Thursday, September 24, 2015

Cleopatra, Greeks and Egyptians

Cleopatra Egyptian and Hellenistic copyCleopatra VII is perhaps the most famous woman in Western (and Middle Eastern and North African) history. Probably more has been written about her than any other woman, with the possible exception of  a few religious figures. Yet for all the works that have accumulated in the past two millennia, the early sources are sparse, incomplete, and prejudiced. Contemporary references, for example by the ungallant Cicero, are mere offhand jottings. More complete histories were composed long after she died, and none is centered on her; the best of them, by Plutarch, came over a hundred years later and appears as part of his Life of Antony. All of them, letters, histories, epic poems (notably Vergil’s Aeneid, in which she plays the part of Dido of Carthage), are poisoned by the propaganda of Octavian, who won the war against her and Antony and became the emperor Augustus.

The best part of writing a book, short of finishing it, is the research, and these days much of my nonscientific research concentrates on Cleopatra. No, I’m not writing a historical novel, but the one I am writing depends on getting the apparent facts right and, where facts are missing altogether, making a number of persuasive guesses. Among the things we don’t know about Cleopatra is the identity of her mother. Her father, Ptolemy XII, called the “flute player,” was, like all the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, mostly Macedonian, that is, Greek, although Athenians and other sophisticated Greeks considered the Macedonians hillbillies (the first Ptolemy was one of Alexander the Great’s generals). Cleopatra’s mother may have been Cleopatra VI, the flute player’s wife, but she vanishes from the record shortly after Cleopatra was born, and before the birth of Cleopatra’s three younger siblings.

A possible clue appears in Plutarch, who in his Life of Antony tells us she spoke many languages and rarely used an interpreter. He lists seven of these—including the language of the Troglodytes! “It is said that she knew the language of many other peoples also, although the preceding kings of Egypt had not tried to master even the Egyptian tongue, and some had indeed ceased to speak the Macedonian dialect.”

Is her ability to speak Egyptian evidence that her mother was Egyptian, or part Egyptian? Some historians say yes. Duane Roller writes that “it was probably her half-Egyptian mother who instilled in her the knowledge and respect for Egyptian culture and civilization . . . including an ability to speak the Egyptian language.”  Others, the Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley among them, aren’t so sure. After a careful weighing of the evidence and a tour through the Ptolemaic family tree, Tyldesley concludes that “in the crudest of statistical terms, Cleopatra was somewhere between 25 percent and 100 percent Macedonian . . . she possibly had some Egyptian genes.”

In short, there’s room here for the imagination to roam, but within tight boundaries. More on this and other unanswered questions about Cleopatra in future posts.


Plutarch. Life of Antony. Quoted in Tyldesley.

Roller, Duane W. 2010. Cleopatra, A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tyldesley, Joyce. 2008.  Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt. New York: Basic Books.


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