Cicero versus Cleopatra

What happens when two colossal figures of history, famous for their power and influence, meet at a party for the first time?

At the age of 60-years-old, Cicero had lived quite a full life in Roman politics by the time 46 AD sluggishly rolled around. In fact, the famous orator shared a lived experience similar to that of the Roman Republic up to this point. Both had become disillusioned by frequent civil unrest, battered by enemies foreign and at home, and had both struggled with financial hardships. And like the newly minted dictator of Rome Julius Caesar, Cicero had also just dumped his long-term partner in favor of a wealthy teenager. He needed the money, I suppose.

“During the long flow of success he met grave setbacks from time to time–exile, the collapse of his party, his daughter’s death and his own tragic and bitter end. But of all these disasters the only one he faced as a man was his own death…However, weighing his virtues against his faults, he was a great and memorable man. One would need a Cicero to sing his praises.” Livy

Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The life and times of Rome’s greatest politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print. Pg. 318

But unlike Cicero, Julius Caesar’s paramour wasn’t just any rich young woman. [1] She was the sovereign ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt–Pharaoh, Queen, and Goddess Isis–and now at the age of 22-years-old, Cleopatra was the last thing standing between her people and absolute Roman rule (her sniveling little brother nothing more than a bedazzled ornament with no real power). She did all she could to secure her life and kingdom a place of assured ‘independence’, going so far as to give birth to Julius Caesar’s only son Caesarion just to cement the deal. Or not, as some sources believed, presuming the child could be another’s as Julius was thought to have been infertile. Either way, Caesar was sure the child was his (and so did Mark Antony and Octavian when it mattered later). So when Julius brought his new mistress and baby back to Rome, the elite were in quite a stir–who was this foreign woman who had captured the heart of Caesar? 

And perhaps none were more curious than Cicero, a man who until this point had been the one known to enrapture a room. 

“Her own beauty, so we are told, was not of that incomparable kind which instantly captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible: and there was an attractiveness in her person and talk, together with a peculiar force of character which pervaded her every word and action, and laid all who associated with her under its spell. It was a delight merely to hear the sound of her voice.” – Plutarch

Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The life and times of Rome’s greatest politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print. Pg. 225

Cleopatra certainly had an image to uphold and upon her arrival in Rome, unleashed an arsenal of exotic creatures and treasures: Egyptian fabrics, mosaics, gold beakers, cinnamon, leopards, fragrances, leopards, most things the people of Rome had never seen before. And yet, despite this, she still kept a seemingly low profile. Caesar lived with his wife Calpurnia near the Forums while his sovereign mistress resided in a villa on the Janiculum Hill–deliberately taking no part in Caesar’s Triumph procession of his ‘conquest’ of Egypt (instead allowing her rival and sister Arsinoe to be paraded around as a prisoner). And Cleopatra, for all her wit and influence, was still a fish out of water. Changing temporary address from the beauty and extravagance of Alexandria to that of a backwater Rome and finding herself a woman in a culture where that idea inspired little confidence or respect compared to her own, she was perhaps rightly disenchanted by the whole ordeal. She also had to deal with the fact that everyone knew who she was (or thought they did) where she knew no one at all. Rome was a city of gossips and few secrets, afterall, and none were more eager to talk than Cicero.

Cicero Denounces Catiline, Cesare Maccari 1889

As his recent marriage showed, Cicero was a bit desperate to change his fortune. And with the gilded benefits of a new young wife, he was also seeking to add friendships with the elite and famous to the retinue of his network like he was some kind of Classical Instagram influencer. Among them would have surely been the exotic Queen of Egypt who took Rome by storm and with her sparked fashion movements, political reforms, and cultural intrigue. So it’s no surprise that Cicero would have attempted to ingratiate himself with the woman everyone in Rome was talking about. The only problem was, Cleopatra would have been less than admissible to any overtures from a man who talked so much shit about her father before her and her current beau Caesar, she’d have wrinkled her nose at the smell of such fakery and desperation wafting off of Cicero.

“I detest the Queen.” – Cicero

Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A life. New York: Back Bay Books. Pg. 130

Perhaps he thought it would be cute to ask her for the favor of giving him a book from the glorious library of Alexandria. To which Cleopatra, perhaps like any woman at a party trying to get away from the incessant chatter of a dude she wants to stop talking to, appeased him with a ‘sure’ and tried to move on with her life–you know, like trying to keep the last vestiges of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt intact. The girl was kinda busy. 

Banchetto di Cleopatra, Alessandro Allori 1570-71

But if no follow through from Cleopatra on the book situation was enough to spur the cynical pettiness Cicero was most famous for, it was surely the perceived snub of the Classical equivalent of neglecting to call the next day that killed her in Cicero’s eyes forever. Also perhaps with the intent of rubbing salt in the wound, Cleopatra sent an emissary to Cicero’s home (and without that stupid book) and called upon not Cicero, but his best friend instead–who was a fairly smart and interesting person himself. Cleopatra basically went all Mean Girls ‘and none for Gretchen Wieners, bye!’ on Cicero and made a show of it. This was surely meant to scald Cicero and it got the job done, how dare this insolent foreign queen not recognize the brilliance of the greatest orator in Rome?! Cleopatra was dead to Cicero from then on. Something tells me she didn’t really care.

Gretchen Wieners, the original conspirator

As insurmountable as his hate was for Cleopatra from this point on, Cicero didn’t have the gumption to talk any shit about her until she had already left Rome. Like any gossipy bitch, he waited until her back was turned before the vitriol was poured. It also must be noted that this is when most people would be eager to hear it, as the Queen found herself fleeing home to Alexandria after a bunch of Caesar’s friends got together for a good ol’ stabbing and left her baby daddy bleeding to death in Pompey’s Theater. She was probably never going to come back after that, either.

“The arrogance of the Queen herself when she was living on the estate across the Tiber makes my blood boil to recall.” – Cicero

Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A life. New York: Back Bay Books. Pg. 121

With the death of Caesar, the frenzied revenge of rioting and murder led by Mark Antony, and the general mystery around Cleopatra’s purpose in Rome altogether–she was still the talk of the town, even while back home in Alexandria. This could also largely be due in part to the fact that Cleopatra was visibly pregnant when she left. If Caesarian being the son of Julius Caesar secured any legitimacy of a claim, Cleopatra giving birth to a child that had been conceived in Rome was surely to be an even bigger problem in what was soon to erupt into a civil war over the rightful heir to Caesar’s power. It would seem a lot of people were worried about the potential for a new son to be born. Unfortunately, poor Cleopatra seemed to have experienced a miscarriage which prompted Cicero to remark in a letter to his friend Atticus: “I hope it’s true about the Queen and that Caesar of hers” about the possibility of her loss. What a dick. 

I suppose parting as enemies, there was never much hope for reconciliation. Cleopatra was back to square one politically and had to forge a new pathway and position, which happened to be one practiced repeatedly, hey-o, with Mark Antony. And Cicero continued to rail against the dissolution of the Roman Republic crumbling around him–making his opinions known far and wide despite whoever he angered. So it should come as little surprise that Cicero ended up a named enemy of the Second Triumvirate by Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus and a retinue of killers were dispatched to Cicero’s place of residence to shut him up forever. [2]

Fulvia y Marco Antonio, o La venganza de Fulvia, Francisco Maura y Montaner 1888

But for those who know their history, Cleopatra’s fate wasn’t about to fare much better. So I guess losers do go to parties after all.

  1. Modern estimates have Cleopatra remembered as the 22nd richest person in history with a net worth of $95.8 billion (putting her just behind Jeff Bezos today). This is, of course, impossible to calculate with complete accuracy.
  1. As the story goes, after his death, Cicero’s head was given to Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia who was said to have pulled out his tongue and repeatedly stabbed it with a hairpin as the last act of revenge against his critical speeches.  

Fact Check it, yo!

  • Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print.
  • Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A Life. New York: Back Bay Books.
  • Reinhold, M. (1981). The Declaration of War against Cleopatra. The Classical Journal, 77(2), 97-103. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/3296915
  • Jones, P. J. (2006). Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Ancient Egypt: The Miracle of Contraception Part 1

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Ahhh, contraception. One of the most well conceived scientific conceptions of all time…see what I did there?

Women have been trying to wrestle control back from their ovaries since the dawn of civilization. What with a near consistent almost worldwide patriarchy and, if Game of Thrones is to be believed, the hourly struggle for a dude to keep his breeches laced up, the threat of unwanted pregnancy has always haunted the female psyche. Sometimes a woman wants to do other things, guys. Like be a super Senet master or…uh…something else. Nah, but for real, as hard as it is to believe, contraception and preventing pregnancy has been around longer than the idea that women’s purpose is to marry and baby-make.

Even though the debate rages today on just how much freedom a woman is “allowed” to exert over her body, know that if ever one so much as uses the word “tradition” to explain why any form of birth control should be prevented from a modern day and supposedly educated populace, swift kick that fool in the jugular, yah get me?

Because if they don’t already know, the Egyptians have been getting down for ever. I mean, really, what else is there to do on the Nile’s off season?

The Ancient Egyptian recipe for preventing pregnancy (Because frak you, Isis!):

First of all, ladies, in the off chance that your conservative minded government prevents access to the methods I will describe below or if you get stuck with a “blessing from God” in the disguise of a sex crime, you’ve got the best natural and free birth control possible–Breastfeeding!

Women were known to extend their breastfeeding for many years! During lactation, progesterone fails to build up like in a normal menstrual cycle and thus ovulation can be prevented by keeping that kid dependent on the boob! Side note: Perhaps this is why royalty had wet nurses? Not just for social standing implications but to encourage every opportunity of producing an heir?

If the thought of childbirth turns you off though, luckily we have a papyrus from 1850 BC known as the “Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus” which details other means of birth control. (Check it out here)

“Another prescription hin of honey, sprinkle over her womb, this is to be done on natron bed.”

This was a substance mixed with honey and sodium carbonate which was applied inside the vagina. Couldn’t find any modern opinions on if this one in particular worked but than again I admittedly didn’t look hard enough.

One other substance they did use was an acacia gum which was also placed inside the vagina. This does, in fact, contain spermatocidal properties. Compounds of the substance produce lactic acid anhydride which is today used in some preventive jellies. Point goes to Egypt!

The most interesting and somewhat shocking suggestion given by the papyrus for a pessary (for those without a vagina, doctorate, or a girlfriend–a pessary acts as a physical barrier between the cervix and any invading sperm) is as follows:

“For preventing […] crocodile dung, chopped over HsA and awt-liquid, sprinkle […]”

Ignore the jumbled untranslated Egyptian text because, yes, that says crocodile dung.

As I try not to imagine dealing with that whole business, science at least puts my mind a little at ease with why anyone would consider such a thing.

It has been suggested by some modern historians that not only would the feces most likely effectively block seminal fluid at the os of the cervix but that it could also change the pH level.

Not good enough an excuse?

Well, John Riddle puts forth the suggestion that inserting feces into a woman’s vagina would, in fact, be an excellent form of contraception because…well, it would keep the boys away, wouldn’t it?

There’s also the idea that such a practice may refer to an incident in Egyptian mythology where the deity Set attempted to harm Isis while she was pregnant. He was typically associated with a crocodile (Not to be confused with Sobek) so, crocodile =/= pregnant.

Either way, I guess they had their reasons.

Any of these sound good to you, ladies? D:

Fact check it, yo!

Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. John Riddle. 1994.

Economic Transformations and General Purpose Technologies and Long-Term Economic Growth.“Historical Record on the Control of Family Size.” Richard G. Lipsey, Kenneth I. Carlaw, Clifford T. Beker. 2005.

Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus. 1850 BC. http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/med/birthpapyrus.html