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The Life and Times of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt

Arthur E. P. Brome Weigall


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Tags: Ancient Civilisations

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The Life and Times of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt is a 1914 book written by Egyptologist, Arthur Weigall. It covers the early years of Cleopatra, the arrival of Caesar in Egypt and the subsequent birth of the Egypt-Roman monarchy, as well as the subject of Antony and Cleopatra; their alliance, and their rise and decline of power.

This book has 311 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1914.

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Excerpt from 'The Life and Times of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt'

To those who make a close inquiry into the life of Cleopatra it will speedily become apparent that the generally accepted estimate of her character was placed before the public by those who sided against her in regard to the quarrel between Antony and Octavian. During the last years of her life the great Queen of Egypt became the mortal enemy of the first of the Roman Emperors, and the memory of her historic hostility was perpetuated by the supporters of every Cæsar of that dynasty. Thus the beliefs now current as to Cleopatra’s nefarious influence upon Julius Cæsar and Marc Antony are, in essence, the simple abuse of her opponents; nor has History preserved to us any record of her life set down by one who was her partisan in the great struggle in which she so bravely engaged herself. It is a noteworthy fact, however, that the writer who is most fair to her memory, namely, the inimitable Plutarch, appears to have obtained much of his information from the diary kept by Cleopatra’s doctor, Olympus. I do not presume in this volume to offer any kind of apology for the much-maligned Queen, but it will be my object to describe the events of her troubled life in such a manner that her aims, as I understand them, may be fairly placed before the reader; and there can be little doubt that, if I succeed in giving plausibility to the speculations here advanced, the actions of Cleopatra will, without any particular advocacy, assume a character which, at any rate, is no uglier than that of every other actor in this strange drama.

The injustice, the adverse partiality, of the attitude assumed by classical authors will speedily become apparent to all unbiassed students; and a single instance of this obliquity of judgment is all that need be mentioned here to illustrate my contention. I refer to the original intimacy between Cleopatra and Julius Cæsar. According to the accepted view of historians, both ancient and modern, the great Dictator is supposed to have been led astray by the voluptuous Egyptian, and to have been detained in Alexandria, against his better judgment, by the wiles of this Siren of the East. At this time, however, as will be seen in due course, Cleopatra, “the stranger for whom the Roman half-brick was never wanting,” was actually an unmarried girl of some twenty-one years of age, against whose moral character not one shred of trustworthy evidence can be advanced; while, on the other hand, Cæsar was an elderly man who had ruined the wives and daughters of an astounding number of his friends, and whose reputation for such seductions was of a character almost past belief. How anybody, therefore, who has the known facts before him, can attribute the blame to Cleopatra in this instance, must become altogether incomprehensible to any student of the events of that time. I do not intend to represent the Queen of Egypt as a particularly exalted type of her sex, but an attempt will be made to deal justly with her, and by giving her on occasion, as in a court of law, the benefit of the doubt, I feel assured that the reader will be able to see in her a very good average type of womanhood. Nor need I, in so doing, be accused of using on her behalf the privilege of the biographer, which is to make excuses. I will not simply set forth the case for Cleopatra as it were in her defence: I will tell the whole story of her life as it appears to me, admitting always the possible correctness of the estimate of her character held by other historians, but, at the same time, offering to public consideration a view of her deeds and devices which, if accepted, will clear her memory of much of that unpleasant stigma so long attached to it, and will place her reputation upon a level with those of the many famous persons of her time, not one of whom can be called either thoroughly bad or wholly good.

So little is known with any certainty as to Cleopatra’s appearance, that the biographer must feel considerable reluctance in presenting her to his readers in definite guise; yet the duties of an historian do not permit him to deal with ghosts and shadows, or to invoke from the past only the misty semblance of those who once were puissant realities. For him the dead must rise not as phantoms hovering uncertainly at the mouth of their tombs, but as substantial entities observable in every detail to the mental eye; and he must endeavour to convey to others the impression, however faulty, which he himself has received. In the case of Cleopatra the materials necessary for her resuscitation are meagre, and one is forced to call in the partial assistance of the imagination in the effort to rebuild once more that body which has been so long dissolved into Egyptian dust.

A few coins upon which the Queen’s profile is stamped, and a bust of poor workmanship in the British Museum, are the sole sources of information as to her features. The colour of her eyes and of her hair is not known; nor can it be said whether her skin was white as alabaster, like that of many of her Macedonian fellow-countrywomen, or whether it had that olive tone so often observed amongst the Greeks. Even her beauty, or rather the degree of her beauty, is not clearly defined. It must be remembered that, so far as we know, not one drop of Oriental blood flowed in Cleopatra’s veins, and that therefore her type must be considered as Macedonian Greek. The slightly brown skin of the Egyptian, the heavy dark eyes of the East, full, as it were, of sleep, the black hair of silken texture, are not features which are to be assigned to her. On the contrary, many Macedonian women are fair-haired and blue-eyed, and that colouring is frequently to be seen amongst the various peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it seems most probable, all things considered, that she was a brunette; but in describing her as such it must be borne in mind that there is nothing more than a calculated likelihood to guide us.

The features of her face seem to have been strongly moulded, although the general effect given is that of smallness and delicacy. Her nose was aquiline and prominent, the nostrils being sensitive and having an appearance of good breeding. Her mouth was beautifully formed, the lips appearing to be finely chiselled. Her eyes were large and well placed, her eyebrows delicately pencilled. The contour of her cheek and chin was charmingly rounded, softening, thus, the lines of her clear-cut features. “Her beauty,” says Plutarch, “was not in itself altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her”; and he adds that Octavia, afterwards Antony’s wife, was the more beautiful of the two women. But he admits, and no other man denies, that her personal charm and magnetism were very great. “She was splendid to hear and to see,” says Dion Cassius, “and was capable of conquering the hearts which had resisted most obstinately the influence of love and those which had been frozen by age.”

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