Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant
Cleopatra’s sexual liaisons have made her famous for being the femme fatale of classical antiquity and a heroine in the greatest love affair of all time. In Cleopatra: A Biography historian, archaeologist, and classical scholar Duane Roller aims to clear up the infamous queen’s identity—from the propaganda in the Roman Republic all the way to her representations in film today. And what, according to Roller, do the cold hard facts reveal? A pragmatic leader trying to save her kingdom as the reality of a full blown empire loomed ahead.
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Michelle Rafferty: You just touched on Cleopatra’s relationships with Marc Antony and Caesar. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit more about the infamous love triangle between the three. What do we know? Was there any love there, or was it all about power?
Duane Roller: These were powerful people who had powerful needs, yet they obviously were a man and a woman in these two different cases and obviously personal things can become mixed in to this in a way perhaps less likely if it were a Roman consul dealing with a king. But now we have a Roman consul dealing with a queen. But clearly the political agenda is the most important, and that’s generally true with royal marriages through most of history, right down to modern times as we well know. The marriage is concocted because of the benefits that will accrue from it.
Caesar came to Egypt in 48 BC, the Romans had long been involved in Egypt, the Romans had a commission from Cleopatra’s father, that if the children, that is Cleopatra and her siblings, could not get along, the Romans were to step in and straighten things out. That’s exactly what Julius Caesar did, supporting Cleopatra’s claims to the throne against those of her surviving siblings. But obviously dynamic man, meets dynamic woman and the result what is what one would expect, and Cleopatra produces this child Caesarian who serves both her purposes as an heir and Caesar’s purposes because he did not have a son.
And much the same can be said about Marc Antony. Marc Antony comes to the Eastern Mediterranean after the assassination of Caesar, after Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius have caused a lot of trouble in the Eastern Mediterranean, he has to straighten things out, he has to rely on the existing powers in the area. Cleopatra is the most important ruler in the area at that time, but again it moves to a personal level very quickly. But these things not mutually exclusive, and we shouldn’t see it as an “either or.” Obviously Antony and Cleopatra have become one of the great love stories of history, and there’s a certain truth to that. But again they had an agenda. Cleopatra needed more children to strengthen the inheritance in her kingdom. Antony’s motives are a little more uncertain, but obviously he and Cleopatra were very much smitten with one another and it fit their political needs.
Rafferty: Why did their relationship end in tragedy? Or, their rule end in tragedy?
Roller: Well that’s a long and complicated one. Antony of course was tangling with his brother-in-law Octavian. He was legally married to Octavian’s sister, and so there’s a personal dimension to the internal politics of Rome at this time. In addition, the unstable years after the death of Caesar meant that nobody really had a clear path to power, and these two men were trying to figure out who was really in charge. Octavian remains in Rome most of this time, the late 30s BC, so he’s really able control the Senate, to control the other elected officials and so on. Antony is in the east where he’s supposed to be, cleaning up the mess as I said, but that removes him from the center of power, and obviously as Cleopatra becomes more powerful, thanks to Antony, which is his design, and perfectly legal, she’s seen as a threat back in Rome, and so the whole situation deteriorates very quickly. But we should never lose sight of the fact that it is to some extent a family quarrel. Octavian is able to say, “Look at this guy Antony, he’s not only living with the Queen of Egypt, but he’s supposed to be back home being a descent Roman male married to my sister.”