In Act IV of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra remarks, “All strange and terrible events are welcome, but comforts we despise” (“Cleopatra VII”). Herein lies the life of Cleopatra one fraught with tremendous challenges and marred by tragedy. Born in 69 B.C., Cleopatra VII was the daughter of King Ptolemy XII (Jones). At the age of eighteen, Cleopatra assumed the Egyptian throne (Jones). She would be the last Ptolemy and the last pharaoh to ever rule over Egypt. Over the course of her 21 years of reign, she would leave a lasting impression on the world. Like the divine mother Isis, Cleopatra would try to protect and preserve the Egyptian state. Throughout her life and rule, Cleopatra used her keen judgment and superior intelligence to deal with existential, domestic threats, to grapple with the challenge of Rome, and to establish herself as a legitimate female pharaoh.
Was Cleopatra a failure? Cleopatra was, in large part, responsible for the demise of Egypt’s ancient pharaonic tradition. However, hindsight is always 20/20. One must accurately put Cleopatra in her historical context if they wish to judge her. Given the onerous circumstances of her rule, it is difficult to fathom how Cleopatra managed to reign for more than two decades. Unlike Hatshepsut, she did not possess pure Egyptian ancestry, nor did she have the good fortune to rule during a period of prosperity and peace. From the beginning of her rule, Cleopatra faced enormous challenges. In 50 B.C., a poor inundation gave the Egyptians the impression that Cleopatra lacked the favor and providence of the gods (Wilkinson 470). Meanwhile, she upset her subjects when she acquiesced to the Roman’s request to deport the fugitives who murdered a Roman governor’s sons (Wilkinson 470). Cleopatra ascended to the throne amidst intense pressure and turmoil from home and abroad. Rome already held Egypt financially captive. To take matters worse, Cleopatra tried to repay Egyptian debt to Rome by allying with Pompey in his civil war against Caesar, but Pompey was defeated (Wilkinson 470). Cleopatra was then exiled, forcing her to flee to Palestine (Wilkinson 470). After discovering his enemy had been murdered by a Roman officer on Ptolemy XIII’s dime, Caesar took up residence at the royal palace and summoned Ptolemy XIII to express his dissatisfaction (Wilkinson 471). What followed is indicative of Cleopatra’s keen intelligence. She sneaked into the royal palace where she won the affection of Caesar, who later helped her reclaim the throne (Wilkinson 471). These events mark merely the first few years of Cleopatra’s rule, yet they convey her resolute nature that she embodied throughout her reign. She faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, but she continually found a way to overcome them. She managed to retain her throne despite being very unpopular due to that dark period of Egyptian history.
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Referring to that ominous era, the final line on the Stela of Taimhotep reads: “[D]arkness weighs on that place where the dead dwell” (Wilkinson 475). This hopelessness and fear that pervaded Egyptian consciousness may have helped Cleopatra maintain her power. Her rule was a period of incredible uncertainty, so it was hardly a time to advocate for a change in power. Take, for example, the years after the murder of Caesar in 44 B.C. (Wilkinson 476). Caesar had been Egypt’s protector, but Egypt was too weak to protect itself in the aftermath of his death (Wilkinson 476). Again, Cleopatra displayed her strong political judgment, providing military assistance to Caesar’s allies (Octavian and Mark Antony) who defeated Cassius and Brutus at the Battle of Philippi (Wilkinson 476). While this decision was a success, it displayed the constant caveat of Cleopatra’s reign. On every major decision, especially those involving foreign policy with Rome, the fate of Egypt seemed to rest. The Egyptians may have been simply relieved to have someone in power who could navigate Egypt’s complicated and unpredictable state of affairs in the last century B.C. This may partially explain why Cleopatra could rule directly and outright, unlike her female predecessors who had to rule indirectly or disguise themselves as men to rule.
Cleopatra ruled directly despite the traditional obstacles for female pharaohs, because she proved herself a competent ruler. However, there was one factor that was partially outside of her control. Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Her Ptolemaic predecessors had been paving the way for the last three hundred years. By the time of Cleopatra, the Greeks had assimilated themselves into Egyptian society to some extent and had established themselves as permissible Egyptian rulers. They maintained the religion and customs of the Egyptians. Cleopatra, however, took things a step further. Unlike her Ptolemaic predecessors, she actually learned the language (Wilkinson 473). Moreover, Cleopatra “adopted a feminine version…of divine kingship, the Horus title, and at least some of her Egyptian subjects viewed her as a legitimate pharaoh” (Wilkinson 473). Cleopatra was not one to feign appearances; she was genuine in her desire to embody the traditions of the Egyptian pharaohs.
The modern perspective of Cleopatra is much different from the reality. She was undoubtedly a formidable stateswoman who was willing utilize every tool she possessed to save Egypt and preserve the monarchy. However, she is often misrepresented as a licentious and sexually domineering woman. The reality is that she was probably only had two sexual partners, Caesar and Mark Antony, and that she was a rather unprepossessing woman as opposed to her typical representation as stunningly beautiful. A homely Queen does not make as compelling a character to Hollywood as an elegant and provocative Queen. Regardless of her beauty of lack thereof, Cleopatra still makes for a compelling character. Her life and reign were dramatic, and her love affairs were complicated. Stories need conflict, and Cleopatra’s has plenty. What’s more, Cleopatra’s life ends in tragedy. There is nothing Hollywood and Shakespeare love more than disastrous consequences.
Incessant romantic tropes have muddied the legacy of Cleopatra. However, these same tropes have provided us with “the allure of pharaonic civilization, embodied in the Western consciousness by its last queen” (Wilkinson 481). Cleopatra will exist into perpetuity as a forceful and assertive ruler. Her political acumen and mental resilience will hopefully come to overshadow (at least in the minds of those who admire her) the popular, misleading representations of her.
- “Cleopatra VII.” Wikiquote, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 1 July 2018, en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Cleopatra_VII.
- Jones, Cynthia. “Ptolemaic Egypt and Cleopatra”. Blackboard, University of Missouri Kansas City. Powerpoint Lecture.
- Wilkinson, Toby. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013.