This week on the blog we’re going to talk about Cleopatra or to be more specific, we’re going to talk about Cleopatra VII Philopator, who is the only Cleopatra you’ve likely ever heard of, but that ‘seven’ after he name should signal that she’s not the only Cleopatra.1 One of the trends in scholarship over the years towards larger than life ancient historical figures – Caesar, Alexander, Octavian, etc. – has been attempts to demystify them, stripping away centuries of caked on reception, assumptions and imitation to ask more directly: who was this person, what did they do and do we value those sorts of things?2
Cleopatra, of course, has all of that reception layered on too. In antiquity and indeed until the modern era, she was one of the great villains of history, the licentious, wicked foreign queen of Octavian’s propaganda. More recently there has been an effort to reinvent her as an icon of modern values, perhaps most visible lately in Netflix’ recent (quite poorly received) documentary series. A lot of both efforts rely on reading into gaps in the source material. What I want to do here instead is to try to strip some of that away, to de-mystify Cleopatra and set out some of what we know and what we don’t know about her, with particular reference to the question I find most interesting: was Cleopatra actually a good or capable ruler?
Now a lot of the debate sparked by that Netflix series focused on what I find the rather uninteresting (but quite complicated) question of Cleopatra’s heritage or parentage or – heaven help us – her ‘race.’ But I want to address this problem too, not because I care about the result but because I am deeply bothered by how confidently the result gets asserted by all sides and how swiftly those confident assertions are mobilized into categories that just aren’t very meaningful for understanding Cleopatra. To be frank, Cleopatra’s heritage should be a niche question debated in the pages of the Journal of Juristic Papyrology] by scholars squinting at inscriptions and papyri, looking to make minor alterations in the prosopography of the Ptolemaic dynasty, both because it is highly technical and uncertain, but also because it isn’t an issue of central importance. So we’ll get that out of the way first in this essay and then get to my main point, which is this:
Cleopatra was, I’d argue, at best a mediocre ruler, whose ambitious and self-interested gambles mostly failed, to the ruin of herself and her kingdom. This is not to say Cleopatra was a weak or ineffective person; she was very obviously highly intelligent, learned, a virtuoso linguist, and a famously effective speaker. But one can be all of those things and not be a wise or skillful ruler, and I tend to view Cleopatra in that light.
Now I want to note the spirit in which I offer this essay. This is not a take-down of the Netflix Queen Cleopatra documentary (though it well deserves one and has received several; it is quite bad) nor a take-down of other scholars’ work on Cleopatra. This is simply my ‘take’ on her reign. There’s enough we don’t know or barely know that another scholar, viewing from another angle, might well come away with a different conclusion, viewing Cleopatra in a more positive light. This is, to a degree, a response to some of the more recent public hagiography on Cleopatra, which I think air-brushes her failures and sometimes tries a bit too hard to read virtues into gaps in the evidence. But they are generally gaps in the evidence and in a situation where we are all to a degree making informed guesses, I am hardly going to trash someone who makes a perfectly plausible but somewhat differently informed guess. In history there are often situations where there is no right answer – meaning no answer we know to be true – but many wrong answers – answers we know to be false. I don’t claim to have the right answer, but I am frustrated by seeing so many very certain wrong answers floating around the public.
Before we dive in briefly to the boring question of Cleopatra’s parentage before the much more interesting question of her conduct as a ruler, we need to be clear about the difficult nature of the sources for Cleopatra and her reign. Fundamentally we made divide these sources into two groups: there are inscriptions, coins and papyrus records from Egypt which mention Cleopatra (and one she wrote on!) but, as such evidence is want to be, are often incomplete or provided only limited information. And then there are the literary sources, which are uniformly without exception hostile to Cleopatra. And I mean extremely hostile to Cleopatra, filled with wrath and invective. At no point, anywhere in the literary sources does Cleopatra get within a country mile of a fair shake and I am saying that as someone who thinks she wasn’t very good at her job.
The problem here is that Cleopatra was the target of Octavian’s PR-campaign, as it were, in the run up to his war with Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony; I’m going to call him Marcus Antonius here), because as a foreign queen – an intersecting triad of concepts (foreignness, monarchy and women in power) which all offended Roman sensibilities – she was effectively the perfect target for a campaign aimed at winning over the populace of Italy, which was, it turns out, the most valuable military resource in the Mediterranean.3 That picture – the foreign queen corrupting the morals of good Romans with her decadence – rightly or wrongly ends up coloring all of the subsequent accounts. Of course that in turn effects the reliably of all of our literary sources and thus we must tread carefully.
Meanwhile, if you would like to corrupt me with decadence, you can support my research and this project via Patreon. You can also help this project by building temples in my name at traditional spots on the Nile…or by just sharing it with your friends, I guess. I would prefer a large temple complex, however. I’ve always wanted my own large temple complex. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live.
(Bibliography Note: This isn’t going to be a comprehensive bibliography, because that would be enormous. For readers looking to get their bearings on Cleopatra, the standard recent biography is D. Roller, Cleopatra (2010), which I cite heavily here in both agreement and disagreement. Meanwhile the older standard biography is M. Grant, Cleopatra (1972); reading the two together can give you a real sense of how the scholarship has and has not moved on Cleopatra in the last forty years or so. Also extremely useful is P.J. Jones, Cleopatra: A Sourcebook (2006) which pulls together almost all of the key sources for Cleopatra in a neat, readable English translation with helpful notes. On the world of the Ptolemies, I leaned here a fair bit on G. Hölbl, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire (2001), trans. Tina Saavedra and J. Bingen, Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture (2007), ed. R.S. Bagnall, the latter being a collection of essays, nearly all originally published in French. There isn’t really a good work that I know of on the late Ptolemaic army, but P. Johstono, The Army of Ptolemaic Egypt 328-204 BC (2020) is a handy reference, especially for how ‘ethnic’ categories both mattered and could also be fictive in the army.)
On to the boring question.
It’s best to start by dispensing with the normal framing of this question, which asks, “was Cleopatra white or Black?” And the answer to both questions is ‘no,’ but for the most boring possible reason: ‘white’ and ‘Black’ as it is being used in that sentence is a category that simply didn’t exist with that meaning in the ancient world. Absolutely the ancients could be bigoted about ethnicity and of course they could physically see skin-color, but as we’ve discussed before, it lacked both the resonance it has today and the strong4 White/Black binary modern thought imposes.5 To put it another way, one might as well ask if the Allobroges were French or Swiss; the very categories don’t have the modern meaning we attribute to them when transported backwards in time like that. If you asked the Allobroges, they’d be confused and inquire what the heck a France and a Switzerland was (and if you got cute and asked them instead if they were part of the Confoederatio Helvetica, they’d get angry that you’d confused them for their neighbors, which would get you no closer to an answer) and even if you figured out the answer of if they fit into the borders of modern France or Switzerland, that would still be meaningless to both the Allobroges and your understanding of them.
But more broadly what I find very frustrating about this debate is not just that the premise is flawed but that it is often engaged with undue confidence; the frustration of seeing confidence where the evidence cannot support it does seem to be this month’s theme. This is, it turns out, not the sort of question that is worth playing out in things like Netflix documentaries; it is actually an extremely uncertain question (so no scholar can give you a confident answer) and a highly technical question (so no member of the lay public is going to be remotely qualified to have their own opinion). So we’re going to explore the question of Cleopatra’s ethnic identity through the lens of the uncertain.
We can start with her parents. Here is what we know: Cleopatra’s father was Ptolemy XII Auletes (d. 51).6 His father was Ptolemy IX ‘Lathyros’ Soter (not to be confused with Ptolemy I Soter). Here ends what we know. If we assume that Cleopatra’s parents and grandparents were all having only legitimate children with their lawfully wedded wives, we can reconstruct Cleopatra’s family tree (or family vine, as the case may be) and it looks like this:
Yes, that is an absolutely massive amount of inbreeding; the Ptolemies (after the first) embraced the Egyptian custom whereby the Pharaoh, as a god, married his sisters, as other gods did. When folks insist that they can be sure that Cleopatra had no non-Macedonian ancestry, this is the family tree they are looking at. Now there’s a small problem with that statement, which is that Cleopatra I Syra had a fair bit of Persian ancestry and she makes up 50% of Cleopatra’s ancestors once you get high enough on this family tree. But there is a much bigger problem which is that this very certain looking family tree obscures some really big question marks. How big? This big:
Everything suddenly depends on how you fill in those gigantic question-marks. Various sources (e.g. Cic. Agr 2.16.42; Paus. 1.9.3) indicate that Ptolemy XII Auletes was illegitimate (but no source names his mother), but exactly what is meant by that and how his mother might have actually been remains unclear. Meanwhile, no source names Cleopatra’s mother either, but one (Strabo) suggests, obliquely that she might not have been legitimate, although that’s not the only reading of the passage and Strabo might not be entirely reliable on this point. So the identity of those two question marks is suddenly 75% of our problem. And guess what: those two question marks are fundamentally unresolvable with a high degree of certainty.
And here we get into just how technical this question can be: it has been suggested by some scholars that Ptolemy XII’s mother might have been an unnamed but Egyptian woman from the house of the priests of Ptah in Memphis, one of the highest priesthoods in Egypt. That assumption is based on the reading of a single line of demotic text inked on limestone which seemed at first translation to posit the existence of a Berenice,7 the younger sister of Ptolemy X Alexander, whose son was the High Priest of Ptah (and thus her husband would have been as well). That led scholars to posit that perhaps it was a common practice for these two families to intermarry and that this would explain the occasional unlisted wives among the later Ptolemies.
Except that this was, as noted, based on the reading of a very short demotic text which was messy and difficult to read and in 2011 Wendy Cheshire8 dropped a bomb on the whole notion by suggesting a more plausible reading of the text. And just to be clear here, the technical question is how to read these pen-strokes:
See, E.A.E. Reymond read some of those strokes as tꜣ sn.t h̬m.t (n) whereas Wendy Cheshire thinks they should really read as tꜣ h̟ꜣ.t-sp n. I think. I confess I do not read demotic and so have probably gotten some of both of their transcription wrong here, but I want to give you a sense of how deep in the weed we are here, debating barely legible pen-strokes in a language few ancient historians can read.9 Reymond’s reading, when translated runs (abbreviated), “High Priest of Ptah Petubastis….the name of his mother being Berenice [the younger sister of] King Ptolemy […] went to Alexandria, where he drank before the king.” This would be extremely unusual because such texts don’t usually mention siblings, much less details like ‘younger.’ Cheshire points out that Reymond’s reading is really strange and that in fact there is a very formulaic construction which satisfies what we have of the text, which would render the same passage, “High Priest of Ptah Petubastis […] the name of his mother being Berenice, in the year [number] of King Ptolemy […] went to Alexandria, where he drank before the king.” Listing the year of such an important event is a very normal thing to do and Egyptian dates work this way. Moreover we know that some priestesses of Ptah were named Arsinoe10 or Berenice (but no other Greek names) so the name Berenice does not demand a genealogical association with the Ptolemaic house.
Now I go through all of that for two reasons. First, again, note just how technical this question is: only a handful of trained Egyptologists who can read badly-preserved demotic have any business with this question. I can, to a degree, translate their scholarship to you, but I don’t have the skills necessary to make any new contribution to this argument and I have a PhD in ancient history. I had to do a fair bit of background reading just to understand the arguments being made well enough to feel like I could have the beginning of an opinion. This thus one of those issues of real uncertainty I’ve talked about before, though I will say on balance I think Cheshire has the argument because her proposed formula is really common whereas Remond’s proposed reading is, as far as I know Ptolemaic documents (which is, admittedly, not very far) very strange. When in doubt, those pounding hooves are horses, not zebras. Second, if Cheshire’s reading is accepted, we have no evidence whatsoever that any Ptolemaic king, queen, prince or princess at any time or any place ever married into an Egyptian family or had children with one ever.
Absent any evidence that the insular Ptolemaic family had ever intermarried in that way, it suddenly becomes very hard to argue that any particular question-mark in the family tree can be filled with an Egyptian wife or concubine…though of course it doesn’t make it impossible. In that case, guesses about Ptolemy XII Auletes’ mother have tended to be that she was either a Macedonian elite from Alexandria or perhaps even just Cleopatra IV, his father’s wife and is merely considered illegitimate because she was never his co-ruling queen (his mother was the key power at court at the time). But the real, responsible answer here is: we don’t know or at most, we don’t know except that she was probably Macedonian.
And then we have Cleopatra herself; her mother is never named by any source. On the one hand, we have Strabo 17.1.11; recording an episode where Ptolemy XII Auletes was briefly removed by a coup in Alexandria he notes, “He was overthrown by the Alexandrians, and of his three daughters, they proclaimed the eldest and legitimate one [Berenice IV] queen, the two infant sons [Ptolemy XIII and XIV] were altogether left out of the succession.” The clear implication (though never quite stated) is that our Cleopatra, as one of the other two younger daughters, wasn’t legitimate. Outside of this, we are offered no clues as to Cleopatra’s mother.
A number of scholars, including Duane Roller (op. cit.), have posited – accepting Reymond’s reading because they were writing before 2011 – that Cleopatra’s mother was probably another one of the priestesses of Ptah. But of course we have a problem because we’ve just seen that the evidence for that ever happening is extremely uncertain. Roller also points to Cleopatra’s affinity to Egyptian culture and language as a clue towards an Egyptian mother; for reasons discussed below I think this argument has some merit but also some weaknesses that keep it from being conclusive. In short, Cleopatra’s affinity for Egyptian culture seems easy to overstate and she learned many languages, not just Egyptian. Finally, Roller points to the presence and stature of the priests of Ptah in the court of the Ptolemies as evidence but without the evidence of an actual marriage link all that shows is that the priests of Ptah were important, which is not news: the cult of Ptah was closely associated with the ruler-cult Ptolemy I and his wife Arsinoe II. Its no surprise they were heavily involved in the court, but a lot of priests heavily involved in the court never married into the royal family (indeed, it appears all of them never did).
The major objections to this case are simple and prior to 1981 and Reymond’s reading of that inscription ruled the scholarship (see, e.g. Grant (1972)): first that no known Ptolemy, male or female, had ever married into an Egyptian family and second that Octavian’s propaganda against Cleopatra, which resounds from the sources, admits no mention of an illegitimate birth, which would have been a clear and obvious thing for Octavian to suggest.11 Moreover, given the date of her birth, Cleopatra would have to have been conceived in 70 BC, and Ptolemy XII’s wife, Cleopatra V Tryphaena still appears in royal documents in August of 69 BC, but vanishes before February of 68 BC, either deceased or out of favor at court. Consequently, with a wife alive and available to be Cleopatra’s mother and no suggestion in the mountain of Roman invective12 that Cleopatra was illegitimate, and no evidence anywhere that Ptolemaic rulers ever married into elite Egyptian families, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that Cleopatra’s mother was Cleopatra V Tryphaena, which brings us back, more or less, to the first family tree and its massive inbreeding.13
On the balance, I think an Egyptian mother is quite implausible but not impossible for Ptolemy XII Auletes, if for no other reason then we are told that Cleopatra was the first Ptolemy to bother to learn Egyptian and I find it hard to imagine Ptolemy XII wouldn’t have done so if that was his literal mother tongue. An Egyptian mother for Cleopatra also seems possible and perhaps more plausible, but I tend to think substantially less likely than not, simply because if Cleopatra was born out of wedlock – a status heavily stigmatized in both Greece and Rome (as we can see by how often it was thrown, as a slander, at her father!), we’d have more than just a curious passage of Strabo saying so – it would have been an accusation all over Octavian’s propaganda (and some of Cicero’s earlier invective) and there’s no trace of it. Still, at that point, the question has been reduced to a Cleopatra who is three-quarters Macedonian and one-quarter Egyptian or a Cleopatra who is more or less wholly Macedonian (with a bit of Persian ancestry mixed in from Cleopatra I Syra way at the top). Forced to choose, I suspect Ptolemy XII’s mother was Cleopatra IV and that Cleopatra’s mother was Cleopatra V and that Strabo is merely mistaken on this point, but that position is, as noted, exceptionally uncertain. There is, however, no evidence or even particularly useful speculation to suggest that any of Cleopatra’s ancestors at any point in the Iron Age hailed from anywhere south of Memphis, Egypt.14
Which brings me back to my original conclusion: this is a question which is highly technical, deeply uncertain and also not actually very interesting or impactful. The only certainty possible is that anyone advancing an answer to the question with certainty is wrongly certain.
Towards Assessing Cleopatra
Instead, I think the interesting question is not about Cleopatra’s parentage or even her cultural presentation (though the latter will come up again as it connects to the next topic); rather the question I find interesting is this: “What sort of ruler was Cleopatra? Did she rule well?” And I think we can ask that in two ways: was Cleopatra a good ruler for Egypt, that is, did she try to rule for the good of Egyptians and if so, did she succeed (and to what extent)? And on the other hand, was Cleopatra a good steward of the Ptolemaic dynasty?
These are related but disconnected questions. While we’ll get to the evidence for Cleopatra’s relationship with the people of Egypt, the broader legacy of the Ptolemies itself is very clear: the Ptolemaic dynasty and the Greek-speaking settlers it brought were an ethnically distinct ruling strata installed above native Egyptian society, an occupying force. None of Cleopatra’s royal ancestors, none of them had ever even bothered to learn the language of the people they ruled, whose taxes sustained their endless wars (initially foreign, later civil). Top administrative posts remained restricted to ethnic Greeks (though the positions just below them, often very important ones, might be held by Egyptians), citizenship in Alexandria, the capital, remained largely (but not entirely) restricted to Greeks and so on. It’s clear these designations were not entirely impermeable and I don’t want to suggest that they were, but it is also clear that the Greek/Macedonian and Egyptian elite classes don’t begin really fusing together until the Roman period (when they were both equally under the Roman boot, rather than one being under the boot of the other).
Consequently, the interest of the Ptolemaic dynasty could be quite a different thing from the interests of Egypt.
And I won’t bury the lede here: Cleopatra, it seems to me, chose the interests of her dynasty – (and her own personal power) over those of Egypt whenever there was a choice and then failed to secure either of those things. Remember, we don’t have a lot in the way of sketches of Cleopatra’s character (and what we have is often hostile); apart from a predilection to learn languages and to value education, it’s hard to know what Cleopatra liked. But we can see her strategic decisions, and I think those speak to a ruler who evidently was unwilling or unable to reform Egypt’s ailing internal governance (admittedly ruined by generations of relatively poor rule), but who shoveled the resources she had into risky gambles for greater power outside of Egypt, all of which failed. That doesn’t necessarily make Cleopatra a terrible ruler, or even the worst Ptolemaic ruler, but I think it does, on balance, make her a fairly poor ruler, or at best a mediocre one.
But before we jump into all of that, I think both a brief explanation of the structure of this kingdom and brief timeline of Cleopatra’s life would be good just so we’re clear on what happens when.
For the structure of the kingdom, we need to break up, to a degree, the peoples in Egypt. Ptolemaic Egypt was not even remotely an ethnically uniform place. Most of the rural population remained ethnically Egyptian but there were substantial areas of ‘Macedonian’ settlement. Ptolemaic subjects were categorized by ethne, but these ethnic classifications themselves are tricky. At the bottom were the Egyptians and at the top were the ‘Macedonians’ (understood to include not just ethnic Macedonians but a wide-range of Greeks). The lines between these groups were not entirely impermeable; we see for instance a fictive ethnic grouping of ‘Persians’ who appear to be Hellenized Egyptians serving in the military. At some point, this group is seems to be simply rolled into the larger group of ‘Macedonians.’ nevertheless it seems like, even into the late period the ‘Macedonians’ were mostly ethnic Greeks who migrated into Egypt and we don’t see the Egyptian and Macedonian elites begin to fuse until the Roman period (when they both shared an equal place under the Roman hobnailed boot). Nevertheless, this was a status hierarchy; ‘Macedonian’ soldiers got paid more, their military settlers got estates several times larger than what their native Egyptian equivalents (the machimoi) got, the tippy-top government posts were restricted to Macedonians (though the posts just below them were often held by Egyptian elites) and so on. And while there was some movement in the hierarchy, for the most part these two groups did not mix; one ruled, the other was ruled.
To which we must then add Alexandria, the capital, built by Alexander, which had a special status in the kingdom unlike any other place. Alexandria was structured as a polis, which of course means it had politai; our evidence is quite clear that all of the original politai were Greek and that new admission to the politai did happen but was very infrequent. Consequently the citizen populace of Alexandria was overwhelmingly Greek and retained a distinctive Greek character. But Alexandria was more than just the politai: it was a huge, cosmopolitan city with large numbers of non-Greek residents. The largest such group will have been Egyptians, but we know it also had a large Jewish community and substantial numbers of people from basically everywhere. So while there were, according to Polybius, three major groups of people (Greek citizens, Egyptian non-citizens and large numbers of mercenaries in service to the king, Polyb. 34.14), there were also lots of other people there too. I do want to stress this: Alexandria was easily one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the ancient world; but for the most part only the Greeks (and not even all of them) were citizens there.
That’s in many ways a shamefully reductive summary of a very complex kingdom, but for this already overlong essay, it will have to do. On to the timeline.
Cleopatra was born in 69 BC, the middle of three daughters of Ptolemy XII Auletes, then ruler of Egypt (he also had two sons, both younger than Cleopatra). In 58 BC (Cleopatra is 11) her father, by all accounts an incompetent ruler, was briefly overthrown and his eldest daughter (Berenice IV) made queen; Cleopatra went into exile with her father. In 55 BC, with Roman support, Ptolemy XII returned to power and executed Berenice. Ptolemy XII then died in 51, leaving two sons (Ptolemy XIII and XIV, 11 and 9 years old respectively) and his two daughters; his will made Cleopatra queen as joint ruler-wife with Ptolemy XIII (a normal enough arrangement for the Ptolemies).
Before the year was out, Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII (or perhaps more correctly, his court advisors) were at odds, both trying to assert themselves as sole monarch, though by 49 Ptolemy XIII’s faction (again, it seems to mostly have been his advisors running it) had largely sidelined Cleopatra in what had become a civil war. Cleopatra travels to Syria to gather an army and invades Egypt with it in 48, but this effort fails. She is able, however, to ally with Julius Caesar (lately arrived looking for Pompey, who supporters of Ptolemy XIII had killed, to Caesar’s great irritation). Caesar’s army – Cleopatra’s military force is clearly a non-factor by this point – defeats Ptolemy XIII in 47. Caesar appoints Cleopatra as joint ruler with her youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV (he’s 12) and Cleopatra bears Caesar’s son, Ptolemy XV Caesar in 47, who we generally call ‘Caesarion.’
Cleopatra then journeys to Rome late in 46 and seems to have stayed in Rome until after Caesar’s assassination (March, 44) and the reading of Caesar’s will (April, 44). Ptolemy XIV (the brother) also dies in this year and Cleopatra then co-rules with her son, Caesarion. Cleopatra returns to Egypt, attempts to dispatch troops to aid the Caesarian cause against Brutus and Cassius, but fails and loses all of the troops in 43. She is saved from being almost certainly steamrolled by Brutus and Cassius by their defeat in 42 at Philippi. Cleopatra meets with Marcus Antonius in 41 and they form an alliance, as well as (at some point) a romantic relationship. Cleopatra has three children by Antonius: Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios (twins, born in 40) and Ptolemy Philadelphus (born in 36).
With Cleopatra’s resources, Antonius launches an invasion of Parthia in 38 BC which goes extremely poorly, with him retreating back to Roman territory by 36 having lost quite a fair portion of his army (Cleopatra is back in Egypt ruling). In 34, Antonius embarks on a massive reorganization of the Roman East, handing over massive portions of Rome’s eastern territory – in name at least – to Cleopatra’s children, a move which infuriated the Roman public and cleared the way politically for Octavian to move against him. Through 33 and 32, both sides prepare for war which breaks out in 31. Cleopatra opts to go with Antonius combined land-sea military force and on the 2nd of September 31 BC, solidly outmaneuvered at Actium, she and Antonius are soundly defeated. They flee back to Egypt but don’t raise a new army and both die by suicide when Octavian invades in the following year. Octavian reorganizes Egypt into a Roman province governed by an equestrian prefect. Octavian and subsequent Roman emperors never really adopted the title of pharaoh, though the Egyptian priesthood continued to recognize the Roman emperors as pharaohs into the early fourth century – doubtless in part because the religion required a pharaoh, though Roman emperors could never be bothered to actually do the religious aspects of the role and few ever even traveled to Egypt.
So ended the 21-year reign of Cleopatra, the last heir of Alexander.15
Cleopatra and Egypt
One of the assertions one sees about Cleopatra – indeed, it is central to the recent Netflix documentary – was that she loved the Egyptian people and Egypt. And there’s not nothing there to this point, but there’s also a bit less than you might think and more than a few reasons to doubt Cleopatra ‘patriotism,’ as it were, and deep attachment to Egypt.
The factors usually pointed at to demonstrate Cleopatra’s attachment to Egypt are that she learned the language, engaged with Egyptian religion and represented herself in Egyptian fashion in royal artwork and commemoration meant for consumption in Egypt. And that’s true, she did those things! But the context often missing from using that as a clear indicator of Cleopatra’s cultural ‘Egyptianness’ is that, apart from learning the language, those were common things for Ptolemaic rulers to do, despite the fact that the dynasty maintained a pronounced ethnic hierarchy in Egypt and aren’t generally regarded as being particularly attached to its people or culture. Nevertheless, there’s not nothing here in the sense that Cleopatra showed – or at least wanted to show – more than the normal Ptolemaic attachment to Egypt as a place and the Egyptians as people, which is to say almost any at all.
Let’s start with languages, because I think this fact can be presented in a somewhat distorted way. The language of the Ptolemaic court was Greek, initially Macedonian Greek (the Macedonians had a pronounced accent), though Plutarch notes that some of the later Ptolemies had lost their Macedonian accent (Plut. Ant. 27.3-4). Cleopatra, by contrast, was the first of the Ptolemies to bother to learn Egyptian (which should tell you something about the character of Ptolemaic rule; imagine if King Charles was the first English king since George I and kings from the House of Hanover to bother to learn English). The problem with this fact is that it is incomplete, presenting Cleopatra as a Greek-speaker who learned the language of her people out of sincere devotion, but that’s not what Plutarch says. Plutarch says:
She could turn [her voice] easily to whichever language she wished and she conversed with few barbarians entirely through an interpreter, and she gave her decisions herself to most of them, including Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes and Parthians. She is said to have learned the languages of many others also, although the kings before her did not undertake to learn the Egyptian language, even though some of them had abandoned the Macedonian dialect.16
So let’s unpack that. This isn’t a native speaker of Greek who learned just the language of her subjects, but a spectacularly skilled linguist who learned a lot of different languages, quite regardless of if she ruled the people in question. Running through the list, she evidently learned Ethiopian, the language of the people on her southern border, the speech of the Troglodytae, the people who lived on the coast of the Red Sea (a hinterland of her kingdom). The ‘language of the Hebrews’ here is probably Aramaic rather than Hebrew (which would also cover much of Syria), while the language of the Medes and Parthians might mean both Old Persian and the Parthian language. To which we must add Egyptian, implied by that last sentence; it also seems fairly clear Cleopatra knew at least some Latin.17 This is part of why I find arguments that use Cleopatra’s knowledge of Egyptian as strong proof either for her Egyptian ancestry or deep attachment to Egypt less than fully compelling; she was surely not Parthian and did not have a deep attachment to Parthia, but she learned their language too. Again, there’s not nothing here, but it’s not a slam dunk either.
What of Cleopatra’s role in Egyptian religion? The recent Netflix miniseries makes quite a fuss about how Cleopatra’s first action as queen – that we know of, because this is simply the first moment she is visible in the sources to us at all – is to partake in a religious festival installing a new sacred bull in a shrine at Hermonthis, close to Thebes in Upper Egypt and how this was indicative of a deep love of Egyptian religion. And it may well have been, but it’s also worth noting that Ptolemaic rulers had been taking part in Egyptian religion for a long time. Most of the massive temple complex at Philae, for instance – even farther from Alexandria than Hermonthis, I might add – was built in the Ptolemaic period, with major expansions by Ptolemy II and III. Even more relevantly to our subject, this was a to Isis; Cleopatra was not the first Ptolemy by any means to claim that goddess for the dynasty.18
Nor had this even been a new practice for the Ptolemies. Alexander was presumably crowned pharaoh in Memphis in the traditional manner, visited the oracle of Amun at Siwa and dedicated a major set of construction works in the temple of Amun at Thebes. The Ptolemies followed this model. Ptolemy II went to Mendes to personally conduct the ritual of the process of the Ram of Mendes and then extended the temple, he presided over the inauguration of a temple at Pithom, and so on.19 And on it went with Ptolemy III and on down the line (indeed, becoming a bit more pronounced as we move into the later Ptolemies, beginning with Ptolemy V Epiphanes, potentially as a result of the increasing weakness of the Ptolemaic dynasty both internally and abroad). Ptolemaic kings were regularly in and out of Memphis, the religious capital of Egypt, building new Egyptian temples, attending Egyptian religious rituals and so on. The reason is that the job of Pharaoh was as much (if not more) a religious job as it was a political one and it was a job that only the Pharaoh could conduct. And the idea that a Ptolemaic pharaoh with a legitimacy problem might consecrate some temples to help fix that wasn’t new either; Ptolemy VIII Physcon is out doing that thing in the mid-second century. Consequently, involvement in Egyptian religion was a requirement of the position, quite apart from the question of how much the holder of that position cared.
Cleopatra, like any Ptolemaic ruler, engaged in this sort of building, though it seems striking how much of her building program was composed of Hellenistic structures in Alexandria, even as Duanne Roller admits, “the queen was not a major builder.”20 She restored the gymnasium of Alexandria, made major repairs to the Lighthouse, built a new precint in honor of Julius Caesar called the Kaisareion, and apparently built a monumental tomb for herself, also in Alexandria. Examples of her building outside of Alexandria are fairly thin: the completion of a temple at Dendera begun by Ptolemy XII, extensions to the temple at Hermonthis (where she visited early in her reign), never entirely finished and a temple to Isis in Ptolemais Hermiou in Upper Egypt. Cleopatra could hardly be accounted the great renovator of Egyptian religion or religious sites.
Likewise the assertion that Cleopatra represented herself in Egyptian artwork in Egyptian style and dress; that too was true of all of the Ptolemaic rulers from the very beginning. Indeed, Cleopatra’s self-representation as Isis was very much not new, but in fact the normal way Ptolemaic queens were represented (to match Ptolemaic kings being represented as Osiris). Here, for instance, is Ptolemy II Philadelphos (r. 284-246) with his queen Arsinoe II represented in Egyptian style on a relief now in the British Museum:
Like all Ptolemaic rulers before her, Cleopatra presented herself in an Egyptian form, conforming to Egyptian style, in Egyptian contexts. And, like all of the Ptolemaic rulers before her, she presented herself in a Hellenistic form in Alexandria and on her coinage. While you will see people point to various busts and frescos as being images of Cleopatra, it is only her coins where we can say for certain that an effort was made to capture her likeness (her Egyptian portraiture, though labeled, follows Egyptian stylistics, not her actual likeness); we have no idea if, for instance, later Roman artists had any information about what she actually looked like or if the busts we suppose to be of her actually are. Be wary also of Greek and Roman frescos showing fair-skinned women reported to be Cleopatra; almost all women in Greek and Roman fresco are shown as fair-skinned; it’s a standard artistic convention. Coins, of course, record no skin color and neither do our sources for Cleopatra; anyone who thinks they can tell you what color her skin was is unduly certain.21
Now this isn’t to say Cleopatra is doing nothing new. She does seem to have been somewhat more involved in Egyptian religion than her predecessors, though the exact degree to which this is true is hard to see because we don’t have anything like a full accounting of their actions; if it is a difference it is a different in quantity, not kind. Certainly her building program wasn’t anywhere close to the scale of the early Ptolemies, but perhaps she took more direct personal involvement. Once again, the unknowns here are formidable. Dorothy J. Thompson in the the Cambridge Ancient History22 takes this, along with Cleopatra switching her regnal name from ‘philopator’ (‘loves-father’) to ‘philopatris’ (‘loves-homeland’23) to be indicative of a clear effort by Cleopatra to be, “indeed queen of Egypt,” particularly in the context of dynastic struggles with her brothers: outflanking them by getting the favor of the people.
The problem with this narrative is the timing: Cleopatra makes that switch in titles in 36/5 BC, which is to say in year 16 of her 21 year reign, eight or nine years after her last serious competition for the throne, her youngest brother, had died. Instead, Bingen24 argues that the homeland Cleopatra is professing love for is the greater Macedonian empire – the empire of Alexander – which she may have seemed in 36 on the verge of reclaiming.25 Antonius was just about to give her (through her children) sweeping portions of Roman Syria, Cilicia, Cyrenaica and Armenia; he would also give them titles to Medea and Parthia, which he didn’t control (though perhaps in 36 he hoped to) but would represent collectively the whole of the old Seleucid Empire near its height. Bingen notes the other change to Cleopatra’s titulature at this point was rather than just being ‘the goddess who loves her father’ she becomes ‘the young goddess who loves her father and her country;’ the added νεωτέρα (‘young’) perhaps being intended as a link to Cleopatra Thea, Seleucid queen-consort of Syria from 150 to 126 BC and Cleopatra’s own great-grand-aunt. Cleopatra, after all, was about to achieve the long Ptolemaic dream of controlling all of Syria.
Strikingly the sources do not tell us that Cleopatra was seen as any more distinctively Egyptian than her father or that she had some groundswell of popular support in Egypt. Indeed, Cassius Dio implies the opposite (Cass. Dio 42.34-6) that the Egyptians favored Ptolemy XIII in the succession dispute and it was only the force of Caesar’s arms that turned the issue to Cleopatra. Of course we have to be somewhat skeptical of this account too: Dio is marinating in a literary tradition that is very hostile to Cleopatra and also makes no effort to distinguish between the Alexandrians and the rest of Egypt, two very distinct groups. In any case it is clear that Cleopatra achieved no groundswell of support in Egypt in those early years: she had to raise her army in Syria and in the event it wasn’t the stronger force as she and Caesar spent the winter of 48/7 besieged in Alexandria by Ptolemy XIII’s then larger army (Caesar had not brought his full field army), until the arrival of an army out of Roman Syria led by a collection of Caesar’s allies tipped the balance. Julius Caesar was never a particularly cautious commander, so if he looked at whatever force Cleopatra still had and said, “we need to wait for reinforcements,” it could not, at that point, have been very substantial. Afterwards, Caesar would leave four legions in Egypt to secure Cleopatra’s rule, which seems not to indicate her great popularity or any great faith in her ability to hold the kingdom. After 44, she’s able to rule without direct support, but of course after 44, she and her children are the only dynastic options left, her brothers and sisters all being dead (some at her hand). Finally, when Octavian comes for her, there is no major effort by anyone to stop him militarily. If Cleopatra had the love of the Egyptian people at that point, we sure don’t see it.
In my view then, it seems like an argument can be made that Cleopatra had a fairly modest propaganda effort towards presenting herself as more in touch with Egyptian religion, but the extent and quality was at most only a modest improvement over the previous Ptolemies and apart from keeping her on the throne (with Roman backing), it doesn’t seem to have achieved much.
But was she good for Egypt?
Cleopatra’s Rule in Egypt
Now we need to stipulate here at the beginning that the bar for late Ptolemaic rulers was pretty low. The Ptolemaic kingdom had been on a downward slide in power and importance ever since its great victory at the Battle of Raphia (217) and the Egyptian Revolt (205-199). The last Ptolemaic ruler to actually exert Egypt as a major power was Ptolemy VI Philometor (r. 180-145); in 168 Rome had to intervene just to keep Antiochus IV (the Seleucid king of Syria) from overrunning the kingdom. After Ptolemy VI Philometor, the dynasty was crippled by frequent coups, civil wars and succession disputes, many involving the turbulent, unstable politics of Alexandria, and a persistent military and financial weakness despite the fact that Egypt was fabulously wealthy.
The ability of these later Ptolemies to draw meaningful military power from the general populace was also slim, which speaks to the inch-deep nature of their popular support. Ptolemaic Egypt and Roman Italy had similar population sizes, but the best army Ptolemy XIII could muster at the Battle of the Nile (47), in Egypt, was probably just under 30,000 troops(and not very good ones at that) for a battle for his very crown. Back in 216, when the very Republic was threatened, Rome had fielded a quarter of a million men in a single year; Carthage at the same time could put nearly as many men in the field (though they concentrated them in Spain). Heck, at Raphia (217), Ptolemy IV had managed to field 75,000 men, in a battle where neither victory nor defeat would have been decisive. This was a greatly diminished kingdom.
In short then, Egypt was a kingdom in desperate need of reform: military, financial and administrative reform. With a core population of perhaps something like 5-7m people, the best farmland in the whole of the Mediterranean, and the largest, wealthiest trade port of the day, Egypt had the potential to be a major power, if it was ruled well. Unfortunately, Cleopatra would do exactly none of this and instead replicated all of the same patterns as her predecessors, further weakening the kingdom, impoverishing her subjects and eventually leading to its demise.
We’ve already discussed how Cleopatra may have embarked on a program of trying to generate legitimacy or goodwill from the general populace. What I think is notable here is that what Egypt desperately needed was some way to mobilize the Egyptian populace to actually support the regime rather than merely tolerate it and pay taxes, perhaps something like Rome’s response to the Social War (91-88). This, Cleopatra did not do. There is no sign that her putative love for Egypt and Egyptians led to any sort of change in the way that Egypt was administered. Her key advisors and officials, such as we know them (Roller (2010), 107-8 presents an overview) followed the old system: high offices were held by Greeks, low offices by Egyptians, with the basic administrative structure she inherited from her father unchanged. Even as late as 33, as Roller notes, we see in Cleopatra’s rule that “the dichotomy […] still existed at the very end of the Ptolemaic era between the rulers (and their Roman allies) and the ruled, where the former continued to obtain special privileges.”26
Then there is the financial side. We actually have a few ancient figures for the size of Ptolemaic revenues and while they are sometimes dismissed as unreliable or useless (e.g. Roller (2010), 106, “the net income of Ptolemy XII varied between 6,000 and 12,500 talents, although it is not known what these figures mean”) Michael Taylor does a decent job of unpacking them in Soldiers and Silver (2020) and comes away assuming that Ptolemaic revenues in years of relative peace and stability were around 63-75 million Attic silver drachmae (75-90m Ptolemaic drachmae; perhaps something like 69 to 83 million Roman denarii), which was a staggering amount. Even in bad and chaotic years, they might have been something like half that value. For comparison, the state revenues of the Roman Republic after Pompey annexed all of Syria to it were supposedly around 85 million denarii (Plut. Pomp. 45.3, he gives the figure as 85m drachmae). Which is to say, for all of Rome’s conquests, the notional financial resources available to Cleopatra – if she could get her kingdom in order – were on the same order of magnitude as those available to the Roman Republic, which again, looked like this:
We can be fairly certain then that Cleopatra did not get her kingdom in order because we have pretty good evidence that Egypt suffered a chronic shortage of funds throughout her reign. The main indicator here is currency purity, since the standard response to budget shortfalls was to debase the currency (that is, reduce the amount of actual precious metal in the coin). Ptolemaic currency had always been ‘light’ compared to the Mediterranean standard and its purity began falling in the late second century. That drop continued unabated through Cleopatra’s reign, with her late coinages being at around 40% purity, compared to a contemporary Roman denarius at around 98% purity. Roman currency would only hit this level of debasement during the Crisis of the Third Century, which should itself be somewhat suggestive that things aren’t going so great with Cleopatra’s fiscal management.
We don’t have a good window into Cleopatra’s finances. The sources are unanimous in claiming that the lifestyle she lead was wastefully extravagant, though this of course may just be a reflection of Octavian’s propaganda and the general discomfort of elite Romans with anyone richer than they were. Alternately, the problem may be that the Ptolemaic system of taxation, undermined by decades of repeated civil wars, was no longer up to the task of pulling in sufficient revenue, yet on the other hand Cleopatra still had money enough to finance Antonius’ military operations. And at least some of our sources (e.g. Cass. Dio 42.34.1-2) suggest that the Egyptians themselves felt overtaxed, at least early in Cleopatra’s reign. In any case, Cleopatra should still have had a substantial revenue, especially after 44 when her rule was unchallenged.
So where did all of the money go?
The Ambitions of Cleopatra
One of the difficulties in sketching the biographies of ancient figures is that we’re often only very unreliably informed as to their character. My own habit in this regard is to see if I cannot begin to sketch the outlines of their character and values instead from their decisions, from the things we can see that they did. For instance, our sources present Marcus Antonius as a reckless, headstrong and emotional sort of person and I tend to believe them not because I think they are reliable (they’re not, all of our sources on Antonius are hostile) but because I can see that in his generalship, which is very much an emotive ‘leap-before-you-look’ style, which gets him into trouble repeatedly.27 Can we determine a similar sort of pattern with Cleopatra?
I think we can, and I think the pattern is this: Cleopatra was an aggressive gambler whose priority was consistent: the maintenance and expansion of her own power, pouring her time and resources into that objective. Now, Cleopatra as a ruler being one who used Egypt as little more than a piggy-bank for her own ambitions doesn’t necessarily make her much worse than any of the other Ptolemies who largely did the same thing, but I think it rather does put a dent in the image of ‘Cleopatra the patriotic Egyptian Queen.’ Had her gambles paid off, she’d be Cleopatra the Great, but it wouldn’t have benefited Egypt a wit. However, they didn’t pay off, in part because while she was by all accounts very intelligent, she doesn’t seem to have been very good at all of the skills necessary to actually succeed at those gambles. But how am I seeing the pattern here?
Well, Cleopatra appears in our sources in 51 BC at the death of her father, being made co-ruler with her brother Ptolemy XIII. As noted in the timeline above, within the year she is at odds with her brother and his advisors and by 49 is clearly on the losing side of the dispute. It is not surprising that the twenty-year-old Cleopatra lacked the political acumen to outmaneuver Potheinos and Ptolemy XIII’s other key supporters but it is worth noting that she does indeed lack it.28 This is going to set up a pattern: while Cleopatra was, by all accounts, a very gifted speaker, she doesn’t really seem to have had the knack for getting ahead in political situations where she needed to win over a critical mass of powerful figures (rather than one exceptional Roman) in a larger political system.
By the spring of 48, Cleopatra is in Syria gathering an army to do some civil war, an episode which I think illustrates two things. First, repeated civil wars were a big part of the answer to the question of ‘where did all of the Ptolemies’ money go?’ and here Cleopatra is, losing at court politics and then instigating a big, expensive civil war which would eventually, among other things, wreck large parts of Alexandria (which then had to be expensively repaired by her). Second, it’s clear that her Syrian army didn’t perform well. Caesar shows up before any decisive engagement, but Cleopatra’s forces largely vanish from the sources at this point and the fact that even with three thousand of Caesar’s Roman troops, Cleopatra and Caesar are quickly bottled up in Alexandria, unable to break out until help arrives from Rome’s other Eastern client states. If Julius Caesar does not think he can win a battle with your army, no one can win a battle with your army. This is going to be a trend: Cleopatra struggles not only with politics (beyond the personal) and money, she is also quite bad at handling armies.
So far then, Cleopatra’s achievements are that she has triggered yet another Ptolemaic dynastic civil war, managed to ruin both Egyptian armies (hers and her brother’s) and presumably sunk the kingdom even deeper into debt from the cost of it, but her gamble that she could secure sole effective rule seems to have paid off. That’s good for Cleopatra but bad for Egypt, now weaker, poorer and even more vulnerable to Roman influence. She now gambles even harder, not merely backing Julius Caesar, but having a child with him, tying her fortunes – and the fortunes of Egypt – to his in a fairly direct way.
She heads to Rome sometime in 46, probably leaves in 45 and returns in 44, leaving again only in April 44, after Caesar’s assassination. It’s clear that her presence was a political liability for Caesar.29 The fact that Cleopatra stays for a month after Caesar’s death suggests to me that she hoped to get Caesarion recognized as Caesar’s heir, which in turn suggests that Cleopatra had a poor grasp of Roman law and politics, both not realizing that her mere presence was a liability to the one person she needed to succeed (and not be stabbed 23 times) and also that the quest to get Rome to acknowledge Caesarion as Caesar’s heir was almost certainly hopeless. Caesarion could not be Caesar’s heir; as a non-citizen30 Caesarion wasn’t even a valid target as primary heir of Caesar’s will and so the chances of getting him recognized as Caesar’s heir through a Roman court was basically nil.31 In any case, Caesar’s will made Octavian his sole heir, which is a twist Cleopatra really ought to have seen coming since Caesar was openly preparing the fellow and planning to bring him along on his next campaign. Personally, I suspect Caesar always knew Caesarion wouldn’t be acceptable in Rome and never had any intention of making him his heir; that Cleopatra doesn’t seem to have known this is a striking indictment of her political acumen.32
In any case, this gamble fails and Cleopatra returns to Egypt in 44, where there are four legions, left by Caesar. With war brewing between the Caesarian faction (Octavian, Antonius and Lepidus) and the liberatores (the assassins of Caesar), both sides request the four legions. She, for once, tries to keep options open, stalling the liberatores while trying to sneak the legions to the Caesarian governor in Syria (Dollabella) but the plan goes off wrong and all four legions are captured by Cassius. Her course now determined by blunder, she puts together a fleet and tries to sail to the aid of Octavian and Antonius in Greece, but never gets there because her fleet is wrecked in a storm.33 Cleopatra’s trend of always mishandling military forces continues unabated.
She leaves Egypt again to meet with Antonius in 41 and here I want to note that Cleopatra is in Rome in 46 and 44, at sea in 43 or 42 and now out of Egypt again in 41. On the one hand, this does seem to confirm that by this point there was no real alternative to her rule, so she could safely leave the seat of power. On the other hand, her failure to implement the meaningful reforms that the moribund kingdom so clearly needed is understandable here too, given how frequently she is out of town, as it were, in this period.
The meeting with Antonius leads to her next big gamble and she opts to back him completely. It’s not clear how quickly she went ‘all in’ on Antonius. It’s possible she held some options open until throwing her financial muscle behind his doomed Parthian campaign in 36, but I tend to think the point at which she bears him twins (in 40), she presumably understands that she has linked her fate to his. Strategically, it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea to gamble on Antonius (every other dynast in the Roman East does too), but Cleopatra once again goes all in, creating a situation where she certainly loses if Antonius does.
And here is where the normal argument is that Cleopatra can’t be faulted because the position of an monarch in the Eastern Mediterranean trying to survive the chaotic Roman civil wars was an impossible one, to which the obvious counter example suggests itself: Cleopatra’s own local rival Herod. Herod backed Antonius too, but unlike Cleopatra who was a reckless gambler strategically, he was cautious and kept his options open and so when Antonius lost, Herod was in a position to be able to bargain with Octavian and keep his throne, his life and his dynasty. This was not an impossible needle to thread – though it was doubtless very difficult – but it seems to have required a degree of caution that Cleopatra lacked. The irony is that Herod certainly seems in the sources a much less talented fellow than Cleopatra, just more cautious, though certainly no less ruthless.
For Cleopatra’s gamble, then, what was the payoff? It was certainly not a better deal for the Egyptians. Instead, what Antonius eventually promised her – the ‘Donations of Alexandria’ – were huge chunks of Roman territory: Cyprus, Cilicia, Cyrenaica, Syria and Armenia, with Cleopatra’s children also getting titles as rulers of Media and Parthia which Antonius presumably hoped to conquer but hadn’t. Actually reassembling those territories would have recreated a kingdom on the core combined Ptolemaic and Seleucid territories, the closest thing to reconstituting Alexander’s empire that anyone had done since the end of the fourth century.
And I think we need to understand that this is what Cleopatra – cash-strapped, debasing the currency – is buying with the wealth of Egypt: an empire outside of Egypt. By spending her money backing Antonius first against Parthia and then against Octavian, she’s hoping to buy a renewed Macedonian Empire. There are a lot of things she could have spent that wealth on. She could have tried to rebuild an Egyptian army worth the name, or engaged in actual legitimacy building in Egypt, or simply stabilized the currency. She doesn’t do those things: she has money in her pocket and so she gambles it on empire.
And loses. Again.
Now our sources for the Battle of Actium (31) are not great; they cannot agree, for instance, on how many ships were present and of course they are uniformly hostile to Cleopatra. Nevertheless there are some things that are pretty clear: Antonius’ key supporters recognized almost immediately that having Cleopatra with the combined land-and-naval force was a liability. They also seem generally to have opposed her military judgment, which given that Cleopatra has, at this point, mishandled every army and fleet she has ever touched, seems reasonable. But Cleopatra doesn’t seem to have wanted to leave and given the extent of her support, Antonius could hardly send her away. Her insistence on staying motivated the defections of several of Antonius’ key supporters, both Roman but also some of his client kings. Cleopatra also pushed Antonius to formally divorce Octavia, a political misstep that empower Octavian’s PR machine in Italy. In short, as in Rome in 46-4 and as in Alexandria in 51-49, Cleopatra, while charming, intelligent and eloquent, seems to have been quite bad at the basics of managing difficult politics, alienating people Antonius needed to not alienate just as her presence in Rome alienated people Caesar needed to not alienate.
Finally, our sources claim that at Actium itself, it was Cleopatra’s flight which precipitated the collapse of Antonius’ fleet. Now on the one hand, I think this is actually a touch unfair to Cleopatra: Antonius’ own blunders in the campaign deserve a fair bit of the credit. Antonius had over-extended his forces (again) and leapt beyond his ability to secure his logistics (again) and unfortunately for him M. Vispanius Agrippa was not so foolish as Brutus or Cassius to politely offer battle terms convenient to Antonius. In any case it’s clear Cleopatra with her detachment retreated out of the battle without engaging and Antonius chased after her, leaving the rest of the fleet to be crushed. Roller interprets this as Cleopatra putting the defense of Egypt first and I find this claim a bit strange – there was no strength anywhere but in Antonius’ fleet which could protect Egypt. If there was one moment for Cleopatra to go all in and charge with her ships and let the battle go the way it may, this was that moment. Instead she flees at the moment when flight cannot help her.34 But then Cleopatra has mishandled every single army or navy she has yet touched, and so she does again at Actium.
I find it striking at this point that Antonius and Cleopatra return to Egypt after the battle and, as far as we can tell, make no effort to prepare for Octavian’s inevitable invasion. Antonius makes some desultory efforts en route to gather some of his remaining Roman forces (these fail), but Cleopatra doesn’t seem to have, for instance, attempted to raise an Egyptian army to defend Egypt. Cleopatra spends the rest of 31 trying to negotiate with Octavian, but makes no effort to prepare a defense of Egypt or even to raise a meaningful army which might serve as a bargaining tool. Crucially, and I think this serves as a rather grim final word on Cleopatra’s efforts – however substantial they may have been – to woo the Egyptian people. Even with a foreign invader on Egypt’s doorstep, there’s no evidence of any native Egyptian rallying to Cleopatra’s cause.
A Verdict on Cleopatra
This has thus all been very, very long, but at last we are to a verdict on Cleopatra as a ruler. And my view is this: Cleopatra was the last in a line of ineffective Ptolemaic rulers; she may not have been the most ineffective, but she sure wasn’t effective either. This isn’t to say she wasn’t a talented person – again, the sources are very clear that she was very learned, knew an impressive array of languages, was very intelligent, and was a highly effective speaker. But someone can be all of those things and still be a bad ruler or leader. And perhaps it should be no surprise that Cleopatra was bad at ruling and leading. Where would she have learned to do that? From her also famously inept father? The Ptolemaic line hadn’t produced a properly capable monarch in the full century before Cleopatra assumed power, so it isn’t surprising that she just didn’t have the training in politics, state finance, administration, or military leadership that she would have needed to be effective in her role as queen. No one had managed to train a Ptolemy to do any of that well in a long time.
Nevertheless, the track record Cleopatra sets is really quite poor. She fares poorly in political contests, be they in Alexandria (51-49) or Rome (46-44) or with Antonius (33-31). She was able enough to hold on to power in Egypt on her own from 44 to 30, though it should be noted by then there were simply no legitimate alternatives to Cleopatra. When there had been alternatives, it had taken no less than Julius Caesar to keep those alternatives from overwhelming her. Meanwhile, Cleopatra mishandles every single army or fleet she touches. Military leadership was a core job of Hellenistic monarchy and Cleopatra was shockingly bad at it, probably because she was never sufficiently trained to do it. Admittedly, the Ptolemaic army had not been particularly capable in a long time, which will lead into the next point, but nevertheless even when she had Roman legions to handle, she lost them quickly and without doing any real damage to her enemies.
Meanwhile her financial stewardship also seems poor. As noted, we see the telltale signs of a kingdom living beyond its means under Cleopatra (as under her predecessors): the steady debasement of the currency. Clearly some of that money was funneled into her gambles, like her support of Antonius. Fleets are expensive and so are armies and Cleopatra seems to have spent quite a bit of Egypt’s treasure funding both in the hopes of gaining territories outside of Egypt. Each of those failed gambles weakened Egypt, made it more vulnerable for the eventual Roman takeover, until the chances were quite literally spent.
The other factor we haven’t yet discussed on this point is the expense of her own court and lifestyle. The hostility of our sources make this tricky too. They are loaded with no end of anecdotes meant to show that Cleopatra’s court was excessively lavish and extravagant, which was itself an intensification of a general reputation the Ptolemies in particular had for excessively lavish court spending, even compared to other Hellenistic monarchs. On the other hand, it has to be said: Cleopatra had a reputation for excess even compared to the Ptolemies who had a reputation for excess as compared to Hellenistic monarchs who had a reputation for excess compared with any other kind of ruler or elite. Roller35 lists off the stories, that Cleopatra sent letters to Antonius inscribed on onyx or crystal, that she once dissolved a priceless pearl earring in vinegar to show she could throw a ten million drachma feast, that she referred to her gold and silver table service as ‘ceramics,’ that a ‘Cleopatran’ feast remained a common saying for centuries. Much of it must be simple invective invented by Octavian’s supporters but it is also very clear (on this note Taylor, op. cit., 160-1) that a good portion of Egypt’s incredible wealth was spent on the spectacle and lavish court-life of the Ptolemaic monarchy. At the very least we can say that Cleopatra, at a moment when royal funds ought to have been buying loyalty or weapons, didn’t desist from traditional Ptolemaic extravagance either.
Finally, I think it is possible that Cleopatra was more attached to Egypt than other Ptolemaic monarchs. She did, at least, bother to learn the language. She may have participated in and put more stock in Egyptian religion, though you wouldn’t know it from her building agenda. She may have felt a responsibility for the Egyptian people, though that feeling certainly didn’t lead her to move in any visible way to diminish the structures of Macedonian rule. She may have felt a duty to protect Egypt, but this didn’t stop her from funneling Egypt’s treasure and its future into one gambit after another at greater power beyond Egypt’s borders, leaving Egypt itself wholly undefended when the invader finally came.
But I don’t think so. The sources are fairly clear that Cleopatra was very intelligent and we can see that she was driven, self-determined and strong-willed. Most people do not have the gumption to smuggle themselves into a hostile city to swing a one-on-one meeting with a foreign general on which their life depends. And so on the balance, I think Cleopatra’s actions are probably a good indicator of what she wanted to accomplish, which was first to secure sole power in Egypt and then to extend that power to encompass as much of Alexander’s Empire as she could get. This was, after all, by the time of her birth, the two-and-a-half-century old dream of her family. Why should Cleopatra, the last heir of Alexander be any different? On the altar of those ambitions, she seems to have quite willingly sacrificed her siblings (not that they wouldn’t have done the same to her), her wealth and eventually her kingdom.
And yet for that ambition and drive, Cleopatra lacked the skills to accomplish those aims. She gambled her people, her kingdom and her dynasty on a greater empire for herself and lost. She was certainly not the least impressive Ptolemaic Pharaoh – that prize may well go to her father – but she was also far from the greatest of them either.
The shame is that Cleopatra gets so much attention as the ancient queen, contorted to meet the needs of the moment as either villain or icon, that other figures get neglected. Do you want a powerful warrior queen? Let me introduce you to Zenobia of Palmyra. Or Amanirenas of Meroë, who unlike Cleopatra held off Octavian and kept her kingdom. But I think it is time we put aside Cleopatra the Villain and Cleopatra the Icon and instead recognized the real Cleopatra: the ambitious ruler who just didn’t quite have the right skills to pull it all off, who destroyed her very kingdom trying.