Cleopatra: A Greek in Egypt

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

       When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his empire, accumulated in 12 years, was divided among his three generals, Ptolemy getting the Egyptian third, which began the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt. This dynasty would end with the most famous of the descendents, Cleopatra. Actually, Cleopatra VII, since there were several "Cleopatras" as there were several "Ptolemys" on the Egyptian throne.

Cleopatra was 18 when she assumed the throne, and, as was customary, married her brother, the 10 year old Ptolemy XIII. An intelligent and charming woman with few morals, she attached herself to Julius Caesar when, in 47 BC, Caesar arrived and killed Ptolemy XIII in a battle which extended the enlarging Roman Empire. Cleopatra became Caesar's mistress but also promptly married Ptolemy XIV, a younger brother, to keep things square in Egypt.

Cleopatra followed Caesar to Rome, but returned in 44 BC when Caesar was assasinated. She had by then a son by Caesar, and when Ptolemy XIV died, she made her son co-regent. (That son has usually been called "Cesarion"). Cleo would make a habit of having children by famous Romans, having three (eventually) by Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) when he arrived in Egypt three years later and fell under her spell. Antony married her in 37 BC in order to obtain the Egyptian throne, which created problems for him in Rome since he was already married to Octavia, the sister of Octavius, Antony's co-regent of the Roman empire.

Octavious, for Antony's insults to his sister and for his own desire to be sole ruler of the Empire, attacked Cleopatra and Antony successfully in a sea battle at Actium off the western coast of Greece in 31 BC. Antony attempted to regroup over the next several months but lost nearly everyone through betrayals, as Octavious moved on Egypt. Antony, seeing the end, committed suicide, falling on his sword.

History suggests that Octavius also fell under Cleopatra's spell and might have married her, although his ambition was high and the general Roman population disliked Cleopatra, who in any case choose suicide herself. Octavius would become Caesar Augustus (he conquered Egypt on August 1, 30BC), and initiated the Pax Romana - the Roman Peace - which would last for 200 years.

From what we can gather, Cleopatra was not beautiful, but beguiling, and was probably quite accomplished in love-making. Shakespeare honors this history by assigning the best lines in his play, "Antony and Cleopatra", to a friend of Antony who has been asked what he thinks might account for her unusual charm, and his reply is:

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.
Other women cloy the appetites they feed,
But she makes hungry, where most she satisfies.
For vilest things become themselves in her,
That the holy priests bless her when she is riggish."

"riggish" - an old word. It means "undisciplined".

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