VOYA Honor List for Nonfiction
Cleopatra’s Killer Rep
Was the last queen of Egypt an evil, gorgeous woman, dripping with jewels? A power-hungry tempress trying to rule the world? A pharaoh with a small snake problem?
How about none of the above.
Everything you’ve read about Queen Cleopatra VII should have come with a warning: details may have been “Photoshopped” and manipulated beyond recognition. The Queen of the Nile had more mud flung at her than you can dig up on the banks of that great river. From Shakespeare to Hollywood, what you’ve seen and read about her wasn’t always completely true.
Hollywood made her into a hot starlet because nobody wanted to see an ugly queen. Historians turned her into a power-hungry witch because that made her story more interesting. And her Roman conqueror, Octavian, made her into a weapon of mass destruction in heels so he could stomp all over Mark Antony.
Will we ever know the “real” Cleopatra? Without her personal letters and journals, probably not. But for the first time, modern scholars and historians are looking at events from the queen’s point of view. What they are finding is that Queen Cleopatra VII , the last pharaoh of Egypt, was in fact a brilliant, complex, powerful ruler. For twenty years, she kept the world’s greatest superpower from taking over her country—a good trick when you realize it was during the time when Rome swallowed up countries faster than most teens use up text minutes.
How did she do it?
The answer may shock and surprise you—and may even make you laugh. Either way, you’ll get a more balanced look at Cleopatra the queen, the ruler, and mother of four. So, on your knees, commoner. The last great queen of Egypt is about to take the stage!
A Bookish Nerd?
She ruled all of Egypt, had Romans trembling in their togas, and made kings weak at the knees. Yet the glamour queen of the ancient world started out as … a bookish nerd.
Yup, the girl whom Shakespeare likened to Venus—the goddess of love—cared more about books than boys. At first, anyway. As a kid, Cleopatra spent most of her time hitting the scrolls at the famous Great Library of Alexandria.
Young Cleopatra had a good reason for being so serious—several reasons, actually: her ambitious brothers and sisters. Life with them was like living with a nest of squirming, hissing reality-show stars—you never knew when one might strike. Would her older sister push Cleopatra down the palace steps to get her out of the way? Would her younger brothers and sister poison her afternoon snack? Or maybe, “accidentally on purpose,” hold her head under the water a little too long while they played in the palace pool?
See, Cleopatra’s family was not what you would exactly call … um, loving. Yet while most of her family members cared only for their own personal power, Cleopatra longed to bring back the glory days of her beloved country, which was easier said than done.
Corrupt rulers and a long history of border disputes had weakened the once powerful kingdom. By the time Cleopatra came along, Egypt was sliding down the tubes faster than a greased-up preschooler on a Slip ’n Slide.
Turning to the Big Bad Wolf
As Egypt declined, Pharaoh Ptolemy XII took his eleven-year-old daughter, Cleopatra VII, on a trip to Rome—not to sightsee but to save his skin. Raging mobs had run him off his throne and out of Alexandria. See, over the years, Daddy Pharaoh had paid Roman generals big bucks in return for soldiers to scare off his enemies. Only he had so many enemies, he had to “buy” more Roman protection than he could afford. And guess who footed the bill—Egyptian citizens, who had to pay extra taxes. When Cleopatra’s dad taxed his people to the breaking point to pay for more Roman henchmen, they chased him out of Alexandria faster than a band of crazed shoppers at a half-off sale.
But although the pharaoh may have been out, he wasn’t down. Not without a fight, anyway. So he put his kingdom into even deeper debt—this time to a private Roman loan shark—to pay Roman armies for help in invading his own country. Yes, that’s right, he invaded his own country. It worked. The Roman military put him back in charge. But as a result, his people hated him more than ever.
“Who You Calling ‘Fatty’?”
Most rulers want nicknames that reflect their power or glory, like Alexander the Great or William the Conqueror.
Cleopatra’s dad? He ended up with a nickname that probably made her cringe. The people called him Auletes—“the Piper”—because Ptolemy (tall-oh-mee) XII liked to play the flute. They didn’t call him the Piper in a nice way, either. Guys who played wind instruments in the ancient world weren’t exactly considered macho.
Still, it was better than her grandfather’s nickname. They called him Chick-pea. Before that, the Egyptians called Cleopatra’s great-grandfather—Ptolemy VIII—Fatty, or Physcon, because of his huge size. He needed several servants to hold him up to waddle around the palace!
Whatever she thought about these nicknames, Cleopatra likely had a bigger issue with the way her father groveled at the feet of rich Romans.
Like her dad, she knew the Egyptians needed Rome to survive. But unlike him, she was determined to find a way to become Rome’s partner, instead of its slave.
Daddy’s Girl … NOT!
While “the Piper” and Cleopatra trolled for money in Rome, his oldest daughter, Berenice, snatched the throne and named herself queen. Okay, we know Cleopatra was smart, but could her sister have been any dumber?
Think about it: most usurpers (people who steal thrones) usually have the king killed before they name themselves top dog. Yet for some reason, Berenice didn’t. That’s why some scholars wonder if maybe somebody else shoved her on the throne while Daddy was on the road. Or whether she thought Daddy would be assassinated in Rome. Or even thought that angry mobs in Egypt would tear him apart once they heard how much they would owe in taxes to pay the Roman loan shark.
[Tax Photo? Need new one plus caption…]
Either way, it was a dumb move, because as soon as Daddy regained control of the throne, Berenice parted with more than her crown. She parted with her life, too. The Piper had her pipes cut—she was executed for treason. Turns out that Daddy the Flute Player could turn into Daddy the Destroyer without pausing for breath.
Cleopatra took careful note of that move, too.
How We Know What We Know
[Photo 5/Plutarch. Caption: Most of what we know about Cleopatra comes from the Romanized Greek historian, Plutarch, who wrote about Mark Antony nearly hundred years after Cleopatra’s death.]
Plutarch needed to make Mark Antony—and therefore Cleopatra—look bad because he did not want to anger the often touchy Roman Emperor(s) of his time.
Imagine if Lex Luthor wrote Superman’s bio or Darth Vader dished on Princess Leia. You might find yourself a little skeptical about their claims, right? You might even find yourself doubting—if not laughing outright at—all of the insults and snide remarks.
Yet that’s exactly what happened to Cleopatra. Rome won, so Romans told their version of her story. The Romans dissed and dismissed her worse than a fashion critic at the Oscars.
Today’s scholars are not so quick to accept everything the Romans wrote about Cleopatra. They look for proof—or at least some evidence—that might either back up or dispute the Romans’ version of events. More importantly, they do what the Romans found unthinkable: they give her the respect of seeing things from her point of view.
It’s about time the great queen received the equal—if not royal—treatment she always deserved.
A Gift for Gab
After the Piper snuffed his eldest daughter, he retook the throne and went back to playing the flute. Egyptians seethed over having to fork over even more of their hard-earned money in taxes to repay Romans. But what could they do? The streets of Alexandria teemed with Roman soldiers paid to keep the Piper piping and the people quiet.
[Photo 7/Homer. Caption: Cleopatra, like all educated Greeks, would have learned to read using Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey.]
Meanwhile, young Cleopatra chilled at the Great Library of Alexandria, studying science, mathematics, philosophy, and languages. In fact, according to one ancient source, she was the first ruler in nearly 250 years to learn and speak the native Egyptian language!
Wait. What? How could Egyptian rulers not speak the native tongue?
Easy. Cleopatra’s family—the Ptolemy line of Pharaohs—wasn’t Egyptian. Cleopatra actually descended from the Greeks. Nearly 250 years earlier, Alexander the Great invaded Egypt and put it under his rule. When he died, his general and self-claimed half brother Ptolemy took over as pharaoh. From then on, his Greek descendants ruled Egypt and spoke only Greek. Even Cleopatra’s name was Greek. It just happened to be the name of Alexander the Great’s little sister.
Our Cleo had a talent for languages. In addition to Greek and Egyptian, she spoke numerous African dialects as well as Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, and Persian. But her political smarts were even more impressive. And she couldn’t wait to put them to good use.
Purchase Cleopatra Rules!