Cleopatra: Seductress of Men or an Intelligent Leader?

As a leader of a nation facing annexation by the Roman Empire, Cleopatra had no other choice than to align herself with the most influential and powerful men of Rome.

Feb 18, 2023By Merilyn Butt, BA Archaeology w/ Ancient History-Anthropology Concentration

cleopatra death gerome caesar painting


Cleopatra VII Philopator is best known as the Egyptian queen who seduced two influential, powerful men of Rome. History and Hollywood are littered with stories of first her relationship with Julius Caesar and the following epic romance with Mark Antony. However, Cleopatra was a female ruler of a nation in decline, facing the threatening aspirations of an empire on the rise. This means that Cleopatra’s relationships should not be seen as mere romances but with more of an eye to pragmatism. Ultimately Cleopatra may have had little choice but to align herself with those she perceived as the key figures who could ensure her and Egypt’s survival.


Cleopatra VII, Pharaoh of Egypt

Cleopatra and Caesar, by Jean-Leon-Gerome, 1866, via Wikimedia Commons


Cleopatra was born in 69 BCE, at a time when Roman military and political power in the Mediterranean was on the rise, whereas Egypt, under the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, was facing a decline in power and territorial control. At age 18, Cleopatra ascended the throne with her co-ruler and half-brother, Ptolemy XIII, as the leader of a nation already heavily influenced by Rome.


While history is all too ready to dwell on her age in comparison to that of her husband-brother — him being eight years her junior — it often glosses over the issue of a young female ruler seeking to legitimize her control over a nation heavily swayed by the external inputs of a foreign power. Still, there is evidence that Cleopatra quickly rejected her husband and became the sole ruler.


The precedent of Roman intervention in Egyptian affairs was already set in 58 BCE when Cleopatra’s older sister, Berenice IV, attempted a coup against her father — Ptolemy XII — who had been reinstalled with Roman support. The internal strife that ensued between Cleopatra and her half-brother and his supporters must have seemed a perfect opportunity for an opportunistic Roman to further his own agenda.

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How Julius Caesar Came to Support Cleopatra

Portrait busts of Caesar and Cleopatra, Altes Museum, Berlin, via Archaeology Travel


Julius Caesar was 52 to Cleopatra’s 21 when the fleeing queen pleaded for assistance in fighting a civil war against Ptolemy XIII; a successful gambit on Cleopatra’s part. Seeing that Ptolemy XIII was responsible for the death of Pompey and that a defeat for Ptolemy would mean the expansion of his political impact in the Eastern Mediterranean, Caesar took Cleopatra’s side. While the famous ‘love affair’ that was quickly entered could have been genuine, there appears enough irregularity for it to have been more political in nature.


Most sources portraying Cleopatra as the meretrix regina ‘prostitute queen’ (Propertius, Poems, III.11.39) are written from the perspective of Western, Roman male authors. Indeed, contemporary Egyptian and later Eastern Mediterranean sources present a far different view. A Greek treatise in which Commarius — a high priest and philosopher — teaches Cleopatra, refers to her as “Cleopatra the wise.” Although, there is some dispute over its connection to the historical Cleopatra, such sources concentrate more on her intelligence, gift with languages, scientific mind, and even philosophical education rather than her features or “sweetness …in the tones of her voice” (Plutarch, Life of Antony, XXVII.2-3).


While Cleopatra could have been the seductress portrayed in Roman writings, Caesar’s more confident, autocratic personality was fully complicit, if not the more dominant, in such a pairing. Besides, Cleopatra’s request for assistance would have been the weaker stance in such a situation.


Was It a Love Story? 

Sculptures with Cleopatra and her son Nero-Caesar from the temple of Denderah, photo by Francis Frith, via Royal Collections Trust


Whether the relationship resulted from a genuine love affair, the machinations of a desperate queen or an opportunity for mutual advancement is currently unanswerable. Caesar’s time with Cleopatra in Alexandria possibly resulted in a son, Ptolemy XV Caesarion. Caesar also inserted himself directly into Egyptian affairs, demanding that Ptolemy and Cleopatra come to him for judgment. Certainly not a sign of a man under the influence of a woman’s wiles.


Suetonius and Appian talk of the brevity of this whirlwind romance which may have lasted for as little as 38 days. Appian goes so far as to state that “[Caesar] in company with Cleopatra and enjoying himself with her in other ways” (The Civil Wars, II.90) and that she would have had him stay longer in Egypt. Certainly, Cleopatra visited Rome in 46 BCE with her nominal second husband, Ptolemy XIV, who was seemingly approved of by Caesar and was met with honors. She was hosted in Caesar’s villa and deified with statuary at the temple of Venus Genetrix.


Cleopatra was also in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, and this was to lead to involvement with Rome’s second triumvirate, Mark Antony.


The Love Affair of Cleopatra and Mark Antony

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra (1963), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, via The Mirror


The affair of Mark Antony and Cleopatra is a story of tragedy and folly. A useful template for drama as shown by its adaption by William Shakespeare, various subsequent authors, and Hollywood directors, most memorably in George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963).


The relationship between the two leaders became the subject of a propagandist smear campaign by Octavian — the later Augustus — which vilified Cleopatra and led to Mark Anthony’s character assassination. When Cleopatra met Antony at Tarsus in 41 BCE, it was as an older, assumedly more confident, worldly queen who had already successfully enlisted help from the Romans. Plutarch, basing his opinions on earlier sources, would have it that Antony sent for Cleopatra first to question her supposed support of Gaius Cassius in earlier wars. However, upon viewing her, he fell into her ‘snare,’ somehow suggesting that Antony’s then-wife Fulvia had softened him to suggestibility. Putting aside the questionable reliability of a writer such as Plutarch, the legitimacy of such comments, when compared to known facts about Antony, demonstrate inconsistencies.


The Character of Antony

Marble bust of Marc Antony, via Encyclopædia Britannica.


Mark Antony was an accomplished military leader and statesman, a survivor of the collapse of the first triumvirate despite his support of Caesar. Almost all ancient sources praise him for his dutifulness as a military leader and his empathy towards his soldiers. He is especially lauded for his pietas towards Caesar and is even thought to have occasionally excelled in the political and administration sphere. Hardly someone weak-willed.


The ‘great’ love or passion of Cleopatra and Antony is also little evidenced. They initially did not see each other for three years after their time together by the account of a mutual, pragmatic decision. Upon Fulvia’s death, Antony did not rush back to Cleopatra but instead made the politically smart decision to strongly ally himself with Octavian through marriage to his sister, Octavia. It was only upon a waning reliance on Octavian to return supplied troops that Antony sought a stronger alliance with Cleopatra, which she provided, along with three children. This alliance, however, did not come without conditions.


How Cleopatra Made the Best of the Situation

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, ca. 1745–47, via Met Museum


Cleopatra showed political strength in the relationship with Mark Antony, perhaps gained through the previous experience with Caesar, by bargaining for the revival of old Egyptian territories in return for supplies and funds. At this point, Antony — the leader of Rome’s eastern provinces — was supporting Cleopatra as an independent monarch rather than the leader of a protectorate. Also, their children were to take on territories of their own.


The scene seemed set. For ten years, Egypt did enjoy some of its former prosperity before the stalemate between Octavian and Antony ended. It is interesting that Cleopatra was so tightly politically entwined with Antony that there would have been no opportunities to strengthen ties with Octavian. Also, at the time, it may have seemed that Octavian was not a chief investment as he was young and inexperienced or professed as such by Antony.


The two men were firmly on two sides of the political arena. All other avenues to ensure Cleopatra’s throne and Egypt’s place in the world would have been severely depleted, as evidenced by Cleopatra’s ‘honorable’ suicide after Mark Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and his own consequent suicide.


The Death of a Queen

Death of Cleopatra, by Jean-Andres Rixens, 1874, via Musee des Augustins.


The only part in Cleopatra’s story for which ancient writers exonerate her is her death. Suddenly the ‘harmful beauty’ (Lucan, Pharsalia, X.138) redeems herself by dying in a way that befits the royalty of her station. Even in this, Cleopatra may have felt she had little choice and this was the best way to martyr herself.


By all accounts, her continued existence was a dilemma for Octavian. He could not parade her in his triumph, as people still remembered her sister Arsinoe IV and he could not visibly castigate her character further as it would reflect poorly on the late Caesar. Rome would, in such a case, recall her relationship with his adopted father. Therefore, Octavian could not discernibly have a hand in her death. Her death by asp or cobra is a common theory steeped in symbolism, if not at all provable. This theory, favored by Octavian, allowed him to depict Cleopatra in his triumphal procession — a coup on his part — despite his earlier issues with such a spectacle. With the death of the opposition, Octavian had brilliantly concluded a propaganda campaign that would cement Rome’s anti-Cleopatra views.


How Should Cleopatra Be Remembered?


Cleopatra was an intelligent and politically savvy leader in her own right. Her reduction to a seductress who prays on the weaknesses of men is unfortunate. The romanticism surrounding her politically necessary ‘love’ affairs was introduced by Roman writers who could not accept that a foreign matriarchal power could compete with Rome and was perpetuated by an Empire that ruled long after her death. Its appeal as a tragic love story only ensures its notoriety.


In reality, Cleopatra attempted to restore her country’s position, and for a while, Egypt regained some of its former power. Perhaps instead of her ‘romances,’ Cleopatra’s role as a leader should be the focus.

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By Merilyn ButtBA Archaeology w/ Ancient History-Anthropology ConcentrationMerilyn has a BA in Archaeology with concentrations in Ancient History and Anthropology from the University of Queensland and has spent 10 years teaching students to have an appreciation for History. She spends her downtime painting, hiking, and gardening but will never take up camping.