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The Egyptian queen frequently surrounded herself with splendor, but luxury was less an indulgence than a political tool. ("Anthony and Cleopatra" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885)

Who Was Cleopatra?

Mythology, propaganda, Liz Taylor and the real Queen of the Nile

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The struggle with her teenage brother over the throne of Egypt was not going as well as Cleopatra VII had hoped. In 49 B.C., Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII—also her husband and, by the terms of their father's will, her co-ruler—had driven his sister from the palace at Alexandria after Cleopatra attempted to make herself the sole sovereign. The queen, then in her early twenties, fled to Syria and returned with a mercenary army, setting up camp just outside the capital.

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Meanwhile, pursuing a military rival who had fled to Egypt, the Roman general Julius Caesar arrived at Alexandria in the summer of 48 B.C., and found himself drawn into the Egyptian family feud. For decades Egypt had been a subservient ally to Rome, and preserving the stability of the Nile Valley, with its great agricultural wealth, was in Rome's economic interest. Caesar took up residence at Alexandria's royal palace and summoned the warring siblings for a peace conference, which he planned to arbitrate. But Ptolemy XIII's forces barred the return of the king's sister to Alexandria. Aware that Caesar's diplomatic intervention could help her regain the throne, Cleopatra hatched a scheme to sneak herself into the palace for an audience with Caesar. She persuaded her servant Apollodoros to wrap her in a carpet (or, according to some sources, a sack used for storing bedclothes), which he then presented to the 52-year old Roman.

The image of young Cleopatra tumbling out of an unfurled carpet has been dramatized in nearly every film about her, from the silent era to a 1999 TV miniseries, but it was also a key scene in the real Cleopatra's staging of her own life. "She was clearly using all her talents from the moment she arrived on the world stage before Caesar," says Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, author of a forthcoming biography, Cleopatra the Great.

Like most monarchs of her time, Cleopatra saw herself as divine; from birth she and other members of her family were declared to be gods and goddesses. Highly image-conscious, Cleopatra maintained her mystique through shows of splendor, identifying herself with the deities Isis and Aphrodite, and in effect creating much of the mythology that surrounds her to this day. Though Hollywood versions of her story are jam-packed with anachronisms, embellishments, exaggerations and inaccuracies, the Cleopatras of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh and Claudette Colbert do share with the real queen a love of pageantry. "Cleopatra was a mistress of disguise and costume," says Fletcher. "She could reinvent herself to suit the occasion, and I think that's a mark of the consummate politician."

When Cleopatra emerged from the carpet—probably somewhat disheveled, but dressed in her best finery—and begged Caesar for aid, the gesture won over Rome's future dictator-for-life. With his help Cleopatra regained Egypt's throne. Ptolemy XIII rebelled against the armistice that Caesar had imposed, but in the ensuing civil war he drowned in the Nile, leaving Cleopatra safely in power.

Though Cleopatra bore him a son, Caesar was already married, and Egyptian custom decreed that Cleopatra marry her remaining brother, Ptolemy XIV. Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., and with her ally gone Cleopatra had Ptolemy XIV killed to prevent any challenges to her son's succession. To solidify her grip on the throne, she dispatched her rebellious sister Arsinoe as well. Such ruthlessness was not only a common feature of Egyptian dynastic politics in Cleopatra's day, it was necessary to ensure her own survival and that of her son. With all domestic threats removed, Cleopatra set about the business of ruling Egypt, the richest nation in the Mediterranean world, and the last to remain independent of Rome.

What kind of pharaoh was Cleopatra? The few remaining contemporary Egyptian sources suggest that she was very popular among her own people. Egypt's Alexandria-based rulers, including Cleopatra, were ethnically Greek, descended from Alexander the Great's general Ptolemy I Soter. They would have spoken Greek and observed Greek customs, separating themselves from the ethnically Egyptian majority. But unlike her forebears, Cleopatra actually bothered to learn the Egyptian language. For Egyptian audiences, she commissioned portraits of herself in the traditional Egyptian style. In one papyrus dated to 35 B.C. Cleopatra is called Philopatris, "she who loves her country." By identifying herself as a truly Egyptian pharaoh, Cleopatra used patriotism to cement her position.

Cleopatra's foreign policy goal, in addition to preserving her personal power, was to maintain Egypt's independence from the rapidly expanding Roman Empire. By trading with Eastern nations—Arabia and possibly as far away as India—she built up Egypt's economy, bolstering her country's status as a world power. By allying herself with Roman general Mark Antony, Cleopatra hoped to keep Octavian, Julius Caesar's heir and Antony's rival, from making Egypt a vassal to Rome. Ancient sources make it clear that Cleopatra and Antony did love each other and that Cleopatra bore Antony three children; still, the relationship was also very useful to an Egyptian queen who wished to expand and protect her empire.

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About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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