General Knowledge

History vs. Cleopatra

“Order, order. So who do we have here?” “Your Honor, this is Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen whose lurid affairs destroyed two of Rome’s finest generals and brought the end of the Republic.” “Your Honor, this is Cleopatra, one of the most powerful women in history whose reign brought Egypt nearly 22 years of stability and prosperity.” “Uh, why don’t we even know what she looked like?” “Most of the art and descriptions came long after her lifetime in the first century BCE, just like most of the things written about her.” “So what do we actually know? Cleopatra VII was the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Macedonian Greek family that governed Egypt after its conquest by Alexander the Great.

She ruled jointly in Alexandria with her brother- to whom she was also married- until he had her exiled.” “But what does all this have to do with Rome?” “Egypt had long been a Roman client state, and Cleopatra’s father incurred large debts to the Republic. After being defeated by Julius Caesar in Rome’s civil war, the General Pompey sought refuge in Egypt but was executed by Cleopatra’s brother instead.” “Caesar must have liked that.” “Actually, he found the murder unseemly and demanded repayment of Egypt’s debt.

He could have annexed Egypt, but Cleopatra convinced him to restore her to the throne instead.” “We hear she was quite convincing.” “And why not? Cleopatra was a fascinating woman. She commanded armies at 21, spoke several languages, and was educated in a city with the world’s finest library and some of the greatest scholars of the time.” “Hmm.” “She kept Caesar lounging in Egypt for months when Rome needed him.” “Caesar did more than lounge.

He was fascinated by Egypt’s culture and knowledge, and he learned much during his time there. When he returned to Rome, he reformed the calendar, commissioned a census, made plans for a public library, and proposed many new infrastructure projects.” “Yes, all very ambitious, exactly what got him assassinated.” “Don’t blame the Queen for Rome’s strange politics.

Her job was ruling Egypt, and she did it well. She stabilized the economy, managed the vast bureaucracy, and curbed corruption by priests and officials. When drought hit, she opened the granaries to the public and passed a tax amnesty, all while preserving her kingdom’s stability and independence with no revolts during the rest of her reign.” “So what went wrong?” “After Caesar’s death, this foreign Queen couldn’t stop meddling in Roman matters.” “Actually, it was the Roman factions who came demanding her aid. And of course she had no choice but to support Octavian and Marc

Antony in avenging Caesar, if only for the sake of their son.” “And again, she provided her particular kind of support to Marc Antony.” “Why does that matter? Why doesn’t anyone seem to care about Caesar or Antony’s countless other affairs? Why do we assume she instigated the relationships? And why are only powerful women defined by their sexuality?” “Order.” “Cleopatra and Antony were a disaster.

They offended the Republic with their ridiculous celebrations sitting on golden thrones and dressing up as gods until Octavian had all of Rome convinced of their megalomania.” “And yet Octavian was the one who attacked Antony, annexed Egypt, and declared himself Emperor.

It was the Roman’s fear of a woman in power that ended their Republic, not the woman herself.” “How ironic.” Cleopatra’s story survived mainly in the accounts of her enemies in Rome, and later writers filled the gaps with rumors and stereotypes. We may never know the full truth of her life and her reign, but we can separate fact from rumor by putting history on trial.

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