Cleopatra: Queen of the Nile

by Michael Sones

Why is Cleopatra thought by some to be one of the most seductive women in all human history?

The Cleopatra of history, legend, plays, and film was actually Cleopatra VII who was born in Alexandria, the then capital of Egypt, in 69 BC. Her father, Ptolemy XII, was of Greek origin and a cruel and unpopular ruler. He was probably married to his own sister, Cleopatra V, as marriage to siblings was common during the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Cleopatra VII had two older sisters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice. She also had a younger sister, Arsinoe, and two younger brothers, both sharing the name Ptolemy. By the year 51 B.C. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII and her older sister, Cleopatra VI, had both died and her other sister, Berenice, had been beheaded, leaving Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII, heirs to the throne. Cleopatra was a young woman, now 17 or 18 and her younger brother just 12 or 13. A marriage of convenience was arranged, and Cleopatra and her younger brother were wed.

For the next few years Cleopatra controlled the reins of power until Ptolemy’s supporters, led by named Pothinus, a eunuch, conspired to overthrow her. In 48 B.C., they were successful and Cleopatra, now powerless, fled to Syria, with her one surviving sister, Arsinoe. Already having distinguished herself as being very intelligent, speaking nine languages, including Egyptian, (the first Ptolemaic ruler to be able to do so) Cleopatra was about to distinguish herself again, plotting to regain power and to prove herself a shrewd and cunning political leader.

There are different accounts about whether or not she was beautiful; some say she was, and others that she had and unglamorously long, bent nose and coarse, more masculine features. But there is a general accord amongst historians that she gave a lot of attention to the care of her body and the way she deported herself. It is also agreed that men found her very attractive and her ways, seductive.

When Alexandria was overtaken by Caesar, leader of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra arranged to be smuggled into his Court wrapped up in a carpet. Caesar himself, overtaken with her attractiveness, became her lover almost immediately. She later gave birth to a son who she named Little Caesar. When Caesar was later murdered at the hands of conspirators against him, Cleopatra later became the lover of Mark Antony, one of the three men who became Emperors of Rome after Caesar’s death. It is reported that when Mark Antony first summoned Cleopatra to speak with him, she arrived on a barge, lying under a golden canopy, dressed as Venus, the goddess of Love, fanned by an entourage of young boys dressed as Cupids. Her handmaidens were costumed as sea nymphs. The barge that carried her was lavishly decorated with purple sails and a gilded stern. The silver oars must have been striking as they cut the water’s surface.

Plutarch, a Greek historian, perhaps provides some insight into what it was that men found so irresistible about her, when he writes, “Plato admits four sorts of flattery, but she [Cleopatra] had a thousand. Were Antony serious or disposed to mirth, she had at any moment some new delight or charm to meet his wishes: at every turn she was upon him, and let him escape her neither by day nor by night She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him: and when he exercised in arms, she was there to see..”

Certainly Cleopatra saw the sense of, or perhaps unconsciously understood the benefits that could accrue from allying herself with powerful men. She needed to wed her younger brothers, in order to secure a role as at least part-leader of Egypt, even if in reality they were simply marriages of convenience and she controlled the reins of power. Later she was to have affairs with two extremely powerful men, Caesar and Mark Antony. When her last lover, Mark Antony, died of self-inflicted wounds, having lost his status and his power and believing Cleopatra dead, she, too, could see no future for herself. Now 39, having lived much longer than the average age expected for a woman of her time and having lost not only her lover but also her kingdom Cleopatra too, lost her desire to live. A prisoner of Octavian, she committed suicide, though it is not certain how. She had knowledge of poisons, but was also found to have two poisonous asp-like marks on her body, fuelling speculation that she may have had the poisonous snake smuggled into her prison cell in a basket of figs. In her suicide note she pleaded to be buried in Antony’s tomb, and Octavian was later to grant this last wish.

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