Collections: On the Reign of Cleopatra

This week on the blog we’re going to talk about Cleopatra or to be more specific, we’re going to talk about Cleopatra VII Philopator, who is the only Cleopatra you’ve likely ever heard of, but that ‘seven’ after he name should signal that she’s not the only Cleopatra.1 One of the trends in scholarship over the years towards larger than life ancient historical figures – Caesar, Alexander, Octavian, etc. – has been attempts to demystify them, stripping away centuries of caked on reception, assumptions and imitation to ask more directly: who was this person, what did they do and do we value those sorts of things?2

Cleopatra, of course, has all of that reception layered on too. In antiquity and indeed until the modern era, she was one of the great villains of history, the licentious, wicked foreign queen of Octavian’s propaganda. More recently there has been an effort to reinvent her as an icon of modern values, perhaps most visible lately in Netflix’ recent (quite poorly received) documentary series. A lot of both efforts rely on reading into gaps in the source material. What I want to do here instead is to try to strip some of that away, to de-mystify Cleopatra and set out some of what we know and what we don’t know about her, with particular reference to the question I find most interesting: was Cleopatra actually a good or capable ruler?

Now a lot of the debate sparked by that Netflix series focused on what I find the rather uninteresting (but quite complicated) question of Cleopatra’s heritage or parentage or – heaven help us – her ‘race.’ But I want to address this problem too, not because I care about the result but because I am deeply bothered by how confidently the result gets asserted by all sides and how swiftly those confident assertions are mobilized into categories that just aren’t very meaningful for understanding Cleopatra. To be frank, Cleopatra’s heritage should be a niche question debated in the pages of the Journal of Juristic Papyrology] by scholars squinting at inscriptions and papyri, looking to make minor alterations in the prosopography of the Ptolemaic dynasty, both because it is highly technical and uncertain, but also because it isn’t an issue of central importance. So we’ll get that out of the way first in this essay and then get to my main point, which is this:

Cleopatra was, I’d argue, at best a mediocre ruler, whose ambitious and self-interested gambles mostly failed, to the ruin of herself and her kingdom. This is not to say Cleopatra was a weak or ineffective person; she was very obviously highly intelligent, learned, a virtuoso linguist, and a famously effective speaker. But one can be all of those things and not be a wise or skillful ruler, and I tend to view Cleopatra in that light.

Now I want to note the spirit in which I offer this essay. This is not a take-down of the Netflix Queen Cleopatra documentary (though it well deserves one and has received several; it is quite bad) nor a take-down of other scholars’ work on Cleopatra. This is simply my ‘take’ on her reign. There’s enough we don’t know or barely know that another scholar, viewing from another angle, might well come away with a different conclusion, viewing Cleopatra in a more positive light. This is, to a degree, a response to some of the more recent public hagiography on Cleopatra, which I think air-brushes her failures and sometimes tries a bit too hard to read virtues into gaps in the evidence. But they are generally gaps in the evidence and in a situation where we are all to a degree making informed guesses, I am hardly going to trash someone who makes a perfectly plausible but somewhat differently informed guess. In history there are often situations where there is no right answer – meaning no answer we know to be true – but many wrong answers – answers we know to be false. I don’t claim to have the right answer, but I am frustrated by seeing so many very certain wrong answers floating around the public.

Before we dive in briefly to the boring question of Cleopatra’s parentage before the much more interesting question of her conduct as a ruler, we need to be clear about the difficult nature of the sources for Cleopatra and her reign. Fundamentally we made divide these sources into two groups: there are inscriptions, coins and papyrus records from Egypt which mention Cleopatra (and one she wrote on!) but, as such evidence is want to be, are often incomplete or provided only limited information. And then there are the literary sources, which are uniformly without exception hostile to Cleopatra. And I mean extremely hostile to Cleopatra, filled with wrath and invective. At no point, anywhere in the literary sources does Cleopatra get within a country mile of a fair shake and I am saying that as someone who thinks she wasn’t very good at her job.

The problem here is that Cleopatra was the target of Octavian’s PR-campaign, as it were, in the run up to his war with Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony; I’m going to call him Marcus Antonius here), because as a foreign queen – an intersecting triad of concepts (foreignness, monarchy and women in power) which all offended Roman sensibilities – she was effectively the perfect target for a campaign aimed at winning over the populace of Italy, which was, it turns out, the most valuable military resource in the Mediterranean.3 That picture – the foreign queen corrupting the morals of good Romans with her decadence – rightly or wrongly ends up coloring all of the subsequent accounts. Of course that in turn effects the reliably of all of our literary sources and thus we must tread carefully.

Meanwhile, if you would like to corrupt me with decadence, you can support my research and this project via Patreon. You can also help this project by building temples in my name at traditional spots on the Nile…or by just sharing it with your friends, I guess. I would prefer a large temple complex, however. I’ve always wanted my own large temple complex. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live.

(Bibliography Note: This isn’t going to be a comprehensive bibliography, because that would be enormous. For readers looking to get their bearings on Cleopatra, the standard recent biography is D. Roller, Cleopatra (2010), which I cite heavily here in both agreement and disagreement. Meanwhile the older standard biography is M. Grant, Cleopatra (1972); reading the two together can give you a real sense of how the scholarship has and has not moved on Cleopatra in the last forty years or so. Also extremely useful is P.J. Jones, Cleopatra: A Sourcebook (2006) which pulls together almost all of the key sources for Cleopatra in a neat, readable English translation with helpful notes. On the world of the Ptolemies, I leaned here a fair bit on G. Hölbl, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire (2001), trans. Tina Saavedra and J. Bingen, Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture (2007), ed. R.S. Bagnall, the latter being a collection of essays, nearly all originally published in French. There isn’t really a good work that I know of on the late Ptolemaic army, but P. Johstono, The Army of Ptolemaic Egypt 328-204 BC (2020) is a handy reference, especially for how ‘ethnic’ categories both mattered and could also be fictive in the army.)

On to the boring question.

Racing Cleopatra

It’s best to start by dispensing with the normal framing of this question, which asks, “was Cleopatra white or Black?” And the answer to both questions is ‘no,’ but for the most boring possible reason: ‘white’ and ‘Black’ as it is being used in that sentence is a category that simply didn’t exist with that meaning in the ancient world. Absolutely the ancients could be bigoted about ethnicity and of course they could physically see skin-color, but as we’ve discussed before, it lacked both the resonance it has today and the strong4 White/Black binary modern thought imposes.5 To put it another way, one might as well ask if the Allobroges were French or Swiss; the very categories don’t have the modern meaning we attribute to them when transported backwards in time like that. If you asked the Allobroges, they’d be confused and inquire what the heck a France and a Switzerland was (and if you got cute and asked them instead if they were part of the Confoederatio Helvetica, they’d get angry that you’d confused them for their neighbors, which would get you no closer to an answer) and even if you figured out the answer of if they fit into the borders of modern France or Switzerland, that would still be meaningless to both the Allobroges and your understanding of them.

But more broadly what I find very frustrating about this debate is not just that the premise is flawed but that it is often engaged with undue confidence; the frustration of seeing confidence where the evidence cannot support it does seem to be this month’s theme. This is, it turns out, not the sort of question that is worth playing out in things like Netflix documentaries; it is actually an extremely uncertain question (so no scholar can give you a confident answer) and a highly technical question (so no member of the lay public is going to be remotely qualified to have their own opinion). So we’re going to explore the question of Cleopatra’s ethnic identity through the lens of the uncertain.

We can start with her parents. Here is what we know: Cleopatra’s father was Ptolemy XII Auletes (d. 51).6 His father was Ptolemy IX ‘Lathyros’ Soter (not to be confused with Ptolemy I Soter). Here ends what we know. If we assume that Cleopatra’s parents and grandparents were all having only legitimate children with their lawfully wedded wives, we can reconstruct Cleopatra’s family tree (or family vine, as the case may be) and it looks like this:

You may need to zoom in on this or pull it out into a separate window to read it. Note that every color is a unique individual, which means that, yes, in this reconstruction Cleopatra’s family tree resolves into a single married pair of great-great-great-grandparents

Yes, that is an absolutely massive amount of inbreeding; the Ptolemies (after the first) embraced the Egyptian custom whereby the Pharaoh, as a god, married his sisters, as other gods did. When folks insist that they can be sure that Cleopatra had no non-Macedonian ancestry, this is the family tree they are looking at. Now there’s a small problem with that statement, which is that Cleopatra I Syra had a fair bit of Persian ancestry and she makes up 50% of Cleopatra’s ancestors once you get high enough on this family tree. But there is a much bigger problem which is that this very certain looking family tree obscures some really big question marks. How big? This big:

This version may be somewhat easier to understand without zooming in. Technically, there are also actually some modest question marks on Ptolemy XII’s paternal side as well, so this is one possible reconstruction of that.

Everything suddenly depends on how you fill in those gigantic question-marks. Various sources (e.g. Cic. Agr 2.16.42; Paus. 1.9.3) indicate that Ptolemy XII Auletes was illegitimate (but no source names his mother), but exactly what is meant by that and how his mother might have actually been remains unclear. Meanwhile, no source names Cleopatra’s mother either, but one (Strabo) suggests, obliquely that she might not have been legitimate, although that’s not the only reading of the passage and Strabo might not be entirely reliable on this point. So the identity of those two question marks is suddenly 75% of our problem. And guess what: those two question marks are fundamentally unresolvable with a high degree of certainty.

And here we get into just how technical this question can be: it has been suggested by some scholars that Ptolemy XII’s mother might have been an unnamed but Egyptian woman from the house of the priests of Ptah in Memphis, one of the highest priesthoods in Egypt. That assumption is based on the reading of a single line of demotic text inked on limestone which seemed at first translation to posit the existence of a Berenice,7 the younger sister of Ptolemy X Alexander, whose son was the High Priest of Ptah (and thus her husband would have been as well). That led scholars to posit that perhaps it was a common practice for these two families to intermarry and that this would explain the occasional unlisted wives among the later Ptolemies.

Except that this was, as noted, based on the reading of a very short demotic text which was messy and difficult to read and in 2011 Wendy Cheshire8 dropped a bomb on the whole notion by suggesting a more plausible reading of the text. And just to be clear here, the technical question is how to read these pen-strokes:

From W. Cheshire, “The Phantom Sister of Ptolemy Alexander” Enchoria 32 (2010/11), 122-4. I cannot remotely read this text confidently. No one can read it with certainty.

See, E.A.E. Reymond read some of those strokes as tꜣ sn.t h̬m.t (n) whereas Wendy Cheshire thinks they should really read as tꜣ h̟ꜣ.t-sp n. I think. I confess I do not read demotic and so have probably gotten some of both of their transcription wrong here, but I want to give you a sense of how deep in the weed we are here, debating barely legible pen-strokes in a language few ancient historians can read.9 Reymond’s reading, when translated runs (abbreviated), “High Priest of Ptah Petubastis….the name of his mother being Berenice [the younger sister of] King Ptolemy […] went to Alexandria, where he drank before the king.” This would be extremely unusual because such texts don’t usually mention siblings, much less details like ‘younger.’ Cheshire points out that Reymond’s reading is really strange and that in fact there is a very formulaic construction which satisfies what we have of the text, which would render the same passage, “High Priest of Ptah Petubastis […] the name of his mother being Berenice, in the year [number] of King Ptolemy […] went to Alexandria, where he drank before the king.” Listing the year of such an important event is a very normal thing to do and Egyptian dates work this way. Moreover we know that some priestesses of Ptah were named Arsinoe10 or Berenice (but no other Greek names) so the name Berenice does not demand a genealogical association with the Ptolemaic house.

Now I go through all of that for two reasons. First, again, note just how technical this question is: only a handful of trained Egyptologists who can read badly-preserved demotic have any business with this question. I can, to a degree, translate their scholarship to you, but I don’t have the skills necessary to make any new contribution to this argument and I have a PhD in ancient history. I had to do a fair bit of background reading just to understand the arguments being made well enough to feel like I could have the beginning of an opinion. This thus one of those issues of real uncertainty I’ve talked about before, though I will say on balance I think Cheshire has the argument because her proposed formula is really common whereas Remond’s proposed reading is, as far as I know Ptolemaic documents (which is, admittedly, not very far) very strange. When in doubt, those pounding hooves are horses, not zebras. Second, if Cheshire’s reading is accepted, we have no evidence whatsoever that any Ptolemaic king, queen, prince or princess at any time or any place ever married into an Egyptian family or had children with one ever.

Absent any evidence that the insular Ptolemaic family had ever intermarried in that way, it suddenly becomes very hard to argue that any particular question-mark in the family tree can be filled with an Egyptian wife or concubine…though of course it doesn’t make it impossible. In that case, guesses about Ptolemy XII Auletes’ mother have tended to be that she was either a Macedonian elite from Alexandria or perhaps even just Cleopatra IV, his father’s wife and is merely considered illegitimate because she was never his co-ruling queen (his mother was the key power at court at the time). But the real, responsible answer here is: we don’t know or at most, we don’t know except that she was probably Macedonian.

And then we have Cleopatra herself; her mother is never named by any source. On the one hand, we have Strabo 17.1.11; recording an episode where Ptolemy XII Auletes was briefly removed by a coup in Alexandria he notes, “He was overthrown by the Alexandrians, and of his three daughters, they proclaimed the eldest and legitimate one [Berenice IV] queen, the two infant sons [Ptolemy XIII and XIV] were altogether left out of the succession.” The clear implication (though never quite stated) is that our Cleopatra, as one of the other two younger daughters, wasn’t legitimate. Outside of this, we are offered no clues as to Cleopatra’s mother.

A number of scholars, including Duane Roller (op. cit.), have posited – accepting Reymond’s reading because they were writing before 2011 – that Cleopatra’s mother was probably another one of the priestesses of Ptah. But of course we have a problem because we’ve just seen that the evidence for that ever happening is extremely uncertain. Roller also points to Cleopatra’s affinity to Egyptian culture and language as a clue towards an Egyptian mother; for reasons discussed below I think this argument has some merit but also some weaknesses that keep it from being conclusive. In short, Cleopatra’s affinity for Egyptian culture seems easy to overstate and she learned many languages, not just Egyptian. Finally, Roller points to the presence and stature of the priests of Ptah in the court of the Ptolemies as evidence but without the evidence of an actual marriage link all that shows is that the priests of Ptah were important, which is not news: the cult of Ptah was closely associated with the ruler-cult Ptolemy I and his wife Arsinoe II. Its no surprise they were heavily involved in the court, but a lot of priests heavily involved in the court never married into the royal family (indeed, it appears all of them never did).

The major objections to this case are simple and prior to 1981 and Reymond’s reading of that inscription ruled the scholarship (see, e.g. Grant (1972)): first that no known Ptolemy, male or female, had ever married into an Egyptian family and second that Octavian’s propaganda against Cleopatra, which resounds from the sources, admits no mention of an illegitimate birth, which would have been a clear and obvious thing for Octavian to suggest.11 Moreover, given the date of her birth, Cleopatra would have to have been conceived in 70 BC, and Ptolemy XII’s wife, Cleopatra V Tryphaena still appears in royal documents in August of 69 BC, but vanishes before February of 68 BC, either deceased or out of favor at court. Consequently, with a wife alive and available to be Cleopatra’s mother and no suggestion in the mountain of Roman invective12 that Cleopatra was illegitimate, and no evidence anywhere that Ptolemaic rulers ever married into elite Egyptian families, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that Cleopatra’s mother was Cleopatra V Tryphaena, which brings us back, more or less, to the first family tree and its massive inbreeding.13

On the balance, I think an Egyptian mother is quite implausible but not impossible for Ptolemy XII Auletes, if for no other reason then we are told that Cleopatra was the first Ptolemy to bother to learn Egyptian and I find it hard to imagine Ptolemy XII wouldn’t have done so if that was his literal mother tongue. An Egyptian mother for Cleopatra also seems possible and perhaps more plausible, but I tend to think substantially less likely than not, simply because if Cleopatra was born out of wedlock – a status heavily stigmatized in both Greece and Rome (as we can see by how often it was thrown, as a slander, at her father!), we’d have more than just a curious passage of Strabo saying so – it would have been an accusation all over Octavian’s propaganda (and some of Cicero’s earlier invective) and there’s no trace of it. Still, at that point, the question has been reduced to a Cleopatra who is three-quarters Macedonian and one-quarter Egyptian or a Cleopatra who is more or less wholly Macedonian (with a bit of Persian ancestry mixed in from Cleopatra I Syra way at the top). Forced to choose, I suspect Ptolemy XII’s mother was Cleopatra IV and that Cleopatra’s mother was Cleopatra V and that Strabo is merely mistaken on this point, but that position is, as noted, exceptionally uncertain. There is, however, no evidence or even particularly useful speculation to suggest that any of Cleopatra’s ancestors at any point in the Iron Age hailed from anywhere south of Memphis, Egypt.14

Which brings me back to my original conclusion: this is a question which is highly technical, deeply uncertain and also not actually very interesting or impactful. The only certainty possible is that anyone advancing an answer to the question with certainty is wrongly certain.

Towards Assessing Cleopatra

Instead, I think the interesting question is not about Cleopatra’s parentage or even her cultural presentation (though the latter will come up again as it connects to the next topic); rather the question I find interesting is this: “What sort of ruler was Cleopatra? Did she rule well?” And I think we can ask that in two ways: was Cleopatra a good ruler for Egypt, that is, did she try to rule for the good of Egyptians and if so, did she succeed (and to what extent)? And on the other hand, was Cleopatra a good steward of the Ptolemaic dynasty?

These are related but disconnected questions. While we’ll get to the evidence for Cleopatra’s relationship with the people of Egypt, the broader legacy of the Ptolemies itself is very clear: the Ptolemaic dynasty and the Greek-speaking settlers it brought were an ethnically distinct ruling strata installed above native Egyptian society, an occupying force. None of Cleopatra’s royal ancestors, none of them had ever even bothered to learn the language of the people they ruled, whose taxes sustained their endless wars (initially foreign, later civil). Top administrative posts remained restricted to ethnic Greeks (though the positions just below them, often very important ones, might be held by Egyptians), citizenship in Alexandria, the capital, remained largely (but not entirely) restricted to Greeks and so on. It’s clear these designations were not entirely impermeable and I don’t want to suggest that they were, but it is also clear that the Greek/Macedonian and Egyptian elite classes don’t begin really fusing together until the Roman period (when they were both equally under the Roman boot, rather than one being under the boot of the other).

Consequently, the interest of the Ptolemaic dynasty could be quite a different thing from the interests of Egypt.

And I won’t bury the lede here: Cleopatra, it seems to me, chose the interests of her dynasty – (and her own personal power) over those of Egypt whenever there was a choice and then failed to secure either of those things. Remember, we don’t have a lot in the way of sketches of Cleopatra’s character (and what we have is often hostile); apart from a predilection to learn languages and to value education, it’s hard to know what Cleopatra liked. But we can see her strategic decisions, and I think those speak to a ruler who evidently was unwilling or unable to reform Egypt’s ailing internal governance (admittedly ruined by generations of relatively poor rule), but who shoveled the resources she had into risky gambles for greater power outside of Egypt, all of which failed. That doesn’t necessarily make Cleopatra a terrible ruler, or even the worst Ptolemaic ruler, but I think it does, on balance, make her a fairly poor ruler, or at best a mediocre one.

But before we jump into all of that, I think both a brief explanation of the structure of this kingdom and brief timeline of Cleopatra’s life would be good just so we’re clear on what happens when.

For the structure of the kingdom, we need to break up, to a degree, the peoples in Egypt. Ptolemaic Egypt was not even remotely an ethnically uniform place. Most of the rural population remained ethnically Egyptian but there were substantial areas of ‘Macedonian’ settlement. Ptolemaic subjects were categorized by ethne, but these ethnic classifications themselves are tricky. At the bottom were the Egyptians and at the top were the ‘Macedonians’ (understood to include not just ethnic Macedonians but a wide-range of Greeks). The lines between these groups were not entirely impermeable; we see for instance a fictive ethnic grouping of ‘Persians’ who appear to be Hellenized Egyptians serving in the military. At some point, this group is seems to be simply rolled into the larger group of ‘Macedonians.’ nevertheless it seems like, even into the late period the ‘Macedonians’ were mostly ethnic Greeks who migrated into Egypt and we don’t see the Egyptian and Macedonian elites begin to fuse until the Roman period (when they both shared an equal place under the Roman hobnailed boot). Nevertheless, this was a status hierarchy; ‘Macedonian’ soldiers got paid more, their military settlers got estates several times larger than what their native Egyptian equivalents (the machimoi) got, the tippy-top government posts were restricted to Macedonians (though the posts just below them were often held by Egyptian elites) and so on. And while there was some movement in the hierarchy, for the most part these two groups did not mix; one ruled, the other was ruled.

Via Wikipedia, the Ptolemaic Kingdom at a period of relatively wide expanse, with the key cities we’ll mention here, Alexandria, Memphis and Thebes, marked. Note that the kingdom Cleopatra inherited was not quite this large, having lost control of Cyrenaica, Cyprus and Palestine/Judaea.

To which we must then add Alexandria, the capital, built by Alexander, which had a special status in the kingdom unlike any other place. Alexandria was structured as a polis, which of course means it had politai; our evidence is quite clear that all of the original politai were Greek and that new admission to the politai did happen but was very infrequent. Consequently the citizen populace of Alexandria was overwhelmingly Greek and retained a distinctive Greek character. But Alexandria was more than just the politai: it was a huge, cosmopolitan city with large numbers of non-Greek residents. The largest such group will have been Egyptians, but we know it also had a large Jewish community and substantial numbers of people from basically everywhere. So while there were, according to Polybius, three major groups of people (Greek citizens, Egyptian non-citizens and large numbers of mercenaries in service to the king, Polyb. 34.14), there were also lots of other people there too. I do want to stress this: Alexandria was easily one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the ancient world; but for the most part only the Greeks (and not even all of them) were citizens there.

That’s in many ways a shamefully reductive summary of a very complex kingdom, but for this already overlong essay, it will have to do. On to the timeline.

Cleopatra was born in 69 BC, the middle of three daughters of Ptolemy XII Auletes, then ruler of Egypt (he also had two sons, both younger than Cleopatra). In 58 BC (Cleopatra is 11) her father, by all accounts an incompetent ruler, was briefly overthrown and his eldest daughter (Berenice IV) made queen; Cleopatra went into exile with her father. In 55 BC, with Roman support, Ptolemy XII returned to power and executed Berenice. Ptolemy XII then died in 51, leaving two sons (Ptolemy XIII and XIV, 11 and 9 years old respectively) and his two daughters; his will made Cleopatra queen as joint ruler-wife with Ptolemy XIII (a normal enough arrangement for the Ptolemies).

Before the year was out, Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII (or perhaps more correctly, his court advisors) were at odds, both trying to assert themselves as sole monarch, though by 49 Ptolemy XIII’s faction (again, it seems to mostly have been his advisors running it) had largely sidelined Cleopatra in what had become a civil war. Cleopatra travels to Syria to gather an army and invades Egypt with it in 48, but this effort fails. She is able, however, to ally with Julius Caesar (lately arrived looking for Pompey, who supporters of Ptolemy XIII had killed, to Caesar’s great irritation). Caesar’s army – Cleopatra’s military force is clearly a non-factor by this point – defeats Ptolemy XIII in 47. Caesar appoints Cleopatra as joint ruler with her youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV (he’s 12) and Cleopatra bears Caesar’s son, Ptolemy XV Caesar in 47, who we generally call ‘Caesarion.’

Cleopatra then journeys to Rome late in 46 and seems to have stayed in Rome until after Caesar’s assassination (March, 44) and the reading of Caesar’s will (April, 44). Ptolemy XIV (the brother) also dies in this year and Cleopatra then co-rules with her son, Caesarion. Cleopatra returns to Egypt, attempts to dispatch troops to aid the Caesarian cause against Brutus and Cassius, but fails and loses all of the troops in 43. She is saved from being almost certainly steamrolled by Brutus and Cassius by their defeat in 42 at Philippi. Cleopatra meets with Marcus Antonius in 41 and they form an alliance, as well as (at some point) a romantic relationship. Cleopatra has three children by Antonius: Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios (twins, born in 40) and Ptolemy Philadelphus (born in 36).

With Cleopatra’s resources, Antonius launches an invasion of Parthia in 38 BC which goes extremely poorly, with him retreating back to Roman territory by 36 having lost quite a fair portion of his army (Cleopatra is back in Egypt ruling). In 34, Antonius embarks on a massive reorganization of the Roman East, handing over massive portions of Rome’s eastern territory – in name at least – to Cleopatra’s children, a move which infuriated the Roman public and cleared the way politically for Octavian to move against him. Through 33 and 32, both sides prepare for war which breaks out in 31. Cleopatra opts to go with Antonius combined land-sea military force and on the 2nd of September 31 BC, solidly outmaneuvered at Actium, she and Antonius are soundly defeated. They flee back to Egypt but don’t raise a new army and both die by suicide when Octavian invades in the following year. Octavian reorganizes Egypt into a Roman province governed by an equestrian prefect. Octavian and subsequent Roman emperors never really adopted the title of pharaoh, though the Egyptian priesthood continued to recognize the Roman emperors as pharaohs into the early fourth century – doubtless in part because the religion required a pharaoh, though Roman emperors could never be bothered to actually do the religious aspects of the role and few ever even traveled to Egypt.

So ended the 21-year reign of Cleopatra, the last heir of Alexander.15

Cleopatra and Egypt

One of the assertions one sees about Cleopatra – indeed, it is central to the recent Netflix documentary – was that she loved the Egyptian people and Egypt. And there’s not nothing there to this point, but there’s also a bit less than you might think and more than a few reasons to doubt Cleopatra ‘patriotism,’ as it were, and deep attachment to Egypt.

The factors usually pointed at to demonstrate Cleopatra’s attachment to Egypt are that she learned the language, engaged with Egyptian religion and represented herself in Egyptian fashion in royal artwork and commemoration meant for consumption in Egypt. And that’s true, she did those things! But the context often missing from using that as a clear indicator of Cleopatra’s cultural ‘Egyptianness’ is that, apart from learning the language, those were common things for Ptolemaic rulers to do, despite the fact that the dynasty maintained a pronounced ethnic hierarchy in Egypt and aren’t generally regarded as being particularly attached to its people or culture. Nevertheless, there’s not nothing here in the sense that Cleopatra showed – or at least wanted to show – more than the normal Ptolemaic attachment to Egypt as a place and the Egyptians as people, which is to say almost any at all.

Let’s start with languages, because I think this fact can be presented in a somewhat distorted way. The language of the Ptolemaic court was Greek, initially Macedonian Greek (the Macedonians had a pronounced accent), though Plutarch notes that some of the later Ptolemies had lost their Macedonian accent (Plut. Ant. 27.3-4). Cleopatra, by contrast, was the first of the Ptolemies to bother to learn Egyptian (which should tell you something about the character of Ptolemaic rule; imagine if King Charles was the first English king since George I and kings from the House of Hanover to bother to learn English). The problem with this fact is that it is incomplete, presenting Cleopatra as a Greek-speaker who learned the language of her people out of sincere devotion, but that’s not what Plutarch says. Plutarch says:

She could turn [her voice] easily to whichever language she wished and she conversed with few barbarians entirely through an interpreter, and she gave her decisions herself to most of them, including Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes and Parthians. She is said to have learned the languages of many others also, although the kings before her did not undertake to learn the Egyptian language, even though some of them had abandoned the Macedonian dialect.16

So let’s unpack that. This isn’t a native speaker of Greek who learned just the language of her subjects, but a spectacularly skilled linguist who learned a lot of different languages, quite regardless of if she ruled the people in question. Running through the list, she evidently learned Ethiopian, the language of the people on her southern border, the speech of the Troglodytae, the people who lived on the coast of the Red Sea (a hinterland of her kingdom). The ‘language of the Hebrews’ here is probably Aramaic rather than Hebrew (which would also cover much of Syria), while the language of the Medes and Parthians might mean both Old Persian and the Parthian language. To which we must add Egyptian, implied by that last sentence; it also seems fairly clear Cleopatra knew at least some Latin.17 This is part of why I find arguments that use Cleopatra’s knowledge of Egyptian as strong proof either for her Egyptian ancestry or deep attachment to Egypt less than fully compelling; she was surely not Parthian and did not have a deep attachment to Parthia, but she learned their language too. Again, there’s not nothing here, but it’s not a slam dunk either.

What of Cleopatra’s role in Egyptian religion? The recent Netflix miniseries makes quite a fuss about how Cleopatra’s first action as queen – that we know of, because this is simply the first moment she is visible in the sources to us at all – is to partake in a religious festival installing a new sacred bull in a shrine at Hermonthis, close to Thebes in Upper Egypt and how this was indicative of a deep love of Egyptian religion. And it may well have been, but it’s also worth noting that Ptolemaic rulers had been taking part in Egyptian religion for a long time. Most of the massive temple complex at Philae, for instance – even farther from Alexandria than Hermonthis, I might add – was built in the Ptolemaic period, with major expansions by Ptolemy II and III. Even more relevantly to our subject, this was a to Isis; Cleopatra was not the first Ptolemy by any means to claim that goddess for the dynasty.18

Via Wikipedia, a limestone stele (51 BC) now in the Louvre, showing Cleopatra, dressed as the pharaoh, presenting offerings to Isis (seated). Cleopatra’s name, in Greek (Κλεοπάτρα, inflected here as Κλεοπάτρας) can be clearly read.

Nor had this even been a new practice for the Ptolemies. Alexander was presumably crowned pharaoh in Memphis in the traditional manner, visited the oracle of Amun at Siwa and dedicated a major set of construction works in the temple of Amun at Thebes. The Ptolemies followed this model. Ptolemy II went to Mendes to personally conduct the ritual of the process of the Ram of Mendes and then extended the temple, he presided over the inauguration of a temple at Pithom, and so on.19 And on it went with Ptolemy III and on down the line (indeed, becoming a bit more pronounced as we move into the later Ptolemies, beginning with Ptolemy V Epiphanes, potentially as a result of the increasing weakness of the Ptolemaic dynasty both internally and abroad). Ptolemaic kings were regularly in and out of Memphis, the religious capital of Egypt, building new Egyptian temples, attending Egyptian religious rituals and so on. The reason is that the job of Pharaoh was as much (if not more) a religious job as it was a political one and it was a job that only the Pharaoh could conduct. And the idea that a Ptolemaic pharaoh with a legitimacy problem might consecrate some temples to help fix that wasn’t new either; Ptolemy VIII Physcon is out doing that thing in the mid-second century. Consequently, involvement in Egyptian religion was a requirement of the position, quite apart from the question of how much the holder of that position cared.

Via Wikipedia, Cleopatra and Caesarion in relief in Egyptian style on the Temple of Dendera. Interestingly, also depicted on this temple as an Egyptian Pharaoh is the Roman emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), which really goes to stress that this sort of depiction was standard regardless of what ‘Pharaoh’ was being depicted or how involved they were in Egyptian religion or culture.

Cleopatra, like any Ptolemaic ruler, engaged in this sort of building, though it seems striking how much of her building program was composed of Hellenistic structures in Alexandria, even as Duanne Roller admits, “the queen was not a major builder.”20 She restored the gymnasium of Alexandria, made major repairs to the Lighthouse, built a new precint in honor of Julius Caesar called the Kaisareion, and apparently built a monumental tomb for herself, also in Alexandria. Examples of her building outside of Alexandria are fairly thin: the completion of a temple at Dendera begun by Ptolemy XII, extensions to the temple at Hermonthis (where she visited early in her reign), never entirely finished and a temple to Isis in Ptolemais Hermiou in Upper Egypt. Cleopatra could hardly be accounted the great renovator of Egyptian religion or religious sites.

Likewise the assertion that Cleopatra represented herself in Egyptian artwork in Egyptian style and dress; that too was true of all of the Ptolemaic rulers from the very beginning. Indeed, Cleopatra’s self-representation as Isis was very much not new, but in fact the normal way Ptolemaic queens were represented (to match Ptolemaic kings being represented as Osiris). Here, for instance, is Ptolemy II Philadelphos (r. 284-246) with his queen Arsinoe II represented in Egyptian style on a relief now in the British Museum:

Via the British Museum (Inv. EA1056), a limestone temple relief showing Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II, dated c. 260 BC. Originally painted, only some of the paint is still visible.

Like all Ptolemaic rulers before her, Cleopatra presented herself in an Egyptian form, conforming to Egyptian style, in Egyptian contexts. And, like all of the Ptolemaic rulers before her, she presented herself in a Hellenistic form in Alexandria and on her coinage. While you will see people point to various busts and frescos as being images of Cleopatra, it is only her coins where we can say for certain that an effort was made to capture her likeness (her Egyptian portraiture, though labeled, follows Egyptian stylistics, not her actual likeness); we have no idea if, for instance, later Roman artists had any information about what she actually looked like or if the busts we suppose to be of her actually are. Be wary also of Greek and Roman frescos showing fair-skinned women reported to be Cleopatra; almost all women in Greek and Roman fresco are shown as fair-skinned; it’s a standard artistic convention. Coins, of course, record no skin color and neither do our sources for Cleopatra; anyone who thinks they can tell you what color her skin was is unduly certain.21

Via the British Museum (inv. TC,p237.1.CleMA), a silver tetradrachma of Cleopatra, dated to 36 BC minted in the Levant, showing how she generally appears on her coinage.

Now this isn’t to say Cleopatra is doing nothing new. She does seem to have been somewhat more involved in Egyptian religion than her predecessors, though the exact degree to which this is true is hard to see because we don’t have anything like a full accounting of their actions; if it is a difference it is a different in quantity, not kind. Certainly her building program wasn’t anywhere close to the scale of the early Ptolemies, but perhaps she took more direct personal involvement. Once again, the unknowns here are formidable. Dorothy J. Thompson in the the Cambridge Ancient History22 takes this, along with Cleopatra switching her regnal name from ‘philopator’ (‘loves-father’) to ‘philopatris’ (‘loves-homeland’23) to be indicative of a clear effort by Cleopatra to be, “indeed queen of Egypt,” particularly in the context of dynastic struggles with her brothers: outflanking them by getting the favor of the people.

Via the British Museum (inv. 1875,1102.3) an earlier (c. 50-49BC) coin of Cleopatras, showing her face on the obverse. Though this coin is some 13 years earlier than the one above, the same basic style of self-presentation, down to the hair-style, is visible.

The problem with this narrative is the timing: Cleopatra makes that switch in titles in 36/5 BC, which is to say in year 16 of her 21 year reign, eight or nine years after her last serious competition for the throne, her youngest brother, had died. Instead, Bingen24 argues that the homeland Cleopatra is professing love for is the greater Macedonian empire – the empire of Alexander – which she may have seemed in 36 on the verge of reclaiming.25 Antonius was just about to give her (through her children) sweeping portions of Roman Syria, Cilicia, Cyrenaica and Armenia; he would also give them titles to Medea and Parthia, which he didn’t control (though perhaps in 36 he hoped to) but would represent collectively the whole of the old Seleucid Empire near its height. Bingen notes the other change to Cleopatra’s titulature at this point was rather than just being ‘the goddess who loves her father’ she becomes ‘the young goddess who loves her father and her country;’ the added νεωτέρα (‘young’) perhaps being intended as a link to Cleopatra Thea, Seleucid queen-consort of Syria from 150 to 126 BC and Cleopatra’s own great-grand-aunt. Cleopatra, after all, was about to achieve the long Ptolemaic dream of controlling all of Syria.

Strikingly the sources do not tell us that Cleopatra was seen as any more distinctively Egyptian than her father or that she had some groundswell of popular support in Egypt. Indeed, Cassius Dio implies the opposite (Cass. Dio 42.34-6) that the Egyptians favored Ptolemy XIII in the succession dispute and it was only the force of Caesar’s arms that turned the issue to Cleopatra. Of course we have to be somewhat skeptical of this account too: Dio is marinating in a literary tradition that is very hostile to Cleopatra and also makes no effort to distinguish between the Alexandrians and the rest of Egypt, two very distinct groups. In any case it is clear that Cleopatra achieved no groundswell of support in Egypt in those early years: she had to raise her army in Syria and in the event it wasn’t the stronger force as she and Caesar spent the winter of 48/7 besieged in Alexandria by Ptolemy XIII’s then larger army (Caesar had not brought his full field army), until the arrival of an army out of Roman Syria led by a collection of Caesar’s allies tipped the balance. Julius Caesar was never a particularly cautious commander, so if he looked at whatever force Cleopatra still had and said, “we need to wait for reinforcements,” it could not, at that point, have been very substantial. Afterwards, Caesar would leave four legions in Egypt to secure Cleopatra’s rule, which seems not to indicate her great popularity or any great faith in her ability to hold the kingdom. After 44, she’s able to rule without direct support, but of course after 44, she and her children are the only dynastic options left, her brothers and sisters all being dead (some at her hand). Finally, when Octavian comes for her, there is no major effort by anyone to stop him militarily. If Cleopatra had the love of the Egyptian people at that point, we sure don’t see it.

In my view then, it seems like an argument can be made that Cleopatra had a fairly modest propaganda effort towards presenting herself as more in touch with Egyptian religion, but the extent and quality was at most only a modest improvement over the previous Ptolemies and apart from keeping her on the throne (with Roman backing), it doesn’t seem to have achieved much.

But was she good for Egypt?

Cleopatra’s Rule in Egypt

Now we need to stipulate here at the beginning that the bar for late Ptolemaic rulers was pretty low. The Ptolemaic kingdom had been on a downward slide in power and importance ever since its great victory at the Battle of Raphia (217) and the Egyptian Revolt (205-199). The last Ptolemaic ruler to actually exert Egypt as a major power was Ptolemy VI Philometor (r. 180-145); in 168 Rome had to intervene just to keep Antiochus IV (the Seleucid king of Syria) from overrunning the kingdom. After Ptolemy VI Philometor, the dynasty was crippled by frequent coups, civil wars and succession disputes, many involving the turbulent, unstable politics of Alexandria, and a persistent military and financial weakness despite the fact that Egypt was fabulously wealthy.

The ability of these later Ptolemies to draw meaningful military power from the general populace was also slim, which speaks to the inch-deep nature of their popular support. Ptolemaic Egypt and Roman Italy had similar population sizes, but the best army Ptolemy XIII could muster at the Battle of the Nile (47), in Egypt, was probably just under 30,000 troops(and not very good ones at that) for a battle for his very crown. Back in 216, when the very Republic was threatened, Rome had fielded a quarter of a million men in a single year; Carthage at the same time could put nearly as many men in the field (though they concentrated them in Spain). Heck, at Raphia (217), Ptolemy IV had managed to field 75,000 men, in a battle where neither victory nor defeat would have been decisive. This was a greatly diminished kingdom.

In short then, Egypt was a kingdom in desperate need of reform: military, financial and administrative reform. With a core population of perhaps something like 5-7m people, the best farmland in the whole of the Mediterranean, and the largest, wealthiest trade port of the day, Egypt had the potential to be a major power, if it was ruled well. Unfortunately, Cleopatra would do exactly none of this and instead replicated all of the same patterns as her predecessors, further weakening the kingdom, impoverishing her subjects and eventually leading to its demise.

We’ve already discussed how Cleopatra may have embarked on a program of trying to generate legitimacy or goodwill from the general populace. What I think is notable here is that what Egypt desperately needed was some way to mobilize the Egyptian populace to actually support the regime rather than merely tolerate it and pay taxes, perhaps something like Rome’s response to the Social War (91-88). This, Cleopatra did not do. There is no sign that her putative love for Egypt and Egyptians led to any sort of change in the way that Egypt was administered. Her key advisors and officials, such as we know them (Roller (2010), 107-8 presents an overview) followed the old system: high offices were held by Greeks, low offices by Egyptians, with the basic administrative structure she inherited from her father unchanged. Even as late as 33, as Roller notes, we see in Cleopatra’s rule that “the dichotomy […] still existed at the very end of the Ptolemaic era between the rulers (and their Roman allies) and the ruled, where the former continued to obtain special privileges.”26

And via wikipedia, here is the document Roller is talking about when she makes the quoted statement above, penned in 33, with Cleopatra’s signature and a command γινέσθωι (‘so be it’) at the end. So we may have only a vague idea of what Cleopatra looked like, but we have her signature and so can forge her checks.

Then there is the financial side. We actually have a few ancient figures for the size of Ptolemaic revenues and while they are sometimes dismissed as unreliable or useless (e.g. Roller (2010), 106, “the net income of Ptolemy XII varied between 6,000 and 12,500 talents, although it is not known what these figures mean”) Michael Taylor does a decent job of unpacking them in Soldiers and Silver (2020) and comes away assuming that Ptolemaic revenues in years of relative peace and stability were around 63-75 million Attic silver drachmae (75-90m Ptolemaic drachmae; perhaps something like 69 to 83 million Roman denarii), which was a staggering amount. Even in bad and chaotic years, they might have been something like half that value. For comparison, the state revenues of the Roman Republic after Pompey annexed all of Syria to it were supposedly around 85 million denarii (Plut. Pomp. 45.3, he gives the figure as 85m drachmae). Which is to say, for all of Rome’s conquests, the notional financial resources available to Cleopatra – if she could get her kingdom in order – were on the same order of magnitude as those available to the Roman Republic, which again, looked like this:

Via Wikipedia, you want to look at the Green, but substract out most of Gaul (modern France). ALL of that Green produced roughly the same revenues, under ideal conditions, as the yellow, under ideal conditions. Alas, Cleopatra’s rule was not ideal conditions.

We can be fairly certain then that Cleopatra did not get her kingdom in order because we have pretty good evidence that Egypt suffered a chronic shortage of funds throughout her reign. The main indicator here is currency purity, since the standard response to budget shortfalls was to debase the currency (that is, reduce the amount of actual precious metal in the coin). Ptolemaic currency had always been ‘light’ compared to the Mediterranean standard and its purity began falling in the late second century. That drop continued unabated through Cleopatra’s reign, with her late coinages being at around 40% purity, compared to a contemporary Roman denarius at around 98% purity. Roman currency would only hit this level of debasement during the Crisis of the Third Century, which should itself be somewhat suggestive that things aren’t going so great with Cleopatra’s fiscal management.

We don’t have a good window into Cleopatra’s finances. The sources are unanimous in claiming that the lifestyle she lead was wastefully extravagant, though this of course may just be a reflection of Octavian’s propaganda and the general discomfort of elite Romans with anyone richer than they were. Alternately, the problem may be that the Ptolemaic system of taxation, undermined by decades of repeated civil wars, was no longer up to the task of pulling in sufficient revenue, yet on the other hand Cleopatra still had money enough to finance Antonius’ military operations. And at least some of our sources (e.g. Cass. Dio 42.34.1-2) suggest that the Egyptians themselves felt overtaxed, at least early in Cleopatra’s reign. In any case, Cleopatra should still have had a substantial revenue, especially after 44 when her rule was unchallenged.

So where did all of the money go?

The Ambitions of Cleopatra

One of the difficulties in sketching the biographies of ancient figures is that we’re often only very unreliably informed as to their character. My own habit in this regard is to see if I cannot begin to sketch the outlines of their character and values instead from their decisions, from the things we can see that they did. For instance, our sources present Marcus Antonius as a reckless, headstrong and emotional sort of person and I tend to believe them not because I think they are reliable (they’re not, all of our sources on Antonius are hostile) but because I can see that in his generalship, which is very much an emotive ‘leap-before-you-look’ style, which gets him into trouble repeatedly.27 Can we determine a similar sort of pattern with Cleopatra?

I think we can, and I think the pattern is this: Cleopatra was an aggressive gambler whose priority was consistent: the maintenance and expansion of her own power, pouring her time and resources into that objective. Now, Cleopatra as a ruler being one who used Egypt as little more than a piggy-bank for her own ambitions doesn’t necessarily make her much worse than any of the other Ptolemies who largely did the same thing, but I think it rather does put a dent in the image of ‘Cleopatra the patriotic Egyptian Queen.’ Had her gambles paid off, she’d be Cleopatra the Great, but it wouldn’t have benefited Egypt a wit. However, they didn’t pay off, in part because while she was by all accounts very intelligent, she doesn’t seem to have been very good at all of the skills necessary to actually succeed at those gambles. But how am I seeing the pattern here?

Well, Cleopatra appears in our sources in 51 BC at the death of her father, being made co-ruler with her brother Ptolemy XIII. As noted in the timeline above, within the year she is at odds with her brother and his advisors and by 49 is clearly on the losing side of the dispute. It is not surprising that the twenty-year-old Cleopatra lacked the political acumen to outmaneuver Potheinos and Ptolemy XIII’s other key supporters but it is worth noting that she does indeed lack it.28 This is going to set up a pattern: while Cleopatra was, by all accounts, a very gifted speaker, she doesn’t really seem to have had the knack for getting ahead in political situations where she needed to win over a critical mass of powerful figures (rather than one exceptional Roman) in a larger political system.

By the spring of 48, Cleopatra is in Syria gathering an army to do some civil war, an episode which I think illustrates two things. First, repeated civil wars were a big part of the answer to the question of ‘where did all of the Ptolemies’ money go?’ and here Cleopatra is, losing at court politics and then instigating a big, expensive civil war which would eventually, among other things, wreck large parts of Alexandria (which then had to be expensively repaired by her). Second, it’s clear that her Syrian army didn’t perform well. Caesar shows up before any decisive engagement, but Cleopatra’s forces largely vanish from the sources at this point and the fact that even with three thousand of Caesar’s Roman troops, Cleopatra and Caesar are quickly bottled up in Alexandria, unable to break out until help arrives from Rome’s other Eastern client states. If Julius Caesar does not think he can win a battle with your army, no one can win a battle with your army. This is going to be a trend: Cleopatra struggles not only with politics (beyond the personal) and money, she is also quite bad at handling armies.

So far then, Cleopatra’s achievements are that she has triggered yet another Ptolemaic dynastic civil war, managed to ruin both Egyptian armies (hers and her brother’s) and presumably sunk the kingdom even deeper into debt from the cost of it, but her gamble that she could secure sole effective rule seems to have paid off. That’s good for Cleopatra but bad for Egypt, now weaker, poorer and even more vulnerable to Roman influence. She now gambles even harder, not merely backing Julius Caesar, but having a child with him, tying her fortunes – and the fortunes of Egypt – to his in a fairly direct way.

She heads to Rome sometime in 46, probably leaves in 45 and returns in 44, leaving again only in April 44, after Caesar’s assassination. It’s clear that her presence was a political liability for Caesar.29 The fact that Cleopatra stays for a month after Caesar’s death suggests to me that she hoped to get Caesarion recognized as Caesar’s heir, which in turn suggests that Cleopatra had a poor grasp of Roman law and politics, both not realizing that her mere presence was a liability to the one person she needed to succeed (and not be stabbed 23 times) and also that the quest to get Rome to acknowledge Caesarion as Caesar’s heir was almost certainly hopeless. Caesarion could not be Caesar’s heir; as a non-citizen30 Caesarion wasn’t even a valid target as primary heir of Caesar’s will and so the chances of getting him recognized as Caesar’s heir through a Roman court was basically nil.31 In any case, Caesar’s will made Octavian his sole heir, which is a twist Cleopatra really ought to have seen coming since Caesar was openly preparing the fellow and planning to bring him along on his next campaign. Personally, I suspect Caesar always knew Caesarion wouldn’t be acceptable in Rome and never had any intention of making him his heir; that Cleopatra doesn’t seem to have known this is a striking indictment of her political acumen.32

In any case, this gamble fails and Cleopatra returns to Egypt in 44, where there are four legions, left by Caesar. With war brewing between the Caesarian faction (Octavian, Antonius and Lepidus) and the liberatores (the assassins of Caesar), both sides request the four legions. She, for once, tries to keep options open, stalling the liberatores while trying to sneak the legions to the Caesarian governor in Syria (Dollabella) but the plan goes off wrong and all four legions are captured by Cassius. Her course now determined by blunder, she puts together a fleet and tries to sail to the aid of Octavian and Antonius in Greece, but never gets there because her fleet is wrecked in a storm.33 Cleopatra’s trend of always mishandling military forces continues unabated.

She leaves Egypt again to meet with Antonius in 41 and here I want to note that Cleopatra is in Rome in 46 and 44, at sea in 43 or 42 and now out of Egypt again in 41. On the one hand, this does seem to confirm that by this point there was no real alternative to her rule, so she could safely leave the seat of power. On the other hand, her failure to implement the meaningful reforms that the moribund kingdom so clearly needed is understandable here too, given how frequently she is out of town, as it were, in this period.

The meeting with Antonius leads to her next big gamble and she opts to back him completely. It’s not clear how quickly she went ‘all in’ on Antonius. It’s possible she held some options open until throwing her financial muscle behind his doomed Parthian campaign in 36, but I tend to think the point at which she bears him twins (in 40), she presumably understands that she has linked her fate to his. Strategically, it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea to gamble on Antonius (every other dynast in the Roman East does too), but Cleopatra once again goes all in, creating a situation where she certainly loses if Antonius does.

And here is where the normal argument is that Cleopatra can’t be faulted because the position of an monarch in the Eastern Mediterranean trying to survive the chaotic Roman civil wars was an impossible one, to which the obvious counter example suggests itself: Cleopatra’s own local rival Herod. Herod backed Antonius too, but unlike Cleopatra who was a reckless gambler strategically, he was cautious and kept his options open and so when Antonius lost, Herod was in a position to be able to bargain with Octavian and keep his throne, his life and his dynasty. This was not an impossible needle to thread – though it was doubtless very difficult – but it seems to have required a degree of caution that Cleopatra lacked. The irony is that Herod certainly seems in the sources a much less talented fellow than Cleopatra, just more cautious, though certainly no less ruthless.

For Cleopatra’s gamble, then, what was the payoff? It was certainly not a better deal for the Egyptians. Instead, what Antonius eventually promised her – the ‘Donations of Alexandria’ – were huge chunks of Roman territory: Cyprus, Cilicia, Cyrenaica, Syria and Armenia, with Cleopatra’s children also getting titles as rulers of Media and Parthia which Antonius presumably hoped to conquer but hadn’t. Actually reassembling those territories would have recreated a kingdom on the core combined Ptolemaic and Seleucid territories, the closest thing to reconstituting Alexander’s empire that anyone had done since the end of the fourth century.

And I think we need to understand that this is what Cleopatra – cash-strapped, debasing the currency – is buying with the wealth of Egypt: an empire outside of Egypt. By spending her money backing Antonius first against Parthia and then against Octavian, she’s hoping to buy a renewed Macedonian Empire. There are a lot of things she could have spent that wealth on. She could have tried to rebuild an Egyptian army worth the name, or engaged in actual legitimacy building in Egypt, or simply stabilized the currency. She doesn’t do those things: she has money in her pocket and so she gambles it on empire.

And loses. Again.

Now our sources for the Battle of Actium (31) are not great; they cannot agree, for instance, on how many ships were present and of course they are uniformly hostile to Cleopatra. Nevertheless there are some things that are pretty clear: Antonius’ key supporters recognized almost immediately that having Cleopatra with the combined land-and-naval force was a liability. They also seem generally to have opposed her military judgment, which given that Cleopatra has, at this point, mishandled every army and fleet she has ever touched, seems reasonable. But Cleopatra doesn’t seem to have wanted to leave and given the extent of her support, Antonius could hardly send her away. Her insistence on staying motivated the defections of several of Antonius’ key supporters, both Roman but also some of his client kings. Cleopatra also pushed Antonius to formally divorce Octavia, a political misstep that empower Octavian’s PR machine in Italy. In short, as in Rome in 46-4 and as in Alexandria in 51-49, Cleopatra, while charming, intelligent and eloquent, seems to have been quite bad at the basics of managing difficult politics, alienating people Antonius needed to not alienate just as her presence in Rome alienated people Caesar needed to not alienate.

Finally, our sources claim that at Actium itself, it was Cleopatra’s flight which precipitated the collapse of Antonius’ fleet. Now on the one hand, I think this is actually a touch unfair to Cleopatra: Antonius’ own blunders in the campaign deserve a fair bit of the credit. Antonius had over-extended his forces (again) and leapt beyond his ability to secure his logistics (again) and unfortunately for him M. Vipsanius Agrippa was not so foolish as Brutus or Cassius to politely offer battle terms convenient to Antonius. In any case it’s clear Cleopatra with her detachment retreated out of the battle without engaging and Antonius chased after her, leaving the rest of the fleet to be crushed. Roller interprets this as Cleopatra putting the defense of Egypt first and I find this claim a bit strange – there was no strength anywhere but in Antonius’ fleet which could protect Egypt. If there was one moment for Cleopatra to go all in and charge with her ships and let the battle go the way it may, this was that moment. Instead she flees at the moment when flight cannot help her.34 But then Cleopatra has mishandled every single army or navy she has yet touched, and so she does again at Actium.

I find it striking at this point that Antonius and Cleopatra return to Egypt after the battle and, as far as we can tell, make no effort to prepare for Octavian’s inevitable invasion. Antonius makes some desultory efforts en route to gather some of his remaining Roman forces (these fail), but Cleopatra doesn’t seem to have, for instance, attempted to raise an Egyptian army to defend Egypt. Cleopatra spends the rest of 31 trying to negotiate with Octavian, but makes no effort to prepare a defense of Egypt or even to raise a meaningful army which might serve as a bargaining tool. Crucially, and I think this serves as a rather grim final word on Cleopatra’s efforts – however substantial they may have been – to woo the Egyptian people. Even with a foreign invader on Egypt’s doorstep, there’s no evidence of any native Egyptian rallying to Cleopatra’s cause.

A Verdict on Cleopatra

This has thus all been very, very long, but at last we are to a verdict on Cleopatra as a ruler. And my view is this: Cleopatra was the last in a line of ineffective Ptolemaic rulers; she may not have been the most ineffective, but she sure wasn’t effective either. This isn’t to say she wasn’t a talented person – again, the sources are very clear that she was very learned, knew an impressive array of languages, was very intelligent, and was a highly effective speaker. But someone can be all of those things and still be a bad ruler or leader. And perhaps it should be no surprise that Cleopatra was bad at ruling and leading. Where would she have learned to do that? From her also famously inept father? The Ptolemaic line hadn’t produced a properly capable monarch in the full century before Cleopatra assumed power, so it isn’t surprising that she just didn’t have the training in politics, state finance, administration, or military leadership that she would have needed to be effective in her role as queen. No one had managed to train a Ptolemy to do any of that well in a long time.

Nevertheless, the track record Cleopatra sets is really quite poor. She fares poorly in political contests, be they in Alexandria (51-49) or Rome (46-44) or with Antonius (33-31). She was able enough to hold on to power in Egypt on her own from 44 to 30, though it should be noted by then there were simply no legitimate alternatives to Cleopatra. When there had been alternatives, it had taken no less than Julius Caesar to keep those alternatives from overwhelming her. Meanwhile, Cleopatra mishandles every single army or fleet she touches. Military leadership was a core job of Hellenistic monarchy and Cleopatra was shockingly bad at it, probably because she was never sufficiently trained to do it. Admittedly, the Ptolemaic army had not been particularly capable in a long time, which will lead into the next point, but nevertheless even when she had Roman legions to handle, she lost them quickly and without doing any real damage to her enemies.

Meanwhile her financial stewardship also seems poor. As noted, we see the telltale signs of a kingdom living beyond its means under Cleopatra (as under her predecessors): the steady debasement of the currency. Clearly some of that money was funneled into her gambles, like her support of Antonius. Fleets are expensive and so are armies and Cleopatra seems to have spent quite a bit of Egypt’s treasure funding both in the hopes of gaining territories outside of Egypt. Each of those failed gambles weakened Egypt, made it more vulnerable for the eventual Roman takeover, until the chances were quite literally spent.

The other factor we haven’t yet discussed on this point is the expense of her own court and lifestyle. The hostility of our sources make this tricky too. They are loaded with no end of anecdotes meant to show that Cleopatra’s court was excessively lavish and extravagant, which was itself an intensification of a general reputation the Ptolemies in particular had for excessively lavish court spending, even compared to other Hellenistic monarchs. On the other hand, it has to be said: Cleopatra had a reputation for excess even compared to the Ptolemies who had a reputation for excess as compared to Hellenistic monarchs who had a reputation for excess compared with any other kind of ruler or elite. Roller35 lists off the stories, that Cleopatra sent letters to Antonius inscribed on onyx or crystal, that she once dissolved a priceless pearl earring in vinegar to show she could throw a ten million drachma feast, that she referred to her gold and silver table service as ‘ceramics,’ that a ‘Cleopatran’ feast remained a common saying for centuries. Much of it must be simple invective invented by Octavian’s supporters but it is also very clear (on this note Taylor, op. cit., 160-1) that a good portion of Egypt’s incredible wealth was spent on the spectacle and lavish court-life of the Ptolemaic monarchy. At the very least we can say that Cleopatra, at a moment when royal funds ought to have been buying loyalty or weapons, didn’t desist from traditional Ptolemaic extravagance either.

Finally, I think it is possible that Cleopatra was more attached to Egypt than other Ptolemaic monarchs. She did, at least, bother to learn the language. She may have participated in and put more stock in Egyptian religion, though you wouldn’t know it from her building agenda. She may have felt a responsibility for the Egyptian people, though that feeling certainly didn’t lead her to move in any visible way to diminish the structures of Macedonian rule. She may have felt a duty to protect Egypt, but this didn’t stop her from funneling Egypt’s treasure and its future into one gambit after another at greater power beyond Egypt’s borders, leaving Egypt itself wholly undefended when the invader finally came.

But I don’t think so. The sources are fairly clear that Cleopatra was very intelligent and we can see that she was driven, self-determined and strong-willed. Most people do not have the gumption to smuggle themselves into a hostile city to swing a one-on-one meeting with a foreign general on which their life depends. And so on the balance, I think Cleopatra’s actions are probably a good indicator of what she wanted to accomplish, which was first to secure sole power in Egypt and then to extend that power to encompass as much of Alexander’s Empire as she could get. This was, after all, by the time of her birth, the two-and-a-half-century old dream of her family. Why should Cleopatra, the last heir of Alexander be any different? On the altar of those ambitions, she seems to have quite willingly sacrificed her siblings (not that they wouldn’t have done the same to her), her wealth and eventually her kingdom.

And yet for that ambition and drive, Cleopatra lacked the skills to accomplish those aims. She gambled her people, her kingdom and her dynasty on a greater empire for herself and lost. She was certainly not the least impressive Ptolemaic Pharaoh – that prize may well go to her father – but she was also far from the greatest of them either.

The shame is that Cleopatra gets so much attention as the ancient queen, contorted to meet the needs of the moment as either villain or icon, that other figures get neglected. Do you want a powerful warrior queen? Let me introduce you to Zenobia of Palmyra. Or Amanirenas of Meroë, who unlike Cleopatra held off Octavian and kept her kingdom. But I think it is time we put aside Cleopatra the Villain and Cleopatra the Icon and instead recognized the real Cleopatra: the ambitious ruler who just didn’t quite have the right skills to pull it all off, who destroyed her very kingdom trying.

  1. Or even just the seventh!
  2. This is not to diminish the value of reception studies that trace the meaning a figure – or the memory of a figure – had over time. That’s a valuable but different lens of study.
  3. It’s not all Octavian, mind. Cicero’s impression of Cleopatra was also sharply negative, for many of the same reasons: Cicero was hardly likely to be affable to a foreign queen who was an ally of Julius Caesar.
  4. and entirely socially constructed
  5. If you want a better sense of the complex ways that people in the ancient Mediterranean understood race and ethnicity, read R.F. Kennedy, C.S. Roy and M.L. Goldman, Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources in Translation (2013). To put it bluntly, ancient conceptions of race and ethnicity were complex and varied and effectively none of them match cleanly on to modern notions of race or ethnicity.
  6. To hopefully save myself some audio pain in the future, his name is pronounced ‘To-lem-ey Ow-lay-tays’ not ‘Owl-leets.’ Thank you.
  7. In an effort to save myself some audio pain at some point in the future, that name is pronounced ‘Bear-eh-knee-kay’ not Berry-Nice. Thank you.
  8. “The Phantom Sister of Ptolemy Alexander” Enchoria 32 (2010/11), 122-4
  9. And this seems like a good time to note that history departments should be pushed to have more ancient historians so they can have Assyriologists and Egyptologists in addition to just Late Antique, Greece and Rome specialists.
  10. To hopefully save myself some audio pain in the future, this name is pronounced, “Arr-sin-oh-ey” not ‘Arson-oo’
  11. Roller, I should note, concedes the second point, that Cleopatra’s mother, whoever she was, was elite enough for the birth to be considered legitimate, Roller (2010), 166.
  12. Strabo being an odd source for this point as an Anatolian Greek six years Cleopatra’s younger who may well have picked up a rumor anywhere or perhaps only meant in that passage to signal that the two sons were illegitimate
  13. Albeit there are more maternal and even some paternal question-marks in that family tree too.
  14. As is frequently the case in history, there often are no right answers, but there are wrong answers.
  15. Except not really, as Cleopatra’s three children by Antonius survived their mother (though the two boys vanish from our sources fairly quickly, though we’re told they were spared by Octavian) and Cleopatra Selene actually ended up a queen herself, of the kingdom of Mauretania. There’s a recent book on what we know of her life, J. Draycott, Cleopatra’s Daughter: From Roman Prisoner to African Queen which I have not yet had a chance to read.
  16. Trans. from Jones (2006)
  17. On this, see Roller (2010), 48-9.
  18. On this sanctuary and its inscriptions, see J. Bingen (2007), 31-43.
  19. On this, see Hölbl (2001), 77-90.
  20. op. cit. 108
  21. Though, contra Netflix, we can say something about her hair. I was rather confused when one of their talking heads posited that he liked to imagine Cleopatra with hair like his – his hair was very tightly curly and indeed that is how the Netflix documentary opted to do Cleopatra’s hair. We can see her hair on her coins and it is wavy, pulled together into a bun in Hellenistic style with short draping curls (loose, not tight) and a Hellenistic diadem. I think it is pretty fair to suppose this is how Cleopatra actually wore her hair – or at least, how she wanted people to think she wore her hair.
  22. The second edition of the Cambridge Ancient History; in this case CAH2 IX, 320-1.
  23. Literally ‘loves her fatherland.’ To save myself some audio pain in the future, I often hear ‘philopator’ pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable (phi-LOPE-a-tor), but the accent is on the alpha, phi-lo-PA-tor, because that o is an omega, a long-vowel, so the accent can fall no further back.
  24. op. cit., 58-62 and 76-79
  25. Bingen argues that in an Egyptian context, it would have been clear that Cleopatra’s patris was, in fact, Makedon – the most prestigious and useful possible patris to have in Ptolemaic Egypt.
  26. Roller, op. cit. 134.
  27. For what it is worth, I find Antonius’ reputation as a ‘great captain’ wildly overblown. Once Caesar is gone, Antonius’ recklessness gets him into trouble in 44 at Mutina (he loses), into trouble in 42 at Philippi (he wins), into trouble in Parthia in 36 (he loses) and into trouble at Actium in 31 (he loses). Antonius’ habit is to take Caesar’s calculated gambles and remove the calculation; the results are predictable.
  28. In noted contrast to Octavian who at 20 is busy outmaneuvering Antonius and Cicero in Rome to claim the mantle of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar.
  29. Cicero complains about it, discussed by Roller (2010), 72-4. While it is trendy these days among classicists tired of having to read so much Cicero in their Latin instruction to regard him as a pointless blowhard, in the mid-40s Cicero was a senior consular of significant influence and importance and by 44 perhaps the most powerful ‘uncommitted’ Roman (neither a Caesarian nor an active member of the conspiracy to murder him). Antagonizing him was bad politics and of course chances are anything that antagonized Cicero also antagonized other members of the Senate.
  30. Roller (2010), 167-8 thinks Cleopatra had Roman citizenship and I extremely doubtful on this point, in part because the argument doesn’t seem to engage well with the law around Roman citizenship. Roller asserts, for instance that Ptolemy XII likely had Roman citizenship, which wouldn’t matter unless Cleopatra’s mother did as well, since a child born incertus (‘of uncertain father’) follows the status of the mother and none of the possible candidates for Cleopatra’s mother would have had the right to contract a lawful marriage (resulting in a non-incertus birth) under Roman law. Meanwhile, under Roman law, brother-sister marriages are nefas which also results in the children of such a union being incertus and thus following the status of their mother (see Gaius, Inst. 1.64). Meanwhile, Caesar was already married when he had a child with Cleopatra, which – wait for it – makes that child’s parentage incertus and causes him to follow the status of his mother at the time of his birth. So unless Cleopatra was granted Roman citizenship specifically or Caesarion was, he’s unlikely to have Roman citizenship and I think either of those things is the sort of thing our sources would tell us. We have no evidence at all that the Ptolemies gained Roman citizenship at any point and I don’t think we should infer that they did just because less important Eastern dynasts sometimes did.
  31. On the rules of Latin wills, see E. Champlin, Final Judgments: Duty and Emotion in Roman Wills 200 B.C. – A.D. 250 (1991).
  32. And if you are thinking, “but wait, Antonius later seems to think he might be able to sell this at Rome” – yes, he might well have. He was also a lot less politically astute than Caesar.
  33. Roller (2010), 75 tries to build this moment up as Cleopatra being a latter-day Artemisia of Caria, but given that all Cleopatra manages to do is lose four legions and some ships for no gain at all, the comparison seems unwarranted.
  34. Given Cleopatra’s frenzied negotiations through the rest of 31, I suspect she did not realize how decisive Actium would be. But that is yet another error in judgement.
  35. op. cit. 130-1, 2-3

290 thoughts on “Collections: On the Reign of Cleopatra

  1. The first family tree image was reduced in size at some point, opening in a new tab and zooming just gets a blurred mess unfortunately.

    1. The trick is to edit the URL to remove the “resize” parameters – it’ll appear at the proper size, then.

  2. I can’t wrap my head around the Donations of Alexandria. What on earth was Marcus Antonius thinking? Was that all just infatuation/love? Was he an idiot? Both?

      1. Sure, but how did he expect that kind of thing to fly in Rome? If anything, by doing that before he even won the power struggle he was painting a giant target on his kids

        1. He was making the calculated gamble that he was screwed if he lost either way, and it wouldn’t make things particularly worse either way. And by “calculated”, I mean “Marcus Antonius”. 😬

          1. Also, presumably, Cleopatra was bankrolling him to a pretty large extent at that point.

        2. There’s an argument that he’d more or less given up on controlling “Rome” and was basically trying to carve a personal/dynastic empire out of the east.

    1. My money’s on both. Antony and Cleopatra both seem to have had a distant, nodding acquaintance with political Reality.

    2. I saw an explanation by Historia Civilis on YouTube that said Marcus Antonius wanted to create a powerful Roman client state to secure the Roman east against the Parthians. (video here)

      Wikipedia says that two years ealier there had been a similar ceremony at Antioch with the goal to use Cleopatra’s Seleucid ancestors to make Roman control of the region easier. That donation was approved by Octavian.

      And the fact that Antonius submitted the Donations of Alexandria to the Senate for approvel means that he probably saw a chance for it to be approved. In his view what he was doing was restructuring Rome’s sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean. (Pompey had done something similar 30 years earlier, but with many weak client kingdoms instead of one powerful one. Which was controversial in Rome but accepted in the end.) Octavian then managed to twist Antonius’ restructuring into “giving away Roman land to a foreign queen”.

      1. Of course, neither Historia Civilis nor Wikipedia are historians. I don’t know if this is how actual experts would explain it.

      2. Even keeping how much Antonius and Cleopatra was tarred by Octavian in mind, I couldn’t agree with HC’s portrayal of their rearrangement as a benign strategic choice. Because first and foremost, Antonius is bequeathing all this Roman land to his immediate family, a family that are not and cannot be Roman citizens. I can’t say Octavian’s spin that Antonius is setting up an independent personal power base rings false, even if his motive is more about securing his own power base than republican virtue.

  3. I’m glad you finished by referring to female rulers who were successful managers of their realms, and I’d love to read a future post about one of them.

    1. Indeed. Zenobia is a fascinating character — her life story would make a far more interesting film than yet more Cleopatra folderol, IMHO.

    2. And maybe let the Civilization N developers know, so that they stop dredging up the likes of Queen Christiana

      1. Eh? What’s wrong with Christina? Well, except the fact that there were arguably more famous and/or successful rulers of Sweden than her, but if that’s the main criterion, then the list of female leaders would be waaaay too short :-/

        1. To my knowledge she’s somewhat disliked in Sweden, based on people I asked who actually know of her (not actual statistics, but I couldn’t find any off a quick lookup). Which is also a problem, because nobody knows about her. It’s a lesser variant of the Korean Seondeok, whose reputation in Korea insofar as it even exists is basically “got steamrollered by the Chinese and licked their boots until they shined so they wouldn’t kill off her entire extended family as a matter of course.” Which is, like, not a ruler you’d normally make a leader in Civilization.

          You don’t need “the most competent” ruler of a country, but you probably should have one that actually was capable, is at least respected in the home country, and ruled over a high point in the country’s history, plus passable name recognition if possible. Jadwiga is a good one, if we’re looking for female rulers. Wu Zetian works too if only because she is so incredibly unique and has basically a cult following in China. Theodora of the ERE is mostly suspect because Justinian the Great is right there, but at least Theodora also gets a ton of good press and was undoubtedly extremely capable and contributed to the whole affair. But Seondeok? All three boxes are unticked.

          Christina ruled over what is at least definitely not a low point of Swedish history and it’s pretty doubtful that she was an incompetent or caused some great measure of damage to Sweden, but (again afaik) she seems not particularly well-liked, and definitely isn’t even close to being as famous as the one Swedish ruler most people will know if they know one at all. Which is kinda the problem isn’t it? Doesn’t need to be the “best” but when there’s such an obvious alternative it starts looking a little bit suspect. Like Catherine d’Medici, if you think about it. I haven’t met a French person who liked that choice yet; she’s more or less a nobody and if you want a schemer, Louis the Spider is right there. On the other hand, I haven’t seen one that’s objected to Eleanor. Eleanor is well-liked in France, relatively famous, and was extremely powerful. Despite not even being the ruler of France, the fact that she ticks all the other boxes can give her something of a pass. I don’t think Italians would object to Matilda of Tuscany either, or Spaniards Isabella I instead of Philip II. But how many people have even HEARD of Christina over Gustavus Adolphus unless they specifically went looking for female rulers? It’d be like having Himiko for Japan, if Himiko wasn’t also a cultural icon.

          1. Thanks for the extensive reply! I wasn’t aware she’s that controversial in Sweden. But I’m not surprised at all that the team didn’t do their research either.

            And of course they went specifically to include as many female rulers as possible, a lot of them would definitely not be the first choice otherwise. But to be fair, I think they also went a bit for “let’s have a ruler we didn’t have before”, hence eg Hojo or Teddy who also wouldn’t’ve been obvious first choices.

            And funnily enough – and staying on topic – if they followed your (rather reasonable) criteria, Cleopatra should probably not have been made a leader of Egypt either 🙂

          2. I think Civilization generally has one criterion for who they pick to highlight as leaders: fame. For that reason, Cleopatra is a shoo-in despite being not a great leader. Elizabeth has been in a bunch of installments and WAS a good leader, but we also got Henry VIII in one game, who is mostly famous for being awful. We don’t know a ton about Hiawatha so we can’t really say much about him as a leader, but he’s literally the only name most people are going to know from the Iroquois, so here he is. It’s more of a coincidence than anything, as far as they’re concerned, that famous leaders also generally tend to have been good ones.

            Christina has had half a dozen or so pieces of media made about her in the last twenty years (The Girl King probably being the most notable, as a Netflix movie that got some promo), so given that there’s not a ton of notable Swedish leaders (especially outside of Sweden — the games are being made for an English-speaking audience, after all), she’s not totally ridiculous as a choice if they didn’t want to reuse Gustavus Adolphus.

  4. This is very interesting! Gives a very different perspective to her as a ruler.

    It is quite interesting how ethnicity could be partly fictional in the Ptolemaic Kingdom but still have great importance. An odd example I learned of is a papyrus letter sent from one “Greek” soldier to another, that suddenly shifts to Demotic Egyptian!
    As for Cleopatra learning the “Aethiopian” language, would not some of her subjects have spoken that too? I remember at least Dio Chrysostom being proud of having Aethiopians in the audience of his Alexandrian oration

  5. “The language of the Ptolemaic court was Greek, initially Macedonian Greek (the Macedonians had a pronounced accent), though Plutarch notes that some of the later Ptolemies had lost their Macedonian accent (Plut. Ant. 27.3-4). Cleopatra, by contrast, was the first of the Ptolemies to bother to learn Egyptian (which should tell you something about the character of Ptolemaic rule; imagine if King Charles was the first English king since George I and kings from the House of Hanover to bother to learn English).”
    270 years from first Ptolemaic ruler (Ptolemy I) to accession of Cleopatra “VII”. Perhaps a closer comparison to imagine is if the first English king since William the Bastard to learn English, and that beside several other foreign languages, had been Edward III – and if some of his predecessors (like Edward I or II) had been noted to shift from specifically Normandy dialect of French to common French while staying totally ignorant of English.

    1. The Norman conquest is a bit of a different comparison, firstly because it caused the emergence of Middle English as a Saxon-French creole – that is, Norman French muscled its way into the vernacular language of the common folk over the course of about a century in a way that Greek did not affect Egyptian demotic. Secondly, the Normans not only installed their new elites but systematically replaced the elites of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom and much (though apparently not all) of their laws, social institutions, and so forth. The Hanoverians took the British throne with no appreciable linguistic effect on English nor German, and apart from maybe a predilection for hiring German mercenaries and marrying German aristocrats, did nothing to risk the positions of the existing British elites. You could have conceivably had a two-tier system of culturally foreign elites at the top of civil and military administration while lesser English elites were in charge of religion and lower levels administration in a way that would have been impossible after 1066.

      1. I have heard that there may have been a shift in how “upper-class” English would have been spoken after the Hanoverians took over. No idea if that’s true though.

        1. Is this about things like “Thames” having a silent H because the King couldn’t pronounce it? Or is that from a different era?

          1. I googled this and found two answers. One is that Queen Victoria’s husband couldn’t pronounce the H. The other, which I find more plausible, is that the H got added in because someone mistakenly believed that the name came from a Greek word that ought to be spelled with Th.

            I didn’t find any explanation for why it’s spelled with an A.

          2. “Thames” is a learned error. Various forms like “Tamases” are attested since the Roman era. The ‘H’ was added under the mistaken belief that the name was French, where ‘th’ is more or pronounced like regular ‘t’.

        1. “English is the product of a Norman warrior trying to make a date with an Anglo-saxon bar-maid, and as such is no more legitimate than any of the other products of that conversation.” – H. Beam Piper (1964)

          1. Is that where that quote comes from? Thanks. English is also the result of reformed viking settlers trying to talk to their in-laws, that’s why we have such a simple grammatical structure. Thank you vikings!

          2. Source is “Fuzzy Sapiens” (vt “The Other Human Race”) by H. Beam Piper in 1964. The quote is used in a discussion of Lingua Terra, the language of the future civilization, “[an] indiscriminate mixture of English, Spanish, Portuguese and Afrikaans, mostly English.”

            (The future history has the northern hemisphere devastated in WWIII, so the interstellar civilization derives largely from southern hemisphere nations.)

          3. Hehe, I ran across a paraphrase of that in the internet some time ago: “English is what happens when Vikings use Latin to yell at Germans”. A bit (to put it mildly) more fanciful, but still funny 🙂

          4. “English is also the result of reformed viking settlers trying to talk to their in-laws, that’s why we have such a simple grammatical structure. Thank you vikings!”

            I wouldn’t really say English grammar is simple, it’s just different. We have the same range of tenses that Romance languages do, we just express them through other means rather than changing the verb ending.

          5. I wouldn’t really say English grammar is simple, it’s just different. We have the same range of tenses that Romance languages do, we just express them through other means rather than changing the verb ending.

            In particular, English makes a lot of use of phrasal and auxiliary verbs compared to other languages. “I would have loved” isn’t simpler than “amavissem”, for example.

            Though, a caveat — used properly, English grammar isn’t notable simple, but it is easier to make yourself understood using bad English than for some other languages. If you misuse phrasal verbs in English, you’ll sound weird but people will probably be able to understand the gist of what you’re saying; if you misuse case endings in Latin, you’ll come out with complete gibberish.

          6. The advantage of the auxiliaries is that they are immensely regular.

    2. While the first official use of English is under Henry IV, I find it hard to believe that no English king before then knew English. Norman French was the language of the court and the elite, but they could surely get by in northern French, and spent a lot of time in the Languedoc, while also brought up around servants, soldiers and so on who spoke English. My guess is that they could speak English (and Languedoc) in the same way that a lot of European elites spoke peasant languages but were recorded only in French or another elite language. An example is Barclay de Tolly (Scots descended Baltic German in Russian service) – at home in German, Russian and French, but also in the Latvian of his rural estate.

    3. Henry IV, who deposed Richard II in 1399, was the first English ruler since the Norman Conquest whose mother tongue was English rather than French and who took his oath of office in English.

      That’s 333 years, a longer interval.

  6. One of the problems with the whole “what race was Cleopatra?” thing is that there are entire groups who are convinced that Ancient Egyptians are not the ancestors of modern Egyptians and that the Arab invasions included a near-complete population replacement. This is completely wrong, of course, but it motivates lots of people to be interested in the question.

    If you look at modern Egyptians and modern Greeks, their skin colours are close enough that it would be hard to claim that there is a hugely dramatic difference worth arguing about, but if you believe that Greeks were pale and blond (like Alexander the Great is so often portrayed) and Egyptians were black (like sub-Saharan Africans) then you can see why people would care about this – and the challenge is more to get them to think about what “Greek” and “Egyptian” mean in terms of ethnicity instead of just rounding those off to “European, ie modern white Americans” and “African, ie modern black Americans”.

    1. I take it as a given that anyone talking about the race or ethnicity of ancient groups as we define is almost certainly pushing an agenda of some kind, and serious scholarship on the subject is effectively impossible because any terminological classification is tainted by historical and political connotations, and what “objective” research can tell us (e.g. genetics) doesn’t meaningfully map to racial or ethnic designations.

      1. Small nitpick, but one of my pet peeves: It’s not just genetics. Morphology (particularly osteology) is very useful in determining the racial group of people in the archaeological record. Genetics is often seen as the be-all/end-all of determining what group something belongs in, but it has some severe disadvantages and is totally inapplicable in some cases (cremation, areas with a lot of leaching, and a few others); basic anatomy and morphology still play huge roles in determining what group remains belong in. There have been studies of Japanese burials, for example, where morphology played important roles.

        I see this a LOT in assessments of ancient (on geological scales) animals: “Oh, we’ll just look at the DNA and that’ll tell us everything, no need to look at the messy animals themselves.” Which is fine, as long as you HAVE DNA. While we generally have good DNA records for humans, once you get back into the Pliocene our records are dismal at best, meaning that if you rely on genetic information you miss a huge (and unknown) percent of the phylogenetic tree you’re trying to analyze. This is something like trying to reconstruct the history of the human species by looking at the genetics of a random high school graduating class.

        (To be fair, where we have genetic information it maps remarkably well with the phylogenetic trees constructed using morphology, which one would expect if the morphological characters selected were subject to natural selection [not all are, some are consequences of other features, for example]. So I’m not arguing it’s useless, just that it’s more limited than many present it as being.)

        100% agree that “race” here doesn’t map to current racial or ethnic designations. Modern concepts of race and ethnicity are more socio-economic and…well, political in a lot of ways, than biological. To give but one example, biologically speaking there are more races (however defined–and this term doesn’t have a firm definition in biology) within Africa than outside it, yet modern racial designations classify all those of African descent as “black”. The reasons for this are obvious to anyone who has a high-school level understanding of US history.

        1. It’s sad how little Americans understand about the real diversity of Africa (and to some extent this Cleopatra docudrama business is an extension of this). North, East, South and West Africa all have very different histories and very different genetic and linguistic mixes. I have an Ethiopian friend (in Ethiopia) who doesn’t really identify as ‘black’ because to the extent they get the term (what is ‘black’ in the absence of ‘white’?) they tend to identify it with West Africans (who were overwhelmingly the ancestors of modern African-Americans). And as the recent kerfuffle shows, many North Africans get really quite (unnecessarily) angry when invited to identify as ‘black’.

          1. I know a guy who remembers the worst race relations issue they had on base; he was afraid there would be riots.

            Some West African troops were there for something, and some American black soldiers tried to pull racial solidarity, and the Africans laughed at them and said they had gladly sold them, as they were criminals, to the white slave traders. (Yes, I am aware that is unlikely to be historical accurate. Odd, people making up stories to make themselves look good.)

          2. Even Ethiopia, within itself, is quite a diverse country both linguistically and genetically. (It’s also interesting in that the dominant language is not the demographically largest language). There are groups in Ethiopia whose genetic ancestry has remained largely distinct even though they’ve been living next to each other for 2k-3k years. David Reich talks about one such group in his book- he says it reminds him a lot of India in terms of their endogamous communities.

        2. “yet modern racial designations classify all those of African descent as “black””

          Modern American racial classifications, one should say. In other places people define racial boundaries differently. My understanding is that Ethiopians, for example, didn’t historically consider themselves “black”. (That may have changed a little since the rise of Pan-African political ideas in the 1960s, but maybe not).

    2. And of course the discourse around this question (i.e. whether the long-term conquest of a region by an outside military power, and 7th-century Arab conquests in particular, should be taken to imply that the entire population was exiled en masse and replaced by an entirely new population of a different culture/ethnicity/”race”) will surely be less ideologically charged after the upcoming Hollywood biopic, with Cleopatra played by…

      [pause to take a big, big sip of coffee…]

      1. Didn’t DNA studies of ancient Egyptian mummies show a closer genetic similarity to middle easterners?
        So it would have been like saying the anglo-saxons where all replaced by normans after 1066.

      2. Did having Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra in the 1960s cause everyone to be deeply confused and ideologically charged, insisting that Cleopatra was actually English or American? After all, the real Cleopatra was no more English than she was African-American, since neither ethnicity or culture truly existed in a meaningful sense in her time.

        If Taylor being cast then didn’t cause problems, then I fail to see why casting Adele James in the same role now would cause any more confusion. I fail to see the problem.

        If Taylor’s casting ”did” cause problems, then it behooves us to somehow strive to repair them. I’m not sure how. Maybe we could strictly enforce casting of only people from the modern country of Macedonia?

        1. There is a good argument to be made the practice of whitewashing history does cause problems and we are trying to repair them by not doing that anymore in polite society.

          1. The practice of whitewashing history doesn’t usually involve trying to take historical black people and portray them as white.

            It involves trying to take historical black people and portray them as nonexistent. Or take historical atrocities committed against black people and forget about them.

            I don’t think that racial casting is the real problem here.

        2. Adele James clearly has as much right to play Cleopatra as Liz Taylor and probably resembles the historical queen as much or as little as Liz Taylor does.
          The difference would be to what extent either portrayal claimed to be based on physical resemblance, since neither do well there. I’m not clear in either case if people *are* claiming that, rather than engaged in chatter as to what ‘race’ Cleopatra was

          1. Adele James clearly has as much right to play Cleopatra as Liz Taylor and probably resembles the historical queen as much or as little as Liz Taylor does.

            Cleopatra was (at least partially, and possibly entirely) Greek, and Greeks look more similar to English people than they do to black Africans. So, if the choices are Liz Taylor and Adele James, the former is the better casting choice.

          2. “Adele James clearly has as much right to play Cleopatra as Liz Taylor and probably resembles the historical queen as much or as little as Liz Taylor does.”

            I’d bet good money the second half of that sentence is not true. I’ve been mistaken for a German, Maltese and Turk (at different times). I suppose I might be mistaken for a Greek or Egyptian. But I doubt I would be so easily mistaken for a Black African. Some groups of people are visibly distinguishable from others.


            Unfortunately, “one-drop” racial theories have left us with a very exaggerated idea of how visually distinct “blackness” is from “whiteness.”

            Adele James doesn’t look all that implausible as a Greek woman. It’s not how she looks that’s the problem here; it’s that she’s black and “Cleopatra played by a black woman” pushes a lot of buttons.

            You know, it sure seems like there are a lot more Hollywood roles where having a black actress play the part gets people upset at the unrealism, unhistoric character, or deviation from the original script than there are roles where having a white actress play the part has the same effect.

          4. It’s their charming habit of flaunting their reason for doing one and not the other that has the effect.

            I have read a movie review where the reviewer raved about the acting skill of a black man cast in a role not originally black — it was so phenomenally good that he managed to drive all their bragging out of mind.

        3. Because Taylor’s movie didn’t claim to be a documentary with so called experts claiming that Cleopatra could have been black.

        4. If Taylor being cast then didn’t cause problems, then I fail to see why casting Adele James in the same role now would cause any more confusion. I fail to see the problem.

          I’ve come across people, usually black nationalists, who believe that Cleopatra was black, whereas I’ve never come across anyone who believes that she was English.

          Added to that, there’s a tendency in certain quarters to pretend that the past was some kind of harmonious multi-cultural racial melting pot even when it clearly wasn’t. Race-swapping historical characters obviously plays into that. It’s an attempt to misrepresent history for political ends, and should be opposed as such.

          1. > I’ve come across people, usually black nationalists, who believe that Cleopatra was black, whereas I’ve never come across anyone who believes that she was English.

            Maybe not recently. A lot of mummies have red hair, which led the Victorians to suspect they had British ancestry. (It turns out that it’s because black hair fades to red after a few centuries.)

        5. Not sure if you or anyone else may have missed the allusion here, it’s a reference not to Elizabeth Taylor but to Gal Gadot, and the ever-so-slightly controversial question of whether the ethnic/“racial” lineage of the ancient Hebrews is reflected more closely in modern-day Israeli Jews (on the assumption that the Jewish population of ancient Palestine was expelled by the Romans and ultimately replaced with a separate population from the Arabian peninsula) or in modern-day Palestinians (on the assumption that the bulk of the population remained in place over the course of the first millennium, mostly converted to Islam, and were culturally assimilated into the perceived ethnic group called “Arabs”).

          And of course re: “Macedonia,” there’s a whole separate can of worms around the heritage of the modern-day country whose capitol is Skopje: the core territory of the ancient kingdom whose capitol was Pella is largely contained within the modern-day Greek province whose capitol is Thessaloniki, whereas the language and culture of the country whose capitol is Skopje are closely related to those of nextdoor Bulgaria, a relationship at least as close as Italian/Sicilian or Spanish/Catalan or French/Breton.

          1. A while ago I read about a genetic study that showed that Jews and Palestinians are closely related to each other, and not closely related to Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula. In my opinion, this supports the Palestinian’s claim that they’re descended from the Canaanites, and also supports the theory that the first Hebrews were actually Canaanites rather than foreign invaders.

          2. The last of which, of course, underscores the should-be-obvious-but-isn’t fact that the Bible is a book of myths, a point that has often been obscured even in our allegedly secular modern age thanks to the importance of Biblical literalism in the national creation myths of the state of Israel, even if not especially among the firmly secular/atheistic Ashkenazi elites of the Labor Zionist era. (The Straussian mentality toward Biblical literalism is neatly summed up in Golda Meir’s famous quip when asked about her belief in God: I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God.)

            On a related note, one of the funniest things about GWOT-era “New Atheism” is how the ideological affinity for Israel as a “Western” democracy manning the ramparts of civilization against Islamic “terrorists” led to a bizarre Venn diagram overlap zone of retconned Biblical quasi-literalism, where folks who’d built their entire ideological identity around epically pwning theists by debunking the Bible as pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo would execute a flawless 180-degree pivot on Biblical history and geopolitics by simply redacting the supernatural bits like a declassified intelligence report, so for instance, Moses didn’t literally part the Red Sea, but the Exodus was still a real historical event, the Hebrews just left Egypt by walking across a Nile delta marshland at low tide or something.

          3. On a related note, one of the funniest things about GWOT-era “New Atheism” is how the ideological affinity for Israel as a “Western” democracy manning the ramparts of civilization against Islamic “terrorists”

            I’m broadly pro-Israel in the sense that I think Israel should continue to exist as a Jewish state (and in the sense that I admire their national revival in the 20th c including the recreation of Hebrew as a living language), but yea, I’ve always found the “Israel should be defended because it’s a western democracy” thing to be incredibly grating, and obviously false if you’ve ever looked at an Israeli public opinion survey.

            I don’t think of Israel as “western” at all, any more than I think of, say, Poland or Turkey as “western”. Then again, I’m extremely critical of “western” civilization in a ton of different ways, so this isn’t meant as a criticism of Israel, quite the opposite.

          4. Well in the context of this thread and the “imagined communities” perspective on socially-constructed racial and national identities, the Israeli project is most naturally interpreted as a subvariant of the larger wave of central/eastern European territorial nationalist projects of the 19th through mid 20th centuries — the major peculiarity being the decision to stake its territorial claims outside of Europe itself, thereby enchancing its appeal within Europe both to imperial ruling elites who welcomed the affirmation of Western colonialist values, and to gentile nationalist anti-Semites who welcomed the prospect of expelling their Jewish neighbors “back where they came from.” Culturally speaking, I’ve heard people of both eastern European and Middle Eastern origin in the US independently observe that all sorts of deeply familiar pan-regional cultural practices seem to be pigeonholed in this country as “Jewish” or “Israeli,” as if the dueling restauranteurs in the Key & Peele Macedonian café sketch were fighting to claim runner-up at best.

            On a slightly more flippant note, the most noteworthy cultural innovation to come out of the modern state of Israel in my opinion is the anachronistic Hebrew pronunciation of a voiceless uvular fricative exaggerated enough to make you flinch from the impending loogie.

          5. I will note here that if one actually bothers to read the Biblical narrative, it is close to outright stated that the sons of Jacob (aside from Joseph) married Canaanite women and that intermarriage between Israelites and Canaanites was not unknown.

            As a “gotcha,” this ranks somewhere around “Archaeological evidence shows that the Israelites practiced polytheism.” Yeah, any of the Yahwist prophets could have told you that, that was one of their main complaints, actually.

          6. “In my opinion, this supports the Palestinian’s claim that they’re descended from the Canaanites, and also supports the theory that the first Hebrews were actually Canaanites rather than foreign invaders.”

            That’s interesting, because I’d take *literally the exact opposite* conclusion from it. To me, showing that Jews and Palestinians are related strengthens the Israeli claim that they’re indigenous to Palestine, and not descended from Central European or Khazar converts.

          7. I don’t think we actually disagree. I took it as a given that today’s Jews are descended from the ancient Hebrews, so the Jews and Palestinians being related means the Hebrews were related to the forefathers of the Palestinians.

          8. Much closer than that, I think. Sicilian and Italian are distinct languages and French and Breton aren’t even in the same subfamily (Romance vs. Celtic). As far as I understand it, Macedonian really is just a variety of Bulgarian.

            Interestingly, Macedonia is by mid-century going to reach the point where it has about as many ethnic Albanians as Macedonians, which should be interesting.

        6. But that would cause a big row between modern Greeks and modern resident of the former Yugoslav state of Macedonia, because today’s Greeks consider “Macedonia” historically Greek but today predominantly Slav — at least the portion that lies outside the borders of modern Greece. For that matter, there has been long-standing disagreement over how Slavic modern Greeks are compared to the ancient Hellenes. All those centuries of invasion and settlement during the Byzantine era.

      3. That of course is why the Egyptians ar so upset. By blackwashing not just Cleo, not just the Ptolemies but the entire native population of Egypt the so called documentary is pushing the Afrocentric claim that modern Egyptians have no connection to the ancients which Is Not True.

    3. If you look at modern Egyptians and modern Greeks, their skin colours are close enough that it would be hard to claim that there is a hugely dramatic difference worth arguing about, but if you believe that Greeks were pale and blond (like Alexander the Great is so often portrayed) and Egyptians were black (like sub-Saharan Africans) then you can see why people would care about this – and the challenge is more to get them to think about what “Greek” and “Egyptian” mean in terms of ethnicity instead of just rounding those off to “European, ie modern white Americans” and “African, ie modern black Americans”.

      This is exactly right, I think (and I say that as someone who thinks that both American “progressive” and American “conservative” ways of thinking about race are deeply flawed and almost useless).

      This paper from 2009 argues that Greeks are genetically closer to Palestinian Arabs than they are to Russians, Swedes or the Irish.

      I think differences between human population groups are important, interesting, genetically based and matter to people for good reasons, but modern Anglo-American racial categories aren’t a very good way of making sense of that genetic variation.

      1. Well that’s because race and ethnicity are both social constructs-we take individual facts about people (like skin color or L1) and use them to define people into crystallized classes, usually but not always in a way advantageous to those doing the classifying. Hence Anglo-American understandings of race being quite different from Latin-American understandings of race in ways that reflect the demographic processes behind colonialism in different parts of the Americas (multiple genders of colonizer with with attempted or successful population replacement versus largely male colonizers having children with local women, Anglo-American slavery largely reliant on internal reproduction versus Latin American slavery that continued to depend on slave imports, different ways self-emancipated individuals formed communities, and so on). Likewise, the formation of nationalism based on mother tongues is a socially and politically determined process.

        1. I’m trying to think of a colonizing power (except maybe the Americans in our recent Afghan escapade) that had “multiple” genders of colonizer. I’m pretty sure that the French in Canada, the Puritans in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, etc. had only two.

        2. that and the ultimately odd american concept of Latino/hispanic as a race, given that wholly within this understanding I knew a bloke who was Latino for about 2 years, but white for the rest of his life. In essense, the entire concept immediately dissintegrates when you realise people from actual Spain can, and do, move to South America. At which point they change from not only being caucasian, but residents of what was the longest standing actually-fascist nation in Europe, to non-white ‘hispanics’. They can then change their ehtnicity again, simply by moving back to Spain, given it has very little to do with genetics and more to do with some vague assumptions about culture which, even when they aren’t predicated on ‘racist’ beliefs, will still be largely false anyway.

      2. “This paper from 2009 argues that Greeks are genetically closer to Palestinian Arabs than they are to Russians, Swedes or the Irish.”

        I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. But I’d be rather more surprised if Palestinian Arabs were genetically closer to any group of Black Africans than to Greeks.

      3. On the point about the perceived ethnic makeup of Greeks, it’s utterly delightful how much juice Mark Mazower’s book on the Greek Revolution manages to squeeze out of poking fun at 19th-century British elites, who’d been weaned on notions of Greek qua “Western” civilization and idealized the Greek struggle against the Ottomans in crudely Orientalist terms as a civilizational clash between the freedom-loving underdog West and the decadent despotic East (call holding for VDH on the white courtesy telephone) only to arrive in Greece and realize to their horror that the swarthy locals and their barbarous Eastern ways were barely if at all distinguishable from the Turks themselves.

        1. I would think that their Christianity would be enough to distinguish them, even if it was not quite the right kind of Christianity.

        2. My understanding is that Turks in Turkey today are mostly the genetic descendants of the people who’ve been living there for millennia- the “Turkic migration” from central Asia involved a replacement of the culture and language, but not a replacement of the people themselves, and Turks today are only like 10% broadly “central Asian” (Hungarians are about 5%). Modern Turks don’t look much like people from closer to the Turkic heartland (Kyrgyz, Kazakhs etc.).

          I remember hearing a few years back about how there was a fair amount of public sentiment in modern Turkey in favor of the Uyghurs (who they saw as a fellow Turkic nation) and against the Chinese who were repressing them. A indignant mob ended up actually beating up a Uyghur restaurant owner because they assumed he was Chinese- to them a “Turk” was someone who looked like, well, them, not someone who looked vaguely “Asian”.

      1. I like that one. It manages to both combine the strong coin features and end up with a person who could seduce people to order!

      2. Afrocentrist claim these statues were repainted by racist Europeans, as were all other artworks showing light skinned AEs.

      1. That’s fascinating, I didn’t know realistic portrait sculpture was a thing so early on in Egyptian history.
        And if you’d asked, me “where would you guess this modern day couple are from?”, I genuinely would have guessed Egypt. (Although anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa would be plausible)

    4. In its extreme version, this merges into Nation Of Islam mythology about a purported Tribe of Shabazz.

  7. Speaking of Zenobia of Palmyra, where does the general scholarship on her stand these days? A few years back, I ran across a book called *Empress Zenobia: Palmyra’s Rebel Queen*, which (despite the title) seemed to boil down to something similar to what Bret is saying about Cleopatra here: actual sources are limited and provide little evidence that she actually did much of the cool stuff that is attributed to her.

  8. “and second that Octavian’s propaganda against Cleopatra, which resounds from the sources, admits no mention of an illegitimate birth, which would have been a clear and obvious thing for Octavian to suggest”

    I would think this is the *last* thing her enemies would have wanted to mention. The incest angle makes for easy an target. No culture can approve of incest outside of extremely narrow circumstances because any culture that does so will face horrible genetic consequences. Calling her a bastard or an Egyptian muddies these waters. Rome is a very cosmopolitan city in the 1st century BC with many ethnic minorities and there are a lot of bastards and adoptees floating around, even among the upper ranks. Better to say the Latin equivalent of “ix-nay on the -astardbay” to all your polemicists.

    I find it amusing that the Roman law at the time baked in the assumption that the offspring sibling marriage were not the children of the husband yet subsequent historians did not. Incest like that is extremely noticeable in the offspring after a few generations and that is something the contemporary authors would have definitely remarked about extensively.

    Your summary of Cleopatra sounds akin to the description of Jimmy Carter that James Fallows gave in the article “The Passionless Presidency.” An extremely talented individual but not well suited to leadership, didn’t understand the obstacles that constrained their predecessors until they faced them themself.

    1. The Ptolemies do not seem to have suffered any particular consequences from their in-breeding. It also does not seem to have been an imitation of Egyptian royal practice, but an attempt to limit the number of legitimate claimants – male and female. Closer to the Hapsburgs than the pharoahs.

      1. One might speculate that the later Ptolemies noted and consistent shitness as rulers might be linked to their extensive inbreeding… (and Cleopatra’s nose as visible on the coins is quite something, too, as a less important but more objective marker)

        1. With the usual caveats that the portrait on her coins may be exaggerated, whether due to difficulty getting fine details across using pre-modern casting methods (lots of ancient and medieval coins look kind of weird), the desire to emphasise certain character traits, or some other reason.

          And the fact that she was able to charm two of the most powerful men of her day into bed suggests that, at the very least, she wasn’t ugly, even if she wasn’t necessarily particularly beautiful either. (Plutarch says that people who met her were struck by her personality more than her beauty, which is often taken as indicating that she was plain, but this isn’t a necessary interpretation of the text — Cleopatra might have been strikingly beautiful but even more strikingly charming and charismatic. Then again, she might have been plain after all.)

      2. The Hapsburgs are hardly a shining example of the harmlessness of consanguinity.

        1. To be fair, most of them were fine. It’s just Charles II had the misfortune of being rather obviously not fine…

          1. And I think it’s important to note: Most of them were “not fine”, in ways that might be noticeable to a statistician but wouldn’t really be noticeable in person.

        2. To be more clear – ‘incestuous’ marriages go back to the first days of the Ptolemies, when they were still striving with the other Successors. So they were unlikely to be in imitation of Egyptian royal practice (and Egypt had not had a native dynasty for centuries). The motives seem to have been to keep potential rivals as close as possible and limit the pool of claimants.

          1. I don’t see why going back to the first days is an argument _against_ Egyptian influence. And, did the other Macedonian dynasties also practice tight brother-sister royal marriages?

          2. No idea about the Macedonians but the Anatolian Mausolus of Mausoleum fame (circa ~350 BCE) was married to his sister so royal incest was not unknown around the Ionian Sea.

        3. Catholicism has pretty stringent laws about consanguinity (more so than Anglicanism, Lutheranism and i think Orthodox Christianity, not to mention Hindu or Muslim cultures), so how did the Catholic Habsburgs get around that?

          1. A quick search turns up that first cousins could marry by special dispensation, which was not hard for a king/emperor to obtain. Do that repeatedly and you get the Hapsburgs.

    2. It’s not neccessarily as noticeable as you might think: Or rather, alot of the noticeable bits tends to be children dying early or in-uterus. Which is easily “lost” in the noise of general infant/child mortality of ancient times. So it might end up with something like 5 of your siblings dying young rather than only 3.

    3. “baked in the assumption that the offspring sibling marriage were not the children of the husband ”

      That’s a legal fiction. There was many a child of incertus father where everyone knew who the father was — and many a child who, everyone knew, had a different father than the “certain” one.

  9. Very interesting. I didn’t know most of this stuff; I was always more interested in the Mediterranean a few centuries earlier than the period Cleopatra lived in. But I do have a tangential question. I can see your negative assessment of Cleopatra, but what do you think of Queen Slsordtrd?

    1. As a followup question, with all due understanding that analogies across such a wide gulf of history can be inherently problematic, how would you compare the leadership of Queen Slsordtrd to that of President Doidld Tyatsmr?

  10. three typos in the preamble: “papyrology]” (wild right bracket); “but,…are often incomplete” missing word probably “they”; amidst the same phrase, “want to be” should be “wont to be” — or maybe “tend to be” would be better?

    1. Couple other typos:

      that ‘seven’ after he name – after her
      Fundamentally we made divide – we may

      Dr. Deveraux, would you consider switching the comment timestamps to 24 hour format, it would make searching for new comments easier.

      After I’ve read the article and comments I always return on subsequent days to read any new comments, but finding them can be difficult since they are dispersed randomly around comment threads. I mostly do it by searching the page for the date stamps. If I know the newest I read previously were around 9 PM May 26th, then I could do a find for “May 26, 2023 at 2” to find all the comments from 20:00 onwards. And then I could do another find for “May 27”. Searching for “May 26, 2023 at 9” wouldn’t be as useful since it would also find comments from the morning, and I can’t use “pm” since that is at the end of the string.

      1. If you sign up for email updates, you can read the comments one-by-one from there AND if you need to reply, you can always search for specific content in the thread.

  11. Is it possible to estimate covert exogamy in the Ptolemaic dynasty through contemporary medical knowledge about genetics? I did some preliminary poking around and it seems like one of the primary risks of inbreeding is reduced fertility (with higher risk of spontaneous abortion, etc.), but we know that Cleopatra had multiple living children in relatively short order, which at least nudges me in the direction of skepticism about the official genealogical “vine”. Has this been studied more systematically?

    1. Is there any study that can correlate infertility and inbreeding with any degree of certainty?

    2. Problem is, AFAIK, that genetic testing isn’t easily done, a lot of the remnants are speculative, might not be in testable shape, etc.

    3. But, unless I misunderstand your point, Cleopatra’s children were not the result of inbreeding – she was no relation to either Caesar or Marcus Antoninus – and so you wouldn’t expect to see lower fertility with her anyway. Now, her parents had five living children, three of whom were born within three years, which suggests that their fertility was OK, but that could just have been good luck.

  12. I had never considered this “just some guy” interpretation of Cleopatra before, but I kind of love it. Usually it’s always idolization or demonization, which are both boring. Cleopatra the Ptolemaic faildaughter is so much more interesting! I mean, would I have done a better job? Probably not!

    1. I was thinking that an interesting (but unanswerable) question would be, “could anyone else have done better in her shoes?” The answer is probably yes, but it would be really hard.

      1. Keeping Egypt out of the jaws of Rome was going to be an immense challenge even for a person far more talented at politics and war than Cleopatra.

        1. Yeah, That’s sort of my position: Not that Cleopatra was incompetent, just that she wasn’t competent enough for the situation she was in.

  13. It seems like her dreams of conquest relied on the Parthians simply rolling over and being easily conquered. The idea of Persian conquest also seems to have been popular in the Roman Republic/Empire as well (most infamously with Crassus, most successfully with Trajan).

    There’s no way to definitively tell, but I wonder how much of it was the legacy of Alexander’s lightning conquest of the Achemenids (which, as I understand it, had a lot to do with internal political turmoil of the Achemendis, as well as Alexander’s own skill), leading to overconfidence that “those barbarians” would be simple pushovers.

    1. If I recall, Pompey and Lucullus won some battles against the Parthians, and after Crassus’s disaster at Carrhae, the remaining Roman forces in the region did quite well against the Parthian counteroffensive. I don’t think the Romans were necessarily wrong to think that they had a tactical advantage over the Parthians, given good generalship. Antony’s failure against the Parthians was more of a strategic/logistical blunder.

      1. True, but as far as I remember, the only successful attempt to seize and hold a significant amount of land from Parthia was by Trajan, a policy which Hadrian looked at and immediately decided was unsustainable. Ctesiphon was repeatedly sacked, and the Romans did have more success in northern Mesopotamia, but overall, the Parthians remained more or less where they were until the Sassanids.

        I do think that there’s something interesting in the fact that every attempt in the Greco-Roman world to replicate the feats of Alexander either failed or were at least quickly reversed. “As successful as Alexander the Great” is a pretty high bar, but still.

        1. True, but as far as I remember, the only successful attempt to seize and hold a significant amount of land from Parthia was by Trajan, a policy which Hadrian looked at and immediately decided was unsustainable.

          That probably had more to do with communication problems (Parthia is a very long way from Rome) than with tactical considerations. Of course, such problems would have (did?) applied to would-be Republican conquerors like Crassus and Mark Anthony as well, but it’s not always obvious at the time when an empire reaches the limit of what it can realistically hold.

          1. Yes, with the caveat that its not so much distance in miles, but distance in far from the Mediterranean sea over land that’s the relevant variable.

          2. Did the Romans ever develop the sort of “Pony Express” relay system the (iirc) Mongols had for relaying important communications quickly?

          3. Did the Romans ever develop the sort of “Pony Express” relay system the (iirc) Mongols had for relaying important communications quickly?

            There’s a story that the future Emperor Constantine, learning that the Emperor Galerius wanted to kill him, fled to his father in Britain, taking horses from the postal stations and hamstringing all the rest to prevent Galerius’ agents from catching him. The story itself is probably apocryphal, but the fact that it became current indicates that the Romans did indeed have such a system, at least by the late third century.

          4. It’s less the distance from Rome (after all, Rome always had forces at least equal to Alexander’s in the east, so the relevant distance is from Antioch) than that the Parthians were a different sort of problem to the Achaemenids. Alexander targeted the Great King – both tactically and strategically – confident that the realm would fall into his hands afterwards. Parthia was a collection of magnates with a ruling family, so there were multiple centres of resistance and recovery.

  14. Finally, an intelligent article.

    Cleopatra’s race is the least interesting part of the story. Not to mention, nothing quite irritates me like scriptwriters putting modern sensitivities into the mouths of historical figures. It’s invariably someone trying to push an agenda.

    1. On the one hand, there are a thousand ways to put misleading anachronisms into the mouths of ancient characters (“A Roman senator should represent the wishes of the people, to whom he is responsible” comes to mind as particularly absurd, for instance.)

      On the other hand, many of the issues we characterize as “modern sensitivities” have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. We have almost no preserved writings or records from the distant past except for works created by extremely wealthy aristocratic men and works commissioned by other aristocratic men.

      In truth, it’s difficult to get hard evidence about what the peasants thought about anything, or what even women of high social status thought about anything. It would be fallacious to assume that all these people fully embraced the beliefs of the elite men who got to write the history books, or were too passive to have beliefs of their own that challenged those other beliefs.

      But since we do not truly have the thoughts and words of those people, whose right to an opinion has been erased by time and by the systems in which we lived, it is hard to really discuss their stories without borrowing from our own modern-day ideas.

          1. That’s the origin. I was paraphrasing the original, but that’s where I got it from.

  15. The black washing was frankly the LEAST objectionable part of the Netflix show. Cleopatra did not rule with ‘unparalled’ power, she needed to be propped up by Rome. And maybe she should have bowed to her mrn, or at least listened to them. Seriously, she hung out with Julius Caesar yet seems to have learned NOTHING about either military nor political strategy from this master of both.

  16. My jaundiced view of the Netflix “documentary” was quickly shaped by reading the author or director or one of those bigwig types defending the casting of Cleopatra simply by declaring, “My grandmother always assured me that Cleopatra was Black.” And so her grandmother’s opinion trumped all else. Okay…. noted.

  17. I read “Battle of the Nile” & briefly wondered if the Ptolemies supported Nelson or the French

  18. Didn’t Zenobia gamble about as hard as Cleopatra did, only with better odds? (Given the state Rome was in)

    1. Given that her accomplishments amounted to “tearing off a sizable chunk of the Roman Empire for a few years, then losing it,” a feat only accomplished by … Idunno, a couple dozen other people in that century, what is Zenobia’s claim to fame beyond doing it while female?

      1. If Rome had continued to come apart at the seams at that time (as it would two centuries later), Zenobia might well have succeeded in establishing a new and enduring state. As it was, she was too soon and had the bad luck to have Aurelian appear on the scene to glue the empire back together.

        1. OTOH, the same is also true of Tetricus and the other Gallic Emperors, and they aren’t nearly as famous as Zenobia.

  19. Reading footnote 30, I get the impression that Roman citizenship was always inherited from the mother. Is that accurate?

    If your parents aren’t married, or their marriage isn’t valid under Roman law, you’re a bastard and inherit your mother’s status. If their marriage is valid, then they must both be citizens, and there too your status matches your mother’s.

    1. In a society where there are formal status and high-status men are routinely having sex (and children) with low-status women, you pretty much have to do that, else you have lots of children of concubines getting status.

      If a man does want to have equal status children with a woman, he has to raise her status; if he’s wealthy and powerful enough, he generally can.

  20. As long as people use historical examples to argue about the capabilities of present day groups of people, the question “which present day category would X belong to” will be of interest to them. Maybe a broader knowledge of historical figures and polities would prevent people from feeling like they need to “claim” Cleopatra/Egypt.

  21. Fascinating stuff!

    In Cleopatra’s vague defense, you could argue that deviating from the excesses of throwing expensive banquets to prove you are wealthy and powerful might have weakened her standing with the Greek nobility. This was a toxic and weakening cultural practice, but attempting to deviate from it could have been seen as a sign of weakness or unsuitability for the position.

    Also, one nitpick: the second link in “increasing weakness of the Ptolemaic dynasty both internally and abroad” doesn’t seem to go to the intended section header, and just defaults to the top of the page. Link should be . (Which was its own interesting can of worms… why on earth would some regents pick a fight for no reason, throwing away their army? Talk about unwise decision-making practices… lucky Rome was there to bail ’em out, for them at least.)

  22. This is generally quite interesting & informative. However, regardless of the historical information, this part seems logically wrong:

    >It’s best to start by dispensing with the normal framing of this question, which asks, “was Cleopatra white or Black?” And the answer to both questions is ‘no,’ but for the most boring possible reason: ‘white’ and ‘Black’ as it is being used in that sentence is a category that simply didn’t exist with that meaning in the ancient world. Absolutely the ancients could be bigoted about ethnicity and of course they could physically see skin-color, but as we’ve discussed before, it lacked both the resonance it has today and the strong4 White/Black binary modern thought imposes.5 To put it another way, one might as well ask if the Allobroges were French or Swiss; the very categories don’t have the modern meaning we attribute to them when transported backwards in time like that.

    The question of nationality in terms of modern nations (“were the Allobroges French?”) is simply meaningless because not only the category of ‘French’ but the characteristics based on which someone can be put into that category did not exist then: the Allobroges could not have participated in French culture or been ruled by the French state, because neither of those existed then. On the other hand, while the definitions & boundaries of racial categories vary between cultures, that categorization is nevertheless largely based on physical characteristics (skin color, facial appearance, hair color/texture, &c.) which exist regardless of how people think about them. So, even though the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, &c. didn’t think of themselves in modern Western racial categories, any particular ancient person had a specific physical appearance, & if we know what that appearance was, we can, if we wish to, categorize it according to modern Western racial categories.

    1. I don’t think this: “On the other hand, while the definitions & boundaries of racial categories vary between cultures, that categorization is nevertheless largely based on physical characteristics (skin color, facial appearance, hair color/texture, &c.) which exist regardless of how people think about them.” is correct. The process of various different groups of fairly physically undifferentiated, to modern standards, people (Irish, Italians, etc.) all became ‘white’ is a fiarly interesting one and has nothing to do with changes of appearance, and that’s without getting into passing and the ‘one-drop rule’ and all the other stuff that makes it clear that these boundaries are really not set by physical appearance.

      1. Given what we know, it seems likely to me that she was some form of Mediterranean, which may or may not be white depending on when you’re asking the question. White and black are not nearly the only divides that people have discriminated between on ethnic bounds, and our current understanding of the subject is also vastly different than it was even a hundred years ago, and probably will continue to be vastly different. The science seems to show that it is a socially constructed boundary, so asking the question of how different societies matched up with it is kind of like asking what kind of moths bats are.

        1. Now I’ve got that panel from Calvin & Hobbes of the entire class going “Bats aren’t bugs!” in my head. 😆

          1. Calvin’s introductory Substack post about woke Miss Wormwood and her censorious cancel culture practically writes itself.

    2. Race is, theoretically, supposed to be about ancestry, not appearance or phenotype. The physical features are just correlates of ancestry (and ways that we tried to figure out ancestry before we were able to understand or look at someone’s genetics).

      It’s probably better to say that she (and the Greeks and Egyptians more generally) were broadly “Mediterranean”.

    3. Academic discussions about “was someone X race” run into a weird conflict between common usage, legal usage, and the more specific outdated scientific usages.

      Common usage, I would argue, uses race as a fuzzy and vaguely defined term that broadly maps to visual phenotypes, which somewhat correlate with genetic populations prior to the mass migrations of the last few hundred years (forced and voluntary). Sub-saharan African native populations are black, European native populations are white, etc. When we look at large genetic databases we see these kinds of genetics clusters emerge, but they are definitely “clusters,” not hard lines, and they don’t necessarily map directly to the other definitions. This is what most people mean when they say “race is real” — I can see it with my two eyes that a guy from Moscow looks different from a guy from Abuja.

      When most academics talk about race, though, they use the other definitions, which tend to be more specific. Scientific racism developed an explicit taxonomy of races, attempted to rank their positive and negative attributes, and did it without any knowledge of modern genetics. Their classifications do not actually match the genetic clusters, and their rankings are determined entirely by the social cultural preferences of the time period. Similarly, legal codes attempted (and still do attempt) to define race in a way which benefits the current cultural power structures — whether it is the myriad mixed race classifications in South America, the 1/16th rule in the US, or current affirmative action identity-based programs. All of these definitions of race are much more confined to specific time and place to have any meaning, and may be only vaguely connected to any genetic heritage or visual phenotypes.

      So, if the question of “what race is Cleopatra?” you mean to ask “did she have sub-saharan African ancestry and phenotypes or Greek ancestry and phenotypes,” that is not a nonsensical question. If you mean ‘is she Black or White in terms of modern cultural definitions of race and therefore can be “claimed” by people identifying with that racial group’ that is, in fact, historically nonsensical.

      I feel like there is a lot of disconnect between academics and laypersons when discussion race specifically. I would argue that no one outside of academics and racists actually mean the latter question when they ask what Cleopatra’s race is. I know the intent is to get people to see the socially constructed lens they’re viewing the world through, but… I think it gets bogged down when even kids can see they look different from each other and want *some* kind of word to describe that.

      1. If so, it’s curious that most people are using a term sensibly, and academics are paying the least attention to reality.

        1. Not curious at all. Most people have to deal with reality on a daily basis. Academics, on the other hand, have theories that they need to argue for, and are usually insulated enough that they don’t have to ever find out if their theories work in the real world.

      2. As late as the end of the 19th century, race was used for rather smaller groups. Irish race, Italian race, Slavonic race. . . which is not to say that they didn’t have some visual indicators, but they were rather finer drawn.

        1. In the 19th century, “race” could mean a lot of things; a race could be as big as the whole human race or as small as a single family. (The Fall of the House of Usher refers to the Usher family as a race.) So scientists back then could divide humanity into two races, or five, or hundreds, without necessarily contradicting each other.

          1. ‘Race’ has never been scientific. I have an early 20th century (British) book which puts the Japanese as a ‘white’ race; then there’s the US ‘one-drop’ rule, and the frequent practice of ‘passing’ – moving from one racial category to another if one has sufficiently ambiguous features, and the whole ‘martial races’ schtick of imperialist powers. The common sense categorisation may be common (if variable from one country to another), but is hardly sensible.

        2. As late as the 1960s. My uncle remembers not being able to get a hotel room in London on account of his ‘race’, despite being very clearly white. We just have an Irish name, and a non-London accent (hilariously, not an Irish one though, it’s just Londoners struggled to tell the difference between Manchester and Belfast).
          I don’t think my uncle ever really forgave Britain for that.

      3. ^^ this. I was very much (unpleasantly) surprised by our host’s excellent summary of her ancestry, only to refuse to draw the conclusion. Yes, allocating a “race” to Cleopatra from the modern socio-cultural perspective is nonsensical, and it’s good to state that. But it is very much possible to determine her phenotype – maybe not practically possible based on the evidence we have (although the summary of her ancestry does make a pretty watertight case of “Mediterranean”, with most of the evidence pointing to the lighter shade thereof), but certainly theoretically possible. Granted, that’s still not the most interesting historical question either.

        1. I am not sure what you mean by not drawing the conclusion. If I may quote myself, “Still, at that point, the question has been reduced to a Cleopatra who is three-quarters Macedonian and one-quarter Egyptian or a Cleopatra who is more or less wholly Macedonian (with a bit of Persian ancestry mixed in from Cleopatra I Syra way at the top).”

          Yes, I am sticking to categories of ethnicity and heritage I think make more sense in the ancient world, but I am not being coy about it.

          The reason I don’t speculate on her ‘phenotype’ is because it would be just that: speculation. No ancient source reports her skin or hair color and later frescoes are unreliable in this regard. Given the large question-marks in her ancestry combined with the wide range of complexions and hair colors in the Eastern Mediterranean – which we discussed back in the Queen’s Latin – pinning down any of that with any confidence isn’t possible.

          1. I meant exactly the conclusion about the complexion – “skin colour”, if you will – not the ancestry. As I said, that one was a very well done and needed summary and, yes, also with a logically sound conclusion (to me at least).

            But isn’t it just a small step from the ancestry to the complexion then? I mean, not in the sense that we know EXACTLY what shade she was, but some options are much, much more probable than the others. I mean, saying that “pinning down any of that with any confidence isn’t possible” would mean that she might just as well have had an East Asian complexity, which I doubt anyone would argue. In the end, I would argue that we can with some confidence (based on her ancestry) say that she was some shade of tan / light brown / “olive” skin, and most likely neither a pale-faced northern European (as she may have been portrayed in the past), but also not Saharan/sub-Saharan black as portrayed in the Netflix series. And if you disagree, I would like to hear to the evidence or reasoning for the take that all of these possibilities are equally probable. ‘Cause for me, the section on ancestry paints a pretty clear picture (pun not intended).

            And again, I fully agree that this question is completely historically uninteresting and irrelevant for any reasonable discussion, and that the question of heritage and ancestry is the actual meaningful question. But it seemed strange to have the entire extensive sub-section of the text dedicated to it, only to withhold the last step which caused the controversy in the first place.

  23. [ “The problem here is that Cleopatra was the target of Octavian’s PR-campaign, as it were, in the run up to his war with Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony; I’m going to call him Marcus Antonius here), because as a foreign queen – an intersecting triad of concepts (foreignness, monarchy and women in power) which all offended Roman sensibilities – she was effectively the perfect target for a campaign aimed at winning over the populace of Italy, which was, it turns out, the most valuable military resource in the Mediterranean.3 That picture – the foreign queen corrupting the morals of good Romans with her decadence – rightly or wrongly ends up coloring all of the subsequent accounts. Of course that in turn effects the reliably of all of our literary sources and thus we must tread carefully.” ]

    I have no idea how you would value the work of Tom Holland as he’s a popular historian, not an academic, and has even worked in television (my own opinion of many of these sorts of television offerings is low, though I’ve never seen anything Holland has worked on), but it seemed to me that his (2015) Dynasty:The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (2015) does a good job of detailing this, along with much else. For instance, for all of us who have imprinted Robert Graves’s two novels’ character of Claudius, Holland’s book is an eye opener. I feel I’ve learned a great deal from all the books by him I’ve read.

  24. I much enjoyed the pronunciation guides! We should see this feature more often! (But you forgot to parse Ptolemy Philometor! I expect his name does NOT rhyme with “thermometer”!)

    1. I have a feeling that English native people would benefit from learning old pronunciation of vowels. A as bark, i as bin, u as blur, e as bed, o as blow. It’s consistent with how lots of foreign (and ancient) languages are tranlisterated to Latin alphabet.

  25. Re: “There isn’t really a good work that I know of on the late Ptolemaic army” Don’t forget the chapter in Christelle Fischer-Bouvet’s “Army and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt” (Cambridge University Press, 2014)

    1. Good point. I had forgot she does have a chapter that goes late. Solid book, though a bit better, I think, on the Society than the Army parts. Best read alongside Johstono, I think – the two together (though they don’t always agree) provide a lot of balance.

  26. If you were looking for a fictional Queen who more accurately represents Cleopatra, you might well suggest someone off that show about the 1% having a “Competition to see who sits on the Uncomfortable Chair”?
    (The Netflix documentary may well be less plausible)

  27. If Julius Caesar does not think he can win a battle with your army, no one can win a battle with your army.

    Napoleon, Ghengis Khan, Alexander may want a word. 🙂

    (Or maybe not, will defer to actual historians on this)

    Bret’s Hellenistic age podcast interview mentioned that Rome relied less on taxes and bureaucracy in its earlier expansion than Hellenistic kingdoms did, using other methods to get access to the armies and resources needed. Did this stick around to the time period in question, so that some of the egyptian income is just being better at tax collection, rather than a bigger overall economy with more resources.

    (This doesn’t change the major point, Egypt with lots of good farmland and a high population should still be able to support a lot of things, so money troubles wouldn’t be expected with good management.)

    1. Napoleon, Ghengis Khan, Alexander may want a word. 🙂

      (Or maybe not, will defer to actual historians on this)

      My not-an-actual-historian take on this would be:

      Alexander: probably not. One of the big advantages in his wars was that the Macedonian doctrine at the time was superior to those of his competitors. But now he would be fighting against an army that also uses Macedonian doctrine, so this advantage disappears. (However, if a resurrected Alexander appears in first century Alexandria, he would probably get a lot more popular support than Cleopatra.)

      Genghis Khan: His achievements were less about clever tactics and more about mobilizing resources. He can’t win a battle with an army that is too weak for Caesar. (But give him Egypt after the civil war has ended, and he might end up conquering the entire Mediterranean and probaly the Partian Empire too.)

      Napolean: He was very good at outmaneuvering superior forces, but he needed accurate local maps to do it. I don’t think he would do well with the level of uncertainty typical for ancient warfare.

      If I am thinking about who might have the right skillset to pull this off, my best guess would be Hannibal.

      1. Now you’ve got me wondering: were some historically famous generals good for their time, but might not have fared as well in other eras? For example, was gunpowder war different enough from pre-gunpowder war that Napoleon Bonaparte would not have done as well commanding a Roman legion?

        1. I think so. Different doctrines/technological limitations/army compositions etc sometimes require different skills and perhaps even different personalities.

          Alexander makes for a good example:
          He was very good at positioning his troops in the battlespace, delegating to subordinates, play to his armies strength, recognizing the right moment in the battle to act, inspiring his men, keeping his army supplied on the way (which in ancient times meant locally), and finding creative solutions to new problems.
          He was also so stubborn in his grand goals that his army mutinied, there were several conspiracies against him, he tended to put himself in danger, and he had a drinking problem.

          In the modern day, with the right training and good oversight he might make an excellent special forces commander. (Provided he would be willing to take orders and leave his drinks at the base.) But he wouldn’t perform well as Commander-in-Chief.

          1. I think, if you took Alexander and transplanted him from the ancient Macedonian court to present-day Sandhurst or West Point, he’d mature into a commander in the vein of Patton or Monty — highly successful and flamboyant, but also stubborn and unco-operative, too talented not to become a general but too undiplomatic to rise to the very top.

        2. Now you’ve got me wondering: were some historically famous generals good for their time, but might not have fared as well in other eras? For example, was gunpowder war different enough from pre-gunpowder war that Napoleon Bonaparte would not have done as well commanding a Roman legion?

          Probably yes regarding the general point, no regarding the specific example. Commanding a Roman legion was more similar to commanding in a Napoleonic battle than virtually any other pre-modern army: Roman armies used lots of reserves, so Roman generals tended to act as battle managers in the Napoleon/Wellington style, deciding which troops to commit when and only rarely getting involved in actual hand-to-hand combat.

        3. One of Napoleon’s strengths was math. Ballistics advanced in leaps and bounds and math was crucial to it. Getting shells to explode in the right hundredth of a second. . . .

          With that gone, he’s got to make do with his other skills.

          1. You sure that doing the math was Napoleon’s job? It sounds like the artillery crew’s job to me.

          2. Napoleon was originally an artillery officer.

            So yes, it was his job. At least for a while.

          3. It was more that he could envisage a huge battle space (say, north-east France through to Bavaria in the Austerlitz campaign) and keep mental track of every unit in it, changing plans as he went. One similarity with Alexander is that both inspired teams of very capable commanders.

    2. I would be surprised if Julius Caesar had any opinion on whether he could win battles with the armies of Napoleon or Genghis Khan. (Alexander, maybe.)

      1. True. Conversely, I’m pretty sure that if you gave Napoleon, Alexander, or Genghis Khan an army Julius Caesar didn’t think he could win a battle with, they’d probably give the same answer, just in different terms:

        Genghis Khan: “How do you expect me to accomplish anything with these idiots? Do they even ride? Do they even shoot?”
        Napoleon: “How do you expect me to accomplish anything with these idiots. “Do they even gunpowder?”
        Alexander: [makes obscene gestures with a pickle, demands to know where his Companions and Silver Shields are and what god thought it would be a good idea to replace them with these losers]

    3. I feel the point might be more that Julius Caesar was… not reckless; more brave than sensible? There’s several times in his career a more cautious commander wouldn’t have fought the battle he did. It’s not whether any of the people you named could have done it, it’s if _anyone_ would think they could, it’d be Caesar.

      As a sidenote: Ghengis Khan and Alexander were both playing arms-and-doctrine scissors to everyone else’s paper (as was Caesar when not fighting Romans, to be fair) and the Mongols’ mobility was, in video game terms, not so much OP as just broken; we don’t see armies moving that fast anywhere else until troop trains come along. They both used those advantages to the hilt (see: “where did _they_ come from?!” copyright the defenders of Bukhara) but apples-to-oranges comparisons still apply.

    1. Probably stems from the convention that women, as much as possible, stayed out of the sun. Safer in the house where it’s harder to abduct you. And you can do much of your work there. Also it gives people the notion you’re rich, or shows off that you are.

      1. Not to mention Minoans, and white lead makeup.
        In fact skin whitening as a form a beautification seems to be quite common throughout history.

        1. Women are most fertile when palest. This selects for men who prefer paler women, which selects for pale women, with the result that in all populations that have been genetically stable women are paler than men. Then they try to improve on it.

          1. This effect would seem somewhat weakened by the fact that humans tend to pair-bond. If the issue is cyclic fertility with women being palest at their most fertile time, then if anything I’d expect the opposite effect.

            If Bob is only interested in Alice for one week a month when Alice is at or near ovulation and sending off biological signals accordingly, but Charlie is paying attention to Alice all the time or when Alice is least fertile (and probably feeling a bit down in the dumps, periods being what they are)…

            Well, if Alice is anything like the women I know, Alice is more likely to wind up having kids with Charlie than with Bob.

          2. Runaway sexual selection might have gotten it before then.

            Incidentally, women are most likely to be unfaithful when fertile.

          3. If Bob is only interested in Alice for one week a month when Alice is at or near ovulation and sending off biological signals accordingly, but Charlie is paying attention to Alice all the time or when Alice is least fertile (and probably feeling a bit down in the dumps, periods being what they are)…

            On the other hand, if Daniel is interested in Alice all the time but even more interested in usual when she’s at her most fertile, he’s probably more likely to have kids with her than either of the other two.

          4. “Women are most fertile when palest.”
            Source urgently requested!

          5. This effect would seem somewhat weakened by the fact that humans tend to pair-bond. If the issue is cyclic fertility with women being palest at their most fertile time, then if anything I’d expect the opposite effect.

            Humans are mostly *socially* monogamous, but not entirely. And social monogamy is different than physical / sexual monogamy in any case: having a pair bond doesn’t mean that you don’t occasionally take sexual partners outside of it, particularly at the most fertile time in your cycle.

          6. Assuming for the sake of argument that the paleness-fertility cyclic thing is actually true:

            People being occasionally unfaithful, and a smaller fraction of the time being unfaithful with specific individuals who have a fetish for a physical trait loosely correlated with higher fertility isn’t enough to reliably create a meaningful selection pressure. The vast majority of women aren’t having the majority of their sexual intercourse from extramarital flings. This isn’t an incel forum; we know better than that.

            The thing about a genetic selection effect is that you don’t just need there to be a just-so story about how a trait could make a person 0.001% more likely to reproduce. You need a reason to expect that specific trait to be conserved and not fuzzed out by random genetic drift.

            If men who are more interested in women when they look pale/this/that/whatever because they’re having the fertile period of their cycle are slightly more likely to father children as adulterers, there’s a counter-pressure. Namely, from men who have no such preference, or even the opposite preference, getting the benefit of more stable pair bonds and being more likely to father children as husbands.

            The percentage of children born to adulterous liaisons is, we can probably agree, not an outright majority. I’d expect the latter effect to cancel out the former.

          7. ” it works in practice, but does it work in THEORY”

            You only get to invoke this snark after you’ve actually shown something works in practice, which has not been done here.

          8. Neither did Jester show that it would not work. He argued that it shouldn’t.

      2. It is at least possible that Cleopatra VII was a pale redhead. Certainly more possible than she was visibly sub-saharan. As Bret says it is barely possible that Cleo had an Egyptian or Syrian grandmother. Nubian isn’t even in the ballpark.

    2. I think white women are generally paler than their brothers, due to higher levels of subcutaneous fat. Combine that with the human tendency to fetishize sexual differences, and you end up with an artistic convention in which all attractive women are pale.

      1. This is the explanation I’ve heard, yea. Although I’d not that the tendency to “fetishize” sexual difference is not just a human thing, it’s very common across the animal kingdom.

  28. Cleopatra was not the only female royal name in the Hellenistic kingdoms.

    But it was close.

    in Greece Against Rome: The Fall of the Hellenistic Kingdoms 250–31 BC the author makes a running gag of the fewness of them because there’s really nothing else that can be done when introducing Yet Another Woman Of That Name.

  29. One thing that always should be remembered is how these stories of extravagance are often very… similar to other stories. Someof them are almost repeated verbatim about other villains of the day. (like the dissolving a pearl in wine one) now either roman (and to some extent greek) writers were just copying each toher and creating a lexicon of “This is what an irresponsible rich person does” (what would be the modern day example? A swimming pool full of money ala. Scrooge McDuck?) or antique rich guys (of either gender) really looked at other unreasonably rich people and did the same stuff.

    I’m genuinely not sure which is the case. I could totally see an unreasonably rich person looking at some other unreasonably rich person and going “I can afford that shit too!”

    1. Probably a bit of both, I’d imagine. If a certain behaviour (dissolving a pearl in wine, for example) is stereotyped as “something rich, extravagant people do”, then it’s likely that it’ll get attributed to famously rich, extravagant people whether or not they actually did it, and also likely that people wanting to show off how rich and extravagant they are will copy that behaviour because hey, how else are rich, extravagant people supposed to waste their money?

      1. Larry Ellison (Oracle) had a yacht with a basketball court on the aft deck.
        A reporter asked his spokesperson, “what about balls that go into the water??”
        The spokesperson paused, gave reporter ‘that look,’ and said, “He has chase boats.”

  30. A convincing post! If a sad indictment.


    and how his mother — and who his mother

    opts to go with Antonius combined

    it is a difference it is a different in quantity, — difference in quantity

    I extremely doubtful — I am

    misstep that empower Octavian’s PR machine in Italy. — empowers

    “Crucially, and I think this serves as a rather grim final word on Cleopatra’s efforts – however substantial they may have been – to woo the Egyptian people.” — something’s missing

    1. It’s a striking example of the power of royal legitimacy that a century of incompetent siblingfuckers could keep the crown within the family rather than getting bumped off by some general.

      1. I suspect the Ptolemies being part of an ethnic ruling caste kinda helped with that: No one tried to overthrow them because they knew that would mean having to deal with the egyptian majority.

      2. I suspect being an ethnic minority helped solidify the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty: Wtithout the ptolemies they would have to deal with the egyptians, so no one wanted to kick over the one piece of legitimacy they did have. (you can kinda see the same dynamic in lots of foreign dynasties in various cultures.

      3. There’s a contrast here with the Roman or Islamic norm, where rulership is an office, not a hereditary right. So although rulers keep trying to pass it on to their sons, it never lasts all that long.

        1. It’s not obvious to me that being King of England was more or less an office than King of Poland. Yet one was hereditary, and the other wasn’t.

          1. One was a quasi-priestly office conferred in large part by inheritance of the sacred blood-line (‘there’s a divinity doth hedge a king..’). The other was – in the end – just a job.

          2. PeterT, that is the kind of claim that makes me think of the description of King George IV, printed in the Times after his death: “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow? … If he ever had a friend – a devoted friend in any rank of life – we protest that the name of him or her never reached us”.

            That is not how people usually speak in public of those widely considered sacred.

            Is that how deceased monarchs were typically described in public in the Roman and Islamic worlds?

          3. I note that George IV “reigned” from 1820-1830. A short-term king in a monarchy that had had all the power sucked out of it, in a century of rising liberalism, irreverence, and freethought. So maybe not the best place to look for royal sanctity.

          4. Of course by then multiple changes of dynasty has somewhat tarnished the idea that the king was divinely anointed; most especially after the ouster of James II and the House of Orange invited in as a constitutional monarchy.

          5. The King of Anglo-Saxon England was elected by the Witenagemot, a council of the most important noblemen, including ealdormen, thegns, and senior clergy. The Norman occupation in 1066 stopped that.

          6. One was a quasi-priestly office conferred in large part by inheritance of the sacred blood-line (‘there’s a divinity doth hedge a king..’). The other was – in the end – just a job.

            Though do note that holders of actual priestly offices, like bishops and, well, priests, don’t do so by hereditary right, but are (depending on time/place) appointed or elected. So while hereditary right can help sanctify an office, it certainly isn’t necessary.

            Also, I would add that plenty of devout Christians through the ages have used some pretty strong language about religious leaders who fail to live up to their duties. People are more capable than we sometimes give them credit for of distinguishing between the office and the individual person holding it.

          7. Re Anglo-Saxon England and other elective monarchies (Poland, Bohemia, early Scandinavia..) – the candidates were almost always from the ruling family. In England one had to be ‘atheling’ – eligible by descent.

            It’s a widespread idea that descent carries some special magic – the Persian kings titulary always ends with ‘the Achaemenid’, the Merovingians managed 400 years despite murderous infighting, the Yamato clan is on the throne still.

  31. For me, the fact that Cleopatra knew so many languages undercuts the idea that learning Egyptian was indicative of some special affinity for her subjects. Maybe she just enjoyed learning languages and it was easily at hand.

  32. I doubt that Cleopatra could have pulled a Herod: Just being the mother of Caesar’s son probably meant Octavian couldn’t really leave her alone even had she not supported Marcus.

    1. If Cleopatra had been smart enough not to try propping up Caesarion as an alternative to more conventional Roman leadership choices, maybe a deal could have been cut anyway?

      Caesarion was only a threat insofar as he was likely to pursue an independent claim to significant Roman territories and threaten Octavian’s ambitions.

      1. Spin it as “I wish to add the greatness of Rome *to the blood of Egypt*. Caesarion isn’t a claimant to Caesar’s positions, but through him Rome might have a future claim on ruling Egypt without having to go to the trouble of conquering it. Could cause issues in Egypt’s independence, but that’s future-you’s problem and also you can use the intervening time to build your Egyptian army.

          1. Nope. The lands were given up to the kings of Rohan by the Steward, which was then confirmed by Aragorn.

          2. I don’t think vassalage would prevent a greedy king from wanting to incorporate a realm more closely. But also, no. You’d think it would be, standard land-for-service. But Denethor requests Theoden’s aid, rather than commanding it. And in Unfinished Tales we have Cirion’s words:

            > ‘I will now declare what I have resolved, with the authority of the Stewards of the Kings, to offer to Eorl son of Léod, Lord of the Éothéod, in recognition of the valour of his people and of the help beyond hope that he brought to Gondor in time of dire need. To Eorl I will give in free gift all the great land of Calenardhon from Anduin to Isen. There, if he will, he shall be king, and his heirs after him, and his people shall dwell in freedom while the authority of the Stewards endures, until the Great King returns. No bond shall be laid upon them other than their own laws and will, save in this only: they shall live in perpetual friendship with Gondor and its enemies shall be their enemies while both realms endure. But the same bond shall be laid also on the people of Gondor.’

            And in RotK Appendices:

            > In all the lands of those realms of old he was king, save in Rohan only; for he renewed to Éomer the gift of Cirion, and Éomer took again the Oath of Eorl.

            Free gift and alliance of perpetual friendship, rather than liege-and-vassal.

        1. Given his big moralizing push, letting himself be seduced would be a major loss of reputation and so power.

  33. Tangential question: If I were reading out loud, how would I pronounce the number in names like “Cleopatra VII Philopator” or “Charles X Gustav”? Is it “Cleopatra Philopator the Seventh” or “Cleopatra the Seventh Philopator” or something else?

    1. I believe it would be “Cleopatra the Seventh Philopator”?

      “Elizabeth the Second *of the house of* Windsor” is how one modern monarchy handles regnal numbers and surnames.

      1. If it was meant to be read “Cleopatra Philopator the Seventh” I believe it would just be written “Cleopatra Philopator VII”, like Friedrich Wilhem II. Ordinal numbering of historic monarchs is a recent practice anyway

        1. Well, not *so* recent: The english seems to have done it by the late middle ages. (Usually explicitly as eg. “Henry, Fourth after the Conquest”) and swedish kings more or less made up their numbering in the 1500’s.

    2. Cleopatra the Seventh Philopator. She was the seventh queen called Cleopatra, and she had the epithet Philopator; she wasn’t the seventh queen called Clepatra Philopator.

      1. To be even pickier, it should be:
        Cleopatra the Seventh, Philopator.
        A pause should be left to make clear that Philopator is an epithet, not a title
        Similar to the English: King Charles the Third, Defender of the Faith

    3. You say them in that order because they are two different systems for distinguishing among the Ptolemies. If you use the ancient bynames, often there is a rude ancient byname and a polite ancient byname (eg. Antiochus the Great, Antiochus Epiphanes “Manifest” or Antiochus Epimanes “the Mad”) and a few Ptolemies and Cleopatras have no recorded byname or the same byname as another Ptolemy or Cleopatra; if you use modern numbers, you have to decide which Ptolemies were legitimate rulers (and in which order, sometimes they held the throne, ran away, and regained the throne!) Bynames belong to an individual.

        1. Of course now I think of the fictional world emperor “Genghis II Mao IV Khan” in Robert Silverberg’s “Shadrach In The Furnace.”

    4. For the swedish monarchs with double names (Eg. Charles X Gustav) it’s always pronounced “Charles the Tenth Gustav” (“Karl den tionde Gustav” in swedish) this also follows with the regnal numbers: He’s Charles the Tenth (Following after Charles the Ninth, though let’s not get into the imaginary royals here) not Charles Gustav the First, or Gustav the Third*.

      The same is true when using by names or patronymics: Erik IX “The Saint”, or Charles VII Sverkersson.

      *A different monarch altogether.

    5. Philopater is a title, equivalent to something like the British ‘Defender of the Faith’ or the soubriquets of French kings (‘Charles the Well-Served’, ‘Louis the Simpleton’ etc). So Cleopatra VII, Philopater (Cleo the 7th, Lover of her Country)

  34. Trying to think of conditions that would have produced an alternate history in which Antonius and Cleopatra won. First Octavian would have to drop dead…..

    1. I would say most importantly Antonius needs an intelligence boost. If he was on the level of Caesar in leadership skills I think he could even win the war against Octavian.
      With Antonius as he was I don’t think Octavian dying would make him win. In that case the Senate might manage to defeat him and restore the Republic.

      1. Agrippa not joining Octavian might do it, it sounds like Agrippa brought a lot of useful skills, plus Octavian wasn’t that great himself at handling military things during the civil wars. I’m not sure how to make this happen, maybe Agrippa dies or sticks to lesser positions or such.

          1. Both get hit by a bolt from the blue, which would be A Sign From The Gods.

        1. Highly unlikely. The two were friends from boyhood. Agrippa seems to have been a man of exceptional talents, and Octavian knew how to use them.

      2. Maybe if Cleo had actually learned something from Julius Caesar, God knows she had plenty of opportunities! She could have been a military asset instead of liability.

  35. Specific question on reconstructing appearances: as an enthusiastic amateur classicist I’ve been asked this question ‘What did Cleopatra look like?’ and I’ve pointed people at the coin images reproduced here as well
    In terms of accuracy, is it fair to say that the images on the coins of the Alexandria mint should have highest priority, since they’re the only ones where the image maker had almost certainly seen the Queen, and the Queen saw the image, and they were Hellenistic so some attempt at accurate representation was considered proper?
    Then the Roman bust/paintings, on the grounds that a) they were made by people who were also interested in accurate reproduction of features, and who *may* have seen the Queen (the period is right at least) and because they do share features with the coins (notably the large eyes and nose)
    Finally all the stuff in the classic Egyptian style, because whilst the makers were skilled sculptors and may well have seen the Queen, their intent, to paraphrase Baldrick from Blackadder, ‘was to create an ideal, rather than a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question’.
    Then anything from after Cleopatra’s own century

    Anyone got thoughts on this?

    1. On the one hand, there really is an incentive to make sure the coin represents the actual person and is recognizable as being that person. Because distributing coins with your face on them is a big part of how you, the monarch, establish that you really are the monarch.

      On the other hand, coins are small and metalworking is hard, so you’re not going to get a photorealistic image from a coin- more like a caricature.

      1. Not photo-realistic, but the exaggerated features give us an idea of what was really there in order to *be* exaggerated.

        1. Yes, that’s where I come out at. If someone is representing themselves with a pronounced chin and hooked nose, with big eyes, then it’s unlikely that she actually looks like her Egyptian religious representations. (Or Liz Taylor)

          1. Cleo clearly had no problem with being portrayed with big nose and prounced chin. It’s possible she was proud of her looks and that confidence convinced others that she was beautiful.

  36. Bret, I started this list when the post first went up yesterday, but couldn’t finish till this morning. That said to explain why you might have fixed a lot of these already.

    Fundamentally we made divide these sources > we may divide
    evidence is want to be, > wont
    that in turn effects the reliably of all > affects the reliability of all
    and how his mother might have actually been remains unclear > [statement itself is unclear, that is, been what?]
    deep in the weed we are > weeds
    This thus one of those issues > [missing is?]
    whereas Remond’s proposed > Reymond’s
    no other reason then we are told > than
    this group is seems to be simply rolled > [doubled verb: use is or seems?]
    this was a to Isis; Cleopatra > [missing word temple?]
    his very crown . . . the very Republic > [overuse of the modifier very?]
    in order because > [for clearer meaning, insert comma following order]
    lifestyle she lead > led
    benefited Egypt a wit. > whit
    the fact that even with > [the introduced comparison “even with” is never completed?]
    be noted by then there > noted that by then

  37. One part of this post seems misleadingly phrased to me. It’s this:

    the Greek/Macedonian and Egyptian elite classes don’t begin really fusing together until the Roman period (when they were both equally under the Roman boot, rather than one being under the boot of the other).

    we don’t see the Egyptian and Macedonian elites begin to fuse until the Roman period (when they both shared an equal place under the Roman hobnailed boot).

    Wouldn’t it be better to say they fused in a Roman toga? The upper class of Roman Egypt would be likely to become Roman citizens, or at least that’s the impression I got from this previous post.

    1. Under the Roman boot seems a bit harsh. There were definitely worse things than living in a Roman province. See Monty Python for benefits and as Marvin says citizenship was very obtainable for the elite. And even no so elite, and Roman Citizenship was very much worth having.

  38. Totally off topic for this blog post but probably of interest to many here: reconstruction of Iroquois armor, and thus of pre-firearm Iroquois warfare. This is part 3 but it links to the first 2 videos.
    There’s also a shield video by the guy, but it’s less surprising.

    tl;dr: armor made of closely tied wooden sticks. Breastplate, apron, shin guards, and big winged backplate. Possible main purpose of the backplate: protecting you from allies throwing missile weapons from behind you, as well as shielding them from the enemy. Can also be deployed as a big arm shield or a small pavise.
    Spear use was rare in North America, perhaps because stone tips fare poorly against such armor; a comment on the second video also suggests that you wouldn’t want to carry a bow and a spear, and all the men were skilled archers from hunting, while in Eurasia a spear would be the reach weapon of someone who didn’t know how to shoot or sling.

    Sources are limited because native warfare changed very very quickly on contact with firearms that could blast through wooden armor.

    1. So maybe the wooden elf armor in Rings of Power wasn’t quite as absolutely ridiculous as I thought? (Still rather ridiculous though.)

    2. Yeah, it’s pretty cumbersome to carry a spear and still use a bow; I can see why Iroquois would just hang a club or hatchet or knife from a belt as a side arm and focus on the bow (or later, musket).

  39. The Greeks had strong opinions on legitimacy too but Cleopatra seems to have had no doubts about her children’s ability to succeed. Did she simply declare them legitimate as queen and pharaoh? Or did she go through some kind of marriage with Caesar and later Antonius? The fact they already had wives didn’t bother her, and probably wouldn’t have bothered them either as a barbarian rite wouldn’t count in Roman law even if it counted to Cleopatra.

    1. Well, there were no legitimate pretenders, and if they had the backing from Rome, who would be able to oppose the succession? The Kingdom were already given to the Roman state by testament once. What they say goes.

  40. Very interesting article.

    Since this is also a blog about gaming and popular culture someone should note that in the game Dominations Cleopatra is one of the four first generals that are available for the players, together with Joan of Arc, Nobunaga and Alexander.

    Dominations is of course a game that has a very relaxed attitude to historical accuracy.

  41. Thinking on it, one interesting theme in Cleopatra’s story, is this notion of loss of skills available for transfer within the dynasty. Once you have a couple of generations of incompetent monarchs, it becomes harder to pick up the necessary skill set, and even people who are in principle intelligent, determined & brave (as Cleopatra seems to have been, in her youth at least) don’t have the positive skills to succeed as a ruler, and pick up some bad habits (such as unnecessary extravagance). In less stable systems this is then quickly corrected by the end of the dynasty, but in times when the dynasty itself has a lot of prestige you can muddle on miserably like this for quite a while (like the Ptolemies, but the same pattern repeated a few times in Chinese dynasties).
    Crusader Kings plays a lot with these ideas. I always found it a bit unrealistic but this is a good case of it working as modelled.

    1. Cleopatra had an opportunity to learn politics and military strategy from a master, Julius Caesar, but does not seem to have availed herself of that opportunity.

      1. That’s true. Of course, one of the key teachable skills a *good* parent-monarch could pass on to their children is ‘listen widely, even if you don’t have to – even a king has much to learn’.
        As I think the OP shows, undeserved, unlistening arrogance was almost certainly one of Cleopatra’s core vices, and that’s exactly the type of attitude you would expect from a child of a great dynasty where that kind of thinking has not been deliberately supressed. (Compare with Alexander the Great, who almost certainly had a more boundless natural arrogance than even Cleopatra, but who was able to listen and adapt very successfully – something that was probably not unrelated to the fact that his father Philip was a planner, a thoughtful man, who went to the lengths of hauling Aristotle to Pella to teach his boy to think).

        1. I was thinking just that. The one thing the real Cleopatra had in common with the ducumentary’s fake was the crippling arrogance. An ability to take advice is one of the first traits of a wise ruler. An ability to learn, especially from mistakes is another.

    2. Of course in Crusader Kings if your heir is incompetent, a player character might take pointed steps to remove them from the succession. And of course there are certainly historical examples of ruthless rulers doing just that.

      1. It requires a certain degree of competence on top of that, to recognize that the heir is incompetent. Particularly if that stems from something like his being weaker in an area which is your weakness.

    3. There’s some similarily interesting stuff regarding loss of skills within an army, where armies that are very dependant on veterans teaching new recruits can end up drastically worse after a loss compared to armies with a more institutionalized education systems, there are some mentions that’s what happened to the spanish at Rocroi: The loss of so many veterans didn’t just wipe out their *current* crop of soldiers but also meant training new ones was much harder.

  42. > The fact that Cleopatra stays for a month after Caesar’s death suggests to me that she hoped to get Caesarion recognized as Caesar’s heir,

    Was there some reason she should have been in headlong flight? A month doesn’t seem like a unreasonable amount of time to get ready for that kind of move, especially given that she didn’t have advance knowledge that he was going to die, and may in fact have been legitimately in grief.

    1. Everyone with any sense bugs out of Rome fairly quickly after the assassination, to go raise armies. Brutus and Cassius head East, Antonius heads north. And Rome was, in that moment, a pretty dangerous place. Cicero comments in a letter that, had he been in with the assassins, he would have tied up loose ends by also killing Antonius and one wonders if he might not have removed Cleopatra at the same time (in the event, Brutus and Cassius were too snobbish to include plebeian novus homo Cicero in their plot, which turned out to be part of their undoing, as Cicero’s greater ruthlessness would have been essential for its success. Leaving Antonius alive was stupid.)

    2. Let’s see, Cleo’s boyfriend and major political ally is murdered by members of the ruling elite. Her son is a potential heir to Caesar and she is intimately connected to popularly.
      Sound like good reasons to get the hell out of Dodge to me. But Cleo was a gambler with a feeble grasp of political reality. After two years in Rome she should have known Caesarion was unacceptable as Caesars heir. Caesar probably tried to explain it to her but of course she didn’t listen.

      1. Connected to him, Caesar, in the popular mind. Meaning his enemies will be her enemies.

  43. Was Cleopatra strategically reckless or was she pursuing the only strategy that had a realistic chance of preserving Egyptian independence in the long term? Let’s consider things from Cleopatra’s perspective.

    1. She knows that Egypt is hideously vulnerable to Roman military power. Just in the first 25 years of her life, she has already seen Rome effectively conquer Egypt twice and on both occasions that was with the Romans just using a tiny fraction of their total military power. (Indeed when Gabinius conquered Egypt he didn’t even have authorization from his government to invade Egypt and when Caesar did it, it was with about 1/10 of his army and while he was in the middle of a full blown civil war.)

    2. She knows that a peace treaty with Rome provides no real protection for Egypt. (Parthia had such a peace treaty after all, and Crassus still attacked it.)

    3. She knows that even being a firm friend and ally to Rome won’t keep Egypt safe, because Rome during Cleopatra’s lifetime was itself going through a constant series of civil wars, and thus even if Egypt is a friend and ally of the Roman people, all it has to do is pick the wrong side in one of the innumerable Roman civil wars and it will still get invaded. Nor will the Romans tolerate their foreign allies being neutral in their civil wars (just look at what happened to Rhodes and Lycia when they tried to stay neutral during the Liberator’s Civil War.)

    So basically Cleopatra is ruling a kingdom that can’t defend itself from Rome, that can’t count on diplomatic agreements to keep it safe from Rome, and that can’t even count on being allied to Rome to keep it safe from Rome. I think it’s understandable why she found such a situation intolerable for herself, her dynasty, and her country and thus why, when presented with an incredible opportunity (Rome divided against itself and the leader of one of the factions being emotionally and financially dependent on her) to actually give Egypt lasting security from Rome that she ran with that opportunity.

    And yes it was a great gamble, but what was the rational alternative? If Cleopatra had pursued a more cautious approach, she and her dynasty might have lasted a little longer, but eventually some ambitious Roman general was going to decide to conquer Egypt or Egypt was going to pick the wrong side in a Roman civil war and get conquered by the winning side. Egypt was just too rich, too important to Rome’s grain supply, and too vulnerable to hold Rome off indefinitely without greatly increasing its power.

    1. I would suggest “change the nature of the Egyptian state so as to be able mobilize Egypt’s vast resources of manpower and money”. But that would probably mean scrapping the Macedonian occupation aspect of it, even if she survived as Pharaoh, which she might not if she pisses off Macedonians without an alternative power base…

      Just looking at a map, I would think Egypt would be pretty easy to fortify against attacks. But as is, Egyptians probably have little reason to care if Cleo gets bumped by Romans. (Or thought they had little reason. I suspect grain extractions went up with Roman control.)

      1. Just looking at a map, I would think Egypt would be pretty easy to fortify against attacks.

        On paper, maybe, but the country is short of timber and iron, both of which are vital for ancient warfare. At best, Egypt would be at a disadvantage because it has to import these things at greater cost than if it could just produce them domestically; at worst, a Rome which controlled the rest of the Mediterranean could cut off exports of those goods into Egypt, compromising the country’s defences.

  44. Yeah, I think this is fair. Cleopatra does not strike me as that special, and I think the only reason we hear so much of her is her involvement in the whole Caesar-Octavian drama of the Late Republic. The Ptolemies were generally very incompetent rulers who leeched off of the Egyptian native populace and schemed against each other frequently, and she was no different. That people think Cleopatra is a unique case of political intrigue and scheming just shows you that people don’t know that much about the Hellenistic Age.

    What’s sad about the Netflix controversy is that it is distracting from queens who were actually native Africans and who the public unfortunately doesn’t know much about. What is often called Afrocentrism is really just another sidelining of African history.

  45. I read what you wrote about conventions in freschi, but is fresco in House of Marcus Fabius Rufus not contemporary? I don’t say it’s good evidence, but is it some evidence?

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