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Public Life

175. A portrait of Cleopatra. Egypt, 1st cent. B.C. (Plutarch, Life of Mark Antony 25.5-28.1, 29. 2nd cent. A.D. G)

'For Rome, who had never condescended to fear any nation or people, did in her time fear two human beings; one was Hannibal, and the other was a woman.'[1]

In Roman literature during her lifetime and just after her death[2] (e.g., Virgil's characterisation of Dido in the Aeneid; Horace, Odes 1.37), Cleopatra represented the dangerous appeal of decadence and corruption. A highly educated Greek, with the wealth of Egypt at her disposal, she was mistress of first of Julius Caesar and then of Mark Antony. In Plutarch's account traditional anecdotes are related with considerable sympathy and admiration.

[Caesar and Pompey knew Cleopatra when she was] still a girl, and ignorant of the world,[3] but it was a different matter in the case of Antony, because she was ready to meet him when she had reached the time of life when women are most beautiful and have full understanding. So she prepared for him many gifts and money and adornment, of a magnitude appropriate to her great wealth and prosperous kingdom, but she put most of her hopes in her own personal magical arts and charms.

26. Although she had received many letters from Antony and his friends asking her to come to meet him [in Cilicia], she took his summons so lightly and laughed at it, that she sailed up the Cydnus river in a barge with a gilded stern, with purple sails outstretched, pulled by silver oars in time to piping accompanied by fifes and lyres. She herself lay under a gold-embroidered awning, got up like Aphrodite in a painting, with slaves dressed as Erotes fanning her on either side. Likewise the prettiest slave-women, dressed like Nereids and Graces, were at the tillers and the ropes. Remarkable perfumes from many censers surrounded them. People followed after Cleopatra on both sides of the river, and others came downstream from the city to see the sight. When finally the entire crowd in the marketplace had disappeared, Antony was left sitting on the tribunal by himself, and word got round that Aphrodite was leading a festival procession to Dionysus for the benefit of Asia.

Antony sent messengers inviting her to dinner. She insisted instead that he come to her. Because he wished to show his readiness to accept her invitation and his friendship, he obeyed her summons and came. The preparations she had made for him were indescribable, and he was particularly struck by the number of lights. Many are said to have been lowered and lit up at the same time, ordered and arranged in such intricate relationships with one another, and patterns, some in squares, some in circles, so that it was a sight among the most noteworthy and beautiful.[4]

27. The next day he invited her in return, and he considered it a matter of honour to exceed the magnificence and care of her entertainment, but when he was outdone and vanquished by her in both respects, he was the first to make fun of himself for his bombast and rusticity. Cleopatra saw the soldierly and common nature of Antony's jokes, and she used the same soldier's humour towards him in a relaxed and confident manner. For (as they say) it was not because her beauty in itself was so striking that it stunned the onlooker, but the inescapable impression produced by daily contact with her: the attractiveness in the persuasiveness of her talk, and the character that surrounded her conversation was stimulating. It was a pleasure to hear the sound of her voice, and she tuned her tongue like a many-stringed instrument expertly to whatever language she chose, and only used interpreters to talk to a few foreigners; usually she gave responses by herself, as in the case of Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabs, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and she is said to have learned the languages of many other peoples, although her predecessors on the throne did not bother to learn Egyptian, and some had even forgotten how to speak the Macedonian dialect.[5]

28. She took such hold over Antony, that while his wife Fulvia was carrying on the war in Rome against Octavian on his behalf, and the Parthian army had been gathered in Mesopotamia (the general of that Army, Labienus was now being addressed by the generals of the King of Persia as Commander of the Parthians) and was about to invade Syria, Antony was carried off by Cleopatra to Alexandria, and amused himself there with the pastimes of a boy on holiday and games, and spent and luxuriated away that (as Antiphon says) most precious of commodities, time ...

29. Cleopatra used not (as Plato says) the four kinds of flattery,[6] but many, and whether Antony were in a serious or playful mood she could always produce some new pleasure or charm, and she kept watch over him and neither by day or night let him out of her sight. She played dice with him and hunted with him and watched him exercising with his weapons, and she roam around and wander about with him at night when he stood at people's doors and windows and made fun of the people inside, dressed in a slave-woman's outfit; for he also attempted to dress up like a slave.

He returned from these expeditions having been mocked in return, and often beaten, although most people suspected who he was. But the Alexandrians got pleasure from his irreverence and accompanied it with good timing and good taste, enjoying his humour and saying that he showed his tragic face to the Romans and his comic one to them.

Although it would be a waste of time to catalogue all of his amusements, one time he went fishing and had the misfortune not to catch anything while Cleopatra was present. So he ordered the fisherman secretly to dive underneath and attach fish that had already been caught to his hooks, but Cleopatra was not fooled after she saw him pull up two or three. She pretended to be amazed and told her friends and invited them come as observers on the next day. After a large audience had gathered on the fishing boats and Antony had lowered his line, Cleopatra told one of her slaves to get in ahead of the others and attach a salted fish from the Black Sea to his hook. When Antony thought he had caught something he pulled it up, and when (as might be expected) loud laughter followed, she said 'General, leave the fishing rod to us, the rulers of the Pharos and Canopus; your game is cities and kingdoms and countries'.


1. Tarn, p.111.

2. Pelling 1988, 17-8.

3. 'My salad days, when I was young and green', Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, I. v. 73-4. Now she was 28.

4. Virgil's description of Dido's effect on Aeneas in Aeneid, book 1, has many interesting similarities to this scene; cf. Pelling 1988, 190.

5. Like most educated people the Mediterranean after the conquest of Alexander, the royal family of Egypt, the Ptolemies, spoke a 'universal' (koine) form of Greek; originally they came with Alexander from Macedonia, in the north of Greece, which like most regions of that country, had a distinct dialect.

6. Cf. Pelling 1988, 196-7. According to Plato, Gorgias 462c-466a, the four are sophistic, rhetoric, pastry-cooking, and cosmetics. Cf. also Plutarch, How to tell a Flatterer 55a, who emphasises the flatterer's need for artifice and contrivances.