She is the largest selling brand in the world of beauty and wellness. Her name attracts the attention of women all across the globe and is found on labels of aromatic oils, beauty products, clothing and accessories. Her name adorns the brand names of beauty salons world wide. New revelations about her beauty secrets still make tabloid headlines. Pop stars make hit songs dressed as her. She is the ultimate symbol of seduction and glamour in popular culture and has been even before Shakespeare wrote a play about her. She is the eternal Cleopatra.
The name itself means ‘Glory of the father’ in Greek and indeed she was the most famous and most able of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt for over 300 years. She was also the one who had to face challenges greater that any of her predecessors.
Ptolemy Aulteus, Cleopatra’s father died in the Spring of 51 BC, leaving behind a turbulent empire to his 18 year old daughter and her 12 year old younger brother Ptolemy XIII whom he had chosen as successors in a written will. The youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV was barely a child. At this point, the Egyptian strength had been on the decline for the past century and was on a downward slide, while Romans were conquering the continent. It was inevitable that they would take over Egypt sooner than later. Aulteus Ptolemy had tried all he could by having a pact with the Romans and paying tributes to keep them away from Egypt but he died with a heavy heart for he knew that the Egypt that his children had inherited could not be safe for long. Like the dying captain of a sinking ship, he felt helpless against the waves of destiny. His only option was to leave the ship in the hands of his ablest lieutenant and hope for a miracle. That lieutenant was Cleopatra, his intelligent and patriotic princess who was fluent in nine languages, had a scientific temperament and was an astute businesswoman. She did work miracles.
The law in Egypt did not allow a single woman to be ruler, and custom dictated she had to marry a member of the royal family and have him as official consort. Thus she publicly married her younger brother which was the most acceptable option according to customs of the time. It was a ceremonial affair only and everyone knew that Cleopatra would be on the throne as the sole ruler in practice. She dropped her brother’s name from all official records and had only her own name and portrait on the coins.
When Cleopatra sat on the throne, she immediately saw that the empire was crumbling around her. Cyprus, Coele-Syria and Cyrenaica were gone. There was anarchy abroad and famine at home. To make matters more difficult, some of her own courtiers and powerful officials began plotting against her when they realized she would not toe their line and had a mind of her own. Soon she was overthrown by them in favour of her younger brother whom they felt would be easier to manipulate. They formed a ‘Council of Regency’ and influenced the helpless child king.
Cleopatra was forced to flee to Thebaid and watch helplessly as Egypt suffered from severe famine. The ruler signed a decree on October 27, 50 BC which banned any shipments of grain to anywhere but Alexandria. It is thought that this was to deprive Cleopatra and her supporters who were not in Alexandria. Not one to be cowed down, Cleopatra started an army, recruiting men from the Arab tribes. She was forced to shift base many times and remain in hiding for the court officials would have liked her dead.
Meanwhile, Egypt became embroiled in Roman conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Pompey fled to the Egyptian capital Alexandria for refuge, where he was murdered on the orders of the counsellors in the name of the Pharaoh. Caesar reached Alexandria soon after, along with thirty-two hundred legionaries and eight hundred cavalry. Egypt could not hope to stand in his way.
There were riots that followed in Alexandria. Ptolemy XIII fled from Alexandria as Caesar placed himself in the royal palace and started giving out orders. The court officials who were the real power centre were busy in negotiations to convince Caesar to keep them as advisers and leave Egypt in their hands for safekeeping when he returned to Rome. Cleopatra knew this was her chance to make a re-entry into her rightful domain of ruling Egypt. Her enemies were all over Alexandria and there was no chance of her making it into the palace alive. So she had herself smuggled in through enemy lines rolled in a carpet. It was a dramatic entry as the carpet was unrolled before Caesar and out came the beautiful Cleopatra. He was intrigued and enamored. Her influence on him was clear and It was thought that Caesar planned to make Cleopatra the sole ruler of Alexandria.
The ousted court officials could not bear to see all their power snatched away and be placed at the mercy of the woman they had tried to kill. They organised an army against Caesar and thus started the Alexandrian wars. Caesar was superior in ability as well as resources and he triumphed. His first act thereafter was to have all opposition leaders executed. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile while he was trying to flee. Thus, Cleopatra became the sole ruler officially. The times and circumstances had change but the Egyptian law and customs had not. To gain acceptance of the people and avoid the censure of the influential priestly class, Cleopatra had to have a male consort of Egyptian royal blood. Caesar did not qualify so she was forces to have a ceremonial marriage with her youngest brother Ptolemy XIV who was then only eleven years old. Caesar played along because after the charade he was being handed on a platter the resource rich Egyptian land and its beautiful and witty queen. He also dreamt of having his heir sit on the throne of Egypt for Cleopatra soon bore him a son, Caesarion.
During July of the year 46 BC, Caesar returned to Rome as a grand victor. He became very popular and was given many honours along with a ten-year dictatorship. He brought Cleopatra to Rome soon after but she was not accepted by the conservative Republicans who were upset. Caesar already had a Roman wife and bringing in a foreign unwed mother of his child as mistress was extremely scandalous. Many were upset that he was planning to marry Cleopatra regardless of the laws against bigamy and marriages to foreigners. In truth the Senators were deeply threatened by the growing popularity of Caesar and his ability to bend laws and have his way. They feared that he would become an absolute authoritarian and put an end to the republican system. The conspiracy that had been brewing against him ended it all on the infamous Ides of March in 44 BC, when Caesar was assassinated outside the Senate Building in Rome. Cleopatra’s own life was in danger and she immediately fled to Alexandria.
Meanwhile in Rome, the conspirators Brutus and Cassius were killed and Antony, Octavian and Lepidus were triumphant. Cleopatra observed the turn of tide from a distance. She knew she would have to deal with Rome again for whosoever came to power would want to ensure they had control of Eqypt by putting their own man on the throne. Rome went to Mark Antony. He invited Cleopatra to meet him in 41 BC. Even though Egypt was on the verge of economic collapse, Cleopatra put on a show for Mark Antony, sailing into view with silver oars, purple sails, dressed as Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Cleopatra bore Mark Antony three children, the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and the youngest Ptolemy Philadelphos. Ptolemy XV (Caesarion) was made the co-ruler with his mother. Mark Antony gave her much land which was very essential to Egypt. He gave her Cyprus, the Cilician coast, Phoenicia, Coele-Syria, Judea and Arabia. This allowed Egypt to build a large fleet of ships from the lumber from Cilician coast. For Antony, it Egypt was a great resource for its crops, its ships and its revenue from trade.
Meanwhile Antony divorced his wife Octavia who was sister of Octavian. He also put Cleopatra’s name and face on the Roman coin, the silver denarii. These moves completely alienated Antony from the Roman allegiance of which he had been a part. Propaganda in Rome was targeted at besmirching Cleopatra’s reputation by calling her an Oriental Harlot, thus indirectly hitting Mark Antony’s own acceptance within Rome. Octavian declared war against Antony and deployed his navy, defeating Antony in Greece. Mark Antony and Cleopatra combined armies to take on Octavian's forces in a great sea battle at Actium, on the west coast of Greece. Octavian was victorious and Cleopatra and Mark Antony fled to Egypt. Octavian pursued them and captured Alexandria in 30 BC. With his soldiers deserting him, Mark Antony took his own life.
After Antony's death, Cleopatra was taken to Octavian where her role in Octavian's triumph was carefully explained to her. He had no interest in any relationship, negotiation or reconciliation with the Queen of Egypt. She would be displayed as a slave in the cities she had ruled over. She would not live this way, so she had an asp, which was an Egyptian cobra, brought to her hidden in a basket of figs. She died on August 12, 30 BC at the age of 39. The Egyptian religion declared that death by snakebite would secure immortality. With this, she achieved her dying wish, to not be forgotten. After Cleopatra's death, Caesarion was strangled and the other children of Cleopatra were raised by Antony's wife, Octavia.
Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of Egypt. She was a highly intelligent woman and an astute politician, who brought prosperity and peace to a country that was bankrupt and split by civil war. She has often been depicted as a seductress who used her beauty to get the throne. Had circumstances been different, would she have chosen a different route to power?
Cleopatra was not the first female to rule Egypt. That honour goes to Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh. Hatshepsut also faced the problem of acceptance by the patriarchal society. She chose to overcome it in a different way. She took on a masculine appearance while at court and even wore a fake beard, just like the male Pharaohs. Cleopatra however emphasised her feminity and beauty, taking special care of her appearance, inventing perfumes and methods of beautifying herself. She advertised her beauty and had it widely spoken of. She chose to use her feminity as a route to power. These are excellent examples of the polarised approaches taken by women leaders in the past, both rejected by modern feminists.
In today’s world, thankfully the modern women neither have to ‘be a man’, nor be ‘a man’s woman’ to succeed. They have the option of choosing a professional expression that that lets them be seen as just a person who is evaluated solely on the basis of capability. All that they need to be successful is the courage to be themselves and do their best.