07 February 2007
"Would Zenobia, who wanted to be Empress of the East, want to explicitly associate herself with a woman [Cleopatra VII] who ALMOST did the same thing, but was ultimately defeated by Rome? And wouldn't Cleopatra Thea, a much bigger figure in Syrian history, be more advantageous to claim descent from anyway?"
A good question posed by Frank and one I wasn't sure I could answer. So, I turned to Prof. Janet Johnson of the Oriental Institute in Chicago for an expert opinion. Janet, as mentioned before, gave a wonderful lecture on Cleopatra as CEO: Bureaucracy and Scandal in the Hostile Takeover of a First-Century (BCE) Multinational -- not only a great title but an elegant disentangling of Roman propaganda from the historical and archaeological records. She kindly replies,
I do believe Cleopatra [VII] had a grand vision of what she could accomplish, with assistance, and if she had succeeded, she would certainly have been hailed as a heroine. But she didn't. And I do think it quite likely that [Cleopatra Thea], who married into the Syrian royal family, may have been much more important in the eyes and psyches of later Eastern Mediterranean people. Cleopatra VII herself stressed these connections, implying that the earlier Cleopatra was already seen as an important factor in the dynamics of the day.
A crucial bit of evidence is the Great Cleopatra's change of cult title when, late in 37 or early in 36 BC, Marc Antony granted her the Roman provinces of Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia. She proclaimed this to be Year 1 of a new era and changed her title to Κλεοπατρα Θεα Νεωτερα. This can be read either as 'the younger goddess' or 'the younger Cleopatra Thea'. If the latter, of course, she is expressly recalling Cleopatra Thea's rule over the Seleucid Empire. Sometimes, her coins add the word Φιλοπατρισ, which means 'the country-loving [goddess]', the country implied being Syria. So it does seem that Cleopatra VII was stressing the shared Macedonian roots of the Egyptian and Seleucid Greeks, particularly the ruling classes, in a bid to legitimize the territorial restoration of a greater Ptolemaic Empire.
So far, so good.
It's fair to assume that Cleopatra VII viewed her ancestor in a positive light (and, of course, she knew much more of her story than we do today). Obviously, she would have approved of Cleopatra Thea's strong character -- most Macedonian princesses were unbelievably feisty -- but I'm not so sure that many others would have agreed...
Rather, they might have argued that her love of power seems to have overridden natural affection: she contrived the assassination of her husband, Demetrius II; she murdered one of her sons, and tried to murder her other son, when they stood in the way of her ambition.
What do we know about Cleopatra Thea?
Husband # 1
Cleopatra Thea’s father, Ptolemy VI of Egypt, was clever at the intrigues that all his family were known for. So, when a pretender claimed the Seleucid throne of Syria from his cousin, Demetrius I, of course Ptolemy sent an army to help him overthrow the reigning king. The pretender was Alexander Balas – a good-looking young man, probably of base origin, but passing himself off as a son of an earlier king. Demetrius duly fell to the combined assault and Balas was installed as king. Surprisingly, Ptolemy gave him Cleopatra Thea in marriage. Perhaps he thought that if she was even half as good as her hyper-feisty mother (Cleopatra II), she’d be the real power behind the Seleucid throne.
Husband # 2 (Part I)
In two years' time, another claimant to the Syrian throne appeared, the young Demetrius II (son of Demetrius I). He threatens to invade Syria and Ptolemy enters the country with a strong force, ostensibly to support his son-in-law; in reality, he was out to regain some old Ptolemaic possessions. Ballas, who can do without such 'help', attempts to assassinate Ptolemy (or is he framed to cover Ptolemy's betrayal?). Ballas flees to Cilicia, leaving his wife behind. Having repossessed his daughter, Ptolemy transfers her, as if she were a piece of furniture to Demetrius, who ascends the throne in turn. Balas returns with a new army but is routed in battle. He flees to the protection of an Arab chieftain in a neighbouring territory. In the battle, Ptolemy had been thrown from his horse and five days later he dies. Before he died, he had the satisfaction of seeing the head of his late son-in law, which had been sent in by the Arab chief.
Demetrius is not popular. His capital, Antioch, rises against him. The rising is brutally put down and a large part of the city is burnt. The Syrians are cowed, but nemesis is at hand. Demetrius enters Mesopotamia in an attempt to retake it from the Parthians. Though initially successful, he is soon captured by the Parthians and is consequently off the scene for a while.
Husband # 3
Antiochus VII, Demetrius's younger brother, is proclaimed King and marries Cleopatra Thea (even though her husband is presumably still alive). In 130 BC, he attacks Mesopotamia and reconquers Babylonia. The desperate Parthian King releases Demetrius II to stir revolt among the Syrians. Antiochus is caught, outnumbered by the Parthian army, and killed. The Parthian king immediately sends cavalry to recapture Demetrius but is too late.
Husband # 2 (Part II)
Demetrius regains both his throne and Cleopatra Thea. Foolishly, he invades Egypt but botches the job. In revenge, the new Egyptian king, Ptolemy Euergetes, discovers a son of Balas known as Antiochus Zabinas (is he really the son of Balas? does anyone care?). Zabinas defeats Demetrius, who retreats to the border only to find that Cleopatra Thea has closed the gates of his intended refuge. He boards a ship to flee, but is killed on her orders.
The Co-regency(125 BC to 121 BC)
Cleopatra decides to rule in her own right and kills her eldest son (by Demetrius) when he is rash enough to put forward his own claim. She shares the throne instead with his younger brother, the 15-year old Antiochus Grypus (‘hook-nosed’). Grypus proves to be less and less pliable. Things come to a head when Cleopatra offers him a cup of (poisoned) wine when he returns from the hunt. Grypus has a hunch this is not maternal concern. He insists she drink the wine. She drinks. She dies.
End of story.
It would not be difficult to deconstruct this tale of overweening female ambition. At the very least, we may doubt the story of the poisoned wine. Grypus went on to demonstrate the superiority of male rule by spending his time feasting and writing verses on poisonous herbs and snakes. This is probably how the poison entered her story and, since it fits the stereotype of the 'evil queen', it stayed. Anyway, after Cleopatra Thea's death, it was all down-hill for the Seleucids. As the historian Peter Green puts it, "If the word 'degenerate' has any meaning at all the later Seleucids and Ptolemids were degenerate: selfish, greedy, murderous, weak, stupid, vicious,sensual, vengeful....
By these standards, Cleopatra Thea may be judged to have played a good game with the bad hand of husbands dealt her. Still, we must admit that history has not been kind to her name. I am only surprised that we hear nothing of sexual misdeeds, an easy charge against powerful females. Certainly, it was made against the Great Cleopatra: Cleopatra [VII] was of insatiable passion and insatiable avarice; she was swayed often by laudable ambition, but often by overweening effrontery. Her sexual appetite and hot Oriental depravity became staples of Roman propaganda, as the lamp illustrated at the top of this post vividly demonstrates.
So which Cleopatra did Zenobia choose to emulate?
After the battle of Actium, the victorious Octavian had many images of last queen of Egypt destroyed. A man named Archibios, probably a priest, paid him the enormous sum of 2,000 talents to save the statues of Cleopatra in Egypt, and Plutarch (in his Life of Antony) tells us that Octavian took the money and agreed. A graffito on a temple at Philae shows that her statues were still being cared for as late as AD 373, when Egypt, and indeed the whole of the Roman Empire was officially Christian. So the cult of Cleopatra as divine ruler of Egypt survived into late antiquity. In fact, a 7th century Coptic bishop, John of Nikui, remembers Cleopatra as The most illustrious and wise of women: this suggests that her memory in Egypt was kept in a most unRoman way. Finally, the Arab historian Al-Masudi, who died in 956 A.D., wrote of her, that "She was the last of the wise ones of Greece."
I'd put my money on Cleopatra VII.
- ► 2015 (11)
- ► 2014 (11)
- ► 2013 (19)
- ► 2012 (21)
- ► 2011 (26)
- ► 2010 (28)
- ► 2009 (43)
- ► 2008 (59)
- ▼ February (6)