or Cleopatra if you prefer
[click the pic for the big list of links]
I think most people must know about this amazing woman, who ensnared two of the most accomplished Roman generals, had children by both of them and then died in a magnificently defiant and romantic suicide pact when her defeat and capture was certain. But how much of that well known and frequently filmed story is real?
For a start there was a whole bunch of Cleopatras. It was a very popular name for Egyptian aristocrats of the Ptolemaic era – which was the bit after Alexander the Great died and his generals split up the countries he had conquered. Ptolemy took Egypt and brought Macedonian ways with him, including the name Cleopatra. There were six Egyptian queens of that name prior to the one everyone thinks about,and some of them had equally exciting and dramatic lives. They believed in keeping in in the family so sisters married brothers, uncles and cousins, and evey one of them seems to have been prepared with dagger, poison, or a political coup to get that all important crown.
But nobody wrote a play about them.
THE Cleo, “the great lady of perfection, excellent in counsel, the great one, sacred image of her father”, was born in 69BC, and ruled jointly with her father and brother, both of whom were called Ptolemy. When Dad died she was 18 shuffled 10 yr old Ptolemy aside to rule alone. But Ptolemy shuffled back and Cleopatra was exiled. she might have ended her days far from Egypt but for the idiocy of her brother who authorised the murder of Pompey, a political opponent of Julius Caesar. Unfortunately Pompey may have had different political inclinations but he was Julius’s son in law. If that wasn’t bad enough, Ptolemy sent Caesar Pompey’s head in a jar to prove his death. Caesar was outraged. He interposed himself and his legions between the warring siblings but once he’d met Cleopatra – allegedly she had herself smuggled into his quarters wrapped up in a carpet – he threw all his talent and manpower behind Cleopatra’s claim on the throne.
A good result for Cleo, who even her detractors described as being keenly intelligent. To retain control of Egypt it was worth playing push and shove with Roman generals.
But why would Egypt be so important to Rome?
Egypt was vastly fertile and productive. At the time Rome was the most crowded and populous city in the world and that many people take a lot of feeding. A constant stream of grain ships sailed from Alexandria to Rome and anything that might interrupt the supply – such as a war – was of great concern.
Caesar wasn’t just a middle-aged man besotted with a teenaged beauty. He was a consummate politician. By having Cleopatra in his power he controlled the supply of bread in Rome. Likewise, after Caesar met his end, his friend Mark Anthony made his play for the bread basket and finally Octavian, later the emperor Augustus, ousted Anthony to bring Egypt under Roman rule once and for all. The man who fed Rome got the votes
Not very romantic, is it? Even Anthony, who made a botched suicide attempt on being told Cleopatra had died, didn’t spend that long with her. They were apart for 4 years at one point.
So tragic romance or political sharp dealing on both sides?
Oh and that business with an asp biting her on the breast? Shakespeare made that up because he was a man who knew what kinds of mental images would appeal to the groundlings. It was generally agreed that it had bitten her on the arm.
If you have time or the inclination, the whole of the RSCs groundbreaking 1974 version of Anthony and Cleopatra is on Youtube. Janet Suzman made a magnificent Cleopatra backed up by a terrific gang of Brit thesps including Captain Picard in a bad beard.