By: Eunice Poku
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the name Cleopatra? That was the question I asked several friends when I started to research this topic. Some of their responses were: Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra Jones, and Queen of Egypt, the Seductress, and Intelligence.
Depending on your knowledge about the infamous Last Pharaoh of Egypt you will find conflicting notions of who she really was. Many scholars have suggested that she was not as attractive as Hollywood films or Shakespeare depicted her to be. But instead she was armed with wit, charm and intelligence. Coincidentally enough, I am writing this article during a time of great changes in Egypt (the country today is setting the stage for a new democratic government coming to power) and the unfortunate death of Elizabeth Taylor (who famously played Cleopatra in 1963).
So who was this woman who managed to still keep people fascinated about her life to this day? Well Cleopatra VII as she was properly known was born roughly in 69 BC in Alexandria, Egypt. She was one of six children by her father Ptolemy XII (Auletes) of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Many scholars have questioned her ancestry and have made claims that she was Macedonian in ancestry and others have claimed her to be of full Egyptian decent. Her mother was unknown, but scholars have deducted that her mother could have been Cleopatra VI half brother of Ptolemy XII. It was common for Pharaohs to marry siblings in order to keep bloodline pure.
Her father believed in educating all his children regardless of gender. As a result, Cleopatra benefited from a well-rounded education, which consisted of: philosophy, literature, art music, medicine and several languages, which she spoke fluently including Latin, and Arabic. This higher education also came at a price. All Ptolemy’s offspring had a desire to rule Egypt and each sibling had devised plans to unseat the other. There was widespread famine and poverty also occurring in Egypt, which caused for chaos amongst the Egyptian people. At the same time, the Roman Empire was expanding and key players such as Julius Caesar were ushering a major transformation in Rome.
Before Ptolemy XII died, he made his wish that Cleopatra at the age of 18 would co-rule Egypt with her brother Ptolemy XIII who at the time was only ten years old.
Cleopatra wanted to take over as Pharaoh and not rule with her younger brother. She devised a way to slowly move him from power by removing his name from administrative documents and currency. The growing famine and poverty contributed to the people’s rising anger over Cleopatra.
Ptolemy XIII also had ill advisers who wanted control over Egypt so they were systematically planning Cleopatra’s assassination. The unrest of the people and Cleopatra’s fear of death caused her to flee to Syria. At the same time civil war broke out in Rome, which resulted in Caesar becoming ruler of Rome and its acquired territories.
Rumors spread of the unrest in Egypt and Cesar was concern that this unrest would have financial consequences to Rome since Egypt’s resources and riches financed the Roman army. Caesar’s presence in Egypt was not to control Egypt but to restore the rightful rulers; Cleopatra and Ptolemy back into power.
Caesar’s presence in Egypt was a big turning point for Cleopatra because it enabled her to continue her plan to become sole ruler. It has been said that Cleopatra hearing of this meeting, devised a plan to meet Cesar before the meeting with Ptolemy XIII. She smuggled herself in a rolled carpet which was to be presented to Caesar. Caesar’s first encounter with Cleopatra was what every good romance novel is made of.
Caesar a man in his fifties was so enchanted by her beauty and intellect that he was willing to do whatever Cleopatra asked of him. Many would say she used sexual appeal to enchant Caesar. While others would say her intelligence and wit impressed the Emperor because of the financially bountifulness he could return to Rome with. Whichever side you choose to believe, there was no doubt a son, Caesarion produced as a result of this courtship. Was this relationship a political campaign because Rome would require resources from Egypt to continue to finance war campaigns and Cleopatra would become sole ruler of Egypt? Or was it a love affair where Julius Caesar a man in his fifties fell in love with Cleopatra at a tender young age of 18? Which side of history are you willing to believe?
Not so long after Cleopatra’s meeting with Caesar was her brother Ptolemy XIII assassinated. According to Egyptian law, a female pharaoh must co-rule with a male. The assassination of Ptolemy XIII gave way for a new co-ruler, her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, who at the time was only six years old. Cleopatra knew she could undoubtedly influence his decisions and have complete dominion over Egypt.
When Caesar returned to Rome he called upon Cleopatra and their son to reunite with him. Caesar a married man during the whole courtship with Cleopatra resurrected a temple in honor of the goddess Venus to her. The Romans were highly upset with this courtship and Caesar’s obvious displays of affection for his foreign mistress. With Caesar’s assassination in Rome, Cleopatra and son fled back to Egypt. Cleopatra fearfully of her younger brother’s uprising; had Ptolemy XIV killed. This gave room for her son Cesarion at the age of four, to co-rule with her.
Mark Antony, a Roman, sought revenge for Caesar’s assassination. A civil war broke loose between Anthony and Caesar’s assassins. Antony won the war and acquired independent territories such as Egypt. Cleopatra knew of Mark Antony’s military skills, his notoriety as a drinker and his adulterous affairs. She again devised a plan to play on those skills and partner with him to maintain her rule over Egypt. She was ordained in fine jewels and clothing and her ship that went out to sea to meet him was also highly embellished in gold. Cleopatra’s overall appearance had a great impact on Mark Antony’s perception of her. Eventually they also became lovers and she bore him three children; twins: Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and the third son, Ptolemy Philadelphos. She repositioned herself as the new Isis an Egyptian deity.
Mark Antony also married at the time, divorced his wife Octavia and remained in Egypt with Cleopatra. This of course sparked civil unrest again in Rome. Another soon to be Emperor Augustus Octavian would put an end to Mark Antony’s reign.
In 30 BC, Mark Antony committed suicide after being defeated by Octavian’s army; Cleopatra fearing for her life and with no possible alliance with Rome, committed suicide by way of a bite from an asp, a Egyptian cobra in August 12, 30 BC. Shortly after, her son Caesarion was assassinated and her children with Mark Antony were spared. To then be raised by Mark Antony’s ex-wife, Octavia.
What Cleopatra contributed to Rome cannot be understated. Many influences of Egypt’s civilization were apparent in Rome such as the Egyptian irrigation schemes, the Egyptian solar calendar and the public libraries after the Alexandrian model. Cleopatra also introduced the famous Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to Caesar and it was Sosigenes who reformed the Roman calendar, which was to last until the sixteenth century.
A powerful intelligent woman, who used her astuteness, charisma and sexual appeal to command some of the most influential men in history. As it has become part of history; fame, power and fortune of powerful figures don’t last forever before a new ruler or dominion overthrows another. Her impact on society is still intriguing in today’s society as women today continue to struggle for equality in many facets of life. She has definitely set a high mark for women of today to compete with. And history has depicted her as the very last of her kind.
Here is to our spotlight Person of Africa, the unforgettable Cleopatra!