The Story of Cleopatra in Ancient Egypt

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The Story of Cleopatra in Ancient Egypt

Cleopatra was determined to preserve Egypt. Her personal ambitions will show her unwavering love, compassion, and commitment to making Egypt one of the greatest empires man has ever known. Her contributions to Egypt and the world have continued to be discussed and debated over the years.

Cleopatra was born in 69 B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt. Her father King Ptolemy XII had five other children, Cleopatra VI, Berenice IV, Arsinoe IV, Ptolemy XIII, and Ptolemy XIV. Her mother died when she was very young. King Ptolemy eventually remarried, but there are no records of his second wife’s name.

There was not much love between the siblings. They each tried to out shine one another in a kind of race to win power over the throne. Their ambitious guardians, who were eager for their share of royal power, encouraged the fierce competition. As a result Cleopatra on her siblings grew up in an atmosphere of corruption and devious schemes to get to the top.

Cleopatra had an unusually good education. At a very young age Cleopatra was quick and eager to learn, and as she grew older she moved on to more advanced literature, the arts, science and medicine, and the study of languages. She learned the stories and myths of Greek and Egyptian gods and goddess. She picked up bits of Egyptian lore from her female servants. Cleopatra was especially drawn to the Egyptian goddess Isis who was believed to have power over the heaven and earth, but whose greatest appeal was her compassion, mercy and concern for women and children.

The Ptolemy dynasty were of Greek and Macedonian decent, none had a drop of Egyptian blood and none had bothered to learn the Egyptian language. The Princess Cleopatra was the first Ptolemy to learn the native Egyptian language so as to be able to communicate with her Egyptian subjects. She also knew Arabic and Hebrew and could talk to the many Jews who had settled in Alexandria. She was also extremely interested in philosophy, especially the philosophy of governing that sought to justify kingship and to demonstrate how to be a strong yet benevolent ruler.

By the first century B.C. the weakened Ptolemy dynasty was faced with a threat from the Roman Republic. Rome, the capital of the Roman Republic in Italy, filled the East with terror due to its renown military might. As Rome came closer and closer to Egypt, they grew more eager to capture Egypt’s wealth. There was a wide spread ethnic hatred between the East and West of the Mediterranean world. The Greeks of Alexandria and the Egyptians despised the Romans.

As the threat from Rome increased, Cleopatra’s city grew more and more turbulent. When she was still a young girl, an angry mob lynched a Roman visitor for killing a cat, an animal sacred to the Egyptian’s. Soon Princess Cleopatra began forming her own ideas of how she would handle the Romans in the future.

Cleopatra’s father King Ptolemy was a weak ruler. He had a passion for playing the flute as well as a fondness for wine. King Ptolemy had been given the honorary title of the “New Dionysus”. Dionysus was the god of wine, the arts, music and dance. The entire Ptolemy monarch was honored with divine titles. These titles were mainly for prestige and to impress people. Cleopatra’s father did not impress the people of Egypt. They found him neither kingly nor godly and called him the “Flute Player”.

King Ptolemy often joined the musicians and dancers in the Dionysian festivals. Cleopatra could see her father playing his flute and dancing through the streets of Alexandria in a most unregal way. Although she found no fault with her father’s behavior, it may have bothered her to see how little his subjects respected him. She knew he was shrewd and intelligent if not a strong leader, and he had done much for his kingdom in repairing old buildings and temples and creating new ones. He supported the arts and learning. He shared his special interest in philosophy with Cleopatra, who was thought to be his favorite child.

Beyond Cleopatra’s joys of learning and celebrating the many festivals, she was worried about her kingdom’s decline. Her own name meant “glory to her race” and Cleopatra became obsessed with the idea of restoring Egypt’s great past and power. But Rome was still a growing threat to Egypt.

Cleopatra knew that the Egyptian army was inadequate and that the recent Ptolemy kings had felt forced to appeal to Rome for military help to control the sporadic outbreaks of the Alexandrian mobs. There was even a rumor that Cleopatra’s grandfather had willed Egypt to Rome in exchange for helping him keep his right to the throne. He was soon found murdered by an Alexandrian mob. Cleopatra vowed that in the future, she would not let the Romans use her to make her country a Roman province. Rather, she would use them in any way to make Egypt the proud leader of the Mediterranean world it once had been.

With no strong army to back him, King Ptolemy was now having trouble. He feared losing his throne even his life as his father had. King Ptolemy decided to go to Rome for help. Cleopatra found this humiliating, but she admired his shrewdness. She knew it was wiser for the survival of both the kingdom and King Ptolemy to seek Rome’s support rather than to risk confronting its armies. Cleopatra was only ten-years-old when her father set off for Rome. Her interest in politics made her curious to know how he would deal with the Romans and what he could accomplish.

Though nation after nation was falling to Rome’s military might, the Roman Republic was having its own troubles. Equally as corrupt as Egypt, its republican government was on the verge of collapsing. Three hungry politicians, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, using bribery and voter intimidation, had seized control of the government. This made a mockery of republican institutions.

Egypt had become a hot political issue among Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. All three of them knew that Egypt would be a prize, but they had agreed that it would be best to make deals to keep Egypt happy for the moment. When King Ptolemy arrived in Rome in 59 B.C., the three made a deal with him. In exchange for a huge bribe of six thousand talents, a sum equal to Egypt’s yearly income, they agreed to support King Ptolemy’s claim to the Egyptian throne.

Cleopatra was twelve-years-old when her father returned to Alexandria with the decree that he was the right full king of Egypt. King Ptolemy was back on his throne for only a short time when Rome had taken over the rich island of Cyprus, Egypt’s only remaining overseas possession. King Ptolemy’s brother was the King of Cyprus at the time. He committed suicide rather that submit to Roman rule.

The annexation of Cyprus happened just as the “Flute Player” was beginning to tax his subjects to repay his huge debt to Rome. The people of Egypt grew angry at being taxed. They were also angry with King Ptolemy for not helping his brother resist the Roman takeover of Cyprus. A rebellion broke out, and King Ptolemy was forced to flee Alexandria. He set off to Rome for help, again.

In Cleopatra’s father absence her oldest sister, Cleopatra Tryphaena “She Who Lives in Luxery” VI, seized the throne. She was only on the throne for a short time. Berenice, Cleopatra’s next older sister, killed Cleopatra VI for the right to the throne. An angry Alexandrian mob and palace intriguers backed Berenice.

In Rome, King Ptolemy managed one more deal. This time he made a deal with just Pompey. Pompey now promised King Ptolemy military support to put him back on his throne. Ptolemy had to pay an even larger bribe. King Ptolemy returned to Alexandria followed by Roman soldiers from Pompey’s legion that was stationed in Syria. Mark Antony led this legion.

Mark Antony seemed to be a very powerful man, with a build and face that spelled courage and confidence. He resembled paintings and statues of the god-hero Hercules and he claimed that his family was descended from Hercules. Mark Antony stayed only a short time in Alexandria, but long enough to meet Cleopatra, who was now fourteen. He would not forget her charm and her delightful way of speaking. Mark Antony and Cleopatra would soon meet again.

Restored to power a second time King Ptolemy had to deal with his daughter Berenice, who had taken over his throne. King Ptolemy had her put to death for treason. The King went back to playing his flute and squeezing taxes out of his people to repay his increasing debt to the Romans. This time with the Roman legions on hand the people could not openly rebel. There was an uneasy peace in Alexandria for a few years while Rome was slowly repaid. But the people knew that their kingdom was slowly becoming a puppet state under the control of Rome.

In 51 B.C. King Ptolemy died. He willed his throne jointly to his oldest daughter, Cleopatra VII, now eighteen, and to his ten-year-old son Ptolemy XIII. Cleopatra had hoped to avoid marrying her brother, but this was an old custom of brother-sister marriages in the royal family. Such brother-sister marriages were considered divine and it was to prevent any commoner from contaminating the royal bloodline. The Ptolemies had adopted this ancient custom of royal intermarriages from the Egyptians, along with the Egyptian’s use of divine titles.

Cleopatra, dutifully and reluctantly, married her little brother. There were two marriage ceremonies: one Greek with Cleopatra dressed and the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, and Ptolemy as Dionysus. The other ceremony was Egyptian, with Cleopatra as the goddess Isis and her brother as Osiris, god of the Nile River. Cleopatra loved the pageants; this gave her the opportunity to show of her artistic talent and flair for showmanship.

Cleopatra paid no attention to the brother-sister rule. This was her chance to rule. This was her chance to make Egypt the dominant power of the Mediterranean. She ruled as though she was the only monarch. This angered her brother Ptolemy and his guardians, who had another agenda. They were already teaching young Ptolemy to hate and envy his sister. Cleopatra knew her ten-year-old brother was not capable of coping with the problems “she” inherited.

Cleopatra set off on her first goodwill tour up the Nile River to Hermonthis in Upper Egypt to observe the religious ceremony of the sacred bull Buchis. When Cleopatra arrived she was hailed as the Lady of the two Lands Cleopatra Thea Philopater, “ the Goddess Who Loves Her Father.” Cleopatra was probably the first Ptolemy to attend as well as lead such a ceremony. This was good public relations on Cleopatra’s behalf and it enhanced her popularity among her Egyptian subjects. But she was anything but popular in Alexandria because of her father’s pro-Roman policies.

Upon returning home, Cleopatra learned that there was a plot among the three guardians of her brother. They plotted to get rid of Cleopatra to gain control of the throne for Ptolemy as well as for them. Although kings and queens were supposed to rule jointly, the queens always took second place to the king. If the king was much younger than the queen and not capable of making decisions, it was supposed to be up to the guardians of the king to represent him, sharing power with the queen until the boy king became of age. Cleopatra clearly ignored this rule. She made decisions of the state on her own. Ptolemy’s guardian, mainly Pothinus, wanted her out of the way. Cleopatra was forced to flee Alexandria and her brother was proclaimed sole ruler of Egypt.

How Cleopatra managed to escape still remains a mystery. All we know is that she ended up in Syria with only a small hand of loyal followers. Using her knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic to communicate, and her charm to persuade, Cleopatra managed to gather an army to fight against her brother. She was confident that she would fulfill her ambition to build up Egypt’s power to its former glory.

The scheming that went on in Alexandria’s palace was matched in Rome by an equally ruthless struggle for power. The First Triumvirate, the joint rule of three power hungry men, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, had collapsed in 53 B.C. It collapsed when Crassus was killed in battle when he was attacking the Parthians in the Middle East. Now a struggle between Caesar and Pompey developed.

As Caesar advanced on Rome, Pompey retreated and headed for northern Greece, hoping for support from the eastern provinces he had conquered. He prepared to make a stand against his former colleague. Caesar was soon ready to pursue his old ally, now his bitter foe.

Caesar’s army demolished Pompey’s forces in the bloodiest battle ever fought among Romans. Pompey managed to escape, fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea to Alexandria. He expected a warm reception there because he had help King Ptolemy regain his throne. Pompey thought of himself as a friend and ally of Egypt. He did not know that Cleopatra had been forced to flee Alexandria and that a war between brother and sister was imminent.

When Ptolemy’s guardians heard of Pompey’s approach, they decided it would be wiser to make peace with the new great military hero of the hour, Julius Caesar. They planned to kill Pompey the loser. When Pompey ship anchored in the harbor and he stepped foot on land he was stabbed in the back and decapitated. Caesar arrived in Alexandria four days later. He was outraged when they presented him with Pompey’s severed head. In fact, it was said that he wept at the sight. It was one thing to kill an enemy in honorable battle, but to have him treacherously murdered by scheming Alexandrians infuriated Caesar.

Caesar made himself at home in Alexandria. While he was there he heard of the war brewing between brother and sister. He remembered his promise to Cleopatra’s father to carry out the king’s will: Cleopatra and her brother were to rule jointly. He also remembered that he had not been fully repaid the money that was loaned to Cleopatra’s father and he demanded payment now. He also summoned Cleopatra and her brother back to Alexandria. The guardians were furious but they behaved. Caesar would stop this war between siblings and he would be the arbiter to reestablish their joint rule.

The queen Cleopatra was eager for this chance to meet with the great Caesar and present her case. But the harbor was still blocked by her brother’s army. Cleopatra came up with a scheme. She had herself smuggled in Caesar’s apartment by concealing herself in a rug. The merchant carrying this rug was admitted to Caesar’s apartment. The merchant carefully laid this bundle on the floor and opened it. Cleopatra emerged as if in a fairytale.

History leaves much of the rest of the evening largely to the imagination. But it is said that Caesar and Cleopatra became lovers that night. Ernle Bradford stated in Cleopatra, “Cleopatra, if not until now had been physically innocent, was certainly no political virgin. Her whole life had been passed in the intricacies of that incredible intricate court, and she was a typical Ptolemy in her desire for power. “ Bradford also stated that, “She knew that only from this Roman, this man old enough to be her father, could she obtain it. What she loved in Caesar was the fact that he was the most powerful man in the world. She was determined to be the Queen of Egypt.”p70 Cleopatra was also impressed by Caesar’s intelligence and his self-confidence. He was not a typical boorish Roman barbarian, but a cultivated man of the world. He could even talk with her in Greek.

Caesar reconciled the royal family. He announced that Cleopatra and Ptolemy were king and queen again. Caesar returned the Island of Cyprus back to Egypt. He had Pothinus, Ptolemy’s guardian, arrested and put to death for treason. Ptolemy, while trying to flee Egypt, drowned. Caesar exiled Arsinoe. She later, tried to seize the throne again, only to be killed as with Ptolemy XIV.

Cleopatra soon became pregnant with Caesarion, Caesar’s son. She thought, according to Laura Forman, author of Cleopatra’s Palace, “that their son might have a claim to be master not only of Egypt but of Rome as well.”p102 Cleopatra thought that now with Caesar by her side and the birth of their son she would not have to worry anymore that Rome might annex Egypt as a province. Only days after Cleopatra gave birth to their son, Caesar left her to go back to Rome. He sent for her two months later. Not long after Cleopatra arrived in Rome Caesar was killed in a conspiracy. Cleopatra was devastated. She had lost her lover, father of her son, and her much needed protector.

Cleopatra went back to Egypt. She ruled alone for the next three years, a time of peace with no uprisings in her country. She was also known as the New Isis and was revered almost as a savior by her subjects. She was thought of as the widow of her divine husband Caesar, and Caesarion was recognized as their divine offspring.

Cleopatra was still determined, at all cost, to keep Egypt’s independence and try to regain its lost overseas possessions. But she knew she needed another strong military man to take Julius Caesar’s place, a new consort to stand by her incase Rome once more try to grab her kingdom. Cleopatra listened eagerly to any news from Rome brought by sailors or merchants. She even sent scouts there to gather information.

Confusing reports from Rome about events and alliances were changing daily. This added to Cleopatra’s worries. Who would be in charge now that Caesar was gone? What Roman should she try to deal with, next? Could she count on Caesar’s devoted friend Mark Antony to help? Did Caesar’s decree that she was queen of Egypt, ally and friend of Rome, still hold?

Her great hope, that little Caesarion would be recognized as Caesar’s son and heir as well as future and King of Egypt, had already been challenged. Caesar’s will made no mention of Caesarion, much to Cleopatra’s dismay, named his great-nephew, nineteen-year-old Octavius, as his adopted son and heir. This infuriated Cleopatra. She naturally felt that her son had prior claim to Caesar’s name and divinity, since he was the only known surviving child of his blood. Mark Antony was equally put out by Octavius. Antony felt that he, Caesar’s old military companion and favored friend, should take Caesar’s place.

When Cleopatra realized that another civil war between Romans was imminent, she started to build a fleet to prepare for the coming struggle. She knew she would be pressured by both sides to give aid in money, ships, and grain. However, she decided to take her time in deciding which side to support. Egypt’s and her own future depended on her choosing the winner. This was a dilemma for Cleopatra. She knew and liked Mark Antony but mistrusted Octavius, whom she did not know.

Mark Antony requested that Cleopatra meet him in Tarsus.p.70 He had planed to seduce her when she arrived. Mark Antony knew that only with Cleopatra at his side with her wealth of Egypt at his command could he be certain of eliminating Octavian in the struggle for the world.

Mark Antony’s plan to seduce Cleopatra backfired. When she arrived in Tarsus, her beauty, and her style of life captivated Mark Antony. He fell in love with Cleopatra. Cleopatra found him attractive and full of fun, if not as interesting intellectually as Caesar.

Their relationship at first was based on their need for each other in the political world. They also came to depend on each other more and more, maybe not as passionately as Shakespeare suggested in his play. Cleopatra may have had the upper hand in their relationship, but despite some disagreements, she remained faithful to Antony just as she had Caesar. She was never promiscuous, as her enemies suggested. Such behavior was beneath her queenly dignity. If she had ever had any other lovers, her enemies surely would have found out and made the most of it. Ptolemy queens might have been murderous, but they were not adulterous.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony, eventually, had three children together. Cleopatra managed to allure Antony into giving back to her most of the lands once owned by her dynasty. She was also granted protection from Rome even though the Romans hated her.

All of this would come to an end soon. Tension was brewing between Octavian and Mark Antony for control over the Mediterranean. They both wanted to be the next Alexander the Great. In the end Octavian would prevail. After being crushed by Octavian’s army Mark Antony fled to be with Cleopatra, who had already fled the battle. Mark Antony, after hearing a rumor that Cleopatra committed suicide, killed himself. Cleopatra killed herself also, because she knew that Octavian would degrade her and drag her through the streets of Rome. She made one request that she be buried with Mark Antony. Octavian granted her request. All of Cleopatra’s children were eventually killed and Cleopatra’s life long dream of preserving Egypt was gone.

Cleopatra had done well for her country and achieved a special status for it. It was Cleopatra’s political as well as administrative ability that inspired many people as a nationalistic heroine, saving her country from Roman rule and keeping it independent.

Though Cleopatra image both in art and in drama has gone through transformations in the last two thousand years, her role as the evil seductress has rarely changed; she both threatens and allures. She died trying to live up to her life long dream of preserving Egypt.

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