The Enigma of Cleopatra

Natia Sopromadze

When you think that you have already seen everything and there is nothing left to shock or surprise you, when you are sure that the voyage through time could be made possible only in beautiful movies, you may stumble upon Egypt, the cradle of one of the most ancient, powerful and puzzling civilizations. Nobody had ever been able to resist the greatness of this wonderful country. My objective is not to describe Egypt’s centuries-long history and traditions. I’d like to recall one chapter of this history, to relate to you the story of Cleopatra VII, about whom you may know everything but still irresistibly desire to learn more about her life, her personality and her ambitions. I’d like to solve the enigma of Cleopatra, to find out the following: what was the mystery of her charisma? Who was Cleopatra twenty centuries ago and who is she now?

Cleopatra VII (51-30 BC), the last reigning Queen of Egypt, is one of those legendary and romantic figures of history that have captured the imagination of every generation since her own time. She is considered to be one of the most intelligent and canny female rulers of all times. She was fluent in nine languages. (However, Latin was not one of them). She was the only pharaoh in the 300-year Ptolemic dynasty that could actually speak Egyptian. Besides, she was a great mathematician, a very good businesswoman who had a sense of occasion and clever presentation skills.

Perhaps Cleopatra’s legendary powers of seduction were due to her charisma, intelligence and very attractive, vibrant personality, rather than physical beauty. I’d like to draw a parallel between her and holy Queen Tamar of Georgia. I don’t mean and perhaps I have no right to say that they have much in common, but as some facts in their lives coincide, I think it would be interesting to compare their behaviour and to show the difference between their personalities. Both women were strong-willed, brilliant queens who made extraordinary efforts to prevent their countries being taken over by various enemies. Both of them went to the throne at the age 18 and died young.

When Cleopatra became co-regent, her world was crumbling down around her. There was anarchy abroad and famine at home but by her wise rule she managed to maintain her throne for 21 years. Cleopatra had dreams of becoming world Empress and she almost achieved it. Her favourite oath was: “As surely as I shall dispense justice on the Roman Capitol”. Her way of getting it done was very cruel and selfish. In order to gain power, she killed her younger sister and two brothers. Her reign was stained with an ocean of blood.

As for Queen Tamar, she was tender, peaceful and soft-hearted. She abolished capital punishment and fought only for the welfare of her country. In her reign Georgia reached the highest level of political strength and economical and cultural development. This period is commonly known as the “Golden Age” in Georgian History.

In 48 BC Cleopatra was in exile in Syria and was to meet Julius Caesar. The Queen knew that if she entered Alexandria openly, her brother’s henchmen would kill her so she had herself smuggled inside an oriental rug and when the rug was unrolled, Cleopatra tumbled out. It is said that 52-year-old Caesar was bewitched by her charm and became her lover that very night. Caesar restored the dazzling Queen to her throne and she became the sole ruler of Egypt.

After the assassination of Caesar, Cleopatra needed another powerful protector in Rome. Her choice was Mark Anthony. When in 41 BC she was invited by him to Tarsus, she already knew how to get him. She used his limited strategic and tactical abilities, his blue blood, his drinking, his womanizing, his vulgarity and his ambition. Cleopatra put on a show for Mark Anthony. She sailed with silver oars, purple sails with her Erotes fanning her and the Nereid handmaids steering. She was dressed as Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This was a very calculated entrance, a vulgar display to attract a vulgar man.

Let’s return to Queen Tamar and year 1204. The governor of the Ruma Sultanate, Rukn-en-din dispatched a demand to the Queen that she should renounce Christianity, accept Islam and become his lover. Unlike Cleopatra, the insulted Queen immediately gathered troops, blessed the army and in a historic battle near Basiani the Georgians defeated the coalition of Muslim rulers.

From this parallel we can conclude that Cleopatra considered honesty and faith to be second-rate. She had a gold statue of herself placed in the temple of Venus Genetrix, called herself god (the New Isis) and made people worship her, whereas Queen Tamar prayed to God to bless and protect her country. She promoted the faith in Christ throughout Georgia by the construction of churches and monasteries; the Georgian Orthodox Church canonised her.  

After Anthony’s death, Cleopatra was taken prisoner by Octavian. She knew that she would be displayed as a slave. The Queen was too proud to live this way so she had an asp (an Egyptian cobra) brought to her hidden in a basket of figs, and she committed suicide on August 12th 30 BC at the age of 39. The Egyptians believed that death by snakebite would secure immortality. With this, she achieved her dying wish, never to be forgotten.

Both queens left long-lasting memories and went down in history. Cleopatra was tha last pharaoh of Egypt. After her death, Egypt became a Roman province. Queen Tamar’s death was to mark the end of the Golden Age in Georgian History. The Mongols invaded Georgia and the once great kingdom was totally devastated.

When speaking about Cleopatra, it is emphasized that she was always brilliant and devoted to her country. What was often not associated with the legendary queen was her selfishness and brutality. In comparison with Queen Tamar some other features of her mysterious character were revealed. It became clear how self-centred and power-hungry she was. In the service of her objectives Cleopatra could be cunning, deceitful, manipulative, two-faced, dissembling, underhanded, even ruthless. She enjoyed power, was a born leader and an ambitious monarch who, in preserving Egypt, scored many major successes and carved out a place in world history.

Now, when centuries separate us from her, when you see her amazing face in coins and paintings, a strange feeling of something not fully explained comes inside you. Although the story of Cleopatra is one that has been told many times, there is a lot of things left we don’t know about her. She still remains an enigma to everyone.