Cleopatra and her Position in Society
Cleopatra’s actions during her lifetime were influenced by her position as a royal woman ruler as well as her position in the Egyptian society. She accepted her position as “the Other” in ancient society to further embrace the role of the exotic Greco-Roman pharaoh using her beauty and seduction methods as a tool in order to stay in control of the throne.
Cleopatra and the story of her early life mainly comes from the stories and poems of Greco-Roman scholars, mainly Plutarch. These works create the timeline and life of the beautiful woman who was the last of very few women to rule over Egypt before it was taken over by Roman powers.
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Cleopatra was born in 70 or the end of 69 B.C, into a troubled royal dynasty. The kingdom of Egypt was bound together under pharaohs who originated from the Ptolemies, Macedonian generals who had served under Alexander the Great. Pharaohs had ruled the sectors of Egypt for nearly three centuries before their kingdom was eclipsed by the superpower of Rome in an attempt to start their conquer over the Mediterranean.
Cleopatra was a daughter of Ptolemy XII, who is also known as Auletes. Auletes had a total of six children; four daughters and two sons. Cleopatra was the third born behind two older sisters who both ruled for a very short time. It is unclear who Cleopatra’s mother was, because of the rumor that king Auletes had two wives. Cleopatra was a faithful daughter to her father, especially when he was exiled for putting the Egyptian economy in danger and even accompanied him when dealing with political affairs when he was king.
Auletes died in 51 B.C. leaving the throne to the next children in line, Cleopatra who was 18 years old and her 10 year old brother, Ptolemy XIII. Ptolemy XIII was seen as superior to his older sister simply due to the fact that he was male. She was automatically associated with “the Other” for being a woman because of Egyptian religion spurring from the legend of Horace, the son of Isis who defeated the Egyptian god of death, Set. Cleopatra faced backlash for being a woman on the throne. Ptolemy’s advisors doubted her knowledge of Egyptian political affair, and acted against her being a co-ruler to the throne. Even though she understood the political affairs Egypt was facing (especially with Rome) from the experiences she had with her father when he was alive, the opinions of Ptolemy’s advisors spread and Cleopatra was banned from being a co-ruler of the Egyptian throne and was forced to flee the palace.
Cleopatra, being a woman in royalty, had the main job of producing the next male heir to the throne as well as being a symbol of beauty. Cassius Dio, a Roman statesman, described Cleopatra as “a woman of surpassing beauty” and “brilliant to look upon”. When Cleopatra was next in line to take the throne, advisors saw her as a threat to Egyptian society for trying to follow her father’s plans to view the Romans as allies instead of enemies and create detrimental political alliances. Ptolemy’s advisors also did not believe that a woman would be able to process Egyptian political affairs. Even after marrying her brother following Egyptian tradition, she was still denied the position of being co-ruler and therefore making her “the Other” in Egyptian society, a woman royal uncapable to rule the throne.
Cleopatra ended up fleeing to the desert and returning a year later with an army of mercenaries to face her brother’s forces at Paelusium. Meanwhile, General Pompey the state-appointed guardian over the younger Ptolemy children, arrived in Egypt after his defeat against Julius Caesar. Pompey fled from Pharsalus to Egypt but, instead of finding sanctuary, was murdered by Ptolemy XIII as he arrived on the shore of Alexandria. Caesar was angered by this due to Pompey’s murder violating the Roman natural. Caesar wanted revenge on Ptolemy and proceeded to Egypt, crossing paths with Cleopatra and her army. Cleopatra knew she wouldn’t be able to get into the palace without the help of Caesar. As Roman Dio wrote:
Cleopatra snuck into palace to get Caesars support to take over brother and the thro For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone. Being brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate everyone, even a love-sated man already past his prime, she thought that it would be in keeping with her rôle to meet Caesar, and she reposed in her beauty all her claims to the throne. She asked therefore for admission to his presence, and on obtaining permission adorned and beautified herself so as to appear before him in the most majestic and at the same time pity-inspiring guise. When she had perfected her schemes she entered the city (for she had been living outside of it), and by night without Ptolemy’s knowledge went into the palace.”
Egypt and Rome engaged in war for about four months after Caesar’s arrival. Caesar’s army was outnumbered until reinforcements arrived. This forced Ptolemy XVIII to flee Alexandria, where he was believed to have drowned in the Nile River.
After her brother’s death, Caesar restored the throne to Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. Caesar was very unpopular in Egypt at the time by making Egypt a part of the growing Roman Empire. Cleopatra’s affairs with Caesar created isolation between her and the rest of Egyptian society; being “the Other” as both a pharaoh and a woman, as well as bringing in and marrying this unpopular conqueror in Egypt, seemed as if Cleopatra had pushed further away, almost forbidding Egypt from normalcy. She acknowledged her beauty and the act of seduction as her way of gaining and keeping the power of the throne of both Egypt and Roman societies and embracing her position of “the Other”.
Cleopatra was not only seen as “the Other” to Egypt, but to Roman society as well. Cleopatra was not of Roman blood or royalty, although she defined herself as a “Greco-Roman Queen” due to her Egyptian and Roman affiliations, but also for marrying a rebel of Roman law and the next dictator of Rome. “Cleopatra had planned in hate to smash the Capitol and to sack the conquered Roman State. She and her plotted gang, diseased and vile, went mad with heady dreams of baseless pride.”
Cleopatra gave birth to a son in 47 B.C whom she called Caesarion, meaning little Caesar. After Cleopatra gave birth to Caesarion, Caesar went back to Rome. Cleopatra traveled to Rome about three years later to visit Caesar with Caesarion and Ptolemy XIV. After Caesar’s murder in March 44 BC, Cleopatra wet back to Rome when shortly after Ptolemy XIV died. Cleopatra was named ruler of Egypt, and Caesarion who was three years old at the time was named co-regent. During this time, Cleopatra identified herself with the Egyptian god Isis. She thought that she was the Mother of the next great legend and Caesar’s heir to the Roman throne. And with her son as co-regent, her rule over Egypt was secure, even though Caesarion was not the legitimate son of the Egyptian throne as well as an afterthought in Roman society for being so young and not of roman blood. This made not only Cleopatra but now Caesarion as part of “the Other”.
As conflict was arising in Rome between a second generation of Caesar’s allies. Marc Antony, Octavian (Caesars nephew and adopted son), Lepidus and Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, both sides asked for Egyptian support in war to take over the Roman Empire. Cleopatra eventually sent Roman legions stationed in Egypt by Caesar to support the triumvirate. In 42 B.C., after defeating the forces of Brutus and Cassius in the battles of Philippi, Antony and Octavian divided power in Rome.
With new young rulers on the Roman throne, Cleopatra viewed this as a threat to the Egyptian kingdom and as an advantage for herself as well. With a young and spontaneous man such as Antony on part of the Roman throne, Cleopatra could use her seduction and exotic beauty again to take Antony from his wife Fulvia, and keep herself in power as well as the Egyptian-Roman relation continuous while also keeping herself in a position of power.
After the marriage of Cleopatra and Antony, Octavian began attacking Antony for abandoning his faithful wife, to be with the promiscuous Cleopatra. Octavian accused Cleopatra for seducing and marrying yet another Roman ruler in attempt to gain control of the Roman Empire, even after the expansion of the coastline of Egypt. Cleopatra replied that her son Caesarion, and not Octavian, was Caesar’s true heir. This angered Octavian and was the event that sparked the War of Actium.
Octavian responded by declaring war on Cleopatra with the support of the majority of the Roman legions. In 31 B.C. Octavian defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium on the west coast of Greece. Octavian’s troops surrounded Alexandria, and began to siege the city. Antony committed suicide to avoid being murdered by Octavian himself, which is rumored to have been done by falling on his sword.
Cleopatra also committed suicide on August 12th 30 BC. Plutarch theorizes that her death was:
“According to one account, the asp was carried in to her with the figs and lay hidden under the leaves in the basket… baring her arm, she held it out to be bitten… But the real truth nobody knows, for there is another story that she carried poison about with her in a hollow comb… the asp was never discovered… but some people say that two faint, barely visible punctures were found on Cleopatra’s arm”.
The poisonous snake venom symbolized divine royalty among both the Egyptian and Roman throne. Her body was buried next to Marc Antony’s upon her last wish. The tomb where the bodies were buried has not been found yet however and how Cleopatra died is still uncertain.
Cleopatra was always a part of the other no matter what society she became a part of. Her actions were motivated by her desire to stay on the throne that was taken from her early in life. Marrying Caesar and seducing Marc Antony gave her guaranteed power and the throne of whatever kingdom she stood in as well as the power to defy the society trying to keep her off the throne. Recognizing her position as the other and viewing it as a source of ego to enhance her reputation of being the exotic “Greco-Roman” queen of Egypt allowed her to seduce her way to the throne and to ultimately become one of the most powerful women in the Mediterranean.