Today, I’m starting a new series for the site that I am calling “But Here’s the Thing About.” Each post within the series will focus on a woman from history that everybody knows or thinks they know, and we will look at them from a slightly different angle. Today, we are going to start by talking about Cleopatra.
About a year ago, I read Stacy Schiff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Cleopatra: A Life” and was blown away by how much complexity there was to the Egyptian queen. But I was particularly fascinated and frustrated by how much her story has largely been altered, for the negative, by biased historians throughout history, in large part because they couldn’t see a powerful woman as anything other than an abomination, a threat, or witchcraft.
A couple weeks ago, I read Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” for a class and was disappointed that Cleopatra was considered the playwright’s strongest female role. Because all I could see was the same mutated image of her as some unfeeling divine creature rather than the woman beneath the wealth and the power.
But Shakespeare used the accounts that he had at the time to tell the story, and it wasn’t really his fault that they were iffy, but it saddens me that the play’s success has continued to cast a bad light upon Cleopatra.
The majority of bias against Cleopatra came from Rome, where all of her historians hailed from. In Rome, there was no such thing as female authority and to be called feminine was the worst possible insult. Roman women were trained to be inconspicuous, to avoid eye contact by looking down at their feet and to remain submissive and silent. They were not permitted to associate themselves with intellectuals and they were rarely depicted in art. As Schiff puts it, they pretty much had the same legal rights as infants or chickens.
This was why Romans were so against Caesar and Cleopatra’s relationship. It wasn’t necessarily that the two were from two different nations but more because Cleopatra had made the first move without any pressure from a male to do so.
They were also skeptical of Cleopatra because of her tremendous wealth. She wasn’t only economically independent, and therefore harder to control, but she had more money than any man in Rome. And they didn’t like that one bit.
However, the biggest threat of all was the fact that Cleopatra was intelligent. Because she was a more than capable leader, the Romans preferred to think that her power came from her sexuality rather than her brain, fearing wisdom far more than beauty. They felt like it was their duty to make sure that no woman ever made herself equal to a man and thought their history would mean nothing if it led to the rule of a woman.
Because Romans didn’t see women as worthy opponents, to acknowledge the fact that Cleopatra was a legitimate threat, they had to build her up to be an unbeatable monster. Octavian began rumors that she was hungry for all of Rome’s possessions. Augustus, who defeated Antony and Cleopatra, magnified her to boost his glory in taking down such a power-crazed, bloodthirsty sorceress. They became Rome’s greatest heroes by restoring order: Rome ruled the world and men ruled women, as Schiff notes. In this sense, men enlarged Cleopatra’s story rather than eradicating it, quite different from the majority of other women throughout history.
They also had quite the arsenal to do so, as Latin literature was born around her time and used to praise and mythologize the Roman heroes. Cleopatra’s alleged wickedness and eventual defeat inspired poets to happily present her in a well-worded negative light.
Because no papyri or hardly anything from the Alexandrian library survive, these skewed accounts are all we have to go off of. Besides their biases, Roman historians at the time were not the most reliable for other reasons. They never named their sources and relied a little too heavily on memory. They barely knew their own ancient history; they combined accounts and reinvented old tales. History was made to be beautiful, not necessarily accurate. Schiff calls them recyclers, cut-and-pasters, and hacks. Any of these things could get me kicked out of college in the blink of an eye and yet, these are the people who we have been trusting to tell Cleopatra’s story. On top of all this, most of her historians had never met her or were even alive while she was.
The one exception was Cicero, the famed orator. He met her when she came to Rome to stay at Caesar’s villa. When he saw her mingling with diplomats and philosophers, coming off as sophisticated, bountiful and personable, all he could say was, “I detest the queen.”
Cicero had plenty of rather stupid reasons to detest Cleopatra: he hated Caesar, he hated Cleopatra’s dad, he hated that he wasn’t named as envoy to the Egyptian court and he hated strong-minded women because he had a falling out with his first wife. However, it appears the straw that finally broke the camel’s back was a book that Cleopatra had promised to loan to Cicero and evidently forgot to. Embarrassed and vengeful, Cicero’s history of Cleopatra is riddled with accounts of her insolence and aspersions that she was little better than a common whore.
Plutarch was just as biased but a little more removed, born seventy-six years after Cleopatra’s death. He took particular pleasure in painting her as a seductive, vain sorceress to discredit her image as a wise politician. In his eyes, she was a little too canny, a little too successful a ruler and a little too composed. Plutarch wrote that the only way a woman could have these talents was through “magic arts and charms.” He also described her as “a woman who was haughty and astonishingly proud in the matter of beauty” who had “the greatest confidence in herself, and in the charms and sorceries of her own person.” Plutarch considered Cleopatra truly an expert in only one thing: flattery, and that she had caused the “noways necessary” war between Rome and Egypt by making Antony fall in love with her.
Dio Cassius, the Roman statesman and historian, lived over two centuries after Cleopatra but picked up where Plutarch left off, saying that Cleopatra “thought it was her duty to be loved by all mankind” He often referred to her as “a woman of insatiable sexuality and insatiable avarice.” He describes Cleopatra’s meeting with Antony as “she so charmed and enthralled not only him but all the rest who had any influence with him that she conceived the hope of ruling even the Romans.” Dio also argues that Cleopatra was convinced Octavian, who had never laid eyes on her, was in love with her, purely because she wanted him to be. Cleopatra was fighting for her throne, her children, and her own life at the time so I doubt she gave a damn whether he was in love with her or not. Still, she knew that if he was attracted to anything about her, it was her money.
Another historian, Josephus, went so far as to say her effect on Antony wasn’t intellectual, sexual, or magical power, but simply drugs. Another, Florus, attested that Cleopatra had liquored Antony up and demanded Rome on a silver platter in exchange for sexual favors.
For me, the most problematic account was Lucan’s. He was a poet and a sensationalist, often called the father of yellow journalism. He was deeply against Cleopatra’s free-spirited, independent mind and recounts her “illicit affairs and bastard children” with disgust. In discussing Caesar, he blames Cleopatra for “arousing his greed.” She apparently “captures the old man with magic” and “whores to gain Rome.”
It is on the tail end of these flawed accounts that William Shakespeare crafts his historical tragedy. He drew from many of these, in particular Plutarch, and often quoted the language verbatim. As Schiff notes, it’s a little odd that the greatest Elizabethan poet had to borrow from a “straight-backed biographer.” Shakespeare’s audiences found the play contemptible because the honorable Antony threw away an empire for one alluring woman’s sake, and saw Cleopatra as a villain. Critics at the time also saw the play as a “rollicking tribute to guilt-free middle-aged adultery,” which didn’t do much to help her reputation as a sophisticated ruler.
This habit of borrowing on questionable accounts created a snowball effect of name-calling and libelous claims, behind which the real Cleopatra is lost. She has been called a wanton seductress, “the whore queen,” the poster child for unlawful love, both toxic and beautiful that “many men bought nights were her at the price of their lives,” a “loose girl of sixteen” and a “silly little girl.” When Claudette Colbert was offered to play the role in the movie, Cecil B. DeMille asked “How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?”
Inevitably, the personal outweighs the political and the erotic shines above all else. Cleopatra has mainly been remembered for having slept with the two most powerful men in Roman history, the fact of which overshadows everything else she accomplished during her rule. Her only crime was engaging in the same advantageous and dubious affairs that was routine for men in power. However, instead of calling her actions routine, she was deemed unnatural, wicked, and socially disruptive.
She ruled an expansive, densely populated empire at a time of desperation and peak trouble. She was highly educated and skilled in philosophy, geometry, music and nine languages. She was well-versed in diplomacy and governance and had a charming and charismatic personality. She was a brilliant strategist, a courageous politician and a fierce guardian. These remarkable qualities have nearly been concealed by two thousand years of bad press.
She had to be enhanced to grotesque proportions to make Actium the granddaddy of all battles and for Rome to accept that Antony and Caesar could have submitted to somebody other than a fellow Roman. Her story is built upon male fear and male fantasy and survives in a language poisonous to her, written by enemies of her and any woman in power. The only shining light is that, as the Euripides quote that Schiff opens the book with states, “man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.” Underneath all of the bias and insults is an extraordinary woman who lived, breathed and was unmistakably human.