What qualities come to mind when you hear the name Cleopatra? Great beauty? Seductive charm? Feminist icon material?
Professor Chris Pelling, Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford, came to talk to the Bronwen society to debunk some of the myths about this most paradoxical of women. He took us through the 'ABC' of Cleopatra - Asp, Barge, Carpet - to help us to decide whether to view Cleopatra as a victim or a success story.
She probably did kill herself with a snake (although it was more likely to be an Egyptian cobra), surviving for ten days after losing the Battle of Actium in 31BC. Octavian (Augustus) wouldn't have allowed her such an ambiguous suicide – if he had been responsible for her death, he would have made it clearer. What's more, the snake was a royal emblem - so Cleopatra at least overcame Augustus in her symbolic suicide.
The barge was real, too - although Mark Antony wasn't actually there when she first appeared. She was 28, the age where she was 'at the height of her beauty and intellectual power' when she arrived at Tarsus in the royal Egyptian yacht (a huge construction containing numerous dining rooms).
Disappointingly, it was not in a carpet that Cleopatra appeared before Caesar - it was more likely to have been a straw-filled mattress from a soldier's kit bag; this myth seems to have originated from a misinterpretation of a 17th-century English translation.
Whether she was actually that beautiful or not is a matter of debate - according to Pascal, she had a huge nose! Even so, she was certainly charming in conversation, putting people at their ease. And she spoke at least nine languages - I would definitely consider that a reason for admiring her!
There is no doubt that Cleopatra used sex to her political advantage. Even so, I now have huge admiration for her, as a woman who overcame not one, but two, of her brothers in civil war, as a charismatic leader and an exceptional linguist, who maintained her dignified iconic status even in her own death.
- Holly Dempster-Edwards (U6)