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.
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)
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.
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.