By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Before apocryphally rolling out of the carpet and into legend, Cleopatra (69 BCE-30 BCE) already had a storied past. The twenty-one-year old and her thirteen-year old brother-husband Ptolemy XIII (62 BCE-47 BCE) ruled together for close to two years before said brother—under the influence of his overly ambitious advisors—successfully banished Cleopatra from Alexandria. Prudently using her mastery of the Egyptian language—the first Ptolemy to do so in the nearly three-hundred-year-old dynasty—Cleopatra mounted an army to defeat Ptolemy. It was only shortly thereafter that she had the legendary encounter with Caesar. Yet most of what has been penned about Cleopatra was drawn after her stars became aligned with those of ancient Rome; written from the decidedly biased perspective of the Romans. Time and again we know Cleopatra as the subversive siren from the corrupted East who seduced two of ancient Rome’s greatest generals.
What could account for so much ire against the Egyptian queen? The truth is that in order to justify an unpopular civil war against his rival Mark Antony (83 BCE-30 BCE), Gaius Octavius “Octavian” (later Augustus—63 BCE-14 CE) launched first a propaganda campaign then a full-scale war against Egypt by painting Cleopatra as an Eastern harlot who seduced Antony with her blend of depraved sorcery. Octavian’s crusade against her soon took hold in the rank imaginations of the xenophobic and misogynist Romans. In his Odes, Horace calls her a “fatal monster,” Sextus Propertius refers to her as the “whore queen” in Elegies and in Lucan’s Poems she is termed “Egypt’s shame.” Yet what is never mentioned about the Egyptian queen is that she didn’t have a drop of Egyptian blood. In fact, her lineage derived from a Macedonian Greek, celebrated as a hero in ancient Rome, whose military accomplishments were the ambition of every Roman leader.
It is an irony that forasmuch as the Romans glorified Alexander the Great (356 BCE-323 BCE), they heaped an equivalent amount of scorn and disdain on Cleopatra who was not only Alexander’s political heir but may very well have been his biological heir as well. Founding member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy I Soter (367 BCE-83 CE) was one of Alexander’s three most trusted Macedonian generals and by some accounts, his half-brother as well. Although vilified within Greek city states, polygamy was practiced in the Greek kingdom of Macedonia, especially amongst the ruling class. Phillip II (386-336 BCE), Alexander’s father, had several wives and many children; Ptolemy was the son of one of his multiple wives. Alexander even had a sister named Kleopatra, which in Greek means “glory of the father.” Truth told, Cleopatra was a common name amongst queens in Ptolemaic Egypt; Cleopatra, its final queen, was number seven. Alas, Cleopatra’s link to Alexander continued after her demise; the Hellenistic period begins and ends with the deaths of Alexander and Cleopatra.