Cleopatra: Combination Of Beauty And Intelligence

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Cleopatra is endowed with having an abundance of beauty, allure and political intelligence – all qualities which identify heroes. Like ancient heroes such as Achilles, Cleopatra’s beauty was unparalleled by Egyptian standards, evidenced by Caesar who spoke of her “beauty, which enabled her even “to undo everyone both stony-hearted and elderly.” Interestingly, Plutarch provides an interesting counter account to this view, her own beauty by itself, indeed, was not entirely incomparable, not of the sort to amaze those seeing.” However, this view may be attributed to numerous Roman authors’ attempt to detract from crediting Cleopatra’s power to her intellect as opposed to her seduction and beauty. This intelligence and clever personality characterised heroes such as Odysseus, and are combined in Cleopatra’s political machinations by which she ensured ascension to the throne in an ever-changing political climate. Cleopatra converted the very strength of Rome to be the instrument of her purposes in engaging with Caesar – a common misconception held by ancient authors such as Sergeant label this skilful seduction as debauchery. Cleopatra however recognised that Egypt and Rome could coexist within a carefully contrived framework, and used her agency in acquiring Caesar as a determining force to achieve her own imperialist ambition in the political and military field. Additionally, idiosyncratic of many heroes, Cleopatra had a hero cult which existed as late as 373 AD, evidenced in Egyptian scribe of the book of Isis, Petesenufe’s claim that he ‘overlaid the figure of Cleopatra with gold.’ Henceforth, Cleopatra has attained the criterion for what constitutes a hero.

Cleopatra furthered this image when she “assumed a robe sacred to Isis and was called The New Isis” which implied “special powers and a rebirth of a standard goddess.” This is supported by her earlier Greek titles of θεά (goddess) and θεά νεώτερα (newer goddess). However, Cleopatra’s Egyptian titles do not refer to her role as a goddess or divine being as assuming the role of queen implies that they have been chosen to represent the gods on earth. Thus, it can be seen that Cleopatra’s self-devised representation as a deity and goddess can be attributed to her elaborately constructed illusion under the veil of religious iconography and propaganda. Henceforth, Cleopatra’s ability to devise such an image and maintain it attests to her heroic ability.

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Cleopatra’s death, like Antigone earns her the title of tragic hero, as rather than submit to Octavian’s victory and her imminent humiliation, she holds unswerving devotion to her integrity and her pride – yet another trait which characterises heroes. In addition, a tragic hero is usually unwittingly guilty of some fault that makes them somehow deserve the disaster that befalls them, and Cleopatra’s sanguinary manoeuvres to claim the throne are of no exception. Lyon’s argument thusly that the main role of the female hero is that of sacrifice can be skewed to more appropriately serve Cleopatra’s context. Whilst she did not die in place of another or directly sacrifice for a cause, Cleopatra built an empire founded upon her ideals and revolutionised Egypt’s position on the world stage. The legendary nature of her decision to die rather than admit defeat can only be revered as heroic. The means by which Cleopatra died is still heavily debated by modern scholars today, however the theory which is most credible and embedded in popular culture is suicide by allowing herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp. In our modern context, we place a stigma around suicide and perceive it to be cowardly. However, in Hellenistic times, suicidium – to take one’s life was seen as a noble act as elucidated by Horace – “determined to die more nobly, she did not, woman-like shirk the sword.” It is this act of finality which spawned the legend of Cleopatra, the enduring nature of her legacy still resonating with modern audiences.

The successful rule and grand power of female rulers such as Cleopatra and Bernice attest to queen’s power to assume political prominence against a restrictive and male dominated Hellenistic context. Cleopatra shed light on the limited authority initially vested in the role of a queen, as she was the “only woman in classical antiquity to rule independently.” It was Cleopatra’s reign which demonstrated the capacity for influence within a title, in particular for her contemporary Bernice. Cleopatra exercised her agency as a queen through scholarship, her ability to speak the Egyptian language among eight others unlike her progenitors enabled her gain influence over her subjects by connecting with them. Arabic sources refer to Cleopatra as “The Virtuous Scholar” who was admired for her administrative abilities and skill as an orator, likely published some of her own works since Hellenistic royalty were expected to be writers and scholars. Octavian’s bitter propaganda war against Cleopatra magnified her to hyperbolic proportions, depicting her as a debauched, dangerous and promiscuous harlot queen is a conditioned Hellenistic response to a female in a position of power. Octavian launched the damnatio memoriae of Cleopatra’s monuments, systemically and deliberately destroying her victories and tarnishing her reputation, giving testament to the successful nature of Cleopatra’s influence as a queen and perdurable legacy. As with Berenice, the defiance of a female ruler on the throne and subsequent long lasting positive impact on the Egyptian Empire is a reflection of Cleopatra’s inherent power and ability to exercise agency based on her role as queen. 


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