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Cleopatra 69-30 BC:
Larger than her time

Cleopatra VII is certainly the most remembered leader of the Ptolemy dynasty which held power in Egypt for two centuries until the Romans took over.This was a time of male rule (a situation not much changed to present-day), yet Cleopatra held the Romans at bay and enlarged Egypt’s territories when no male ruler could.

Cleopatra – Last of Ptolemy Line to Rule Egypt

Cleopatra came from the Macedonian/Greek Ptolemy line which ruled Egypt from the time of the death of Alexander in 323 BC.

After two centuries of Ptolemy rule, power shifted when Rome became the hungry guardian of the Ptolemaic dynasty.  Only tribute paid to the Romans kept them from taking over.

Cleopatra was the last Ptolemy to rule Egypt, a demonstration of the strength of the woman that she was able to keep the Romans at bay in her lifetime and there was no-one who could take her place when she died.

What Was the Source of Cleopatra’s Power?

Egypt at the time of Cleopatra was not an egalitarian society.  There were both class and gender based discriminations.  Women did not inherit wealth equally with men and fewer women were literate. Custom dictated that middle and upper class women were usually relegated to child-rearing and home-based activities.

Cleopatra combined her innate strength with the opportunities afforded by her royal birth to overcome every obstacle to her aim to rule Egypt.

Bust believed to be of Cleopatra VII

She was a strong, clever woman who realized the need to make alliances with other important leaders of the time to save Egypt’s independence.

Plutarch noted that “her beauty, as we are told, was in itself neither altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” Rather, what ultimately made Cleopatra attractive was her wit, charm and “sweetness in the tones of her voice.”  She had an engaging pesence and knew how to make herself agreeable to everyone.

Whereas previous Ptolemies had spoken Greek, the intelligent Cleopatra learnt to speak Egyptian and represented herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess, Isis.

Cleopatra Becomes Regent at Age 18

Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, by his will making  her co-regent with her 10 year old brother Ptolemy XIII. Initially their reign was difficult, due to economic failures, famine, deficient floods of the Nile and political conflicts.

Although Cleopatra was married to her young brother as per Egyptian tradition, she quickly made it clear that she had no intention of sharing power with him.

Ptolemy XIII, buoyed by a cabal of courtiers led by the eunuch Pothinus in cohorts with the half-Greek general, Achillas, expelled Cleopatra around 48 BC and became sole ruler.

But he made a miscalculation in having the Roman general, Pompey beheaded and presenting the head to Caesar, thinking it would get his approval.  Though Caesar and Pompey had different military objectives they were related through marriage and the assassination of Pompey enraged Caesar. He had Ptolemy XIII murdered, seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter to judge the rival claims of Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy IV.

Cleopatra and Caesar

To rid herself of brother-spouse Ptolemy XIII, who had sent her into exile, Cleopatra needed Caesar’s support. After enticing Caesar with the infamous gift of herself rolled up in a carpet, Ptolemy was killed.In 47 B.C., the 22 year-old Cleopatra dutifully married the next Ptolemy brother in line, Ptolemy XIV, an 11-year old, and then went on a cruise with her lover, 53 year-old Caesar.

Cleopatra’s union with Julius Caesar placed Egypt firmly back on the map as a world power after a period of increasing weakness, with Caesar and Cleopatra reigning as joint rulers of the classical world. With this in mind she promptly produced the necessary son and heir, Caesarion, to launch the dynasty.

Republicans in Rome thwarted this by assassinating Caesar on the steps of the Senate before he was offered a Throne.

Alliance with Mark Antony

In 41 BC, the 42-year old Mark Antony, one of the rulers of Rome in the power vacuum following Caesar’s death, summoned the 28 year-old Cleopatra to meet him and answer questions about her loyalty.  In reality Antony wanted Cleopatra’s promise to support his intended war against the Parthians. Cleopatra arrived with great pageantry, and so charmed Antony that, though already married, he chose to spend the winter of 41 BC–40 BC with her in Alexandria.

On 25 December 40 BC, Cleopatra gave birth to twins fathered by Antony, named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II.   Four years later, Antony visited Alexandria again en route to make war with the Parthians.

He renewed his relationship with Cleopatra, and from that point on, Alexandria was his home. He married Cleopatra according to the Egyptian rite although he was still married to Octavia Minor.  He and Cleopatra had another child, Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Octavian, a joint ruler of Rome and brother of Mark Antony’s Roman wife, led the Romans to believe that Mark Antony was in the process of handing over what should be theirs to the Egyptian queen. Between this potential international threat, competition over the legacy of Julius Caesar and the familial insult to Octavian’s sister, tensions mounted in Rome.

The situation escalated into a military war, with the two Roman generals, Antony and Octavion,  meeting at Actium, Greece, in 31 B.C.

On September 2, 31 B.C., Octavian’s forces soundly defeated those of Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium. Cleopatra’s ships deserted the battle and fled to Egypt, and Antony soon managed to break away and follow her with a few ships. With Alexandria under attack from Octavian’s forces, Antony heard a rumor that Cleopatra had committed suicide. He fell on his sword, and died just as news arrived that the rumor had been false.

On August 12, 30 B.C., after burying Antony and meeting with the victorious Octavian, the 39 year-old Cleopatra closed herself in her chamber with two of her female servants. The means of her death is uncertain, but Plutarch and other writers advanced the theory that she used a poisonous snake known as the asp, a symbol of divine royalty.

According to her wishes, Cleopatra’s body was buried with Antony’s, leaving Octavian (later Emperor Augustus I) to celebrate his conquest of Egypt and his consolidation of power in Rome.

What Can We Learn?

What can we learn from the story of Cleopatra VII? We know that the Patriarchal Revolution was well and truly entrenched in the world by her time.  That meant that women were viewed as inferior and something to be pushed into the background.

Cleopatra’s social class and royal birth were on her side in that these things often cut across gender bias issues.

But the tenor of life in the world at that time was dictated by the imperialistic aims of the alpha males who ran Rome.  It had gained a force of its own and was being pursued mindlessly to its usual sad conclusion – obscene wealth for a few and poverty and oppression for the masses.

Cleopatra had two choices against this backdrop.  Either accept to be pushed into the background by her 10 year old brother and his cabal of wannabe alpha male advisers or beat them at their own game of politics using her intelligence and femininity.

The term for a woman who beats men at their own game is virago. Cleopatra became a virago, proving to the world that women can be just as ruthless and heartless as men in pursuit of a political objective.

But who would really want to go down that path?  We can understand why she did, but if there is any lesson for women to learn from history it is to support other women so that they are never faced with the unsavoury choice of anonymity or beating men at their own game. The weight of numbers always wins the day.

Women Can Beat Men

Yes, women can beat men at their own game if they really want to, but what woman would really want to?  The true feminine view of the world is so much more all-encompassing than the alpha male “the last one standing with all the toys piled up in front of him is the winner” viewpoint.

The only reason women have accepted this alpha male view for the last 3,000 years is that it has been forced down their throats using violence, cruelty and restriction of liberty.

A Ray of Light

But there is one ray of light in this whole tale.  In spite of their political ambitions Cleopatra and Mark Antony shared an enduring love and died for it.Even a hardened battle-weary general needs love and it is by love and the feminine principle that the world will ultimately be saved.

Further reading about Cleopatra.

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