— Cleopatra VII
1. Limestone stele in the Louvre. Dedicated to Cleopatra VII 2 July 51 BCE by Onnophris, the Greek. Cleopatra is represented here (right) as a traditional, male pharaoh wearing double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, and a triangular loincloth. Two vases are offered to the goddess Isis, who nurses her baby, Horus.
2. Cleopatra meets Julius Caesar in 48 BCE (Alexandria):
2a. Plutarch (1st/2nd c. CE), Life of Julius Caesar 49:
So Cleopatra, taking only Apollodorus the Sicilian from among her friends, embarked in a little skiff and landed at the palace when it was already getting dark; and as it was impossible to escape notice otherwise, she stretched herself at full length inside a bed-sack, while Apollodorus tied the bed-sack up with a cord and carried it indoors to Caesar. It was by this device of Cleopatra’s, it is said, that Caesar was first captivated, for she showed herself to be a bold coquette, and succumbing to the charm of further intercourse with her, he reconciled her to her brother on the basis of a joint share with him in the royal power.
2b. Cleopatra (1963):
2c. Assassin’s Creed, Origins (2017):
3a. A bronze coin struck in Cyprus showing Cleopatra VII and her young son Caesarion, 48–30 BCE. Image: CNGcoins.
3b. Relief of Cleopatra VII and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera. Before 30 BCE. Image: Wikimedia.
4. Mark Antony and Cleopatra meet at Tarsus in 41 BCE (Cilicia):
4a. Plutarch (1st/2nd c. CE), Life of Mark Antony 25:
Such, then, was the nature of Antony, where now as a crowning evil his love for Cleopatra supervened, roused and drove to frenzy many of the passions that were still hidden and quiescent in him, and dissipated and destroyed whatever good and saving qualities still offered resistance. And he was taken captive in this manner. As he was getting ready for the Parthian war, he sent to Cleopatra, ordering her to meet him in Cilicia in order to make answer to the charges made against her of raising and giving to Cassius much money for the war. But Dellius, Antony’s messenger, when he saw how Cleopatra looked, and noticed her subtlety and cleverness in conversation, at once perceived that Antony would not so much as think of doing such a woman any harm, but that she would have the greatest influence with him. He therefore resorted to flattery and tried to induce the Egyptian to go to Cilicia “decked out in fine array”* (as Homer would say), and not to be afraid of Antony, who was the most agreeable and humane of commanders.”
*“decked out in fine array” = a quotation from Homer Iliad 14.162, where Hera prepares her body to be beautiful so that she can seduce and deceive Zeus. Hera enlists the help of Aphrodite (Iliad 14.190ff.).
4b. Plutarch (1st/2nd c. CE), Life of Mark Antony 26:
Though she received many letters of summons both from Antony himself and from his friends, she so despised and laughed the man to scorn as to sail up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Cupids in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-girls, attired like Nereïds and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous scents from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks. Of the inhabitants, some accompanied her on either bank of the river from its very mouth, while others went down from the city to behold the sight. The throng in the market-place gradually streamed away, until at last Antony himself, seated on his tribunal, was left alone. And a rumour spread on every hand that Venus was come to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia… (27) Cleopatra observed in the jests of Antony much of the soldier and the common man, and adopted this manner also towards him, without restraint now, and boldly. For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but conversation with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with barbarians she very seldom had need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself and unassisted, whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Parthians. It’s said that she knew the speech of many other peoples also, although the kings of Egypt before her had not even made an effort to learn the native language, and some actually gave up their Macedonian dialect.
5a. Silver denarius of Mark Antony, 32 BCE (RRC 543/1). Left: Antony; Armenian tiara behind portrait as an allusion to his conquests in the East. Right: Cleopatra with diadem, in front of the bust, a ship’s bow as an allusion to her war fleet. Image: CRRO.
5b. Kevin Butcher (2016) The face of Cleopatra: was she really so beautiful?
“Cleopatra is always newsworthy. So when in February 2007 a small coin in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle was said to have changed our understanding of her, it made headlines around the world. Journalists reacted with shock. Cleopatra was no beauty queen, said the reports. The face on the coin was nothing like that of Elizabeth Taylor. Instead she looked “plain”, even “shrewish”, and had a “hook-like hooter”. This was announced as a revelation. Yet for all the fanfare, there was nothing particularly unusual about the Newcastle coin. There are plenty of coins surviving with Cleopatra’s portrait on them, and they generally repeat the same features that seemed to astound reporters: a prominent nose, sloping forehead, sharply pointed chin and thin lips, and hollow-looking eye sockets.
These coin portraits, surprising though they may be to those who have grown up with a ‘Hollywood Cleopatra’, are the only certain images we have of her. That hasn’t stopped people from attempting to dismiss them as inaccurate and overly stylised – hoping against hope that there could have been another face of Cleopatra, a hidden one whose face would better match our expectations. Perhaps, they suggest, these unconvincing portraits were the work of unskilled artists.”
6a. Assassin’s Creed, Origins (2017): “I will sleep with anyone! As long as they agree to be executed in the morning!”
6b. Prudence Jones, Cleopatra: A sourcebook (2006: 260):
“Alexander Pushkin [in Egyptian Nights, 1825] revived a little-known anecdote about one of Cleopatra’s pastimes. The 4th c. AD historian Sextus Aurelius Victor is the only source for this story. As he puts it, Cleopatra was “so lustful that she often prostituted herself, and so beautiful that many men bought a night with her at the price of their lives.” [De Vir. Ill. Urbis Romae 86.2] The tale may be no more than stock invective, however; Diodorus Siculus relates the same anecdote about the Babylonian queen Semiramis.”
“One of the most far-fetched myths about ancient sexuality, repeated online but also in print, is that Cleopatra invented the vibrator. Some sites date this event to ‘circa 54 BC’ while others go for 45 BC: there’s nothing like a date to make a story look more convincing.
Now, there’s obviously one little problem here: the power source. How do you have a vibrator without electricity? In a particularly unconvincing part of a very dodgy but much-cited book, Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm (1999: you can read more about my issues with this book here and it has recently been challenged even more extensively here), water power was suggested as an alternative source for vibrators in the Roman world. Hmmm. The Cleopatra story goes in a different direction: it claims that this device was either an empty gourd or a papyrus box, and it was powered by bees.”
6c. Horace, Odes 1.37. Translated by Niall Rudd (2004).
Now let the drinking begin! Now let us thump the ground with unfettered feet! Now is the time, my friends, to load the couches of the gods with a feast fit for the Salii!
Before this it was sacrilege to bring the Caecuban out from our fathers’ cellars, at a time when the queen, along with her troop of disgustingly perverted men, was devising mad ruin for the Capitol and death for the empire—a woman so out of control that she could hope for anything at all, drunk, as she was, with the sweet wine of success.
But her frenzy was sobered by the survival of scarcely one ship from the flames; and her mind, crazed with Mareotic wine, was brought down to face real terror when Caesar pursued her as she flew away from Italy with oars, like a hawk after a gentle dove or a speedy hunter after a hare on the snowy plains of Thessaly, to put that monster of doom safely in chains.
Determined to die more nobly, she showed no womanly fear of the sword, nor did she use her swift fleet to gain some hidden shore. She had the strength of mind to gaze on her ruined palace with a calm countenance, and the courage to handle the sharp-toothed serpents, letting her body drink in their black venom. Once she had resolved to die she was all the more defiant—determined, no doubt, to cheat the cruel Liburnians: she would not be stripped of her royalty and conveyed to face a jeering triumph: no humble woman she.
7a. Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra (1963):
7b. Shelley P. Haley, “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-empowering.” 1993: 29.
“I had disliked discussing Cleopatra; I had been uncomfortable and ill at ease. Why? I began to see and am still arriving at seeing that Cleopatra is the crystallization of the tension between my yearning to fit in among the classicists and my identity politics. I clouded this tension by professing that the Ptolemies of the first century B.C.E were Greco-Egyptian. To me, “Egyptian”, “Greco-Egyptian”, “Greek”, “Roman” had been cultural designations. I refused, rather self-righteously, I admit, to colorize the question as my grandmother had done, along with my students, and most recently Newsweek (“Was Cleopatra Black”: September 23, 1991). What I resisted was the act that my culture is colorized: Black literature, Black music, Black art, Black feminism. Gradually, by reading my history and Black feminist thought, I perceived that Cleopatra was a signifier on two levels. She gives voice to our “anxiety about cultural disinheritance” (Sadoff 1990: 205), and she represents the contemporary Black woman’s double history of oppression and survival.”
8. Al-Mas’udi, Prairies of Gold, 10th c. CE Arabic. Excerpt from Prudence Jones (2006: 271). Translated by Camilo Gomez-Rivas.
Ptolemy [XII Auletes, king of Egypt] was succeeded by his daughter, Cleopatra. Her reign lasted twenty-two years. She was wise, tried her hand at philosophy and was a close companion to wise men. She has works, both bearing her name and ascribed to her, of medicine, and science, known by those versed in medicine.