I picked up a couple of history books for my 7-year-old grandson Remy, who enjoys reading. I hope he will derive the same pleasure I do from history. The truth is, I’m probably more of a history ‘gossip’ than scholar. The titillating goings-on and/or horrendous happenings one reads about would be considered too far-fetched for any novel. And who could make up stuff like that?
One of the books I got for Remy is about Cleopatra, who has fascinated me for years. She was extremely clever, which helped her survive to adulthood. She was raised in a family which murdered each other when convenient. (Her older sister, Berenice, was killed by her dad, the pharaoh, after she plotted against him.) Cleopatra spoke multiple languages; and was a beautiful young, ruthless woman. She became queen of Egypt; was considered a goddess by her people; and lets face it, the gal was a shameless hussy. At 18 she was married to her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy X111 (to keep things in the family). At 21, she was in danger because of her young brother/husband’s advisors, and fled to Syria.
While Caesar was staying at the palace in Alexandria, Cleopatra pulled a brilliant, impressive stunt. They say she had herself delivered to him wrapped in a blanket. She needed help from the aging Caesar. (The Roman armies had been helpful to her dad.) What to do? Tell him her problems — in bed of course! Caesar was impressed with her chutzpah, her youth and her beauty. The 52 year-old was smitten. She, meanwhile, used whatever ‘charms’ she possessed to obtain the guy’s support. (Could she have possibly learned them from her 10-year-old brother/hubby?) In any case, she got what she wanted. Caesar was only a man after all. His soldiers defeated her enemies while the two of them played at love. Happily for Cleopatra, the pharaoh, her young brother/husband, was drowned in the battle. Things looked better.
She married another brother, Ptolemy X1V. (All the boys in their family were named Ptolemy — no confusion at the dinner table.) Caesar was madly in love with her and with his army’s support, the ambitious girl could accomplish whatever. When she had Caesar’s child, she named him Ptolemy Caesar after his illustrious father. The little one became known as Caesarion.
Caesar, of course, already had a wife in Rome, but no matter. Cleopatra was a goddess, right? She didn’t have to fret about such things as we mere mortals do. With Caesar now back in Rome, she decided to go there with their child and her teen-aged husband/brother, whom she didn’t trust enough to leave behind. As you can imagine, Caesar’s wife didn’t appreciate her visit, but Cleopatra had no concerns about losing her reputation. She had a grand time of it as a guest in Caesar’s lavish villa. Trouble was brewing, however, and while Cleopatra was busy entertaining the creme de la creme of Roman society, Caesar was murdered. If I were his wife I may have been tempted to do it myself.
Not one to mope, Cleopatra fled back to Alexandria for safety. She had concerns about her current brother/husband’s thirst for power — it must have been genetic. Surprise, surprise! Mysteriously, upon their return home the poor guy suddenly died of poisoning. Cleopatra wasted no time in having her two-year-old son, Caesarion, crowned pharaoh — which left the little lady in charge for years to come. Meanwhile a power struggle was taking place in Rome between Brutus and
Cassius on one side, who had plotted Caesar’s murder, and on the other, Antony and Octavian. Cleopatra was asked to provide armies to help both sides. Picking the wrong one could be disastrous. Not wanting to choose the wrong side, she promised to support them both. I told you she was clever.
Antony’s army was victorious. He was angry she hadn’t kept her promise, and he was now a powerful guy. She needed him. What to do? Get him to bed, of course! She visited him in Tarsus in her royal barge, dressed as Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty. She played all her cards — flattered him, seduced him, and promised him wonders — and delivered. Antony, too, was only human.
Well, Antony also had a wife, Fulvia, in Rome, who advised him that Octavian was trying to take over while Antony was playing house with the sexy Cleopatra — for whom a wife was never a deterrent. He had to return to Rome to fight his former partner-in-arms while Cleopatra gave birth to their twins. In Rome, Antony became a widower and married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. He had made peace with his rival. However, he missed Cleopatra, who must have had something most of us never possessed, and he returned to her. Did he really divorce Octavia? Was it a poor diplomatic move? Meanwhile the lovers had yet another child and before long, Octavian, now Antony’s brother-in-law, declared war against Cleopatra. The lovers fought back but lost. Cleopatra lost her empire.
The story of the dramatic and romantic end to the tragic story is heart-wrenching but I wonder how much of it is really true. It is said Cleopatra died with the help of a poisonous snake, Antony is to have stabbed himself. I tend to think if she gave up it was because she knew she was doomed and not because she believed Antony to have died as they say….
Besides, as a mother, I can’t help but wonder why she didn’t consider the four children she left behind. Guess they meant less to her than her empire. What say you?