29 February 2012

Great Loves in History: Antony & Cleopatra--Was it Love or Politics?

By Stephanie Dray

Few lovers in history are more famous than the notorious Queen of the Nile and her Roman general. But was it love between them, or was their alliance one of mutual political need?

Cleopatra was a clever queen who had been swimming in the waters of a burgeoning Roman empire for some time. Antony was not--after all--her first Roman general. First, there was Julius Caesar, the father of her son Caesarion. A young queen in exile, she'd rolled herself out at the feet of the warrior, surrendering herself to his mercy, and hoped for the best. As it turned out, she was a shrewd judge of character. Caesar liked a girl with guts, after all, and they are said to have become lovers that very night.

Though Cleopatra is generally portrayed as the young seductress in this arrangement, we might want to remember that Caesar was many years her senior. He was an experienced lecher who held every last bit of power in the situation. It is more likely that he seduced her. However, the fact that he seems to have also fallen in love with her was much to her benefit. Caesar showed great favor to the young Egyptian queen, going so far as to install a gilded statue of her in his family temple. Some say that his infatuation with her appeared to be a midlife crisis of epic proportions. Cleopatra was no doubt very grateful to him; he had been her savior. He gave her a throne, slew her enemies, and left her with legions for protection.

Her relationship with Antony began on a different note entirely. After Caesar's assassination, she was forced to navigate the tricky waters of a Roman civil war. She certainly seems to have held her own. And though Antony summoned her to Tarsus for an accounting, she seems intent on meeting him as an equal, if not a superior. She went to him in a gilded barge, dressed as a goddess.

Their courtship was well-publicized. They were the Brangelina of their time. (Cleopantony?) They feasted. They wore costumed. They partied late into the night. She invited him to Egypt--and he accepted. There, they conceived their twins, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios. A good time was had by all.

But the moment Antony was free to marry Cleopatra, he married Octavia instead. This leads some to wonder whether his heart was really in it when it came to Cleopatra. Similarly, as the man who would be known as emperor Augustus began to rise in power, Cleopatra needed Antony to advance her son's interests. When they got back together, it was because Antony needed Cleopatra's money and she needed his power. Reason enough for people to doubt that theirs was a love match.

However, I like to believe that hard choices show people's true colors. As we all know, Cleopatra and Antony lost the Battle of Actium. They lost the world. And in the end, they could have turned on one another. In fact, their enemy appears to have offered them both, individually, incentive to do away with the other. Both of them, in various ways, simply refused to part with the other.

Clearly, there was some distrust in the end. Antony worried that Cleopatra would betray him. She had to prove to him several times that she wasn't going to poison him or otherwise abandon him. When he killed himself, it was because--some say--he was certain that Cleopatra was dead, and then when he lay bleeding, found out that she was alive, and thought it was a trick. But the queen's behavior at the death of her beloved tells us everything.

She wept and howled and tore at her clothes and body in grief. She locked herself up with his corpse and tried to turn a knife on herself. Then she refused to eat at the very time she ought to have been negotiating with her conqueror. In short, she behaved like a person who lost someone she loved. And in the end, she followed Antony into death.

Their union may have been about politics...but it was also about love.

Images: Jean-Leon Gerome, Cleopatra before Caesar and Lawrence Alma Tadema, Antony and Cleopatra, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Stephanie Dray's SONG OF THE NILE and LILY OF THE NILE, are available now from Berkeley Books. Both novels are set in the Augustan Age and feature Cleopatra's daughter.