Cleopatra: A Nationalist Heroine

Cleopatra: A Nationalist Heroine

Cleopatra VII would make for an intriguing Nationalist heroine today.  Her entire life was spent fighting for her country’s nationhood. It was a fight she lost but she gave it literally everything she had.

The last native Egyptian dynasty ended when Psamtik III was defeated in the Persian invasion.  He was carried off in chains and later “committed suicide.” His sons were executed and much more importantly, so far as the Egyptian religion was concerned, his daughters were taken away as slaves and their sacred bloodline was polluted. In theory, the matrilineal descent went back thousands of years all the way to gods Osiris and his son Horus. No matter what dynasty came or went, its legitimacy in the eyes of Egypt’s religion was dependent on a tracible mother to daughter ancestry. Every Egyptian dynasty was based on this (more or less) continuous maternal line from the first “official” Pharaoh, Menes.  ** Only a woman descended from the gods could give birth to a Pharaoh and the Pharaoh was an inseparable figure to their religion which in turn was inseparable from all aspects of Egyptian life.  He was a god himself and as such, was the only one who could intervene on Egypt’s behalf with the other gods.

For two centuries Egypt languished without a Pharaoh, as a Persian satrap.  

And then a new god-king appeared. 

The priests of Memphis were only too happy to declare Alexander the Great as Pharaoh.  I can see their point, a living god is a living god, right?   Alexander for his part was delighted to have his divinity confirmed by an outside source, it had been just his word against everybody else’s up until then.  Sadly, the new Pharaoh inconveniently died without issue. * 

But never mind, one of his Generals, Ptolemy, grabbed Alex the G’s body while it was en route to Macedonia for burial and rode off to Memphis with it.  At that time, he started remembering he was actually, Alexander’s bastard half-brother. The Priests of Egypt said, “Cool! You’re qualified to be Pharaoh. You’ve got an army, right?”

And just like that, Egypt regained its independence. 

There was a major caveat however, his bloodline had to stay “pure.”  Meaning his children had to marry each other. The reason for the royal incest was logical enough, for 99% of human history, motherhood was a matter of fact and fatherhood was a matter of opinion.

What followed for Ptolemy’s descendants was three hundred years of A Game of Thrones. Incest, intrigue, rebellion, betrayal, rampaging mobs, and of course lots and lots of family murder. “We are family. Everyone who is us, is an enemy.”

Yep, the Ptolemies had it all.

The Egyptians for their part viewed the Ptolemies as Greek imports, (sort of like how the English still think of the House of Windsor as those “Germans”. Not so Cleopatra. She went out of her way to earn the Egyptian people’s love. Most of the Ptolemies couldn’t speak a word of Egyptian. But she learned the native language and portrayed herself as Isis, which her countrymen deeply appreciated.

Cleopatra VII’s principle headache dated back to her uncle (I think) Ptolemy XI.  The Roman Dictator Sulla agreed to put him on the throne, and it has been speculated that the price tag was bequeathing Egypt to Rome in his will.  Ptolemy XI’s reign was almost comically short but was typical for his dynasty.  He married his stepmother/half-sister Bernice and then murdered her a few days later.  Bad call, she was popular with the Alexandria mob and they promptly stormed the palace and tore him to pieces.

Rome now felt it had a claim on Egypt and Egyptian wheat was what kept Rome fed. 

When the population of the city in the ancient world reached a tipping point, the quality of life would go down. The diet of the lower classes would suddenly become very dependent upon grain agriculture. 

At first, grain was brought in by Rome’s extensive road system. It’s why Rome built those roads in the first place. But by the 1st century BC, Rome’s population had grown so large that Italy simply couldn’t produce enough grain to keep Rome fed without starving the rest of the Peninsula. Consequently, shipping wheat in bulk volume from Egypt to Rome’s port city of Ostia was now critical to keeping the city in bread. 

After Sulla’s death, the Romans began spiraling towards another civil war. Call it an extended “Bleeding Kansas” period. Small wars were constantly popping up. The best known of which was the Spartacus Rebellion. Consequently, there was always something more urgent to do than conquering Egypt.  As long as the bribes were sufficient, the Republic was willing to let the Ptolemies stay in business.  And the grain had to keep flowing as well. Egyptian grain was the key to political stability in Rome.

Egypt had basically turned into the Arrakis of the Roman world.  

When anything threatened Egyptian grain production, Rome got very interested in Egypt. 

And a civil war in Egypt qualified as a threat to that production. The factions were the thirteen-year-old Ptolemy XIII and his seventeen-year-old sister/wife Cleopatra VII. 

Enter Gaius Julius Caesar.

 Julius Caesar’s biggest problem is worryingly familiar to Americans in the year 2020.  His opposition had completely lost its shit about the man. A consul couldn’t be brought to trial under Roman law and Caesar had managed to stay a Consul for ten years, driving his opposition to new heights of insanity every time he was reelected. 

When his coalition finally fell apart, he knew he would be tried, convicted of treason for whatever reason, stripped of all honors, (and everything else come to that), and sent into exile, if not killed outright. With the odds against him, he threw the dice on an all or nothing lunge at Rome and it worked. 

Skipping ahead quite a bit. 

At the Battle of Pharsalus, Julius Caesar broke the back of his opposition and sent its leader, his former son-in-law, Pompey scurrying off to Egypt to try and raise funds to continue his end of the civil war.  If you want to get technical, Pompey had the better claim to be representing the legitimate government of Rome. 

Which meant nothing to Alexandria.  

I can’t think of any movie or TV show that has ever done justice to Alexandria *** It was the Pearl of the Ancient World.  It was a glory and a wonder, and also, a cesspit. A seat of learning and a seat of mob rule.  While it was located on the Nile delta it was about as Egyptian as the Ptolemies’ themselves. It was a Greek city grafted on to Egypt.  Greek love of learning was coupled with Egyptian wealth to create the Great Library and the Great Lighthouse. Alexandria was a mix of the ancient beyond measure and the ultra-modern. It was a cosmopolitan center where the philosophies of Greeks, Egyptians, Jews, Mesopotamians, and Carthaginians freely intermingled. Its official religion was the Cult of Alexander, which was welded into the traditional Egyptian pantheon with quite a few Greek deities thrown in as well.  Alexandria was like the fictional city of Lankhmar in this regard, it was the Golden Corral Buffet of ancient world religions. 

Come to think of it, it was like Lankhmar in quite a few other ways. The city was either at your throat or at your feet.  Above all, Alexandria was not a place you went demanding that it take your side when you were looking weak.

Pompey was dead within minutes of setting foot on Egypt’s shores. 

This was a drastic miscalculation on the part Ptolemy XIII faction.  Kings never approve of regicide, even if it’s one of their opponents that gets the ax.  When presented with Pompey’s severed head, Caesar made a great show of crying over it. Maybe this was a political gesture or maybe it was genuine, (an old man remembering the good times about one who used to be his best friend?). Whatever the reason, the assassination of Pompey left Julius Caesar in a receptive mood when Cleopatra made contact with him.

Cleopatra has been portrayed by some of the most beautiful women in the world, even though she was probably not that attractive herself.  In the surviving texts, she is often described as quick-witted and engaging. Considering that most plain women in her station were described in the most glowing terms imaginable to characterize their beauty, we can only guess what she must actually have looked like. But she was brilliant.  She spoke between five and nine languages.  She was a chemist, a mathematician, and a philosopher. She wrote science texts and in the words of the Arab historian Al-Masudi; “She was a sage, a philosopher, who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.”

So, not an Elizabeth Taylor or a Vivian Leigh or a Theda Bara or even a Gal Gadot but smarter than all four combined.  And even a plain girl at eighteen is still eighteen. Even the ones that aren’t pretty are pretty at that age. Particularly for a man in late middle age who had been living rough for ten years.  In a lot of ways, Caesar and Cleopatra’s May-December romance makes sense.  She seems to have been a bit of a daddy’s girl, and Caesar had recently lost his only child and he is known to have doted on his daughter quite a bit.  

It also made sense in a brutal, nuts and bolts political fashion. What Cleopatra got out of this relationship was regime protection. What Caesar got out of it was absolute control over the richest country in the world. Hell, his own son was going to be Pharaoh one day.

Consequently, Ptolemy XIII was found to be exceptionally inconvenient.  Obliterating the boy king’s faction to include, naturally, the boy-king himself, made sense.  In Cleopatra, Caesar gained a client who was completely dependent upon him.  Ptolemy had already proven himself a problem child.

Cleopatra’s regime was so stable that she actually felt secure enough to leave Egypt and accompany Caesar to Rome three years later. It kept her relationship with Caesar warm and it made it easier to keep an eye on her half-sister Arsinoë. ****

After Julius Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra immediately decamped back to Alexandria.  Understandably so, if she didn’t get home, she was going to lose power.  Officially her husband was her half-brother Ptolemy XIV, who in the best of family tradition she promptly executed upon her return

Political instability set in after she’d had a few bad crops.  She had avoided taking sides in the civil war that immediately sprang up in Rome after Caesar’s death but now she had to pick one side or another.

It was obvious to everyone that the Second Triumvirate wasn’t going to last. That one of the Triumvirs was eventually going to get rid of the other two. Cleopatra put her money on the strong horse, Marc Antony.  He got money and food.  Cleopatra got territorial concessions plus she got to finally have her sister, Arsinoë, whacked out. 

Oh, those Ptolemies. 

She also got a set of twins, courtesy of Antony.

There appears to have been a genuine passion in their relationship.  Certainly, they both made terrible decisions for the sake of each other.  Antony was by all accounts an Alpha’s Alpha and seemed at first to be a logical successor to Julius Caesar, no matter what his will said. And Cleopatra clearly liked powerful men.  

Octavian was definitely the junior partner in the Second Triumvirate.  He was useful to Antony only as Caesar’s declared heir.  Modern readers might wonder why Julius Caesar made Octavian and not his own son, Cesarean, his heir.  The answer is that under Roman law and traditions Cesarean did not exist. Julius Caesar could only acknowledge as his heir a man born of a woman who was a Roman citizen. And given Roman views about the monarchy, a foreign prince was particularly unthinkable. Without a Roman son to carry on his name Caesar had to adopt the nearest male relative and make him his heir. Roman custom was inviolate on this point.   

Regardless, on the face of it, Cleopatra had made the logical decision. And if Marc Antony’s campaign in Parthia had gone his way, he would have been politically strong enough to have displaced Octavian and ruled alone in Rome. If he had crushed Parthia and then held a Triumph in Rome displaying the Lost Eagles of Crassus. He would have eclipsed Octavian so deeply that he could have been removed bloodlessly.  But with that overwhelming victory off the table, bloody it was going to have to be. 

By 33 BC the triumvirate was a biumvirate, Lepidus having been removed from power.  There were now only two kings on the board and one of them would have to go.

After a successful campaign in Armenia, Antony retreated to Alexandria, held a Triumph there, and started making proclamations that would force Octavian to go to war with him. The Donations of Alexandria granted Cleopatra’s children a number of titles and territories. Armenia, Media, Parthia (not that he owned it), Cyrenaica, Libya, Syria, and Cilicia.  None of which the Roman Senate was going to approve. And lastly, he declared Caesarion the legitimate heir of the deified Julius Caesar.  There was no way Octavian could ignore this and Antony knew it.

Quite a few historians paint a picture of a man who was completely under the power of Cleopatra. But I suspect that Antony was spoiling for a fight with Octavian and wanted Caesar’s nephew to declare war on him.  If he could defeat Octavian in the field and preferably kill him there, he would be the unopposed master of Rome.  

He got half of his wish; Octavian went to war with him. Or rather, he declared war on Cleopatra. Antony the Alpha was still more popular in Rome than Caesar’s grandnephew.  Octavian had wanted a war himself, but he wanted Antonius to invade Italy, making him the bad guy and Octavian the savior.  Now he would have to leave Rome. 

The armies were comparable in size and veteran status.  Antony was the more experienced commander.  Octavian was usually “ill” whenever a battle took place.  Things being more or less equal, the smart money was still on Antony.  The armies met in Greece.

Both armies needed to be supplied by sea.  Whoever gained control of the waters would win.

The decisive battle was fought at Actium.

Actium is one of the oddest naval battles in history.  

Antony’s ships were large quinqueremes with bronze clad hulls.  Octavian’s vessels were Liburnian, which were smaller but fast and more maneuverable.  

From Infogalactic:

“Antony moved his fleet to Actium where Octavian’s navy and army had taken camp. The stage was set for one of the largest naval battles of all time, with Antony bringing 290 ships in addition to between 30-50 transports. Octavian had 350 ships. Antony’s ships were much larger and better armed. In what would become known as the Battle of Actium, Antony, on September 2, 31 BC, moved his large quinqueremes through the strait and into the open sea. There, Octavian’s light and manoeuvrable Liburnian ships drew in battle formation against Antony’s warships. Cleopatra stayed behind Antony’s line on her royal barge.

A devastating blow to Antony’s forces came when one of Antony’s former generals delivered to Octavian Antony’s battle plan. Antony had hoped to use his biggest ships to drive back Agrippa’s wing on the north end of his line, but Octavian’s entire fleet stayed carefully out of range. Shortly after mid-day, Antony was forced to extend his line out from the protection of the shore, and then finally engage the enemy. Octavian’s fleet, armed with better trained and fresher crews, made quick work of Antony’s larger and less experienced navy. Octavian’s soldiers had spent years fighting in Roman naval combat, where one objective was to ram the enemy ship and at the same time kill the above deck crew with a shower of arrows and catapult-launched stones large enough to decapitate a man.

As the armies stood on either side of the naval battle, they watched as Antony was being outmatched by Agrippa. Seeing that the battle was going against Antony, Cleopatra decided to follow Antony’s original orders and took her squadron of ships and tried to penetrate Octavian’s center. As a gap opened in Agrippa’s blockade, she funneled through, Antony then issued orders for his entire fleet to breakthrough Octavian’s lines. Antony lead the breakthrough and his spearhead was able to penetrate Octavian’s center. However shortly after Antony’s breakthrough Agrippa ordered his flanks to attack the rest of Antony’s ships from both sides. Antony and Cleopatra could only watch on helplessly as their fleet – once the largest in Roman history – was destroyed.”

Antony’s remaining forces in Greece realized they had been abandoned and without hope of resupply, surrendered to Octavian a week later. 

Anthony still had 30,000 troops after Actium, but he lost most of those in a battle a year later.  With no army left and having just been informed of Cleopatra’s death he fell on his own sword.  And missed anything immediately fatal. Presumably, he was about to try again when a second messenger informed him that the first had got it wrong and that she was still alive. He had himself carried to her side and with an open gut wound that must have hurt like hell. He reportedly died in her arms telling her to make whatever deal she could with Octavian.

Augustus, as Octavian was about to called, had no reason to deal.  She was informed that her son Caesarean was dead. And that when she was taken, she would go to Rome and be paraded through the streets in his Triumph.  There may have been the implication that if she made things easier on everyone and offed herself, he would take care of the rest of her children. Her children were indeed taken to Rome, fostered out, and left unharmed.

Cleopatra killed herself, allegedly by means of an asp but I find a cobra more likely. An asp’s venom would have been uncertain. And Wadjet had always been the protective goddess of the royal families of Egypt since the time of Horus.

After that Egypt was ruled directly as the personal property of the Caesars. 

In the coming centuries, Christianity would displace the native Egyptian religion. The cult of Osiris appears to have died out around the 7th century AD. At that point, the written language fell into disuse and was lost until the Rosetta Stone was discovered. 

My brief historical aside appears to have taken up about 3200 words. 

*Technically he did.  But a minor didn’t have a chance in that world.

**Yeah, I know. Menes didn’t really exist but we are talking legal theory here.

*** If you know of a book that does so, please mention it in the comments.

**** Arsinoe had taken sanctuary in the Temple of Artemis. Possibly she was being kept in reserve in case Cleopatra ever got out of hand.

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Comments (6)

  • MandingoSlayer Reply

    Anthony was a sound tactician and a great motivator, but was really weak logistically. Where Augustus was the opposite and knew it. So while he was always “ill” his armies always had great commanders and always well supplied.

    It was no contest from the start really.

    October 21, 2020 at 11:12 pm
  • J Reply

    Great post.

    October 22, 2020 at 3:28 am
  • Trimegistus Reply

    One rather glaring typo (were you using voice-recognition software?): Osiris’s son was Horus, not Horace.

    October 22, 2020 at 3:10 pm
  • John E. Boyle Reply

    Excellent post. For a work of fiction that gives a more sympathetic view of Cleopatra than usual, I recommend Talbot Mundy’s Tros trilogy. She is a major character in the 2nd and 3rd books (Queen Cleoptra & Purple Pirate) although all three are worth reading.

    October 24, 2020 at 8:35 pm
  • Jew613 Reply

    Ptolemy XI may or may not have promised Egypt to Rome. The Roman’s had a habit of giving foreign rulers treaties to sign saying one thing in Latin and a second in whatever language said ruler spoke.

    But for Rome once they made a claim, no matter how preposterous, it was now fact.

    Sula was also an eccentric man, prone to extremes of cruelty and mercy. Often in a bizarre fashion, such as turning Julius Caesar’s mother asking for a pardon for Julius into a play.

    October 27, 2020 at 10:33 am
    • The Dark Herald Reply

      Ptolemy XI may or may not have promised Egypt to Rome. The Roman’s had a habit of giving foreign rulers treaties to sign saying one thing in Latin and a second in whatever language said ruler spoke.

      There was a reason I used the vague wording.

      October 27, 2020 at 1:19 pm

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