Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cleopatra: Part I

I used to be obsessed with Cleopatra when I was in grade school. I even taught my self shading by copying the cover of the Royal Diaries: Daughter of the Nile, which was my first introduction to the historical figure. The book of course was aimed towards adolescents and was a fictional imagining of Cleopatra at age 12, but after I read that, I kept on going and read the entire appendix about the rest of her life. I researched her at the library just for fun and watched Elizabeth Taylor's "Cleopatra" and became enamored with her even more. Freshman year of high school I did a project on the Egyptian Queen and won a debate with my teacher Mrs. L. about her having a son with Julius Caesar, and for a quiet nerdy girl obsessed with Cleo, this was one of my crowning moments of the year. What fascinates me about Cleopatra is that there are so many different takes on her: some loved her, many hated her... but what is certain is that she was a powerful woman during a time when women were not supposed to be powerful who helped alter the course of history.


Cleopatra was not Egyptian at all but part of the Ptolemaic dynasty who originated from Greece. The royal family spoke in Greek and refused to speak Egyptian, however, what made Cleopatra particularly appealing to the Egyptian people was that she spoke Egyptian and even presented herself as the incarnation of Isis.

She wasn't first in line to the Egyptian throne... She had an older brother Ptolemy XII, and two older sisters Cleopatra Tryphaena, and Berenice. Cleopatra and her father went to Rome and in the meantime Cleopatra Tryphaena seized the throne for herself. Then, after "mysterious circumstances", Tryphaena died and Berenice took the throne for herself. When Ptolemy and Cleopatra returned from Rome, they came with Roman soldiers who helped execute Berenice by beheading, and bestowing the throne to Ptolemy and his daughter Cleopatra as his appointed regent.

After her father died a few years later, 18 year old Cleopatra and her 10 year old brother ruled the country as co-rulers. Although co-rulers, neither of them wanted to share Egypt so they both tried to work their magic to boost the other one off the throne. Cleopatra did tactics like making her face the only one on the Egyptial coin, denied Ptolemy's name on official documents, and tried to start a rebellion against him. However, Ptolemy had the support of the Romans who helped restore the throne to his father, and with Roman support, Cleopatra was ousted from the throne and exiled along with her younger sister, Arisnoe.

If one wanted to look at this from a feminist angle. It's possible that part of the reasons the Romans were so willing to help Ptolemy seize back his throne from his daughters was because the thought of a woman taking the throne was preposterous, not to mention the deviousness of it all. So they sort of played big brother with the Egyptians, like they were their science experiment, and used their influence to keep a male on the throne. It was clear at this point, to both Ptolemy and Cleopatra, that Roman support was the only way to succeed in the world they lived in.

Ptolemy XIII was only 13 when he made the biggest mistake of his life. As an attempt to secure an alliance with Julius Caesar, he ordered the beheading of Pompey and presented his head to the famous Roman General. Now in order to understand the significance to all this, let me delve into one of my other favorite subjects which is ancient Roman history: At the time, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassius were part of the Roman Triumvirate, the governing heads of Rome. They were all political allies and enemies at the same time, all relying on each other to stay afloat in Roman politics, yet also wishing the others would sink so they could receive more power. You see they each had their strengths: Crassius had the money, Pompey had the armies, and Caesar (though he had an army too) had popularity. Pompey and Caesar knew each other well for they governed each other and Caesar's daughter Julia was married to Pompey. So when Ptolemy presented Pompey's head to Caesar with a proud grin on his face, Caesar was more than enraged and took control over Alexandria immediately in his anger and grief. Ptolemy learned that Roman politics were slightly more civil than Egyptian politics... but only slightly.

So as you can imagine, Cleopatra, having learned that Roman support was the key to success and no one was more powerful than Caesar, saw the Roman General's anger at her brother as an opportunity to gain her throne back.

Now before I go on, let me preface this by explaining that the beautiful Cleopatra that we see in the movies portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor and Vivian Leigh and in countless paintings and stories has been fictionalized. Scholars remind us that Cleopatra wasn't a sultry olive-skinned seductress... we see on coins and busts that she was actually a plain woman of Greek origin. What made her beautiful to men of power was that she was well educated, witty, and powerful in a way that separated her from other women during the time period. This simple aspect about her brings me hope and femininity and masculinity and that there is more to attraction than simply animalistic programming.

Legend has it that after Caesar took control of Alexandria, the exiled Cleopatra snuck herself into his chamber by rolling herself into a carpet that was presented to him as a gift. Caesar was immediately taken with her and they became lovers. She gave birth to his son named Ptolemy Caesar aka Caesarion. Caesar's armies fought and killed Ptolemy XIII and his soldiers and set Cleopatra back on the Egyptian throne along with another younger brother Ptolemy XIV.

Caesar's relationship with Cleopatra was quite a scandal because not only was she foreign, but he was married to Calpurnia. Cleopatra wanted Caesar to name their son as his heir but he refused, which in my opinion was wise due to their unpopularity, and named his nephew Octavian his heir instead. Then during the Ides of March 44 B.C, Caesar was assassinated. Cleopatra and her son were in Rome at the time of his death, and fled back to Alexandria where Ptolemy XIV had been poisoned by Arisnoe and Cleopatra made her son Caesarion her co-ruler.

It's important for me as a woman to look at Cleopatra and her life as an example of what works and what doesn't work, as a showcase of femininity and masculinity pulling and tugging at each other the way they were intended. I think Cleopatra really struggled with her gender identity... I mean, she had to arrive at a place where she was masculine enough to be taken seriously, but feminine enough to persuade. She used the more socially masculine traits such as ambition in some areas, and she mixed them with socially feminine traits such as persuasion. By straddling the spectrum in a sort of androgynous way, she was able to succeed in winning hearts and power. It was a delicate line to walk, and she balanced well.