a guardian use it for ‘his’ royal gains. In denouncing Cleopatra, they tend to forget that many dignified men of history have slept with their enemies’ daughters, with or without marriage, in order to advance their political motives. Such names would include Alexander, Akbar the Great and Napoleon, not to include Tamerlane who went as far as ravishing the wife of a defeated monarch to assert his political power over him. Obviously, Cleopatra’s critics work under the hypocritical principle that in any physical relationship, the man should be seen as performing a ‘manly task’ while the woman should be seen as being ‘soiled.’ Reviving the simplicity of a bygone matriarchal civilization, Cleopatra hurled all patriarchal ethics into the face of posterity and exposed its double standards for all times to come.

Yet, it would be naive to believe that Caesar decided the dispute in favour of Cleopatra just because he was passionate about her. He most certainly saw that Egypt had a greater chance of peace and prosperity as a Roman tributary if Cleopatra was given complete power over the region. And hence, in 48 BC, Caesar executed Pothinus and banished Ptolemy XIII. But even before that, the kingmakers of Egypt joined in one last struggle, commonly known as the Alexandrian War, against Caesar. In that, the forces of Achillas were defeated and crushed forever. One strange incident of this war was Arsinoe’s betrayal. Cleopatra’s younger sister suddenly changed sides and joined forces with Achillas, proclaiming her own claim to the throne. She was also banished by the victorious Caesar. The Egyptian custom then forced Cleopatra to choose her youngest brother, then only eleven-years-old, as her nominal husband and partner in power as Ptolemy XIV. Caesar deployed a legion to protect her and she was at last in full control of her small empire as Cleopatra, the incarnation of Isis, the woman-pharaoh.

By the spring of 47 BC, when Cleopatra took Caesar on a trip up the Nile, she was already carrying his child. When the delighted couple reached the temple of Dendara, Cleopatra was worshipped as a goddess, much like Alexander himself. Caesar was denied that glory.

Twenty-years ago, when Caesar was thirty-two, he had wept while reading an account of Alexander the Great which told that the world conqueror had already finished his task by thirty-two and died. Did he weep again before Cleopatra because she was a pharaoh while only twenty-two and he at fifty-two was just a general? We will never know that, but what we know for sure is that Caesar was a changed man when he left Egypt two months later. He began to realize that he, too, had dreams of glory.

On 23 June 47 BC, Cleopatra gave birth to a son, whom the Egyptians immediately recognized as Caesar’s. Caesar never acknowledged him publicly. Or if he did, the Roman enemies of Cleopatra destroyed all evidence of it when they declared war against her a few years later. But, when Caesar arrived in Rome the following year, he had himself elected a dictator for ten years with possible designs of becoming an emperor in the near future.

Cleopatra joined him with an impressive entourage and was placed in a villa on Caesar’s lands beyond the River Tiber. Caesar also erected a statue in her honour in the temple of Venus. We do not have information about how she governed the affairs of Egypt in her absence, but Caesar had appointed a legion of his soldiers to prevent disorder.

The Romans couldn’t come to terms with the idea of a female pharaoh. They were accustomed to perceiving women as captive slaves paraded like beasts or domesticated wives serving their husbands at home. The concept of a woman demanding respect from men was a personal insult to most Roman menfolk. Caesar’s own soldiers invented derogatory songs about Cleopatra, not different from the kind of humour that has prevailed in other patriarchal nations. Hence, began the myth of Cleopatra the insatiable seductress, invented by malicious chauvinists.

Caesar was assassinated on 15 March 44 BC by his own senators. They decided that his plans of wanting to become a second Alexander were too grandiose and not in the best interest of Rome. A month later, Cleopatra returned home with her child. Mythology indicates that apparently the lover of Isis (Cleopatra’s alter ego) was also killed and the goddess had to hide her son, Horus until he grew up and avenged his father. Cleopatra, as the new Isis, might have recalled this legend. However, with the support of Caesar’s legion now gone, she faced danger from her brother, Ptolemy XIV because mercenaries could vie for power in his name. Fortunately for Cleopatra, her only remaining brother died (probably poisoned by her) the following year as well. She, then, appointed her four-year-old son Caesarion, her co-regent as Ptolemy XV.

Caesar was raised to the status of a god in Rome on 1 January 42 BC after his friends defeated his assassins. In this war, Cleopatra had sent aid to Caesar’s friends, and at one point had even decided to join them personally but her fleet was stopped by a violent storm – or so she claimed later.

The three leaders who emerged as the ruling troika in Rome were a combination of unhappy contrasts. Mark Antony, the fiery cavalier who had helped Cleopatra’s father against Berenice a long while ago. Octavian, who came from nowhere to claim Caesar’s inheritance as a relative and was then renamed as Augustus Caesar. And Lepidus, a minor character. Hence, it was Mark Antony who took upon himself the task of reorganizing the East and made a dramatic entry at Ephesus styling himself after the wine god Dionysus. A helpless spendthrift, he soon overran his finances in the battles against the Parthians. Taking rest at the seaport of Tarsus, he called upon the queen of Egypt to help him with the treasures of Egypt.

Cleopatra’s entry at Tarsus is one of the most glamorous occasions in history. Men tolerate female rulers only if they accept their terms and conditions. Hence, we see that while kings have always enjoyed enormous personal liberties, a queen who rules in her own right is required to observe high standards of man-made carnal ethics. The comparison between the lives of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I would serve as one striking example. Many women in authority have even become ‘honorary men’, going to the extent of dressing up in men’s clothes so as to disguise their sex. Cleopatra did no such thing. She combined absolute power with unchecked femininity.

It is said that the air was filled with fragrance when Cleopatra’s barge entered the seaport of Tarsus. Her ship was shining with plates of gold. Its oars were made of silver, and beautiful female servants were rowing the ship to the rhythm of musical instruments played on board. The ship’s sails were a deep purple, the favoured colour of Alexander the Great and a symbol of royal elegance ever since. Cleopatra herself reclined under a golden canopy. She appeared like Venus, the goddess of beauty.

The year was 41 BC and Egypt had faced two years of famine. Its resources were dwindling. Yet, Cleopatra decided to make a show that would reflect the glory that was once Egypt’s. Antony was bewitched. He was a man of fleeting moods, and full of contradictions. In so many aspects, his character was similar to that of the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Like Jehangir, Antony too was always looking for mirrors to reflect his own emotional existence and his capabilities were illuminated when he was assisting someone he respected. Left solitary, he was capable of self-destruction. It is said that when he was at the height of his power, all the royal cooks were ordered to continue cooking all day, just because Antony could never decide at what hour he wanted to eat his meals!

He had proven to be an excellent vice regent to Caesar and when the latter was assassinated Mark Antony’s fiery speech turned the tables against Caesar’s assassins. And yet, after he had destroyed them, he buckled under his weak nature, allowing Octavian and Lepidus to share power with him. It was just as if he felt in some way that he didn’t deserve this glory in his own right. Cleopatra was everything he had been waiting for in life. Cleopatra was perhaps one who could make him feel Caesar’s equivalent which he otherwise was not.

Antony followed Cleopatra to Egypt and the two soon became paramours spending months in pursuit of pleasure. On one occasion, when they went fishing and Antony couldn’t get a catch, he ordered his men to dive under water and hang some fish to his hook so that he could impress the Egyptian queen. But Cleopatra was too sharp and the next day she ordered her servants to dive underwater and hang some roasted fish to Antony’s hook! While the historian only records that the incident caused a load of laughter, an observant reader can’t help but sympathize with the poor Cleopatra whose designs of glory now rested upon baby-sitting the overgrown child that was Mark Antony.

Antony soon left for Rome, probably because of the death of his wife Fulvia. Back in Egypt, Cleopatra gave birth to twins by him, a boy and a girl. While in Rome, Octavian bullied Antony who could never stand his ground in the face of moral pressure and married Octavian’s sister, Octavia.

If Cleopatra had any doubts about Antony’s weak nature, they must have gone now. But she had no other choice. The Romans had divided the empire and the East had fallen under Mark Antony. He was the only one in a position to help Cleopatra save her country and her throne, if only he had the moral strength to follow the dictates of his heart. But at the height of his glory, he proved a scarecrow and his life from that day forward was a nosedive into disaster. When he returned to Cleopatra a few years later, he overreacted by giving her certain Roman territories, including Syria and Judea. Cleopatra gave birth to another son by Antony, who bestowed profuse honours on Cleopatra’s children. Caesarion was declared ‘King of kings,’ while Cleopatra was given the superior title ‘Queen of kings.’ Antony also married her, though the Roman law prevented bigamy. Octavian made full use of these actions to incite his comrades so that the Roman Senate declared war upon Egypt, Cleopatra and Mark Antony.

In the final turn of events, Antony and Cleopatra moved towards Rome. But halting in Greece, Antony started procrastinating just when he should have marched on and attacked Rome. Octavian wasn’t much of a general but he got enough time to organize the finest commanders who completely routed the joint forces of Antony and Cleopatra at the famous sea-battle of Actium, which was fought in 31 BC. According to the Roman accounts, Cleopatra abandoned the battle and Antony followed her to Egypt, deserting his men in the middle of the sea. Modern historians do not accept this version. Antony had planned the escape, since he had asked his men to put sails on the warships while sails were only mounted in travel, not in war.

Back in Egypt, Antony turned around and faced the pursuing forces of Octavian. When he began to lose, he suddenly began to rally against Cleopatra, accusing her for his destruction. Historians do not explain this strange behaviour. It would have made some sense if Antony had blamed Cleopatra right after Actium, where she was present on the battle front. The only explanation can be attributed to Anthony’s inner weakness as he was unable to carry the burden of failure just as he was too weak to enjoy the weight of success. He needed someone to take the blame, and he named the first person that came to his mind.

Cleopatra had taken refuge in her tomb, built in the fashion of ancient Egypt. When Antony tried to follow her, she sent him word that she was dead. Antony decided to commit suicide, but even in that he needed someone else to do it for him. So, he asked a loyal servant who stabbed himself instead and hence, at last, Antony had to fall upon his own sword. Rather than taking the wound in his heart, he took it in his belly. Cleopatra lifted him over the walls and into her tomb, and Antony died in her arms. The Romans soon found a way inside her tomb and she became a captive of Octavian.

There are two versions regarding these fatal events. The typical Roman version is that Cleopatra tried to negotiate with Octavian with the help of her legendary charms once again. Octavian made it clear to her that he would stop at nothing less than her complete humiliation and gave her details of how she would be dragged as a slave before the Roman citizens. As her pride was most important to her, she decided to take her own life rather than be subjugated by Octavian, someone she had always despised and distrusted.

Plutarch, who was a Greek and sympathetic to Cleopatra, maintains that she had already made up her mind to commit suicide after Antony died in her arms. He even records that upon the death of her lover Cleopatra beat herself so hard in mourning that she got her face and breasts all bruised. However, this may not be entirely true as it is somewhat inconsistent with Cleopatra’s nature. The only fact that makes it likely is Mark Antony’s ability to turn hearts with his skills as an orator. It is possible that the dying Antony made another speech of his life and made an impact on Cleopatra.

Whatever may be the case, Cleopatra was found dead in her tomb on 12 August 30 BC. The Romans hurried upon the news and felt that Cleopatra had committed suicide, together with two of her maids. One of the maids was still alive. One of the soldiers angrily asked her if this was ‘well done’. The maid’s answer, recorded by Plutarch, has been translated literally by Shakespeare in his play: “It is well done, and fitting for a princess descended of so many royal kings.” Cleopatra was lying upon a bed of gold, dressed up completely in her royal robes. She was only thirty-nine. She was the last Greek ruler of Alexander’s empire, and the last pharaoh of Egypt.

The Romans found a basket of figs in Cleopatra’s chamber. The leaves had an asp’s slither and some people said they had even seen an asp’s tracks going out of the tomb. Others reported two tiny snakebites on her arm. But some people believed that Cleopatra used to carry poison in a hollow razor in her hair, and used that to take her life. Whatever may be the case, Octavian showed more respect to the dead Cleopatra than he had intended to the living one. She was buried honourably near Mark Antony. Her two maids were given honourable burials too. Octavian was moved by Cleopatra’s courage to choose death over humiliation.

Of Cleopatra’s children, Caesarion was killed by Octavian. His younger siblings, all by Mark Antony, were adopted by Octavia, Antony’s widow. If Cleopatra had wanted that her child would take her revenge like Horus, the son of Isis, that hope was never fulfilled. In any case, the age of ancient civilization died with Cleopatra, reaching its most fitting climax. The era of gods and goddesses, to which Cleopatra had belonged, was over. In Judea, one of the kingdoms held by Cleopatra until her death, another woman was about to be born to represent a very different aspect of femininity. By the name of Mary, she would change the divine trinity into a very different equation than Isis, Osiris and Horus.