15 October 2012

Contemplating Cleo

Cléopâtre sur les Terrasses de Philæ, 
Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1896
"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety."
~ William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

Last night whilst snacking on Wheat Thins, drinking an Angry Orchard hard cider and pretending I had no paperwork to be getting caught up on, I came across a documentary about a certain infamous Egyptian. Naturally I decided to postpone writing my OPORD and working on my METL brief to watch Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer, and naturally, the show got my thinking. What was I thinking, you ask? Surely by now you know I’ll tell you regardless.

What is the price of immortality, and do the ends justify the means?

As I have mentioned before, the Roman view of immortality was that as long as the living remembered your name, who you were, what you did, you never truly died. Thus, by that standard, Cleopatra is certainly an immortal. Memorialized in books, plays, poems, songs, movies, documentaries, even Halloween costumes, Cleopatra continues to fascinate the world…or at least that bit of the world that has access to books and the internet. These days ignorance seems to be more prevalent than ever, despite the wide availability of information. Nevertheless, the story of Cleopatra’s life, and especially her death, is infamous, and for good reason. The legends surrounding her play out like a soap opera set in swanky ancient palaces, full of sex, wine, incest and intrigue.

The daughter of Ptolemy XII and (most likely) Cleopatra V Triphaena, Cleopatra (actually Cleopatra VII) rose to the Egyptian throne with her brother at the young age of 18. Her brother, Ptolemy XIII, was only ten at the time, so they must have surely made an odd couple even then, if only for the age difference. The Egyptian Pharaohs—as appeared to be common in many royal lines of the day—tended to marry brother to sister in an attempt to keep the royal blood pure. Can’t have those nasty outside genetics interfering with the royalty. Inbreeding clearly is the key to stable regencies. (I’d start listing royal failures and crazies throughout the centuries, but gods only know how sick we all are of those.)

History.com has the following to say about this controversial woman:
Cleopatra VII ruled ancient Egypt as co-regent (first with her two younger brothers and then with her son) for almost three decades. She became the last in a dynasty of Macedonian rulers founded by Ptolemy, who served as general under Alexander the Great during his conquest of Egypt in 332 B.C. Well-educated and clever, Cleopatra could speak various languages and served as the dominant ruler in all three of her co-regencies. Her romantic liaisons and military alliances with the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, as well as her supposed exotic beauty and powers of seduction, earned her an enduring place in history and popular myth.

She killed (or rather, had someone else kill) her own siblings in order to gain and then maintain her hold on power; however, she brought Egypt into a period of prosperity. She used her feminine wiles to gain the trust and acquiescence of two powerful Roman men—none other than Julius Caeser and Mark Antony—and in so doing, secured her romanticized place in history. She was the combined powers of Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher and Mary Magdalene rolled into one, in an era when women were still supposed to be the meek followers of men. (Wait, did that era ever end?) She represents the ultimate in sexy power, and even used her sex to gain that power. So what I’m left wondering is, was it worth it? Did she look back on her life as she drew the asp to her chest and think, “Well, at least I will be remembered,” or did she regret her relationships with Caeser, Antony, her own family?

I suppose we the living will never truly know.