Thursday, 13 August 2009


A guest post by Sannion.

Kleopatra was an awesome woman, no doubt about it. Here are some of my favorite passages about her showing just how awesome she could be. (Some of these stories are pure fabrication – but they’re still fun to read and go towards establishing the mythical persona of Kleopatra which, more than the reality - which we can never really know - is what we revere.)

She was charming and learned
“For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behavior towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with Barbarians she very seldom had need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself and unassisted, whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Parthians. Nay, it is said that she knew the speech of many other peoples also, although the kings of Egypt before her had not even made an effort to learn the native language, and some actually gave up their Makedonian dialect.” – Plutarch, Life of Antony 27.2-4

She was a philosopher and alchemist
“Ptolemy was succeeded by his daughter, Kleopatra. Her reign lasted twenty-two years. She was wise, tried her hand at philosophy and was a close companion to wise men. She has works, both bearing her name and ascribed to her, of medicine, magic, and science, known by those well-versed in such things. This Queen was the last of the Greek Queens, so that with her death their reign ended, their era was forgotten, the vestiges of their civilization were obliterated, and their sciences, except for what remained in the hands of their wise men, disappeared.” – Al-Mas’udi, Prairies of Gold

She worked tirelessly for the interests of her people
“And she raised a dike against the waters of the sea with stones and earth, and made the place of the waters over which they voyaged formerly in ships into dry land, and she made it passable on foot. And this stupendous and difficult achievement she wrought through the advice of a wise man named Dexiphanes. Next she constructed a canal to sea, and she brought water from the river Gihon and conducted it into the city. This made it easier for ships to come into port. And by this means she brought it about that there was great abundance and much food for the people to eat. And she executed all these works in vigilant care for the well-being of her city. And before she died she executed many noble works and created important institutions. And this woman, the most illustrious and wise amongst women, died in the fourteenth year of the reign of Caesar Augustus. Thereupon the inhabitants of Alexandria and of lower and upper Egypt submitted to the emperors of Rome, who set over them prefects and generals.” – John, Bishop of Nikiu, The Chronicle 67.5-10

She was the physical incarnation of Isis-Aphrodite
“Kleopatra, indeed, both then and at other times when she appeared in public, assumed a robe sacred to Isis, and was addressed as the New Isis.” - Plutarch, Life of Antony54.6

Venus has come to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia
“Though Kleopatra received many letters of summons both from Antony himself and from his friends, she was so bold as to sail up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nereïds and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks. Of the inhabitants, some accompanied her on either bank of the river from its very mouth, while others went down from the city to behold the sight. The throng in the market-place gradually streamed away, until at last Antony himself, seated on his tribunal, was left alone. And a rumour spread on every hand that Venus was come to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia.” - Plutarch, Life of Antony 26.1-3

There was a wild streak to her
“But Kleopatra, distributing her flattery, not into the four forms of which Plato speaks, but into many, and ever contributing some fresh delight and charm to Antony's hours of seriousness or mirth, kept him in constant tutelage, and released him neither night nor day. She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, and watched him as he exercised himself in arms; and when by night he would station himself at the doors or windows of the common folk and scoff at those within, she would go with him on his round of mad follies, wearing the garb of a serving maiden. For Antony also would try to array himself like a servant. Therefore he always reaped a harvest of abuse, and often of blows, before coming back home; though most people suspected who he was. However, the Alexandrians took delight in their graceful and cultivated way; they liked him, and said that he used the tragic mask with the Romans, but the comic mask with them.” – Plutarch, Life of Antony 29

She had a wicked sense of humor
“Now, to recount the greater part of his boyish pranks would be great nonsense. One instance will suffice. He was fishing once, and had bad luck, and was vexed at it because Kleopatra was there to see. He therefore ordered his fishermen to dive down and secretly fasten to his hook some fish that had been previously caught, and pulled up two or three of them. But the Egyptian saw through the trick, and pretending to admire her lover's skill, told her friends about it, and invited them to be spectators of it the following day. So great numbers of them got into the fishing boats, and when Antony had let down his line, she ordered one of her own attendants to get the start of him by swimming onto his hook and fastening on it a salted Pontic herring. Antony thought he had caught something, and pulled it up, whereupon there was great laughter, as was natural, and Kleopatra said: ‘Imperator, hand over thy fishing-rod to the fishermen of Pharos and Kanopos; thy sport is the hunting of cities, realms, and continents.’” – Plutarch, Life of Antony 29.3-4

They knew how to throw a party
“Antony sent, therefore, and invited her to supper; but she thought it meet that he should rather come to her. At once, then, wishing to display his complacency and friendly feelings, Antony obeyed and went. He found there a preparation that beggared description, but was most amazed at the multitude of lights. For, as we are told, so many of these were let down and displayed on all sides at once, and they were arranged and ordered with so many inclinations and adjustments to each other in the form of rectangles and circles, that few sights were so beautiful or so worthy to be seen as this.... In Alexandria, indulging in the sports and diversions of a young man of leisure, he squandered and spent upon pleasures that which Antiphon calls the most costly outlay, namely, time. For they had an association called The Inimitable Livers, and every day they feasted one another, making their expenditures of incredible profusion. At any rate, Philotas, the physician of Amphissa, used to tell my grandfather, Lamprias, that he was in Alexandria at the time, studying his profession, and that having got well acquainted with one of the royal cooks, he was easily persuaded by him (young man that he was) to take a view of the extravagant preparations for a royal supper. Accordingly, he was introduced into the kitchen, and when he saw all the other provisions in great abundance, and eight wild boars a-roasting, he expressed his amazement at what must be the number of guests. But the cook burst out laughing and said: ‘The guests are not many, only about twelve; but everything that is set before them must be at perfection, and this an instant of time reduces. For it might happen that Antony would ask for supper immediately, and after a little while, perhaps, would postpone it and call for a cup of wine, or engage in conversation with some one. Wherefore,’ he said, ‘not one, but many suppers are arranged; for the precise time is hard to hit.’” - Plutarch, Life of Antony 27,28

The incident with the pearl
“There have been two pearls that were the largest in the whole of history; both were owned by Cleopatra, the last of the Queens of Egypt--they had come down to her through the hands of the Kings of the East. When Antony was fattening himself every day at decadent banquets, she with a pride both lofty and impudent, a queenly courtesan, disparaged his elegance and sumptuous display, and when he asked what magnificence could be added on, she replied that she would spend ten million sesterces on a banquet. Antony was curious, but did not think it could be done. Consequently, with bets made, on the next day, on which the trial was carried out, she set before Antony a banquet that elsewhere would be magnificent, so that the day might not be wasted, but that was for them quite ordinary, and Antony laughed and exclaimed over its cheapness. But she, claiming that it was a gratuity, and that the banquet would complete the account and she alone would consume ten million sesterces, ordered the second course to be served. In accordance with previous instructions the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar, the strong rough quality of which can melt pearls. She was at the moment wearing in her ears that remarkable and truly unique work of nature. Antony was full of curiosity to see what in the world she was going to do. She took one earring off and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was melted swallowed it. Lucius Plancus, the judge of the wager, put his hand on the other pearl since she was preparing to destroy it also in a similar fashion, and declared that Antony had lost, an omen that later came true. With this goes the story that, when that queen who had won on this important issue was captured, the second of this pair of pearls was cut in two pieces, so that half a helping of the jewel might be in each of the ears of Venus in the Pantheon at Rome.” – Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 9.119-121

Men thought death a small price to pay to sleep with her
“Cleopatra was so lustful that she often prostituted herself, and so beautiful that many men bought night with her at the price of their lives.” – Sextus Aurelius Victor, De Viris Illustribus Urbis Romae 86.2

A modern Russian adaptation of the above anecdote
“I swear, O mother of passion, I will serve you in unheard ways, on the couch of passionate sins I will come as a common slave. So look, powerful Cytherean, and you underground kings, O gods of ferocious Hades; I swear to the morning sunrise the wishes of my lords I will tire with voluptuous passion and with all secrets of kisses and with wondrous nakedness those wishes I will quench. But as soon as with a morning purple the eternal Aurora will shine forth, I swear: under the deadly axe the heads of these lucky ones will fall.” – Alexander Pushkin, Egyptian Nights

She knew how to get her point across
“For in preparation for the Actian war, when Antony feared the attentiveness of the Queen herself and did not take any food unless it had been tasted beforehand, she is said to have played on his fear and dipped the tips of the flowers in his crown in poison and then put the crown on his head; soon, as the revelry proceeded, she suggested to Antony that they drink their crowns. Who would thus fear treachery? Therefore with a hand put in his way he was beginning to drink the pieces gathered into the cup she said, ‘Look, I am she, Mark Antony, of whom you are wary with your new wish for tasters. If I could live without you, this is the extent to which I lack opportunity and motive!’ She ordered a prisoner who had been led in to drink it and he promptly expired.” – Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 21.12

Beloved by the gods of Egypt
“The young girl, Kleopatra, daughter of the ruler, created by the ruler, beloved of the gods of Egypt, adorned by Khnum, the regent of Thoth whose might is great, who pleases the two Lands, who gives the people in perfection to the Two Ladies, who Neith, the Lady of Sais, makes strong, who Hathor praises for her popularity.” – Inscription from the Temple of Edfu

Helped install the Buchis bull
“There appeared Buchis, the living Ba of Re, the manifestation of Re, who was born of the Great Cow, Tenen united with the Eight Gods. He is Amun who goes on his four feet, the image of Monthu, Lord of Thebes, Father of the Fathers, the Mother of the Mothers, who formed the Ennead, who renews the life of every one of the gods. He is the image of Onnophris, the justified, the sacred image of the Ba of Re, the bik n nb in … he came to Hermonthis in the goodly festival of the twentieth day of Pakhons, the festival of Monthu, Lord of Hermonthis, his seat of eternity. He reached Thebes, his place of installation, which came into existence aforetime, beside his father, Nun of Old. He was installed by the King himself in year 1, Phamenoth 19. The Queen, the Lady of the Two Lands [Kleopatra VII], the goddess who loves her father, rowed him in the barque of Amun, together with the boats of the King, all the inhabitants of Thebes and Hermonthis and priests being with him. He reached Hermonthis, his dwelling-place on Mechir 22. The length of his life was 24 years, 1 month, and 8 days. His Ba went up to heaven as Re.” – The Buchis Stele

It was feared that she might bring about the end of the world
“And thereupon shall the whole world be governed by the hands of a woman and obedient everywhere. Then when the Widow shall o'er all the world gain the rule, and cast in the mighty sea both gold and silver, also brass and iron of short lived men into the deep shall cast, then all the elements shall be bereft of order, when the god who dwells on high shall roll the heaven, even as a scroll is rolled; and to the mighty earth and sea shall fall the entire multiform sky; and there shall flow a tireless cataract of raging fire, and it shall burn the land, and burn the sea, and heavenly sky, and night, and day, and melt creation itself together and pick out what is pure. No more laughing spheres of light, nor night, nor dawn, nor many days of care, nor spring, nor winter, nor the summer-time or autumn. And then of the mighty god the judgment midway in a mighty age shall come, when all these things shall come to pass.” – Pseudo-Sibylline Oracles, 3.75-92

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