Queen Cleopatra of Egypt – Popular Depiction vs. Reality
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt is often portrayed in modern times -- in works ranging from plays to pornography -- as a tragic and misunderstood person. Among the most popular of these portrayals is the Oscar winning 1963 film, “Cleopatra,” in which Elizabeth Taylor played the Queen and Richard Burton portrayed Marc Antony. History paints a much different picture with ancient historian Josephus describing Cleopatra as “a woman who hesitated at no wickedness.”
Cleopatra (January 69 BC–November 30, 30 BC) was a Hellenistic co-ruler of Egypt with her brothers/husbands Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. She later became the supreme ruler of Egypt by consummating an adulterous liaison with Gaius Julius Caesar that solidified her grip on the throne. After Caesar's assassination, Cleopatra aligned with Caesar’s number two man, Mark Antony, in another adulterous relationship. In all, Cleopatra had four children, one by Caesar (Caesarion) and three by Antony (Cleopatra Selene II, Alexander Helios, Ptolemy Philadelphus). Her marriages with her brothers produced no children: it is possible that they were never consummated because they were never close but instead were murderous rivals for the throne of Egypt.
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt – Place in History
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt’s reign marks the final end of the Hellenistic Era in Egypt and the beginning of the Roman Era in the eastern Mediterranean. Her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, ruled briefly in name only. Upon seizing Egypt, Octavian (Julius Caesar’s grand-nephew who is also named Caesar Augustus, and who ruled Rome at the time of Christ’s birth) condemned Caesarion to death with the statement, “Too many Caesars.” Her other children by Marc Antony were taken to Rome and adopted by Antony’s wife, Octavia, who was also Octavian’s elder sister.
One of the excellent endnotes of this story is that Octavia became one of the most prominent women in Roman history, respected and admired by contemporaries for her loyalty, nobility and humanity, and for maintaining traditional Roman feminine virtues. Her care and love for the offspring of her husband’s adulterous relationship with Cleopatra simply added to her Roman status as a virtuous woman. Octavia lived at a time when many succumbed to treachery and intrigue -- a remarkable counter-point to the life of Queen Cleopatra and the adulterous liaisons she used to acquire power and lure Marc Antony away from Octavia.
Marc Antony and Cleopatra’s demise was as sordid and tragic as their lives. Antony led combined land and naval forces at the Battle of Actium but lost to the better equipped and trained forces under Octavian. Queen Cleopatra fled the battle and popular legend implies that Antony abandoned his command to follow her to Egypt. Evidence indicates that Antony’s forces simply deserted to join with Octavian in a mass expression of disgust at the immorality and poor discipline of their commander. With the landing of Octavian’s legions in Egypt, Antony committed suicide, knowing his coming fate at the hands of Roman Justice. According to the doctor Olympus (an eye-witness), he was brought to Queen Cleopatra's tomb and died in her arms. Several days later, Cleopatra died from a self-inflicted snakebite. Octavian, waiting in a building nearby, was informed of her death, and went to see for himself that she was dead.
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt – Her Death
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, in the words of ancient historians and her contemporaries, was a murdering, adulterous seductress who conspired in the demise of her own family, countrymen, and powerful Romans. Her death at her own hand was the last desperate attempt of an immoral woman to at least control her own end, having lost all accumulated wealth, power, and lovers.
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt – The century before the birth of Christ
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt struggled for power in Egypt at the same time that Rome fought a bloody Civil War. Six years before her birth, Pompey the Great intervened in a Jewish conflict in 63 BC by seizing Jerusalem then entered the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish people never forgave him. Years later during the Roman Civil War in 47 BC, Pompey fled from Caesar after losing the battle of Farsala in Greece. He would not even attempt to ask for help from the Jews. Though Pompey was murdered by the Egyptians, the Jewish people joined two large units -- one under the High Priest, Hyrcanus, and the other under the Idumean, Antipater. They helped Caesar defeat the Egyptians, place Queen Cleopatra back in power, and contributed significantly to Caesar’s success in Egypt.
Caesar’s reward for this service would be to elevate Antipater (Herod’s father) to be Regent over Jerusalem in 47 BC. The Roman also confirmed Hyrcanus, the leader of the Jewish sect known as Pharisees, as High Priest for life and granted permanent Roman citizenship to all the Jewish men who fought with the Legions in Egypt. As a result, the Pharisees became the dominant secular and religious power brokers in Palestine and dominated Temple leadership until Roman General Titus Vespasian destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The rise of the Pharisees to power locked in place the simmering political bitterness between Sadducees and Pharisees. This bitterness was a prominent part of the national political landscape of Palestine during Christ’s life and ministry.
A final fascinating note is that it is possible the Apostle Paul’s father or grandfather received Roman citizenship for serving as a soldier in the Egyptian campaign, which would pass down to children. Paul used his privilege of citizenship in Acts 21 to appeal his legal case to Caesar. One discovers that through this process and using the privilege of Roman citizenship, Paul took the Gospel message of Christ into the heart of Rome and the throne of Caesar.