Writings of Khurram Ali Shafique
Cleopatra: the Doomed Pharaoh
half-Persian and all Egyptian, Cleopatra was a woman who asserted
her authority in a man's world on her own terms. Historians, mostly
men, have rarely forgiven her for that, while the fascination she
has held for generations is comparable to that of Alexander the
A descendant of the Greek rulers of
Egypt, Cleopatra came to the throne in 51 BC, at the age of eighteen,
when she began with a dream to restore the glory of her empire by
fusing the heritage of Greece with Egypt. She learnt nine languages,
Although the Egyptian tradition dictated
that she share her power with her 12-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII,
whom she was also compelled to marry, it was she and not her brother,
who was crowned and worshipped as Pharaoh. She identified herself
with the mother goddess Isis - considering herself to be an offspring
of hers - and was all set to restore the glory that was ancient
Egypt when the mercenaries ousted her to declare Ptolemy as the
sole ruler of Egypt. They believed that this meant an opportunity
of furthering their own interests under the feeble-minded king.
Hence, after a rule of just two years, the young Egyptian queen
had to escape with her life and her younger sister Arsinoe. Once
outside Egypt, the two sisters recruited an army of mercenaries
and developed their plans to defeat the forces of Ptolemy. That
was when Julius Caesar appeared on the scene in Egypt.
Julius Caesar had already established
himself as the a powerful general in the Roman Republic, which was
then a guardian of a declining Egypt. Caesar saw it his duty to
carry out the will of Cleopatra's father, the dead king Auletes.
Even during his lifetime, Auletes had used Roman support to subdue
his own daughter, Berenice when she had revolted. We don't know
whether the fifteen-year-old Cleopatra had chanced to meet the young
Roman officer, Mark Antony who defeated Berenice when her father
was ruling, but the execution of her twenty-one year old sister
on the orders of her father must have taught Cleopatra that the
first duty of a pharaoh was always to himself. He was supposed to
be the incarnation of gods, how could he choose to do anything less?
Cleopatra devised a plan to introduce herself to Caesar and coaxed
her friend, Apollodorus, to roll her up in a carpet and smuggle
her to Julius Caesar, past the watchdogs of Achillas. When the carpet
was unrolled, the twenty-year old Cleopatra (though not quite as
beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor) unveiled herself. Her mesmerizing
charms were her high dreams of glory and an extremely melodious
voice that sounded sweeter than any musical instrument.
What happened between Caesar and Cleopatra
is anybody's guess. Traditional historians are of the view that
Caesar was seduced by the young enchantress, but that might not
well be an authentic explanation given that Caesar was a man of
fifty-two and Cleopatra, a woman of twenty. Also, especially when
the man is Caesar who was known for his cunning as well as womanizing.
Throughout the history, less powerful kings have presented their
daughters to conquerors, with or without marriage, as political
bribes, and if Cleopatra's father had offered her to Caesar, Cleopatra
would perhaps have gone down in history as a virtuous woman. What
the male historian finds difficult to forgive is that by beguiling
men through her beauty (and brains) she advanced her 'own,' political
power rather than letting a guardian use it for 'his' royal gains.
In denouncing Cleopatra, they tend to forget that many dignified
men of history have slept with their enemies' daughters, with or
without marriage, in order to advance their political motives. Such
names would include Alexander, Akbar the Great and Napoleon, not
to include Tamerlane who went as far as ravishing the wife of a
defeated monarch to assert his political power over him. Obviously,
Cleopatra's critics work under the hypocritical principle that in
any physical relationship, the man should be seen as performing
a 'manly task' while the woman should be seen as being 'soiled.'
Reviving the simplicity of a bygone matriarchal civilization, Cleopatra
hurled all patriarchal ethics into the face of posterity and exposed
its double standards for all times to come.
Yet, it would be naive to believe
that Caesar decided the dispute in favour of Cleopatra just because
he was passionate about her. He most certainly saw that Egypt had
a greater chance of peace and prosperity as a Roman tributary if
Cleopatra was given complete power over the region. And hence, in
48 BC, Caesar executed Pothinus and banished Ptolemy XIII. But even
before that, the kingmakers of Egypt joined in one last struggle,
commonly known as the Alexandrian War, against Caesar. In that,
the forces of Achillas were defeated and crushed forever. One strange
incident of this war was Arsinoe's betrayal. Cleopatra's younger
sister suddenly changed sides and joined forces with Achillas, proclaiming
her own claim to the throne. She was also banished by the victorious
Caesar. The Egyptian custom then forced Cleopatra to choose her
youngest brother, then only eleven-years-old, as her nominal husband
and partner in power as Ptolemy XIV. Caesar deployed a legion to
protect her and she was at last in full control of her small empire
as Cleopatra, the incarnation of Isis, the woman-pharaoh.
By the spring of 47 BC, when Cleopatra
took Caesar on a trip up the Nile, she was already carrying his
child. When the delighted couple reached the temple of Dendara,
Cleopatra was worshipped as a goddess, much like Alexander himself.
Caesar was denied that glory.
Twenty-years ago, when Caesar was
thirty-two, he had wept while reading an account of Alexander the
Great which told that the world conqueror had already finished his
task by thirty-two and died. Did he weep again before Cleopatra
because she was a pharaoh while only twenty-two and he at fifty-two
was just a general? We will never know that, but what we know for
sure is that Caesar was a changed man when he left Egypt two months
later. He began to realize that he, too, had dreams of glory.
On 23 June 47 BC, Cleopatra gave birth
to a son, whom the Egyptians immediately recognized as Caesar's.
Caesar never acknowledged him publicly. Or if he did, the Roman
enemies of Cleopatra destroyed all evidence of it when they declared
war against her a few years later. But, when Caesar arrived in Rome
the following year, he had himself elected a dictator for ten years
with possible designs of becoming an emperor in the near future.
Cleopatra joined him with an impressive
entourage and was placed in a villa on Caesar's lands beyond the
River Tiber. Caesar also erected a statue in her honour in the temple
of Venus. We do not have information about how she governed the
affairs of Egypt in her absence, but Caesar had appointed a legion
of his soldiers to prevent disorder.
The Romans couldn't come to terms
with the idea of a female pharaoh. They were accustomed to perceiving
women as captive slaves paraded like beasts or domesticated wives
serving their husbands at home. The concept of a woman demanding
respect from men was a personal insult to most Roman menfolk. Caesar's
own soldiers invented derogatory songs about Cleopatra, not different
from the kind of humour that has prevailed in other patriarchal
nations. Hence, began the myth of Cleopatra the insatiable seductress,
invented by malicious chauvinists.
Caesar was assassinated on 15 March
44 BC by his own senators. They decided that his plans of wanting
to become a second Alexander were too grandiose and not in the best
interest of Rome. A month later, Cleopatra returned home with her
child. Mythology indicates that apparently the lover of Isis (Cleopatra's
alter ego) was also killed and the goddess had to hide her son,
Horus until he grew up and avenged his father. Cleopatra, as the
new Isis, might have recalled this legend. However, with the support
of Caesar's legion now gone, she faced danger from her brother,
Ptolemy XIV because mercenaries could vie for power in his name.
Fortunately for Cleopatra, her only remaining brother died (probably
poisoned by her) the following year as well. She, then, appointed
her four-year-old son Caesarion, her co-regent as Ptolemy XV.
Caesar was raised to the status of
a god in Rome on 1 January 42 BC after his friends defeated his
assassins. In this war, Cleopatra had sent aid to Caesar's friends,
and at one point had even decided to join them personally but her
fleet was stopped by a violent storm - or so she claimed later.
The three leaders who emerged as the
ruling troika in Rome were a combination of unhappy contrasts. Mark
Antony, the fiery cavalier who had helped Cleopatra's father against
Berenice a long while ago. Octavian, who came from nowhere to claim
Caesar's inheritance as a relative and was then renamed as Octavian
Caesar. And Lepidus, a minor character. Hence, it was Mark Antony
who took upon himself the task of reorganizing the East and made
a dramatic entry at Ephesus styling himself after the wine god Dionysus.
A helpless spendthrift, he soon overran his finances in the battles
against the Parthians. Taking rest at the seaport of Tarsus, he
called upon the queen of Egypt to help him with the treasures of
Cleopatra's entry at Tarsus is one
of the most glamorous occasions in history. Men tolerate female
rulers only if they accept their terms and conditions. Hence, we
see that while kings have always enjoyed enormous personal liberties,
a queen who rules in her own right is required to observe high standards
of man-made carnal ethics. The comparison between the lives of Henry
VIII and Queen Elizabeth would serve as one striking example. Many
women in authority have even become 'honorary men', going to the
extent of dressing up in men's clothes so as to disguise their sex.
Cleopatra did no such thing. She combined absolute power with unchecked
It is said that the air was filled
with fragrance when Cleopatra's barge entered the seaport of Tarsus.
Her ship was shining with plates of gold. Its oars were made of
silver, and beautiful female servants were rowing the ship to the
rhythm of musical instruments played on board. The ship's sails
were a deep purple, the favoured colour of Alexander the Great and
a symbol of royal elegance ever since. Cleopatra herself reclined
under a golden canopy. She appeared like Venus, the goddess of beauty.
The year was 41 BC and Egypt had faced
two years of famine. Its resources were dwindling. Yet, Cleopatra
decided to make a show that would reflect the glory that was once
Egypt's. Antony was bewitched. He was a man of fleeting moods, and
full of contradictions. In so many aspects, his character was similar
to that of the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Like Jehangir, Antony too
was always looking for mirrors to reflect his own emotional existence
and his capabilities were illuminated when he was assisting someone
he respected. Left solitary, he was capable of self-destruction.
It is said that when he was at the height of his power, all the
royal cooks were ordered to continue cooking all day, just because
Antony could never decide at what hour he wanted to eat his meals!
He had proven to be an excellent vice
regent to Caesar and when the latter was assassinated Mark Antony's
fiery speech turned the tables against Caesar's assassins. And yet,
after he had destroyed them, he buckled under his weak nature, allowing
Octavian and Lepidus to share power with him. It was just as if
he felt in some way that he didn't deserve this glory in his own
right. Cleopatra was everything he had been waiting for in life.
Cleopatra was perhaps one who could make him feel Caesar's equivalent
which he otherwise was not.
Antony followed Cleopatra to Egypt
and the two soon became paramours spending months in pursuit of
pleasure. On one occasion, when they went fishing and Antony couldn't
get a catch, he ordered his men to dive under water and hang some
fish to his hook so that he could impress the Egyptian queen. But
Cleopatra was too sharp and the next day she ordered her servants
to dive underwater and hang some roasted fish to Antony's hook!
While the historian only records that the incident caused a load
of laughter, an observant reader can't help but sympathize with
the poor Cleopatra whose designs of glory now rested upon baby-sitting
the overgrown child that was Mark Antony.
Antony soon left for Rome, probably
because of the death of his wife Fulvia. Back in Egypt, Cleopatra
gave birth to twins by him, a boy and a girl. While in Rome, Octavian
bullied Antony who could never stand his ground in the face of moral
pressure and married Octavian's sister, Octavia.
If Cleopatra had any doubts about
Antony's weak nature, they must have gone now. But she had no other
choice. The Romans had divided the empire and the East had fallen
under Mark Antony. He was the only one in a position to help Cleopatra
save her country and her throne, if only he had the moral strength
to follow the dictates of his heart. But at the height of his glory,
he proved a scarecrow and his life from that day forward was a nosedive
into disaster. When he returned to Cleopatra a few years later,
he overreacted by giving her certain Roman territories, including
Syria and Judea. Cleopatra gave birth to another son by Antony,
who bestowed profuse honours on Cleopatra's children. Caesarion
was declared 'King of kings,' while Cleopatra was given the superior
title 'Queen of kings.' Antony also married her, though the Roman
law prevented bigamy. Octavian made full use of these actions to
incite his comrades so that the Roman Senate declared war upon Egypt,
Cleopatra and Mark Antony.
In the final turn of events, Antony
and Cleopatra moved towards Rome. But halting in Greece, Antony
started procrastinating just when he should have marched on and
attacked Rome. Octavian wasn't much of a general but he got enough
time to organize the finest commanders who completely routed the
joint forces of Antony and Cleopatra at the famous sea-battle of
Actium, which was fought in 31 BC. According to the Roman accounts,
Cleopatra abandoned the battle and Antony followed her to Egypt,
deserting his men in the middle of the sea. Modern historians do
not accept this version. Antony had planned the escape, since he
had asked his men to put sails on the warships while sails were
only mounted in travel, not in war.
Back in Egypt, Antony turned around
and faced the pursuing forces of Octavian. When he began to lose,
he suddenly began to rally against Cleopatra, accusing her for his
destruction. Historians do not explain this strange behaviour. It
would have made some sense if Antony had blamed Cleopatra right
after Actium, where she was present on the battle front. The only
explanation can be attributed to Anthony's inner weakness as he
was unable to carry the burden of failure just as he was too weak
to enjoy the weight of success. He needed someone to take the blame,
and he named the first person that came to his mind.
Cleopatra had taken refuge in her
tomb, built in the fashion of ancient Egypt. When Antony tried to
follow her, she sent him word that she was dead. Antony decided
to commit suicide, but even in that he needed someone else to do
it for him. So, he asked a loyal servant who stabbed himself instead
and hence, at last, Antony had to fall upon his own sword. Rather
than taking the wound in his heart, he took it in his belly. Cleopatra
lifted him over the walls and into her tomb, and Antony died in
her arms. The Romans soon found a way inside her tomb and she became
a captive of Octavian.
There are two versions regarding these
fatal events. The typical Roman version is that Cleopatra tried
to negotiate with Octavian with the help of her legendary charms
once again. Octavian made it clear to her that he would stop at
nothing less than her complete humiliation and gave her details
of how she would be dragged as a slave before the Roman citizens.
As her pride was most important to her, she decided to take her
own life rather than be subjugated by Octavian, someone she had
always despised and distrusted.
Plutarch, who was a Greek and sympathetic
to Cleopatra, maintains that she had already made up her mind to
commit suicide after Antony died in her arms. He even records that
upon the death of her lover Cleopatra beat herself so hard in mourning
that she got her face and breasts all bruised. However, this may
not be entirely true as it is somewhat inconsistent with Cleopatra's
nature. The only fact that makes it likely is Mark Antony's ability
to turn hearts with his skills as an orator. It is possible that
the dying Antony made another speech of his life and made an impact
Whatever may be the case, Cleopatra
was found dead in her tomb on 12 August 30 BC. The Romans hurried
upon the news and felt that Cleopatra had committed suicide, together
with two of her maids. One of the maids was still alive. One of
the soldiers angrily asked her if this was 'well done'. The maid's
answer, recorded by Plutarch, has been translated literally by Shakespeare
in his play: "It is well done, and fitting for a princess descended
of so many royal kings." Cleopatra was lying upon a bed of
gold, dressed up completely in her royal robes. She was only thirty-nine.
She was the last Greek ruler of Alexander's empire, and the last
pharaoh of Egypt.
The Romans found a basket of figs
in Cleopatra's chamber. The leaves had an asp's slither and some
people said they had even seen an asp's tracks going out of the
tomb. Others reported two tiny snakebites on her arm. But some people
believed that Cleopatra used to carry poison in a hollow razor in
her hair, and used that to take her life. Whatever may be the case,
Octavian showed more respect to the dead Cleopatra than he had intended
to the living one. She was buried honourably near Mark Antony. Her
two maids were given honourable burials too. Octavian was moved
by Cleopatra's courage to choose death over humiliation.
Of Cleopatra's children, Caesarion
was killed by Octavian. His younger siblings, all by Mark Antony,
were adopted by Octavia, Antony's widow. If Cleopatra had wanted
that her child would take her revenge like Horus, the son of Isis,
that hope was never fulfilled. In any case, the age of ancient civilization
died with Cleopatra, reaching its most fitting climax. The era of
gods and goddesses, to which Cleopatra had belonged, was over. In
Judea, one of the kingdoms held by Cleopatra until her death, another
woman was about to be born to represent a very different aspect
of femininity. By the name of Mary, she would change the divine
trinity into a very different equation than Isis, Osiris and Horus.
your comments or read others
Source: DAWN The Review, August,
2000. Karachi, Pakistan
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