Cleopatra VII’s Character

The Arab historian Al-Masudi (896 – 956 BCE) described Cleopatra as a sage and a philosopher, who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company. He also claimed that she wrote a number of books on medicine, charms and cosmetics. She spoke at least five (and possibly nine) languages yet could not speak Latin! She seems to have been a highly competent administrator and the Egyptian bishop John of Nikiou (c 696 BCE) commented that her building projects in Alexandria were “the like of which had never been seen before”. This more charitable view has been adopted by a number of modern scholars who have rejected the Roman slurs on her character to note that she was in all probability a highly intelligent woman trying to protect her country as best as she could given the circumstances.


Roman statue of Cleopatra (restructured)

There are only a few contemporary Egyptian sources for her rule but they suggest that she was very popular with the Egyptian people. Plutarch claimed that she was the only Ptolemaic ruler who actually spoke ancient Egyptian – although we have no evidence to support this claim which is rejected by some modern scholars. She certainly adopted Egyptian iconography in art and was regularly depicted in the form of the goddess Isis. She took the epithet philopatris (one who loves her country) in 35 BCE and one of the main goals of her foreign policy was to prevent Egypt being entirely dominated by Rome.

Cleopatra had inherited a weakened country with an empty treasury but fostered trading links with the East, even as far as India, which much improved the economic situation. Yet, she is also accused of opulence and extravagance. For example, Pliny the Elder claimed that she bet Mark Antony that she could spend ten million sesterces on a single banquet. She served an ordinary meal the following night, but added a single course in which she dissolved a priceless pearl in strong vinegar so that she could win the bet. Pliny was writing at least one hundred years after the purported events, and although strong vinegar can dissolve a pearl the pearl would need to be crushed first, so this story is (unsurprisingly) rather dubious.

Egyptian style bust of Cleopatra VII copyright Keith Schengili Roberts

Although Plutarch offered a fairly sympathetic viewpoint, which stressed her genuine love for Mark Antony, Roman sources are generally derogatory regarding her character. Perhaps they were uncomfortable with the notion of a powerful woman unconstrained by Roman social mores. Cicero (who met with her on more than one occasion) calls her a harlot and comments on her “unfathomable impertinence”. The poet Lucan called her “the shame of Egypt, the lascivious fury who was to become the bane of Rome”, while Horace described her as “A crazy queen…plotting…to demolish the Capitol and topple the [Roman] Empire”.

Josephus claims she “was very covetous and stuck at no wickedness”. He also claimed that she attempted to seduce Herod, but there is no evidence for this story which is not repeated in any other source and has to be considered in the light of the large number of anti-Cleopatra statements made by this particular author. After all, he also claimed that “she destroyed the gods of her country and the sepulchres of her progenitors” and there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. Dio describes her as an arch manipulator who attempted to deal with Octavian behind Mark Antony’s back and even suggests that she intended Mark Antony to believe she was dead knowing that he would take his own life, allowing her to make a deal with Octavian. He concludes that…

“Cleopatra was of insatiable passion and insatiable avarice; she was swayed often by laudable ambition, but often by overweening effrontery. By love she gained the title of Queen of the Egyptians, and when she hoped by the same means to win also that of Queen of the Romans, she failed of this and lost the other besides. She captivated the two greatest Romans of her day, and because of the third she destroyed herself.”


Classical Texts

  • Cassius Dio (155 or 163 – post 229 AD) Roman History
  • Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus aka Plutarch (c46 – 120 AD) Life of Antony
  • Strabo (64 or 63 BC – AD 24) The Geography
  • Flavius Josephus (c37 – 100 AD) Antiquities of the Jews
  • Marcus Annaeus Lucanus aka Lucan (39 – 65 AD) Civil WarAppian (95 – 165 AD) Civil War

Modern Texts

  • Joann Fletcher (2011) Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend
  • Prudence J. Jones (2006) Cleopatra: a sourcebook
  • Duane Roller (2011) Cleopatra: a biography

Copyright J Hill 2011