Cleopatra: last queen of egypt

Advertising Download Read Online


ALSO BY JOYCE TYLDESLEYFor AdultsDaughters of Isis: Women of Ancient EgyptHatchepsut: the Female PharaohNefertiti: Egypt’s Sun QueenThe MummyRamesses: Egypt’s Greatest PharaohJudgement of the Pharaoh: Crime and Punishment in Ancient EgyptThe Private Lives of the PharaohsEgypt’s Golden EmpirePyramids: The Real Story Behind Egypt’s Most Ancient MonumentsTales from Ancient EgyptEgypt: How a Lost Civilization was RediscoveredChronicle of the Queens of EgyptEgyptian Games and SportsFor childrenMummy Mysteries: The Secret World of Tutankhamunand the PharaohsEgypt (Insiders)Stories from Ancient Egypt




A Member of the Perseus Books GroupNew York

Copyright © 2008 by Joyce TyldesleyFirst published in the United States in 2008 by Basic Books,A Member of the Perseus Books GroupPublished in Great Britain in 2008 by Profile Books Ltd

All rights reserved.No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoeverwithout written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodiedin critical articles and reviews. For information, address Basic Books,387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016-8810.

Books published by Basic Books are available at special discountsfor bulk purchases in the United States by corporations, institutions,and other organizations. For more information, please contact the SpecialMarkets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut Street,Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103, or call (800) 810-4145, ext. 5000or e-mail[email protected].

A CIP catalog record for this book is available from the Library of CongressHC ISBN: 978-0-465-00940-4PB ISBN: 978-0-465-01892-5LCCN: 2008921307

British ISBN: 978 1 86197 965 010 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1Dedicated to the memory of my late father,William Randolph Tyldesley


Family tree


Author’s Note


CHAPTER ONEPrincess of Egypt

CHAPTER TWOQueen of Egypt

CHAPTER THREEAlexandria-next-to-Egypt

CHAPTER FOURCleopatra and Julius Caesar


CHAPTER SIXCleopatra and Mark Antony

CHAPTER SEVENDeath of a Dream

CHAPTER EIGHTCleopatra’s Children

CHAPTER NINEHistory Becomes Legend

Who Was Who?




List of Illustrations




Author’s Note

Personal names are a potential minefield for the student of ancient history. I have aimed at clarity for those new to the Ptolemaic age, and can only apologise in advance to those who may feel that I have made irrational, inconsistent or unscholarly decisions. Throughout the book I have favoured the traditional spelling Cleopatra rather than the more authentic but less widely known Kleopatra. Similarly, when using Roman names I have opted for the more familiar modern variants: Caesar instead of Gaius Julius (Iulius) Caesar, Antony instead of Marcus Antonius, and so on. Octavian was, as Mark Antony so rudely noted, a boy who owed everything to his name. Soon after Cleopatra’s suicide, Octavian (initially Gaius Octavius; later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus) took the title Imperator and the name Caesar Augustus. To avoid confusion I refer to him as Octavian throughout. As a general rule, I use the ‘-os’ ending for those of Greek heritage, so that, for example, Cleopatra’s youngest son becomes Ptolemy Philadelphos rather than the Latinised Ptolemy Philadelphus, but I retain the ‘-us’ ending for those, like Herodotus, who are today widely known by the Latin version of their name.

All dates areBC(BCE) unless otherwise specified. The dynastic Egyptians counted their years by reference to the current king’s reign, each new reign requiring the number system to start again at regnalYear I. The Ptolemies continued this system. The Romans used a lunar calendar of 355 days but neglected to add in the occasional month that would keep the official calendar in line with the seasons. On 1 January 46 Julius Caesar introduced a new Egyptian-inspired calendar of 365.25 days. His Julian calendar remains the basis of our own modern calendar.

Throughout the text I have used the loose term ‘dynastic Egypt’ to refer to the thirty-one dynasties before the 332 arrival of Alexander the Great.


In the case of Cleopatra the biographer may approach his subject from one of several directions. He may, for example, regard the Queen of Egypt as a thoroughly bad woman, or as an irresponsible sinner, or as a moderately good woman in a difficult situation.

Arthur Weigall,The Life and Times of Cleopatra Queen of Egypt1

In approximately 3100 the independent city-states of the narrow Nile Valley and the broad Nile Delta united to form one long realm. Lines of heroic, semi-divine kings emerged to rule this new land; lines of beautiful queens stood dutifully by their side. If occasionally the kings were less heroic, and the queens less beautiful, than they perhaps could have been, it did not matter overmuch. State propaganda – the convention of presenting all kings as handsome, wise and brave, and all queens as pale, passive and supportive – would ensure that both kings and queens were remembered as they should have been, not as they were. Three thousand years of dynastic rule were to see at least 300 kings claiming sovereignty over the ‘Two Lands’, the unified Nile Valley and Delta. Those 300 kings were married to several thousand queens, of whom Cleopatra VII was the last.

Included among the thousands of queens were many consorts of immense influence and power, and at least three queens regnant who were accepted by their people as semi-divine female kings.2Memories of these queens were embedded in Egypt: in tombs, on temple walls, in palace archives, funerary cults and statuary. But as dynasty succeeded dynasty, century succeeded century, the cults failed, the architecture was destroyed and all understanding of the hieroglyphic script was lost. Egypt’s lengthy history was still writ large on her crumbling stone walls, but now no one could read it. Only the Bible and the classical authors, Homer and Herodotus among them, offered western scholars a tantalising, selective and highly confused version of Egypt’s past. The dynastic queens were to remain hidden until the nineteenth century saw the development of the modern science of Egyptology.

One group of queens was, however, never forgotten. The Ptolemies, the last dynasty of independent Egypt, enjoyed three centuries of rule sandwiched between the conquest of the Macedonian Alexander the Great (332) and the conquest of the Roman Octavian (30). Their stories, an integral part of Roman history, were recorded not only in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but also in Latin and in Greek. Best remembered of all was Cleopatra VII; certainly not the most successful Ptolemy, nor the longest lived, but the Ptolemy whose decisions and deeds influenced two of Rome’s greatest men and, in so doing, affected the development of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra’s story did more than survive in dusty official histories. Both Cleopatra and Egypt were seen as sexy in all modern senses of the word, and the thrilling mixture of decadence, lust and unnatural death – the very obvious contrast between the seductive but decaying power of ancient Egypt and the virile, disciplined strength of Rome – captured the imaginations of generations of artists and poets. Told and retold, her tale corrupted and expanded until Cleopatra evolved into a semi-mythological figure recognised throughout the world.

Famous though she undoubtedly is, it is entirely possible to devotea lifetime to the study of ancient Egypt without ever meeting Cleopatra. Paradoxically, the woman whom millions regard as the defining Egyptian queen is more or less ignored by traditional Egyptologists, who confine their studies to the thirty-one dynasties preceding the arrival of Alexander. The Ptolemies are considered peripheral beings and, as such, they have become the preserve of classical and specialised Graeco-Roman scholars, who, naturally enough, set them against a classical rather than an Egyptian background. The Graeco-Roman scholars have, in turn, shied away from Cleopatra VII; maybe because histories emphasising individual rather than national achievement are currently considered somewhat old-fashioned, or perhaps because they feel a reluctance to tackle a subject as obviously popular as Cleopatra.

For a long time this seemed entirely reasonable to me. After all, the Ptolemies were foreigners in Egypt, and relatively modern foreigners at that. They were separated from the true dynastic age by an embarrassing period of Persian rule and, lacking a numbered dynasty of their own, were omitted from many well-respected Egyptian histories that came to a neat end with the reign of the last native pharaoh, Nectanebo II (Nakhthorheb).3If that was not enough, they reigned over an Egypt whose pure native culture had been diluted and distorted by Greek and Roman influences: they worshipped curious hybrid gods; they issued coins; they spoke Greek, not Egyptian. But, after many years spent studying Egypt’s ‘true’ queens, I began to realise that placing the Ptolemies in a cultural ghetto was an irrational and unsustainable distinction. The Ptolemies believed themselves to be a valid Egyptian dynasty, and devoted a great deal of time and money to demonstrating that they were the theological continuation of all the dynasties that had gone before. Cleopatra defined herself as an Egyptian queen, and drew on the iconography and cultural references of earlier queens to reinforce her position. Her people and her contemporaries accepted her as such. Could an Egyptian-born woman whose family had controlled Egypt for three centuries really be classed as foreign(and if so, where does this leave the British royal family)? Or as irrelevant to the study and understanding of Egyptian queenship?

I started to grow curious about Cleopatra, and the more I learned about her, the more I grew to respect her as an intelligent and effective monarch who set realistic goals and who very nearly succeeded in creating a dynasty that would have re-established Egypt as a world superpower. ‘What if?’ speculation is the historian’s guilty and ultimately pointless pleasure. But what would have happened if Julius Caesar had avoided the assassins’ knives? Or if Mark Antony had triumphed against the Parthian empire? This book is the direct result of my curiosity. Written by an unashamedly traditional Egyptologist, it aims to put Cleopatra back into her own, predominantly Egyptian context. I therefore give only the essential details of the dramatic events occurring in the Roman world – the death of Caesar, the rise and fall of Antony and the triumph of Octavian – but provide more of the archaeological and historical detective work that underpins Cleopatra’s story than is perhaps usual in a biography.

The bare bones of her story – Cleopatra’s liaisons, children and untimely death – have always been known and cannot be disputed. The flesh that generations of scholars and artists have chosen to cover those bones is a different matter, and each and every account of Cleopatra presents a new version of the same woman. That she was an ambitious and ruthless queen is obvious from even the most superficial examination of her life, although the extent of her ruthlessness tends to be hidden in the more popular histories, which gloss over the murder of her sister and (almost certainly) her brother while concentrating on her ‘love life’. That Cleopatra, living in an age of highly unstable governments, chose to form personal alliances with individually powerful Romans should be seen as a sensible (intelligent) rather than a weak (emotional) decision; and ‘love’, as in any dynastic match, may have had very little to do with it. That Cleopatra never ruled alone perhaps comes as something of a surprise. Cleopatra’s ‘reign’ isin fact a succession of co-regencies with her brother Ptolemy XIII (51–47), her brother Ptolemy XIV (47–44) and her son Ptolemy XV Caesar (44–30). The enormous emphasis that Cleopatra herself placed on her role as a divine mother may be equally surprising. The modern world has grown accustomed to the image of Cleopatra the siren and, sex and motherhood being considered curiously incompatible, has more or less forgotten that she was the mother of four children. But Cleopatra lived at a time when the cults of the Egyptian mother goddess Isis and the mystical Greek deity Dionysos were starting to pose a serious threat to the classical gods of Mount Olympus. Within traditional Egypt the old pantheon and the old priesthood continued much as they had done for thousands of years. But outside the conservative Nile Valley the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean were actively seeking a new religious enlightenment, and there was a growing expectation that a saviour would soon emerge from the east to rule the world. Cleopatra exploited her motherhood with ruthless efficiency. Simultaneously she allowed herself to be celebrated as the mortal mother of the king of Egypt, the divine mother of the young god Horus4and the regal mother of her people.

Cleopatra’s story is preserved in words rather than objects. The archaeological evidence for her reign has been severely compromised by the loss of Ptolemaic Alexandria, which has either sunk beneath the waters of the Mediterranean Sea or been buried beneath modern building developments. Today, Alexandria can boast several ancient cemeteries, but just one significant non-funereal archaeological site. Kom el-Dik, a small archaeological oasis in a desert of contemporary buildings, provides a tantalising glimpse of the ancient city, including a well-preserved Roman theatre, but offers little to the scholar in search of Cleopatra. Visitors to Alexandria may sit on the corniche and gaze across the wine-dark sea towards Cleopatra’s vanished palace. They may scramble through the brambles of the Catholic cemetery to reach the alabaster tomb attributed to Alexander, or may pass amorning in the splendid new library before retiring for a cool beer in the Cecil Hotel, where, if they are so inclined, the tall mirrors might allow them to glimpse the shade of Durrell’s incomparable Justine. But they will struggle to find any firm reference to Cleopatra. Within the wider, more Egyptian Egypt beyond Alexandria, the Cleopatra who graces the temple wall at Dendera (Greek Tentyra) appears as just one of a long line of royal women presenting a uniform, age-defying propaganda of immortal queenship. Her face is bland and indistinct, her personality deliberately veiled: the best-known, and most beautiful, portrait of Cleopatra from this temple is a fake. Cleopatra has vanished entirely from Athens, Tarsus, Ephesus and Rome. Looking down on the remains of the Roman temple of Venus Genetrix, the temple where, it is reported, Julius Caesar scandalously erected a golden statue of the mortal queen beside the immortal goddess, it is impossible to conjure up any vision of the woman whose behaviour once shocked the civilised world.5

Writings, then, form the basis of our understanding of Cleopatra. But, while many thousands of official inscriptions, formal and informal papyri and ostraca (writings in ink on potsherds or flakes of stone) have survived from Ptolemaic Egypt, the great state and temple libraries, including the renowned Library of Alexandria, are all irretrievably lost. Lost with them are the official histories which may, or may not, have been written about her rule. By an unfortunate quirk of fate, Cleopatra’s reign has yielded fewer papyri than the earlier Ptolemaic reigns, while Alexandria’s high water table means that there are virtually no Alexandrian papyri. The sole surviving example of Cleopatra’s own handwriting – the single Greek wordginestho, ‘let it be so’, scrawled at the end of an official document – if genuinely Cleopatra’s hand (and the experts are largely unconvinced), is uninformative to say the least. We cannot read Cleopatra’s own version of events and there are no independent, contemporary accounts of her life and deeds. The historian who knew her mostintimately, Julius Caesar, accords her scant attention in his works. Nikolaus of Damascus, tutor to Cleopatra’s children, adds a few more sentences. Plutarch’sLife of Antonyprovides the most complete, most often quoted account of her life; its author even claims to have read the memoirs (now lost) of Cleopatra’s physician Olympus. However, Plutarch, writing at the beginning of the second centuryAD, can hardly be considered an eyewitness, and nor can the alternative Cleopatra ‘biographer’, Cassius Dio, who wrote hisRoman Historyin the years betweenAD200 and 222. Later historians, those who have relied on Plutarch and Dio, are even more remote. I have quoted extensively from these secondary texts because they are the texts that have formed the western understanding of Cleopatra’s life and times, but they should be read with caution. With an almost complete lack of primary sources we cannot hope to hear Cleopatra’s true voice, and are forced to see her through secondary eyes; eyes already coloured by other people’s propaganda, prejudices and assumptions. Few of us would wish to be judged in this way.

Given these limitations of evidence it is clearly never going to be possible to write a conventional biography of Cleopatra; there are simply too many important details missing. But it is possible, with goodwill, patience and determination, and without venturing too far into the enticing but ultimately sterile realm of historical romance, to draw some conclusions and, perhaps, to begin to understand something of her motivation. Whether we can also begin to understand something of her personality, the reader must decide. It is certainly unwise and unprofitable to attempt to psychoanalyse the long-dead. But one aspect of Cleopatra’s personality is immediately apparent. She is an exceptionally strong individual; a survivor with the power to dominate and diminish those who surround her. Ptolemy XII Auletes, her father, is able to hold his own, as are her Roman contemporaries Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian. But Flavia, Octavia and Livia, three remarkably capable Roman women, appear as bit parts inher story, while Cleopatra’s family, her predecessor Cleopatra V, her two headstrong sisters Berenice IV and Arsinoë IV and her two husband-brothers Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, become little more than ciphers. This is compounded by the difficulties inherent in working out precisely which of the identically named Ptolemies (XII, XIII, XIV or XV) is associated with Cleopatra on any particular monument, or which is featured on the many coins marked simply ‘of King Ptolemy’. This relegation to the background is unfair, particularly to her spirited sisters, but unavoidable. It means that Cleopatra lacks the detailed family background that would, perhaps, have helped us to understand some of her choices. Had any of her siblings managed to cling on to their thrones Cleopatra herself would have become a footnote in their history. Her more remote ancestors, in contrast, have all the character that her immediate relations seem to lack. Their stories are summarised in the ‘Who Was Who’ section at the end of this book. They make fascinating reading.

Other books
scandal by pamela britton
the drop by jeff ross
soldiers in hiding by richard wiley
her chance encounters by caine,ruby
till dawn with the devil by alexandra hawkins