Was Cleopatra Greek why or why not

Wolfgang Schuller: "Cleopatra - Queen in three cultures"

A biography


"... and so Cleopatra pretended to be in love with Antonius, and tried to bring herself down physically by eating too lightly. Her gaze brightened when he came; when he went away, he was melted and deeply saddened. She arranged it so that he often saw her cry, but wiped away the tears and tried to hide them as if she wanted him not to notice. "
(Text passage from a nasty report by Plutarch)

Describing the life of Cleopatra VII (approx. 69 to 30 BC) must always be a worthwhile thing. Because who doesn't know them? And who should not be eager to find out more about this woman, for which reason the glorious but already married Julius Caesar applied to the Senate of Rome for the very personal privilege of polygamy? We know Cleopatra from countless films (72 in number up to 2005) and novels as well as dramas as the epitome of female eroticism and the last Egyptian pharaoh. An oriental queen in the fabulous realm on the Nile, who led a dramatic life and ended tragically. A mostly shallow myth tells us something similar, and so, Wolfgang Schuller explains to us, it is not seen quite correctly. Cleopatra was certainly Pharaoh of Egypt, but she was not Egyptian, but Greek by birth, civilization and culture. As a Greek queen and Egyptian pharaoh (a delicate double role) she resided in Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, where the Greek way of life dominated (Museion, library) and people of Greek or Macedonian tribes made up a large part of the resident population. Last but not least, the administrative language in its Hellenistic empire was held in Greek dialect. Cleopatra was the highest representative of a foreign rule that went back to Alexander the great. In terms of power politics, the situation of the ruling Greeks was tricky. It was therefore wise to avoid angering the Egyptian people or their leading representatives in any way. There had already been enough riots. So, out of political reason, people were emphatically multicultural and, according to the motto "divide and rule", they shared secular power with the Egyptian priestly caste, which has always been decisive in this country. Probably not only out of diplomatic cunning, but also out of sincere reverence to a venerable, 3000-year-old high culture, the Greek regime built generously dimensioned temples and statues for the greater honor of Egyptian deities. They also liked to give ample money to finance traditional Egyptian rituals and the sanctuaries, did not skimp on consecration offerings and respected the Egyptian traditions as if they were their own. Pharaoh Cleopatra, once crowned queen in the royal city of Memphis according to the Egyptian rite, celebrated herself as a quasi incarnation of Aphrodite and Isis, whose essential similarities were to be archetypically feminine in the sensitive climate of an everyday coexistence of diverging, ruling and subjugated ethnic groups were. And if it was very hard to write edicts on public life, the bureaucracy always did this in threefold written form (in addition to the Greek spelling, always also in hieroglyphics and demotic script). So people were neutral in terms of nationality, emphasizing and promoting the cultures of the Egyptians and Greeks alike. Nonetheless, the Ptolemy dynasty ruling the land on the Nile was due to the Greco-Macedonian military nobility; ergo foreign rule. Not entirely free from arrogance, because Cleopatra VII, whose native colloquial language was Greek, was probably the first Ptolemaic ruler to boast sufficient knowledge of the Egyptian language. When the title of the book refers to a monarchical existence in three cultures, it means the Egyptian, the Greek and the Roman, whereby, according to Schuller, the Egyptian was the political basis of their existence. The Greek denotes Cleopatra's cultural origins and the Roman probably her passion, her fate and her downfall. So much for the initial situation.

The dazzling genre of biography sometimes suffers from too much aristocratic dryness. Wolfgang Schuller could not be accused of this, because his portrait of the last pharaoh from the Ptolemaic dynasty is anything but anemic, although Cleopatra's adventurous life suits him well. Although, according to Plutarch's description, Cleopatra was not said to have been of incomparable beauty, but in his opinion she was beguiling in dealing with the most irresistible charms and was of such a playful grace that after every first encounter with this woman a sting burned in the man . Deviating from Plutarch's perhaps not quite so exuberant judgment, some other reporters, on the other hand, attest her to a downright, meaning-confusing external charm. However, whatever it may have been, at least, so Schuller, now aiming at less erotic qualities, she brilliantly held together a highly complexly composed empire and preserved it in around twenty years of sole reign (51 / 50-30 BC) until her death, his state independence from overpowering Rome. How could the life of such a woman not be fascinating? The most powerful men in the Roman Empire (with the fatal exception of the steadfast Octavian) were passionate about what she knew how to use, but Cleopatra was by no means only a master of erotic infatuation, she was also a power politician who went over corpses when it came to hers To secure rule. Her biography is therefore not just the story of a queen who, probably due to a lack of military competitiveness, is involved with the weapons of a woman in the politics of the great. It is also the traced image of a despot on the Egyptian royal throne who, if necessary, inclined to dissolute or even criminal action. Not only the blood of their real enemies clung to her fingers, but also the blood of siblings competing for the royal throne and even that of truly loyal followers who were unlucky enough to have been chosen as sacrificial animals in the strategic planning of their mistress.

In short, it is not just the romantic, romanticized image of the beautiful, selfless and devotedly loving Egyptian woman that Wolfgang Schuller serves up to the reader with his biography. Sometimes it is the far less pleasing character figure of an ambitious, unscrupulous, at best strategically acting and foolhardy tactical monarch who is concerned with the preservation and development of her dynasty, who nibbles on the Roman Empire with sophistication and ultimately does not shy away from herself, in total Excessiveness to greedily reach for the center of Roman power. At the same time, however, in Schuller's view this Cleopatra is also a downright irrationally loving and therefore thoroughly amiable woman. Her highly private vita inevitably remains nebulous as well as tendentious due to the lack of ultimately reliable source material, especially since most of her contemporaries and reporters, out of political partiality with Cleopatra's enemies, did not always have the best to say about her. Or just, like the learned Cicero, more or less well-founded aversions to those who were always extremely self-confident because they knew about their exquisite value and harbored such provocatively arrogant beauty from the Orient. All in all, the traditional texts result in the unflattering portrait of an instinctive, cruel, scheming and snippy malicious person. A Nile snake or gypsy whore, with such labels she is reviled in Shakespeare, who is out of place in her innate role as a caring country mother, her lover Marc Anton (Antonius) not only a whore-like playmate, but also a (in need) nefarious traitor (see above Shakespeare in his play "Antony and Cleopatra") and finally his doom is. If you keep these often spiteful and in the literature of Dante, Divina Commedia, up to Brecht, Threepenny Opera, relentlessly revisited traditions are true, so Cleopatra, not unlike the comparably wild Messalina, should in no way be considered an exemplary recommendation for female strength. That not all of this is beyond doubt becomes all too clear when reading Schuller's biography.

Cleopatra had to and must serve for many things. Octavian (who later became Emperor Augustus) and Marc Anton fought bloodily for supremacy in the Roman Empire - Cleopatra was denounced as the cause of the inner-Roman quarrel. The Augustan propaganda made her forget about virtues. She, the woman, embodied an inordinate amount of fornication and viciousness from a Roman perspective. It was also she who spoiled the glorious Marc Anton, tearing him apart from his former companion Octavian out of lust for power. It almost seems as if her womanhood is her undoing. The men start a wild civil war, but the woman is guilty of it. The otherwise truly brilliant biographer could now be reproached for a lack of feminist perspective in this context, because the view of the gender order in all the goings-on of those distant days, which is obvious in view of Cleopatra's stirring femininity, is neglected, but Schuller is simply not concerned feminist history. He does not affect this point, although one might think that Cleopatra would, to a certain extent, be the undoing of being a woman. The Roman side repeatedly reproached her for not being a virtuous woman. Schuller now orientates himself strictly in an almost scientistic manner and solely on an available factual material that he has critically appraised; he interprets Cleopatra's fate and character as it were gender-neutral as well as relatively individualistic or hardly from a sociological perspective and leaves ideological considerations of any kind aside as far as possible. Methodically, he tends to ignore speculations about how and why, although not entirely, avoids any, often merely contemporary opportune, intellectual overload and instead at times just lets the lyrical splendor of the source texts speak for itself, in which Cleopatra admittedly all too often dark and uncomprehending accusatory, if not badly defamatory, tones are painted. The historical sources are often doubtful as to their propagandistic coloring, Schuller points out in this context, but at that time there was no strictly factual science of history, people wrote moodily and sensitively or pursued a polemical history of victors - if this is allowed at all in relation then to speak of historiography. To cleanse Cleopatra of the defilements expressed in it is not always easy. At least Schuller tries as far as it seems appropriate to him. And in this manner progressively denies the accusation of a supposedly promiscuous instinctuality of Cleopatra by means of the well-founded assumption of her monogamy, moreover characterizes her as a clever woman of bright understanding who used her Roman companions (Caesar and Marc Anton) not only for selfish motives, but rather sincerely loved. (Risky thesis! - Both Romans were past fifty.) Finally, Schuller tried to put up documents for the purpose of refuting or at least relativizing some of the traditional wickedness. It goes without saying for a serious thinker that he is very cautious and in no way euphoric (because of the scant material). If only because of incidental official writings, Cleopatra should be stylized as a ruler who is equally capable and conscientious about the state agendas foolhardy. As a monarch, she was able to delegate the hardships that arose from her responsibilities to high-ranking bureaucrats she trusted.

In other, far more romanticizing portraits, the reviewer has already learned of philosophical discussions in the course of which an allegedly learned Cleopatra is said to have amazed the great Roman thinkers. The reviewer is not aware of whether there is any evidence of this. With Schuller, this aspect remains incidental because it is vague, because whether she excelled at it remains an open question. Who dared to contradict the reasoning de facto wife of the almighty Gaius Julius Caesar, perhaps denouncing her public philosophizing as insubstantial talk. And if someone had done it in secret, the question arose as to the purity of his motive. In summary, it can now be said: For Schuller, it is important to get to the bottom of things meticulously in order to then make the best of them textually. His biography is rather averse to any attempts at transfiguration or fashionable idioms. For example, the hypothetical question of whether Cleopatra was not merely the victim of a male-determined world, or an obsessive formulation of exonerating speculation, all of this remains either largely excluded as mere subtlety or is only discussed as a non-binding possibility of thinking. A portrait that is as realistic as it is lively is the meaning and purpose of a serious biography. And Wolfgang Schuller fully lives up to this requirement insofar as he presents the reader with a Cleopatra that is neither invented nor falsified, does not ingratiate itself with any romantic or zeitgeist expectations, nor is it the product of an adventurous love of interpretation, but by no means with regard to this predominantly nevertheless Quite relevant source material should be misunderstood as opportunistic and conventional, but is simply what it could have been, given the facts and interpretations, with the highest probability and with all remaining contradictions. The portrait of the beautiful pharaoh thus inevitably remains diffuse, stubborn and suspicious. But this is ultimately the most solid notion imaginable, as the product of a biography that can be seen all in all and despite a surge of sympathy in favor of the beautiful Egyptian woman that has become increasingly manifest in the course of the writing, as a legacy of a most serious endeavor for historical authenticity.

Conclusion: An interesting and gripping book about the dramatic life of a grandiose queen in the early days of the Roman Empire.

(Harald Schulz; 10/2006)


Wolfgang Schuller: "Cleopatra - Queen in three cultures"
Rowohlt Reinbek, 2006. 240 pages.
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Wolfgang Schuller, born in 1935, first trained as a lawyer and then studied classical studies. From 1972 until his retirement in 2004 he was Professor of Ancient History, since 1976 at the University of Konstanz. His main research interests are Greek antiquity, ancient women's history and the history of the GDR.

Another book tip:

Ortrud Westheider and Karsten Müller (eds.): "Cleopatra and the Caesars"

In no other woman in world history has the imagination sparked so much as in Cleopatra: statesmanlike ruler, beguiling lover, mother of royal children. She tied Caesar and Mark Antony, the two greatest Romans of their time, and committed suicide because of the third, Augustus.
The second part of the volume is devoted to the interpretations of Cleopatra by the visual artists of the 16th to 19th centuries, who reflect the judgment of posterity in well-known scenes from the life of Cleopatra. Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC) was the last, but by no means the slightest, ruler in a three-thousand-year complex dynasty history of Egyptian pharaohs - god-kings who guaranteed the cohesion of society in the richest land in the ancient world. Cleopatra was revered by her people as the Queen of Kings. She tried to secure the continuance of her empire in a time marked by the greatest upheavals and to pass the rule on to her descendants, of whom the eldest, destined to rule the world, was executed at the age of 17, the second and third died young, the fourth child however, Cleopatra Selene rose to become Queen of Mauritania.
With contributions by Dorothea Gall, Günter Grimm, Heinz Heinen, Eugenio La Rocca, Ernst Osterkamp, ​​François Queyrel, Karin Rhein, Claude Rolley, Susan Walker, Guy Weill Gouchaux. (Hirmer Verlag)
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