Useful Notes / Cleopatra VII

http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/cleopatra_statue_2767.jpg
The face of the historical ruler, complete with her famous nose.

The great Lady of perfection, excellent in counsel
— Translation of her Horus Namenote 

A.k.a. the Cleopatra you're thinking of.

Cleopatra VII Thea Philopatornote  (69 - August 12, 30 BC) was the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, at different points ruling jointly with her father, brother, other brother, and son, though with the latter three, she was clearly in charge and only using them to bolster her credibility as a female ruler. The Ptolemaic dynasty Cleopatra descended from was actually Greek; after the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was divided up by three generals, and Ptolemy I Soter got Egypt. Cleopatra was actually the first of her dynasty to bother learning Egyptian, and presented herself to her kingdom as a reincarnation of the goddess Isis.

The identity of Cleopatra's mother is uncertain. Born the third child of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes, Auletes lost his grip on his kingdom due to corruption and the loss of Cyprus and Cyrenaica. In a desperate bid to regain control, he fled and begged Rome for money and troops to help him regain his throne. Cleopatra's two older sisters, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena and Berenice IV, seized power at this time — first Cleopatra VI, then Berenice upon her mysterious death. Whether or not Cleopatra VII accompanied her father to Rome or remained in Egypt is debatable; she isn't really a concern in the contemporary records of either place. The reason this is even a question is because some accounts describe her as meeting Mark Antony around this age, while others assert she met him as an adult. What is certain is that Auletes eventually was able to secure the troops and money, and that Berenice was imprisoned and executed for her disloyalty. Cleopatra was now fourteen, the eldest of her remaining siblings, and thus the one with the best chance of keeping a hold on the throne should their father die. He elevated her to joint ruler at this point, though it's unlikely she had much power.

In his will, four years later, he decreed that 18-year-old Cleopatra would rule jointly with her ten-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. She married him according to Egyptian custom, which the Ptolemies adopted to imitate the Pharoahs and also keep themselves, and other Hellenic settlers separate from the common people. Cleopatra however disliked her brother and eventually, she progressed to leaving his name off official documents and his face off the coinage. This was just another complication on top of widespread famine and the Nile not flooding enough to irrigate crops. Around this time, Cleopatra ran foul of the Gabiniani, troops left behind when her father was restored to power. When they killed the sons of the Roman governor of Syria, she handed them over in chains, and they didn't forget that. She was exiled when they joined with a cabal of courtiers and had Ptolemy placed on the throne as sole ruler.

The teenage Ptolemy and his advisers made a grave mistake, however, when they executed the fleeing Roman consular Pompey, son-in-law and fellow-triumvir turned rival of Julius Caesar. Upon hearing of the death, Caesar declared his horror at the death of a Roman citizen at the orders of a client barbarian-king, promptly took control of Egypt and declared himself the arbiter of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, citing the will of their father which made Egypt a client of the Republic. Cleopatra, as per Plutarch, had herself smuggled to Caesar inside a rolled-up carpet. They had an affair, with Cleopatra giving birth to his son, Caesarion, or "Little Caesar". The end result was that Caesar decided not to annex Egypt, and settled that Cleopatra and her brother were to be reconciled. Cleopatra would have preferred for Caesar to name their son his heir (which was illegal under Roman law, as Caesarion was not a Roman citizen) and to rule jointly with him after Caesar left, but Caesar refused.

This led to a civil war in Alexandria, and, possibly, the burning of the famous Alexandria library. Caesar eventually got things under control, but Ptolemy drowned when his armor weighed him down too much. Cleopatra was promptly married to their younger brother, and he became her co-ruler. Her younger sister, Arsinoe, was taken to Rome by Caesar, kept as a hostage, and executed years later by Mark Antony, on Cleopatra's orders. After the assassination of Caesar, Cleopatra insinuated herself into the newly formed government among Caesar's three heirs: de jure successor Octavius, and Caesar's top generals Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus. Antony was given reign over the extremely wealthy eastern provinces (such as Egypt) and Cleo ensured her place in the new government by becoming Antony's lover and mother of three of his children (which was a shock to Antony's second wife Octavia, who was also Octavian's sister).

Octavian's xenophobic propaganda campaign sought to de-legitimize his final rival standing in his path to absolute power. His campaign insisted that Mark Antony was becoming a puppet to the "foreign queen of Egypt" and he deliberately emphasized the scandalous nature of the union between Antony and Cleopatra, and painted his rival as a puppet to Cleopatra. The official declaration of war was against Cleopatra, not Antony for this reason. It was intended to dial down the spectre of Roman-on-Roman violence of the Late-Republican Civil War which had seen much purges, and deaths of prominent Roman citizens, polarizing the citizenry and the political class. Emphasizing Cleopatra's otherness served to make Mark Antony, a prominent Roman citizen and Octavian's senior in political and military honors, an outsider to Rome, and violence visited on Antony and his soldiers, was as such not really a civil war, but a war against a foreign power. Recent historians, such as Adrian Goldsworthy, as such qualify the Roman Pretext for War which needed to make Cleopatra more prominent, influential, and powerful than she was. While the Romans tended to paint Cleopatra as a proto-Lady Macbeth with Antony as her puppet, the reality was likely the reverse.

Mark Antony had a huge army in the time, of which Cleopatra's forces were merely one of them, and by no means the biggest. That would be King Artavasdes of Armenia, who provided six thousand horse and seven thousand foot. Antony's land army actually outnumbered those of Octavian's, and indeed Plutarch writes that when the Romans declared war on Cleopatra, and Octavian started raising taxes on his people and provinces, Antony (and Cleopatra) had a chance to win had he struck for Rome while Octavian was still shaping his army. Instead he dragged his feet wasting crucial time, and most tragically, he resolved to meet his enemy by sea, where Octavian had invested heavily in the navy. Cleopatra and Antony's combined forces were no match for Octavian, and after losing the Battle of Actium, the two of them escaped back to Alexandria. The couple, and the city of Alexandria, fell into a much storied Despair Event Horizon since they fully knew that they lost, and that Egypt would be annexed by Rome. Cleopatra VII spent her final days, building and overseeing tombs and monuments, and famously took residence with her servants in one of them which was famously accessible by scaffolding at a high window, since the building had no doors.

After Mark Antony committed suicide, albeit botched, so that he died slowly and was brought to his beloved's monument where she saw his final moments, Cleopatra was visited by Octavian. The latter wanted to take her back to Rome as part of his Roman triumph (which would have likely involved her being killed in public in said ceremony, similar to how Vercingetorix of Gaul was killed in Caesar's triumph). He also appointed guards and other watchers to make sure she did not commit suicide. Yet inevitably, somehow, Cleopatra did die, according to legend, by means of an snake hidden in a basket of figs brought to her. Octavian, now named Augustus, had to content by a tablet in the triumph showing her death. He also honored her final requests and buried her next to Mark Antony and while he killed Caesarion, Cleopatra's child with Caesar, he did adopt and raise her children with Mark Antony. Likewise, the first Roman Emperor, was much inspired by the splendor of Alexandria and when embarking on his famous rebuilding of Rome borrowed much inspiration in civil engineering from Cleopatra's regime, so that Rome could outshine it in splendor.

Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemaics, and the last of the Diadochi, i.e. the Hellenic Kingdoms formed in the wake of Alexander the Great's conquests and the Macedonian Succession Wars which followed. She ruled over the last independent Greek and Egyptian state for nearly two thousand years.


Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Adapted Out: Most fictional narratives of her life make no mention of the fact that, in addition to her son by Julius Caesar, she also bore three children (two sons and a daughter) by Mark Antony.
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!: Modern perception of Cleopatra has been distorted quite a lot by her most famous film - the real life Cleopatra would not have worn the bizarre headdresses and hair accessories that Elizabeth Taylor wore (she preferred the simple diadem worn by Hellenistic monarchs), and did not have bobbed hair.
  • Gag Nose: This is usually how her nose is depicted in comic strips and cartoons. In the Asterix franchise it is drawn as a pointy triangle. It's based on a French meme started by Blaise Pascal:
    "Cleopatra's nose, had it been different, would have changed the history of the world."
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: The likes of Adrian Goldsworthy believe that the Romans themselves gave her this.
    • It's a longstanding Roman tradition to frame their wars as defensive rather than aggressive, to paint themselves as the underdog against a superior capable opponent. This tradition is so ingrained that many historians on seeing Roman sources generally note that the biggest problem is always assessing numbers since it's likely that the Romans exaggerated the strength and numbers of their opponents to make their victories look like "underdog heroic triumphs" against the bad guy rather than what it actually was, an expansionist invasion by a powerful land-hungry empire. As such when Octavian declared war against Egypt's Cleopatra and framed Antony as a puppet to her, the propaganda by necessity had to simultaneously undermine Mark Antony and build Cleopatra into a force of mettle and capability that could actually challenge Rome. Plutarch writing centuries later pointed out that when Mark Antony assembled his army, the bulk of his forces were actually client kings on his payroll, and the biggest force by far was the King of Armenia, while at the same time, mocking Antony for being too in-love with Cleopatra to actually act on it.
    • Ptolemaic Egypt, before Cleopatra's arrival, was well known across the Mediterranean as a "failed state" and it was already a client state and quasi-puppet of Rome. The senators kept delaying annexing it outright because they couldn't decide which general should get the command, and related honour, and clout to go with it. It is certainly true that Cleopatra's regime is credited with improving and turning things around, and rebuilding a broken state, but this didn't really involve military investment, and Cleopatra depended entirely on first Caesar, and then Mark Antony, for her power and clout.
    • Most fiction of Cleopatra, especially Liz Taylor's Biopic frame Cleopatra as a kind of equal to Caesar and Antony, or someone with grand plans and ambitions of her own. This is still based on Augustan propaganda. In all likelihood Cleopatra was a pragmatic, hard-headed, realist who wanted to preserve her own status and livelihood and prevent outright annexation from Rome, and her relationships with Caesar and Antony, however sincere they appear to have been, are complicated by her duties as a head-of-state, and she clearly knew her position vis-a-vis Rome, since she kept struggling to get Caesarion Roman citizenship.
  • Historical Beauty Update: A controversy among historians, cultural commentators and so on, since antiquity. The complicated answer is that we don't really know how she really looked like, and we have no idea if contemporary standards of beauty can apply to the Ancient World, bearing in mind both Ptolemaic-Hellenic and Roman standards (which were not quite the same):
    • Plutarch in Parallel Lives (written nearly a century after her death) argued in a famous and oft-quoted passage that Cleopatra wasn't physically beautiful so much as she was personally appealing, charismatic, and charming. Bear in mind that Plutarch, a Greek writing the Roman Empire, draws a lot on Augustus' propaganda against her, and part of that was driven by Mark Antony cheating on Octavia, his second wife and sister to Augustus, in favour of Cleopatra. Octavia was younger than Cleopatra, of Patrician stock, and sister to one of Rome's most powerful men, and yet Mark Antony carried on a public and scandalous affair with the foreign queen of Egypt which was scandalousnote . Plutarch mentions later that Octavia was prettier than Cleopatra, which is more or less an admittance that it wouldn't quite be right to admit, at least for Plutarch's audience, that Cleopatra was truly more beautiful and attractive than Augustus' kid sister.
    • Cleopatra herself presented herself differently in two of her portraits, and both of those were driven by political and propaganda concerns. In all likelihood she obviously did not look anything like Claudette Colbert in Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra 1934 or Elizabeth Taylor in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra but she was in all likelihood one of the most impressive and attractive individuals of her time, which in any case was entirely different and far apart from ours.
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude: There are two kinds of ancient portrait of Cleopatra - ones in which she looks like the epitome of Greek femininity, and the ones where she looks like a cross-dresser. The latter was to stress her links to her predecessors as king, imitate images of Roman consuls, and to show herself as having the heart and stomach of a king, which in the Hellenic society (i.e. Greek) meant de-emphasizing her femininity.
  • Ms. Fanservice: As part of her Historical Beauty Update. Most portrayals display her in skimpy outfits and as a seductive temptress.
  • Omniglot: As noted by Plutarch in "Life of Antony":
    "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."
  • Race Lift: The real Cleo was a descendant of the Greek Ptolemaic family (who tended to be incestuous), but she is popularly imagined either with Raven Hair, Ivory Skin, or as a black woman, depending on the artist. There is some controversy and gray area because nobody knows who her mother is, and according to a recent theory by an archeologist (not yet accepted by academic consensus), her half-sister Arsinoe IV (whose death Cleopatra ordered) apparently had African heritage (she and Cleopatra shared a father).
  • Worthy Opponent: Augustus hated her, smeared her reputation, and planned to humiliate her by dragging her to Rome as part of his triumph, but upon meeting her in person, after conquering Egypt, and especially after she defied him by killing herself despite all his efforts to prevent it. He not only fulfilled her Dying Wish, (to be buried with Mark Antony), but he also adopted Cleopatra's children with Antony (killing Caesarion, her child with Caesar).
    [Octavian] although vexed at the death of the woman, admired her lofty spirit; and he gave orders that her body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion. Her women also received honourable interment by his orders...Now, the statues of Antony were torn down, but those of Cleopatra were left standing, because Archibius, one of her friends, gave Caesar two thousand talents, in order that they might not suffer the same fate as Antony's.

Cleopatra in fiction:

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    Comic Books 
  • The Astérix album Asterix and Cleopatra introduced her as a recurring character in the Asterix franchise.

    Film 
  • One of the most famous lost films of all time is the 1917 silent Cleopatra with Theda Bara. The negative was burned up in a 1937 fire.
  • Cleopatra (1934) starred Claudette Colbert in a film directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
  • The 1963 film Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor is proably how she lives on in the imagination of most people. Taylor's famous bobcut, headdress, and elaborate gowns (the film holds the world record for most costume changes by a single actress) are all so ingrained in popular culture that they are nearly impossible to escape in modern depictions of the Pharaoh.
  • She was portrayed by Amanda Barrie in Carry On Cleo.
  • In the 2002 film based on the album Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, she's portrayed by Monica Bellucci.

    Literature 
  • One of The Royal Diaries features her, centering around her following her father to Rome and her first meeting with Marc Antony.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Plays an important role in Rome, where she has sex with legionary Titus Pullo (a completely fictional character who shares a name with a soldier mentioned by Caesar in his memoirs) before meeting Gaius Julius Caesar, the former being Caesarion's real father. She's played by Lyndsey Marshal. It also noticeably changes the circumstances of her death somewhat—rather than performing a Suicide Pact with Antony, she allows Antony to kill himself before meeting with Octavian to bargain for peace, but decides to take her own life as well after it becomes apparent that Octavian will never let "Caesar's" son live to remove any rivals (he is rescued by Pullo, who disguises him and takes him back to Rome).
  • She was portrayed by Leonor Varela in the 1999 Cleopatra miniseries with Timothy Dalton as Julius Caesar and Billy Zane as Marc Antony.
  • The Cleopatras is a BBC mini-series about the last century or so of the Ptolemaic dynasty; the first half is an extended series of flashbacks as told to then-Princess Cleopatra by her teacher, Theodotus, while the second half concentrates on her ascent to the throne of Egypt and her romances with Caesar and Antony.

    Music 

    Theatre 
  • She's one of the protagonists in William Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra.
  • George Bernard Shaw's play, Caesar and Cleopatra depicts Caesar's time in Egypt and his relationship with Cleopatra. In the 1945 film adaptation, she's played by Vivien Leigh. This adaptation depicts their history very loosely, with much timeline muddling and mischaracterization. For example, the play and film depict Cleo meeting Caesar when she is a young and timid girl, incapable of standing up to even her handmaiden. However by this point in history, Cleo would have already been ruling Egypt all by herself for some time, having bullied her younger brother into almost complete obscurity some years before.

     Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed Origins is set during her reign. She was mentioned in Assassin's Creed II to have been slain by the Assassin Amunet.
  • In Fate/Grand Order, she is summoned as an Assassin class Servant. In this version, she was a wise and just ruler who was able to turn Egypt into a military power, but she was recorded as merely a beauty who drowned in love and turned the kingdom into her personal playground. She wears modern clothing, saying people should keep up with the times, but deeply regrets the fall of Ancient Egypt. When she meets the Servant version of Julius Caesar, they still love each other, though she is confused that he's become so fat, and Caesar wants to use the Holy Grail to wish that they and their son Caesarion can live together as a family in peace. Her Noble Phantasm, Uraeus Astrape, summons a huge snake of fire.
  • Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse: Cleopatra appears as a demon in a DLC mission, in which she is collecting—and killing—young women from all over Tokyo to take parts of their bodies to resurrect herself. After defeating her, you have the honor of fusing her and having her join your ranks.
  • Dante's Inferno: Cleopatra is encountered not as a tormented soul like in the Divine Comedy, but as a lust demon fought as the boss for the Circle of Lust. Unlike most popular depictions where she is depicted as a Ms. Fanservice, she is both highly sexualized and incredibly disturbing at the same time, displaying a nude figure that is twisted and mutilated almost like a Cenobite from Hellraiser.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 

Alternative Title(s): Cleopatra

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