Follow TV Tropes


Series / The Cleopatras

Go To
The Cleopatras is an eight-part historical miniseries produced by The BBC in 1983 and written by Philip Mackie (whose previous historical mini-series writing credits included The Caesars for Granada in 1968). The series opens up with Cleopatra VII (the one most familiar to us—the one who later fell in love with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony) being told the stories of all of the other Cleopatras in her family (her mother, aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers) via a history lesson. After the histories of all of the past Cleopatras have been explored, the story continues to detail the life of the last of the Cleopatras, who committed suicide via asp bite after losing the Battle of Actium.

The series was lavishly mounted and there were high hopes that it would become the I, Claudius of the 1980s. Critical reception however, was quite mixed. This might have been due to the wry "horror-comic" tone of the series, when another approach might have suited the material better. Or it might have had something to do with the surreal production design and effects, which made copious use of the "video toaster". Or it might have had something to do with the rather anachronistic progressive rock-esque soundtrack. Whatever the reason, the series vanished into the annals of television and to this day still hasn't had a proper DVD release, although it has been uploaded to YouTube. You can catch the first episode here.


This series provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Fluter just wants to be a nice guy, be a good ruler and play his flute. Of course, he'll cold-bloodedly kill any family members who cross him, but that's pretty par for the course for an Egyptian ruler.
  • The Alcoholic: Pot Belly and Alexander are epic drinkers. Although Mark Antony could probably drink them both under the table.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Part of the reason why Cleopatra III sticks to her husband (and uncle) Pot Belly until his natural death, despite little things like his drunkenly admitting to murdering her brother Eupator while seducing her (or her seducing him) and raping her immediately afterwards when she understandably changes her mind and attempts to push him off. Pot Belly is an unapologetic tyrant who admits openly his devious nature, yet he is notably the only Ptolemy ruler in the series whose consort never attempts to stab him in the back to gain the throne for herself.
  • Advertisement:
  • Asshole Victim: A great many of the family members who get bumped off during the series are these. Even the children (although that's probably only because they've been spoiled into insufferability thanks to their rank).
  • The Atoner: Pharaoh Pot Belly decides to appear to become one of these later in his reign. This isn't because he's generally sorry for the things he's done. He just wants to repair his 0% Approval Rating which came about thanks to his previous "massacre people randomly to keep them in line" method of ruling.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Happens so often in this series, it actually starts to become mundane. Egypt goes through a lot of Ptolemys and Cleopatras in the first six episodes, and every one of them gets at least one coronation scene (often simply comprising a shot of them sitting on their thrones in full regalia).
  • Badass Boast: Old Chickpea, who was not noted for his strong rule until then, suddenly proclaims one to the stupor of his daughter and the rest of the audience after learning that Thebes is in revolt to depose the whole Ptolemaic bloodline. He orders the city razed to the ground and its citizens massacred to a man, "for the KING is a GOD, and a MIGHTYYYY GOD! We have the BLOOD of RA, the GRRRREAT SUN-GOD, in our VEEEEEINS!!!"
  • Brother–Sister Incest: A hallmark of the Egyptian Royal Family. The extended flashback that takes up the first five episodes opens with news of the death of Ptolemy VI Philometor, father of Cleopatra III and husband and brother of Cleopatra II. The widowed queen proceeds to marry her other brother, Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, AKA Pot Belly. And that's just for starters.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Cleopatra Selene and Cleopatra Tryphaena suffer this. One gets her hands chopped off while clinging to an altar for protection and the other gets her teeth ripped out before enduring a slow, painful execution.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Chickpea is definitely not the same naive idiot two decades later when he comes back on the throne, which is understandable given both his sisters-wives betrayed him, separately, and his mother Cleopatra III attempted to have him murdered in a mob riot. While still an idiot his naivety is gone, his demeanor now rougher, more impatient, and unforgiving of any slight. His daughter and his mistress both share the same utter lack of respect his mother and his sisters had for him... but contrarily to them, they do not despise him enough to flaunt it to his face.
  • Death of a Child: This was Truth in Television, sadly.
  • The Ditz: Young Chickpea is not shown to be as bad as the other Ptolemies. Instead, he is a clueless and weak heir in a pack of degenerate and compulsive plotters, grossly manipulated by his father Pot Belly, his mother Cleopatra III, and both his sisters for their own ends. His brother Ptolemy Alexander comments that he does not himself hate Chickpea as he is "not good, but not bad either", and that he does not get what Chickpea could have done to his mother that made her hate him so much, to the point of wanting to kill him. Her answer is his birth was reason enough.
  • Driven to Suicide: Fluter's brother (who had his kingdom stolen from him by the Romans) decided to put all of his treasure into three boats and sink them in order to keep the Romans from getting their hands on them. He originally planned to be on one of the boats as it sank, but opted for a quicker, easier death by poison.
  • Dysfunctional Family: An extreme version of this. A royal family filled with incest, political intrigues, power struggles, murder, etc.
  • Easily Forgiven: Forgive an uncle who raped your daughter, murdered one of your brothers and beheaded your son? If doing so means you get to remain Queen of Egypt, sure!
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Pot Belly and Chickpea. Also, the guy with bad body odor who wanted to marry one of the Cleopatras (and who was probably suffering from trimethylaminuria) was called "Fish Peddler" thanks to his smell.
  • For the Evulz: Pot Belly often jerked around members of his own family, purely for his own amusement.
  • Generational Saga: The series covers the last five generations of the Ptolemaic dynasty from 145 BCE to 30 BCE.
  • A God Am I: The royal ideology of the Ptolemies taught that they were living gods after being crowned. How seriously the individual queens and kings took this varied.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Fluter starts off as a seemingly nice, lightheaded and innocent fellow, having just been brought to the throne by happenstance because he and his siblings were the sole bastards with the closest Ptolemy blood found nearby in Alexandria. However, years of having Egypt's resources driven into the ground to bring enough gold to buy the Romans so that they will legitimise his claim to the throne by Senate decree, then seeing his brother being Driven to Suicide because a loophole in said decree ended with him losing Cyprus to the same Romans he had just bribed, then being deposed by the mob, led by his own sister/wife and his eldest daughter, because said loss of Cyprus made him look incompetent and weak, have turned him rather sour about politics. Cue the look in his eyes when he finally returns to the throne of Egypt years later after having beaten his usurper daughter's army with the Roman legions; his first order is to have said eldest daughter dragged off the throne and executed on the spot.
  • Ice Queen: Berenike attempts to remain one when she succeeds her father Chickpea, even when finding herself forced to marry his cousin, the sole surviving legitimate Ptolemy, by the Romans. It didn't last long. (Nineteen days to be exact.)
  • Kavorka Man: Pot Belly is a fat and ugly man, which is an open source of derision between his family and himself. Yet it doesn't stop him from finding a lot of comfort in women, be they Greek mistresses, dancing girls, his sister, his niece...
  • King on His Deathbed: Pot Belly, Chickpea, and Fluter all get deathbed scenes, during which their children and prospective heirs mutter under their breaths that they wish the old man would hurry up and die. Indeed, Pot Belly treats dying like a performance piece and laments that he can't die more publicly.
  • Meaningful Name: Averted in universe. Chickpea was given his nickname precisely because it had no meaning (and was most likely bestowed on him by his father just to annoy him).
  • Offing the Offspring: Happened a lot, as did Offing the Siblings, Patricide, etc. The Egyptian royal family was full of Antagonistic Offspring and Evil Matriarchs. If you were an Egyptian ruler and weren't sleeping with a close relative, you were probably trying to kill him. It was just in the nature of how power was acquired back in those days.
  • Omniglot: True to historical accounts, the series suggests that Cleopatra VII (that is, the Cleopatra) could read hieroglyphics and was fluent in Greek (the language she spoke day-to-day), Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Persian, and Ethiopian. This is in contrast to the fact that, as Cleopatra herself admits, her family is mostly Greek/Macedonian and without a single drop of native Egyptian blood.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. Several members of the family throughout several generations share the same names (which is why many family members are identified by second names or nicknames). In particular, the kings are all called Ptolemy, and the queens are almost all called Cleopatra (the series is called The Cleopatras, after all).note 
  • Rising Empire: From the very first episode Rome is a presence, although by the time we see the reigning Ptolemies start taking it seriously it's already too late, with Rome literally in their backyard.
  • Royally Screwed Up: Of course! By the time the series begins, the Ptolemaic dynasty have already been inbreeding for generations, resulting in a wide array of unstable, bloodthirsty, and downright insane rulers who think nothing of raping or murdering each other for political gain.
  • Seeking Sanctuary: Several characters try to seek sanctuary from their murderous relatives in temples, but this never, ever works. One wonders why they keep bothering to try it.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Ptolemy XI Alexander II's idea of a pleasant rape when finding himself refused by his newlywed wife and co-ruler - very popular Queen Berenike - would have made him a strong contender for a Darwin Award. The mob of Alexandria agreed with that assessment and gladly obliged, extinguishing the sole undeniably legitimate Ptolemaic bloodline at a stroke.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Several rulers are driven out of Alexandria or worse by angry mobs. Pot Belly is forced to flee when the Alexandrians take exception to his burning down a school without letting the people inside get out first, while Ptolemy XI Alexander II is literally torn to pieces after raping and murdering his much more popular queen on their wedding night.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Pot Belly and Cleopatra III. Oddly enough, in a sea of backstabbing family politics, it is the only royal couple that lasts to the end.
  • The Un-Favourite: Cleopatra III wanted to have only marvelous sons, but becoming Queen came at a steep cost: Her rape by Potbelly made her pregnant with Chickpea, who was definitely not marvelous, to her ever-lasting resentment. But it's the circumstances around her pregnancy that made her hate him so much, to the point of humiliating him constantly as her co-ruler, then attempting to murder him as soon as it became convenient.
  • Vestigial Empire: In a way, the series is really the story of how the last independent Egypt until modern times went from being an empire (although itself a remnant of Alexander the Great's empire) to being a client kingdom of Rome's to losing its autonomy altogether.
  • We Have Reserves: Fluter orders the execution of his traitorous daughter. When someone expresses shock at him offing his child, he calmly explains that he has several more, as if the number of expendable heirs at his disposal were the only issue...
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Episodes 1-5 are flashbacks covering nearly a hundred years of the Ptolemaic dynasty, starting with the death of Ptolemy Philometor in battle in Syria, as told to the latest Cleopatra by her teacher Theodotus. It is not until Episode 6 that the flashbacks end and the story of Cleopatra's romances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony begins.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: