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Cleopatra:  Femme Fatale in the Holy Land

Cleopatra, who became Queen of Egypt in 51 B.C., at the age of 19, was actually not Egyptian.  She was from Macedonia, a region in the north of Greece.  She was descended from Ptolemy, a general of Alexander the Great who became King of Egypt after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.  Ptolemy founded a dynasty, but by the time Cleopatra ascended the throne, the Ptolemies’ strength was falling and the Roman Empire was rising.  Tribute had to be paid to the Romans to keep them away from Egypt.

A gifted linguist, Cleopatra spoke at least eight languages, according to Plutarch,
end of the first century A.D. Roman biographer, who was not one of her admirers. 
He wrote that besides her native Greek, she spoke the language of the Ethiopians, the Hebrews, Troglodytes (cave-dwellers!), Arabians, Syrians, Medes, and the Parthians.  Plutarch noted that most of her royal predecessors scarcely went to the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue.

“It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another,” wrote Plutarch.

But Plutarch went on to proclaim that Cleopatra was not a striking beauty.  (If you don’t believe it, look at her image on a silver coin issued in Ashkelon, property of the British Museum.)  Nevertheless, her physical presence was magnetic, her conversation charming, her character bewitching and her ambition contagious.

Cleopatra's portrait on silver coin

Egyptians viewed her as Iris, the great mother goddess and the Greeks saw her as Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty.  For the protection of her skin against the hot dry desert winds and the scorching Egyptian sun, she used oils and Judean balsam.  She delighted in exotic perfumes and on every voyage the sails of her ship were coated with precious oils so that the “winds were lovesick with them.”

In compliance with Egyptian tradition, Cleopatra married her brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIII, who was about

British Museum Collection

16 at the time.  But it was a marriage of convenience

only, and Ptolemy was pharaoh in name only.  For three years he remained in the background, while Cleopatra ruled alone.

By 48 B.C. Cleopatra had so alarmed court officials in Alexandria by her independence, that they conspired to overthrow her in favor of her more pliable younger brother Ptolemy XIII.  Cleopatra was forced to flee Alexandria and go into exile in Syria. Determined to regain her throne, she began to amass an army on Egypt’s border, making Ashkelon, formerly a Philistine city on the Mediterranean coast of Judea,
25 miles south of Jaffa, her temporary base.

Map of the Eastern Mediterranean Roman Empire

This map originated on http://iam.classics.unc.edu

Copyright 1998.  Interactive Ancient Mediterranean

Roman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean

Meanwhile in Rome, there was a civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey over who was to rule the Empire.  Pompey was defeated and headed to Alexandria, hoping to find refuge with Ptolemy XIII, of whom he was a senate-appointed guardian. Pompey was murdered (and beheaded) as he stepped ashore in Alexandria.  Four days after the death of Pompey, Julius Caesar landed in Egypt and summoned Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII.

Wary of being captured by her brother’s henchmen, Cleopatra set sail at night in a little boat with only one of her trusted friends, slid through the harbor undetected and landed near the palace in Alexandria.  She was smuggled ashore in an oriental carpet tied round with a leather thong and carried on the back of her friend Apollodorus right into Caesar’s palace.

Plutarch reported that when the carpet unrolled and Cleopatra fell out, Caesar fell in love with her then and there. He was 53. She was 22.

Instead of annexing Egypt to Rome, Caesar set Cleopatra back on the throne along with her younger half-brother, Ptolemy XIV, who was 12 years old.  (Her former co-regent Ptolemy XIII had drowned in the Nile while trying to flee.)  Later Cleopatra and her co-ruler-half brother made a red-carpet visit to Rome.  Julius Caesar hosted them in one of his own palaces.  She was still in Rome on the Ides of March 44 B.C. when Caesar was assassinated.  Horrified, she quickly departed for home.

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Marc Antony, Caesar’s heroic charismatic general, had expected to be named in Caesar’s will, but instead, Caesar’s teenaged grand-nephew, Octavian was named beneficiary.  (Many Rome guides claim that Octavian forged the will!) Octavian and Antony joined together in Rome to defeat Caesar’s enemies.  Then they agreed to divide the Roman world.  Octavian took the west and Antony the east.

Now we get to the famous love saga of Antony and Cleopatra.

When Antony sailed for the East, in 37 B.C., he summoned Cleopatra, who came to him in Antioch, Syria.  Antony was smitten with her.  (They say, “He came, he saw, SHE conquered!”)  Antony gave Cleopatra gifts of land in Phoenicia, Syria, Cyprus, Sicily, a coastal strip of Arabia all the way down to the Red Sea – and the “side of Judea that produced balsam.”  Cleopatra wanted more.  She felt that as a Ptolemy, she deserved all of Judea, which had once belonged to her ancestors.

Cleopatra dominated Antony, but he would not take the entire territory away from Herod, his loyal friend, and transfer it to Cleopatra.  Instead, Antony gave her smaller portions, including Herod’s royal date and balsam plantations in Jericho and En Gedi.

In Cleopatra’s day, Jericho was famed for its balsam

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

In Cleopatra’s day, Jericho was famed for its balsam

Herod was so appalled at having the ambitious Cleopatra so close to Jerusalem, the capital of his kingdom, that he leased back the territories from Cleopatra and paid her a very generous fee.  Just to be on the safe side, south of En Gedi, he built the desert fortress of Masada which overlooked the spice route leading to Arabia.  In the words of first century A.D. Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius,

“It is said that Herod equipped this fortress as a refuge for himself, suspecting a double danger: peril on the one hand from the Jewish people, who might dethrone him and restore to power their former dynasty and the greater and more serious danger from Cleopatra,
Queen of Egypt. (Wars, Book VII, Chapter VIII, 4)

Judean desert below the middle tier of Masada's northern palace

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

View of the Judean desert below the middle tier of Masada's northern palace

Cleopatra, on her part, tried to seduce Herod and made no secret of it.  Josephus suggested that perhaps she had a passion for him – but more likely, she intended to lay a treacherous snare for him.  Herod seriously considered killing her, but his advisors dissuaded him.  Antony would be furious, they declared.  Herod evaded her overtures, treated her courteously, lavished gifts on her and escorted her to the Egyptian border.

As he waved good-bye to her, he probably said, “Shalom Al Yisrael.”  (It literally means “peace on Israel,” but today we use it to mean, “Good-bye and good riddance.”) (See Hebrew for Pilgrims if you’d like to learn some other handy phrases.)

Cleopatra’s downfall was Antony’s overwhelming desire to be with her.  Antony hastily went to war in the east too early in the season.  As he hurried his army along, he made a catastrophic mistake.  His siege equipment – huge battering rams which broke down city walls, which was carried in 300 carts – was forgotten and left behind!!!  It was then captured by his enemy and burned.  His troops suffered from famine or were poisoned by the herbs they ate and the water they drank.  Antony lost about 24,000 men.

Cleopatra set sail to meet Antony by Sidon, on the Phoenician coast.  Plutarch colorfully described Antony’s frenzied drinking and constant rushing to the coast to see if her ships were in sight.  When Cleopatra arrived, she brought clothing for the soldiers, money to pay them and cedars of Lebanon which he needed for ship-building at which the Egyptians were greatly skilled.
However, instead of attacking Parthia in the East, Antony returned to Alexandria with Cleopatra.  When it was discovered in Rome that Antony had willed Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, all the eastern Roman Empire, should he die, Rome cancelled all Antony’s power, reduced him to the rank of a private citizen and declared war on both him and Cleopatra.

When the Roman fleets met at Actium (31 B.C.) on the eastern coast of Greece, Antony was soundly defeated.  He and Cleopatra sailed for Egypt.  She saw the battle was over and believed they lived to fight again.  Cleopatra was only 39 years old.  But Antony was a broken man.

Up on the hills overlooking the harbor of Alexandria, Antony watched as Octavian’s ships entered.  Thinking that he had been betrayed by Cleopatra, Antony fell on his sword and was mortally wounded.  He was taken to Cleopatra and died in her arms. His last words – according to Shakespeare – were, “I am dying Egypt, dying…one word sweet Queen -- of Caesar seek your honor and your safety.”  Shakespeare has Cleopatra reply, “They (honor and safety) do not go together.”

When Octavian (who had assumed the title, "Caesar" which became synonymous with emperor) entered Alexandria, there was no resistance.  Octavian tried to prevent Cleopatra’s suicide.  He probably intended to have her dragged through the streets of Rome in gold chains.  But Cleopatra had other plans.

After visiting Antony’s tomb and her own, she dressed herself, as if for dinner.  A countryman came to her with a basket of figs and an asp whose bite had the power to kill quickly.  It’s said that she died with the dignity with which she had lived – on a gold bed in her regal robes.
Postscript on evidence of Cleopatra's possible (probable?) visit to Jericho


A bronze cart fitting in the shape of a striking cobra was found in Jericho during an archeological expedition directed by Ehud Netzer from 1973 to 1987.  The cobra, ready to strike, was the royal symbol of Cleopatra.  It was found buried in earthquake debris of 31 BC in a ritual bath west of the Hasmonean Palace complex. 

This bronze cart fitting had once graced a carriage, more than likely, one of Cleopatra's entourage as she visited Jericho, inspecting its balsam and date plantations.  (Thanks to Dr. Guy Stiebel who studied and analyzed this artifact. published by the Israel Exploration Society in 2013.)

Bronze cart fitting perhaps belonging to Cleopatria's carriage


Photos courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society
"Hasmonean and Herodion Palaces at Jericho", 2013

Bronze cart fitting shaped like a striking cobra found in earthquake debris of 31 BC

Postscript on Herod

To the end, Herod had stubbornly remained loyal to Marc Antony.  He never forgot that it was Antony, a decade earlier, who had lobbied the Roman Senate to appoint him "king" of Judea.  After the defeat and double-suicide of Antony and Cleopatra, Herod was in deep, deep trouble.  Everyone expected that Octavian would avenge all support rendered to his arch enemies Antony and Cleopatra.

By all accounts, Herod made a bold move.  Dressed as a commoner, but with the proud bearing of a king, Herod appeared in Rhodes before Octavian.  Josephus respectfully quoted his speech,

“Caesar, it was Antony who made me king and I admit that I rendered to him every possible service.  I will not hesitate to say that if I had not been detained by the Arabs, you certainly would have found me fighting by his side.  As it was, I sent him all the auxiliary troops I could and many thousands of measures of grain.

I did not desert my benefactor, even after his defeat at Actium. However, when I could no longer be useful as an ally, I gave him the best possible advice:  Kill Cleopatra.  I promised him money, a protecting wall, an army and my active participation in the war against you.

However, his ears remained deaf through his passion for Cleopatra.  God has granted you victory.  I am defeated with Antony and with him, I lay down my crown.  I have come to you, basing my hope of safety upon my integrity.  I hope you will ask yourself, not whose friend, but how loyal a friend I have been.” (Wars, Book I, Chapter XX, 1)

I imagine there was silence and bated breath for some moments.  Finally, Octavian proclaimed that he admired Herod’s bold spirit and advised him, “Next time, pick the winning side!”
To show his undying gratitude, Herod the Great built a magnificent harbor city along the Mediterranean coast, equipped with a hippodrome for chariot racing, a theater for stage spectacles, a promontory palace with a fresh-water swimming pool and impressive aqueducts.  He named the city Caesarea, after his new patron.

Seats of the 2000-year-old hippodrome at Caesarea

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Seats of the 2.000-year-old hippodrome (chariot stadium) at Caesarea


Copyright 2005, 2020 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.


Coming to Jerusalem this year?  Walk the Temple Mount with Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon, Jesus and the disciples, Mohammed and the angel Gabriel with Gila's Temple Mount audio tour as a CD.

Gila's Temple Mount tour is now available as a written 24-page PDF with a Temple Mount plan, guidelines for passing the security check and ten recommended reads on the Temple Mount from Gila's bookshelves.

Read about the balsam of En Gedi, a popular antidote to snake bites in Cleopatra's day.  It may have been the medicinal Balm of Gilead which healed the body and the soul....

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