Was Cleopatra really beautiful ?
Love between Cleopatra and Antony & the beginning of the Roman Empire

Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh *

 Artist’s image of Cleopatra ; Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra ; The Battle of Actium in 31 BCE ; Cleopatra (blue) leaving the battle of Actium

Anyone who is familiar with Shakespeare's drama Julius Caesar – his life and bloody death, and with only one woman Cleopatra, knows that it's one of the most testosterone-fuelled of the Bard's plays. The life and times of this most famous Roman general and politician has always enthralled me since I studied Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' in class x in 1951.

The story is about the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and the famous love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, which Shakespeare immortalised in his play, Antony and Cleopatra, and by Hollywood in Cleopatra (1963). Elizabeth Taylor, who played Cleopatra, epitomised her. She was paid one million dollars to play Cleopatra in the film. One million doesn't seem much now. At that time, an actor earning 1 million, was almost like a god among people.

Richard Burton played Antony. But they were not only acting in the film, which was eclipsed by the international furore over their romance, both of them already being married. The film's tragic ending was likened to Romeo and Juliet by some.

Cleopatra (Greek: glory of father) was the last Ptolemaic (Macedonian Greek) queen of Egypt. She was a white woman (perhaps a bit mixed with Egyptian blood) of the Ptolemy Dynasty, a descendant of one of Alexander's generals, which went back 250 years. When her father Ptolemy XII died in 51 BCE, she (18) became co-regent with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII (10), whom she married according to Egyptian Pharaoh Custom. However, the eunuch Pothinus acted as regent for the young boy.

Cleopatra was the only one of the Ptolemaic family, who learned to speak the Egyptian (Coptic) language. She also spoke many other languages. According to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, her beauty was 'unparalled in history'. He was supported by much archaeological evidence.

According to tradition, she was sensuous with a prominent nose that was so beautiful, so bewitching – it was worth dying for. Caesar and Antony, both found it to their cost. Blaze Pascal, the 17th century French Mathematician and philosopher wrote: "Had Cleopatra's nose been a bit shorter, the whole history of the world would have been different", and Mark Antony wouldn't have lost the Battle of Actium.

Cleopatra's beauty is based on how she could seduce Caesar and Antony, both powerful Roman leaders and notorious womanisers, who were already married. Caesar and Cleopatra were not in love. It was an affair of convenience; Caesar for her immense treasure, and Cleopatra for retaining her power.

Cleopatra had the most delicious voice and an irresistible charm. She was educated and had the ability to make herself agreeable to anyone, though she could be ruthless. At her request, Antony sent orders for the execution of her younger sister Arsinoe in Rome (a rival to the Egyptian throne).

We're all familiar with Mark Antony's first line of speech at Caesar's funeral (Shakespeare): "Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…" Also, the famous last words of Caesar: "et tu, Brute" (and you, Brutus) when he was stabbed. According to Plutarch, Caesar didn't say any words at all. Mark Antony was a young, sparely built Roman cavalry officer. Caesar saw what he liked in him. He became Caesar's assistant in the army and his friend.

Julius Caesar was a lowly soldier in the Roman Army and raised himself to be a general and the first Dictator of Rome. Caesar was born in 100 BCE, of an aristocratic family, but his father lost his fortune, being on the wrong side in a civil war. Caesar knew the only way to revive his status was by excelling in the battle. So he joined the Roman army when he was 18. He was very brave and took enormous personal risks in battles.

In 74 BCE, he raised a private army and defeated various tribes in Gaul (present Germany and France), who, the Romans called 'Barbarians', taking 4 years. He then returned to Rome without disbanding his army, though it was illegal, purporting an attack on Rome. But he won.

In Egypt, in 48 BCE, Ptolemy XIII and Pothinus (his Regent) attempted to depose Cleopatra due to her increasing status as queen. They managed to force her to flee to Syria, but she soon organized her own army and a civil war began in Egypt. Cleopatra, later captured the throne with liaison with Julius Caesar.

General Pompey Magnus, who Caesar defeated in Greece in 48 BCE, fled to Egypt to seek military help from Ptolemy XIII, who was then14 years old. But Ptolemy had the general murdered in hopes of winning favour with Caesar. When Caesar, who was chasing Pompey, arrived in Egypt, he was presented with the head of Pompey. Caesar was disgusted and ordered that Pompey's body be located and given a proper Roman funeral.

Cleopatra proved more successful in winning Caesar's favour by becoming his lover. She arranged to meet Caesar in intimate circumstances, having herself rolled up in a carpet that was delivered to Caesars home quarters in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. She was 21 and Caesar was 52. Caesar and Cleopatra were never married, but they had a son, Caesarion.

Caesar made Cleopatra queen again, though she had never officially abdicated her marriage to Ptolemy XIII. He arranged the execution of Pothinus.

Still, determined to depose Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIII allied himself with their sister Arsinoe. The warring factions fought a battle in mid-December 47 BC, inside Alexandria itself. Upon the arrival of Roman reinforcements and at the Battle of the Nile (47 BC), Caesar and Cleopatra, forced Ptolemy XIII to flee the city. Ptolemy XIII reportedly, was drowned on January 13, 47 BC, while attempting to cross the Nile.

Cleopatra ruled as Pharaoh and remained the unchallenged ruler of Egypt, although she named her younger brother Ptolemy XIV her new co-ruler. She married him according to the custom.

Caesar, having defeated all his rivals, returned home soon after his son Caesarion was born. He made himself the dictator for life in 44 BCE. This led to some republican senators, led by Cassius and Brutus to assassinate him on March 15, 44 BCE. Soon after, Cleopatra and her entourage in Rome, fled back to Egypt. There, it is presumed that she had her brother/husband Ptolemy XIV (16 years old) murdered, by poisoning with aconite, to have her son Caesarion to be the co-ruler.

The success of the Roman army owes partly, to its habit of bringing home captured enemy soldiers and citizens in their thousands, to be used as slaves, gladiators and builders. Romans were fantastic engineers and made roads with these slaves, which helped their army to expand territories.

The system worked very well until a slave and gladiator, Spartacus, started a slave rebellion (73-71 BCE) in southern Italy. He nearly succeeded in destroying Rome, but was defeated while closing in on Rome, by General Crassus, in whose army Caesar was a Tribune. He was captured and subsequently sold as a slave.

After Julius Caesar was assassinated, Antony and Octavian, the grandnephew of Caesar, who Caesar named as his rightful heir, began vying for the top job in Rome. But in a spirit of coalition, Antony, Octavian and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate in 43 BCE, to share rule of Rome. But just like the First Triumvirate comprising of Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Crassus, it collapsed.

In 41 BCE, Antony, (already married to Octavian's sister Octavia), met Cleopatra for the first time as adults. He had met her briefly when she was a child in the Roman Tarsus city (present Turkey), intending to confront her about possibly aiding one of Julius Caesar's assassins. The encounter would kindle romance instead.

In 37 BCE, Antony went on a campaign against Parthian (Persian) Empire. Cleopatra joined him at Antioch, a Roman city near Syria and Turkey, and they got married. In 32 BCE, Antony divorced Octavia and became more devoted to the Egyptian kingdom than to his native Rome. He gave her parts of the Roman Empire, which enraged Octavian and most of the Romans. By then, Cleopatra had three children by Antony.

In 31 BCE, Octavian declared war on Cleopatra and engaged the combined naval forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, at the famous Battle of Actium that changed Roman history for good. At the height of the battle, Cleopatra had cold feet and took her fleet out of the battle. "For no sooner did he see her ship sailing off than he forgot everything else. He got into a five-oared galley and hastened after the woman who had already ruined him," (Plutarch). Antony joined Cleopatra on her ship and later having reconciled, stayed together with Cleopatra in Alexandria.

Octavian invaded Egypt in 30 BCE. Cleopatra retreated to the sanctuary of her mausoleum (tomb) where she was arrested and kept. When Antony received news that Cleopatra had killed herself, he stabbed himself into his stomach with his sword, but it was not fatal. Having tragically been informed that Cleopatra lived, Antony had himself carried to Cleopatra's retreat, where he finally died in her arms. Cleopatra killed herself with a poisonous snake, an asp, smuggled to her in a basket of figs, allowing it to bite her chest. She was 39.

In 27 BCE, Octavian was awarded the honorific title of Augustus (Latin: majestic) and was made an Emperor by a decree of the Senate. So, Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, fought Antony and Cleopatra and defeated them to avenge Caesar. He became a great Roman statesman and emperor of the Roman Empire until his death in 14 CE.

* Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh wrote this article for
The writer is based in the UK and can be reached at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on April 26 2019.

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