Almost all of us have heard of the Cleopatra and Caesar romance. Maybe it’s not as popular as most love stories, but still beats Romeo and Juliet in a lot of ways. For one, Cleopatra was very intelligent and strategic. The boom of progression under her queendom is testament to it. She did so well as a ruler that male pharoahs demanded she be erased from history.
But there was only so much that they could hide of her. The legacy of her existence would not die due to her involvement with Julius Caesar. Now we’ll dive into the mystery of their meeting and see if it really was as mysterious as it was made to be.
The story of her rolling out of a carpet before Julius has been depicted countless times. In fact, it’s been done so much that no one ever stopped to think about the legitimacy of this strange event.
Here is the truth.
The fated meeting of Cleopatra and Caesar was recorded in a biography by a philosopher, Ploutarchos of Chaironeia. Called The Life of Julius Caesar and published sometime before 120 AD, he details Cleopatra’s entry into Caesar’s chambers.
Any foreign language is fairly difficult to translate to English as some words simply did not exist in isolation, and depended on context. The word strōmatódesmon (στρωματόδεσμον) was mistranslated as carpet. Due to lack of clarity of the context in the passage, there are many English words that strōmatódesmon can be attributed to, such as sack, bag, roll, blanket, heap of cloth, and so on. It’s clear that the word was in referrence to anything cloth like, and its understanding depended on the situation of the conversation.
How historians assumed it was a carpet is beyond most of us, but it’s possible that it appealed more to the imagination. Plutarch was quite and imaginative man himself, and we can’t be sure if what he wrote was truly accurate either, seeing as how he penned the story down centuries after Cleopatra and Caesar had passed.
Perhaps it seemed more logical in a technical sense. Carrying a thick carpet over one’s shoulder in quite easy as it does not bed much across the length and weighs a considerable amount, just enough to cover her own weight. It would be plausible enough a route for Cleopatra to take without rousing any suspicion. The situation was that Cleopatra was on the run from assassins and needed to find a way into the palace for a mission, hence she needed a way in without being seen.
The truth, according to Spencer MacDaniel, is that Cleopatra was in a sack. The kind where it was like a bed spread, large and square, into which women would put clothes and tie the corners around. She had to climb out of it rather unceremoniously. Also, she did not introduce herself as the queen of Egypt at all.
This part might take a while to digest as Egyptian culture back in the day was very different to the European based values we’re accustomed to, but Cleopatra initially presented herself as a slave.
Slaves were almost fully naked. It was really hot in Egypt and it was not unusual for men and women both to roam about topless. The lest they wore were slitted skirts or loincothes to ensure their legs could breathe as well. But the royal women never bared themselves so much, and it was easy to convince everyone in the room that she was a slave who was willing to meet Caesar and become his mistress. Plutarch claims that Caesar admired her tenacity and persistence, which made him agree to the arrangment. Things escalated quickly in their relationship and they were soon off on a honeymoon to the Nile River.
From there, Cleopatra worked in her influence and intelligent ideas into Julius Caesar. Now that she was bethroted to him, she had some level of immunity which allowed her the resources to be safe from being persecuted. From then onwards, she still worked tirelessly to run her queendom towards more progress.
The exoticization of Cleopatra is still quite questionable, and this is a story that historians have entertained for a long time without much authentic credit to it.
Some of the main issues that arrive with this story is that during her life, Cleopatra’s character and public image was constantly attacked. Many male historians insist she used her sensual appeal and beauty to control Julius Caesar into her bidding. This paints her as cunning, manipulative, and vindictive. It also paints a bad image of the men bein gof quite weak resolve during that time.
For a woman to be as powerful as Cleopatra was, it was unheard of and not recieved very kindly. History’s narrative has mostly been steered and dominated by the men that tell them, especially men of places that do not have the mental capacity to access languages in its full potential.
Rather, Cleopatra was a woman who spent more time studying that frolicking about with men. She was beautiful in her own way, but not conventionally in the way most male historians paint her to be. Cleopatra was a woman with a hooked nose and a prominent chin, who knew nine languages fluently, had up to seven speaking styles (each reserved for a very speicific audience), and was one of the most articulate and open-minded rulers of her time.
Those who wished to ascend the throne were halted in their tracks when Cleopatra addressed herself as a man in order to take over the region. Egypt had never seen a woman in such a position, but her competitors did not care for her intellectual and politics contributions that led to the civilization’s stability. She was viciously accused of witchcraft, having adulterous tendencies, and being a cruel and vindictive woman with no morals.
It’s possible that most of what we read about her in history is still influenced by these narratives.
And there you have it! The truth about not just Cleopatra’s carpet escapade, but also about her character.