Gertrude Bell, badass lady

Gertrude Bell is seated between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.

One day, in my spare time, I will write about famous royal women in history. Until then, I will content myself with Anne Thériault’s Queens of Infamy series over on Longreads (which you should be reading). And as a part of that series, I will make an exception for non-royal Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who was instrumental in getting the British out of the government of the Middle East.

How to summarize Gertrude Bell? She was the daughter of one of Britain’s titans of industry, independently wealthy, full of energy, and an adventurer through and through. Before she explored the Middle East, she climbed the most difficult mountains in the Alps, mostly because she could.

Once she started exploring the Middle East, she became omnivorous about it, learning not only the languages and the customs, but also the history and peoples and more. Many of her expeditions were to ruins and historical sites that she was the first Westerner to explore, and the maps she created were the best of their ilk.

As WWI broke out, she offered her services and knowledge to the British Empire. They eventually took her up on the offer (of course there was sexism and having to prove she deserved to be in the room before anyone would start taking her seriously), and her knowledge of the tribal structures and people in the Middle East was a great asset during the war.

She was also instrumental in setting up Iraq as an independent country after WWI. She fought to get the best structure for the future Iraqis; the British government back in London was all about doing what was easiest for them. Those two things did not often align.

Basically, Gertrude Bell was a force to be reckoned with and historically important. Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations was a lovely introduction to her. Recommended.

When the patriarchy was even stronger

Agrippina by Anthony A Barrett

Agrippina, specifically Agrippina the Younger, was a kind of incredible woman who co-ruled the Roman Empire first with her husband Claudius and then with her son Nero. This book has a distinctly feminist take on her.

Agrippina has often been portrayed as a power-hungry woman who would do anything (e.g. setting up Claudius’ prior wife for political downfall, murdering Claudius so Nero would inherit over Claudius’ natural son, sleeping with Nero once he was on the throne to stay in his good graces) to rule Rome. Mr Barrett’s take on it is as follows:

  1. Look, she was a powerful woman in a deeply misogynistic society. She’s not going to be portrayed in anything like a positive light.
  2. She only shows up in the contemporary stories about the men whose lives she was in. We don’t have anything that focuses on her.
  3. Sex scandals were frequently used by the contemporary sources to explain why powerful people (both men and women) were suddenly not in power anymore.

So when she’s implicated in a sex scandal, it’s important to look around and see who benefits and who else is being taken down with her. That’s going to show you what’s really going on.

Here are the facts: she was raised by an extraordinarily determined mother and her dead father was worshipped by the military. When she was around Caligula (the emperor before Claudius and her brother), he wasn’t such a crazy asshole who tried to kill everyone. Claudius’ reign was much smoother when she was his wife than when he was married to his prior wife. Nero didn’t go off the rails until after she was banished (and then he had her killed to keep her from coming back). Shit worked when she was on the scene.

So maybe consider that the contemporary reports were written by gossipy people with a strong patriarchal bias and should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt.

I liked this one.

Octavian vs Antony

As much as I hate to move away from Cleopatra – this is supposed to be about women in history – she doesn’t exist without Rome. And there’s another looming civil war coming up that she plays a key part in, so I’m taking a quick detour to talk about it.

The thing to remember is that Rome has been in the middle of a civil war for the last 100 years. Various generals took over, resigned or declined and were beaten. The Senate would rise back up and try to assert power, only to have yet another big man come along to take control of everything. Or try to.

Earlier in our story, Julius Caesar was fighting Pompey for control over Rome; Caesar won and was assassinated a few years later. Octavian is his grand-nephew and heir; Mark Antony was his second in command and thought he should have been Caesar’s heir.

They have different skill sets: Antony is the consummate athlete, soldier, and big man in Rome. He’s got a good name, and that accounts for a surprisingly large amount around 45 BCE. But he doesn’t necessarily know what needs to be done in order to take over. Octavian, on the other hand, is incredibly skilled politically – he knows what needs to be done, but he’s not really a soldier. He’s a pretty good propagandist, though. And he’s got Agrippa – friend extraordinaire who will be his general.

So for now, the key things to know are:

  • Octavian and Antony are banding together, at the moment, to defeat Julius Caesar’s assassins.
  • They eventually, along with a guy named Lepidus, form a triumvirate to rule Rome – like three kings sharing power.
  • This only holds for so long, until one of them must win. That’s how it works.

Cleopatra has left Rome in the wake of Caesar’s assassination and is likely ably ruling Egypt while this all shakes out. Remember, she’s only in power because Rome likes her. She needs to watch what’s going on, to figure out who to latch onto in order to stay on as Pharaoh.

So keep an eye out. The game is afoot!

Mystery and grace and glamour

While I get caught up on my reading for Cleopatra, I’m going to interject a couple of non-chronological posts. First up: glamour.

I know I keep beating this over the head, but it can’t be overstated: the major sources that we have for Cleopatra are all Roman. She was on the losing side of the Antony-Octavian civil war. History is written by the winners, and she lost.

But she is a queen. And her intelligence and glamour comes across in the ancient sources. Plutarch, for example, describes her meeting with Antony:

…she sailed up the river Cydnus on a gold-prowed barge, with sails of purple outspread and rowers pulling on silver oars to the sound of a reed-pipe blended with wind-pipes and lyres. She herself reclined beneath a gold-embroidered canopy, adorned like a painting of Aphrodite…

So what does it mean to be glamorous? Virginia Postrel, in her wonderful book, The Power of Glamour, explains that glamour has three main qualities: mystery, a promise of escape or transformation, and grace.

First, the mystery. We don’t know Cleopatra very well. There are only a handful of ancient sources about her. So we take what we know: she was well-educated and an able governor. Julius Caesar was at least in lust with her, and Antony was definitely in love. But beyond that, we don’t know much. So our minds tend to fill in the details. We don’t fill in details we don’t like or inconvenient truths. We fill in the details with even more luxury or decadence or hard work or intelligence… whatever we want to see.

Which leads us naturally into the promise of escape or transformation. It’s easy to daydream about how awesome being Cleopatra would be. To live in a cosmopolitan place like Alexandria, with the best tutors at your fingertips, with amazing food and luxuries around you all the time. Wouldn’t it be great to live like that? You can pick and choose the details you want. In the early 1900s, the decadence was emphasized. In Stacy Schiff’s book, the intelligence and hard work is. How we see Cleopatra is very much how we see ourselves.

And then the grace. She isn’t always described as beautiful (on her coins she has quite a large nose), but she is universally described as an intelligent, witty conversationalist. She was well-educated, spoke nine languages, could raise armies and managed her country ably. Not to mention that all her official propaganda packaged her as Isis – a goddess. She knew how to present herself with elegance and style.

Cleopatra is definitely glamorous, and exploring that glamour is one of the things I enjoy about her.

Catching up with Cleopatra

Here’s our Cleopatra story so far:

She was born in Alexandria, Egypt as part of the Ptolemaic dynasty. We don’t have any direct evidence of her childhood, but we can surmise a few things. First, she’s Greek. The Ptolemaic dynasty was a bunch of Greek elites ruling over the Egyptian lower- and middle-classes. Second, she was educated. Alexandria was where you sent your child to be educated; she can, as an adult, speak nine languages. This speaks to a good education.

The political world is basically: the Roman Republic is taking over the Mediterranean; and it’s also busy beating up on itself. There have been a series of dictators in Rome, all of whom have been generals. There are consuls – elected leaders – in between the dictators, but about once a generation for the last 60-80 years, there’s been a civil war between two generals, with one eventually coming out on top. The generals cut their teeth getting new land for Rome, and then they come to take over the whole thing. What this means for Egypt: by Cleopatra’s time, Rome runs all the land around the Mediterranean except for Egypt. The Ptolemies need to be in Rome’s good graces if they’re going to continue to rule. Cleopatra’s father, Auletes, knows this, and bribes Roman officials accordingly.

After Auletes dies, Cleopatra co-rules Egypt with one of her younger brothers. But then her brother’s advisors force her out. At the same time, Rome’s latest civil war – between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus – shows up on Egypt’s shore. Pompey has just been defeated in a major battle; the advisors decide to behead Pompey to gain favor with Caesar. Caesar is appalled.

Cleopatra decided to appeal to Julius Caesar to get back on the throne. He backs her, they fight her brother’s advisors and their troops, and they win. Cleopatra gets almost sole control over Egypt (she has to co-rule with an even younger brother, but she’s powerful and she’s got Rome’s might behind her, so that’s just a formality).

Cleopatra and Caesar have a son, Caesarion.

Cleopatra, as monarch, heads to Rome when Caesarion is about a year old because she continues to need their support. And Rome needs Egyptian grain and money because it’s about to mount a war against a third country, Parthia.

But then Julius Caesar is assassinated, and about six weeks later, Cleopatra heads back to Egypt. We’ll pick up our story there next time.

So… that women in history thing? What happened to that?

At the beginning of the year, I promised to write about women in history, and I was starting it off with Cleopatra. Because Cleopatra is awesome, I have a small obsession with ancient Rome, and she figures heavily in that.

But the long and short of it is: I didn’t carve out enough time. I was able to scramble it in for four posts, getting through her childhood to the death of her first lover, Julius Caesar. And that was it. Then books were due at the library and a rush of other things happened and it fell by the wayside.

So this is me, setting aside time. It will still be slow-going, I suspect, and maybe a little bursty. A handful of posts one week, none the next. I have another post drafted and ideas in my head for two more about Cleopatra. Those should come fairly quickly. The plan after that is to finish up her life and then move on to Elizabeth I.

Why Elizabeth I? Because she ruled ably over a very stable England for a very long time. And, in Wolf Hall, when Damien Lewis’ Henry VIII gets all angry about how “useless” Anne Boleyn’s child was because she was a girl… well. It got my dander up.

To summarize: I’m finishing up Cleopatra and then moving on to Elizabeth I. More soon.

Cleopatra goes to Rome

I am far behind where I wanted to be by now in my series of posts on Cleopatra. The first post was about context. The second post was about Alexandria and her childhood. In the third post, Julius Caesar shows up and then there’s an Egyptian Civil War. Today we’ll be covering Cleopatra’s relationship with Caesar.

Where were we? Oh yes, Caesar and Cleopatra were taking a vacation down the Nile. It was ostensibly to show off her power to Egypt, but she also reportedly wanted to show Caesar the Pyramids. Whatever the trip’s motive, she was pregnant by their return, and Caesar needed to get back to Rome in order to consolidate his power. (Also, Antony wasn’t doing a very good job ruling in Caesar’s place, and Caesar needed to do some clean-up work.) Caesar leaves 14,000 troops in Egypt to protect it and Cleopatra, and he took Arsinoe, one of Cleopatra’s traitorous sisters with him to parade in his eventual triumph.

Cleopatra ruled capably. She ran both the secular and religious bureaucracies, answering correspondence, being briefed by advisers, made decisions, received calls from people on various forms of business, supervised the distribution of grain and seed, and was generally in charge of almost everything in Egypt. She also was the judge over petty complaints between her citizens, and the head of the very complicated tax bureau.

Remember that Egypt was in a bad way, economically, when Auletes died. Cleopatra took the economy firmly into her control. She devalued the currency, and introduced coins worth different amounts (rather than only a single-value coin). She also was personally wealthy, and Alexandria’s arts scene flourished.

Caesar had been in Rome for about a year and in July 46BCE, Cleopatra travelled to Rome (at his request). She brought along many advisors, her son, and lots of gifts designed to show how wealthy Egypt was. Caesar installed her and their son in one of his country estates just outside the city proper. It was lavish by Roman standards, but probably only seemed acceptable to Egyptian ones – Rome was still made of wood, while Alexandria was a city of marble. Cicero didn’t like her very much, but others flocked to see her. It was very different than when her father was in Rome. She very generous to singers and musicians in Rome, trying to create a more cultured city.

Cleopatra also helped Caesar on a number of his projects: creating a library of Rome, improving the canals and draining the marshes around Rome, and advising him on updating the calendar.

She stayed in Rome for a couple of years. It was not a good place for her. Latin was not one of the nine languages she spoke fluently, and women in Rome had no legal standing. Not to mention that Caesar was married to someone else.

There’s an assumption that Cleopatra goes back to Alexandria in 45BCE for a visit. However, she’s back in Rome when Caesar is assassinated in 44BCE.

By early 44BCE, the Romans were looking askance at Caesar. He’d taken on some of the Egyptian practices that the Romans don’t like very much: in particular, in Egypt the pharaohs are part deity, but in Rome they’re just plain old men. So when Caesar puts up a statue of Cleopatra in the temple of Venus, it’s a scandal. Then he put up statues of himself in the temples. He also may have someone up to trying to crown him King (another thing the Romans really, really hated). Plus, they started to see her as a general bad influence from the East. (I’m glossing over a lot of complicated politics which only tangentially have to do with Cleopatra. If you want to learn more, may I suggest the Life of Caesar podcast?)

So a group of Senators decided to assassinate Caesar, and they succeeded on the ides of March in 44BCE. Cleopatra was still in the city; she was blamed for his Easternisation. Caesar made no move to recognize his son with Cleopatra in his will. She left Rome about a week after his death.

Next time: Cleopatra returns to Alexandria and continues to restore the city to its former glory. She’s going to get pulled back into Roman politics before too long, though.

Egyptian Civil War

To recap last week: Alexandria was an awesome place, Cleopatra as a child was smart and capable, but the Ptolemies didn’t get along. At all. Her father, Auletes, was deposed because he was too much under Rome’s thumb. Her sister took over, but the Romans (after much bribery by Auletes) said: no, really, Auletes is in charge, and here’s our army to back up our words. Auletes rules for a few more years, with some evidence that Cleopatra was his co-ruler for the last year of his life.

Auletes died in 51 BCE. He left Egypt to Cleopatra (18 years old) and her brother, Ptolemy XIII (13 years old), in his will. They co-ruled for a bit. Which really means that Cleopatra did what she could to sideline Ptolemy. Ergo, Ptolemy’s advisors schemed to get rid of Cleopatra – she was too independent from them and he was more malleable. (The History of Rome, ep 44) She also takes part in religious festivals – an important part of being an Egyptian ruler. (The History of Rome, ep 44) Since they couldn’t control her, they wanted her gone. She was banished.

Julius Caesar, who plays a large role in our story today.


Back in Rome, they’re having their own civil war. Julius Caesar is fighting Pompey Magnus for control of the Roman Republic, which, remember, basically controls all the land around Egypt and is breathing heavily down Egypt’s neck. In the course of said war, Pompey is fleeing Caesar’s army. He aims for Egypt because they’ve been nice to him in the past. But not this time.

Ptolemy and his advisors know that without Rome’s blessing, their government isn’t long for this world. Seeing that Caesar has the upper hand at this point, Ptolemy and his advisors behead Pompey as he comes ashore in September of 48 BCE. Caesar follows shortly thereafter, and is appalled when Pompey’s head is presented to him. Ptolemy and his advisors have misjudged the situation. Caesar takes over a portion of the royal palace. (Cleopatra, p14)

Cleopatra has been raising armies in Syria. (Cleopatra, p11) She’s persona non grata in the Egyptian palace, and both she and Ptolemy have armies ready to fight. But she sees an opportunity: Caesar can help her. He’s not inclined to like Ptolemy, since he and his advisors killed Pompey (The History of Rome, ep 44).

Ptolemy asks Caesar to leave, he refuses because he needs Egyptian money. Egypt still owes 6000 talents to Rome, promised by Auletes, so this isn’t conquer and pillage per se. (Cleopatra, p39) Caesar (age 52) asks Cleopatra (now 21) to come to the palace. (The History of Rome, ep 44) Note that it’s also in Rome’s interest to have a stable Egypt. Caesar wants a stable client kingdom that will pay up in either gold or grain as needed. (Cleopatra, p14)

She smuggles herself into the palace, probably in a bag typically used for carpets. She isn’t particularly lovely by modern standard, but she was smart and charming. “Generally, it was known to be impossible to converse with her without being instantly captivated by her.” (Cleopatra, p16) She impresses Caesar, who also reportedly likes her flair. Ptolemy discovers Cleopatra and Caesar together and freaks out. (Cleopatra, p40)

Caesar and his troops take over the palace, placing Ptolemy under house arrest and protecting Cleopatra. Unfortunately for Cleopatra, the Alexandrians are on Ptolemy’s side, and his advisors claim that the Romans are trying to turn Egypt into a province. (The History of Rome, ep 44) The Egyptians were grumpy about Auletes being in Rome’s pocket and now Cleopatra is in Rome’s bed. Ptolemy ostensibly agrees to a reconciliation, but his advisors are raising troops at the same time. (Cleopatra, p43) Caesar eventually manages to calm the Alexandrians down somewhat by returning Crete. (Cleopatra, p44)

Caesar is protecting Cleopatra, but they’re all prisoners in the Royal Palace. There was a lot of street fighting in Alexandria – by this time one of Ptolemy’s advisors has troops in the city (Cleopatra, p45). The Roman legions were tougher, but they didn’t have urban warfare tactics. (The History of Rome, ep 44)

In January of 47 BCE (if my calculations are correct), a delegation heads to the palace to secure Ptolemy’s release. It works, and it’s unclear exactly why. Certainly Caesar’s typical leniency plays into it. (Cleopatra, p 61) Ptolemy, of course, heads straight for his armies.

Shortly thereafter, Ptolemy’s and Caesar’s forces meet in the Battle of the Nile. Caesar wins easily. Ptolemy dies when his boat capsizes. (The History of Rome, ep 44) The Alexandrians throw down their weapons. (Cleopatra, p 62) Cleopatra is ruler, albeit with her even younger brother Ptolemy XIV, but he’s a puppet. Cleopatra and Caesar are firmly in control. So they take a trip down the Nile to show off her power and glamour to her people, but also: vacation.

Next week: Cleopatra is pregnant with Caesar’s only son at the end of the Nile trip. He heads back to Rome to consolidate his power. Long-distance romance!

Cleopatra’s childhood

Cleopatra VII
A bust of Cleopatra


Cleopatra was born in 69BCE. There are no records of her childhood, but it was likely very luxurious. For example, we know her palace in Alexandria had lush gardens and a zoo (Cleopatra, p27). It also seems that she was groomed for the throne along with her older sister. Cleopatra was a Ptolemy; succession was often bloody and confusion and everyone needed to know how to govern. She was almost certainly educated by the pre-eminent scholars of her day at the Library of Alexandria and its attached Museon. She studied Homer, reading, writing, Egyptian gods, Alexander the Great, rhetoric, math, geometry, music, astrology, and nine different languages. She was notably the only Ptolemy who ever spoke Egyptian. (Cleopatra, p33)

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great. Check out that hair!

Life in Alexandria
Alexandria, at this point, was the second city of the Mediterranean, only behind Rome in terms of population and wealth. It was founded in 334BCE by Alexander the Great; his general Ptolemy ruled it on his death. Ptolemy was Greek and he and all his descendants acted and spoke Greek. It was the official government language (Cleopatra and Antony). But Alexandria is also Egyptian – Ptolemy styled himself the new Pharaoh, going so far as to adopt the brother-sister marriages the Egyptian pharaohs practiced.

The Ptolemies developed Alexandria into a center of culture and learning. Alexandria was a city of marble, full of statues, home to the famous lighthouse and the more famous library. “For centuries both before and after Cleopatra the most impressive thing a doctor could say was that he had trained in Alexandria. It was where you hoped your child’s tutor had studied.” (Cleopatra, p37)

Egyptian women had more control over their lives than you might think: they were traders, owned barges (Egypt grew more grain than any other Mediterranean country [Cleopatra and Antony, p12] and transporting it was a great way to earn a living), and could initiate divorce proceedings. Women inherited property equally and independently. (Cleopatra, p 24) They ran their own businesses. Women went into the markets while the men tended the looms at home (the opposite of Ancient Greece).

Overall, Alexandria was a cultured and modern place.

Ancient Egyptian Territory
Ancient Egyptian Territory

Egypt’s place in the world
Rome was slowly taking over the entire Mediterranean. It conquered Carthage – near modern Tunis, Tunisia – in 146 BCE, and Pompey (a Roman general whose name will come up again) conquered Macedonia, Syria, and Jerusalem in the early 60sBCE. Egypt was becoming surrounded by Roman land and forces. In fact, Egypt had made a series of treaties and agreements with Rome going back to 193BCE, but the agreements were more and more in Rome’s favor.

What about Cleopatra’s family?
All the brother-sister intermarriage wasn’t helping the Ptolemaic bloodlines. Cleopatra’s grandfather wasn’t right in the head; there’s a particularly gruesome story about him dismembering his own child. (Cleopatra and Antony, p18) Ptolemy Auletes – Cleopatra’s father – was rumored to care more about the arts than governing. Which doesn’t make him crazy, but might make him incompetent.

Rome annexed the Egyptian province of Cyprus in 58BCE. Auletes couldn’t retaliate militarily and was forced to travel to Rome to bribe various senators to  get the island back. The Egyptians weren’t happy about losing Cyprus without a fight, and as soon as Auletes left, Cleopatra’s older sister Berenike seized the throne.

It’s worth mentioning that no one knows where eleven-year-old Cleopatra was during this coup. She may have been with Auletes in Rome, where she would be getting a lesson in diplomacy. Or she may have fled to the countryside with her handmaidens (many of whom were her illegitimate half-sisters), getting a lesson on how to relate to your subjects. Either way, she was gaining valuable experience.

Auletes eventually bribed enough of the right people in Rome, and Roman troops, led by Marc Antony, put Auletes back on the Egyptian throne. One of the first things that Auletes did was put Berenike to death. (Antony’s stay in Egypt, this time, was brief, and it’s unclear if he ever saw Cleopatra.)

Auletes ruled until 51BCE, and the last year of his life he co-ruled with Cleopatra. His popularity had never recovered from the whole Cyprus incident. Cleopatra was 18 and she was effectively co-leading Egypt with her ill father.

Next week: Auletes dies. Cleopatra is forced to co-rule Egypt with her younger brother-husband Ptolemy XIII. It doesn’t go well.

Cleopatra: context is key

Before I get going on Cleopatra, there are two big things I want to point out.

  1. You can’t talk about Cleopatra without talking about Rome. Why? Well, Rome was busy taking over bits of the Mediterranean; it had been for awhile. In fact, Rome ruled almost the entire Mediterranean at this point. Egypt was just about the only place left that it didn’t. As a result, Rome was the 500-lb gorilla. Egypt was full of grain and exotic and Rome had its eye on it. In fact, Rome takes over Egypt when Cleopatra dies. Which leads me to my second point…
  2. Augustus (Rome’s ruler at her death) really, really didn’t like Cleopatra. He portrayed her as a “inebriated whore” (In Our Time, 2 Dec 2010) who tempted Antony into rebelling against him. In fact, it was Octavian (as Augustus was then known) and Antony disputing over who should rule Rome which lead to a civil war. Cleopatra threw in with Anthony, which put her on the losing side. Augustus  could portray her as a temptress, luring Antony away from Rome. Since Augustus was Rome’s ruler for the next forty-five years, he got to tell the story. In fact, he burned two thousand documents that disagreed with his version of events. (Cleopatra and Antony, p5) It’s important to keep in mind just how skewed the sources are.

So even though Cleopatra rules Egypt, we’re going to talk a lot about Rome.

Next week, I promise a more meaty post about the Ptolemys and Alexandria. Alexandria sounds like it would have been a great place to live.