Σάββατο, 28 Απριλίου 2012

Cleopatra the Last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt

Cleopatra has been called a shameless temptress who used blatant sexuality to maintain her grip on the throne of Egypt. The truth is much more complex and fascinating for if she had offered nothing else she could scarcely have lasted beyond a few weekends. Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian. Her ancestor, the first Ptolemy, acquired Egypt when the empire of the deceased Alexander the Great was divided among his chief generals. The first three Ptolemies were reasonably competent rulers. There was never any doubt that the rulers were Greek and until Cleopatra VII did not even bother to learn the native language, but they employed enough Egyptian tradition to gain a grudging acknowledgement of legitimacy. More territory was acquired, including the whole of the eastern Mediterranean coastline. Alexandria became one of the greatest of the old cities; its two harbors presided over by one of the ancient world’s seven wonders, the Pharos lighthouse, were together capable of holding twenty-four hundred ships at a time. The city’s library held some 700,000 scrolls and was home to many of the greatest thinkers of the age. Egypt had always had autocratic government, though most pharaohs realized that their personal well-being and that of the nation as a whole were inextricably linked. While Ptolemaic rule began well, it was not long before greed, indolence, ineptitude, and internecine struggles began to take their toll. The country continued to produce great wealth but the benefits went disproportionately to the Greek ruling class. The Nile’s harvest was generous as long as a centralized bureaucracy existed to co-ordinate the required water control systems, but Upper Egypt seemed too remote to interest the lazy Ptolemy’s and scant attention was paid to developments in the rest of the world.

When Ptolemy XII, nicknamed Auletes, came to the throne in 80 BCE he took the view that it was too late to stem the tide of the Roman advance. Egypt had the money, but Rome had a massive army and seemed poised to take over the world. Auletes made the avoidance of a quarrel with Rome the centerpiece of Egyptian policy. His fellow Greeks felt this was misguided and worked with the Egyptians to overthrow him in favor of his daughters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice IV. Auletes had always expected trouble and had agreed to pay two Roman triumvirs, Pompey and Caesar, six thousand talents in return for a Roman guarantee of his throne. Although Auletes had to borrow the money from a Roman businessman, the Romans did deliver and the king was restored to his throne. When he died the crown and the debt passed to Cleopatra VII and her ten year old brother Ptolemy XIII. The Ptolemies were foreign interlopers who usurped the throne of Egypt. To reduce the number of competitive claims they began a policy whereby the pharaoh would marry a sister to ensure that their progeny had nothing but Ptolemaic blood in their veins. Brother and sister would share the throne, but there was always the assumption that the brother was the senior monarch. When Cleopatra ascended the throne her brother, Ptolemy XIII, was only ten years old and too young to take an active part in government, but his regency council contained several very competent men and it was not long before they demanded a more prominent role for their charge.

Cleopatra’s reign began well. She went to Thebes to preside over the ceremonies inaugurating a new sacred bull. The animal was believed to contain the earthly spirit of the great god Amun-Re and its consecration was one of the most important moments in Egyptian religious life. It was the first time a Ptolemy had traveled that far south and her visit was well received. The capital city presented a different picture, however. A quarrel with the Gabinians, the ragtag remnant of a Roman legion based in Alexandria, a disastrous harvest, and the gift to the Roman general Pompey of sixty ships and a large quantity of grain galvanized the opposition and she was driven from the throne in 49 BCE. The following year Julius Caesar, having defeated Pompey in battle, arrived in Alexandria hoping to collect the balance of the loan and raise a little extra for his next campaign. Cleopatra had been able to organize a small army in Thebes but by itself this was not enough to regain the throne. Her father had used Rome to recover power when he had been driven out; perhaps she could do the same if she could find a way to visit Caesar without risking capture and probable death at the hands of her brother’s supporters. One of her close advisors disguised himself as a servant, wrapped his mistress in a blanket roll, threw the bundle over his shoulder and walked boldly into Caesar’s room. This dramatic entrance certainly captivated Caesar, but its effect would have died quickly had she not had the wit and personality to go with it. Caesar quickly proclaimed Ptolemy and Cleopatra joint rulers but the Roman general found himself trapped in the palace with a small army of some 4,000 well-disciplined troops. The much larger Egyptian army was too ill-trained to mount an assault but it was good enough to keep the Romans bottled up. Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe, escaped the palace, proclaimed herself Queen of Egypt and tried to lead a full-scale rebellion against Roman occupation. It was several months before reinforcements arrived and Caesar could break out of the siege and formally capture Alexandria.

Ptolemy XIII died in the battle. The victorious Caesar installed Cleopatra and another brother, Ptolemy XIV on the throne. History does not tell us how the Queen felt about successfully driving one brother from the throne only to have him replaced by another. In any event he was quite young and very little is ever heard of him after the coronation. After a trip up the Nile with Cleopatra in her luxurious 100-meter royal barge Caesar went home, taking in chains the disgraced Arsinoe and leaving behind a pregnant Cleopatra. Their son, Caesarion, was born in June 47 BCE. Apparently popular enough in the rest of Egypt, Cleopatra was hated by all classes in Alexandria and held on to the throne only with the aid of three Roman legions. The following year she went to Rome where she lived on an estate owned by Julius Caesar. The Romans regarded her presence with a curious mixture of fascination and revulsion. None could deny her understanding, scholarship and wit, but Egypt, especially the Hellenistic city of Alexandria, was thought to be especially depraved, Cleopatra’s assumption of divinity was sacrilegious, and her unforgivable influence was leading Caesar to contemplate becoming king. Caesar built in Rome a gilded statue to honor Cleopatra and never denied fathering her child. It was even rumored that he would marry her and move his capital to Alexandria, but there is no evidence that they ever resumed their affair, and on the Ides of March 44 BC the would-be emperor was struck down by republican assassins. Low flood levels, royal neglect and a visitation of bubonic plague meant much work for Cleopatra when she returned home. Alexandria had never liked her and there was a danger the rest of Egypt could drift away as well. Rebuilding the agricultural industry and the royal bureaucracy was easy enough; hanging on to the throne for herself and her heir had to be an all-consuming passion. Ptolemy XIV disappears from the record at this point and is replaced as co-ruler by the three-year old Caesarian.

In Egyptian mythology the pharaoh is seen as the reborn Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. Several inscriptions picture Cleopatra and Caesarian as divine. A sandstone relief outside the temple of Hathor at Denderah shows Cleopatra as Isis standing beside Caesarian as Horus. In this case, of course, Julius Caesar was the Osiris father and Caesarian Caesar is poised to become ruler of a united Rome and Egypt. The idea would not sit well in Rome, but Egyptians might be prepared to accept it as a justification for her apparently pro-Roman policy Caesar’s assassination settled nothing in Rome: the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, and Marc Antony were simply the most prominent of the combatants for power; Cleopatra was unprepared to participate until she felt more certain that she would be backing a winner. Many years of civil war had weakened Rome’s hold on its empire. Antony was sent to the east where he had some success but failed in his quest to take Parthia. Desperate for cash to rebuild his army he summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus. She delayed enough to demonstrate that her visit was voluntary, and then arrived on a magnificent, gold encrusted royal barge whose splendor was too much for the masses to miss. Antony expected Cleopatra to come to his palace but he was forced to go to the Queen once her barge had docked. Romans were convinced that poor Antony was a victim of Cleopatra’s charms and any reading of documents from the period must keep that prejudice in mind. They undoubtedly had a very hot affair from the beginning, but within a year of its start Antony went back to Rome and cemented an alliance with Octavian by marrying his sister, Octavia. She was pregnant by her deceased husband and Antony’s mistress was pregnant with his twins. By 35 BCE both the marriage and the alliance were in tatters. They were probably doomed from the start. Rome was fated to have a single ruler and it was just a question of deciding who would fill that role: the endgame was about to begin. There is no reason to doubt that they were very much in love, but each also offered the other the best chance to ward off defeat at the hands of the Romans. He had a large army and she a large navy and money enough to finance a major war.

Antony and Cleopatra were married in 33. The marriage was illegal under Roman law, but that was no longer relevant: he had severed once and for all his ties with Rome. In an age where few people could read and write, fairly complex ideas could be compressed into simple symbols whose meaning would be clear to everyone. She was Isis, he adopted the guise of Dionysus and their heads appeared together on the coins of both empires. He would acquire land not for Rome but for the revived empire of Alexander the Great. In the Donation of Alexandria, Antony proclaimed Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya and Syria. Caesarion, Julius Caesar’s son, was her consort. To the Egyptians this was simply following Ptolemaic tradition: Cleopatra had no surviving brothers so she would share the throne with her son. To everyone else, however, this seemed very much like an attempt to bypass Octavian and have Caesarion take over his father’s empire. The remainder of the eastern portion of the Roman empire was divided among the three children of Antony and Cleopatra. Some of the land so divided had not yet been conquered and the rest of it already had client kings in place so this was a theoretical not a real transfer of power. No mention was made of Antony’s role in all of this, but no one inside or out of Rome could have had the shadow of a doubt: all the land east of the Adriatic had been severed from the Roman empire, restored to Alexander the Great’s Empire and was Antony’s to dispose of as he saw fit. It was a challenge that Octavian could not ignore: it was to be a fight to the finish with the winner taking it all---compromise would be impossible.

The end was an anticlimax. The two sides met at Actium on the northwest coast of Greece and Octavian was the clear winner, though mopping up operations meant another year before Octavian arrived to claim Alexandria. Cleopatra and Anthony ended it all by committing suicide. The evidence would suggest that Cleopatra had no other lovers and was thus celibate for more than half her adult life an exceptional state considering her social class and the age in which she lived and therefore it would be unfair to call her, as the Romans did, a wonton whore. There is no way to tell if someone is really in love or merely faking it, especially over two thousand years, but Cleopatra and Antony had an equal relationship. Their vision of an empire that combined Egypt and the Roman lands to the east of the Adriatic was not unreasonable and each would need the other’s resources to turn that dream into reality. Their defeat at Actium marked a significant moment in the development of western civilization. Cleopatra’s relationship with Julius Caesar is more problematic. Did she turn to him simply to get rid of a brother and rule alone, or did she honestly believe that Egypt’s continued independence required working out a suitable alliance with Rome? Her brother, his advisors and the majority of Alexandria wanted to simply ignore Rome and carry on as they always had in the past. If Cleopatra sought to avoid a future defeat at the hands of Rome by negotiating a reasonable and fair compromise she would have had no choice but to get rid of the young Ptolemy. Either way, she was a remarkable woman!

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