Cleopatra’s Grandest Entrance

Posted by Barry Strauss under on July 19, 2023

Politics is often performance. There is a certain kind of politician, often a commander or king or tyrant or just a kingpin, who uses an entrance as a way of magnifying power. For such a leader an entrance is a come-on. It is a way of persuading or even tricking people into thinking that you are stronger than you really are. Hence, crafting the right entrance is an art, and one mastered by various politicians in history.

Take Pisistratus of Athens in the sixth century BC. He seized power and served as tyrant for five years, but then his rivals drove him into exile. After a rapprochement, Pisistratus returned home ca. 550 BC to take the reins of power again. He entered Athens on a horse-drawn chariot accompanied by a tall woman dressed as the goddess Athena. The sources say that the gullible people of Athens fell for the trick. More likely, they took it as a sign that the “new, improved” tyrant would respect Athenian traditions, starting with religion.

More than two millennia later in 1922 another tyrant took power in the Mediterranean. This time it was Benito Mussolini, who conquered Italy via violence and intimidation – and a grand entrance. Or at least he said it was a grand entrance. The founder of Fascism, Mussolini called on his hundreds of thousands of thugs around the country to mobilize. The headline event was the so-called “March on Rome,” a descent on the capital by thousands of Mussolini’s armed followers. It worked. Despite the government’s willingness to resist, the king (Italy was a monarchy then) refused to declare martial law, fearing civil war. He named Mussolini prime minister. Mussolini soon became the world’s first Fascist dictator. By the way, Mussolini himself didn’t march on Rome – he took the train.

To my mind, the grandest entrance of all belongs to Cleopatra. In 41 BC she sailed from Egypt to the port city of Tarsus, located on what is today Turkey’s southern coast. Tarsus was the temporary headquarters of Mark Antony, the Roman strongman who ruled the eastern Mediterranean. He wanted two things from the queen of Egypt. He wanted money to pay his soldiers and an explanation of the rumor that she had supported his political enemies. The rumor was untrue, and Cleopatra had plenty of money, but she wanted something more. She wanted Antony to replace her murdered lover Julius Caesar as her protector in the world that Rome dominated. And so, she entered Tarsus in a spectacular way.

After reaching Tarsus’s harbor, Cleopatra disembarked from a seagoing vessel to be rowed up the city’s river in a royal barge. Plutarch described the scene; Shakespeare used a translation of Plutarch and turned it into poetry in his Antony and Cleopatra. He writes:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of lutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold of tissue—
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

Plutarch compared Cleopatra to Aphrodite in a painting, with Erotes, or Cupids, standing on either side and fanning her, while her serving maids, dressed like sea deities, or the Three Graces, manned the rudders and the ropes.

Cleopatra aimed to make an impression and she did. It is said that crowds abandoned Antony sitting on his seat in the forum and headed to the river to see Cleopatra’s arrival. Plutarch adds that a rumor spread: “Aphrodite had come to make merry with Dionysus for the good of Asia.” Cleopatra identified herself with Aphrodite—the Roman Venus—the goddess of love, as well as with Isis, Egypt’s supreme female deity and a mother goddess who was popular around the Mediterranean.

By her grand entrance into Tarsus, Cleopatra gave multiple signals to Antony. She was a master of propaganda. She was a goddess. Antony, who identified with a god himself, could join her. But only on her terms. Cleopatra had the nerve to turn down a dinner invitation from Antony and make him come to her instead.

And he did. Cleopatra passed her audition. Antony followed Cleopatra back to Alexandria to spend the winter. There they partied in the grand style befitting the Mediterranean’s wealthiest queen, and she the product of one its greatest dynasties. In short order, Cleopatra was pregnant again, this time with another Roman with a claim to supreme power. She gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy. Meanwhile, Cleopatra began financing Antony’s military ambitions. He wanted nothing less than to invade Rome’s rival empire in Persia, known as the Parthian Empire.

The photo above shows a coin depicting Cleopatra and Antony. Cleopatra looks regal. Antony looks massive.

Incidentally, before the departure from Tarsus of Antony and Cleopatra, the queen’s sister and rival was murdered in the temple where she lived in exile; whether she was killed at Cleopatra’s behest or Antony’s is debatable. In either case, the message was clear: once again, Cleopatra had made a Roman strongman her ally and guarantor.

Antony and Cleopatra became lovers and strategic partners. The result, which would shake the Mediterranean world, was a tribute to one woman’s strategic genius.

What does Cleopatra’s grand entrance into Tarsus add to Cleopatra’s Rules of Power?

  • If summoned by a superior power, make a grand entrance.
  • When making a grand entrance, spare no expense. Be unforgettable.
  • Even if you are courting a stronger party, make the other person come to you.
  • In other words, no matter how much you are at risk, display supreme confidence and sublime indifference to danger.
  • If the person you are courting accepts your first invitation, up the ante by inviting him to your home turf.
  • Most political alliances don’t involve sex, but every successful courtship always includes an element of seduction, be it only flattery.
  • Seal the deal by tying your new ally to you by a common enterprise, be it military, political, financial or, in this case, all the above plus familial.
  • It’s never a bad idea to remove old rivals when making a new ally – preferably without suborning murder!

Next time we will see how Cleopatra and Antony took on Octavian for control of the Roman world. And we’ll see how Cleopatra made two unforgettable exits.

Barry Strauss © 2024