Cleopatra emerges from a carpet
standing before Caesar
Julius Caesar, who essentially the dictator of Rome in Cleopatra’s time, arrived in Egypt during the civil war between Cleopatra and her brother. Caesar came to claim the debts Egypt owed Rome and Cleopatra saw in him a chance to win back her kingdom and expand it into Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor. Her alliance with Caesar seems to have been strategic, romantic and sexual. For his part Caesar made little mention of Cleopatra in his account of the Alexandrine wars.

Caesar initially didn't want to have anything to do with Cleopatra but he was delayed in his return to Rome by unfavorable winds. According to Plutarch’s version of events she had herself rolled up in bedsheets and delivered to Caesar, who was so besotted with her he orchestrated a reconciliation between Cleopatra and her brother and then had Ptolemy kill his former partner Pothinus. Pliny is said to be the source the rolled-up-in-bedsheets story. Many doubt its veracity. In the 1963 film Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra spills out of Persian carpet at the feet of Caesar ready to crawl up his legs.

When Cleopatra met up with Caesar he was a balding epileptic with a lot of experience with women. He was 32 years older than her and married. The two of them sailed down the Nile together in a 300-foot barge with gardens and banquet rooms. In 47 B.C., Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar’s son, Ptolemy Caesarian (“Little Caesar”) . To honor the event she had a coin minted showing her as Aphrodite nursing Eros.

Roman support of Cleopatra's armies won her full control of Egypt. She married her other little brother Ptolemy XIII and then poisoned him after Little Caesar was born. Her teenage sister, Arisnoe, who had tried to dethrone, was paraded in Rome in golden shackles but at leaste she was allowed to live in exile (at least until later one when Cleopatra persuaded Antony to have her dragged from her temple and put to death). and With things under control at home, Cleopatra went to Rome with Caesar. In Rome, she lived in one of Caesar’s suburban palaces and impressed some with her wit and turned off others with her arrogance. Her presence in Rome caused quite stir and triggered a fad for anything associated with Egypt. Many women adopted Cleopatra’s “melon” hairstyle (rows of tight briads gathered in a low bun).

Caesar and Cleopatra hosted great parties. The Roman leader even raised a golden statue to her in the temple of Venus. Even so Cleopatra was not well liked by powerful people like Cicero and her claim to any power was tied to Caesar. In 44 B.C., as Caesar was making plans to marry Cleopatra and legitimize their child, he was assassinated. This was a clear setback for Cleopatra's larger ambitions. Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian was named his heir not Ptolemy Caesarian.

Cleopatra Returns to Egypt

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae
As Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus battled Cassius and Brutus for control of Rome, Cleopatra returned home to Egypt, at a time when it was suffering a famine and plague. While she was away her brother died and Egypt was under the rule of an imposter pretending to be the dead Ptolemy XIII. Without Caesar to back her up Cleopatra ousted the pretender, seized control of Egypt and adopted a position of neutrality in the Roman civil war.

As the undisputed leader of Egypt, Cleopatra named the toddler Ptolemy Caesarian as co-ruler and turned the country around from a debt-ridden colony into a powerful semi-autonomous state that was the richest in eastern Mediterranean. As leader she cracked on corruption, discouraged officials from taking bribes from farmers and built up Egypt's fleet.

Cleopatra ruled from Alexandria and lived in a palace a short distance from the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. On the grounds was the Mousein, a center of philosophy and learning. The local people liked here because she spoke the local language and paid respects to Egyptian gods. At that point the Romans liked her because she brought in wealth for the empire.

Cleopatra and Marc Antony

Cleopatra and Marc Antony
representations on coins
Marc Antony and Lepidus ultimately prevailed in their war with Cassius and Brutus for control of Rome and divided the Roman Empire among themselves, with Antony getting the East and Lepidus getting the West. In 41 B.C., while on tour of his empire to make alliances and secure funds for attack on the Parthians in Iran, Antony met Cleopatra.

At that time, Anthony was handsome and had thick curly hair. He claimed he was a descendent of Hercules and sometimes identified himself with Dionysus. Plutarch described Antony as mellow and generous but a bit of slob. Cicero called him a "a kind of butcher or prizefighter" and said his all-night orgies made him "odius." He also had a reputation for getting so drunk at all-male parties that he threw up into his own toga.

Even though women and soldiers him, Antony’s biographer Adrian Goldsworthy dismisses him as a “not an especially good general” and wrote: “There is no real trace of any long-held beliefs or causes on Antony’s part” beyond “glory and profit.”

Book: Cleopatra and Antony by Diana Preston, well-written and engaging rehashing of the story. Antony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy ((Yale, 2010) emphasizes the military side of their relationship.

Cleopatra and Marc Antony Meet

20120219-Antony_and_Cleopatra Lawrence_Alma-Tadema_.jpg
Cleopatra and Marc Antony
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Cleopatra and Marc Antony began their famous love affair in 42 B.C. in Tarsus in Asia Minor. Cleopatra was 29 years old at the time and is said to have purposely delayed setting out to meet him to heighten Antony's expectations. When she finally announced she was coming she sent the message: “For the good and happiness of Asia I am coming for a Festive reception...Venus has come to revel with Bacchus--- Her arrival in a boat with priceless purple sails was immortalized in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra . Plutarch described it as an act of mockery.

According to Plutarch, Cleopatra arrived in Tarsus to meet Antony on a perfumed barge with purple sails. She was dressed as Aphrodite and was fanned by boys dressed like cupids. "Her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of the flute, accompanied by pipes and lutes...Instead of a crew the barge was lined with the most beautiful of her waiting women as Nerid and Graces, some at the steering oars, others at the tackles of the sails, and all the while indescribably rich perfume, exhaled from innumerable censers, was wafted from the vessel to the river banks."

Shakespeare wrote the purple sails on Cleopatra's barge were "so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them." It is believed that Cleopatra wore a fragrance with resins like balsam and myrrh and spices like cinnamon, cardamon, iris root, saffron and marjoram.

Cleopatra welcomed Antony into her bedroom, whose floor was covered with a foot and half of rose petals. In some rooms of her palace she hung nets scented with various fragrances. As a gift Antony gave Cleopatra Turkey's Mediterranean coast, the western part of Asia Minor, and parts of Syria, Phoenicia, Jordan and Cyprus. Antony returned to Egypt with Cleopatra, where he hunted and gambled and engaged in childish pranks. For fun the couple went slumming in the bars of Alexandria disguised as slaves.

Cleopatra and Marc Antony as Lovers

Cleopatra seemed to be genuinely in love with Antony while Antony some historians say was "enslaved by Cleopatra's seductive powers." He treated her as a monarch of equal stature rather than a subject, much to the dismay of the people of Rome.

Antony and Cleopatra were linked for 11 years. They were together off and on for seven years, with breaks totaling three years in between. Antony was often away on military campaigns. On one campaign he reportedly plundered the famous library at Pergamum to fill the library of Alexandria. Cleopatra bore him twins--- a daughter Cleopatra Selene and a son Alexander Helois---and another son Philadelphia Ptolemy.


Antony and Cleopatra also formed a strong strategic union. Antony helped Cleopatra kill her last ambitious sibling, her sister Arsinoe, and gave her territory in the Middle East. In return Cleopatra financed Antony's Parthian campaign and his battles against Octavian. Cleopatra chopped down many of the cedar trees in Lebanon to held build up Antony’s navy.

The first couple of Rome used their children to extend their empire. Cleopatra Selene married Juba II, the scholar-king of Mauritania (ruled 25 B.C. to A.D. 23) and author of books on history, art and geography. He brought Greco-Roman culture to his capital of Caesarea and explored the Canary Islands.

Cleopatra perhaps wasn’t always faithful. There is one story of Cleopatra trying unsuccessfully to seduce Herod of Palestine (the same one who is mentioned in the Bible and built the Temple in Jerusalem) to gain access to his kingdom. After his rebuff she attempted to get Antony to give her part of Herod's kingdom, but he refused because he and Herod were old friends.∵

Extravagance of Cleopatra and Marc Antony

Antony and Cleopatra referred to themselves as Dionysus and Osiris and named their children Sun and Moon. They drank, gambled and fished together---according to unflattering Roman historians anyway---and amused themselves by dressing up as servants and painting the town red and, by one account, planned to start their own club "the Society of Inimitable Lovers."

A grandson of one of Antony and Cleopatra’s cooks told Plutarch the couple used to have a series of banquets prepared for them so if they didn't like the first it was thrown out and they ate the second. While “white breasts showed through Chinese silk” they ate “every delicacy, prompted not by hunger but by a mad live of ostentation...served on golden dishes.” Antony reportedly rubbed Cleopatra's feet at banquets an adopted her custom of using a golden chamber pot.

20120219-Cleopatras Banquet_-.jpg
Cleopatra's Banquet

Cleopatra once bet Marc Anthony she could give the world's most expensive dinner party and drink $500,000 worth for wine without leaving the table. To win the bet she crushed one of her pearl earrings and drank it in a goblet of wine. That one earring was said to worth 100,000 pounds of silver. Pearls (mostly from the Persian Gulf) were so valuable in ancient times that Roman general Vitellus paid for an entire military campaign by selling one of his mother's pearls. Pliny is the source of that tale.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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