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Cleopatra and the Art of Survival

Posted by Barry Strauss under on June 21, 2023

Thanks, everyone, for your continued enthusiasm about my podcast, Antiquitas. I hope you enjoyed the second episode of my three-part series on “How to Win A War,” this one on Sun Tzu, the great ancient Chinese military philosopher. Now, let’s turn back westward, this time, to the northeast corner of Africa.

When we think of Cleopatra, we think of one of history’s great lovers – and great losers. This we owe to Shakespeare and his imperishable portrait of love and death in his tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra. Who can forget the serial suicides of the two lovers after throwing the dice and losing everything in war? Hollywood too, in its various versions of the story, has graven an image of the beautiful – natch, it’s Hollywood – brilliant, and doomed queen.

Forget everything you know about Cleopatra the loser because the reality is totally different. The truth is that Cleopatra was hugely successful in all her enterprises until the end.

If you are running a business or a government that has to survive in a harsh world; if you have to function in an environment where a larger and more powerful rival will crush you if you don’t handle it well, and where your internal enemies are no less dangerous than the ones outside, well, then, you need to take some time out to read about the real Cleopatra. Because both her success and her ultimate failure are rich in lessons for today.

In this, the first of four posts, we’ll meet Cleopatra and learn how what she brought to the table of power politics. In the next post, we’ll marvel at her boldness. In the third post, we’ll outline her rise to the pinnacle of power, and in the fourth post, we’ll explain what went wrong and why she failed in the end.

If you are running a business or a government that has to survive in a harsh world, then, you need to take some time out to read about the real Cleopatra. Because both her success and her ultimate failure are rich in lessons for today.

Cleopatra had to negotiate exceptionally treacherous waters. She had the deck stacked against her in various ways. She had to compete with two brothers and a sister to secure the throne of Egypt. She had to survive as a female ruler in a man’s world. She had to keep the peace in a country where a small Greco-Macedonian colonial elite ruled over a large native Egyptian population, with a significant Jewish minority as well.  She had to maintain the independence of her country as a client kingdom of the most powerful state in the world – Rome – a state perennially tempted to gobble up its weaker client.

Cleopatra’s goals were to gain the throne, to keep it, and to keep her country’s independence. A related and very important goal was to assure her dynasty’s continuation, which meant having children, ideally an “heir and a spare,” and raising them to adulthood.

Nor did Cleopatra suffer from thinking small. Independence was essential but Cleopatra wanted more. She wanted to restore Egypt to the greatness that it had enjoyed under her ancestors when it was one of the leading military and naval powers of the eastern Mediterranean, and not the footstool for Rome that it had become.

The knives were out for Cleopatra and for Egypt. Yet she secured her throne, kept her country not only independent but able to expand its power abroad, had four children (three sons and a daughter), and reached the brink of becoming the de facto co-ruler of the mighty Roman Empire. As one historian put it long ago, in its long history the Roman republic feared two people above all: Hannibal and a woman – Cleopatra.

Who was Cleopatra, queen of Egypt? She belonged to the proud dynasty of the Ptolemies, descended from one of the marshals of Alexander the Great. They had ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries. By turns brilliant and conquering, decadent and cowering, they ruled one of the wealthiest countries of the ancient world, thanks to the fertility of the Nile valley. They lived in what was in Cleopatra’s day the most glamorous, elegant, cultivated city in the Mediterranean world: Alexandria. For all its military power, Rome was still a city of brick. No wonder the Romans coveted Egypt.

In most everything she did, Cleopatra bespoke grandeur – and in the rest, she was chutzpah personified.

From both of her parents Cleopatra claimed Macedonian descent, but her mother may have been half-Egyptian. Her paternal grandmother was probably not a Ptolemy either; her identity is unknown. It’s possible that Cleopatra was of mixed race, but we aren’t sure.

Given all the ancient images of Cleopatra, you’d think they would settle the matter, but they don’t. Cleopatra was all things to all people. A bust now in Rome makes her look like an attractive Greek or Roman royal woman. A carved relief on the wall of a Nile-Valley temple is as stylized as a pharaonic artwork. Coin images give Cleopatra a masculine profile, but that might have been meant to counteract prejudices against a ruling queen.

Whatever she looked like, Cleopatra had style. Consider her profile on the coin at the start of this post. Her hair is very carefully coiffed. She wears a diadem, the so-called ribbon of royalty, the ancient Greek equivalent of a crown. She looks dignified and poised. In most everything she did, Cleopatra bespoke grandeur – and in the rest, she was chutzpah personified.

Speaking of being all things to all people, Cleopatra had a unique achievement. In three centuries of the Ptolemies ruling Egypt, she was the only monarch to speak Egyptian! This too may suggest a half-Egyptian mother. Or perhaps it should be chalked up to Cleopatra’s talent as a linguist: she spoke a minimum of eight languages. She had remarkable communication skills, and they served her well throughout her career. Her language ability opened doors, while also making it difficult for foreigners to pull something over on her. Of course, her knowledge of Egyptian helped Cleopatra win over the support of the population that she ruled over – enthusiastic support, by all accounts.

Cleopatra came to the throne at age eighteen, sharing it with her brother. Then her brother and sister drove her out into exile, which lasted about a year. Cleopatra bounced back, enlisting an army that defeated her brother who drowned in a naval battle. Next it was her sister’s turn to be forced into exile, where she was eventually murdered, in a temple where she had taken sanctuary; murdered perhaps at Cleopatra’s behest. Cleopatra had to share power with another brother until he was conveniently poisoned. Afterwards she had to share her throne with her young son, but in fact, Cleopatra ruled Egypt.

From the above we can deduce a few of Cleopatra’s Rules of Power:

  • Always secure your base.
  • Politics is a blood sport, even within the family.
  • Be all things to all people.
  • Do it with style.
  • Learn languages.
  • Communicate majesty.

All well and good, you may be thinking, but what about Cleopatra the great love interest? That, of course, is part of the story as well. In the next post, we’ll meet her first leading man – Caesar.

Barry Strauss © 2024