Cleopatra: A Life

A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors.

Ancient history is oddly short on incorrect omens.

And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.

Apollodorus came, Caesar saw, Cleopatra conquered,

As always, an educated woman was a dangerous woman.

As Dio observed later, democracy sounded very well and good, “but its results are seen not to agree at all with its title. Monarchy, on the contrary, has an unpleasant sound, but is a most practical form of government to live under. For it is easier to find a single excellent man than many of them.

As incandescent as was her personality, Cleopatra was every bit Caesar's equal as a coolheaded, clear-eyed pragmatist, though what passed on his part as strategy would be remembered on hers as manipulation.

Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved.

Cleopatra moreover came of age in a country that entertained a singular definition of women’s roles. Well before her and centuries before the arrival of the Ptolemies, Egyptian women enjoyed the right to make their own marriages. Over time their liberties had increased, to levels unprecedented in the ancient world. They inherited equally and held property independently. Married women did not submit to their husbands’ control. They enjoyed the right to divorce and to be supported after a divorce. Until the time an ex-wife’s dowry was returned, she was entitled to be lodged in the house of her choice. Her property remained hers; it was not to be squandered by a wastrel husband. The law sided with the wife and children if a husband acted against their interests. Romans marveled that in Egypt female children were not left to die; a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter. Egyptian women married later than did their neighbors as well, only about half of them by Cleopatra’s age. They loaned money and operated barges. They served as priests in the native temples. They initiated lawsuits and hired flute players. As wives, widows, or divorcées, they owned vineyards, wineries, papyrus marshes, ships, perfume businesses, milling equipment, slaves, homes, camels. As much as one third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands.

[Cleopatra's] power has been made to derive from her sexuality, for obvious reason; as one of Caesar's murderers had noted, 'How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!' It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.

Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history; that of women and power. Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous.

Disdain is a natural condition of the mind in exile;

For ten generations her family had styled themselves pharaohs. The Ptolemies were in fact Macedonian Greek, which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor.

Her palace shimered with onyx, garnet, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue.

History is written not only by posterity, but for posterity as well.

How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.

It was rare to find a member of the family who did not liquidate a relative or two, Cleopatra VII included.

No one dances while he is sober. Unless he happens to be a lunatic. -Cicero

One loyal friend,” Euripides reminds us, “is worth ten thousand relatives.

Politics have long been defined as “the systematic organization of hatreds.

Romans marveled that in Egypt female children were not left to die; a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter.

(The Hellenistic Age begins with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ends in 30 BC, with the death of Cleopatra. It has been perhaps best defined as a Greek era in which the Greeks played no role.)

The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty. She remains on the map for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was to have entered into those same "wily and suspicious" marital partnerships that every man in power enjoyed. She did so in reverse and in her own name; this made her a deviant, socially disruptive, an unnatural woman. To these she added a few other offenses. She made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor, sufficient cause for anxiety without adding sexuality into the mix.

The Ptolemies were in fact Macedonian Greek, which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor.

The Ptolemies were in fact Macedonian Greek, which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor. The word ‘honey skinned’ recurs in descriptions of her relatives and would presumably applied to hers as well, despite the inexactitudes surrounding her mother and paternal grandmother. There was certainly Persian blood in the family, but even an Egyptian mistress is a rarity among the Ptolemies. She was not dark skinned.

there were days you felt like waging war, and days when you just needed to go home.

The vanity extended most of all to his library, arguably the real love of Cicero's life. It is difficult to name anything in which he took more pleasure, aside possibly evasion of the sumptuary laws. Cicero liked to believe himself wealthy. He prided himself on his books. He needed no further reason to dislike Cleopatra: intelligent women who had better libraries than he did offended him on three counts.

To the punishing study of Egyptian, however, Cleopatra applied herself. She was allegedly the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled.

When a woman teams up with a snake a moral storm threatens somewhere.