Cleopatra VII of Egypt

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Cleopatra VII Philopator (in Greek:Κλεοπάτρα Φιλοπάτωρ; January 69 BCAugust 12 30 BC), later Cleopatra Thea Neotera Philopator kai Philopatris, was queen of Ptolemaic Egypt, the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty and hence the last Hellenistic ruler of Egypt. Although many other Egyptian Queens shared the name, she is usually known as simply Cleopatra, and all of her similarly named predecessors have mostly been forgotten.

Cleopatra was a co-ruler of Egypt with her father (Ptolemy XII Auletes), her brothers/husbands Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV and later her son Ptolemy XV Caesarion. Cleopatra survived a coup engineered by her brother Ptolemy XIII's courtiers, consummated a liaison with Gaius Julius Caesar that solidified her grip on the throne, and, after Caesar's assassination, aligned with Mark Antony, with whom she produced twins. She later married Mark Antony and gave birth to another son. In all, Cleopatra had 4 children, 3 by Antony and 1 by Caesar. Her unions with her brothers produced no children.

After Antony's rival and Caesar's legal heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian, brought the might of Rome against Egypt, Cleopatra took her own life on August 12, 30 BC. Her legacy survives in the form of numerous dramatizations of her story, including William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and several modern films.

Cleopatra was a direct decendent of Ptolemy I Soter, son of Arsinoe of Macedonia and Philip II of Macedon, who was the father of Alexander the Great. A Greek by language and culture, Cleopatra is reputed to have been the first member of her family in their 300-year reign in Egypt to have learned the Egyptian language.

Early years

Father's reign

"Cleopatra" is Greek for "father's glory," and her full name, Cleopatra Thea Philopator, means "the Goddess Cleopatra, the Beloved of Her Father." She was the third daughter of the king Ptolemy XII Auletes, probably born to her father's sister, making her third in line to rule after her two other sisters died.

Little is known about Cleopatra's childhood, but she would have observed the disordered events and loss of public affection for the Ptolemaic dynasty under the reign of her father. This occurred for many reasons including physical and moral degeneration of the sovereigns, centralization of power and corruption. This lead to uprising in and loss of Cyprus and of Cyrenaica, making Ptolemy's reign one of the most calamitous of the dynasty.

In 58 BC Cleopatra's older sister, Berenice IV seized power from her father. With the assistance of the Roman governor of Syria, Aulus Gabinius, Ptolemy XII overturned his eldest daughter in 55 BC and had her executed. This left Cleopatra with her husband and younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, joint heirs to the throne.

The access to the throne

Pharaoh Ptolemy XII died in March 51 BC making the 17 year old Cleopatra and the 10 year old Ptolemy XIII joint monarchs. These first three years of their reign was difficult due to economic difficulties, famine, deficient floods of Nile and political conflicts.

In August 51 BC relations between the sovereigns completely broke down, as Cleopatra was dropping Ptolemy's name from official documents and Cleopatra's face was appearing alone on coins, which went against Ptolemaic tradition of female rulers being subordinate to male co-rulers. This resulted in a cabal of courtiers, led by the eunuch Pothinus, removing Cleopatra from power and making Ptolemy sole ruler in circa 48 BC (possibly earlier, a decree exists with Ptolemy's name alone from 51 BC). She tried to raise a rebellion around Pelusium but she was soon forced to flee Egypt with her only surviving sister, Arsinoë.

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar

The assassination of Pompey

While Cleopatra was in exile, Ptolemy became embroiled in the Roman civil war. In the autumn of 48 BC, Pompey fled from the forces of Julius Caesar to Alexandria, seeking sanctuary. Ptolemy, only fifteen years old at that time, had set up a throne for himself on the harbour from where he watched as on July 28 48 BC Pompey was murdered by one of his former officers, now in Ptolemaic service. Ptolemy is thought to have ordered the death as a way of pleasing Julius Caesar and thus become an ally of Rome, to which Egypt was in debt. This was a catastrophic miscalculation on Ptolemy's part. When Caesar arrived in Egypt two days later, Ptolemy presented him with Pompey's severed, pickled head. Caesar was enraged. This was probably due to the fact that, although political enemies, Pompey was a Consul of Rome and the widower of Caesar's only daughter, Julia who died in childbirth with their son. Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

Caesar and Caesarion

In Plutarch, eager to take advantage of Julius Caesar's anger with Ptolemy, Queen Cleopatra returned to the palace in a sack and had it presented to Caesar by her servant. It was at this point Caesar abandoned his plans to annex Egypt, instead backing Cleopatra's claim to the throne. After a short civil war, Ptolemy XIII was drowned in the Nile and Caesar restored Cleopatra to her throne, with another younger brother Ptolemy XIV as new co-ruler.

Despite the thirty year age difference, during his stay in Egypt between 48 BC and 47 BC Caesar became Cleopatra's lover. On 23 June 47 BC Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar's son, Ptolemy Caesar (nicknamed "Caesarion" which means "little Caesar"). Caesar refused to make the boy his heir, against Cleopatra's wishes, naming his grand-nephew Octavian instead.

Cleopatra and Caesarion visited Rome between 46 BC and 44 BC and were present when Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC. Before or just after she returned to Egypt, Ptolemy XIV died mysteriously (possibly poisoned by Cleopatra). Cleopatra then made Caesarion her co-regent and successor.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony

In 42 BC, Mark Antony, one of the triumvirs who ruled Rome in the power vacuum following Caesar's death, summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus to answer questions about her loyalty. Cleopatra arrived in great state, and so charmed Antony that he chose to spend the winter of 41 BC40 BC with her in Alexandria. On 25 December 40 BC she gave birth to twins, who were named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene (II) .

Four years later, in 37 BC, Antony visited Alexandria again while on route to make war with the Parthians. He renewed his relationship with Cleopatra, and from this point on Alexandria would be his home. He married Cleopatra according to the Egyptian rite (a letter quoted in Suetonius suggests this), although he was at the time married to Octavia Minor, sister of his fellow triumvir Octavian. He and Cleopatra had another child, Ptolemy Philadelphus. At the Donations of Alexandria in late 34 BC, following Antony's conquest of Armenia, Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of Egypt and Cyprus; Alexander Helios was crowned ruler of Armenia, Media and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene (II) was crowned ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus was crowned ruler of Phoenicia, Syria and Cilicia. Cleopatra also took the title of Queen of Kings.

There are a number of unverifiable but famous stories about Cleopatra, of which one of the best known is that, at one of the lavish dinners she shared with Antony, she playfully bet him that she could spend ten million sesterces on a dinner. He accepted the bet. The next night, she had a conventional, unspectacular meal served; he was ridiculing this, when she ordered the second course — only a cup of strong vinegar. She then removed one of her priceless pearl earrings, dropped it into the vinegar, allowed it to dissolve, and drank the mixture.

Antony's behavior was considered outrageous by the Romans, and Octavian convinced the Senate to levy war against Egypt. In 31 BC Antony's forces faced the Romans in a naval action off the coast of Actium. Cleopatra was present with a fleet of her own. Popular legend tells us that when she saw that Antony's poorly equipped and manned ships were losing to the Romans' superior vessels, she took flight and that Antony abandoned the battle to follow her, but no contemporary evidence states this was the case.

Following the Battle of Actium, Octavian invaded Egypt. As he approached Alexandria, Antony's armies deserted to Octavian on August 12, 30 BC.

Suicide

Antony committed suicide, having been told Cleopatra was dead. A few days later Cleopatra died as well by her own hand. The ancient sources generally agree that she was bitten by an asp, as were two of her servants. Octavian, waiting in a building nearby, was informed of her death, and went to see for himself.

Cleopatra's son by Caesar, Caesarion, was proclaimed pharaoh by Egyptians, but Octavian had already won. Caesarion was captured and executed. Thus ended not just the Hellenistic line of Egyptian pharaohs, but the line of all Egyptian pharaohs. The three children of Cleopatra with Antony were spared and taken back to Rome where they were reared by Antony's wife, Octavia.

What did Cleopatra really look like?

Despite coins and beliefs based on her reputation, it is difficult to know exactly what Cleopatra looked like in real life. In all likelihood, she was not as beautiful as often thought. However, it is generally believed that it was not her physical attributes that made her desirable, but rather her personality, confidence, and intelligence. She is believed to have been physically attractive and well kept, but not of outstanding beauty. Her language skills certainly assisted in her alliances, being that she spoke almost all of the common Mediterranean languages spoken at the time. She was assertive, outspoken, and strategic in her political and military stance. It is, therefore, most likely that one of her most distinguishing characteristics was her powerful yet manipulative nature.

Cleopatra in art, film, TV, and literature

Cleopatra's story has fascinated scores of writers and artists through the centuries. No doubt, much of her appeal lay in her legend as a great seductress who was able to ally herself with two of the most powerful men (Caesar and Antony) of her time.

Literature-Drama

Among the more famous works on her:

  • Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1607) by William Shakespeare
  • All for Love (1678) by John Dryden
  • Caesar and Cleopatra (1901) by George Bernard Shaw
  • The Death of Cleopatre by Ahmed Shawqi


Films

The earliest Cleopatra-related motion picture was Antony and Cleopatra (1908) with Florence Lawrence as Cleopatra. The earliest film on Cleopatra as the main subject was Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, starring Helen Gardner (1912).

Among the film/TV works inspired by the Queen of the Nile:

  • (1917): Cleopatra: Theda Bara (Cleopatra), Fritz Leiber (Caesar), Thurston Hall (Antony). Directed by J. Gordon Edwards. Based on Émile Moreau's play Cléopatre, Sardou's play Cléopatre, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.
  • (1934): Cleopatra: Claudette Colbert (Cleopatra), Warren William (Caesar), Henry Wilcoxon (Antony). Oscar-winning Cecil B. DeMille epic.
  • (1946): Caesar and Cleopatra: Vivien Leigh (Cleopatra), Claude Rains (Caesar), Stewart Granger, Flora Robson — Oscar-nominated version of George Bernard Shaw's play. Leigh also played Cleopatra opposite then-husband's Laurence Olivier's Caesar in a later London stage version.
  • (1953): Serpent of the Nile: Rhonda Fleming (Cleopatra), Raymond Burr (Mark Antony), Michael Fox (Octavian).
  • (1963): Cleopatra: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Rex Harrison (Caesar), Richard Burton (Antony). Oscar-winning block-buster most (in)famously remembered for the off-screen affair between Taylor and Burton and the at-the-time massive $44 million cost.
  • (1974): Antony & Cleopatra: performed by London's Royal Shakespeare Company. Starred Janet Suzman (Cleopatra), Richard Johnson (Antony), and Patrick Stewart (Enobarbus).
  • (1999): Cleopatra (movie): Leonor Varela (Cleopatra), Timothy Dalton (Caesar), Billy Zane (Antony). Based on the book Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, it is less faithful to history than the earlier versions

Opera

  • Appears as a character in operas by Handel, Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Adolf Hasse and Johann Mattheson
  • Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber opened the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966.

Ancient art - triumph painting, sculpture

The most famous painting of Cleopatra is one that almost certainly no longer exists now: because the queen died in Egypt well before Augustus' triumph could be put on in Rome, in which she would have walked in chains, he commissioned a large painting of her, which was carried in his triumphal procession, and which may have represented her being poisoned by an asp. The sources for the story are Plut. Ant. 86 and App. Civ. II.102, although the latter may well refer to a statue, and Cass. Dio LI.21.3 reports that the "image" was of gold, and thus not a painting at all. The purported painting was seen and engraved in the early 19th century: it was in a private collection near Sorrento. Since then, this painting is said to have formed part of a collection in Cortona, but there no longer appears to be any trace of it; its quiet disappearance is almost certainly due to its being a fake. For comprehensive details on the entire question, see the external links at the end of this article.

Busts and other sculpture are portrayed throughout this page.

Paintings, Renaissance onwards

Cleopatra and her death have inspired hundreds of paintings from the Renaissance to our own time, none of them of any historical value of course; the subject appealing in particular to French academic painters.

The suicide

  • Suicide of Cleopatra. Oil on canvas. 46 x 36-3/4 in. (116.8 x 93.3 cm) painted by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, also called Guercino. Painted in 1621 and which hangs in the collection in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. It shows Cleopatra and in her hand a snake that she prepares to use in her suicide.
  • Cleopatra and the Peasant (1838). Oil on canvas. Painted by Eugène Delacroix. Hanging in the Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina. The work shows a man providing Cleopatra with the snake she uses to kill herself.
  • The Death of Cleopatra, painted by Jean André Rixens, painted in 1874 and that hangs in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France.
  • The Death of Cleopatra, painted by Guido Cagnacci, painted in 1658. Oil on canvas. Hanging in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Other

  • The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743–5). Oil on Canvas, 248.2 x 357.8cm. Painted by Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), which hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, depicting the banquet in which Cleopatra dissolves her pearl earring in a glass of vinegar.
  • Cleopatra and Caesar (Cléopâtre et César) (1866). Oil on canvas. Painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). The original painting has been lost, and only copies remain. The work depicts Cleopatra standing before a seated Caesar, painted in the Orientalist style.

General

Paintings of Cleopatra


Preceded by:
Ptolemy XII
Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt
with Ptolemy XII, Ptolemy XIII, Ptolemy XIV, and Ptolemy XV

Succeeded by:
Roman Province


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