CLEOPATRA AND ANTONY Power, Love, and Politics in the Ancient World
By DIANA PRESTON
Walker & Company Copyright © 2009 Preston Writing Partnership
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8027-1738-2
Chapter One Keeping It in the Family
The Egyptians had welcomed the arrival of Cleopatra's distant ancestor Alexander the Great and his Macedonian and Greek army of forty thousand men in 332 BC as liberators and allies. He had successfully ejected the Persians who had overthrown Egypt's final pharaoh and had ever since been thoroughly oppressing the population. The Egyptians did not object when Alexander claimed the right to succeed the pharaohs by being crowned in the Temple of Ptah in the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, near modern-day Cairo. Alexander, in turn, took care to respect and even to sacrifice to the native gods. Before he left Egypt, he founded a new city in the sandy marshlands of the western Nile delta that, with characteristic immodesty, he named Alexandria.
Within a decade, Alexander was dead and a mighty struggle was under way amongst his followers for parts of his empire. The Macedonian general who grabbed Egypt, Ptolemy, was Alexander's food taster as well as his relation. Ptolemy's personal emblem was an eagle, which would become the symbol of the dynasty he founded. He ruled at first as governor but soon awarded himself the kingship of Egypt under thetitle Ptolemy I Soter-meaning "savior." With him came more than a hundred thousand serving or veteran soldiers and large quantities of civilians and their families, to whom he gave lands to farm along the Nile valley and delta. Of all her direct ancestors, he was the ruler whom the last Cleopatra-the seventh Ptolemaic queen to bear that name-probably most admired.
Ptolemy was above all an opportunist. To the annoyance of rivals who would also have liked to possess the prestigious cadaver, Ptolemy I intercepted Alexander's funeral cortege as it was traveling toward Macedonia from Babylon, where he had died, and hijacked his embalmed body, which he interred in Alexandria in a splendid tomb. Here Alexander was worshipped as a god. In his lifetime he had claimed divinity, insisting that his mother, Olympias, had conceived him through sexual intercourse with Zeus in the form of a serpent. As Ptolemy recognized, fostering the cult of the divine Alexander could only add legitimacy to successors and relations. Indeed, succeeding generations of Ptolemies would be buried around the great tomb of Alexander and, just as purple-mantled priests sacrificed to him, the Ptolemies' own priests made offerings to their dead kings and queens.
Ptolemy's greatest rivals were the two other successor dynasties to Alexander's empire, the Antigonids in Macedonia and the Seleucids in Syria and Asia Minor. Though sharing the same Macedonian Greek heritage, their territorial ambitions would clash for centuries with those of Cleopatra's family until Rome finally subdued them all.
Demonstrating prudence and a grasp of detail, Ptolemy thoroughly reorganized the management of Egypt in a way that would last basically unchanged until Cleopatra's time. He moved the capital from Memphis to Alexandria, made Greek the official language of government and fused Macedonian and Egyptian methods of administration. He also introduced what was, in effect, a planned economy to exploit Egypt's abundant natural wealth. Although 90 percent of Egypt was desert, the rich alluvial mud created by the annual flooding in late summer of the Nile valley produced bumper crops of wheat and barley-sown in the autumn and harvested in early summer-making the country the biggest grain producer in the Mediterranean. The land was at its most fertile in the delta, where, as Vergil wrote, "the river that flows all the way from the dark Indies empties through its seven mouths making Egypt green with its black silt." There was a relatively docile workforce to harvest the grain-from the time of the pharaohs the native population living along the Nile in simple mudbrick houses had learned to work hard and live frugally.
Ptolemy soon expanded his territories. To the west he annexed Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), a region long inhabited by Greeks and famous for its ostrich feathers, honey and wool. To the northeast, he invaded southern Syria four times-the region would remain one persistently disputed by the Ptolemies and the rival Seleucids. One of the lures was the port of Gaza, terminus of the great camel caravans from Arabia swaying under their burdens of frankincense, spices and jewels. These lands also gave access to the trade routes from Asia to Tyre and Sidon, to the skilled Phoenician sailors who inhabited those cities and were useful for crewing Egypt's ships, and to timber from Syria's mountains to build them. Egypt, though rich in much else, lacked trees. Ptolemy also seized Cyprus, another valuable source of timber as well as of copper.
His new subjects' manners and customs may have surprised Ptolemy. The Greek Herodotus, the world's first historian and travel writer, writing earlier in the first half of the fifth century BC, had been startled that their way of life ran counter to "the ordinary practices of mankind." In particular, Egyptian women enjoyed far more control over their lives than their Greek counterparts and could even initiate divorce proceedings. Often women were the traders and went to market and some even owned barges from which they made large profits from transporting grain. Conversely, many Egyptian men remained at home undertaking such domestic tasks as weaving. While the men carried burdens on their heads, Egyptian women bore them on their shoulders. Most striking of all to Herodotus, women urinated standing up while men squatted, although both genders performed such acts decorously. People relieved themselves indoors but ate outside since "what is unseemly but necessary should be done in private and what is not unseemly should be done openly."
Herodotus, however, noted one area where women took second place. No female was allowed to hold priestly office. He also concluded that the Egyptians were "the most religious men." Ptolemy too grasped both the deep significance of religion to his new subjects and that it provided a means of winning their allegiance, especially that of the influential shaven-headed, shaven-bodied, white-robed priesthood.
Egyptian religion had no single cohesive theology but was an accumulation of cults derived from legend and myth and governed by ritual with a strong emphasis on the afterlife. The new Ptolemaic rulers were confronted by a bewildering array of animal-headed gods, enigmatic sphinxes and vast quantities of mummified animals, from baboons and bulls to birds, cats and crocodiles, all deliberately killed to allow pilgrims to gain divine grace by participating in the funeral rites of a sacred animal.
Ptolemy participated in the rituals of his new land and, as would his descendants including Cleopatra, restored and embellished the temples of ancient Egypt while building new ones-the massive structures at Philae, Edfu and Dendera owe as much to the Ptolemies as to the pharaohs. However, he went a step further-devising a new god to appeal to all his subjects, Egyptian and Greek, and help create a common bond. With the aid of priests he fashioned Serapis-a fusion of the Egyptian cult of Apis, the sacred bull associated with Osiris, lord of the Kingdom of the Dead, with the Greek god Zeus. The new god was one of healing and of prophecy and was worshipped in a great temple, a "Serapeum" near Memphis. Another Serapeum was built on a hill overlooking Alexandria. Even in Cleopatra's day, a quarter of a millenium later, admiring visitors thought it grander than anything they had seen outside Rome. Its long flight of steps rose to a columned Greek façade faced with marble. The interior was decorated with gold leaf, silver and bronze. Within the dark incense-scented sanctuary, which only the high priest and the king were allowed to enter, the god-whose image was that of a mature bearded human male-sat on his throne with Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld, at his feet. Beneath his elaborate headdress Serapis' piercing, life-like eyes of quartz and rock crystal shone mesmerizingly through the gloom.
Around 283 or 282, the highly successful Ptolemy I died peacefully in his bed-the only one of Alexander's Macedonian generals to do so-at the age of eighty-four. His fair-haired and stocky son, Ptolemy II, found a yet more potent way of implanting the Ptolemies into the psyche of their people. He decided that, like the pharaohs before them, the Ptolemies must become gods. Claiming the title Theoi Soteres, "savior gods," for his deceased parents, he set about turning himself into a deity, establishing the tradition that more than two centuries later would allow Cleopatra the status of a living goddess.
To underline this divinity, Ptolemy II embraced another pharaonic custom-incest. The ancient Egyptians had believed their kings to be the earthly manifestation of the god Osiris, whose consort was his sister Isis, and many pharaohs had married their half sisters. Ptolemy II decided to marry his full sister, Arsinoe-an act for which he later understandably acquired the title Philadelphus, "lover of his sister." He presented himself and his sister-wife to his subjects as the Theoi Adelphoi-divine siblings-and ordered their images to be placed in the inner sanctums of temples, where specially chosen priests tended them. The Greek and Roman world considered sexual relations between brothers and sisters unlawful and immoral but henceforth incest would be an integral custom of the Macedonian Greek house of Ptolemy, underlining their divinity and exclusivity.
This exclusivity was to an extent mirrored within the ruling Macedonian elite, although without the refinement of incest-intermarriage with Egyptians was forbidden in Alexandria and the other "Macedonian" cities of Egypt. However, in the countryside Macedonian settlers quite soon began to intermarry with Egyptians, so as time passed, a family's ethnic origins became hard to disentangle-a situation some Macedonians exploited to claim and enjoy the greater legal rights enjoyed by Egyptian women.
In 273 Ptolemy II initiated Egypt's long and pragmatic association with Rome when he dispatched ambassadors there, charged with delivering gifts and flattering words. Dio Cassius caught the blend of shrewd self-interest on the side of one party and conceit on the other, describing how the Egyptian king, impressed by "the growing power of the Romans, sent them gifts and made an agreement with them. The Romans, flattered that one so far away should have thought so highly of them, sent ambassadors to them in return." It was a good moment to secure Roman friendship. The following year, the Romans took control of the entire Italian peninsula.
The next Ptolemaic king, Ptolemy III Euergetes I, "the Benefactor," invaded and plundered Syria, the core of the rival Seleucid kingdom, and crossed the Euphrates. One account even claims that, following in Alexander's footsteps, his armies reached India. This was the Ptolemies' high point. Their empire was the predominant power in the eastern Mediterranean and their capital sophisticated and rich. However, under Ptolemy III's successors, Egyptian power waned as the royal family became increasingly and introspectively entangled in its own complex and bloody feuds while invaders took most of Egypt's overseas possessions.
In 193, Egypt got her first Queen Cleopatra-the name means "Glory of Her Father"-when the daughter of the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus III, married the young Ptolemy V, who had no sister to wed. On her husband's early death, leaving her with two young sons, Cleopatra I ruled as regent. The first Ptolemaic queen to exercise sole power, she proved a strong, effective leader and a role model for her female successors. Most subsequent Ptolemaic queens took her name in tribute to her. After Cleopatra died her two sons ruled in uneasy alliance. Both were, as tradition dictated, named Ptolemy, but the younger was nicknamed Physkon, "Potbelly," because of his wobbling obesity. Taking advantage of Egypt's political fragility, in i68 an emboldened Antiochus IV of Syria marched into Egypt, crowned himself king in Memphis and advanced on Alexandria. For the first but not the last time Egypt invoked the help of Rome, now emerging as the Mediterranean's dominant power.
Rome's relations with Egypt had drawn closer over the years since Ptolemy II had dispatched his silver-tongued ambassadors. Egypt had prudently backed Rome in her wars with Carthage and perhaps even sent a small force of troops to support her. The Romans had certainly felt grateful enough to send thanks to the Ptolemies because, as their chroniclers recorded, "in difficult times when even their closest allies had deserted the Romans, [the Ptolemies] had kept faith." The Romans had also recently formally consulted the Egyptian kings, with their Macedonian roots, before Rome's expansion into Macedonia and Greece-even though the Ptolemies had been entirely powerless to do anything other than acquiesce gracefully. Still conscious of their debt of gratitude to the Ptolemies, the Roman Senate duly agreed to intervene in Egypt's favor and sent a consul to insist on Antiochus' withdrawal. Antiochus obeyed.
The Ptolemaic dynasty had been saved but at the cost of increasing thralldom to Rome, becoming only a little better than Roman "clients." Continued infighting between members of the royal family only raised their dependence on Rome and they frequently called upon the Romans to arbitrate in their disputes, like a parent sorting out the squabbles of fractious children-which, to an extent, was how the Romans viewed the Ptolemies. The Romans were also alert to any strategic advantages that might fall to them, for if the Ptolemies were children, they were wealthy ones.
When, after five uneasy years of shared rule, Ptolemy "Potbelly" forced his older brother, Ptolemy VI, off the throne, the latter hurried to Rome, where, dressed for effect in mourning, he appealed for help. This gave the Senate an opportunity not only to demonstrate Rome's position as guardians of the dynasty but also to further weaken the Ptolemaic kingdom by splitting it in two. In 163 they decreed that Ptolemy VI was to rule in Egypt and Cyprus with his sister Cleopatra II, while Potbelly was to have Cyrenaica.
Reluctantly, the rival brothers accepted Rome's verdict, but potbelly continued to scheme and hit on a device that future Ptolemaic rulers, including the last Cleopatra's father, would employ to ingratiate themselves with Rome-he composed a will. After inveighing against those plotting "to deprive me not only of my kingdom but also of my life," he wrote, "If anything happens to me before I leave successors for my kingdom, I bequeath to the Romans the kingdom belonging to me, for whom from the beginning friendship and alliance have been preserved by me with all sincerity."
Potbelly dispatched the will to Rome and hastened after it to display the livid scars in his plump rippling flesh inflicted, he claimed, by would-be assassins. A doubtless amused Senate awarded him Cyprus for his trouble but took no further action after his brother failed to relinquish the island. Neither was Rome particularly perturbed by the ensuing chaos when, in 145, Ptolemy VI died. Potbelly rushed to Alexandria, took the title Ptolemy VIII and forced his brother's wife, their sister Cleopatra II, to marry him. As soon as he was sure he had impregnated her, he had her young son-his nephew-murdered before her eyes. The unfortunate Cleopatra II in due course bore Potbelly a son. However, in a psychotic outburst he later had the child dismembered and the pieces sent in a box to Cleopatra as a "birthday present" in revenge for his sister-wife's plotting against him.
Within three years of his marriage to Cleopatra II, Potbelly had also raped, then married, her daughter-his niece and stepdaughter-whom he made Cleopatra III and co-regent with her mother. Such incestuous bigamy was unprecedented. Furthermore, the two wives, though mother and daughter, hated each other, each determined that her own children and not her rival's should succeed to the throne. The rivalry only ended with the death of Cleopatra II, quite likely murdered by her daughter.
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