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: 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.