... the search for the 'truth'
What factors have influenced historians in their search for the ‘truth’ about Cleopatra VII?
"People have been fooling around with Cleopatra's image to suit themselves for centuries” (Barbara Holland pg. 97).
If this quote is accurate, then the ‘truth’ about Cleopatra VII has never been established. Truth is individual, changing from person to person. There is no one truth rather the many ‘truths’ deriving from different people’s perspectives.
However, there always lies a legitimacy or fact in any situation, it is the way that people communicate this fact that the truth is lost. This is because no matter how hard a historian may try to be objective; they cannot escape their own biased. It is also important to consider that humanity has the urge to tell a good story and, in the process, the more factual truth will always be covered.
From historical accounts such as the Graeco-Roman writers who set the president for all following accounts to the 20-21 st Century historians who challenge these ideals, all the way through movie and television portrayals that clearly bend the truth, we have been given a million different interpretations of who cleopatra was.
In here lies the fact of the matter; a historical truth cannot exist. From things such as context, prejudice and manipulation of the factual truth for one’s own personal gain, the ‘truth’ of an event, or person in Cleopatra's case, will always change.
The basis for all primary knowledge about Cleopatra comes from the vicious Graeco-Roman histories, of which their writing is a prime example of how the historians' bias shines through their history, setting the standards for a future of manipulated and untrue accounts. The Islamic control over Egypt in the 7th to 16th Century means we have little to no Egyptian records about her, all we are left with is the unsympathetic and inarguably prejudice accounts of Cleopatra and her reign of 51-30BC.
Contextually, Rome was threatened by Cleopatra and ended up at war with her. The remaining written and epigraphic knowledge we have comes from poets and propaganda in Rome. Poet Horace (23 BC) describes her as “a crazy queen ... plotting ... to demolish the capital and topple the [Roman] empire”, likening her ‘destruction’ upon Rome like that of Helen's upon Troy (Amy Crawford pg. 2). Similarly, the poet Lucan (39-65AD) justified that she was “the shame of Egypt. The lascivious fury who was to become the bane of Rome” (Amy Crawford pg. 2).
Her looks were often brought into conversation. Cassius Dio (155-235AD) discussed her as an exceptionally beautiful woman who used her beauty to get men to follow her, particularly Caesar (Cassius Dio). Plutarch (46-119AD) on the other hand described her as not very beautiful, rather the charm and allure coming from her personality and tone of voice (Plutarch).
It is important to also note that with the discussion about her looks, came discussion about her gender and ethnicity, often as a way to justify her actions. Cassius Dio states “true to her nature as a woman and an Egyptian she suddenly turned to flight” while describing her fleeing at the battle of Actium. He blames her ethnicity and femininity as the reason for her withdrawal (Cassius Dio). Roman propaganda originating from her enemy Octavian who was ‘ruler’ of Rome at the time, used a range of ‘extravagant indictments and recriminations’ with descriptions such as lust, whore, incest, use of magic and drugs, animal worship, rampant luxury, and drunkenness (Meyer Reinhold pg 97). Amy Crawford notes she was fundamentally described as a “dangerous harlot who employed sex, witchcraft and cunning as she grasped for power beyond what was proper for a woman” (Amy Crawford pg. 2).
Octavian did everything he could to portray her as scheming to bolster himself. Ronald Syme writes “the propaganda of Octavianus magnified Cleopatra.” (Ronald Syme pg. 275). By magnifying the ‘danger’ of Cleopatra and the threat she brought Rome, it in turn magnified Octavian’s 'great defeat’ over her. The writings coming from Rome at the time are clearly shining Cleopatra in a negative light, modern interpretations have sought to justify why they wrote so negatively. It is clear that their bias came from the fact that she was a huge threat to the massively expanded and powerful empire, an external threat they hadn't seen for a long time.
To a Roman, her ambitions and career must have seemed a ‘monstrum in the old religious sense’ - “Here a woman. Offspring of a brother-sister union … herself incestuously married, a queen with the attributes of divinity and the reputation of a whore, who had the effrontery to captivate ‘the noblest roman’ ... And the audacity to plan the overthrow of Rome with a Roman army” (J V Luce pg. 253). Nevertheless, the fact that this is the main primary source of knowledge, it has set the standards of all following interpretations and analysis of the queen. We can see a clear prejudice in the degrading accounts the romans have given us on their enemy and has potentially misinformed future generations about who she truly was.
An important point of consideration when looking at primary evidence is the idea of Cleopatra as a ‘femme fatale’ arising from Graeco-Roman history and what impact this interpretation of the queen’s actions has had on our view of who she is. The Roman sources are all from males such as Horace, Cassius Dio, Plutarch, Octavian propaganda and Lucan. Dr Miriam Gilbert notes that this only offers an ‘exclusively male perspective’ and logically a misogynistic view of women considering their ancient context (Miriam Gilbert pg. 19).
J V Luce highlights this point in discussion about Horace’s interpretations of the queen. The ancient poet typifies the discussion of Cleopatra as a fatale monster - “fatale monstrum” - as he refers to it. Luce analyses his use of the word throughout his writing in many settings, providing many possible definitions to the word. Horace may have meant her as a monstrum in the sense of her accomplishments, or to describe the “contrast and extremes in Cleopatra's life and character”. Horace may well have meant Cleopatra to be a true femme fatale in the sense he describes her as an exotic creature one of the extended lines ‘from Homer's sirens to Hein’s lorelie, luring villagers to their doom’ (J. V. Luce pg. 254).
Cassius Dio provides a clear explanation of how her gender played a huge role in her ‘destruction’ upon Rome and its leaders. He not only uses her sex to justify her actions but also utilizing it to get her way. She purposefully made herself look beautiful when meeting Caesar for the first time in order to portray herself as if she needing protection and help (Cassius Dio). She knew how to manipulate her femininity to get people to do what she wanted.
Does this make her smart, merely because she is a woman utilising her looks, or does it in a sense justify her as a femme fatale - using her looks to get men to do her bidding. What if Cleopatra was a man? Using his physical attributes to get what he wanted, would we view him as smart? Probably not. We have been given a majority account that focuses on Cleopatra's looks, sex and ethnicity to justify or characterise the powerful and ambitious actions she took. This precedent has set the stereotypical idea that all powerful women were dangerous and seductive, this also clouds the judgment of following histories as this idea has been firmly engrained into our minds.
Lack of her own history and the influence of later Egyptian and Arab history may have had a particular effect on how future generations' understanding and interpretations have been solely based upon the biased Graeco-Roman’s. We have been left with two other sources concerning the queen: Arab histories and later Egyptian sources comprising of Coptic, classical, Jewish and Arabic texts, monuments and oral tradition.
These texts portray a very different figure than that of the Romans. The Coptic Bishop John of Nikou (7th Century) describes her as ‘most illustrious and wise among women’ (Miriam Gilbert pg 21). In their histories, she was illegally a well-versed woman who wrote manuscripts on particular topics such as medicine and money. Al-Masudi (10th Century) states ‘was a sage, a philosopher, who elevated the ranks of scholar’ (Miriam Gilbert pg 21).
Unfortunately, studies by historians such as Joyce Ann Tyldesley explain that the accounts are filled with incorrect information, suggesting they may, in fact, have been confused with other scholarly women of the Ptolemaic dynasty (Joyce Ann Tyldesely). This is very discerning, considering there is already mainly biased and potentially inaccurate accounts coming from the Romans. The fact that the Arab histories have pretty much been proven to be inaccurate, only adds to the emphasis placed on the Graeco-Roman histories as the ‘truth’. Again, the overtaking of Egypt by the Islamic leaves us with little primary Egyptian sources and so only one side of the argument is given, the side of her enemies.
Then again, even if we did have the sources from Egypt concerning Cleopatra, would they themselves be biased as well, adding to the confusion of the ‘truth’? The lack of her own or differing accounts of the time has limited historians to the blatantly biased descriptions of Cleopatra in their search for who she truly was.
What impact has the biased and confusing primary accounts had on the ability for the future to understand the ‘truth’ about Cleopatra?
Firstly, it is evident that all knowledge has been derived from biased accounts; the Graeco-Roman written and epigraphic sources and the (later-disproved) Arabic tradition. These have shaped the views of Cleopatra for centuries. The fact that Rome was practically the biggest power across Europe for hundreds of decades, it was generally accepted that history coming from them was true and the ancient sources were not questioned for hundreds of years, not in a large-scale effect at least. It is also important to consider the fact that Cleopatra was a woman, and it is well-known that treatment of women throughout history has not been equal, men always being in higher authority and women generally taking the more domestic and submissive roles in society.
This didn’t really change until the mid 19th and 20th Centuries. For a woman to practically have control over the male rulers of the biggest empire in the world at the time and later plotting to overthrow that empire is particularly ‘out of character’ for a woman, especially in the lens of the 10th to 19th centuries. Hence the idea - that she was a ‘whore’ or ‘drunken mad woman’ - in which the Romans portrayed her was never really debated. All of the phrases and ideals associated with Cleopatra have “echoed down through the ages” (Meyer Reinhold pg. 97). It hasn’t really been until the 20th-21st centuries that her history has been particularly focused on and efforts aimed at re-evaluating the ‘truthfulness’ of the claims the Romans have made against her.
Changing ideals and morals through the 20th and 21st centuries have shifted the perspective of uncovering the ‘truth’ about Cleopatra. Movements such as feminism have allowed historians to look back at all past historical information about the Egyptian queen, considering it through a modern lens, and revelling new interpretations.
A popular talking point about Cleopatra is how her beauty and gender have been described in association to justifying her actions. Sources such as Cassius Dio, Plutarch, Horace and Lucan state that she was a beautiful woman who used her beauty and femininity to manipulate men such as the powerful Caesar and Mark Antony. This emphasised their idea about her being an ancient ‘femme fatale’ attributing all the things she accomplished on her sexuality. Modern historian, Joann Fletcher, states “Cleopatra was a mistress of disguise and costume ... she could reinvent herself to suit the occasion, and I think that’s a mark of the consummate politician” (Joann Fletcher).
She re-evaluates the idea; Cleopatra utilized what she had to her advantage which included her gender. When looking at her day to day life and all the things she managed to accomplish, it is logical that she probably had barely any time to even look at herself in the mirror, let alone put emphasis into her looks. She did happen to maintain Egypt’s independence from the biggest and most powerful empire, Rome, throughout her reign. She built their economy by trading internationally, pushing their status as a world power and becoming allies with some of the most powerful leaders in the ancient world. All of this has to mean something - not just anybody could do this. She had to have some level of smarts and ambition to achieve such power.
Looking back at her past, she had a terrible upbringing with an untrusting and dysfunctional family. She most likely realised at an early age she had to be careful who to trust and learnt how to be deceptive to get her way. Could this have influenced her future actions? Meyer Reinhold inquiries into the actual charges laid against her that led to her becoming an enemy of Rome. Was it really her that the Romans had a political problem with, or was it her alliance with Antony? Was it easier to portray Cleopatra as an enemy to Rome rather than their own Antony? Octavian’s propaganda highlighted the bewitchment and enslavement of Antony by Cleopatra, and it was deduced that she was declared a hostage for her acts (Meyer Reinhold). It is clear that there are many sides to the story, furthering interpretations from the fact as more explanations for the events in her life are uncovered.
Popular modern-day portrayals of Cleopatra are no better than the biased primary accounts. People are continuing to take ‘popular’ stories from her life and manipulating them to suit their own agendas, again making it harder for historians and others to understand who she really was. Modern movies and stories such as ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) have been dramatized and used to highlight her femininity. They tell the story of a sultry, submissive, rich queen who lounged around on velvet sofas - focusing on the more ‘romantic’ stories of her life, diminishing her down from a powerful ruler to a soft and loveable woman. They never portray her as a strong female leader who achieved such greatness for her time. Again, this point just highlights how biased and one-sided the interpretations of her life have been across time and how, even now, with further developments into the other perspectives about her, she is still being used in a degrading manner. This in turn has even more broadened the scope of interpretations and moved further from allowing historians to gauge an authentic view about her.
Historians have tried for centuries to account for and interpret the life of Cleopatra, who she was as a leader and as a person, but have been profoundly affected by prejudiced perspective shrouding the ‘truth’ about her life.
The search for who Cleopatra was and the legitimacy about the events in her life and why she did the things she did is ongoing, and it seems as though no one will ever find the right answer, if there even is one.
Past historians have been affected by their own bias when writing about or analysing Cleopatra and that will the case for the future. Human nature will never change. All we can do is deduce for ourselves who we think she really was by looking at the primary accounts about her reign.
She truly was a highly intellectual and powerful women - that cannot be denied, but maybe she was more seductive and manipulative than modern interpretations have led on to believe, we will never really know.