How accurate is the Roman writers’ portrayal of Kleopatra as an immoral, tragic queen of Egypt? In a fascinating penultimate lecture of the season, acclaimed Egyptologist Professor Joann Fletcher took us back in time to the Ptolemaic dynasty and explored the captivating history from Alexander the Great to the last ruler of Egypt: Kleopatra the Great.
Throughout the lecture, Professor Fletcher highlighted just how much the world of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome were intertwined; she opened the evening by discussing the early history of Egypt from the end of the Bronze Age to the founding of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Even before the collapse of the Bronze Age, Egypt claimed territory as far north as Knossos and Rhodes, which as Professor Fletcher illustrated, is also supported by cross-referencing the Greek pottery found at Egyptian sites. Apart from trade and the Greeks having an interest in the Egyptian gods such as Neith and Apis, the two distinct cultures had not been truly brought together.
Professor Fletcher also put forward a very convincing argument for the creation of the Greek myth about the Minotaur: the half man, half bull who was imprisoned in the Labyrinth. The Greeks had a real interest in the therianthropic gods and goddesses, especially Apis who was a man with a bull’s head. As Professor Fletcher highlighted, I wonder where the Greeks got the idea for the Minotaur from? But it was not just the Greeks taking from the Egyptians, the Greeks gave us the names of many famous Egyptian landmarks such as the pyramids and the obelisks. Pyramid comes from the Greek word, ‘pyramis’ which means wheat cake and the term obelisk comes from the Greek word for kebab skewer – they must have taken their naming policy very seriously!
Professor Fletcher swiftly moved on to how Alexander the Great invaded Egypt and was crowned pharaoh of Egypt. He then remained in Egypt for around six months, and decided to found the city of Alexandria. This further linked Egypt and Greece together as he brought across Macedonian traditions, further intertwining the two cultures. After Alexander’s death, (and as Professor Fletcher pointed out, his Egyptian style mummification), his empire was carved up and his rumoured half-brother Ptolemy took Egypt, thus founding the Ptolemaic dynasty. This dynasty lasted around 335 years and in that time they had fifteen kings each named Ptolemy, they must have taken their naming policy just as seriously as the Greeks! The Ptolemaic dynasty valued knowledge extensively. For example, they funded the Library of Alexandria where the likes of steam power was invented (and lost). Professor Fletcher opened our eyes to the fact that learning and knowledge was better funded then than it is today! But the Ptolemaic dynasty certainly had its issues, for example Professor Fletcher highlighted the fact that a lot of carvings, which were intended to have the monarchs’ names on, were often left blank because they were continuously being murdered and replaced.
It was against this backdrop that Kleopatra’s reign began and Professor Fletcher proceeded to explore the entirety of her reign and dispel the numerous myths that veil her. She pointed out the fact that ‘Kleopatra’ means ‘renowned in her ancestry’ and she was hailed as divine from her birth – she must have had an impressive CV from day one! Ptolemy XII, her father, made the sixteen-year-old Kleopatra and her younger brother co-regents upon his death and in 51 BC Kleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII were made joint pharaohs of Egypt. Kleopatra was able to immediately secure the people’s loyalty due to the fact she could speak seven languages, not including her everyday Greek, so she could communicate with them directly. But Kleopatra was deposed and fled to Ashkelon though as Professor Fletcher highlighted, the coins minted there certainly show she was somebody not to mess with!
While Kleopatra was away from Egypt, Ptolemy XIII’s Greek courtiers ordered the murder of Pompey and presented his head to Caesar. Yet Caesar refused to leave Egypt, and ended up going to war with Ptolemy XIII. I somehow doubt this was what Ptolemy was trying to achieve. Meanwhile Kleopatra wanted to appeal to and win over Caesar – although disappointingly this did not come about in the way we have all believed, for, as Professor Fletcher suggested, Kleopatra was almost definitely not smuggled into the royal palace, where Caesar was staying, wrapped in a carpet by a carpet merchant. It seems far more likely that there was some misunderstanding in the translation of ‘carpet’ as ‘bedcover’, and with ancient bedcovers doubling as clothing or some form of mantle, she is far more likely to have been wearing a mantle which she could have used to disguise her face as a kind of veil, and been able to slip into the palace. Although the former is much more amusing, the latter is far more probable especially when you consider who would let a carpet merchant into a highly secure palace in the middle of the night?!
Kleopatra managed to win Caesar over and in the ensuing war with Caesar and Ptolemy, Ptolemy ended up drowning due to the weight of his own golden armour. Caesar made Kleopatra and her other younger brother joint rulers, which as Professor Fletcher emphasised was an enormous gamble taken by Caesar. He continued to protect her, possibly due to the fact that by this point she was pregnant, and later Arabic scholars stated that Caesar and Kleopatra got married. The ensuing celebrations up and down the Nile ended up with a lot of people worshipping her as Isis and Professor Fletcher stated that this could have given Caesar the idea to use divinity to secure his own right to rule, further demonstrating just how linked the different and distinct ancient worlds were.
At this point Kleopatra’s reign began properly. Within a couple of years, she made a formal entrance into Rome, with her and Caesar’s son, Caesarion and as Professor Fletcher put it, she made quite an impact. At this time a lot of different technologies were shared and the different cultures of Rome and Egypt were further intertwined. For example, Professor Fletcher stated the fact that the Julian calendar, that was still being used up until a couple of hundred year ago, should actually be called the Kleopatra calendar as it was she who introduced this solar calendar to Caesar. Although Kleopatra was fairly popular back in Egypt she had numerous critics in Rome, including the famous orator Cicero. But as Professor Fletcher pointed out, I bet they did not criticize her to her face as she was certainly a force to be reckoned with. But when Caesar was assassinated, partly because he wanted to make Rome more like Egypt, Kleopatra left for Egypt with her son. When she got home she had her brother murdered and made Caesarion her co-ruler. He was promptly re-named as Ptolemy XV to continue the great family tradition but I doubt he would have had much input on how Egypt was ruled considering he was three years old.
After Caesar’s assassination a civil war in Rome broke out with Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus on one side and Caesar’s assassins, (Brutus and Cassius) on the other. Although both parties requested Egypt’s support, due to its considerable wealth, Kleopatra sided with Mark Antony. As a reward for helping in the war that Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus won, Mark Antony gifted her a considerable amount of land from Turkey. Kleopatra became pregnant but Mark Antony returned to Rome. And not to be outdone by Octavia, who Mark Antony married to seal his alliance with her brother Octavian, while Octavia gave Antony a daughter, Kleopatra gave birth to twins: Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. This also proves how intertwined the three cultures were: an Egyptian woman and a Roman man who have children who are named after the Greek deities of the Sun and the Moon respectively, as portrayed in a statue of the twins in Cairo Museum first identified by Professor Fletcher back in 1995. Then when Mark Antony needed Kleopatra’s help and financial backing to fight the Parthians, he ended up marrying her and having another child with her. Mark Antony again rewarded her with extensive lands stretching from Turkey down to Judaea. Professor Fletcher pointed out that this also doubled as a wedding present because under Egyptian laws you could have multiple spouses. I bet this came in useful! This also restored the Egyptian empire to what it was before the collapse of the Bronze Age.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of Professor Fletcher’s lecture were her insights on the only known piece of surviving papyrus bearing Kleopatra’s signature from 33 BC. In this document, Kleopatra was granting a tax exemption to the Roman general Canidius Crassus who also happened to be Mark Antony’s friend. Kleopatra added the words, ‘make it happen’. And as Professor Fletcher highlighted, this is perhaps the closest we will ever physically get to Kleopatra.
In the end Octavian wished to declare war on Mark Antony, but could not be seen declaring war on a fellow Roman so instead persuaded the Senate to declare war on Kleopatra alone. Yet Mark Antony stayed with Kleopatra and they fought together until their dying breath. They made camp at Actium but Octavian had them cornered with his fleet. Kleopatra wanted to save her ships so they decided to burst out of the bay with her fleet and send the army over land. This was successful and Kleopatra, with Mark Antony, got back to Egypt with the fleet but the land army was bribed to switch sides. Professor Fletcher pointed out the fact that Octavian never seemed to be involved with the battles. For example, at the battle of Actium he mysteriously developed sea sickness. After, Kleopatra who had attempted to transport her fleet overland to the Red Sea to fight on another front, lost the fleet when it was destroyed by the Arabs of Petra. She then offered to abdicate in favour of her children but Octavian refused her abdication. Although Antony initially kept Octavian out of Egypt, his forces eventually switched sides leaving Antony alone. When Octavian refused his offer of single combat Antony had no choice but to return to the palace, only to discover that Kleopatra, believing him dead, had already sealed herself in her tomb. Upon hearing this, Mark Antony assumed Kleopatra had died and proceeded to commit suicide. However, she hadn’t died and they managed to get Mark Antony to Kleopatra just before he died via the tomb’s high-set windows.
Professor Fletcher fittingly ended her lecture with the death of Kleopatra. When Octavian raided her tomb, he ordered his men to take her alive and put her under house arrest in Alexandria so he could parade her around Rome when he returned for his triumph. As Professor Fletcher demonstrated, I doubt Kleopatra would have ever given Octavian this satisfaction. She requested that her servant and hairdresser stayed with her under house arrest and Professor Fletcher highlighted Octavian’s naivety at this. Egyptian women used hair pins which were very sharp. Professor Fletcher believes that the poison Kleopatra used to commit suicide was from an Egyptian cobra. But she also pointed out that there were three women whose joint suicides would require a lot of poison – since a cobra with sufficient venom to kill is around two metres long and discharges its venom in its first bite, three large cobras would have been needed. The story goes that the snakes were smuggled into the palace in a fig basket and Professor Fletcher jokingly says it must have been a huge fig basket and waved through by the same guards that let the carpet merchant in all those years ago! Kleopatra used the hair pin to create a puncture wound so the poison could be absorbed intravenously into their bodies. When Octavian’s men realised what was going on it was too late, Kleopatra was dying and as she died her hairdresser just managed to adjust her royal diadem so she would die with dignity and style. Octavian would not have his trophy after all.
© Samuel Holden