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Cleopatra VII

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Cleopatra VII

Post  Tiny-Librarian on Wed Jun 19, 2013 10:28 am

Of course, if you follow my blog at all, you know that Cleopatra VII is the great historical love of my life and the only one who trumps Marie Antoinette. So I wanted to start a thread about her!

But before I do, I just wanted to mention two points:


  1. She was Queen of Egypt, an African Country, but she was not actually African or Egyptian herself by blood. With the exception of a Persian Princess that was the first Cleopatra (There were seven all together) she was purely Macedonian Greek. Her ancestors, and presumably her, were described as "honey skinned", but she was by no means dark skinned/African as so many people insist.
  2. She was most definitely NOT a whore/slut etc who slept with thousands and thousands of men. (Nor, btw, did she invent the vibrator by filling something with bees. I don't even know where they came from). She was married to her two younger half brothers by custom, and nothing ever happened there. There were only 2 men she even had a sexual relationship with, Julius Caesar and then after his assassination, Marc Antony.



That being out of the way, let's go guys! Here's one of my favourite quotes about her to get us started:


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.
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Re: Cleopatra VII

Post  Elena on Thu Jun 20, 2013 8:28 pm


Thank you, TL, for starting this thread about one of the most fascinating rulers who ever lived. Here is my review of Stacy Schiff's book:
http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2011/09/cleopatra-life.html

Cleopatra: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.—from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, Scene 1 
 Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, of gossip and legend, even in her own time....Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra's infinite variety. He had no idea.Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, p.1

In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff sifts through the ancient texts to draw a coherent picture of the last sovereign of Egypt, who ranks among the outstanding individuals of any place or time. As in the case of other famous queens known for their beauty and personality, such as Mary Stuart and Marie-Antoinette, the emphasis in the past accounts of Cleopatra's life have been upon her seductive abilities and romantic escapades. In Schiff's retelling, the focus is on the Queen of Egypt's very real political acumen, acquired while still a child, as well as her ability to govern a vast realm, while standing up to a new empire. Her beauty lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her charm, especially her melodious voice and scintillating intelligence and wit. Cleopatra protected her people from famine, which was no small achievement in those days. She kept her capital city Alexandria a center of culture; it was the Paris of antiquity. Moreover, she held the Romans at bay for twenty-two years. As Marie Arana writes in her Washington Post review:
Schiff is especially skilled at limning the social contours of the story. The Romans were warriors, hooked on conquest, hard on women. To make wealth they needed to build empire. The Egyptians of Alexandria, on the other hand, were cultured, inventive, masters of the intellect. They built a vast library to prove it. They were astronomers for centuries before Rome even existed. Theirs was a city of mechanical marvels, and it boasted among its novelties "automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines." But Alexandria was also a paradise of perfumes, a repository of the arts, an agricultural wonder -- a center that could feed and amuse its people in equal measure. If Cleopatra had needed to, she single-handedly could have fed all of Rome.
The image of Cleopatra as wanton vixen was created by the Romans but given her family history they had a lot of material from which to draw. Cleopatra was a member of the Greek Ptolemy dynasty, descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals. The Ptolemies had ruled Egypt for three hundred years. While they had never, until Cleopatra's time, fully taken to the Egyptian language and religion, they did adopt the Egyptian practice of marrying close relatives, which many scholars believe contributed to both the decay and corruption of the dynasty. With the on-going incest being accompanied by murder, they had generations of assassinations of family members by other family members, so that it is amazing that the Ptolemy dynasty went on for as long as it did. Having such relatives gave Cleopatra a bad name from the moment she was born; the fact that she later had her two brothers and younger sister assassinated when they became too disagreeable only added to the existing infamy.

One positive aspect of Cleopatra's murderous and inbred clan, other than being generous with their amassed wealth, was an emphasis on learning. Cleopatra received the best education available in the known world at the time. Her inherent thirst for knowledge made her enthusiastic for her own enlightenment. Among the nine languages she spoke was an ancient Egyptian dialect that sounded like the squeaking of bats. Cleopatra was fascinated with the native culture of her people. She even embraced their religion, visited their shrines and forged ties with the priestly caste. As Schiff explains:
In this she continued the work of her father. Even while abroad he had distinguished himself as a prolific builder of temples and had cultivated his relations with the Egyptian clergy. They were central to order amid the native populace, also intimately engaged in matters of state. As the temples stood at the center of both religious and commercial life....Priests functioned as lawyers and notaries, the temples as manufacturing centers, cultural institutions and economic hubs. You might visit one to work up a contract, or consult a doctor, or borrow a sack of grain.....The temples lent money, even, on occasion, to Ptolemies. (p.88)
Cleopatra managed to escape any incestuous relationships, other than the pretense of being "married" to her brothers. Rather than being given over to lewdness and unbridled pleasure she was probably still a virgin when she first slept with Julius Caesar, Schiff maintains. Caesar, and after his death, Mark Antony, were each regarded as a husband by Cleopatra under Egyptian law, despite the fact that they had wives back in Rome. Cleopatra had a son by Caesar and three children, two sons and a daughter, by Antony. It is emphasized that both of Cleopatra's Roman consorts were men of authority whose alliances with the Queen increased their power while gaining for Cleopatra the Roman backing needed to maintain her country's autonomy. In each lover's case, however, particularly in Antony's, the relationship with the Queen of Egypt contributed to their fall.

How Antony and Cleopatra ultimately destroyed one another is a matter for tragic bewilderment. In enhancing their mutual glory they also canceled out their individual strengths. Cleopatra seemed not quite so astute when it came to Antony and Antony let go of his Roman discipline when living with Cleopatra. While their final resting places are shrouded in mystery what we do know to be true about their deaths is unutterably sad. Cleopatra used theatrics right up to the end and was found thus:
Cleopatra lay on a golden couch....Majestically and meticulously arrayed...she gripped in her hands the crook and flail. She was perfectly composed and completely dead....Charmion [her maid] was clumsily attempting to arrange the diadem around Cleopatra's forehead. Angrily one of Octavian's men exploded: "A fine deed this, Charmion!" She had the energy to offer a parting shot. With a tartness that would have made her mistress proud, she managed: "It is indeed most fine, and befitting the descendant of so many kings," before collapsing in a heap, at her queen's side. (Schiff's Cleopatra, p.285)
One item I disagree with in the biography is the following statement (in bold): "A great deal that Cleopatra knew would be forgotten for fifteen hundred years. A very different kind of woman, the Virgin Mary, would subsume Isis as entirely as Elizabeth Taylor has subsumed Cleopatra." ( Ibid., p.301) To suggest that devotion to the Mother of Christ has any connection with the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis, with whom Cleopatra liked to identify herself, is to ignore basic Judeo-Christian history. All one has to do is read the Old Testament to see how the Kings of Israel and Judah honored their mothers and set them at the throne's right hand (Psalm 45:9); the honor given to the Virgin Mother comes straight from Jewish tradition and has nothing to do with Isis. (1 Kings 2:19) 

In spite of the occasional odd statement, Cleopatra is an entertaining and informative read, rich with descriptions about the splendor that was Alexandria, particularly Cleopatra's palace, long submerged under the sea. Cleopatra would not disappear, however; she would continue to haunt and fascinate generations to come. Although Antony's and Cleopatra's is one of the most famous love stories, in Schiff's book we realize that much that we thought was about love and romance was really about politics and power. With the deaths of Cleopatra and Antony, Octavius obtained complete mastery of Rome as Caesar Augustus. An age ended as a new age began; all was in place for the coming of the Redeemer

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Re: Cleopatra VII

Post  Sophie on Fri Jun 21, 2013 6:30 am

She was my first historical "love interest". I was eleven years old and after watching the second Asterix film I wanted to read everything about her I just could. So I did it. I even tried to write a Shakespeare-style tragedy about Caesarion! Laughing Yeah, I was a strange child, I know...

But I must admit that later, as my interest was a bit reduced (please don't kill me!), I read more and more about the Romans, and now I have a more balanced view of Augustus. I would say I totally like and appreciate him, if he hadn't assassinated people who were dangerous for his power, including the poor Caesarion. But later, he became a good leader of Rome. There are many historical figures who start their career with a "necessary" (????) bloodshed and later redeem it somehow. We Hungarians couldn't decide for 200 years if we like or hate Emperor Francis Joseph, for example, so it's a general problem for me by judging historical figures Razz

So, I like the period, but I try to see all the "protagonists" objectively. And I hope I have no misconceptions about Cleopatra. In the novel I read back then (Colin Falconer) Antonius' disappointment was portrayed at the first night with Octavia, because she was too blond and white-coloured for someone who missed the dark-haired, dark-skinned Cleopatra. OK, today's Greeks are really dark, but it's remarkable that the ancient Greeks were also blond and pale-skinned! So, maybe the real Cleopatra was blonder than the real Octavia? And what would Elizabeth Taylor comment on it? Rolling Eyes

Thank you for starting this topic, it was interesting for me to reflect once again on this disappeared and particular era...
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Re: Cleopatra VII

Post  Bunnies on Sat Jul 06, 2013 9:50 pm

Gah, I just finished Stacy Schiff's biography on this Egyptian Queen today. I gotta say, when it comes to ancient history, I've always had more of a fascination with her chief antagonist, Octavian, but I did enjoy following Cleopatra about for a bit.

As in the case of other famous queens known for their beauty and personality, such as Mary Stuart and Marie-Antoinette, the emphasis in the past accounts of Cleopatra's life have been upon her seductive abilities and romantic escapades. In Schiff's retelling, the focus is on the Queen of Egypt's very real political acumen, acquired while still a child, as well as her ability to govern a vast realm, while standing up to a new empire. Her beauty lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her charm, especially her melodious voice and scintillating intelligence and wit.

Y'know, in regards to the first half of this excerpt... it's sort of a bummer how this works out for these women. I can't speak for Mary Stuart, but there's a lot more to Cleopatra than her bedtime escapades and Marie-Antoinette's bedtime escapades have been greatly exaggerated. One of my favorite parts about Schiff's biography is that she shifts Cleopatra from the realm of toxic arm-candy to a shrewd politician in her own right. If anything, Schiff pressed her case too far, Cleopatra being such a flawless tactician that you almost wonder how she wound up in such dire straits in the first place...

I'm digressing. But yes, Cleopatra - like Marie-Antoinette and Anne Boleyn - was able to attract men more by virtue of her engaging personality and wit than mere looks. Romans might mock her for that, but I find that far more impressive than a mere accident of birth.

But as to what Tiny-Librarian was alluding to, and to the theme that weaves its way through Schiff's entire book...it can be shocking how much we "know" about any number of historical figures we really don't know. Sometimes I read about these historical figures and it seems like I do more un-learning than learning. Cleopatra didn't kill herself with an asp, she didn't sleep her way across the ancien world, etc...it gets to the point where the negatives start to outweigh the positives. Fantasy is always more engaging than reality, I suppose...Neutral 
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Re: Cleopatra VII

Post  Sophie on Sun Jul 07, 2013 3:12 pm

Bunnies wrote:I'm digressing. But yes, Cleopatra - like Marie-Antoinette and Anne Boleyn - was able to attract men more by virtue of her engaging personality and wit than mere looks. Romans might mock her for that, but I find that far more impressive than a mere accident of birth. 

This is a great point. If it goes on woman leaders in history, people tend to believe that every step of theirs were led by passion and romantic love. Similarly, it's much easier to think that only perfect and beautiful women can have passionate love affairs, and no one really cares about contemporary sources that prove the opposite (or at least don't emphasize the physical appearance). Plutarch wrote literally the same about Cleopatra as you here. OK, he lived later so he isn't a real contemporary of hers, but I've read that he used his ancestors' diaries and correspondences. Reality can destroy all these stereotypes in the case of queens (regnants as well as consorts), so people get confused and close their eyes on it. Why reading a difficult history book if commercial filmmakers show exactly what they want to see? Razz
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Re: Cleopatra VII

Post  Tiny-Librarian on Sun Jul 14, 2013 11:16 am

It is so true.

So many people talk about her being "The most beautiful woman in the ancient world" etc. etc., when it simply wasn't true. She wasn't beautiful, not that she was ugly but she wasn't singularly gorgeous. Want a gorgeous Queen of Egypt, go for Nefertiti. It's like the quote I already posted, she attracted Caesar and Antony to her through WHO she was, not what she looked like.
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