My whiteboard reminded me that it was time for another ‘Today in History’. And I have a story for you! The famous Cleopatra. The woman who is an icon. A ruler. A leader. And recently sparked a heated debate worldwide.
But as I would like to know the whole story, I decided to dig into Cleopatra and the reality of her history. As with many of my historical blogs, this one will share the good, the bad, and the truth behind the myth.
Was Cleopatra Egyptian?
I almost hesitated bringing this up… it has sparked so many arguments, but in the spirit of the truth, I have to touch on it.
Cleopatra is a classic case of ‘is your identity bound to where you were born or what your ancestry is?’ Cleopatra was born in 69 BCE in Egypt, the 2nd daughter of Ptolemy XII, whose family was of an ancient Greek dynasty that had taken over Egypt in 305 B.C.
As many of us know, royalty tend to keep marriages within the family to preserve bloodlines, so there is not much wiggle room in debating her ancestry. However, in the spirit of those who believe that you are what country you were born in, she was born in Egypt. And she ruled it with a passion and protectiveness of someone who claimed it wholeheartedly.
So, to me, she is both Egyptian and Greek. A mixture of two cultures and traditions – tied into one pretty little box.
Beauty is not skin deep.
Like many powerful women, there will always be an argument that their beauty is what makes them powerful. And in Cleopatra’s case, she was good looking- but maybe not the bombshell she was portrayed as.
And who started this rumor? Why Shakespeare and her enemies of course.
We have to jump around in history to understand how Cleopatras looks come into play with her role as queen and protector.
At the time of Cleopatra’s rule, there was a massive war with three key players (for the purpose of this blog)- Cleopatra, Antony, and Octavius. Antony and Octavius were in a heated battle for Rome’s rule, pitted against each other in a tug of war for power. Antony and Cleopatra had made a pack, two against one. And for a moment, it looked like they would win. But Octavius had an Ace up his sleeve. He used the power of rumors and gossip to undermine their credibility as leaders.
They painted Antony as a weak man who had fallen victim to an enchantress who used sex and looks to get what she wanted. On top of that, she was a foreigner who would ruin the country for everyone. To allow an Egyptian in, as a ruler, would be the beginning of Rome’s fall.
And the rumors worked.
Now, 200 years later, Plutarch, a Greek Platonist philosopher, historian, biographer, and priest at the Temple of Apollo, wrote Life of Mark Antony. According to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), he wrote a conflicting tale about Cleopatra. On the one hand, he acknowledges that she was a linguist and scholar, brave, and an effective ruler- all information he got from memoirs from people who knew her as an Egyptian. But, on the other hand, Roman sources painted her sneaky, cowardly, and frivolous- only interested in furthering herself and her family at Rome’s expense.
Enter stage left – Shakespeare. A remarkable writer. But who pretty much cherry picked the most scandalous parts of Plutarch’s biography to paint a new picture of Cleopatra in his play about the monarch. And his description has stood the test of time.
However, it is an undisputed fact that Cleopatra was a well-educated woman, who knew how to use the power of presentation to make herself a key player in the war for dominance. She spoke at least a dozen languages and was educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy. Egyptian sources later described her as a ruler “who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.”
She wasn’t all that innocent.
The Ptolemy family was known for their turbulent rule, and Cleopatra was no exception. When she tried to take the Egyptian throne for herself, her brother-husband, Ptolemy XIII chased her out. The pair later fought a civil war that Cleopatra won with help from Julius Caesar and Ptolemy drowned in the Nile River afterwards. In order to secure her rule, Cleopatra married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV but is believed to have had him killed so that her son could be co-ruler. In 41 B.C., she also saw her sister, Arsinoe, executed, whom she saw as a potential threat to her power.
We don’t know much about the ruler.
Now, there is a lot of information floating around about Cleopatra. However, the truth is that we don’t know much about her except what Plutarch wrote. And this is because Cleopatra’s history was stored in the library of Alexandria, which was destroyed multiple times.
No one knows how she died. The acknowledged fact is she committed suicide, after Antony stabbed himself. But no one knows for sure how. Cleopatra was known to conceal poison in a hair comb and may have used that. Ancient Greek historian and geographer, Strabo, wrote that she may have used a poisonous ointment.
The most logical explanation (but not proven) is that she used a pin dipped in some form of toxin.
Things we do know?
She was a mother: She had one son with Julius Caesar- Carsarion, and three children with Mark Antony: Ptolemy and twins, Cleopatra and Alexander.
She was in Rome when Caesar was murdered: She had been living in Rome as Caesar’s mistress and soon after his death, she had to escape. Now for a moment, she did try to get her son acknowledged as Caesar’s lawful heir, but it didn’t work.
Under her rule, Egypt was considered to be the richest nation in Mediterranean, and the last one to fall to Rome.
The truth about Cleopatra is as mysterious as the myths. But regardless, she was a powerful ruler, an educated woman, and a strategist. She wanted the best for Egypt, her children, and herself. And I don’t fault her for that. Killing your own family may be a stretch for me on the ‘acceptable’ level, but that was the norm of the times. And it happened, so we can’t ignore it.
The truth is, we will probably never know the whole story. But I am hopeful that her history will find a way to reveal itself at some point in the future. And until then, we must honor her as one of the first powerful women monarchs to rule.