Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and How She Affected the Roman Empire

Cleopatra Thea Philopator, or Cleopatra VII, was a remarkable and talented ruler who inherited a weak position and never managed to improve it significantly. She was both well-educated and natively clever, and she had a dramatic flair that made her intoxicating to powerful men. Her wealth guaranteed the attention of Rome, but it was her own choices and skills that shaped the course that attention took. In the end, she proved far more useful to Rome than she did to Egypt.

Although she was to be Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was a Greek, both by ancestry and culture. She came from a long line of Hellenistic rulers, going back to the general Ptolemy who took Egypt as his inheritance after the death of Alexander the Great. Unlike her forebears, she took the trouble to learn the language and customs of her country, and under better circumstances, she might have been a great Pharaoh. Fate did not give her the chance.

Upon the death of her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, she had to share power with her indolent and insolent younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. Taking a cue from Egyptian mythology and intermittent royal practice, the Ptolemies made a habit of incestuous marriages; unlike Egyptian norms, such marriages also served as co-regencies. In the past, this had sometimes led to strong rule, but in later generations, any such strength was sapped by a pattern of family intrigues. Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII drew to themselves advisors only too happy to capitalize upon their charges’ squabbling, and Egypt was on a course destined for civil war.

There was an additional complication. At the death of Ptolemy Auletes, the Egyptian succession was already under foreign influence: the disposition of Ptolemy’s will, including the succession, was left in the care of the Republic of Rome. This was a consequence of the intrigues of the later years of the older king’s life. Disastrous mismanagement had sparked riots in Alexandria, and Ptolemy XII fled to Rome for protection. During his time in Rome, other family members assumed the throne; after some dithering, Rome sent troops to defeat the latest upstart, and replace Ptolemy XII upon his throne.

Rome was not merely a disinterested observer when these quarrelsome siblings took the throne. Egypt was a wealthy country, despite the mismanagement that depleted its treasury, and wealth was always handy to a militaristic state bent upon further expansion. Furthermore, much of Egypt’s wealth lay in its agricultural surpluses, which were most tempting to a state whose capital had long outstripped the capacity of its own countryside and suffered from occasional subsistence crises. Finally, Rome had a civil war of its own, the one between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey, and both factions desired access to the wealth of Egypt.

Both of the Egyptian rulers decided to back the same side: that of Julius Caesar. As it so transpired, however, Ptolemy’s advisors overstepped themselves in their effort to ingratiate themselves with Caesar, while Cleopatra made the most of her own considerable gifts. Ptolemy had Pompey executed, and presented Caesar with his opponent’s head, but earned only Caesar’s indignation. Cleopatra approached Caesar in secret, matching her strengths and talents with Caesar’s own, and forging a kind of partnership in which each used the other, and accepted it as a matter of course.

Caesar did his part for Cleopatra. He deposed Ptolemy XIII, who soon thereafter turned up dead. Cleopatra was secure as the effective ruler of Egypt, although she technically still needed to share power with a younger sibling. For her part, Cleopatra gave Caesar his only son, Ptolemy Kaisarion, and waited patiently when Caesar went off to dispense with the last remnants of his foes in North Africa.

Cleopatra joined Caesar when he returned to Rome for his Triumph. On one level, Rome was fascinated by this exotic figure; on another, however, the people were repulsed, and this took some of the gloss from Caesar’s own glory. She entered Rome as if she were Caesar’s wife, although he was known to have one already; she also seemed to many as if she were frighteningly like Rome’s Queen, and fiercely Republican Rome would have nothing of this prospect. Although it is impossible to quantify the effect that Cleopatra had on those who plotted against Caesar, it is safe to say that she magnified the fears of those who were already concerned about Caesar’s extraordinary rule.

Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., setting the stage for another wave of civil wars, and Cleopatra fled Rome before the wrath of the plotters might visit itself upon her. She stayed out of Rome’s way as Octavian and Marc Antony drove Cassius and Brutus to ruin. When that war was resolved, however, and Octavian and Antony set up spheres of influence within the Roman world, Cleopatra presented herself to Antony in a grand feat of showmanship, beginning a liaison that would dominate the rest of their lives.

Great as he was, Antony was decidedly a lesser man than Julius Caesar. If Caesar and Cleopatra were equals, Antony and Cleopatra were mismatched. To Cleopatra, however, Antony represented more than just the prospect of maintaining her position, and even regaining some of Egypt’s freedom of action: a successful Antony offered the prospect of splitting the Roman world into eastern and western states. If that were successful, the eastern state would necessarily be a Hellenistic one, and Egypt would be a major partner in this resurgent Greek world. As for Antony, he seems truly to have been smitten by his paramour, but beyond the personal attractions, he was also seduced by the wealth of Egypt, wealth sufficient to support victory after victory in his own ambitions.

To his peril, Antony had lost sight of Roman popular opinion. In Roman eyes, he had abandoned his Roman wife, Octavian’s sister, to cavort in unseemly luxury with a woman they had already come to consider a whore. Adding insult to injury, he had children by her and named them his heirs. Even so, Octavian had to work hard in the arena of propaganda to garner enough support to make war on Antony. In the end, Cleopatra made that possible. The specter of an oriental despot imposing her style of governance upon Roman citizens through her intoxicating effect on Antony rendered both of them dangerous enough to justify another round of civil war to remove them.

Antony and Cleopatra took up the prospect of war with energy, gathering forces in Greece that would pose a grave risk to Octavian’s forces, should he campaign there, or threaten a credible invasion of Italy if Octavian should not. Part of this force was a massive, and expensive, naval build-up that seemed like the match of anything that Octavian could send against him. In all of these things, they were mistaken. Octavian was far quicker in gathering his forces than Antony, and in 31 B.C. the two sides were encamped in close quarters with each other. Octavian also had a powerful naval force, comprised of ships much smaller than the pride of the Egyptian fleet, but also more agile and in greater numbers. The two sides spent the summer in search of an advantageous position and in avoidance of direct contact, but then, on a single day in September, the fleet that Antony and Cleopatra had so meticulously created was crushed decisively.

Cleopatra fled, with Antony soon following behind her; after a winter’s respite, Octavian arrived in Egypt with his forces. Antony killed himself in response, and shortly thereafter, Cleopatra followed suit, hoping to rob Octavian of the pleasure of parading her about Rome in his Triumph. For his part, Octavian was probably relieved. Her death allowed him to package the story as he wished, without the possibility that Cleopatra might manage to win over the Roman crowd’s sympathy.

It was an important point for Octavian. Having won the war, he wished to push through his program for the reconstitution of the Roman state, and that meant convincing a number of very stubborn minds. In the early years of Octavian’s rule as Emperor, the threat posed by Cleopatra was most important as a justification of the war, and by extension, of all that Octavian had done to reform Rome. Only in the waning years of his reign as Emperor Augustus did the memories of Cleopatra begin to fade, and the official story increasingly emphasized the need to get rid of Antony for his own excesses.

Taken as a whole, Cleopatra did little for her own country. She had ascended a shaky throne and only stabilized her own power at the expense of her country’s already wavering independence. She hastened Egypt’s dependence upon Roman power even as she alienated herself from such goodwill as she might have enjoyed in the beginning. She became a convenient scapegoat, offering justifications to those who opposed her lovers. After her death, her country was annexed to Rome, her family was wiped out, and her enemies were beginning a long period of grandeur and prosperity.


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