Why Cleopatra?

Cleopatra could be called one of the first celebrities. Since the first century B.C., people have been fascinated by her, and still are. For example, on Monday 16th March 2009, over the BBC World news, a headline read: “Cleopatra’s mother ‘was African’.” [1] (The issue of the colour of Cleopatra’s skin arises because we cannot identify one of her grandmothers, and it is possible she was black.)

Probably the most famous woman from classical antiquity, Cleopatra was not, strictly speaking, Greek or Roman, nor what we would call Egyptian — even though she was the Queen of Egypt. She was a descendant of Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and therefore Macedonian. And the Greeks, such as the Athenians, viewed them as virtually barbarians.

Anthony and Cleopatra, 1883
(Oil on Panel, 25.75″ X 36.25″)
BY Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Private Collection

The way Cleopatra stands out more than any other woman from Greece or Rome is, however, not so surprising when we consider that one of the most striking features of women in classical antiquity for us today is their silence. Not only are our ancient texts silent about them, but silence in a woman was one of her most attractive attributes for male contemporaries.

For instance, Sophocles the Athenian tragedian wrote in his play, Ajax, “Silence is a woman’s glory.” The historian, Thucydides, in his monumental History of the Peloponnesian War, had almost nothing to say about women, although he did record that his great hero, the Athenian general Pericles, addressed them briefly in his speech at the burial of those killed during the first year of the war: “The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you.” Women were there to mourn their fathers, brothers and sons, and they were reminded to keep quiet.

A law in Athens about wills from this era equated listening to women with insanity: “Anyone shall have the right to dispose of his own property by will as he wishes, if he has no legitimate, male children, unless his mind is impaired by lunacy or old age or drugs or disease, or unless he is under the influence of a woman or under constraint or has been deprived of his liberty.”

On similar disparaging lines, we can read in Herodotus’ The Histories that a king of Sparta, Cleomenes “died childless, leaving only a daughter.” (The most recent translation from the Penguin Classics renders this less offensively as he “died without a son to succeed him, leaving only a daughter,” but in fact the Greek word itself means “childless.”)

It is often stated that women were freer during the Roman times, and to some extent this is undeniable, for Roman men themselves commented on how constrained the lives of Greek women were. It is perhaps worth noting, though, that Roman men had three names, two of which placed him in his immediate and wider family, the other being his individual name, corresponding to our “Christian” name.

Gaius Julius Caesar, for instance, was the full name of the famous general. “Gaius” was his personal name. He came from the Julian family, the gens Julia. The “Caesar” part was given to the family perhaps because an ancestor was born by caesarean section (from the Latin verb “to cut,” caedere). There are other explanations for this cognomen “Caesar”: an ancestor had a thick head of hair, something that his more famous descendent did not inherit; an ancestor had grey eyes, or had killed an elephant.

Women, on the other hand, had no individual name. This means that all daughters of the Julian family, for example, would be called Julia. Sometimes, however, they would need to be referred to — so numbers were used, that is, “Julia I, II or III,” or “Julia Minor” and “Julia Major.” They were viewed, as some scholars remarked, as merely fragments of their family, and anonymous fragments at that.

Cleopatra therefore is rather refreshing, being famous and colourful, if not loud, and damaging to the Romans.

One might wonder why ancient sources, normally dismissive about women, chose to tell us more particularly about this one. Yes, she was a queen, and a rich one at that. But I would argue, it was to camouflage the fact that because Rome was fighting a civil war, that we thus are given a detailed picture of this intelligent and powerful woman.

Octavian (later known as the Emperor Augustus), was not particularly concerned with Cleopatra when he fought and defeated her. It was her consort, Mark Antony, who was the danger. Senior in every sense to Octavian, he was older, more experienced, a proven general, extremely popular in Rome and with soldiers — because of his military prowess.

In the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, Octavian gradually defeated all rivals to supreme power, until only Mark Antony was left. It should be noted that for Antony, Cleopatra being immensely wealthy, was an invaluable ally. Whether or not he was physically attracted to her, it did make political and military sense to have access to her resources. Having defeated him, it was important to Octavian’s later image to depict the war, not as one against a beloved and honoured Roman (which Antony was), but against a foreign enemy. So war was declared against Cleopatra, not Antony. She was “other” in every sense: foreign, eastern, and a woman.


She was beautiful, although our sources differ in exactly how beautiful. Blaise Pascal famously noted, in the 17th century, that “had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the face of the whole world would have changed” , implying that if she’d been less attractive there wouldn’t have been a civil war in Rome. (Rather puzzlingly, from some of her coins, she looks quite ugly in modern terms. Her nose is generally represented as large and hooked, such that on some coins, she looks like the caricature of a witch… but then Pascal, too, had a fairly distinctive nose himself.)

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