The Ptolemys – a soap opera

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Jean Baptiste Regnault Death Of Cleopatra Google Art Project

Author: Robert Brockway

Almost everyone has heard of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. They fought against Octavian for control of what would soon be the Roman Empire after the death of Julius Caesar. They lost to Octavian. Shakespeare wrote a play about it.

But there is so much more to the story. Cleopatra was a descendent of Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Ptolemy was left in charge of Egypt by Alexander and eventually founded a dynasty that ruled over the land for 275 years. The Ptolemys weren’t very inventive when it came to names. The names Ptolemy, Benenice, Arsinoe and Cleopatra feature prominently among family members.

At the time of the conflict with Octavian Cleopatra was Pharaoh of Egypt. The preceding three decades was a story worthy of popular TV series Game of Thrones. I like to call it The Ptolomys – A Soap Opera.

Ptolemy XII was deposed by the Egyptian people and fled to Rome. His eldest daughter Berenice IV then seized the throne. I’m sure the Egyptians didn’t rise up to replace one member of the Ptolemaic dynasty with another. With Roman assistance Ptolemy XII was able to return to Egypt and retake the throne. He then had his daughter Berenice executed. Ptolemy XII then named his young son Ptolemy XIII and another daughter Cleopatra VII as joint heirs to the throne of Egypt. Cleopatra VII is of course the woman known today simply by the mononym Cleopatra. Young Ptolemy was married to his sister Cleopatra as was the custom among pharaohs. Gradually Cleopatra’s power grew over that of Ptolemy, with her face appearing on coins and his being omitted from official documents. Ptolemy and his supporters ultimately decided to dispose of his rival. They managed to get Cleopatra to flee the country.

At this point another of Ptolemy’s sisters, Arsinoe IV, asserted a claim on the throne of Egypt. Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt as a result of events occurring in the Roman Civil War going on at the time. Cleopatra returned to Egypt and was famously able to have herself carried in to Caesar’s room in a rolled up carpet. The carpet was unfurled and Cleopatra appeared – or so the legend goes. This scene is of course so dramatic that it’s virtually always represented in recreations of the story. Caesar and Cleopatra entered in to a relationship around this time and she would later bear him a son, Caesarion.

At this point Ptolemy allied with Arsinoe against Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. The two sides fought over the Egyptian capital of Alexandria, seriously damaging the city. Ultimately the arrival of Roman reinforcements turned the tide. Ptolemy fled but history records that he ignominious drowned in the Nile. Arsinoe was exiled to live out her days in a religious temple after Caesar was pressured to keep her alive by power figures in Rome.

It wasn’t to be though. After the death of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra took up with Marc Antony. Antony later had Arsinoe murdered at the request of Cleopatra.

Marc Antony and Cleopatra then went on to fight Octavian in yet another Roman civil war. They lost. It was a naval battle and, notably, Cleopatra fled with her fleet. Antony, on his flagship, saw her leave. History claims he jumped overboard, swam to a smaller, faster ship and followed her. With Antony and Cleopatra gone their remaining forces capitulated. Octavian had won.

Antony took his own life while Cleopatra was captured by Octavian. She also later took her own life.

What we see here is typical of history. Powerful men and women in an aristocratic family fighting other families and amongst themselves. Hardly the story feminists tell us of the perpetual oppression of women throughout history. Feminists will try to claim that the occasional woman could cut through the Patriarchy and rose in to a position of power, but they weren’t occasional. Powerful women feature prominently throughout the historical record. What history shows is that social class and wealth mattered a lot more than gender when it came to power and influence.

Original Story on AVFM
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