Controversies Surrounding the Figure of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra

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Throughout history, Cleopatra is a historical figure of much debate and interest. In modern times, Cleopatra has the potential to be a mainstream role model when considering the debates on her ethnicity, race, and her intelligence. As an infamous woman, it is likely easier to bend the truths of Cleopatra rather than attempt to integrate others into the public eye in order to fill the roles she has the centuries. However, as society bends Cleopatra to fit into these roles, we lose sight of who she is. If we even knew to begin with, especially considering the surviving sources of the period. All sources would have reasons for their portrayal of Cleopatra. Any Roman would view her in distaste for her affairs with their greatest Generals and the Civil War (for all that they portrayed it as a war against Egypt). In contrast, an Egyptian would surely hesitate to speak ill of their Queen anywhere she could know about it for fear of retribution. As such, no one will never truly solve the truth behind Cleopatra. Most surviving sources of Cleopatra are written from a Roman perspective rather than an Egyptian one or any other neighbouring country, which severely limits how well a historian can piece together the intricacies of a person.

Plutarch, a Greek-born Roman who became a biographer and a historian, writes one of these sources. Plutarch was born 80 years after the death of Cleopatra, so the source isn't exactly 'of the time' however he allegedly used primary sources to piece her life together such as people who had known Cleopatra and Antony on some level or were able to witness them and their antics to some degree. Despite this, it has been over 80 years since Cleopatra's death and memories fade or become distorted with time, so may not be entirely reliable as a source, especially considering the age they must have been when Plutarch was putting together his findings. Compared to other sources, Plutarch may have been less inclined to purposely besmirch Cleopatra than the other sources we have access to. As he was of a Greek and Cleopatra was of Greek descent there may have been a provocative to view her in a more sympathetic light, especially if he was attempting to use primary sources to find out the truth rather than the propaganda of the republic.

In the source, Plutarch describes Cleopatra as 'dressed in the character of Venus'. Venus being a Roman goddess of love, beauty, desire, and fertility. Cleopatra has deliberately chosen to portray herself as someone the Romans would recognise, rather than an Egyptian goddess. This might be an attempt to control her image in Rome as she successfully did in Egypt. It is doubtful that Romans would be particularly learned in Egyptian religion and appearing as an Egyptian goddess would not gain her any favours, they would not understand the message she was sending. As she appeared as a Roman goddess, it was highly unlikely they would misunderstand what she was trying to provoke. As a Queen of Egypt from a royal line during this period, her appointment as Queen would fall under the concept of divine rule: a ruler chosen by the gods themselves to rule on their behalf. By appearing this way to Romans, she reminds them that she is a Queen, a mortal goddess, who is not to be trifled with and does not bow to them, to Antony's whims. By portraying herself as Venus, a goddess of fertility and maternity, she shows Antony what she is willing to offer in this alliance, her body, and children to strengthen his bloodline and succeed him as well as the abundance of Egypt.

Her attempt extended to having her servants costumed as Cupids, who was the child of Venus. This imagery could suggest that she sees her servants, her people, as her children, for whom she must care, provide, and protect as a mother would. Conversely, it may simply refer to Caesarion, her heir to Egypt and the son of Julius Caesar, who Antony greatly respected. Although in contrast, she had her ladies-in-waiting dressed as Nereids and Graces, or Charites as they are otherwise known, which refers more to Greek mythology rather than Roman. This reference to Greek beliefs could be Cleopatra adding a nod to her heritage as a Greek despite her upbringing as an Egyptian. This reminder could be advantageous as Romans wouldn't have viewed Greeks with the same sort of disdain and wariness as viewed the Egyptians if this was intended. It is possible that there was no Roman equivalent of a Nereid and with the Roman Pantheon and Greek Pantheon becoming more and more intertwined, there was little need to distinguish between the two for her spectacle as it would have been understood regardless.

As well as her characterisation of Venus, Cleopatra parades the wealth of Egypt through Tarsus. The source makes multiple references to 'gold' and describes the rich perfume used to entice and draw in a crowd. By showcasing her wealth in this way, she is demonstrating the advantages of an alliance with Egypt and what they can provide for Antony, regardless of what Cleopatra herself can provide. The spectacle is designed to disarm and impress. Cleopatra has not followed Antony's orders and a combination of her late arrival, and her vast display of wealth would not be what Antony was expecting from her. As he would be distracted, it would make him much easier for Cleopatra to subtly manipulate him into doing what she wants him to do. Cleopatra was also 'fashionably late' she was late for the sole purpose of either proving or establishing her higher social status. A not-so-subtle reminder of who she is, and that he does not have any control over her or her actions. By doing this, Cleopatra sets the tone for the rest of their meetings. They are on equal footing and Antony is now fully aware that Cleopatra is not your typical woman, she is not subservient and will not necessarily follow his orders, for he has no control over her.

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Despite all this, Cleopatra's attempts to control her image may be taken negatively. By portraying herself as Venus, she sets herself up to be seen as a temptress, especially with the supposed seduction of Caeser and Antony. Furthermore, there was no guarantee that the Romans would not take her characterisation of their beliefs as an insult, as she is falsely personifying one of their goddesses, which would have made her alliance with Antony a much harder sell. Her displays of wealth could be taken as a sign of corruption, greed or extreme extravagance which would make it much easier to villainize her to the Roman populace following Caeser's and Antony's alliance with Egypt and Cleopatra's part in it and for the two generals to see her as a competent ruler.

It is impossible to know the real Cleopatra, whether that be in attitude and bearing or in appearance. Who Cleopatra really was died when she did, possibly before when the war was lost or with the death of Mark Antony. Any recount of her won't be accurate. Cleopatra was a Queen; she could not afford to show weakness or indecision in any capacity except to those she trusted most otherwise her rule would be undermined. Whilst the Egyptians had no problem with a female ruler, it is undeniable that the Romans did and showing any kind of unintentional vulnerability would have ruined the image she was desperately trying to portray. The Romans, despite her initial attempts, will always view her negatively because of the Civil War, Julius Caeser, and Mark Antony and Egyptians will always view her more positively for fear of retribution should they say otherwise.

In the modern era Cleopatra continues to be a prevalent subject for debate, whether that be her ethnicity or the validity of Roman claims of seduction in contrast to evidence of her being an avid scholar and administrator. Her infamy has only increased over time as more media is consumed by society and Cleopatra's story is repeatedly told in a variety of ways that only increases the intrigue towards her character and what is considered the truth. Her story of lust, suicide and the conflict between Rome and Egypt made it an excellent story to be consistently rewritten by poets, artists and writers alike until Cleopatra is what she is today 'a woman elevated and shrouded in mystery and misconceptions'.

A particularly heated debate is that of her ethnicity. In the last century colour and race have become a prominent issue in society with the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century and the Black Live Matter movement in recent years. As such, Cleopatra's ethnicity has been called into question especially as the western world has a habit of white-washing history as part of colonialism and continuing white supremacy. As an African Queen at first glance Cleopatra would obviously be, to some extent, black. However, Cleopatra is of Greek descent which would make her skin tone white. There is also the fact that Egyptians have a more varied skin tone regardless as northern Africans along the Mediterranean Sea rather than south and west Africans which are darker skinned due to the proximity to the sun and equator. Due to the slave trade taking place mostly in the south, most people would automatically think that the people of south and west Africa, represent the whole of Africa instead of just a region. Also, it would have been common to have Egyptians with Greek blood due to the proximity to Greece and the Greek population in Egypt which would make Egypt as a country varied in skin tones. In ancient times, the colour of someone else's skin was of little concern compared to their ability and power. Consequently, there is no mention of it in sources and surviving documents.

Regarding Cleopatra, as a Ptolemy we know for certain that she is Greek however her lineage is incomplete. Her mother and grandmother are unknown, and Cleopatra is the only known Ptolemaic ruler to speak Egyptian. This lends itself to the idea that her mother was Egyptian and was the one to teach her. It can also be concluded that Cleopatra was a legitimate child of Ptolemy XII; if she was not the Romans would have surely mentioned it in their campaign against her. If there is one certainty in her ethnicity it is that Cleopatra is undoubtably Egyptian. Much of her identity was rooted in Egypt and what she considered its best interests and protection. This can be proven by archaeological evidence and how she presented herself in her home country, going as far as to be neglectful of her Greek heritage. In Egypt she was seen as an Egyptian with the only exceptions being coinage however in Egypt coinage wasn't traditionally used so it must have presumably been targeted at an international audience who would frown upon an Egyptian Queen, a foreign Queen, whilst be more accepting of one who was Greek. Cleopatra could have had some Egyptian blood which would make her part of Black History which is largely the appeal of considering Cleopatra to be black. It would be monumental to have a prominent, powerful, black female monarch to help fight white supremacy and aid in feminist rights.

As a woman, Cleopatra is doomed to be constantly mislabelled and rewritten by male, misogynistic historians who view themselves as superior and cannot fathom a capable, female monarch, especially one of potential colour. Subsequently, over the centuries Cleopatra has been named a seducer and a temptress for her role in the downfall of Julius Caeser and Mark Antony. This is mostly a consequence of Roman ideals and the Roman Conquest that spread them as well as the survivability of their sources. These sources from Cassius Dio, Horace and Josephus are the most well-known sources regarding Cleopatra. The imagery the use portrays Cleopatra as the main enemy who has 'bewitched' Antony and his men to abandon Roman; they describe her as mad and drunk on power and wine, an unhealthy greed. Even Plutarch's description of Cleopatra's arrival could be viewed in a negative light. To Romans she has no self-control, and it is her greed for more power that was her and Egypt's eventual downfall. In actuality, Cleopatra herself had little to do with her acquisitions of territory, much of it was gifted (either to herself or those her line) from Rome or Antony himself.

It is only with the addition of female historians that Cleopatra's story is viewed in a different light. With the addition of some south-eastern sources such as Al-Masudi, Egyptian sources and a new outlook on her supposed seduction, Cleopatra comes across a skilled manipulator, administrator and overall intellectual. Through how she presents herself to the world she can choose how people see her; by portraying herself as more Roman or Greek (such as through coinage) she appeals to those on an international scale. Whereas by broadcasting herself as Egyptian in Egypt she appeals to her own subjects, if she is a popular monarch, there is less chance of rebellion or a coup among the upper classes. 

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