The controversy surrounding the recent Netflix documentary Queen Cleopatra (2023) has shown that the story of the Hellenistic Queen is still relevant and, even more so, able to provoke strong emotional responses. In this context, it is important to understand who was Cleopatra and why we should (or not) care about her. Without a doubt, Prof. Paul Cartledge, one of the most renowned scholars of ancient Greece, is one of the most suitable experts to answer these question. Find out what he thinks about Cleopatra’s history, legacy, and recent Netflix documentary.
Paul Cartledge is Emeritus A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge and a Global Distinguished Professor at NYU. He was chief historical consultant for the BBC series The Greeks and the Channel 4 series The Spartans — and has been a guest on BBC’s In Our Time and many other programs. Professor Cartledge is also a holder of the Gold Cross of the Order of Honor of Ancient Greece and an Honorary Citizen of Sparta. He has published major books on Ancient Greece, Sparta, Alexander the Great, Democracy, and more.
According to Prof. Cartledge, “Cleopatra was Egyptian only in a geographical or geopolitical sense….”
Q: Greetings Professor Cartledge. It seems like a good time to discuss Queen Cleopatra. What can you tell us about her?
A: Hello there again! Who is she? That’s a question that must be expanded to embrace (at least) who and what she is. For such is the complexity of Cleopatra VII Philopator Thea (born 69 BCE, reigned 51-30). Let’s take a look at each of these names in her title.
The number ‘VII’ is part of her title because she was the seventh regnant queen named ‘Cleopatra’ (famous for her father or fathers) in the lineage and dynasty of the Lagids. More commonly known as the Ptolemies, they were the descendants of the Graeco-Macedonian Ptolemy, son of Lagos. At first, Ptolemy was one of Alexander the Great’s closest confidants, a marshal of Alexander’s prodigiously huge Middle Eastern empire. From 305 BCE, Ptolemy styled himself ‘King’, though he actually had no royal blood, and established the Ptolemaic dynasty that lasted until the death by suicide in 30 BCE of our heroine, Cleopatra.
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The name ‘Philopator’ meant that she, as it was hoped, would love her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes (the ‘Fluteplayer’).
‘Thea’ because, like all her royal, pharaonic ancestors, she was worshipped as a living goddess. She was Egyptian only in a geographical or geopolitical sense, but the overwhelming majority of her subjects were native Egyptians who thought and sometimes wrote in demotic Egyptian. That native majority, especially through their religion, continued to revere the memory of their old pre-Ptolemaic Pharaohs. In order to keep the powerful native priesthood happy or at least on their side, the Ptolemies had to become Pharaohs, be crowned at the old capital of Memphis, and represented on coinage and temples. However, they ruled Egypt from Alexandria in the western delta of the Nile.
Q: Netflix has a new docudrama, Queen Cleopatra, with Adele James in the title role. Can you talk about the controversy behind this project?
A: Netflix is calling it a ‘documentary’, which implies a higher standard of historical accuracy than, say, a fictionalized movie such as 300 or Troy. The controversy concerns the casting of the title role, which has gone to a black British woman actor, Adele James. It is this time, not just the usual racist suspects who are protesting. It is also many Egyptians who, though geographically African, are mostly of Arab heritage.
Had the filmmakers merely ‘cross-race-cast’ Adele James, that is, asked viewers to regard her Cleopatra as a case of ‘color-blind’ casting, controversy would still have been aroused, but in a quite different, less toxic way. Instead, they doubled down on James’s own ethnicity, claiming that it was a historically authentic representation of the actual Queen Cleopatra VII since she actually was black. That stance merely increased the number of objectors, including most professional ancient historians such as myself who are equally convinced that Cleopatra was not.
I say ‘most’ of us because Professor Shelley Hales, one of the Netflix program’s ‘talking heads’, is prepared to allow, citing her grandmother’s oral tradition testimony, that Cleopatra may have been in some sense black. To which I would respond, following Professor Sarah Derbew in a recent talk at Harvard University, that actually almost all ancient Mediterraneans, including Cleopatra undoubtedly were typically one or other shade of brown!
Q: “The medium is the message.” Alexander the Great had a lion’s mane hairstyle, while Cleopatra was depicted with the “melon” hairstyle. How was Cleopatra depicted in statues and temples and so on?
A: Alexander was so careful about the image he projected to the world that he set a trend by appointing a court painter, a court sculptor, a court coin-die image cutter, etc. Cleopatra was not so fastidious as far as we know. However, given that many or most of her subjects were illiterate and the vast majority would never clap eyes on her in person, she too would have curated the image she wished to project to her two main, culturally different audiences, i.e. the native Egyptians and the descendants of Greek colonial settlers.
Sculptural images of Cleopatra include that on the Temple at Dendera, which makes the point that she is Pharaoh but can hardly be counted as a veristic portrait. On that, as on a coin from Cyprus now in the British Museum, she is depicted together with her small son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, a.k.a. Ptolemy XV Caesarion. The modern joking — or controversy — about her beauty, and more particularly about the length of her nose, derives considerable heft from coin images of her that can hardly be called flattering by the highest classical-Hellenic standards of feminine allure.
Q: “Age cannot wither her,” wrote Shakespeare. And from Lord Byron: “Champagne with its foaming whirls / As white as Cleopatra’s Pearls.” From the ancients to Shakespeare to modern artists, Cleopatra is a hot topic. Do you have any favorite readings and depictions of Cleopatra?
A: Cleopatra’s reception, or legacy, both Western and Eastern, is simply vast. Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is a personal favorite for a couple of different reasons. It was first performed in about 1607 and first printed in the posthumous First Folio of 1623 under the title The Tragedie of Anthony and Cleopatra. My middle name is Anthony, with an ‘h’. It was the first — and only — Shakespeare play I have ever acted, in a school production of c. 1964,as the Messenger bringing to the Queen the very bad news of Actium with Paola Dionisotti, who became a professional actor, as Cleopatra.
Among the many, many early-modern, modern, and contemporary painted images, I would single out the 1866 oil Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérome. Of course, the painter should be carpeted for believing all that nonsense, but it’s still a glorious framing of Cleopatra’s majesty in all its bare-breasted glory. The later medieval Arabic ‘reception’ is something else again. Here Cleopatra is represented as a learned scientist, virtuous scholar and philosopher, and author of treatises on cosmetics, drugs, and … mathematics.
Q: Was Cleopatra admired and loved by the Egyptians?
A: Very likely by some native, non-Greek Egyptians. But, as we have no narrative or any other accounts of her character and reign by a contemporary native, non-Greek Egyptian writer, it’s hard to be sure. By Greco-Egyptians, she surely was hugely admired. She was a ruler who could subtly resist and postpone a direct Roman imperial takeover. Let’s not forget that greedy Roman politicians had long been seeking to get their hands on the Ptolemies’ treasury. By becoming the queen and then the wife of the two most relevant Roman potentates, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Cleopatra was doing a brilliant diplomatic job.
Q: How did Mark Antony and Cleopatra meet? I know the rest would take a play, book, or movie to explain, but can you give us a little about these two very famous lovers?
A: Accounts, including that from Antony himself, differ. Was it as early as 55 BCE when Cleopatra was but 14? If not, then there’s every likelihood that it would have been sometime between 46 and 44, when Antony was Caesar’s chief adjutant, and Cleopatra was a kept woman of Caesar’s in Rome. But the most agreed account holds that it happened in 41 BCE, at Tarsus in Asia Minor (later the home of St Paul). By then, the irredentist, Republican cause of Brutus and Cassius was dead and buried on the battlefield of Pharsalus in northern Greece the year before. The fight thereafter was nakedly for sole control of the Empire between Antony and a still very young Octavian, by then the adopted son and heir of murdered Caesar. Antony’s original idea, like that of his mentor, was surely to avail himself of the resources of Cleopatra’s Egypt in order to win that fight rather than to avail himself of Cleopatra’s sexual services, let alone fall in love with her. But romance always tends to be a more attractive storyline than cynical political calculation.
Q: Is there some confusion in the Roman attitude? Octavian and his army defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and Roman authors trash Cleopatra, but many Romans had the fever of Egyptomania.
A: Egyptomania is sometimes alternatively known as pyramidiocy: not an obsession with Cleopatra’s Egypt, but the Egypt of the old-time Pharaohs such as Ramesses II, including the successive dynasties which had been terminated by Alexander in 332. The pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx were Wonders of the World. The nearest man-made ancient Egyptian monument to those, in terms of esteem and physicality, was the third-century Ptolemaic Pharos lighthouse, but it was not for that that Romans went mad. After all, their own engineering structures, above all aqueducts, were hardly inferior in either skill or practicality.
Q: What became of Cleopatra’s children with Caesar and Antony?
A: Caesarion, as mentioned, was brutally murdered on Octavian’s orders. With Antony, Cleopatra had paternal twins, a girl named Cleopatra Selene, and a boy named Alexander Helios.
In 34 BCE, the children were duly introduced to public life and ritual with all possible pharaonic pomp and ceremony — one would hardly know they were the children of a Roman father, not to mention one already married (to, of all people, Octavian’s sister).
Selene, became a Queen in her own right through marriage. However, she didn’t become Queen of Egypt because from 30 BCE Egypt had become part of Rome. Instead, Selene became Queen of Numibia, roughly modern Sudan, and Mauretania.
A second son with Antony was named, in hopes, Ptolemy Philadelphus (translates to: loving his brother and sister). Sufficient facts are known about Selene to justify a slew of recent nonfiction and fiction accounts, including most recently of all Jane Draycott’s Cleopatra’s Daughter: Egyptian Princess, Roman Prisoner, African Queen (Head of Zeus, 2022). But the careers of Helios and, even more so, Philadelphus were undistinguished to the point of invisibility. Helios suffered the suicide of his parents in 30 BCE; thereafter, he was surplus to — anyone’s — requirements.