They’re all crazy


Dynasty is a story of a particularly prominent and dysfunctional family: the Julio-Claudian set of Roman Emperors. It includes Augustus (who started the empire), Claudius (subject to a relatively famous BBC series), and Nero (who fiddled while Rome burned), amongst others. They’re notable because they were the first emperors: Augustus managed the transition from republic to empire; Tiberius couldn’t live up to him; Caligula was either crazy or really spoiled; Claudius was underestimated; and Nero was complicated.

It was also a complicated time in the Roman state: how does a republic transition to an empire? Why? How did the prominence of women in the family (Livia, Agrippina the Younger) effect anything?

Dynasty is popular history (not scholarly), and both readable and enjoyable.

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.