Cleopatra

Cleopatra

Cleopatra, the daughter of her brother, Ptolemy XII of Egypt, was born in October 69 B.C. Her mother was Cleopatra V, the illegitimate daughter of Ptolemy IX.

Ptolemy was a corrupt and inefficient ruler and this led to uprisings and the losses of Cyprus and Cyrenaica. While in Rome, Cleopatra VI seized power but she was overthrown by Berenice IV. With the help of a Roman Army led by Aulus Gabinius, Ptolemy regained power in 55 B.C.

Ptolemy XII died in March 51 BC and the 18-year-old Cleopatra VII and her brother and husband, the 12-year-old Ptolemy XIII joint monarchs. Cleopatra soon made it clear she was unwilling to share power with her young husband. The eunuch Pothinus acted as regent for Ptolemy and in 50 BC he attempted to depose Cleopatra. Pothinus took control of Alexandria, the capital of Egypt, and forced Cleopatra out of the city.

Cleopatra moved to Syria where she established her own army. The situation was further complicated by her sister, Arsinoe IV, also claimed the throne. Egypt was now plunged into a civil war. Although Ptolemy XIII won an important battle at Pelusium he believed he needed the support of the Roman Empire to establish himself as the sole ruler of Egypt.

At this time the Roman leadership was also deeply divided. The Senate had became concerned about his growing popularity of Julius Caesar, who had recently enjoyed military victories over the Gauls. To prevent Caesar from gaining power they appointed another famous Roman soldier, Pompey, to take control of the country. The Senate then passed a motion insisting that Caesar should retire from office.

Caesar reacted by ordering his men to march on Rome. At Corfinium, in 48 BC Caesar defeated troops loyal to the Senate. When news reached Rome of Caesar's victory, his enemies fled. Pompey decided to retreat to Macedonia, where he knew he could rely on the loyalty of his troops. However, Caesar's troops, highly experienced after their campaigns against the Gauls, were vastly superior to Pompey's soldiers who had not fought for twelve years. After a series of defeats, Pompey escaped to Egypt.

Frightened that Julius Caesar would now invade Egypt, Ptolemy XIII arranged the execution of Pompey on 28th September. The head of Pompey was sent to Caesar to prove he was not being protected by the Egyptians. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria two days later, Ptolemy presented him with Pompey's severed head. Caesar was appalled by this act of violence against a leading Roman citizen. Caesar reacted by seizing the Egyptian capital.

While in Egypt, Caesar met Cleopatra, the country's twenty-one-year-old queen. Caesar, who was now fifty-two and had already been married three times before, fell deeply in love with Cleopatra. Caesar decided to go to war against the Egyptians. After defeating King Ptolemy XIII, Caesar restored Cleopatra to her throne, with another younger brother Ptolemy XIV as new co-ruler.

On 23 June 47 BC Cleopatra gave birth to a child, Ptolemy Caesar (nicknamed "Caesarion"). Cleopatra claimed that Julius Caesar was the father and wished him to name the boy his heir, but Caesar refused, choosing his grandnephew Octavian instead.

When Caesar returned to Rome he appointed 300 of his supporters as members of the Senate. Although the Senate and Public Assembly still met, it was Caesar who now made all the important decisions. By 44 BC Caesar was powerful enough to declare himself dictator for life. Although in the past Roman leaders had become dictators in times of crisis, no one had taken this much power.

A whole range of magnificent buildings named after Caesar and his family were erected. Hundreds of sculptures of Caesar, most of them made by captured Greek artists, were distributed throughout the Roman Empire. Some of the statues claimed that Caesar was now a God. Caesar also became the first living man to appear on a Roman coin. Even the month of the year that he was born, Quintilis, was renamed July in his honour.

Caesar began wearing long red boots. As the ancient kings used to wear similar boots, rumours began to spread that Caesar planned to make himself king. Caesar denied these charges but the Roman people, who had a strong dislike of the kingship system, began to worry about the way Caesar was dominating political life.

Rumours began to spread that Caesar planned to make himself king. Plutarch wrote: "What made Caesar hated was his passion to be king." Caesar denied these charges but the Roman people, who had a strong dislike of the kingship system, began to worry about the way Caesar made all the decisions. Even his friends complained that he was no longer willing to listen to advice. Finally, a group of senators decided to kill Caesar.

Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion visited Rome in summer 46 BC. They stayed in one of Caesars country houses. Members of the Senate disapproved of the relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar, partly because he was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis. Others objected to the fact that she was a foreigner. Cicero disliked her for moral reasons: "Her (Cleopatra) way of walking... her clothes, her free way of talking, her embraces and kisses, her beach-parties and dinner-parties, all show her to be a tart."

Later Plutarch attempted to explain why some men found her attractive: "Her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself remarkable... but the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation... was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another, so that there were few of the nations that she needed an interpreter... which was all the more surprising because most of her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue."

Even some of Caesar's closest friends were concerned about his unwillingness to listen to advice. Eventually, a group of 60 men, including Marcus Brutus, rumoured to be one of Caesar's illegitimate sons, decided to assassinate Caesar.

Plans were made to carry out the assassination in the Senate just three days before he was due to leave for Parthia. When Julius Caesar arrived at the Senate a group of senators gathered round him. Publius Servilius Casca stabbed him from behind. Caesar looked round for help but now the rest of the group pulled out their daggers. One of the first men Caesar saw was Brutus and was reported to have declared, "You too, my son." Caesar knew it was useless to resist and pulled his toga over his head and waited for the final blows to arrive.

Cleopatra now returned with her relatives to Egypt. When Ptolemy XIV died in 44 B.C., Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent and successor.

The death of Julius Caesar now meant there was now a struggle for power in Rome. Mark Antony became the leader of the Caesar faction in Rome. He also allied himself with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in a joint bid for power. However, they were challenged by Caesar's great nephew and adopted son, Octavian. The three men met on an island in a river near Mutina and formed the Second Triumvirate. In doing so, they brought an end to Republican Rome. When the Senate attempted to regain control, Antony and Octavian had 130 of them murdered. Their property was seized and given to those willing to support the new rulers.

Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius were defeated by Mark Antony and Octavian at the Battle of Philippi in October 42 BC. After the battle Octavian returned to Rome and Mark Antony went on to govern the east, whereas Marcus Aemilius Lepidus went on to govern Hispania and the province of Africa.

Fulvia, Mark Antony's wife, was also active in Roman politics. To solidify the political alliance, Fulvia offered her daughter, Clodia, to Octavian. Clodia became his wife but she was later returned when Octavian married Scribonia. According to Suetonius, Octavian's marriage with Clodia was never consummated and that she was returned in "mint" condition.

Fulvia saw this as an insult to her family and she decided to take action. Together with Mark Antony's brother, Lucius Antonius, she raised eight legions in Italy to fight against Octavian. The army occupied Rome for a short time, but eventually retreated to Perusia. Octavian besieged Fulvia and Lucius Antonius in the winter of 41 - 40 B.C., starving them into surrender. Fulvia was exiled to Sicyon. Lucius Antonius, was sent by Octavian to Hispania as governor. To show his commitment to his partner, Mark Antony divorced Fulvia and married Octavian's sister Octavia.

It was while he was in Egypt that Mark Antony met Cleopatra. Like Julius Caesar before him, Mark Antony soon fell in love with the Queen of Egypt. They formed a close alliance as Mark Antony set about reorganizing the eastern provinces.

In 40 B.C. the Parthians invaded Roman territory, occupying Syria, advancing into Asia Minor and installing Antigonus as puppet king in Judaea. Mark Antony sent his general Publius Ventidius to oppose this invasion.

Octavian now agreed for Mark Antony to retaliate by invading Parthia. However, the rebellion in Sicily of Sextus Pompeius kept the army promised to Mark Antony in Italy. This caused a dispute with Octavian but a new treaty was signed in Tarentum in 38 BC.

Mark Antony returned to Egypt and persuaded Cleopatra to lend him the money he needed to form an alliance with Herod the Great. In 37 BC, Herod and the Roman Army took back Judaea. Herod turned Antigonus over to Mark Antony, who had him beheaded.

Mark Antony now felt strong enough to invade Parthia. However, with an army of about 100,000 Roman and allied troops but the campaign proved a disaster and after several military defeats Mark Antony was forced to carry out an humiliating retreat.

Octavian now decided to destroy the triumvirate by forming a new alliance with the traditional Republican aristocracy. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was forced to resign and Octavian began attacking Mark Antony for abandoning his faithful wife, Octavia, to be with the promiscuous Cleopatra. Octavian claimed that Cleopatra was attempting to gain control of the Roman Empire by marrying Mark Antony. Cleopatra replied that her son Caesarion, and not Octavian, was Caesar's true heir.

Octavian responded by declaring war on Cleopatra. Although some Roman legions supported Mark Antony, the vast majority took the side of Octavian.

In 31 BC Octavian defeated Octavian at the Battle of Actium on the west coast of Greece. Mark Antony and Cleopatra were forced to flee to Alexandria in Egypt. When Octavian's troops surrounded Alexandria, Mark Antony committed suicide by falling on his sword.

Cleopatra was captured by Octavian who planned to take her back to Rome as his prisoner. However, she was determined not to be humiliated in this way and arranged for a poisonous snake to be smuggled into her room in a large box of figs. Cleopatra then committed suicide by allowing the snake to bite her.

Cleopatra had earlier sent her son Caesarion into hiding but he was betrayed by his tutor. When Octavian found out where Caesarion was he had him murdered but spared Cleopatra's three children by Mark Antony.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Pliny the Younger, letter to Laberius (c. AD 95)

Cleopatra boasted that she could spend 10,000,000 sesterces on a single banquet. Antony was keen to learn how it could be done, though he doubted its possibility, so bets were laid. Next day, when the wager was to be settled, she set before him a banquet splendid enough, but of the kind they had daily... she ordered the last course to be served. Following their instructions, the servants put before her a single vessel with vinegar... Antony was curious to see what on earth she'd do. She took one earring off and dropped the pearl into the vinegar; and when it melted, swallowed it. Plancus, umpiring... declared that Antony had lost the bet.

(2) Cicero, speech (c. 43 BC)

Her (Cleopatra) way of walking... her clothes, her free way of talking, her embraces and kisses, her beach-parties and dinner-parties, all show her to be a tart.

(3) Plutarch, Mark Antony (c. AD 110)

Her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself remarkable... but the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation... was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another, so that there were few of the nations that she needed an interpreter... which was all the more surprising because most of her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue.

(4) Appian, The Civil Wars (c. AD 160)

Antony was amazed at Cleopatra's wit as well as her good looks, and became her captive as though he was a young man.

(5) Virgil, Aeneid (c. 19 BC)

On this side Octavian leading the Italians into battle, with senate and people... with the great gods... On the other side, with barbaric wealth and multicoloured armour, Antony... with Egypt and the men of the East... and following (the shame of it) his Egyptian wife.

(6) In his poem Ode XXXVII, Horace described Cleopatra's defeat at Actium (c. 35 BC)

Cleopatra had planned in hate to smash the Capitol and sack the conquered Roman State.

She and her plotting gang, diseased and vile, went mad with heady dreams of baseless pride.

(7) Plutarch, Mark Antony (c. AD 110)

According to one account, the asp was carried in to her with the figs and lay hidden under the leaves in the basket... baring her arm, she held it out to be bitten... But the real truth nobody knows, for there is another story that she carried poison about with her in a hollow comb... the asp was never discovered... but some people say that two faint, barely visible punctures were found on Cleopatra's arm.

Questions

1. Select passages from the sources in this unit that (i) praise Cleopatra; and (ii) criticise Cleopatra.

2. One of these sources includes information that is factually inaccurate. Can you work out which one it is?

3. Comment on the value of these sources to a historian writing a book on Cleopatra.