Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.)

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CLEOPATRA (69-30 B.C.)

Cleopatra from the Ruins of Dendera

Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) is one of the most famous women of all a time. A Greek Queen of Egypt, she played a major role in the extension of the Roman Empire and was a lover of Julius Caesar, the wife of Marc Antony and a victim of Augustus Caesar, the creator of the Roman Empire. Coin portraits and a bust reportedly made in her lifetime show her with a prominent nose and a large forehead. There were reports she had rotten teeth. But despite these flaws she is one of the world’s most famous seductresses. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011; Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010; Judith Thurman, The New Yorker, May 7, 2001 and November 15, 2010; Barbara Holland, Smithsonian, February 1997]

Stacy Schiff wrote in her book “Cleopatra: A Biography”, “Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for 21 years a generation before the birth of Christ. She lost her kingdom once; regained it; nearly lost it again; amassed an empire; lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at 18, at the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at 39. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra's end was sudden and sensational. [Source: Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010, Adapted from Cleopatra: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff.]

"Fierce, voluptuous, passionate, tender, wicked, terrible, and full of poisonous and rapturous enchantment" is what Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Cleopatra in 1858. Shakespeare made her into a romantic heroine described her as a magnificent creature with a burning soul and deep love for Antony”...”Other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies,” Shakespear wrote....”George Bernard Shaw saw her as purring sex kitten. Closer to her own time, Propetius called her a "harlot queen of incest." Historians often mark her death as the end of both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

Louisa Thomas wrote in Newsweek, “Cleopatra has always been a player in other people’s dramas if in different roles: she can be a coquette or a feminist, a martyr or a villain, a goddess or a fallen woman, even blonde or black. Horace called her the “fatale monstrum” — the fatal minster, Chaucer made her virtuous...In her own day, legions of Egyptians thought she was a reincarnation of the goddess Isis, while her nemesis, the Roman Octavian (Augustus), called her a whore. It is that description — Cleopatra as a vamp, a seductress whose machinations led to the downfall of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony — that dilates the countless depictions in art, literature, theater, film and not least, history books.”

The critic Harold Bloom called Cleopatra the “world’s first celebrity.” Based on the number of books written about her (329 in 1999 in the Library of Congress collection), Cleopatra is the world's seventh most famous woman. Cleopatra was immortalized in plays by George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare and played by Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood films.

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Books and Sources on Cleopatra

20120218-cleo coin.jpg
Cleopatra on a coin
Books: “Cleopatra: the Last Queen of Egypt” (Basic Books 2008) by Joyce Tyldesly, a lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester in England; “ Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth” By M Chauveau, translated by D. Lorton; “ Memoirs of Cleopatra” by Margaret George Pan, a 1,000-page historical novel with vivid historical details; “Cleopatra” by Michael Grant (Phoenix Press (paperback), 2000 (originally published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Great Britain, 1972); “Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions” by Lucy Hughes-Hallet (Harper & Row, 1990); “Women & Society in Greek & Roman Egypt” by Jane Rowlandson (Cambridge University Press, 1998); “Antony and Cleopatra” by Adrian Goldsworthy ((Yale, 2010); “Cleopatra” by Duane Roller (Oxford, 2010); “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff; (Little Brown, 2010). Very little hard evidence about Cleopatra exists. Most of what know about her today is based on a biography written by Plutarch 200 years after her death. Early accounts of her life were given the anti-Cleopatra, pro-Roman slant promoted by Octavian. Other accounts of her life are mostly malicious, lack reliable sources, and were written centuries after her death. Careful historical analysis of her life and times has suggested that she was a highly competent ruler who skillfully navigated through a turbulent period of history surrounded by unstable neighbors. Politics more than sex seemed to be primary interest. Judith Thurman wrote in the The New Yorker, “Among the writers who actually met Cleopatra, Cicero said of her “I detest the Queen” and ridiculed Rome for its “fribbling, fawning” attraction to for her ; Nicolaus of Damascus, her children’s tutor, defected to her archrival Herod, and then to Octavian. Of first-century writers, Josephus, a Jewish historian writing for a Roman audience, based his account on Nicolaus’s; Plutarch, Antony’s biographer, had access to some firsthand testimony, but admitted to cherry-picking. Suetonius and Appian, historians of the second century, and prolific Dio, of the third, have been flagged for complacency in their errors and biases. Theirs and many other ancient texts exist only in fragments. What survives of them, two thousand years after Cleopatra’s death, is still the primary source for biographers. [Source: Judith Thurman, The New Yorker November 15, 2010]

Cleopatra on a coin
Roller’s “Cleopatra,” part of a series of brief lives on Women in Antiquity, Thurman wrote, gives a rich account of late Ptolemaic culture, and surveys the Queen’s history in under two hundred pages. Roller is a professor emeritus of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University, so he had access to the ancient sources in their original languages, as well as to the scholarly literature in German and French. His voice is donnish and impartial, albeit a bit flat, like the daylight in his black-and-white photographs of modern Tarsus and Jericho, and his assertion that one really can’t hope to know Cleopatra. This volume should appeal to readers who prefer an aerial view of the subject to the seething congestion of its ring roads. Goldsworthy is a distinguished biographer of Julius Caesar, and his somewhat mistitled entrant to the lists, “Antony and Cleopatra” (Yale; $35), is a four-hundred-page work of Roman military and political history. Whether we like it or not, biographers bring their experience as men or women to their task. Roller and Goldsworthy both seem determined to resist the temptations of a siren, as if she might corrupt their integrity.

Schiff won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1999 biography, “Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage”. Angelina Jolie is slated to play Cleopatra in a forthcoming 3-D bio-pic, possibly to be directed by James Cameron based on Stacy Schiff’s biography. On the biography, Thurman wrote, “Schiff relies on the same venerable Cleophobes, and exercises the same caution about them. Imaginative attunement with a subject, however, does not have to compromise a vigilant biographer’s critical detachment, and Schiff’s beautiful writing hums with that tension. This is her fourth ambitious life. It is an edifice of speculation and conjecture — like every “Cleopatra” ever written. But unlike nearly all of them it is a work of literature.”

Allure and Mystery of Cleopatra

Cleopatra by
John William Waterhouse
Cleopatra has been obscured in what biographer Michael Grant called the "fog of fiction and vituperation which has surrounded her personality from her own lifetime onwards." Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, “Despite her reputed powers of seduction, there is no reliable depiction of her face. What images do exist are based on unflattering silhouettes on coins. There is an unrevealing 20-foot-tall relief on a temple at Dendera, and museums display a few marble busts, most of which may not even be of Cleopatra. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011]

Ancient historians praised her allure, not her looks. Certainly she possessed the ability to roil passions in two powerful Roman men: Julius Caesar, with whom she had one son; and Mark Antony, who would be her lover for more than a decade and the father of three more children. But her beauty, said Greek historian Plutarch, was not "the sort that would astound those who saw her; interaction with her was captivating, and her appearance, along with her persuasiveness in discussion and her character that accompanied every interchange, was stimulating. Pleasure also came with the tone of her voice, and her tongue was like a many-stringed instrument."

Stacy Schiff wrote in her book Cleopatra: A Biography, “She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the first time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one. She elicited scorn and envy in equal and equally distorting measure; her story is constructed as much of male fear as of fantasy. Her power was immediately misrepresented because — for one man's historical purposes — she needed to have reduced another to abject slavery. Ultimately everyone from Michelangelo to Brecht got a crack at her. The Renaissance was obsessed with her, the Romantics even more so. [Source: Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010, Adapted from Cleopatra: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff.]

Brown wrote: “The wealth of attention paid to Cleopatra by artists seems inversely proportional to the poverty of material generated about her by archaeologists. Alexandria and its environs attracted less attention than the more ancient sites along the Nile, such as the Pyramids at Giza or the monuments at Luxor. And no wonder: Earthquakes, tidal waves, rising seas, subsiding ground, civil conflicts, and the unsentimental recycling of building stones have destroyed the ancient quarter where for three centuries Cleopatra and her ancestors lived. Most of the glory that was ancient Alexandria now lies about 20 feet underwater...In the last hundred years about the only new addition to the archaeological record is what scholars believe is a fragment of Cleopatra's handwriting: a scrap of papyrus granting a tax exemption to a Roman citizen in Egypt in 33 B.C.

Cleopatra and Her Family

Ptolemy XII
Cleopatra was actually Cleopatra VII. She was not Egyptian and probably didn't even possess any Egyptian blood; she was the daughter of a Macedonian Greek king, Ptolemy XII, who ruled Egypt and was a descendant of one of Alexander the Great's generals. Cleopatra is Greek for “glory to her race.” Some African-American groups claim that Cleopatra was a black woman. There is this little evidence to back this up. However Ptolemy XII had a mysterious concubine who could have been black and could have given birth to Cleopatra although it is very unlikely.

Ptolemy XII was as known the “Flute Player” because of his musical talent and his ability to charms the ladies — and the boys — with his playing and his taste for things he liked to stick in his mouth. Cleopatra’s great-grand father was known as Ptolemy Physkon (“Potbelly”). He reportedly paraded around in flimsy robes to show off his flab (at that time regarded as sign of wealth).

Ptolemy XII's Egypt was still rich but it was becoming undermined by an unhappy local population, threatened by its rivals, and robbed by Roman moneylenders. Once while Ptolemy XII was in Rome his eldest daughter Tryphanena seized the throne. After she was assassinated the secondary daughter Berenike grabbed it. When Ptolemy returned he retook the throne with Cleopatra's help and Berenike was executed. Tryphanena and Berenike were Cleopatra’s elder sisters or half sisters.

Cleopatra's Early Life

Ptolemy XIV
Cleopatra VI was born in 69 B.C. She was the second or third of five or six children of Ptolemy XII and his wife and sister Cleopatra V. Her grandmother may have been a concubine. Er mother was her father’s full sister or perhaps an Egyptian of the local aristocracy. It is assumed she was educated as Ptolemaic princess in her time with instructions im literature, mathematics, philosophy, music, medicine and the martial arts.

In 51 B.C., after her father died, Cleopatra married her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII and the two of them became co-rulers of Egypt. Cleopatra was only 17. Cleopatra's marriage to her Ptolemy XIII was most likely unconsummated. After they took over the throne the Nile didn't flood and their was a famine. A eunuch named Pothinus was appointed regent for young Ptolemy and Cleopatra was driven out of Alexandria, resulting in a civil war.

Cleopatra's seized the Ptolemic throne with the help of Julius Caesar. Ptolemy XIII reportedly drowned in the Nile with a full suit of armor on. The circumstances behind the death were unclear. Caesar then arranged the marriage of Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, whom was only 12 at the time and Cleopatra was able to dominate him

Cleopatra's Looks and Her Reputation as a Seducer

20120218-CleopatraVII7a.jpg Plutarch wrote: "Her beauty was not incomparable” but “the attraction of her conversation...was something bewitching...The persuasiveness of her discourse and her character...had something stimulating about it. It was a pleasure merely to hear her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to the next...Plato admits four sorts of flattery but she has a thousand." Another historian described her countenance as "alive rather than beautiful."

The 2nd century Greek historian said that Cleopatra seduced men because she was "brilliant to look upon...with the power to subjugate everyone.” She would later become "a woman of insatiable sexuality and insatiable avarice" (Dio), "the whore of the eastern kings" (Boccaccio). She was a carnal sinner for Dante, for Dryden a poster child for unlawful love. A first-century A.D. Roman would falsely assert that "ancient writers repeatedly speak of Cleopatra's insatiable libido." Florence Nightingale referred to her as "that disgusting Cleopatra." Offering Claudette Colbert the title role in the 1934 movie, Cecile B. DeMille is said to have asked, "How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?" [Source: Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010, Adapted from Cleopatra: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff.]

Images close to her time contradict the notion that she a great beauty. The pictures of Cleopatra depicted on Roman coins shows a woman with a large hooked Semitic nose, sharp chin, boney face, narrow forehead and large eyes. Stacy Schiff wrote in her book Cleopatra: A Biography, “If the name is indelible, the image is blurry. She may be one of the most recognizable figures in history, but we have little idea what Cleopatra actually looked like. Only her coin portraits — issued in her lifetime, and which she likely approved — can be accepted as authentic.”

Cleopatra's Charms, Sex Life and Intelligence

20120218-CleopatraLubowska.jpg Cleopatra, it is said, liked to bathe in freshly-squeezed ass milk or goat milk. She wrote her own book on cosmetics. One concoctions was made with burnt mice. She also reportedly used a perfume made from rose oil and violets on her hands and anointed her feet with an oil made with honey, cinnamon, iris, hyacinth and orange blossoms. Incense burners surrounded her throne.

Cleopatra could speak seven languages, according to Plutarch, and had a keen interests in science and literature. Cicero met her at Caesar’s house. Although he loathed her and regarded her as arrogant he admitted she was intelligent and was involved in "things that had to do with learning."

Cleopatra is said to have wrote treatises on alchemy, weights and measures and gynecology. The 10th century Arab historian Al-Masudi wrote many centuries after her death, she was "a princess well versed in the sciences, disposed to the study of philosophy and counted scholars among her intimate friends. She was the author of works on medicine , charms, and other divisions of the natural sciences. The books bear her name and were well known among men conversant with art and medicine.”

Cleopatra reportedly had her first lover at twelve and built a temple where she kept male lovers drugged with performance boosters. She also purported had 100 lover in a single night, slept with her slaves, and heavily taxed or killed some men after the love-making was over. She learned many tricks it is said from courtesan at an Alexandria bordello. The Romans, who wanted to portray Cleopatra in the worst light possible light, were the source of many of these stories. In reality it is thought she spent much of her time sleeping alone and was busy managing her kingdom to indulge in too much debauchery. Her reputation a sex freak endured through the years. Obscene caricatures from the A.D. 1st century show a Cleopatra-like figure on a barge copulating with a crocodile. In famous 18th century European paintings she lies naked in a voluptuous pose on lion skins with an asp biting into her swelling bosom.

Egypt and Rome at the Time Cleopatra Became Leader

20120218-Queen-cleopatra.jpg Stacy Schiff wrote in her book Cleopatra: A Biography, Cleopatra “and her 10-year-old brother assumed control of a country with a weighty past and a wobbly future. The pyramids, to which Cleopatra almost certainly introduced Julius Caesar, already sported graffiti. The Sphinx had undergone a major restoration — more than 1,000 years earlier. And the glory of the once-great Ptolemaic empire had dimmed. [Source: Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010, Adapted from Cleopatra: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff.]

Cleopatra took the throne of Egypt at a time when Egypt was the richest place in the Middle East. But at the same time the Ptolemaic empire was crumbling. Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, The lands of Cyprus, Cyrene (eastern Libya), and parts of Syria had been lost; Roman troops were soon to be garrisoned in Alexandria itself. Still, despite drought and famine and the eventual outbreak of civil war, Alexandria was a glittering city compared to provincial Rome. Cleopatra was intent on reviving her empire, not by thwarting the growing power of the Romans but by making herself useful to them, supplying them with ships and grain, and sealing her alliance with the Roman general Julius Caesar with a son, Caesarion. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011]

Schiff wrote: “Over the course of Cleopatra's childhood Rome extended its rule nearly to Egypt's borders. The implications for the last great kingdom in that sphere of influence were clear. Its ruler had no choice but to court the most powerful Roman of the day?a bewildering assignment in the late Republic, wracked as it was by civil wars...Cleopatra's father had thrown in his lot with Pompey the Great. Good fortune seemed eternally to shine on that brilliant Roman general, at least until Julius Caesar dealt him a crushing defeat in central Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt, where in 48 B.C. he was stabbed and decapitated. Twenty-one-year-old Cleopatra was at the time a fugitive in the Sinai — on the losing side of a civil war against her brother and at the mercy of his troops and advisers. Quickly she managed to ingratiate herself with the new master of the Roman world.

Meanwhile the Roman civil wars raged on, as tempers flared between Mark Antony, Caesar's protégé, and Octavian, Caesar's adopted son. Repeatedly the two men divided the Roman world between them. Cleopatra ultimately allied herself with Antony, with whom she had three children; together the two appeared to lay out plans for an eastern Roman empire. Antony and Octavian's fragile peace came to an end in 31 B.C., when Octavian declared war — on Cleopatra. He knew Antony would not abandon the Egyptian queen. He knew too that a foreign menace would rouse a Roman public that had long lost its taste for civil war. The two sides ultimately faced off at Actium, a battle less impressive as a military engagement than for its political ramifications. Octavian prevailed. Cleopatra and Antony retreated to Alexandria. After prolonged negotiation, Antony's troops defected to Octavian.

Julius Caesar Helps Cleopatra Seize the Egyptian Throne

Caesar giving Cleopatra
the Throne of Egypt
Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria days after Pompey's murder. He barricaded himself in the Ptolemies' palace, the home from which Cleopatra had been exiled. From the desert she engineered a clandestine return, skirting enemy lines and Roman barricades, arriving after dark inside a sturdy sack. Over the succeeding months she stood at Caesar's side — pregnant with his child — while he battled her brother's troops. With their defeat, Caesar restored her to the throne.

Judith Thurman wrote in The New Yorker the morning after Cleopatra finagled her way into Caesar’s stronghold “her brother dashed into the streets and nearly persuaded a mob to rise against the usurpers.Caesar's Praetorians dragged him back inside, but his handlers rallied their forces...In the ensuing wars against Caesar and Cleopatra, which the world’s greatest general nearly lost (until reinforcements arrived, he was severely shorthanded), Ptolemy drowned. The victors celebrated with a leisurely Nile cruise, a visit to the pyramids, and some whistlestopping in the heartland. The public honeymoon demonstrated an inspired gift for mixing business with pleasures, and both with stagecraft.” [Source: Judith Thurman, The New Yorker November 15, 2010]

Giving birth to Caesar’s son, Thurman wrote, “consolidated her bands with his father, and with her own people and their priests, who rejoiced at a male heir. With a son as her symbolic co-regent and caesar as her protector, Cleopatra had no need to remarry. She henceforth governed alone — uniquely so among female monarchs of her period. Her autonomy depended on the fickle good will of Rome, and her exchange of favors with two Roman leaders.

Cleopatra as a Leader

Cleopatra ascended to the throne in 51 B.C. at age 18. She ruled for 21 years. In that time she survived revolts and exile, showed superb diplomatic skills and used divine mandate and patronage to keep a firm grip on power. She shrewdly formed an alliance with the priesthood, who promoted her cult as mother goddess, and used delaying tactics on important decisions to avoid making mistakes. The simple fact that she lasted as long as did at a time of great upheaval and change is testimony enough of her ability as a leader.

Stacy Schiff wrote in her book Cleopatra: A Biography, “A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency. One of Mark Antony's most trusted generals vouched for her political acumen. Even at a time when female rulers were no rarity, Cleopatra stood out, the sole woman of her world to rule alone. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean. And she enjoyed greater prestige than every other woman of her time, as an excitable rival king was reminded when he called for her assassination during her stay at his court. (The king's advisers demurred. In light of her stature, they reminded Herod, it could not be done.) Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and upheld the family tradition, but was for her time and place remarkably well behaved. [Source: Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010, Adapted from Cleopatra: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff.]

“Her tenure alone speaks to her guile. She knew she could be removed at any time by Rome, deposed by her subjects, undermined by her advisers — or stabbed, poisoned and dismembered by her own family. In possession of a first-rate education, she played to two constituencies: the Greek elite, who initially viewed her with disfavor, and the native Egyptians, to whom she was a divinity and a pharaoh. She had her hands full. Not only did she command an army and navy, negotiate with foreign powers and preside over temples, she also dispensed justice and regulated an economy. Like Isis, one of the most popular deities of the day, Cleopatra was seen as the beneficent guardian of her subjects. Her reign is notable for the absence of revolts in the Egyptian countryside, quieter than it had been for a century and a half.” [Ibid]

A sample of Cleopatra’s handwriting exists on two fragments of papyrus featured in an exhibit on Cleopatra at Philadelphia’s Franklin Museum in 2010. The documents with the Greek inscription “make it happen” refers to a tax break for a friend of Mark Antony. The documents and 150 other artifacts were found during an intensive search for her tomb in the Egyptian town of Taposiris Magnas and the submerged ancient cities of Heracleion and Canopus, where earthquakes and tidal waves destroyed Cleopatra’s palace. Also on display at the exhibit entitled “Cleopatra — the Search for the Last Queen of Egypt — were gold necklaces, bracelets, a sculpture of the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar and sling shot bullets that may have been used by Roman armies to claim Egypt after Cleopatra’s death in 30 B.C.

Cleopatra and Ancient Egyptian Traditions

Cleopatra as Isis
“Lest her subjects resent her Roman overtures,” Brown wrote, “Cleopatra embraced Egypt's traditions. She is said to have been the first Ptolemaic pharaoh to bother to learn the Egyptian language. While it was politic for foreign overlords to adopt local deities and appease the powerful religious class, the Ptolemies were genuinely intrigued by the Egyptian idea of an afterlife. Out of that fascination emerged a hybrid Greek and Egyptian religion that found its ultimate expression in the cult of Serapis — a Greek gloss on the Egyptian legend of Osiris and Isis.” [Ibid]

“One of the foundational myths of Egyptian religion, the legend tells how Osiris, murdered by his brother Seth, was chopped into pieces and scattered all over Egypt. With power gained by tricking the sun god, Re, into revealing his secret name, Isis, wife and sister of Osiris, was able to resurrect her brother-husband long enough to conceive a son, Horus, who eventually avenged his father's death by slaughtering uncle Seth. By Cleopatra's time a cult around the goddess Isis had been spreading across the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. To fortify her position, and like other queens before her, Cleopatra sought to link her identity with the great Isis (and Mark Antony's with Osiris), and to be venerated as a goddess. She had herself depicted in portraits and statues as the universal mother divinity...She appeared in the holy dress of Isis at a festival staged in Alexandria to celebrate Antony's victory over Armenia in 34 B.C., just four years before her suicide and the end of the Egyptian empire.” [Ibid]

Death of Antony and Cleopatra

Antony's defeat spelled the end of Cleopatra' power. She placed her treasure of gold, silver, pearls and in a huge mausoleum with enough fuel to burn it down to keep her treasures from falling into Roman hands.. She then locked herself with her serving maids in her palace.

Cleopatra then reportedly tried to seduce to Octavian, but when she failed she chose to commit suicide at the age of 39 rather than face the humiliation of the rejection and being brought to Rome as a prisoner. She was found dead, one story goes, on a bed of pure gold, dressed in rich robes of Isis, with a message that she wanted to be buried in Rome with Antony.

In the meantime Antony, no doubt upset by the recent events, tried to commit suicide by falling on his sword. When he fell he missed his vital organs and remained alive for about a week before he died. He reportedly lived long enough to be hauled through a window in Cleopatra’s mausoleum where he is said to have died in Cleopatra's arms. In some accounts Antony was brought to the mausoleum on the first of August ten days or so before Cleopatra killed herself .

Octavian honored Antony’s will. Antony and Cleopatra were buried together (the location of grave site is a mystery). The Roman historian Dio Cassius reported that Cleopatra's body was embalmed as Antony's had been, and Plutarch noted that on the orders of Octavian, the last queen of Egypt was buried beside her defeated Roman consort. Sixteen centuries later Shakespeare proclaimed: "No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / a pair so famous." [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011]

With Cleopatra’s death in 30 B.C., the Ptolemaic Dynasty ended. Octavian lured Ptolemy Caesarian, Cleopatra’s son with Julius Caesar, back to Alexandria and had him murdered. Octavian adopted the children Cleopatra had with Antony. In 30 B.C. Egypt also became a province of Rome. It would not recover its autonomy until the 20th century.

Cleopatra and the Horrible Asp

One of the famous stories of the Cleopatra legend is that she killed herself with the bite of an asp (a kind of poisonous snake) to her bosom. The snake had reportedly been smuggled to her in a basket of figs after she was taken prisoner by Octavian. But most historians regard the story as improbable at best. The poison from an asp causes excruciatingly pain and takes a while to kill someone. If she did kill herself with a snake it was probably with a cobra, whose venom is much more deadly and quick. In any case, no one ever saw the snake and reputed bite marks on her arm could have been scratches or mosquito bites.

Most likely Cleopatra consumed a poison she had hidden on her body. Plutarch saw Cleopatra's death certificate and wrote: "what took place is known to no one, since it was also said that she carried poison in a hollow comb...yet there was not so much as a spot found, or any symptoms of poison upon her body, nor was the asp seen within the monument."

Cleopatra, the Modern World, Pop Culture and Hollywood Films

Caesar and Cleopatra in a film
Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, “Where, oh where is Cleopatra? She's everywhere, of course — her name immortalized by slot machines, board games, dry cleaners, exotic dancers, and even a Mediterranean pollution-monitoring project. She is orbiting the sun as the asteroid 216 Kleopatra. Her "bath rituals and decadent lifestyle" are credited with inspiring a perfume. Today the woman who ruled as the last pharaoh of Egypt and who is alleged to have tested toxic potions on prisoners is instead poisoning her subjects as the most popular brand of cigarettes in the Middle East....If history is a stage, no actress was ever so versatile: royal daughter, royal mother, royal sister from a family that makes the Sopranos look like the Waltons. When not serving as a Rorschach test of male fixations, Cleopatra is an inexhaustible muse. To a recent best-selling biography add — from 1540 to 1905 — five ballets, 45 operas, and 77 plays. She starred in at least seven films. [Source:Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011]

William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw have written plays about Cleopatra. Famous artists painted her. On film, Cleopatra has been played by Theda Bara, Sarah Bernhardt, Claudette Colbert, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. The 1963 film with Taylor and Richar Burton is sometimes regarded as the greatest bomb of all time. It cost $44 million. Taylor changed costume 65 times in Cleopatra. The costumes alone cost $135,000. Angelina Jolie is slated to play Cleopatra in a forthcoming 3-D bio-pic, possibly to be directed by James Cameron. Produced by Scott Rudin, the film is based on Stacy Schiff’s biography. A rock musical starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and directed by Steven Soderbergh is also in the works.

Cleopatra’s Legacy

20120219-cleo sexy.jpg Stacy Schiff wrote in her book Cleopatra: A Biography, “Inevitably affairs of state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart. We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we remember what she accomplished in doing so: that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight. A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy and governance, fluent in nine languages, silver-tongued and charismatic, she has dissolved into a joint creation of the Roman propagandists and the Hollywood directors. She endures for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was in fact to have entered into the same partnerships that every man in power enjoyed. That she did so in reverse and in her own name made her deviant, socially disruptive, an unnatural woman. She is left to put a vintage label on something we have always known existed: potent female sexuality. [Source: Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010, Adapted from Cleopatra: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff.]

It has forever been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence — in her ropes of pearls — there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra would unsettle more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent. As one of Caesar's murderers noted, "How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!"

A center of intellectual jousting and philosophical marathons, Alexandria remained a vital center of the Mediterranean for a few centuries after Cleopatra's death. Then it began to dematerialize. With it went Egypt's unusual legal autonomy for women; the days of suing your father-in-law for the return of your dowry when your husband ran off with another woman were over. After a fifth-century A.D. earthquake, Cleopatra's palace slid into the Mediterranean. Alexandria's magnificent lighthouse, library and museum are all gone. The city has sunk some 20 feet. Ptolemaic culture evaporated as well; much of what Cleopatra knew would be neglected for 1,500 years. Even the Nile has changed course. A very different kind of woman, the Virgin Mary, would subsume Isis as entirely as Elizabeth Taylor has subsumed Cleopatra. Our fascination with the last queen of Egypt has only increased as a result; she is all the more mythic for her disappearance. The holes in the story keep us coming back for more.

Search for Cleopatra’s Grave

Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, “People have been puzzling over the whereabouts of Cleopatra's tomb since she was last seen in her mausoleum in the legendary deathbed tableau, adorned with diadem and royal finery and reposed on what Plutarch described as a golden couch...And yet we have no idea where that grave might be.” [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011]

In the past few decades archaeologists have finally taken up the mystery of Cleopatra's whereabouts and are searching for her burial place in earnest. Underwater excavations begun in 1992 by French explorer Franck Goddio and his European Institute of Underwater Archaeology have allowed researchers to map out the drowned portions of ancient Alexandria. "My dream is to find a statue of Cleopatra — with a cartouche," says Goddio. So far, however, the underwater work has failed to yield a tomb. The only signs of Cleopatra the divers have encountered are the empty cigarette packs that bear her name, drifting in the water as they work.

20120219-CleopatraVII7a.jpg More recently, a desert temple outside Alexandria has become the focus of another search, one that asks whether a monarch of Cleopatra's calculation and foresight might have provided a tomb for herself in a place more spiritually significant than downtown Alexandria — ome sacred spot where her mummified remains could rest undisturbed beside her beloved Antony.

In November 2006 at his office in Cairo, Zahi Hawass, then secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, pulled out a sheet of Nile Hilton stationery. On it he had sketched the highlights of an archaeological site where he and a team of scientists and excavators had been digging over the previous year. "We are searching for the tomb of Cleopatra," he said, excitedly. "Never before has anyone systematically looked for the last queen of Egypt." This particular quest had begun when a woman from the Dominican Republic named Kathleen Martinez contacted Hawass in 2004 and came to share a theory she'd developed: that Cleopatra might be buried in a tumbledown temple near the coastal desert town of Taposiris Magna (present-day Abu Sir), 28 miles west of Alexandria.

Located between the Mediterranean and Lake Mareotis, the ancient city of Taposiris Magna had been a prominent port town during Cleopatra's time. Its vineyards were famous for their wine. The geographer Strabo, who was in Egypt in 25 B.C., mentioned that Taposiris staged a great public festival, most likely in honor of the god Osiris. Nearby was a rocky seaside beach, he said, "where crowds of people in the prime of life assemble during every season of the year."

"I thought before we started digging that Cleopatra would be buried facing the palace in Alexandria, in the royal tombs area," said Hawass. But in time, Martinez's reasoning persuaded him another theory might be worth exploring: that Cleopatra had been clever enough to make sure she and Antony were secretly buried where no one would disturb their eternal life together.

A child prodigy who'd earned her law degree at the age of 19, Kathleen Martinez was teaching archaeology at the University of Santo Domingo, but it was an avocation; she'd never been to Egypt or handled a trowel. She traced her obsession with Cleopatra to an argument she'd had with her father in 1990, when she was 24 years old. She wandered into his library one day looking for a copy of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Her father, Fausto Martínez, a professor and legal scholar normally quite careful in his judgments, disparaged the famous queen as a trollop. "How can you say that!" she protested. After an hours-long debate in which Kathleen argued that Roman propaganda and centuries of bias against women had distorted Cleopatra's character, Professor Martínez conceded that his opinion of Cleopatra might have been unfair.

Why Taposiris Magna?

Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, “It was Cleopatra's intense identification with Isis, and her royal role as the manifestation of the great goddess of motherhood, fertility, and magic, that ultimately led Kathleen Martinez to Taposiris Magna. Using Strabo's ancient descriptions of Egypt, Martinez sketched a map of candidate burial sites, zeroing in on 21 places associated with the legend of Isis and Osiris and visiting each one she could find. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011]

"What brought me to the conclusion that Taposiris Magna was a possible place for Cleopatra's hidden tomb was the idea that her death was a ritual act of deep religious significance carried out in a very strict, spiritualized ceremony," Martinez told National Geographic. "Cleopatra negotiated with Octavian to allow her to bury Mark Antony in Egypt. She wanted to be buried with him because she wanted to reenact the legend of Isis and Osiris. The true meaning of the cult of Osiris is that it grants immortality. After their deaths, the gods would allow Cleopatra to live with Antony in another form of existence, so they would have eternal life together."

Taposiris Magna Temple
After studying more than a dozen temples, Martinez headed west of Alexandria along the coastal road to explore the ruin she had begun to believe was the last, best hope for her theory. The temple at Taposiris Magna had been dated to the reign of Ptolemy II, though it may have been even older. The suffix Osiris in its name implied the site was a sacred spot, one of at least 14 throughout Egypt where legend holds that the body of Osiris (or a dismembered part of it) had been buried.

With the Mediterranean on her right and Lake Mareotis on the left, Martinez mused on the possibility that Cleopatra might have traveled a similar route, selecting this strategic location for her burial because it was inside the limits of ancient Alexandria and not yet under the control of the Romans during those last days before her death. "When I saw the place my heart beat very fast," she recalls. As she walked the site, she trailed her hands along the white and beige limestone blocks of the temple's enclosure. This is it! she thought. This is it!

In 1935 British traveler Anthony de Cosson had called Taposiris Magna "the finest ancient monument left to us north of the Pyramids." What was surprising was how little work had been done at the site. In 1905 Evaristo Breccia, the renowned Italian archaeologist, had excavated the foundation of a small fourth-century A.D. Coptic basilica in the otherwise vacant courtyard of the enclosure and discovered an area of Roman baths. In 1998 a Hungarian team led by Gyo"zo" Vörös found evidence of a colonnaded structure inside the enclosure that they concluded (incorrectly, as it turned out) had been an Isis temple.

It was clear when Vörös's book, Taposiris Magna, was published in 2004 that the temple had had three incarnations — as a Ptolemaic sanctuary, a Roman fort, and a Coptic church. But was that the whole story? Zahi Hawass found himself pondering the possibility that a black granite bust of Isis that Vörös had coaxed from the dirt of Taposiris Magna might well be the face of Cleopatra herself.

Archeological Work at Taposiris Magna

In October 2005 excavations at Taposiris Magna with aim of finding Cleopatra’s tomb began. Describing the scne there in 2010 Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, “On the bedrock in the middle of the site an array of column fragments showed the ghostly outlines of what Hawass and Martinez have concluded was not a temple to Isis, but a temple to Osiris. It was oriented on the east-west axis. At an angle just north were the faint hints of an Isis chapel; to the south, an excavated rectangular pit: "That was the sacred lake," Martinez says.

It's a cliché that you can stick a shovel in the ground almost anywhere in Egypt and find something amazing from the long-gone past. When Martinez and a team of excavators began probing the ground in 2005, she was focused less on the ultimate prize of Cleopatra's tomb than on simply finding sufficient evidence to sustain her theory that Taposiris Magna might be the place to look. She hoped to demonstrate that the temple was among the most sacred of its day, that it was dedicated to the worship of Osiris and Isis, and that tunnels had been dug underneath the enclosure walls. Within the first year, she was rewarded by the discovery of a shaft and several underground chambers and tunnels. "One of our biggest questions is why did they dig tunnels of this magnitude," she says. "It had to be for a very significant reason." During the 2006-07 season the Egyptian-Dominican team found three small foundation deposits in the northwest corner of the Osiris temple, just inches from where the Hungarian expedition had stopped digging. The deposits conclusively linked the Osiris temple to the reign of Ptolemy IV, who ruled a century and a half before Cleopatra. In 2007, further supporting the view that the site was very important to the Greeks of ancient Egypt, the excavators found a skeleton of a pregnant woman who had died in childbirth. The tiny bones of the unborn baby lay between the skeleton's hips. Her jaw was distended, suggesting her agony, and her right hand was clutching a small white marble bust of Alexander the Great. "She is a mystery," said Martinez, who had a coffin built for the remains of the mother.

Pharos of Abuqir
at Taposiris Magna Temple
In six years Taposiris Magna has become one of Egypt's most active archaeology sites. More than a thousand objects have been recovered, 200 of them considered significant: pottery, coins, gold jewelry, the broken heads of statues (probably smashed by early Christians). An important discovery was a large cemetery outside the temple walls, suggesting that the subjects of a monarch wished to be buried near royal remains.

Yet the tomb of Cleopatra still hovers out of reach, like a tantalizing mirage, and the theory of who is buried at Taposiris Magna still rests more on educated speculation than on facts...Critics of Martinez's theory point out that it is rare in archaeology for someone to announce they are going to find something and then actually find it. "There is no evidence that Cleopatra tried to hide her grave, or would have wanted to," says Duane Roller, a respected Cleopatra scholar. "It would have been hard to hide it from Octavian, the very person who buried her. All the evidence is that she was buried with her ancestors. The material associated with her at Taposiris Magna is not meaningful because material associated with her can be found in many places in Egypt."

"I agree that Octavian knew and authorized the place where she was buried," Martinez says. "But what I believe — and it is only a theory — is that after the mummification process was complete, the priests at Taposiris Magna buried the bodies of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in a different place without the approval of the Romans, a hidden place beneath the courtyard of the temple."

If Cleopatra's tomb is ever found, the archaeological sensation would be rivaled only by Howard Carter's unearthing of the tomb of King Tut in 1922. But will finding her tomb, not to say her body itself, deepen our portrait of the last Egyptian pharaoh? On one hand, how could it not? ...On the other hand, maybe finding her tomb would diminish what Shakespeare called "her infinite variety." Disembodied, at large in the realm of myth, more context than text, Cleopatra is free to be of different character to different times, which may be the very wellspring of her vitality. No other figure from antiquity seems so versatile in her ambiguities, so modern in her contradictions.

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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