- Pub. Date:
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Young Princess of an Ancient Land
There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased. — Plutarch
* * *
During the winter of 70 BC, in the ancient land of Egypt, a princess was born. She was called Cleopatra, a Greek name that had already graced other powerful royal women in her family. It had a promising meaning: "her father's fame."
This sounds like the beginning of a beautiful fairy tale. In reality, life for a pharaoh's daughter was marked by uncertainty and frequent threats to her life. Power was a highly desired prize and could move anyone, even a member of her own family, to go to any length to obtain it.
A Greek Family on the Throne of Egypt
Gruesome murders and puzzling mysteries already stained Cleopatra's family history. The Ptolemies were a tough and ambitious clan from the rough, mountainous region of Macedonia, in northern Greece. In nearly 300 years of their rule over Egypt, they had often proven themselves ruthless and cold blooded against both enemies and potential enemies — relatives included.
To understand how a Greek family ended up on the Egyptian throne, one must go back to the year 323 BC, when Alexander the Great, the most powerful Greek ruler, died unexpectedly at the peak of his conquests, apparently using his last breath to bestow his massive empire on "the strongest." These words gave way to fierce power struggles. In the end, his territories were split among his generals, ending his dream of a universal empire.
A general named Ptolemy took over Egypt and rose to its throne as Ptolemy I Soter (Savior). He also hijacked Alexander's funeral procession, stole his body, and brought it to the city Alexander had built on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt: Alexandria. This is the city where, about 350 years later, Cleopatra was born.
Groomed for the Crown
Cleopatra's Alexandria was a thriving metropolis. Thanks to the Ptolemies, it had become one of the most outstanding cities in the Mediterranean world — both as an active port and as a center of learning. It was also blatantly Greek, filled as it was with a large Greek population and a great number of Greek structures and facilities, such as an outdoor theater for staging Greek plays; an open square called an agora, where people could buy goods and hear different speakers; and a gymnasium where men could practice sports, compete, and attend cultural events.
Cleopatra lived in the royal palaces with her family: her father, Ptolemy XII; her older sister, Berenice; her younger sister, Arsinoe; and two brothers, both called Ptolemy. Ptolemy XII's wife, Cleopatra V, died sometime during his reign, so it's not clear if she was the mother of all these children or if Ptolemy XII remarried. They might also have had another daughter, Cleopatra VI. The Cleopatra in this story is known as Cleopatra VII.
CREATE A WRITING TABLET
In ancient times, people used wax tablets for writings that didn't have to be preserved for a long time (for example, for notes or first drafts, which were later copied onpapyrussheets orparchment — both expensive materials). A plaster tablet written by a schoolboy in Thebes is now in the British Museum in London. Pieces of broken pots (called ostraka) were also utilized as "scrap paper."
Make your own writing tablet using modeling clay instead of wax or plaster.
* 5-by-7-inch picture frame with securely fastening cardboard backing
1. Remove the glass and any paper (such as a stock photo, decorative pattern, or brand name) from the picture frame by first removing the cardboard backing. Return the cardboard backing to the frame, securing with the fasteners provided.
2. Knead the modeling clay until it's soft enough to be flattened.
3. Using a rolling pin, flatten the clay until it is about 1/4 inch thick.
4. Carefully place the flattened clay over the cardboard backing inside the frame.
5. Using a sharp plastic modeling tool, cut excess modeling clay away from the frame so that the frame is fully visible around the clay but the cardboard is hidden.
6. Use a pointed modeling tool to write your message.
7. To erase what you have written, use a flat modeling tool or your fingers to smooth the clay.
The royal palaces were located in a very private northeastern section of Alexandria generally known as "the Palaces" — essentially a city within Alexandria that had grown to occupy about one-third of Alexandria's total area.
The royal palaces were spacious — one-fifth of Alexandria's size — surrounded by flourishing gardens and connected by courtyards lined with columns. Inside, they were filled with beautiful and exotic objects from all parts of Egypt and other countries, each new item more splendid than the others, because each new Ptolemy tried to outdo his or her predecessors.
Cleopatra spent a rather peaceful childhood in Alexandria. In the Greek education system, children started school at age seven, when they were expected to put away childish toys and focus on their studies, and the Ptolemies might have followed the same rule.
Most girls in Cleopatra's time received only the basic instruction necessary to run a home. Things were different, however, in the Egyptian court, where queens played an essential role in running their country, whether as mothers, wives, or — when necessary — single rulers. For this reason, and because of the high value the Ptolemies placed on education, Cleopatra and her sisters had excellent tutors, comparable to those of their two younger brothers.
No one knows how long Cleopatra continued her formal studies, but she informally kept learning for the rest of her life. She certainly read and memorized the works of many ancient authors, especially Homer, who was then considered the greatest Greek poet of all time. According to some medieval Arab writers, she was also very interested in mathematics and science.
Alexandria was an ideal place for learning. Two buildings in the Palaces area, built by the first two Ptolemies, attracted scholars from all over the known world. One building was the Library of Alexandria, a library so large that, in Cleopatra's day, it held approximately 500,000 papyrus scrolls (the "books" of that time). Connected to it was an impressive building called the Alexandrian Museum. Unlike most of today's museums, this was not just a place to hold collections of interesting and valuable objects. It was a state-sponsored center of learning (unique for its time), where the best minds from all over the known world resided for some time to research and teach.
MAKE AN ARCHIMEDES SCREW
Archimedes, originally from Sicily, in Italy, was one of the scientists who worked in the Alexandrian Museum. He is most famous for discovering why some objects float in water and others sink, but he also created many useful inventions. One of the best-known devices attributed to him (even though it was already in use in simpler forms) is the Archimedes screw — a contraption adopted to raise water to higher ground. This tool was very important for fieldirrigation(watering) and ship draining.
Originally these screws were made of wood and looked like huge versions of the common screws found in a hardware store. This activity uses plastic tubing and a bottle. The materials are different, but the principle is the same.
* Plastic drop cloth
1. Place the plastic drop cloth on the surface you are using (table, floor, etc.).
2. Hold one end of the tube against the side of a full water bottle at the bottle's bottom edge. The tube should be parallel to the bottle's bottom, with the end pointing out sideways. Use duct tape to secure the tube to the side of the bottle about ½ inch from the tube's end.
3. Wrap the tube around the bottle in a spiral, going counterclockwise, until the other end of the tube is just past the mouth of the bottle.
4. As with the first end, secure this end of the tube to the side of the bottle near the bottle's mouth, leaving about ½ inch of the tube free.
5. Add another piece of tape about halfway down the tube to secure it firmly to the bottle.
6. Pour water into a large mixing bowl until it is about ½ full.
7. Add 3–5 drops of food coloring into the water and mix well.
8. Place a spaghetti box flat next to the large bowl. Then put a small, empty bowl on top of the box.
9. Place the bottom of the bottle in the large bowl so that the bottom end of the tube is in the water, and angle the bottle so that the top end of the tube is above the small bowl.
10. Slowly turn the bottle clockwise so that the bottom end of the tube scoops up the colored water.
11. Watch the water rise slowly through the tube until it pours into the small bowl.
12. Try turning the tube the opposite way. Does it work? Why not?
Generally speaking, the Ptolemies made no effort to learn the Egyptian language, or to teach it to their children. That's why the Greek biographer Plutarch, writing 100 years after Cleopatra's death, was particularly surprised that she could "pass from one language to another" so easily that she usually didn't need an interpreter. Besides Egyptian, she could speak the languages of the Ethiopians, Hebrews, Arabs, Syrians, Medes (who lived in a portion of today's Iraq), and Parthians (in today's Iraq and Iran).
Plutarch's statement is a testimony to Cleopatra's exceptional intelligence and love for learning. Her language skills might also say something about her political insight. For a ruler, speaking other languages — especially those of her people — inspires trust, promotes understanding, and opens doors.
Study and work didn't occupy all of the Ptolemies' time. They were famous for their long and extravagant banquets, which included costly robes, elaborate decorations, and plenty of music, games, food, and especially wine — which might have been mixed with water, in typical Macedonian style.
Outside the palace, the Alexandrian calendar was filled with exciting occasions, including a major sports event (called Ptolemaia in honor of Ptolemy I) that rivaled the Olympic Games, and innumerable Egyptian and Greek religious festivals. These celebrations brought crowds to the streets and usually ended with outdoor banquets and public entertainment for all. Festivals in honor of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, were especially magnificent during Cleopatra's youth, and her father, Ptolemy XII, loved to introduce himself as "the new Dionysus."
The citizens of Alexandria preferred to create their own nicknames for their kings. To them, Ptolemy XII was Auletes, "the flute player." It might have been a reference to the king's chubby cheeks. If he actually played a flute, the name would not have been a compliment, because playing musical instruments was not considered a proper activity for kings. In any case, they especially detested him for his strong ties to Rome, which they saw as a political threat and viewed as less cultured.
The High Cost of Security
If Roman culture was not yet a match to the sophisticated Greeks, it was the rising political superpower. Born as a small city-state in the mid-eighth century BC, Rome had already conquered a great number of nations and was still rapidly expanding.
As the Roman population grew, however, so did its need for provisions, especially grain (wheat and barley), since bread was the main staple food at that time. Though generally fertile, the small and mountainous Italian peninsula could not meet this increasing need. But across the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, with its lengthy spread of fruitful fields around the Nile River, had the ability to exceed Rome's national demand.
Rome needed Egypt's fabulous riches, and the Ptolemies, plagued by outside threats and inside rebellions, needed Rome's protection. It might sound like a good match, if it weren't for Rome's great power, not only to protect but also to crush. The Ptolemies knew that in order to retain their rule of Egypt they'd have to keep Rome happy by any possible means, including great gifts. The most outrageous of these gifts was found in the last will of Cleopatra's great-uncle Ptolemy X, who died in 88 BC, leaving his whole kingdom (including Egypt and Cyprus) to Rome.
The Roman government didn't take this will too seriously. It was easier to let foreign rulers govern their regions under Rome's control than to take over a country's entire administration (and all of its problems). The will did provide a convenient brother, who ruled the island of Cyprus and could not afford to buy Rome's support. Possibly feeling justified by Ptolemy X's will, in 58 BC the Roman government took over Cyprus, leading Cleopatra's uncle to commit suicide.
The Alexandrians were outraged. Didn't Auletes care? Was he going to watch passively while Rome captured Cyprus? His unresponsiveness confirmed their opinion of the king as a weakling and a Roman pawn.
When Father's Away
Alexandrians' opposition became so intense that Auletes was eventually forced to flee in search of support. Initially he sought help from the Roman governor of Cyprus. The visit turned out to be unsuccessful and quite humiliating, because the governor had just taken a strong dose of laxatives and couldn't stand up to give the king a proper reception. Finally, Auletes continued to Rome, where he borrowed funds from moneylenders in order to buy the favor of influential men.
A Greek inscription suggests 11-year-old Cleopatra accompanied her father, but there is no other document confirming this. If this is true, the young girl would have had a first taste of preimperial Rome: a large but rather plain city with an intricate network of gloomy, narrow, and often unpaved alleys — quite different from the grandiose and cultured Alexandria, with its sunny, spacious seaport, enormous avenues, and impressive palaces.
Most likely, however, Cleopatra stayed in Alexandria, where the disgruntled citizens wasted no time in replacing her father with her sister Berenice, about seven years older than Cleopatra. This sudden, illegitimate takeover was Cleopatra's first personal experience of a lesson she had already learned from her family's history and would remember for the rest of her life: relatives can't be trusted.
Like her father, Berenice knew she needed Roman support, so she sent messengers to Rome to present her point of view: it looked as if Auletes had abandoned the throne, so the Roman government should recognize her as queen. In reality, her father had never resigned his position. As soon as he discovered her plot, he hired men to block the messengers by intimidating or bribing them. Some of the messengers (including their leader) were murdered. This caused a brief but widespread scandal, forcing Auletes to move again.
Finally, by offering a gift of 10,000 talents, the king was able to persuade the Roman governor of Syria, Aulus Gabinius, to help him regain his throne. In 55 BC Gabinius's army marched into Egypt and defeated the opposition, first in Pelusium, on the eastern edge of the Nile delta, and then in a brief battle on the way to Alexandria, where Berenice's husband, Archelaus (who was also her general), lost his life.
Auletes returned hastily home and had his daughter Berenice and her close followers executed. As for Archelaus, Auletes planned to let his body rot on the battlefield. But a young officer in Gabinius's army, Mark Antony (commonly known as Antony), persuaded him to give Archelaus a proper burial. According to Plutarch, Antony also prevented Auletes from massacring all those who had aligned themselves with Berenice — a merciful intervention that gained Antony the respect of Romans and Alexandrians alike.
Appian, a historian from Alexandria who wrote in the second century AD, said that Antony first saw the now 14-year-old Cleopatra at this time and fell in love with her. It is certainly possible, even if there aren't other documents to prove it.
Soon Gabinius and Antony left Egypt, leaving a large Roman army to protect Auletes. The king's victory must have been bittersweet. He was on the throne again but highly indebted to Rome and soured by his daughter's treason. In spite of this, he still nourished or at least wanted to convey hopes of harmony and peace among his remaining children, promoting them to the Egyptian people as "New Sibling-Loving Gods."
Auletes ruled Egypt four more years after his return to the throne. By this time, his wife, who had not been mentioned in official documents for a while, was most certainly dead, so he might have asked Cleopatra to assist him in some official duties, either to prepare her for the throne or simply to keep the male-female balance Egyptians greatly valued in their rulers. According to a few Egyptologists, inscriptions in the Temple of Hathor at Dendera that seem to link Auletes both to a Cleopatra and to an "eldest daughter of the king" support this theory.
In the final years of his life, Auletes wrote his last will, deposited one copy in the Library of Alexandria, and sent another one to Rome, expressly appointing the Roman people as protector and guardian of the new ruling couple. Who would they be?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt for Kids"
Copyright © 2018 Simonetta Carr.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incoporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Note to Readers,
Introduction: The Endless Search for the True Cleopatra,
1 A Young Princess of an Ancient Land,
Create a Writing Tablet,
Make an Archimedes Screw,
Build an Egyptian-Style Column,
2 The Fight for the Throne,
Make Egyptian Breath Fresheners,
Make a Jack-o'-Lantern Lighthouse,
Prepare Homemade Yogurt,
3 Cleopatra's Cruise,
Mummify a Hot Dog,
Make a Simple River Boat,
Draw and Color Like an Ancient Egyptian,
4 The New Goddess Isis,
Solve Egyptian Math Problems,
Make an Egyptian-Style Wig,
Create an Egyptian Relief Sculpture,
5 Cleopatra and Mark Antony,
Build a Shadoof,
Make a Mehen Board,
Dissolve an Eggshell,
6 Queen of Kings,
Make a Cartouche Bookmark with Your Egyptian Name,
Write an Ancient Egyptian Love Poem,
Make Egyptian Castanets,
7 The Sharers of Death,
Make a Garland,
8 The End of an Era,
Create an Egyptian-Style Necklace,
Transport an Obelisk on Water,
Time Line of Egyptian Dynasties,
Resources to Explore,