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Volume 29, Number 2March/April 1978

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The Other Cleopatra

"WHO is the fairest...?"

Written and photographed by George Taylor

Two names have come down to us from the ancient world which are familiar in every household: Alexander and Cleopatra. Say "Alexander" and your listener will unhesitatingly add, "the Great;" it is almost inconceivable that you could mean another Alexander - though any index of the ancient world lists at least a dozen other men with that name. So too with Cleopatra. Whom else could you mean but the Queen of Egypt, consort of Julius Caesar, Augustus and Mark Antony, Shakespeare's "lass unparalleled" and the "serpent of Old Nile?"

In fact, there were other notable Cleopatras in the ancient world - probably as many as there were Alexanders. And one of them was a queen more lovely and more scheming than the famous Cleopatra, and even more ruthless in her ambition to hold fast to her royal position. She was the wife of three kings and the mother of two more; she ordered the assassination of one of her husbands and one of her sons; and she died of drinking the poison she had prepared for another son. Virtually unknown except to historians and to collectors of Greek coins, she is Cleopatra Thea, a queen of the Seleudd realm in the second century B.C.

She and her famous namesake Cleopatra VII - Mark Antony's Cleopatra - each ruled one of the empires into which Alexander the Great's worldwide domain had been divided by his generals after his death in 323 B.C. And despite the nearly 100 years that separated them in time, and the rivalry and war between their two empires, they had the same blood in their veins: that of Alexander's great general Ptolemy, who became king of Egypt, and father, Ptolemy VI, and Alexander. But although celebrated in great splendor at Alexander's court at Ptolemais - modern Akka - the alliance eventually crumbled and Alexander fled from Ptolemais to refuge in Antioch, whereupon Ptolemy VI - not wanting to govern Syria openly - offered Cleopatra Thea to Demetrius, son of a previous Seleudd king whom Ptolemy had helped overthrow and kill. As the apocryphal Book of Maccabees tells the story:

"Whereupon he sent ambassadors unto Demetrius, saying, come, let us make a league betwixt us, and I will give thee my daughter whom Alexander hath, and thou shalt reign in thy father's kingdom. Wherefore he took his daughter from him, and gave her to Demetrius, and forsook Alexander, so that their hatred was openly known."

This Demetrius was, be it noted, a boy of less than 14 at the time - not a lot older than Cleopatra Thea's own young son - and six years later, he was taken prisoner while fighting a military campaign on the empire's eastern borders. This was the signal for another usurper to murder Cleopatra Thea's son and claim the Seleudd kingdom. To oppose him, since there was now in Syria no legitimate successor in the Seleudd line, Demetrius' younger brother was brought home from Turkey to become Cleopatra Thea's third husband and king.

This third marriage lasted nine years, during which Cleopatra Thea bore five sons. But then the third husband was killed and the dreadful struggle for power was resumed - this time with Cleopatra herself in the forefront. As her second husband had been released from imprisonment, she ordered him killed, went on to murder her son by Demetrius - who had unwisely claimed the kingdom without deferring to his mother's authority - and began to rule the Seleudd kingdom herself. When the people objected - they never forgot that she was from the house of Ptolemy, and not Seleucus - Cleopatra assodated herself in joint rule with her second son by Demetrius, Antiochus, who became the eighth Seleudd king of that name.

It was then that Cleopatra overreached. For when this previously weak young man - nicknamed "Grypos" or Hook-nose - began to assert himself, Cleopatra Thea again dedded on murder. When Grypos, after wrestling in the gymnasium, came into the palace hot and tired Cleopatra Thea offered him a cup of wine - which she had thoughtfully poisoned. This time, however, Cleopatra was outwitted and she had to drink the wine herself - thus bringing to an end her 30 years at the epicenter of savage Seleuddan intrigue.

In her taste for power, and the means she used to keep it, Cleopatra Thea far surpassed her more famous namesake. Did she surpass her in beauty, too? It is almost certain that she did. The legendary beauty of the Cleopatra who seduced Mark Antony seems to have been just that - a legend. Scholars suggest this because her likeness - shown on numerous ancient coins, the majority from the mint of Alexandria - bears little resemblance to the incomparable beauty celebrated by poets and writers. Indeed, the face depicted on the coins is stern, heavy and forbidding - yet unquestionably authentic, because the portrait is confirmed by those on the coins issued by Cleopatra's other mints at Berytus, Damascus, Ascalon and Antioch. So uniformly unflattering are the portraits that it has even been argued that Cleopatra suffered from an unsightly neck goiter, a disease then endemic in the area. Yet no die engraver would have risked the Queen's displeasure by producing an unflattering portrait and no queen would have permitted her own coinage to bear a caricature of herself throughout her empire and abroad.

By contrast, Cleopatra Thea, who also struck coins, emerges as a handsome woman. And although those coins are rare, her features, even late in life, were unquestionably more attractive than those of Antony's Cleopatra.

What is it, then, which has given fame to one Cleopatra and obscurity to the other? Clearly the assodations. with imperial Rome have helped; writers from her own day to the modern period have seized on her exploits with Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Augustus to give Cleopatra VII a notoriety denied to Cleopatra Thea, whose affairs involved merely the lesser-known kings of a steadily shrinking empire. And though Cleopatra Thea was apparently the more handsome woman, Cleopatra VII must have had some quality that transcended beauty and made her extraordinary and that won her tributes like Shakespeare's:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

For one Cleopatra, then, an endless stream of analysis in books, articles, plays and films. For the other, for Cleopatra Thea, seven lines in Lempriere's Classical Dictionary.

George Taylor was a professor of English at the American University of Beirut and now lectures at Brighton Technical College. He is the author of The Roman Temples of Lebanon, and a contributor to numismatic journals.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the March/April 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1978 images.