Cleopatra: Egyptian Seductress or Savvy Politician

A Historiographical Account of the Life of Cleopatra VII by Darci Clark

Photo by Olaf Tausch

Photo by Olaf Tausch

Many misconceptions surround the life of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt. Most of the information that has survived the two millennium since her death was written by Roman historians as propaganda, citing her influence on the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony as a great threat to Rome’s future. Cleopatra’s personal involvement with the two most powerful men of her time led to her depiction as an Egyptian seductress. Recent historical interpretations of her life have moved away from this view and show Cleopatra as a strong and savvy political leader. Whether Cleopatra seduced Caesar and Antony simply to guarantee her throne or she truly had affection for them both may never be known. Her initial motivation may have been self-preservation but these relationships likely became real marriages in her mind, creating alliances that would change the political landscape of the time.

The historians that have written about Cleopatra agree that even though she is one of the most famous women in history there are actually limited details available about her life. The early Twentieth Century writer, Philip W. Sergeant, a former scholar of Trinity College, Oxford, focused mainly on aspects of Cleopatra’s life that dealt with her relationships with Caesar and Antony. In his 1909 work, Cleopatra of Egypt: Antiquity’s Queen of Romance, Sergeant spends the second chapter of the book describing the debauched history of Cleopatra’s family and the failings of her father, Ptolemy Auletes. Even though this is important information which is needed to understand the political climate in the Mediterranean at the time, describing this as Cleopatra’s early life appears to imply that Cleopatra couldn’t help her upbringing and that her faults were due to the Ptolemies’ continued practice of inter-marriage and corruption. He mentions the Roman writer Plutarch’s description of Cleopatra’s exceptional linguistic abilities, but states she must have received a good education because she “acquired such an ascendency” over the cultured Roman men, Caesar and Antony. This idea that Cleopatra’s education was sufficient simply because she was able to manipulate two cultural Romans shows bias in his view of Cleopatra. Similarly, Arthur Weigall in the Life and Times of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, published in 1924, discusses the political events involving Ptolemy Auletes in his chapter on Cleopatra’s early life, and even describes her as “brilliant” but does not speculate on her education.

Cleopatra VII Coin

Cleopatra VII Coin

In comparison, Twenty-First century writers such as Duane W. Roller dedicate entire chapters to Cleopatra’s early life. In his work, Cleopatra: A Biography, Roller, Professor Emeritus of Greek and Latin at The Ohio State University, assumes that Cleopatra must have been extremely well educated due to the intellectual environment in Alexandria. He mentions her skill as an orator and that she likely published some of her own works since Hellenistic royalty were expected to be writers and scholars. Okasha El-Daly’s work Egyptology: The Missing Millennium is a study of ancient Egypt by Medieval Arabic historians. These Arabic sources refer to Cleopatra as “The Virtuous Scholar” who was admired for her administrative abilities and her scholarly knowledge. This is quite a different view of Cleopatra than the one proposed by early Western historians. While Western historians exclusively used accounts of Cleopatra written by Roman writers such as Plutarch and Cassius Dio, Medieval Arabic historians were said to work from translated Egyptian sources, which showed Cleopatra as a strong and able queen. In Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt by Egyptologist Dr. Joyce Tyldesley, she states that Ptolemaic women were responsible for participating in state affairs and would have been taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic plus studies on Greek and Egyptian laws, history, and traditions. Dr. Tyldesley is well versed in the study of Egyptology, and considers Cleopatra’s role in Egyptian history and culture an important subject to study since her rule nearly returned Egypt back to world superpower status. Since earlier historians are interpreting Cleopatra’s story from a Roman historical and cultural viewpoint, they may not include information relevant to Egyptian history. This comparison of historical accounts of Cleopatra’s early life shows that twenty-first century authors seem to be more interested in presenting a picture of Cleopatra in her own right rather than merely depicting her as a player in the male dominated events of her time.

Gaius Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar: 1st Century BC

One of the most famous incidents in Cleopatra’s life which historians discuss is her first meeting with Julius Caesar. There are slightly different accounts of this meeting from Plutarch’s Life of Caesar and Cassius Dio’s Roman History from Cleopatra: A Sourcebook by Prudence Jones. Plutarch is famous for the more romanticized tale of Cleopatra being smuggled into the palace at Alexandria in a bed roll bundle or linen sack, while Dio simply writes that Cleopatra arrived at the palace in secret. Sergeant mentions both versions in his work, but Weigall only includes Plutarch’s bed roll story. Joyce Tyldesley questions the truthfulness of Plutarch’s version by noting it would not have been likely for Caesar to allow an unknown package to be directly brought into his presence. (53-54) In another recent work on Cleopatra, Dr. Joan Fletcher, a teacher of Egyptian funerary archaeology and mummification at the University of York, brings up some additional arguments against Plutarch’s version. In her work Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend, Dr. Fletcher states that it is unlikely an Egyptian queen, who was also considered a living goddess, would allow herself to be physically handled and placed in a linen sack. (101) She also suggests the linen sack may have actually been a type of bed linen that doubled as cloak garment; thereby making the description of Cleopatra arriving heavily cloaked a more realistic scenario. These examples demonstrate how current historians are questioning the accuracy of ancient Roman authors and are offering new interpretations of even the most famous accounts in Cleopatra’s life.

There has been much speculation by historians about the paternity of Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, called Ptolemy XV or Caesarion. Sergeant states that there is no reason to doubt Caesarion’s paternity since it was Octavian, who as Caesar’s adopted heir, had a reason to deny Caesarion’s legitimacy and Cassius Dio recorded the fact. Caesar is described as a delighted father by Weigall which clearly implies that he accepted Caesarion as his son. Roller admits that because of the confusion about the date of Caesarion’s birth, it is possible that Cleopatra lied about his paternity. There are also questions about Caesar’s fertility which are brought up by Dr. Tyldesley. (102) Stacy Schiff in her work Cleopatra: A Life suggests that the news of Caesarion’s birth should have caused an outrage in Rome but there is nothing in the record to indicate that was the case. (84-85) It may be due to the more romantic version of Cleopatra’s life as told by Weigall that he may not have been willing to ask any questions about Caesarion’s paternity which would detract from his romanticized version of the story, but recent works definitely show a wide range of theories have been explored.

Caesarion

Caesarion

Historians have speculated whether Cleopatra’s visit to Rome added to the anxiety of the conspirators planning Caesar’s assassination. Sergeant states that Cleopatra’s presence in Rome offended the Roman people and rumors had begun to spread about Caesar’s “Oriental ideas.” Roller goes so far as to say Cleopatra’s relationship with Caesar was a contributing factor in his assassination. Stacy Schiff agrees and states that even though there is no evidence of a plot to create a joint monarchy, it does not necessarily mean there wasn’t one. According to Joyce Tyldesley, Caesar began using monarchical trappings, such as sitting on a golden throne and placing royal diadems on his statues. All these interpretations indicate the common theme which implies Cleopatra was blamed for Caesar’s apparent fixation with royalty, at least in the minds’ of his assassins if not by all Romans.

There is some evidence Cleopatra first met Antony long before their famous meeting at Tarsus where their alliance first began. In Cleopatra: A Sourcebook there is actually a report by the Greek writer Appian from his work entitled Civil War that states when Mark Antony was a young cavalry commander stationed in Alexandria, he met Cleopatra when she was just a young girl and instantly fell in love with her. Even though Appian is the only source of this information later historians still include it in their works. Sergeant describes Antony as already attracted to Cleopatra who would “bring about his ruin and death.” Weigall’s romanticized account says it was Cleopatra’s beauty and charm which attracted Antony’s attention. There is a brief mention of this early meeting in the works of Roller, Fletcher, and Tyldesley, but not in Stacy Schiff’s work. Since Appian is the only source of this story it is impossible to verify the accuracy of his account, but many historians likely include it because the meeting certainly could have happened and is an interesting foreshadowing of events to come.

Cleopatra and Antony’s meeting at Tarsus is an important event which all historians discuss. Not only was it the beginning of their personal and political alliance, there are also some famous stories about the splendor of the event associated with it. Although all the historians comment on the splendor of Cleopatra’s ships and the banquets she held in Antony’s honor, the political and manipulative skills Cleopatra demonstrated are far more interesting. Weigall goes so far as to state that Cleopatra planned to break up the alliance between Antony and Octavian, and “to set them at one another’s throats.” He says Cleopatra thought if Octavian was overthrown, Caesarion would be accepted as Caesar’s heir. Weigall’s speculation on Cleopatra’s intentions at this meeting seems to be a rather large goal for a woman who was summoned to Tarsus by Antony to explain her actions in aiding the traitor Cassius at Philippi. Sergeant states that Cleopatra’s only agenda was to use her seductive skills to impress Antony. He says, “The queen prepared to go to the Triumvir, secure in the knowledge that she was more fascinating now at twenty-eight than when as an inexperienced girl she had conquered the heart of Julius Caesar.”

Recent historians credit Cleopatra with the skills of seduction as well as political acumen in protecting her throne at this meeting with Antony. Roller says Cleopatra’s agenda included convincing Antony to eliminate her sister Arsinoë, who was the one living rival to her throne. He says Cleopatra also made a request for Antony to take control of Cleopatra’s troubled territory of Cyprus, and to also eliminate a man who claimed to be Cleopatra’s brother and first husband Ptolemy XIII who had reportedly died during the Alexandrian War. Schiff praises Cleopatra’s use of “stage management” to impress Antony with her arrival at Tarsus. She says Cleopatra’s lavish display and banquets were designed to show Antony that she was a wealthy client he could count on for financial help when he needed it. The fact that Antony was planning a campaign in Parthia, an old enemy of Rome, and he was in desperate need of funds was a lucky break for Cleopatra. Even Weigall admits that Antony was anxious to ally himself with Cleopatra for these purposes. It is obvious both Antony and Cleopatra benefited from a political alliance but what of a person one?

Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra Coin by Classical Numismatic Group

Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra Coin by Classical Numismatic Group

Tyldesley discusses Plutarch’s account of the meeting which states Cleopatra deliberately schemed to seduce Antony. Plutarch portrays Antony as weak to Cleopatra’s charms and says that he followed his heart instead of his head when he decided to ally himself with her. Sergeant says when Antony followed Cleopatra to Alexandria several months after their meeting at Tarsus he did not hesitate to leave his affairs of state to spend the winter with her. During his time in Alexandria, Weigall says, Antony experienced luxurious living with Cleopatra. Weigall’s view of their relationship was one of attraction and mutual need but not love. Schiff describes Antony as “pining” for Cleopatra prior to his arrival in Alexandria, but he was unlikely a “slave to his love” for her either. Roller says Antony likely considered the visit to Alexandria a vacation which implies he did not follow Cleopatra to Egypt out of love. Tyldesley agrees and points out that even though Cleopatra bore him twins after he left Alexandria, he made no attempt to see them or her for three years. She says this long time apart implies that not only had Antony considered the visit simply a vacation from his normal life, but that Cleopatra may have also been satisfied that their affair had created two additional heirs to her throne. These points seem to show that even though their relationship was based on attraction and mutual political need, neither party was likely lovesick for the other. Weigall once again offers the romantic notion that Cleopatra was sad and depressed during their time apart. He says Cleopatra would have been anxiously waiting for Antony to send for her or return, but he was overcome by political problems in Rome and never did. Antony even married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, during this time to seal a peace treaty between himself and Octavian. Weigall says the queen must have been “aflame with womanly jealousy” at the news and distraught at the thought of Antony’s betrayal.

Whatever Cleopatra may have truly felt about her separation from Antony, the fact is there is little information about her activities during that time. Sergeant points out that the ancient historians only discuss Cleopatra during her involvement with Antony. There is speculation among historians about why Antony summoned Cleopatra to the meeting in Antioch where they renewed their alliance three years later. Weigall recounts Plutarch’s statement that Antony’s passion for Cleopatra was renewed which caused him to summon her to Antioch. However, even Weigall admits that Antony probably summoned her because he needed their political alliance renewed. Roller states that Antony needed financing for the delayed Parthian campaign and Cleopatra wanted to expand Egypt’s territory which Antony could help her do. Passion may have played a part in the renewal of their relationship but it is clear they needed each other politically. Stacy Schiff points out that whatever the cause, it was at this time that Antony left Octavia and never saw her or Rome again.

Sergeant and Weigall discuss the possibility that Cleopatra and Antony were married in Antioch. Sergeant states that even though there is no record of the marriage by the classical authors, the evidence exists in Egyptian coins that were struck with the image of Cleopatra on one side and Antony on the other. Weigall goes so far to say there was little doubt that Antony and Cleopatra were married at this time. He cites the evidence on the coins and the fact that Antony and Cleopatra were now living together. Antony had even called Cleopatra his wife in correspondence to Octavian. Joyce Tyldesley mentions this letter to Octavian and confirms that even though Antony was still legally married to Octavia, the wording of the letter implies he also considered himself married to Cleopatra. Dr. Tyldesley also points out the fact that Cleopatra did not have to be married to Antony for her children to be considered legitimate. Since Egypt had no formal marriage ceremony, Cleopatra likely considered herself married to Antony, and even Caesar, since Egyptian marriage only required “a couple should live together for the purpose of begetting children.” Stacy Schiff disagrees with this interpretation and thinks Antony meant to say in his letter that Cleopatra is not his wife. Whatever the Egyptian definition of marriage, Schiff says since they were not married by Roman standards it did not matter anyway. Roller doesn’t mention marriage in Antioch as a possibility, but does address whether Cleopatra and Antony were married at some point. He speculates they may have been married at the time of the event known today as the Donations of Alexandria. Roller questions why Antony would agree to a marriage which would hurt his reputation in Rome and could be exploited by Octavian.

Joyce Tyldesley describes the Donations of Alexandria as “Dionysiac celebration” which caused the final breakdown of the relationship between Antony and Octavian. Stacy Schiff states it is impossible to determine what Antony and Cleopatra meant to convey by the lavish ceremony due to the propaganda war which began with Octavian shortly after. Weigall relates Cassius Dio’s statement that Antony used the Donations of Alexandria ceremony to promote Caesarion as the legitimate heir of Caesar. This is not mentioned in accounts by other historians but this fact could explain how Antony and Octavian’s propaganda war began.

Although the propaganda war was between Antony and Octavian, it was Cleopatra, a foreign enemy, who Octavian declared war against. Roller says the Roman people were so prejudiced against Cleopatra it gave him enough public support to declare war. Octavian accused Cleopatra for conduct improper for an allied monarch and condemned her for unspecified acts. Stacy Schiff states the terms of the war declaration would have surprised Cleopatra since she had not acted improperly toward Rome. Even though his war of words was with Antony, it was politically easier for Octavian to declare war on Cleopatra than Antony.

Octavian

Octavian

Roller says the Battle of Actium “has become a mythic event in world history” and was seen by the Romans as the “ultimate triumph of civilization over barbarism,” even though it was obvious Octavian would be victorious since his forces were better prepared. The strange events that occurred during the Battle of Actium have caused confusion for historians and there are competing theories about Cleopatra’s and Antony’s intentions. Did Antony and Cleopatra plan their daring escape or was it panic that led to their flight? Plutarch doesn’t accuse Antony of a premeditated desertion of his troops, but he does mention the ship sails were ordered to be on board. However, Plutarch does accuse Antony of deserting the battle to chase after Cleopatra when her ship took flight due to the “selfish fear for her life.” Cassius Dio gives the couple a little more credit by suggesting they did plan to escape to Egypt and the battle was likely just a cover for their retreat. However, Cassius Dio does seem to contradict himself when he also reports that Cleopatra experienced a sudden panic which was conveyed to Antony and caused them both to flee earlier than expected. The conflicting accounts by Plutarch and Cassius Dio are important when considering Cleopatra’s strength as a monarch. Certainly she would not have been the first ruler to desert a battle when the odds were clearly not in her favor, but to describe her as “in fear for her selfish life” depicts her as weak. It also conveniently lays most of the blame on her rather than Antony since it was he who deserted his troops to follow her. Cassius Dio’s account which suggests a planned escape seems to be the more realistic scenario because of the evidence of the ship sails on board.

Carsten Hjort Lange in his recent article The Battle of Actium: A Reconsideration says most historians agreed with Plutarch’s account until the nineteenth century. Evidence of this can be shown in Anna Brownwell Jameson’s chapter on Cleopatra in her nineteenth century work Memoirs of Celebrated Female Sovereigns. Mrs. Jameson says Cleopatra panicked at the outset of the battle but it was due to “fear rather than treachery.” Lange, however, sides with Plutarch because he states it would have been impossible for Antony to predict the events of the battle which would have allowed them to escape in the manner they did. Lange seems to be in the minority though since most historians today support Cassius Dio’s account of a planned escape. Tyldesley points out the fact that Plutarch needed to portray Antony in a sympathetic light, while at the same time heralding Octavian as the hero, so it was inevitable that Cleopatra would be shown as the villain of his account. (179) Historians are likely to discuss and debate the Battle of Actium for years to come. Roller states even though the Battle of Actium has been hailed as an important turning point in world history, its importance may have been exaggerated but it certainly ended Cleopatra’s and Antony’s great plans for an Eastern Empire.

Cleopatra VII marble bust from the Berlin Museum

Cleopatra VII marble bust from the Berlin Museum

Historical accounts of the deaths of Cleopatra and Antony raise many questions. Did Cleopatra betray Antony in the end to protect her children and Egypt? Weigall says there is no reason to believe Cleopatra betrayed Antony even though he had accused her of doing so. Weigall attributes Antony’s accusations as “erratic behavior” during the last years of his life. Roller adds that Cleopatra was stronger than Antony following the Battle of Actium, since Antony was often “suicidal and withdrawn” after his defeat. Plutarch and Cassius Dio have similar accounts which imply Octavian offered Cleopatra the opportunity to save herself and her throne if she would agree to kill Antony. Stacy Schiff points out that Cleopatra was still in a position to negotiate with Octavian where Antony was not. When Cleopatra barricaded herself in her mausoleum and sent word to Antony that she was dead it seems she may have been deliberately trying to deceive him so he would take his own life.

Historians agree that if Cleopatra was deceitful it was to protect her family. Sergeant says Cleopatra wanted to make sure Octavian would spare her children and they would be allowed to rule in the event of her death. In trying to gain Octavian’s favor, Cleopatra laid all the blame on Antony in her first meeting with Octavian. Plutarch and Cassius Dio give similar accounts of this meeting, but Plutarch describes Cleopatra as being mentally dignified where Cassius Dio describes her as pleading and desperate. Weigall says this meeting shows Cleopatra’s true character; even though she could be independent and fearless she also needed the help and sympathy of others. Joyce Tyldesley sees this differently and challenges the modern reader to determine if it is Cleopatra or Octavian who gets the better of each other.

In the end it seems Cleopatra got the better of Octavian, even if only by her own death. For all the romanticizing in Weigall’s work, he seems to see Cleopatra as a ruler rather than simply a woman when he says Cleopatra “fought all her life for the fulfillment of a patriotic and splendid ambition.” Sergeant is less kind, and calls her a failure because she did not realize she should not ally herself against Rome with a Roman. Yet he praises her “fine statecraft” and believes she is worthy of the title Cleopatra the Great. Stacy Schiff says even though Cleopatra will always be remembered for her personal involvement with Caesar and Antony, the fact is she fought for and protected the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty. Joyce Tyldesley points out that even though Cleopatra was a victim of Roman propaganda, her image remained on Egyptian coins and temple walls long after her death. Roller compares the Eastern Empire Cleopatra planned to the formation of the Roman Empire which began shortly after. Even though Cleopatra will be forever remembered as a woman involved with the two most powerful men of her time, she should also be remembered as a woman who loved and fought for her family and country. Intelligence and political skill were her greatest assets and aided in her ambitions and her desire to protect her dynasty.

Works Cited
El-Daly, Okasha. Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings. Portland: Cavendish Publishing, 2005. Print.
Fletcher, Dr. Joann. Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011. Print.
Jameson, Anna Brownwell. Memoirs of Celebrated Female Sovereigns. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1880. Elibron Classics series: Adamant Media Corporation, 2005. Reprint.
Jones, Prudence J. Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. Print.
Lange, Carsten Hjort. “The Battle of Actium: A Reconsideration.” The Classical Quarterly 61.2 (2011) doi:10.1017/S0009838811000139. Web. Feb. 9, 2013.
Roller, Duane. Cleopatra: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Print.
Sergeant, Philip W. Cleopatra of Egypt: Antiquity’s Queen of Romance. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1909. Print.
Tyldesley, Joyce. Cleopatra: The Last Queen of Egypt. New York: Basic Books, 2008. Print.
Weigall, Arthur. The Life and Times of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924. Print.

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