As it so often happens, when I start researching these #deadlinks articles, I inevitably end up writing something other than I had intended to. So too in this case.
Pharaoh Cleopatra the VII – the “infamous” Cleopatra, if you will – ruled Egypt right at the end of its time as a Hellenistic kingdom. She was there when Julius Caesar came to Alexandria, and there again when Marc Antony made his appearance as the East’s conquering hero after killing the tyrannicides, Brutus and Cassius, at Philippi. And she was there when Antony, defeated and broken, took his own life in advance of the arrival of Octavian, the newly minted First Man of Rome.
Cleopatra is famous for entrapping famous men, seducing them with her beauty while her intentions were really self-serving. She is famous for being power-hungry, overly sexual, voracious, unwomanly, and (perhaps worst of all to the Romans) foreign.
Oh how truth turns on a spin of history!
What we know about Cleopatra is confined almost exclusively to these four sources:
- A passing reference to her in Caesar’s dispatches on the Civil War (Commentarii de Bello Civili 3.103 and 3.107)
- Her role in the morality play that Antony exemplified according to Plutarch (Parallel Lives, Antony)
- Her role in the lives of Julius Caesar and Augustus according to Suetonius (he’s a quick read – enjoy!)
- References in Cassius Dio (Book 42.3.1 and 4, 9.1, 34.2-3, 35.4, 36.3, 37.2, 42.4, 44.1-3; Book 49.31.4, 32.4, 34.1, 40.3, 41.1-3; and Book 51, various) (1)
- Various references in Appian (you can look these up yourselves)
It is absolutely vital to look at these sources carefully and to understand WHY they were written rather than what they were written about. Cleopatra isn’t the focus here; Caesar or Antony are. And as such, she is relegated to a foil for them both, a way for ancient writers to showcase the tragedy of these great men of history. And from these accounts, we must extrapolate what we can to create an idea of a woman who changed the history of the world.
According to Plutarch, she was multi-lingual: “…she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with Barbarians she very seldom had need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself and unassisted, whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Parthians. Nay, it is said that she knew the speech of many other peoples also, although the kings of Egypt before her had not even made an effort to learn the native language, and some actually gave up their Macedonian dialect.” (2)
When you take another look at the comments in Suetonius and Plutarch, there are numerous subtle references to Cleopatra’s ability to politic, her skill in conversation – suggesting both a wide range of interests and a formidable intellect – and her ability to put others at ease and enjoy her company. These may seem like the passive elements of a traditionally feminine mystique, but they belie a remarkably educated and intellectually formidable woman. Cleopatra spoke, arguably, nine languages. Fluently. More importantly, she is said to have written a variety of scholarly texts on medicine, charms, and cosmetics. None of which are extant.
And here’s the bit that I wasn’t expecting, but am so glad I found. The main reference to Cleopatra’s academic writings is found in a history of the world written by the Arab scholar Al-Mas’udi.
The mighty pivot on which the history and knowledge of the European and Eurasian continents turn is the translation of ancient texts by Arabian scholars in the Late Antique and Medieval periods. As the western Roman Empire was falling, societies of the East were rising and it was these societies that saved the knowledge of the Ancient World for students of history today. Al-Mas’udi was a geographer and scholar in the 10th century CE who compiled a history of the world that has been translated into French and partially into English (3).
So, the joyous nature of this particular research exploration led me to the fact that the truth about Cleopatra cannot be articulated by extant literature from the West, but that it is instead reinforced by literature from the East. She has truly become a woman of two worlds, an international phenome who changed history.
(1) Cassius Dio Book 42 references found here – accessed 31 Oct 2017, 19:29pm ES; Cassius Dio Book 49 references found here – accessed 31 Oct 2017, 19:29pm EST; Cassius Dio Book 51 references found here – accessed 31 Oct 2017, 19:29pm EST
(2) Plutarch, Life of Antony 27.3.4 accessed here 31 Oct 2017, 19:58pm EST
(3) Translations into French by Charles Pellat, and into English by Aloys Sprenger.