Empress of the old world
The name 'Cleopatra' comes to our mind like a dream. She springs from the shadowy dawn of civilization and amazes us with her royal grandeur. She is the empress of the old world. We are enamoured of her love story and bravery as a queen. Abdul Matin acquaints Bengali readers with this queen of ancient Egypt vis-a-vis the history of Roman Empire.
As historical data show, Cleopatra was born in 69 BC in Alexandria, the city established by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes and ascended the throne of Egypt in 51 BC. She had to marry her younger brother (Ptolemy XIII), who was eight years younger than her, in conformity with Egyptian customs, to qualify as a ruler, being a woman. She came to be known as Cleopatra VII (at least eight women named Cleopatra are found in ancient history) and ruled the kingdom taking the title 'Philopator' (meaning 'father-loving') along with her yet-to-be-adult brother. She was resolute to enjoy absolute power, which she did. She ignored her brother's share of rule (Cleopatra divorced her brother-husband in later days) and imprinted her solo picture on currency. Though she was Greek (more particularly, Macedonian), she was identified with the Egyptian population and considered herself to be the daughter of Re (the Sun God), the principal Egyptian deity. The Egyptians adored her as Isis, as a re-incarnation of the goddess of wisdom.
Cleopatra's name was entwined with two great heroes of the world -- Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, whose hearts she won with superb aesthetic and feminine appeal. Caesar helped Cleopatra regain her kingdom, for which she was ever grateful to him. He spent nine months in Egypt in warm association with her before going back to Rome in 47 BC. Cleopatra visited Rome at Caesar's invitation in 46 BC and left in 44 BC when he was assassinated at the Senate house. Cleopatra loved Caesar. One of her children was named Ptolemy Caesar alias Caesarion (Ptolemy XV), who is said to be the result of her union with Julius Caesar.
After the death of Caesar, Antony became ruler of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, with Octavian taking over the western part. Cleopatra made an alliance with Antony to regain the lost glory of Egypt. They later married (though their marriage was not endorsed by Roman law) and Cleopatra became the mother of Antony's two sons, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus, and a daughter, Cleopatra Selene. Octavian waged war against Antony and Cleopatra and defeated them at the Battle of Actium on 2 September 31 BC. They fled to Alexandria, where the greatest tragedy of the world was to take place. Octavian chased them up to Alexandria. Confined and frustrated, Cleopatra sent a message to Antony that she was dead. At this, Antony killed himself with his own sword. Cleopatra then committed suicide. The fateful date was 12 August 30 BC when she was 39. The pathetic story still stirs minds everywhere.
Cleopatra's death is, however, shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows exactly how she died. Her corpse bore a mark of injury on the hand when she was recovered from the monumental palace in Alexandria, built on the grave of Alexander the Great, where she had been staying in self-confinement during the last few days of her life, attended by two women companions, Iras and Charmion. Many historians claim that she killed herself by taking poison. Other stories abound too: she applied toxic ointment on her body; she wounded herself and poured poison into the wound; she scratched her body with a poisonous hair clip. Others claim (and this is most popular) that she killed herself with the bite of a venomous snake called asp. The snake was hidden under flowers or figs in a basket and might have been brought to her by a local farmer or charmer girl.
Cleopatra was accomplished and had an attractive personality. She had command over several languages, including Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Parthian, Median, Syriac, Theopian and Trogodite (many of them are extinct now), besides Latin and Greek. Historians say she was extremely charming, though not particularly fair complexioned. The Greek historian Plutarch writes: "The charm of her presence was irresistible, and there was an attraction in her person and her talk, together with a peculiar force of character which pervaded her every word and action, and laid all who associated with her under its spell." But according to some historical accounts, Cleopatra was not only charming but also fair and beautiful. As a carrier of Greek blood and the genes of the Ptolemaic dynasty, they claim, Cleopatra was a real beauty -- 'a beauty queen' indeed. In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal says Cleopatra's classically beautiful profile changed world history.
Unfortunately Cleopatra has been prey to unfair criticism by western writers, many of whom have tried to portray her as a perverted individual, almost a harlot. Among those who have disparaged Cleopatra are the Roman historian Livi, Greek historian Dio Cassius and Roman senator and orator Cicero. Latin poets Virgil, Horace, Propertius and Lucan also took part in the anti-Cleopatra campaign. Later, Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio and poet Dante Alighieri, and English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote on her, rather in negative tones. John Dryden wrote All for Love and H. Rider Haggard Cleopatra. Among modern historians, John Buchan drew critics' attention to the political role of Cleopatra. Other modern western writers on Cleopatra are JPVD Balsdon, WW Tern, MP Charlesworth and Michael Grant.
Statistically, from 1540 to 1905, at least 77 plays, 45 operas and 5 ballets were staged on Cleopatra. The most famous of them is undoubtedly Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which portrayed her as a kind, clever, courageous and skilled ruler.
George Bernard Shaw wrote Cleopatra and Caesar, but he could not do justice to the queen in it. He compared Cleopatra with an ignorant kitten, who, he complained, was unable understand the magnanimity of Caesar due to the age gap (when they first met, Cleopatra was 21 and Caesar 52). German playwright Bertolt Brecht in his Threepenny Opera says about Cleopatra:
"Oh, it was quite a life she led
Until her past caught up with her!
Two emperors joined her in bed:
Such goings-on in Babylon!
But long before the day was out
The consequence was clear, alas!
Her very beauty brought her to this pass:
A woman's is better off without."
As many books were written on Cleopatra, many films were also made on the exciting and tragic events of her life. Painters also showed great enthusiasm about Cleopatra. She received the master touch of such great artists as Michelangelo Buonarroti, Giovanni Francesco, Artemesia Gentileschi and Guido Cagnacci.
Abdul Matin annexes an array of Cleopatra pictures at the end of his book, which are a bonus for readers.
Abdul Matin's Cleopatra is an excellent monograph written in Bangla on the queen of antiquity. It presents historical facts about Cleopatra in well-crafted narrative. It not only narrates the tales of the great Egyptian queen but also draws on the history of the Roman Empire.