History vs. Cleopatra – Alex Gendler


“Order, order. So who do we have here?” “Your Honor, this is Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen whose lurid affairs
destroyed two of Rome’s finest generals and brought the end of the Republic.” “Your Honor, this is Cleopatra, one of the most powerful women in history whose reign brought Egypt nearly
22 years of stability and prosperity.” “Uh, why don’t we even know
what she looked like?” “Most of the art and descriptions
came long after her lifetime in the first century BCE, just like most of
the things written about her.” “So what do we actually know? Cleopatra VII was the last
of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Macedonian Greek family
that governed Egypt after its conquest by Alexander the Great. She ruled jointly in Alexandria
with her brother- to whom she was also married- until he had her exiled.” “But what does all this
have to do with Rome?” “Egypt had long been a Roman client state, and Cleopatra’s father incurred
large debts to the Republic. After being defeated by Julius Caesar
in Rome’s civil war, the General Pompey sought refuge in Egypt but was executed
by Cleopatra’s brother instead.” “Caesar must have liked that.” “Actually, he found the murder unseemly
and demanded repayment of Egypt’s debt. He could have annexed Egypt, but Cleopatra convinced him to restore
her to the throne instead.” “We hear she was quite convincing.” “And why not? Cleopatra
was a fascinating woman. She commanded armies at 21, spoke several languages, and was educated in a city
with the world’s finest library and some of the greatest
scholars of the time.” “Hmm.” “She kept Caesar lounging
in Egypt for months when Rome needed him.” “Caesar did more than lounge. He was fascinated by Egypt’s culture
and knowledge, and he learned much during his time there. When he returned to Rome,
he reformed the calendar, commissioned a census, made plans for a public library, and proposed many
new infrastructure projects.” “Yes, all very ambitious,
exactly what got him assassinated.” “Don’t blame the Queen for Rome’s
strange politics. Her job was ruling Egypt,
and she did it well. She stabilized the economy, managed the vast bureaucracy, and curbed corruption by priests
and officials. When drought hit, she opened
the granaries to the public and passed a tax amnesty, all while preserving her kingdom’s
stability and independence with no revolts during
the rest of her reign.” “So what went wrong?” “After Caesar’s death, this foreign Queen
couldn’t stop meddling in Roman matters.” “Actually, it was the Roman factions who
came demanding her aid. And of course she had no choice
but to support Octavian and Marc Antony in avenging Caesar,
if only for the sake of their son.” “And again, she provided her particular
kind of support to Marc Antony.” “Why does that matter? Why doesn’t anyone seem to care about Caesar or Antony’s
countless other affairs? Why do we assume she instigated
the relationships? And why are only powerful women
defined by their sexuality?” “Order.” “Cleopatra and Antony were a disaster. They offended the Republic
with their ridiculous celebrations sitting on golden thrones and dressing up as gods until Octavian had all of Rome convinced
of their megalomania.” “And yet Octavian was the one
who attacked Antony, annexed Egypt, and declared himself Emperor. It was the Roman’s fear of a woman
in power that ended their Republic, not the woman herself.” “How ironic.” Cleopatra’s story survived mainly
in the accounts of her enemies in Rome, and later writers filled the gaps
with rumors and stereotypes. We may never know the full truth
of her life and her reign, but we can separate fact from rumor
by putting history on trial.

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