Out of the Gynaeceum: A New Look at Ancient Greek Society

Cleopatra, Femme Fatale?

By: Anne-Emmanuelle Veïsse


Fig. 1: Gustave Moreau, Cléopâtre, 1887, Musée du Louvre, department of Graphic Arts (inv. RF 27900). ©Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Shuishouyue.

Queen Cleopatra VII (51-30 B.C.), the last of the Ptolemy dynasty that ruled Egypt from 305 to 30 B.C., is one of the few women to have had official, personal power in Antiquity (1). However, her reign is not well documented in direct sources, and for the most part the image associated with her in common culture derives from propaganda disseminated by Octavian (who would go on to become Augustus), as part of his conflict with Marc Antony (2). In order to obscure the true nature of this conflict—a new episode in the Roman civil wars and a struggle for power in Rome—the war against Antony was justified by his alliance with the queen of Egypt. This alliance was presented as an undignified partnership in which the man submitted to the woman, the Roman to the foreigner, the former servant of the Republic to a despot who conspired to destroy it. The two main traits that, since Antiquity, have remained attached to the figure of Cleopatra, are a result of this characterization: her power of seduction and her Egyptianness. These two traits are combined in this watercolor by Gustave Moreau (1887), which shows a scantily clad Cleopatra surrounded by a stereotypically Egyptian décor. The serpent climbing up toward her right wrist represents both eroticism and death. 

(1) Officially, Cleopatra VII ruled in conjunction with her brother Ptolemy XIII (from 51-48 B.C.) and then her other brother Ptolemy XIV (from 48-44 B.C.), and finally her son Ptolemy XV Caesar (44-30). But beginning in 48 B.C., she appeared in top position in official protocol and there is no doubt that it was she who truly held power.
(2). M. Chauveau, Cléopatre, au delà du mythe, Paris, Liana Levi, 1998; the three chapters on Cleopatra by J. Bingen, Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture, ed. R.S. Bagnall, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2007; F. de Callataÿ, Cleopâtre. Usages et mésusages de son image, Brussels, Royal Academy of Belgium, 2015.

The Seductress 

While there is no doubt about Cleopatra’s liaisons first with Julius Caesar (between 48 and 44 B.C.) and then with Marc Antony (between 41 and 30 B.C.), her image as a seductress is in large part a result of the rivalry, and then war, between Octavian and Marc Antony. For Octavian, presenting Marc Antony as a man entirely under the thumb of the queen of Egypt and as a mere tool of her ambitions was a way to delegitimize him as a possible ruler of Rome. This notion is forcefully expressed by several authors of the Roman era, whose understanding of the facts was fed by Octavian’s propaganda: “she made such booty of Antony” (Plutarch, Life of Antony, XXVIII, 1); “The Egyptian woman demanded the Roman Empire from the drunken general as the price of her favours; and this Antonius promised her” (Florus, Epitome, IV, 11); “Meanwhile [Antony] fell in love with Cleopatra, whom he had seen in Cilicia, and thereafter gave not a thought to honour but became the Egyptian woman's slave and devoted his time to his passion for her (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 48, 24). Since the time of Octavian, Cleopatra has also been accused of being a “prostitute queen” (meretrix regina) who offered herself to her slaves (Propertius, Elegies, III, 11). In addition to shaming the sovereign, this accusation was also no doubt intended to cast a shadow over the birth of Ptolemy XV, Cleopatra’s son by (according to her) Julius Caesar (who probably really was the father). Later authors completed the image of an insatiably sensual queen: for example, the anonymous author of Illustrious Men of the City of Rome (late 4th century) wrote that “many men gave their lives for a night with her” (De viris illustribus, 86). This gave Théophile Gautier the plot for his very successful novella Une nuit de Cléopatre (1838).

Cléopâtre VII, figurée en Isis au temple d’Hathor de Dendérah

Fig. 2: Cleopatra VII, depicted as Isis at the temple of Hathor at Dendera, behind her son Ptolemy XV Caesar, depicted as a Pharaoh. ©Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Bradipus.

Monnaie de Cléopâtre

Fig. 3: Cleopatra coin, 51-30. © CoinArchives.com, photo DR.

The Egyptian Woman

“His Egyptian consort follows him (the shame).” (Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VIII, 688, trans. A.S. Kline).

Like all the rulers of the Lagid dynasty, Cleopatra was a princess of Macedonian origin and Greek culture. Nevertheless, in the Egyptian context, she was represented as Isis, as the Ptolemaic queens before her had been. We see this on the south exterior wall of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, where she appears behind her son Ptolemy XV, who is depicted as a pharaoh. Such representations continued a policy in place since the first Ptolemy rulers, who sought to strengthen their legitimacy in the eyes of their Egyptian subjects by drawing on pharaonic traditions. But the dynasty’s Egyptian traits were only ever displayed in particular contexts. On royal coins, another version of the sovereign appears, with purely Greek iconography: Cleopatra is referred to by the title basalissa (queen) and wears a diadem, the emblem of all Hellenistic royalty. As the historian J. Bingen has shown, the novel epithet “Philopatris” (“who loves her country”) that the queen adopted in 37/37 B.C. was an explicit reference to her Macedonian homeland (1). If the Roman literature that emerged out of Octavian propaganda consecrated Cleopatra as “the Egyptian woman,” this was in order to better characterize her as an enemy of Rome. It is not even entirely clear whether she was able to speak Egyptian (2). The notion that she did is based on a famous passage by Plutarch, which must be taken in context: the author is describing the first meeting between Cleopatra and Marc Antony at Tarsus in the winter of 41 B.C. (Life of Antony, XXVII, 3-5). Here, Plutarch tries to demonstrate the erotic potential of “commerce” with Queen Cleopatra: she had a voice whose timbre itself was a source of pleasure, and she made seductive conversation and direct contact with her interlocutors, without the mediation of interpreters. It is in this context that Plutarch attributes to her knowledge of the languages of almost all the Eastern peoples known to the Greeks: Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabs, Syrians, Medes, and Parthians. This passage raises many questions, but does not tell us much about the actual linguistic competences of the last queen of Egypt. 

(1) Jean Bingen, “Cleopatra VII Philopatris,” in Roger S. Bagnall, ed., Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2007, p. 57-62.
(2) Anne-Emmanuelle Veïsse, “Pouvoir royal et diversité linguistique en Égypte sous les Ptolémées (323-30 B.C.)” in J.-L. Fournet, J.-M. Mouton, J. Paviot (ed.), Civilisations en transition (II): Sociétés multilingues à travers l'histoire du Proche-Orient, Byblos, Centre International des Sciences de l’Homme, 2016, p. 67-93.

For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, 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. 

Plutarch, Life of Antony XXVII, 2-5

Cleopatra, Femme Fatale?