Cleopatra: The Impossible Queen.

— 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.

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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):

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2c. Assassin’s Creed, Origins (2017):

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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.

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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!”

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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.”

6c. Helen King (@fluff35), “Cleopatra and the vibrator powered by bees.” Mistaking histories. Aug. 8 2017.

“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.


Hellenistic Women.

— Hellenistic women

1a. Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (1975: 120): 

“The Hellenistic world was dramatically different from that of the preceding period. Loss of political autonomy on the part of city-states wrought a change in men’s political relationships to their societies and to each other. These changes, in turn, affected women’s position in the family and in society.”

1bSarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (1975: 125):

“The apparent formal expansion of women’s competence may be attributable to the fact that for the Hellenistic period there exist data from many different areas inhabited by Greeks, while our view of women’s position in Classical Greece is monopolized by the situation at Athens and the implication that, on the whole, Sparta was exceptional because of a unique social system. In other words, we may hypothesize that non-Athenian women even outside Sparta may have been less restricted before the Hellenistic period, but this cannot be documented.”

2. Terracotta figurine from Benghazi (330-300 BCE) of a woman with a writing tablet. Image: British Museum.

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3a. Terracotta figurine from Corinth (late 4th c./early 3rd c. BCE) of young women playing a game like “piggyback” known in Greek as ephedrismos. Image: Boston MFA. 


3b. Coming of Age in Classical Greece (2003: 275): 

“The term ephedrismos derives from the Greek verb “to sit upon” and refers to a game in which one person carries another on his or her back, rather like our piggy-back. Pollux (9.119) describes the rules as follows: ‘They place a stone upright on the ground and throw balls or pebbles at it from a distance. The one who fails to overturn the stone carries the other, having his eyes blindfolded by the rider’s hands until — if he does not go astray — he touches the stone.’…Terracotta figurines of girls playing ephedrismos were especially popular in the early Hellenistic period.”

4. Herodas (3rd c. BCE), Mime 6.18-33. 

METRO: dear Coritto: who was it who stitched the scarlet dildo for you?
CORITTO: And where, Metro, did you see that?
METRO: Nossis, daughter of Erinna, had it two days ago; ah, what a fine gift!
CORITTO: Nossis? From whom did she get it?
METRO: Will you disparage me if I tell you?
CORITTO: By these sweet eyes, dear Metro, no one shall hear what you say from Coritto’s mouth.
METRO: Bitas’ Eubule gave it to her and said that no one should know.
CORITTO: Women! This woman will uproot me yet. I paid respect to her plea, and gave it her, Metro, before I used it myself. But snatching it like a windfall, she passes it on even to those who ought not to have it. Many farewells to a friend who is of such a nature; let her look on some other instead of me as her friend in future.

5. Theocritus (3rd c. BCE), Idyll 15.44-71. 

PRAXINOA: My God, what a crowd! How are we ever to get through this lot? They’re like ants—countless, innumerable. You’ve done plenty of good things since your father became a god, Ptolemy [=Ptolemy I Soter, d. 283 BCE]. Nowadays no criminal sneaks up to you Egyptian style as you’re walking along and does you a mischief like the tricks those deceitful scoundrels used to play, nasty rascals all as bad as each other, curse the lot of them. Gorgo, darling, what’s to become of us? It’s the king’s horses equipped for war. Please, sir, don’t tread on me. That chestnut stallion reared up: look, it’s out of control! Aren’t you going to get out of the way, Eunoa, you reckless creature? He’ll be the death of the man leading him. Thank goodness baby’s safe at home.
GORGO: Don’t worry, Praxinoa; we’ve got behind them now, and they’ve gone to their places. And I’m pulling myself together now, too. I’ve had a phobia of horses—and nasty cold snakes—since I was a child. Let’s get a move on; there’s a big crowd flowing this way.
GORGO: Are you coming from the palace, mother?
OLD WOMAN: I am, my children.
GORGO: Is it easy to get in, then?
OLD WOMAN: The Greeks got into Troy by trying, my darlings; you can manage anything if you really try.
GORGO: The oracular old lady has gone off.
PRAXINOA: Women know everything—even how Zeus married Hera.
GORGO: Look, Praxinoa, what a crowd there is at the entrance!
PRAXINOA: Enormous! Give me your hand, Gorgo, and Eunoa take Eutychis’: keep hold of her so you don’t get separated. Let’s all go in together; keep very close to us, Eunoa. Oh dear, oh dear, my cloak has been ripped in two already, Gorgo. For God’s sake, sir, if you hope to be happy, take care with my cloak.
MAN: There isn’t much I can do, but I’ll try.

6a. Gold octadrachm (coin). Bust of Arsinoë II (Queen of Egypt, c. 275-270 BCE). Image: Art Institute of Chicago.

6b. Pomeroy (1975: 124): “Arsinoë ruled with her brother [Ptolemy II] for approximately five years, until her death in 270 BCE. As was customary in Macedonian courts, she inaugurated her reign by accusing all her rivals of treason and having them eliminated. She was the first Egyptian queen whose portrait was shown with her husband’s on coins.”

6c. Limestone head attributed to Arsinoë II, 278-270 BCEImage: Met Museum: “…a style very closely related to that of Dynasty 30, the last of the traditional Egyptian pharaonic dynasties. The early Ptolemies made great efforts to show themselves as the inheritors of the pharaohs who had preceded them…At the same time, Ptolemaic queens served a much more prominent role in the monarchy than did the queens of Dynasty 30, who are virtually unknown.”


6d. Statuette of Arsinoë II for her posthumous cult. Image: Met Museum: “The inscription on the back of this figure refers to Queen Arsinoë II as a goddess, indicating it was made after 270 BCE when her cult was established at the time of her death by her brother and husband, Ptolemy II.”

7a. Gold decadrachm (coin) minted at Alexandria, 246-221 BCE. Bust of Berenice II. Image: MANTIS.

7b. Women in the Classical World p148: “Berenice governed Egypt when her husband went off to campaign in the Third Syrian War (246-241 BCE). She vowed to dedicate a lock of hair to Arsinoë II-Aphrodite at Zephyrium upon his safe return. (Dedications of hair were normal offerings to Greek divinities, and Arsinoë had by this time been deified and assimilated to Aphrodite…). Berenice made the dedication, but the hair disappeared. The winged horse of Arsinoë II-Aphrodite had carried it off. Conon the astronomer, grateful for imperial patronage, flattered the queen by identifying her lock of hair among the constellations and Callimachus narrates the vicissitudes of the lock in ‘The Lock of Berenice.'”

7c. Faience oinochoe, 243-222 BCE. Portrait of Berenice II. Image: Getty: “An inscription in Greek over the altar reads, ‘To the good fortune of Queen Berenike.'”

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8. Inscription on white marble stele from the temple of Isis, late 1st c. BCE or 1st c. CE. Cyme. Text: attalus.org.

Demetrius, the son of Artemidorus, who is also called Thraseas, a Magnesian from Magnesia on the Maeander, gave this as an offering in fulfilment of a vow to Isis. He transcribed what follows from the stele in Memphis which stands by the temple of Hephaestus.
I am Isis, the mistress of every land, and I was taught by Hermes and with Hermes I devised letters, both the sacred hieroglyphs and the demotic, that all things might not be written with the same letters.
I gave and ordained laws for men, which no one is able to change.
[5] I am eldest daughter of Cronus.
I am wife and sister of King Osiris.
I am she who finds fruit for men.
I am mother of King Horus.
I am she that rises in the Dog Star.
[10] I am she that is called goddess by women.
For me was the city of Bubastis built.
I divided the earth from the heaven.
I showed the paths of the stars.
I ordered the course of the sun and the moon.
[15] I devised business in the sea.
I made strong the right.
I brought together woman and man.
I appointed to women to bring their infants to birth in the tenth month.
I ordained that parents should be loved by children.
[20] I laid punishment on those disposed without natural affection toward their parents.
I made with my brother Osiris an end to the eating of men.
I revealed mysteries unto men.
I taught men to honour images of the gods.
I consecrated the precincts of the gods.
[25] I broke down the governments of tyrants.
I made an end to murders.
I compelled women to be loved by men.
I made the right to be stronger than gold and silver.
I ordained that the true should be thought good.
[30] I devised marriage contracts.
I assigned to Greeks and barbarians their languages.
I made the beautiful and the shameful to be distinguished by nature.
I ordained that nothing should be more feared than an oath.
I have delivered the plotter of evil against other men into the hands of the one he plotted against.
[35] I established penalties for those who practice injustice.
I decreed mercy to suppliants.
I protect {or: honour} righteous guards.
With me the right prevails.
I am the Queen of rivers and winds and sea.
[40] No one is held in honour without my knowing it.
I am the Queen of war.
I am the Queen of the thunderbolt.
I stir up the sea and I calm it.
I am in the rays of the sun.
[45] I inspect the courses of the sun.
Whatever I please, this too shall come to an end.
With me everything is reasonable.
I set free those in bonds.
I am the Queen of seamanship.
[50] I make the navigable unnavigable when it pleases me.
I created walls of cities.
I am called the Lawgiver {Thesmophoros}.
I brought up islands out of the depths into the light.
I am the Queen of rainstorms.
[55] I overcome Fate.
Fate hearkens to me.
Hail, O Egypt, that nourished me!

9. Figurine of Isis-Aphrodite anasyr(o)mene (“revealing the womb”), 3rd-2nd c. BCE, Naukratis. Image: MFA Boston: “In Hellenistic and Roman times, Aphrodite’s identity was often fused with those of Egyptian fertility goddesses: Isis, Hathor and Bubastis. This figurine represents Isis-Aphrodite anasyromene or Isis-Bubastis. The figure lifts her short-sleeved tunic to reveal her pubic area and wears an elaborate kalathos-shaped headdress, reminiscent of those worn by Cypriot Aphrodite.”


10. Petition to the King (Select Papyri, #269 = P. Enteuxeis 82), 220 BCE. 

To King Ptolemy [IV] greeting from Philista daughter of Lysias resident in Tricomia [=a village in the Fayum]. I am wronged by Petechon. For as I was bathing in the baths of the aforesaid village on Tubi 7 of year 1, and had stepped out to soap myself, he being bathman in the women’s rotunda and having brought in the jugs of hot water emptied one (?) over me and scalded my belly and my left thigh down to the knee, so that my life was in danger. On finding him I gave him into the custody of Nechthosiris the chief policeman of the village in the presence of Simon the epistates. I beg you therefore, O king, if it please you, as a suppliant who has sought your protection, not to suffer me, who am a working woman, to be thus lawlessly treated, but to order Diophanes the strategus to write to Simon the epistates and Nechthosiris the policeman that they are to bring Petechon before him in order that Diophanes may inquire into the case, hoping that having sought the protection of you, O king, the common benefactor of all, I may obtain justice. Farewell. (Docketed) To Simon. Send the accused. Year 1, Gorpiaeus 28 Tubi 12. (Endorsed) Year 1, Gorpiaeus 28 Tubi 12. Philista against Petechon, bathman, about having been scalded.

11. From Hilarion to Alis (Select Papyri, #105 = P. Oxy. 744), 1 BCE. 

Hilarion to his sister Alis very many greetings, likewise to my lady Berous and Apollonarion. Know that we are still in Alexandria. Do not be anxious; if they really go home, I will remain in Alexandria. I beg and entreat you, take care of the little one, and as soon as we receive our pay I will send it up to you. If by chance you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, cast it out. You have said to Aphrodisias “Do not forget me.” How can I forget you? I beg you then not to be anxious. The 29th year of Caesar [=Emperor Augustus], Pauni 23. (Addressed) Deliver to Alis from Hilarion.

Herodas translated by Jeffrey Rusten, I. C. Cunningham 2003 (Loeb Classical Library). Theocritus translated by Neil Hopkinson 2015 (Loeb Classical Library). Isis inscription from Cyme (= IK Kyme 41) translation from attalus.org. Papyri #269 (P. Enteuxeis 82) and #105 (P. Oxy. 744) translated by A. S. Hunt, C. C. Edgar 1934, 1932 (Loeb Classical Library).