Title: Cleopatra: A Life.
Author: Stacy Schiff.
Genre: Non-fiction, history, biography.
Publication Date: 2010.
Summary: Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first and poisoned the second; incest and assassination were family specialties. She had children by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most prominent Roman commanders of the day. With Antony she would attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled both their ends. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons; her supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, the author boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. (Refer to PART 1 for the rest of the quotes.)
My rating: 8.5/10.
♥ Plutarch assures us that she entertained no fears, although they would have been warranted; others were punished for their lack of cooperation. Instead he wrote the delay down to strategy. Cleopatra believed Dellius's reassuring reports but had greater faith yet in her own powers. They had now blossomed. Caesar "had known her when she was still a girl and inexperienced in affairs," asserts Plutarch, "but she was going to visit Antony at the very time when women have most brilliant beauty and are at the acme of intellectual power." (As an astute commentator has noted, this "puts the height of beauty encouragingly late and the height of intellectual power depressingly early." Cleopatra was not yet thirty.) With "the greatest confidence in herself, and in the charms and sorceries of her own person," she headed off, not because she was at last ready, or could hesitate no longer, but essentially propelled by scorn. She received many letters from Antony and from his associates, but "she took no account of these orders." Ultimately she sailed, concluded Plutarch, "as if in mockery" of the Roman. It was late summer.
♥ From Dellius as from others, Cleopatra would have known she was entering a sort of sweepstakes for Antony's attention. She seemed determined to conjure a display so stunning it would propel Plutarch to Shakespearean heights, as it would elicit from Shakespeare his richest poetry. And she succeeded. In the annals of indelible entrances—the wooden horse into Troy; Christ into Jerusalem; Benjamin Franklin into Philadelphia; Henry IV, Charles Lindbergh, Charles de Gaulle, into Paris; Howard Carter into King Tut's tomb; the Beatles onto Ed Sullivan's stage—Cleopatra's alone lifts off the page in iridescent color, amid inexhaustible, expensive clouds of incense, a sensational, simultaneous assault on every sense. She must have made the seven-hundred-mile trip across the Mediterranean by naval galley, pausing for overnight stays, as she had earlier, along the coast of the Levant. At the mouth of the Cydnus sat a lagoon, in which Cleopatra likely transferred her entourage to a local barge, reconfigured and exquisitely decorated for the trip upriver, probably fewer than ten miles in antiquity. A fully manned galley would have traveled with 170 rowers; for her purposes, she may have eliminated as many as a third. An escort of supply ships followed behind. She traveled with an elaborate stage set. Often with Cleopatra there is but a slim convergence between the life and the legend. Tarsus is one of the rare points where the two fully overlap.
♥ Did the confluence of needs add up to a romance? Surely it added up to an easy rapport. As Plutarch noted of another history-making liaison, it was very much a love affair, "and yet it was thought to harmonize well with the matters at hand." Of all the Romans in all the towns in all the empire, Cleopatra had particular reason to cultivate this one. Antony had equal reason to do the same. If it was convenient for Cleopatra to fall in love, or in step, with the man to whom she essentially answered, it was no less so for Antony to fall in with the woman who could single-handedly underwrote his military ambitions. His Parthian obsession was a bold stroke of luck for her.
♥ In the ancient world too women schemed while men strategized; there was a great gulf, elemental and eternal, between the adventurer and the adventuress. There was one too between virility and promiscuity: Caesar left Cleopatra in Alexandria to sleep with the wife of the king of Mauretania. Antony arrived in Tarsus fresh from an affair with the queen of Cappadocia. The consort of two men of voracious sexual appetite and innumerable sexual conquests, Cleopatra would go down in history as the snare, the delusion, the seductress. Citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts.
♥ Whether or not anyone lost his or her head to the other, it is difficult to believe sex failed to figure in the picture early on. Antony and Cleopatra were at the height of their power, reveling amid heady perfume to sweet music, under kaleidoscopic lights, on steamy summer nights, before groaning tables of the finest food and wine in Asia. And while he was unlikely to have bee a slave to his love for Cleopatra, as various chroniclers assert, the truth was that wherever Mark Antony went, sexual charm inevitably followed. His tunic tucked high on his rolling hips, he had slept his way across Asia at least once; he was fresh from his liaison with another client queen. Plutarch assigns him "an ill name for familiarity with other people's wives." He himself later dates the relationship with Cleopatra from the torrid Tarsan summer.
♥ Antony was not so forgiving with the pretender who had been traveling about Asia passing himself off as Ptolemy XIII, as some have suggested he might well have been. (No body had surfaced at the end of Alexandrian War after all.) He was executed. The rogue naval commander on Cyprus who had supported Cassius against Cleopatra's orders—he may have been in league with Arsinoe—had fled to Syria, where he sought refuge in a temple. He was dragged out and killed.
This was the kind of behavior that could suggest a man was besotted.
♥ There are cities in which to spend a fortune and cities in which to make one; only in the rare great city can one accomplish both. Such was Cleopatra's Alexandria, a scholarly paradise with a quick business pulse and a languorous resort culture, where the Greek penchant for commerce met the Egyptian mania for hospitality, a city of cool raspberry dawns and pearly late afternoons, with the hustle of heterodoxy and the aroma of opportunity thick in the air. Even the people-watching was best here.
♥ From a odd, under-the-stairs friendship comes an intimate view of Cleopatra's kitchen that winter. A royal cook promises to secret his friend Philotas into the palace to witness the preparations for one of her suppers; he will be astonished by the goings-on. The kitchen is predictably electric with shouting and swearing, at cooks, waiters, and wine stewards; amid the frenzy sit mounds of provisions. Eight wild boars turn on spits. A small army of staff bustles about. Philotas, a young medical student, marvels at the size of the crowd expected for dinner. His friend can only laugh at his naïveté. Quite the opposite, he explains. The operation is at once highly precise and entirely imprecise: "The guests are not many, only about twelve; but everything that is set before them must be at perfection, and if anything was but one minute ill-timed, it was spoiled. And, said he, maybe Antony will dine just now, maybe not this hour, maybe he will call for wine, or begin to talk, and will put it off. So that," he continued, "it is not one, but many dinners must ready, as it is impossible to guess at this hour." Having overcome his surprise and completed his education, the wide-eyed Philotas went on to become a prominent physician, who told his fabulous tale to a friend, who handed it down to his grandson, who happened to be Plutarch.
♥ The Alexandrians happily embraced Antony and played along with his disguises, by which they were hardly fooled. Like their queen, they joined in his "coarse wit" and met him on his merry terms. They declared themselves much obliged to him for donning "the tragic mask with the Romans, but the comic mask with them." Antony effectively tamed a people that only seven years earlier had met Caesar with javelins and sling shots, as much a tribute to Cleopatra's firm grasp of power as to Antony's charm. Certainly it was easier to take to a Roman, who—unlike Westerners before and since—did not play the superiority card. Antony moreover appeared in a square-cut Greek garment rather than a Roman toga. He wore the white leather slippers that could be seen on the feet of every Egyptian priest. He made a very different impression than had his red-cloaked commanding officer, whose influence still hung heavily in the air.
♥ Antony had been unaware of his wife's activities, about which both sides had written him repeatedly. A winter delegation had further expanded on the details. He had evidenced little interest; he was as ill inclined to reproach his wife as to break with Octavian. Fulvia's disturbances may well have kept her husband in Alexandria every bit as much as did Cleopatra's diversions. Certainly Antony was slow to bestir himself, for which he would be taken to task later. As Appian acidly notes of the repeated and increasingly urgent communiqués: "Although I have made enquiries, I have failed to find out with any certainty what Antony's replies were." Fulvia felt herself to be in danger. She feared even for their children, not unreasonably. A century later she was largely forgotten. It was tidier to indict the Alexandrian Antony for being "so under the sway of his passion and of his drunkenness that he gave not a thought either to his allies or to his enemies." ..Fulvia had been handsome and serious-minded and devoted. She had come to the marriage with money, influential friends, ad shrewd political instincts. She had borne Antony two sons. If in truth she was a virago, she was, as has been pointed out, "at least an infinitely loyal virago." Antony had thrived at her side.
♥ Antony's friends assumed that over the course of three and a half years that hankering had released its hold, charmed away by Octavia, or at least "lulled to rest by better considerations." In Plutarch's account the desire suddenly smoldered, to grow more and more combustible as Antony traveled east, where ultimately it reignited and burst into flames. Plutarch meant to get his history right but it should be remembered that he was making of Antony's life a cautionary tale. His Antony is a talented man brought to ruin by his own passion; the moral may have been more important than the details. Whatever the circumstances, safely arrived in Syria, Antony defied both his better instincts and cool counsel. He sent a messenger to Alexandria. Cleopatra was to meet him in Antioch, the third great city of the Mediterranean world. This time she set sail posthaste. Not long after the couiple's arrival in the Syrian capital, coins circulated bearing joint portraits of Antony and Cleopatra. It is unclear who is meant to be on the obverse and who in the reverse, which was, in brief, the intermittent riddle of the next seven tumultuous years. Antony never saw Octavia again.
♥ Rarely had anyone assembled "an army more conspicuous for prowess, endurance, or youthful vigor." Antony's "made all Asia quiver." It was the greatest force he would command, its men uniquely devoted to their large-hearted freewheeling general. Each preferred his good opinion to their very lives, a devotion both, Plutarch effuses, of "the nobility of his family, his eloquence, his frank and open manners, his liberal and magnificent habits, his familiarity in talking with everybody."
♥ Upon her September arrival Antony moreover made her an extraordinary present. Not only did he acknowledge his three-year-old twins, but he showered a vast collection of territories on their mother. He confirmed her authority over the island of Cyprus, which even Caesar had not officially granted her. The memory of its loss, and the effects of that monumental loss, could only have burned bright. To Cleopatra's lands he added as well wooded Coele-Syria (part of which is today Lebanon); lush, far-off Cyrene (in modern Libya); a generous swath of cedar-heavy Cilicia (the eastern coast of Turkey); portions of Crete; and all but two cities of the thriving Phoenician coast. In several cases Antony eliminated sovereigns—if an offense could not be found, one could always be fabricated—so that Cleopatra might assume their territories. As of 37 Cleopatra ruled over nearly the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, from what is today eastern Libya, in Africa, north through Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, to southern Turkey, excepting only silvers of Judaea.
♥ And at thirty-two she redefined herself, assuming an original title. Among the many unconventional privileges Cleopatra enjoyed, naming herself surely figured among the most significant, on par with choosing her consort or managing her own income. She was henceforth "Queen Cleopatra, the Goddess, the Younger, Father-Loving and Fatherland-Loving." She was as astute a manipulator of nomenclature as of much else, and a good deal has been read into that title. With it Cleopatra announced not only a new age but a full-scale political reorientation. She may have appended the final term to discourage murmurs that she was selling out to the Romans; with it Cleopatra signaled to her subjects that she was first and foremost their pharaoh. Certainly the imagery on her coins is reassuringly consistent with that of previous Ptolemies. By any name she was as powerful a figure as existed on the non-Roman stage. When Antony had vanquished the Parthians, she would be empress of the East.
♥ Certainly Antony had as much if not more to be gained as did Cleopatra: Even Plutarch could not call it a mistake for the Roman triumvir to ally himself with the richest woman in his world. His immediate, practical needs dovetailed neatly with her long-range imperial ambitions. There is less evidence of a wedding than of Cleopatra's thirst for territory, which manifested itself for the first time now. Either in 37 or the following year, she is said to have pestered Antony for the bulk of Judaea. He apparently refused. (His tenacity on that front has been held up as evidence that he was not putty in her strong hands. He withheld the grant, hence he was not out of his mind with love. Just possibly, Cleopatra knew her limits and never asked for Judaea, which leaves open the question of Antony's emotional state.) It is unlikely that she had to haggle for territory, though she was well positioned to do so. Antony needed to finance a campaign, pay an army, supplement a navy. Cleopatra needed nothing. Hers was the better negotiating position.
..Antony had granted Cleopatra the exclusive right to the Dead Sea bitumen, or asphalt, glutinous lumps of which floated to the surface of the lake. Bitumen was essential to mortar, incense, and insecticide, to embalming and caulking. A reed basket smeared with asphalt, could hold water. Plastered with it, a boat is waterproof. The concession was a lucrative one. Also Cleopatra's were the proceeds of Jericho, the popular winter resort, lush with date-palm groves and balsam gardens. Very likely she rode out across a searing desert to inspect those two hundred acres in the Jordan River valley, where Herod had a secondary palace. All other scents paled in comparison to sweet balsam, which grew exclusively in Judaea. The fragrant shrub's oil, seed, and bark were precious. They constituted the region's most valuable export. As for Jericho's dates, they were the finest in the ancient world, the source of its most potent wine. In modern terms, it was as if Cleopatra had been granted not part of Kuwait, only the proceeds of its oil fields.
♥ Otherwise the arrangement worked entirely to her benefit, all the more so as it made both men miserable. It left Herod to extract funds from a sovereign who had denied him refuge during the Parthian invasion, and who made his payments only under duress. Purposely and effectively, Cleopatra set two men who disliked her, a Jew and an Arab, against each other. (Malchus, the Nabatean sovereign, would have his revenge later.) Herod nonetheless upheld his end of the agreement with Cleopatra. He felt that "it would be unsafe to give her any reason to hate him."
♥ Herod buttressed his case in the usual way; as ever, the diabolical woman was the sexual one. In addition to all else, he explained to his advisers, the Egyptian hussy had "laid a treacherous snare for him"! Declaring herself overcome with love, she had attempted to force herself upon him, "for she was by nature used to enjoying this kind of pleasure without disguise." Herod had as much reason as anyone to observe that Cleopatra was a tough negotiator. And if you are being taken advantage of by a woman, it is convenient to turn that woman into a sexual predator, capable of unspeakable depravity, "a slave to her lusts." (It was not such a great leap. "Cupidity" and "concupiscence" have the same Latin root.)
♥ (The two women were in fact the same age.) Cleopatra worried that Octavia's authority, her brother's influence, "her pleasurable society and her assiduous attentions to Antony," would make Octavia irresistible. The sovereign who had proceeded by bold maneuver and steely calculation here attempted—or was said to attempt—a different track, resorting to loud, choking sobs, depending on the occasion the first to last weapon in woman's arsenal. Plutarch sniffs that Cleopatra pretended to be desperately in love with Antony; in a Roman account, she cannot even secure credit for an authentic emotional attachment. If his report can be believed—it reads a little like a cartoon frame spliced into a nuanced narrative—she was as effective a woman as she was a sovereign. She could have offered Fulvia a very valuable tutorial. Cleopatra neither begged nor bargained. She did not raise her voice. Instead she swore off food. She appeared languid with love, undone by her passion for Antony. (Already the hunger strike was the oldest truck in the book. Euripides' Medea too waged one, to win back a wayward husband.) Cleopatra affected "a look of rapture when Antony drew near, and one of faintness and melancholy when he went away." She dragged herself about, dissolved in tears, which she made a great show of drying whenever Antony turned up. She meant of course to spare him any distress.
Cleopatra rarely did anything alone, and for her wail-and-whimper act recruited a supporting cast. Her courtiers worked overtime on her behalf. Mostly they upbraided Antony. How could he be so heartless as to destroy "a mistress who was devoted to him and him alone"? Did he not grasp the difference between the two women? "For Octavia, they said, had married him as a matter of public policy and for the sake of her brother, and enjoyed the name of wedded wife." She hardly bore comparison to Cleopatra, who, although a sovereign, the queen of millions, "was called Antony's mistress, and she did not shun this name nor disdain it, as long as she could see him and live with him." Hers was the noblest of sacrifices.
♥ She returned to Rome a woman scorned in all eyes but her own. She refused to dwell on the insult; when her brother ordered her to leave the marital home, she refused to do so. Again she renounced the Helen of Troy role, claiming that "it was an infamous thing even to have it said that the two greatest commanders in the world plunged the Romans into civil war, the one out of passion for, and the other out of resentment in behalf of, a woman."
♥ From this point on the two were inseparable, or which Dio credits "the passion and witchery of Cleopatra" and Plutarch "certain drugs or magic rites." Antony's men—and Octavia—instead acknowledge a very real affection. Geography suggests as much as well. Antony remained with Cleopatra in Alexandria for the winter. He had a sliver of a practical reason to do so, as he intended to march east again come spring. As of the winter of 35 it is impossible to deny a full-blooded romance, if by romance we mean a congenial, intimate past, a shared family, a shared bed, and a shared vision of the future.
♥ There was no precedent for the splendid ceremony that followed. Several days later a throng filled Alexandria's colonnaded gymnasium, west of the city's main crossroads, minutes from the palace. Six hundred feet long, the city's largest structure, the gymnasium stood at the center of Alexandria as at the center of its intellectual and recreational life. It was the opera hall of its day; a gumnasium's presence was what made a town a city. In the open court of the complex that fall day the Alexandrians discovered another silver platform, on which stood two massive golden thrones. Mark Antony occupied one. Addressing her as the "New Isis," he invited Cleopatra to join him on the other. She appeared in the full regalia of that goddess, a pleated, lustrously striped chiton, its fringed edge reaching to her ankles. On her head she may have worn a traditional tripartite crown or one of cobras with a vulture cap. By one account Antony dressed as Dionysus, in a gold-embroidered gown and high Greek boots. In his hand he held the god's fennel stalk. An ivy wreath circled his head. It seemed a second act of the exultant play begun in Tarsus, when—as Cleopatra made her way upriver—word preceded her that Venus had arrived to revel with Dionysus for the happiness of Asia.
Cleopatra's children occupied four smaller thrones at the couple's feet. In his husky voice Antony addressed the assembled multitude. By his command Cleopatra was henceforth to be known as "Queen of Kings." (On coins, she was "Queen of Kings, whose sons are Kings." The titles would change with the territory, so that an Upper Egypt stela of four years later has her as "Mother of Kings, Queen of Kings, the Youngest Goddess.") As for her consort, thirteen-year-old Caesarian, Antony promoted him to King of Kings, a pointed recycling of a Armenian and Parthian title. Antony conferred the honorifics in the name of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra's husband and Caesarion's father, an unusual case of flaunting a lover's prior sexual history. Also on Caesar's behalf, Antony proceeded to name his sons with Cleopatra as King of Kings.
..It is impossible to say whose ambition had brought about the sparkling ceremony, to be known later as the Donations of Alexandria. It is especially difficult to locate Cleopatra's fingerprints; the truth is smudged forever by Roman manhandling. At least in part the message of the day was clear. On their golden thrones sat what even a coolheaded modern historian has reasonably called "the two most magnificent people in the world." Together they seemed to resurrect if not expand upon the dream of Alexander the Great, promoting a universal empire, one that transcended national boundaries and embraced a common culture, that reconciled Europe and Asia. They announced a new order, Cleopatra presided over the ceremony and the citywide banqueting that followed not only as a sovereign but as a deity after all, with the divine Caesar's son on one side, Dionysian Antony on the other. Old prophecies evidently resurfaced now. The Jews linked Cleopatra's rule with a golden age and with the coming of the Messiah. The queen of Egypt answered the call for an Eastern savior. She would rise above Rome for a better world. In conflating the political and the religious, the imagery was all on Cleopatra's side.
♥ In such a way Antony parceled out the East, including lands not yet in his possession. For the young woman who fourteen years earlier had smuggled herself into Alexandria to plead for her diminished kingdom, it was a sensational reversal. Cleopatra stood divine and indomitable, less queen than empress, the supreme Roman commander at her side. Her rule extended over a vast swath of Asia, its frontiers established and now at peace. She was protected by Roman legions; with her children, she now reigned, at least nominally, over more land than had any Ptolemy in centuries. On coins minted for the occasion—with them she became the first foreigner to appear on a Roman coin—she appears majestic, authoritative. She has also aged.
♥ Cleopatra took the children's schooling seriously. In the wake of the Donations she entrusted their education in part to Nicolaus of Damascus, a lanky diplomat's son several years her junior, with a ruddy face, an affable temperament, and a taste for Aristotle. Handy with an anecdote, Nicolaus was a gifted logician, the kind of man you could rely on to finish your speech, persuasively and eloquently, if you happened to dissolve into tears before you reached its end. He moved into the palace. Under his guidance Cleopatra's children read philosophy and rhetoric but especially history, which their new tutor deemed "the property of kings."
♥ Generally 33 was a heyday for poets, lampoonists, apologists, graffitists, as for all lovers of idle talk and outlandish fictions. Intrigue came more naturally to Octavian than to Antony, but both men displayed a pitiless talent for defamation. Octavian resorted to indecent verse. Antony distributed slanderous handbills. Each man engaged propagandists. Many practices once acceptable were suddenly objectionable. Antony took charge of the gymnasium of Alexandria, which was unspeakable—whereas his having done so five years earlier, with Octavia, in Athens, had elicited no comment. Similarly, Antony's affair with Cleopatra had once afforded an endless source of ribald dinner jokes. Such had been the case over the summer of 39, in the celebration near Naples; Cleopatra was where the conversation wound up as the evening reached full tilt, when the lusty "good fellowship was at its height." She was a laughing matter no longer.
The pummeling continued both above and below the belt. Between them Antony and Cleopatra covered the usual schoolyard litany: effeminacy, sodomy, cowardice, unrefined—or overly refined—practices of personal hygiene. Octavian was "a veritable weakling." Antony had passed his prime. He could no longer win any contest save those in exotic dancing or the erotic arts Antony sneered that Octavian had slept with his illustrious granduncle. How else to account for his unexpected adoption? Octavian countered with something sturdier and more pertinent, if equally untrue: Cleopatra had not slept with his granduncle. Caesarion was hardly the divine Caesar's son, news Octavian enlisted a pamphleteer to disseminate. Antony condemned Octavian's hasty marriage to Livia, hugely pregnant with another man's child on her wedding day. He decried Octavian's habit of making off with the wives of his banquet guests and returning them, disheveled, to the table. He advertised Octavian's well-known (and in all probability invented) habit of procuring and deflowering virgins. (According to Suetonius, Octavian seduced scientifically. He targeted the wives of his enemies, to learn what the husbands were saying and doing.) In the depravity department Octavian had no need to resort to fictions. He had his weapon close at hand. In defiance of Roman custom and his impeccable Roman wife, Octavian's fellow triumvir disported himself in a foreign capital with a rapacious queen, on whose account he had lost his head, forsaken his illustrious country, and shed all remnant of his manly Roman virtues. What self-respecting Roman would, as Cicero had put it, foolishly prefer "invidious wealth, the lust for despotism" to "stable and solid glory"? In many ways the contest boiled down to one of magnificence versus machismo.
♥ She was no warrior queen; recent Ptolemies had not evidenced a great taste for warfare. They did not die on the battlefield, as did other Eastern monarchs. They subscribed to the belief that an empire could be acquired with money, rather than money with an empire.
♥ For the most part the reports of Antony's disorienting, degrading passion for Cleopatra date from the Athenian summer. If in Alexandria he had distracted her fro state business, the tables now turned. He attended principally to her. ..It was ignoble behavior; a Roman could indulge in as diversified, as lurid, a sexual life as he pleased, but he was meant to be discreet and unsentimental in his affections. Pompey had made himself a laughingstock for his indecent habit of falling in love with his own wife. In the second century a senator was expelled from that assembly for kissing his wife in public, in full view of their daughter. Antony had been reprimanded years earlier for having openly nuzzled his wife. He was said these days to rise during banquets before his assembled guests, to massage Cleopatra's feet "in compliance with some agreement and compact they had made." (The relationship proceeded by pacts, wagers, and competitions, something Cleopatra evidently brought to the table. Antony was little inclined to formalities.) The gesture was in itself offensive; one had servants for such indulgences. And the stories—of what another age might term gallantry or devotion, of what the East deemed proper obeisance, of what were in Rome indecencies and indignities—piled up. Antony fawned over Cleopatra, which was what eunuchs did. He trailed her litter through the streets, among her attendants. And this, sniffed the Romans, heaping upon the Egyptian queen the usual abuse of the other woman, when she was not even beautiful!
♥ Octavian had at his disposal plenty of generous veins to mine. The depredations of the East alone—that intoxicating, intemperate, irrational realm—supplied a mother lode of material. Like its queen, Egypt was beguiling and voluptuous; the modern association between the Orient and sex was hoary already in the first century. Already Africa was the address of moral decay. From there it was no great leap to transom the Antony of the Donations into a power-crazed, dissolute, Eastern despot: "In his hand was a golden scepter, at his side a scimitar; he wore a purple robe studded with huge gems; a crown only was lacking to make him a king dallying with a queen." It was the diadem and golden statues business all over again; the accessories of kingship unnerved Romans even more than did autocracy itself, which they had tolerated in a more subtle version for at least a decade. In Octvian's account, Antony was irredeemably contaminated by the Oriental languor and the un-Roman luxuries of the East as, arguably, Caesar and Alexander the Great had been before him. In turn Octavian would soon enough discover that Egypt conferred on its conqueror a mixed blessing, a literal embarrassment of riches. Like a prodigious trust fund, it convinced men they were gods.
♥ Even while conceding that the charges were questionable, every chronicler subscribes to the party line. Antony became "a slave to his love for Cleopatra," "he gave not a thought to honour but became the Egyptian woman's slave," he surrendered his authority to a woman to the extent that "he was not even a master of himself." The construct was old enough to have a mythical equivalent, to which Octavian eagerly appealed. Antony claimed descent from Hercules. Octavian let no one forget that Hercules spent three years, disarmed and humiliated, as the slave of the rich Asian queen Omphale. She removed from him his lion skin and his club, and—donning his lion skin herself—stands over him as he weaves.
♥ It would be difficult to say to whom Cleopatra was more vital in 32: the man to whom she was the partner, or the man to whom she was the pretext. Antony could not win a war without her. Octavian could not wage one.
♥ For Octavian, by contrast, all was crystalline and categorical, or at least it was once he had passed off a personal vendetta as a foreign war. His argument had cleaner lines and better visuals. He made a splendid, splashy appeal to xenophobia. Surely his men—"we who are Romans and lords of the greatest and best portion of the world"—were not going to be rattled by these primitives? Not for the last time, the world divided into a masculine, rational West and a feminine, indefinite East, on which Octavian declared a sort of crusade. He fought against something but for something as well: for Roman probity, piety, and self-control, precisely those qualities his former brother-in-law had shrugged off in his embrace of Cleopatra. Antony was no longer a Roman but an Egyptian, a mere cymbal player, effeminate, inconsequential, and impotent, "for it is impossible for one who leads a life of royal luxury, and coddles himself like a woman, to have manly thought or do a manly deed."* Octavian savaged even Antony's literary style. And incidentally, had anyone noticed that Antony drank? Octavian stressed his role as Caesar's heir less often. Instead he went in for tales of his own divinity, which he broadcast widely. Few in Rome failed to hear of his descent from Apollo, to whom he was dedicating a fine new temple.
*Nicolaus of Damascus was quick to assert that even as a teenager, even at the age when youth "are most wanton," Octavian had abstained from sexual gratification for an entire year. And in the face of all evidence to the contrary, it was inevitably asserted that he lived simply and austerely. In truth Octavian was as fond of costly furniture and Corinthian bronzes as the next man, more fond yet of the gaming table.
♥ The scruffy Greek lowland blazed with costly equipment, with gleaming helmets a gilded breastplates, jeweled bridles, dyed plumes, decorated spears.* The bulk of the soldiers were Eastern, as were an increasing number of rowers, many of them raw recruits. With them assembled an ecumenical collection of arms: Thracian wicker shields and quivers joined Roman javelins and Cretan bows and long Macedonian pikes.
*In this realm alone ostentation met with Roman approval. As Plutarch explains: "For extravagance in other objects of display induces luxury and implants effeminacy in those who use them, since something like a pricking and tickling of the senses breaks down serious purpose; but when it is seen in the trappings of war it strengthens and exalts the spirit.
♥ Yet again she cast about vigorously to ensure that all was not lost. All was a whirl of feverish activity at the palace; Plutarch has her not only looking to Spain and India but experimenting daily with deadly poisons. To one end or another she made a collection of these, testing them on prisoners and on venomous animals to determined which one yielded the most expeditious, least painful results. She was neither humbled nor panic-stricken but every bit as inventive as she had been when the first reverse of her life had landed her in the desert. The word "formidable" sooner or later attaches itself to Cleopatra and here it comes: she was formidable—spirited, disciplined, resourceful—in her retreat. There were no hints of despair. Two thousand years after the fact, you ca still hear the fertile mind pulsing with ideas.
♥ Dio slips in a bitter note of sympathy; he cannot help but marvel at the great number of people who—having received lavish honors and favors from Antony and Cleopatra—left them now in the lurch. Cleopatra appeared not to stumble over the injustice. Her understanding of gratitude may have been more realistic than Antony's. She accepted the rude truths more easily than did he.
..She had been ruthlessly pragmatic before. At this point her interests substantially diverged from Antony's. He could hope for little more than a brilliant last stand. She fought to preserve a dynasty, if not a country. (By one account she both bribed the general at Pelusium to surrender and allowed Antony to murder the general's family for his cowardice. And, naturally, the accusations of her collusion did not prevent Octavian from asserting later that he took Pelusium by storm.)
♥ On this count the spotty record is less problematic than are the personalities of our two chroniclers, which Cleopatra neatly draws out. Dio is excited by treachery, Plutarch undone by emotion.
♥ The waves murmured outside. Antony died in Cleopatra's arms.
♥ They were too late. "The mischief," Plutarch tells us, "had been swift." Cleopatra lay on a golden couch, probably an Egyptian-style bed with lion paws for legs and lion heads at its corners. Majestically and meticulously arrayed in "her most beautiful apparel," she gripped in her hands the crook and flail. She was perfectly composed and completely dead, Iras very nearly so at her feet. Lurching and heavy-headed, almost unable to stand, Charmion was clumsily attempting to right the diadem around Cleopatra's forehead. Angrily one of Octavian's men exploded: "A fine deed this, Charmion!" She had just the energy to offer a parting shot. With a tartness that would have made her mistress proud, she managed, "It is indeed most fine, and befitting the descendant of so many kings," before collapsing in a heap, at her queen's side.
♥ For any number of reasons Cleopatra was unlikely to have recruited an asp, or an Egyptian cobra, for the job. A woman known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to a wild animals. She had plenty of quicker, less painful options. It was as well a little too convenient to be killed by the royal emblem of Egypt; the snake made more symbolic than practical sense. Even the most reliable of cobras cannot kill three women in quick succession, and the asp is a famously sluggish snake. An Egyptian cobra, bristling and hissing and puffing itself up to its six-foot splendor, could hardly have hidden in a fig basket or remained hidden in one for long. The job was too great and the basket too small. Poison was a more likely alternative, as Plutarch seems to imply with his survey of Cleopatra's experiments. Most likely she swallowed a lethal drink—the hemlock and opium of Socrates would have done the trick—or applied a toxic ointment. Hannibal had resorted to poison when backed into a corner 150 years earlier; Mithradates had attempted the same. Cleopatra's uncle, the king of Cyprus, had known precisely what to have on hand when Rome had come calling in 58. Assuming she died of the same cause as Charmion, assuming she died in the state in which she was discovered, Cleopatra suffered little. There were no shuddering paroxysms, which cobra venom would ultimately have induced. This toxin's effect was more narcotic than convulsive, the death peaceful, swift, and essentially painless. "The truth of the matter," Plutarch announces, to centuries of deaf ears, "no one knows."
..Not only was the snake a potent symbol of Egypt, where coiled cobras had adorned pharaonic brows for millennia, but snakes crawled all over Isis statues as well. They had insinuated themselves in the Dionysian cult. Iconography aside, it is easy to see what someone is trying to communicate when he pairs a lady with a snake. Alexander the Great's mother—as murderous and maniacal a Macedonian princess who ever lived—kept serpents as pets. She used them to terrify men. Before her came Eve, Medusa, Electra, and the Erinyes; when a woman teams up with a snake, a moral storm threatens somewhere. Octavian may have confused the issue for all time with his call to the psylli. He controlled the historical record every bit as firmly as he was said to have controlled his adolescent sexual urges. Very likely he sent us off, for thousands of years, in the wrong direction.
He may have done so intentionally. There is an alternate version of the death; it has long been clear that we may be missing something here, that one farce of August 10 could well conceal another, that the greatest deathbed scene in history is perhaps not what it seems. In the earliest prose account, "Cleopatra cheated the vigilance of her guards" to procure an asp and stage her death. Octavian is vexed, furious that she has slipped through his fingers. He had, however, an immense, dedicated staff. By August few in Alexandria would have hesitated to cooperate with him, as Cleopatra's steward demonstrated. Octavian was as careless as Cleopatra was naïve; the kind of man who marked both the date and the time on his letters was not the kind of man to let a prize captive slip through his fingers. When Octavian left her on August 8 he may well have deceived Cleopatra into believing he was deceived, and essentially orchestrated her death. He would not have cared to have been outwitted by a woman—unless of course the alternatives were more damaging. And Cleopatra was as problematic a captive as she had been an enemy. Octavian had attended the triumphs of 46. He had even ridden in one of them. He knew of the sympathy Cleopatra's sister had elicited on that occasion. He had publicly condemned Mark Antony for having paraded Artavasdes in chains. That kind of behavior, Octavian had scolded, dishonored Rome. There was too an additional wrinkle in Cleopatra's case: This particular prisoner had been the divine Caesar's mistress. She was the mother of his son. In some eyes, she was a goddess in her own right. She could be trusted to live our her days quietly in some Asian outpost about as much as could her younger sister. Twice Cleopatra had tried to kill herself. It was clear that unless guarded carefully she would sooner or later succeed.
..No future historian, even those antipathetic to Octavian, ventures an assertion of complicity, although it could be argued that by then the case was closed, the truth known only to a few in the first place. We are ultimately left chasing our tails. The best that can be said of her last act is that Cleopatra acted heroically in a great set piece that may be on several counts ahistorical and is certainly in some part her opponent's invention. (The sole consolation is a perverse one: The death of Alexander the Great is well documented and no less a perfect riddle.)
♥ While it is unclear who had done so, someone had produced a heroine. Cleopatra's was a honorable death, a dignified death, an exemplary death. She had presided over it herself, proud and unbroken to the end. By the Roman definition she had at last done something right; finally it was to her credit that she had defied the expectations of her sex. Women inevitably win points in Roman histories for swallowing hot coals or hanging themselves by their hair or hurling themselves from rooftops or handing bloody daggers along to their husbands with three quiet words of encouragement: "It isn't painful." (Plenty of female corpses litter the Greek stage as well, the difference being that in Greek drama the women also get the last word.) The panegyrics were immediate. In an ode written shortly after her suicide, Horace set out to condemn Cleopatra for her folly and ambition but wound up eulogizing her. "No craven woman, she," he concludes, marveling at the clear mind, the calm countenance, the courage. Cleopatra's final act was arguably her finest one. That was a price Octavian was perfectly happy to pay. Her glory was his glory. The exalted opponent was the worthy opponent.
♥ Cleopatra was thirty-nine years old and had ruled for nearly twenty-two years, about a decade longer than had Alexander the Great, from whom she had inherited the baton that she inadvertently passed on the Roman Empire. With her death, the Ptolemaic dynasty came to an end. Octavian formally annexed Egypt on August 31. His first year was Cleopatra's last; he started the clock again with August 1, the date on which he had entered Alexandria. Cleopatra is said to have brought down the curtain on an age, although of course from the Egyptian perspective Antony too could be said to have done so. It is easy to forget he was Cleopatra's undoing every bit as much as she was his.
♥ On behalf of the native priests, a cleric offered Octavian 2,000 talents to preserve Cleopatra's many statues. She might remain noble, but she was also dead; the offer was too attractive to refuse. It saved Octavian as well from the thorny business of tangling with Isis, who continued to be worshipped for some time. Cleopatra was often indistinguishable from that goddess; Octavian could not very well go around volatile Alexandria toppling religious statuary. Cleopatra's statues, and her cult, lived on actively for hundreds of years, no doubt reinforced by her steely last stand against the Romans.
..Cleopatra's statue remained in the Forum. It was the least Octavian could do for the woman whose golden couches and jeweled pitchers financed his career. Cleopatra allowed him to discharge every one of his obligations. She guaranteed Roman prosperity. So vast were the funds Octavian injected into the economy that prices soared. Interest rates tripled. As Dio summed up the transfer of wealth, Cleopatra saw to it that "the Roman empire was enriched and its temples adorned." Her art and obelisks decorated its streets. Soundly defeated she was nonetheless celebrated, in the beauty of a foreign city. With the riches came a rush of Egyptomania. Sphinxes, rearing cobras, sun disks, acanthus leaves, hieroglyphs, proliferated throughout Rome. Lotus blossoms and griffins decorated even Octavian's personal study. Cleopatra earned a second backhanded tribute: In her wake, a golden age of women dawned in Rome. High-born wives and sisters suddenly enjoyed a role in public life. They interceded with ambassadors, counseled husbands, traveled abroad, commissioned temples and sculptures. They become more visible in art and in society. They joined Cleopatra in the Forum. No Roman woman would ever attain the exalted status or enjoy the unprecedented privileges granted Livia and Octavia, which they owed to a foreigner, to whom they served as counterweight.
♥ Cleopatra got a promotion as well, from pretext to punctuation point. If you were looking for a date for the beginning of the modern world, her death would be the best to fix upon. With her she took both the four-hundred-year-old Roman Republic and the Hellenistic Age. Octavian would go on to effect one of the greatest bait and switches in history; he restored the Republic in all its glory and—as would be apparent within a decade or so—as a monarchy.
♥ There was some irony in fact that the West quickly began to resemble Cleopatra's East, the more so as Octavian had advertised Cleopatra as a threat to the Republic, something she had never intended. Around Octavian formed a kind of court. He fell out with nearly every member of his immediate family. The Roman emperors became gods. They had their pictures painted as Serapis, following Antony's Dionysian lead. And professions of austerity aside, the mantle of magnificence passed easily. While Octavian was said to have melted down Cleopatra's fabilous gold tableware, Hellenistic grandeur prevailed. "For it is fitting that we who rule over many people," reasoned one of Octavian's advisers, "should surpass all men in all things, and brilliance of this sort, also, tends in a way to inspire our allies the respect for us and our enemies with terror." He counseled Octavian to spare no expense. Rome represented the next luxury market. The artisans and industries followed. Livia had a personal staff of more than a thousand. So impressed was Octavian by Cleopatra's lofty mausoleum that he built a similar one in Rome; Alexandria deserves much credit for Rome's transformation from brick to marble. Octavian died at age seventy-six, at home in his bed, one of the few Roman emperors nor murdered by close kin, another Hellenistic legacy. Having ruled for forty-four years—twice as long as Cleopatra—he had plenty of time in which to refashion the events that had brought him to power.* He had too cause to note "that no high position is ever free from envy or treachery, and last of all a monarchy." The enemies were bad but the friends arguably worse. The office, he concluded, was utterly dreadful.
*As ever, a capable woman was suspect. It would be whispered that Livia killed him. Curiously, she was said to have done so with poisoned figs.
♥ For the rest, her history would be shaped by a Roman she met once, in the last week of her life, who elevated her to a perilous adversary, at which altitude thick mists and obscuring myths settled comfortably around her. She counts among the losers whom history remembers, but for the wrong reasons.* The mythmakers all aligned on one side. For the next century, the Oriental influence and the emancipation of women would keep the satirists in business.
Since Cleopatra's death her fortunes have waxed ad waned as dramatically as they did in her lifetime. Her power has been made to derive from her sexuality, for obvious reason; as one of Caesar's murderers had noted, "How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!" It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her so the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence—in her ropes of pearls—there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.
*She may well have known Aesop's fable: As the Lion said the the Man, "There are many statues of men slaying lions, but if only the lions were sculptors there might be quite a different set of statues."
♥ The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all. We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty. She remains on the map for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was to have entered into those same "wily and suspicious" marital partnerships that every man in power enjoyed. She did so in reverse and in her own name; this made her a deviant, socially disruptive, an unnatural woman. To these she added a few other offenses. She made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor, sufficient cause for anxiety without adding sexuality to the mix. For some time she haunted the ancient imagination, primarily as a cautionary tale. Under Augustus the institution of marriage took on a new luster, a development that boded poorly for Cleopatra, the destabilizing, domineering home wrecker.
She elicited scorn and envy in equal and equally distorting measure; her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy. From Plutarch descends history's greatest love story, though Cleopatra's life was neither as lurid nor as romantic as has been made out. And she became a femme fatale twice over. For Actium to be the battle to beat all battles, she had to be the "wild queen" plotting Rome's destruction. For Antony to have succumbed to something other than a fellow Roman, Cleopatra had to be a disarming seductress "who had already ruined him and would make his ruin still more complete." It can be difficult to say where vengeance ends and homage begins. Her power was immediately enhanced because—for one man's historical purposes—she needed to have reduced another to abject slavery. It is true that she was a dutiful, father-loving daughter, a patriot and protector, an early nationalist, a symbol of courage, a wise ruler with nerves of steel, a master at self-presentation. It is not true that she built the lighthouse of Alexandria, could manufacture gold, was the ideal woman (Gautier), a martyr to love (Chaucer), "a silly little girl" (Shaw), the mother of Christ. A seventh-century Coptic bishop termed her "the most illustrious and wise of women," greater than the kings who preceded her. On a good day Cleopatra is said to have died for love, which is not exactly true either. Ultimately everyone from Michelangelo to Gérôme, from Corneille to Brecht, got a crack at her. The Renaissance was obsessed with her, the Romantics yet more so. She sent even Shakespeare over the top, eliciting from him his greatest female role, his richest poetry, a full, Antony-less act, and, in the estimation of one critic, a rollicking tribute to guilt-free middle-aged adultery. Shakespeare may be as much to blame for our having lost sight of Cleopatra VII as the Alexandrian humidity, Roman propaganda, and Elizabeth Taylor's limpid lilac eyes.
♥ Sex and power continue to combust in spectacular ways. Female ambition, accomplishment, authority, trouble us as they did the Romans, for whom Cleopatra was more a monster than a marvel, but undeniably a little of both.
Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank. Her career began with one brazen act of defiance and ended with another. "What woman, what ancient succession of men, was so great?" demands an anonymous author of a fragmentary Latin poem, which positions her as the principal player of the age. Boldly and bodily, she inserted herself into world politics, with wide-reaching consequences. She convinced her people that twilight was a dawn and—with all her might—struggled to make it so. In a desperate situation, she improvised wildly, then improvised afresh, for some a definition of genius. There was a glamour and a grandeur to her story well before either Octavian or Shakespeare got his hands on it. Hers was an exhilarating presence; before she sent Plutarch many pages out of his way she had the same effect on his countrymen. From our fist glimpse of her to the last, she dazzles for her ability to set the scene. To the end she was mistress of herself, astute, spirited, inconceivably rich, pampered yet ambitious.
In her adult life Cleopatra would have met few people she considered her equal. To the Romans she was a stubborn, supreme exception to every rule. She remains largely incomparable: She had plenty of predecessors, few successors. With her, the age of empresses essentially came to an end. In two thousand years only or two other women could be said to have wielded unrestricted authority over so vast a realm. Cleopatra remains nearly alone at the all-male table, in possession of a hand both flush and flawed. She got a very good deal right, and one crucial thing wrong. It is impossible to fathom how she could have felt at the end of the summer of 30, as Octavian closed in, as it became more and more clear that there were to be no further reversals of fortune, no more brilliantly salvaged futures, that she and Egypt were this time plainly lost. "What is it to lose your country—a great suffering?" a queen asks her son in Euripides. "The greatest, even worse than people say," he replies. The fear and fury must have shattered Cleopatra as she realized she was to become the woman "who destroyed the Egyptian monarchy," as a third-century AD chronicler has it. For her monumental loss there were no consolations including—assuming she belied in one—a brilliant afterlife.