Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry 'Caesar!' Speak; Caesar is turn'd to hear.
Beware the ides of March.
Some might say that the death of Caesar on this day in 44 BCE was the beginning of the end. After expanding the domains of the Roman Republic and consolidating power into a dictatorship, Caesar was stabbed by a group of senators, as famously chronicled in William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Rome would go on to become an empire, lasting for another four centuries; even in death, Caesar remained “dictator in perpetuity.”
Caesar’s most infamous lover, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, was in Rome at the time of his assassination. Caesar had backed her claim to the Egyptian throne after she was exiled by her brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIII and his court. Awaiting confirmation of the sustainability of her own ruling power in the aftermath of the death of her most powerful supporter, the much younger Egyptian ruler soon allied herself with Mark Antony and Octavian, Caesar’s grandnephew and recognized heir, even though she had once hoped her own son Caesarion, allegedly fathered by Caesar, would one day assume power in Rome. She later fled back to Egypt to face the military trials of the Roman Civil War caused by Caesar’s death.
Following the smashing success of his biography, Caesar: Life of a Colossus, historian Adrian Goldsworthy has written another masterful study of classical figures, Antony and Cleopatra. Noting that Cleopatra is the only woman to appear on the A-list of Greco-Roman greats, Goldsworthy writes “For all their fame, Antony and Cleopatra receive little attention in formal study of the first century BC…. The fame of Cleopatra may attract students to the subject, but courses are, quite reasonably and largely unconsciously, structured to stress more ‘serious’ topics, and shy away from personalities.”
Goldsworthy sets out to disprove the legitimacy of this stigma, carefully debunking the myths surrounding Antony and Cleopatra’s legacies to reveal the strength of the political characters’ power and ambition. From their own eponymous Shakespearean play, we might commonly remember the drama and failures of their romance, but Goldsworthy warns that “many want to tell the story [of Cleopatra] differently, turning the sinister seductress into a strong and independent woman struggling as best she could to protect her country.” Of course, by no means does he mean that Cleopatra was not strong and independent—she unanimously was—but rather, romance and the fictional glamour surrounding her has too often turned into debilitating sympathy for her decline. Consequently, we overlook and ignore the profoundly forceful constitution of a woman ruler in a definitive age of men.