Cleopatra: The Historical Seductress

Cleopatra: The Historical Seductress

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The woman, by definition is the nurturer of life. She labors through birth, tends to the needs of her family, and assumes unending responsibilities. And while women have given birth to the ancient and modern day male heroes we've come to glorify to this day, we must remember that some of those same women have also been tremendously influential and invaluable all throughout the depths of history. One such woman is Cleopatra, the temptress whose ambition and seduction both augmented her empire's prestige and brought about her theatrical downfall.
Cleopatra was immediately established from the second she burst out of the womb as a member of the royal family of the Ptolemy's; the family which had controlled the Egyptian throne since the rule of Ptolemy I which began in 323 BC. She was born the daughter of Ptolemy XII, King of Egypt, in 69 BC, her full name being Cleopatra VII, or "Thea Philopator" in Greek: a name, which literally translates to "a goddess loving her father." She did most definitely loved her father, so dearly, in fact, that he granted the throne to Cleopatra upon his death in 51 BC. From the moment she set foot on the throne, co-ruling Egypt with her brother and obligatory husband Ptolemy XIII, she was intent upon coercing her, and only her, influence upon all of Egypt. More specifically, she wished to possess a less influential bridegroom so that she could impose more of her ideas and policies upon Egypt. It is for this reason that Cleopatra initiated one of the most notorious and controversial relationships of all time with one of the most prominent figures in history; Julius Caesar. Caesar fell in love with Cleopatra from the moment he saw her. Even though she was not known to be exceptionally beautiful, it is derived from many accounts that she was the definition of a wicked temptress, the defining characteristic that obviously won Caesar's heart. Naturally, Caesar aided Cleopatra after Ptolemy XIII's advisors had driven her from the throne, and declared war upon Ptolemy XIII. Caesar and Cleopatra were victorious and Cleopatra returned safely to the throne. Shortly after the coup, Cleopatra was noticeably pregnant. The product of this pregnancy was a son, named Caesarion, who is widely believed to belong to Caesar.
After Cleopatra had successfully inherited the Ptolemaic territories of Syria and Palestine from Caesar, she vowed to find a new suitor who could further propel her towards a stranglehold over the governing power of the Middle East.

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It is for this reason that Cleopatra vowed to captivate another Roman king, Mark Antony. To initiate the relationship a meeting was arranged in 41 BC in Tarsus (Turkey) of Asia Minor between Cleopatra and Antony, a meeting whose purpose was strictly "business" related. The rendezvous, however, was the perfect opportunity to steal Mark Antony's heart, an opportunity that Cleopatra seized. She made a grand barge up the River Cydnus, which led into the territory of Tarsus, a spectacle that Antony observed and was immediately enthralled by. From then on, Cleopatra became the sole object of Antony's affection, causing him to forget completely about his wife Fulvia and his campaign against an incumbent government takeover by the renowned Octavian. Antony was easily distracted, however, and upon a return to Italy to resolve an issue with Octavian, he took the hand of Octavian's sister, Octavia, in marriage. He lived in Italy for a short while with Octavia, only to realize he would never be able to live near his nemesis Octavian. He then returned to his residence with Cleopatra where inevitably he fell back in love with her through her uncanny ability to win hearts at random, or as the Greek historian Plutarch put it, "Plato admits four sorts of flattery, but [Cleopatra] had a thousand." (Cleopatra, Pg. 377) It was at this point that Antony made a decision, which eventually would cause some of the most monumentally tragic repercussions; he decided to marry Cleopatra. By Roman law, which promoted monogamy, the marriage was invalid, and under the influences of Octavian and the betrayed Octavia, all of Rome was now turned against the undying love between Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
The relationship between the two lovers, however, was a symbiotic one indeed. Antony was of course interested in Cleopatra herself, but also the vast wealth she claimed in hopes that she would aid him in his quest to monopolize the Roman throne. Cleopatra was more than willing to give up her riches for the cause, seeing as she was intent upon aligning her son Caesarion as the heir to the throne after Antony's term. Cleopatra's motives of establishing this relationship ran deeper than just love, however, an idea which author/scholar E.R. Bevan explored when he published the following passage in one of his works:
At Tarsus Cleopatra was as completely victorious as Antony and Octavian had been at Philippi. She was once more the mistress of the most powerful man - or one of the two most powerful men – in the world. Antony would use all that power to further her purposes… He would do almost anything that Cleopatra wished; and that was the important thing from her point of view. (Bevan, Page 373)

Also in return, Cleopatra was given ancient Roman possessions as gifts and appointed queen of the formerly Roman-controlled lands of Cyprus, Crete, and Egypt in 34 BC, thus regaining the territories that her fellow Macedonian Alexander the Great once controlled. When Octavian got word of these happenings, he announced it to all of Rome, sending the people into a furor. The government took action and suspended Antony's ruling power for one year in 32 BC. In the year that followed, anti-Cleopatra and anti-Mark Antony banter was rampant, and Octavian was searching for revenge and eventually declared war on the combined forces of Antony and Cleopatra; a war which came to an epic conclusion at the Battle of Actium off the west coast of Greece in 31 BC. Upon defeat, Cleopatra fled back to the security of Egypt, where she secluded herself. She proceeded to create the false rumor that she had committed suicide in a last ditch effort to rid herself of what was becoming the burden of Mark Antony. Antony took the news at face value, and immediately stabbed himself. Word spread quickly, however, that Cleopatra was still alive, so he ordered his body to be brought to her in a final display of unending love. After Antony's dramatics, Cleopatra went on to surrender to Octavian's pursuit and upon finding him she tried to "make peace". Octavian would not fall for any of Cleopatra's traps that he now knew all too well. It was at this point in 30 BC that Cleopatra knew she would meet her end, and for fear that she would be unendingly humiliated under the captivity of Octavian, she did actually kill herself, bringing down the Ptolemaic dynasty with her. She was said to have died in splendor though, laid out on display wrapped in all her royal ornaments, finally meeting her end by way of an asp, or a coveted Egyptian cobra.
Cleopatra's theatrical story has been played out through many notable works of art, literature, and theater including Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra. Cleopatra, however, has been notoriously cast in a negative light because of the promiscuous reputation she had earned; a reputation that was mostly due to the word of mouth that Octavian spread after the end of the Ptolemaic presence. What people lose sight of, though, is the love that her people felt for her on account of her brilliance, her ambitious qualities which extended the empire she presided over, and the perpetual concern and affection she felt for her peers and subjects alike.

· Bevan, Edwyn Robert. The House of Ptolemy. London: Methuen Publishing, 1927.
· Bennett, Chris. "Ptolemaic Dynasty". Ptolemaic Genealogy. 2004. 11 March 2006.
· "Cleopatra". The Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th Edition. 2002.
· Sinnigen, William G. "Cleopatra". The World Book Encyclopedia. 2005.
· Wikipedia. "Cleopatra VII of Egypt". The Free Online Encyclopedia. March 2006. 27 March 2006.
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