For many Cleopatra is a name that conjures an image of an exotic beauty, achieving her ambitions through flirtations, romances and affairs, before then tragically committing suicide in the name of love. But how can we know what was really behind her famous liaisons with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony? Was she simply in love? Or did she use seduction as the most powerful tool possessed by a woman born into a political power struggle?
In 51 BC Ptolemy XII of Egypt died, leaving his throne to the eighteen year old Cleopatra and her eleven year old brother. In order to keep the bloodline pure the siblings married as was customary. Complications soon arose between the two however, and Cleopatra was forced to flee to Syria.
Meanwhile, Julius Caesar had arrived in Egypt, pursuing a military rival. He was drawn into the family feud, and arranged a plan to act as adjudicator between the two embittered siblings. Yet Ptolemy XIII would not allow his sister to return to Alexandria for the peace talks.
Famously, Cleopatra made a daring move. She had herself smuggled into the palace rolled up in a carpet. This act, argues Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, proves that she was already showing considerable political initiative from the moment she met Caesar. So how far are we to believe that the ensuing affair was a result of true feelings?
What we know of Cleopatra suggests that in reality she was no great beauty. On contemporary coins she has a very thick neck and a beak-like nose. Even written sources of the time do not flatter her beauty.
“For (as they say) it was not because her beauty in itself was so striking that it stunned the onlooker, but the inescapable impression produced by daily contact with her: the attractiveness in the persuasiveness of her talk, and the character that surrounded her conversation was stimulating. It was a pleasure to hear the sound of her voice, and she tuned her tongue like a many-stringed instrument expertly to whatever language she chose….”
Clearly Cleopatra was more than just an empty-headed beauty, and she knew how to use her intelligence to charm and persuade. Not only that, she had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Caesar helped her win back her kingdom from her brother. When she became pregnant, with a son who was named Caesarion, it seemed that Egypt would be united with the might of the Roman Empire, and her son would rule over both.
However, there were doubts that Julius Caesar was the true father of the child. The boy was said to have inherited Caesars looks and mannerisms, but Caesar never acknowledged fatherhood. We also know that after Caesar was assassinated Cleopatra fell into the arms of the a contender for the control of Rome, Mark Anthony.
Arguably she had few qualms about using her femininity to work her way into power, even to the extent that she might have been sleeping with more men than just Julius Caesar in order to become pregnant. With a son set to inherit both the Egyptian and the Roman empires, she would be poised to have an influence that spread across three continents.
During her time with Mark Anthony, she provided him with three children and used his military background to help regain Egypt’s eastern empire, which included parts of Syria. Clearly her ambition knew no limits.
The matter of Caesarion’s birth became a problem when Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, ultimately claimed control of Rome. One of his supporters, Gaius Oppius, wrote a pamphlet attempting to prove the child could not be Caesar’s. Anthony, in turn, antagonised Octavian by declaring Caesarion to be Caesar’s true child and legal heir to the Roman Empire.
Octavian captured Alexandria in 30 BC, after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Anthony had committed suicide before Octavian entered the city and Cleopatra soon followed him. Whether we judge this to be a tragic end to star-crossed lover, or a move to avoid capture and probably execution is still contested and indeed the fate of Caesarion is also open to question. However, we are left with the myth of Cleopatra intertwined with her true history: a woman who was not afraid to use all her wiles to gain power, and who made the ultimate sacrifice in the attempt to provide her son with an inheritance that would have made him the most powerful ruler of the age.
If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, why don’t you take a look at ‘Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt’ by Joyce Tyldesly.
Image courtesy of : Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons