Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Carmina I.37: Cleopatra

standing female in Greek dress Cleopatra VII, marble statue
Rome, Pio-Clementino, Vatican Museums

Cleopatra VII Philopator was a leading figure, both as a highly accomplished woman and astute politician, in the deciding events of the closing decades of the Roman Republic. Born 69 BCE in Alexandria, she ruled Egypt as Pharaoh for twenty one years until her self-inflicted death in Alexandria on 10/12 August, 30 BCE, when Egypt fell to the Romans under the generalship of Octavian. The most famous member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty founded by Ptolemy I Soter, she was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes; her mother is unknown (possibly Cleopatra V/VI Tryphaena). At his death in 51 BCE, her father named the 18 year old Cleopatra co-regent of Egypt with her 10 year old brother, Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator (62/1-47 BCE), who exiled her in 48, fearing her ambitions and her support of the Romans. Plutarch (Antony 27.2-4) and Cassius Dio (Roman History 42.34) describe an intellectual ability and personal magnetism more compelling than Cleopatra's physical attraction, enhanced as it was by opulent display. Possessed of enormous wealth coupled with a determination to survive the lethal politics of the Egyptian court, she married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV (59-44 BCE) in 47 and pursued relationships with the two most powerful Romans in a bid to dominate the known world: first with Julius Caesar, to whom she bore his only son Caesarion (47-30 BCE), then, after his assassination, with Marc Antony, to whom she bore three children: the twins Alexander Helios & Cleopatra Selene II and Ptolemy Philadelphus. Cleopatra was popular among her own people, who acknowledged her as Isis (Isis with Horus) for her god-like behavior: arrogance, intrigue, extravagance, self-indulgence, sexuality, savagery (among other acts, she was reported to have had her brother-husband poisoned, replacing him with Caesarion as co-regent). The Romans, among whom she lived in one of Caesar's villas in Rome from 46-44 BCE, viewed her as an aberration (see Horace l. 21: fatale monstrum), a foreigner whose notorious lifestyle undermined the traditional virtues of Roman matronae such as Antony's wife Octavia, whom he divorced in 32 BCE to marry Cleopatra and live as an Egyptian potentate. In 31 BCE Octavian declared war on Cleopatra, who fought alongside Antony at the Battle of Actium, which marked the defeat of their forces. Retreating to Alexandria followed by Antony, she waited there for Octavian's final assault on her city a year later. When his troops deserted him, Antony fell on his sword, his death followed by Cleopatra's suicide to foil Octavian's intent to display her in Rome in his triumphal parade. Horace's victory ode is in the Alcaic Stanza. Like Octavian's declaration of war, it is focused entirely on the Queen: the first five stanzas herald Rome's eradication of a counter-cultural threat, while the final three stanzas recognize Cleopatra's masculine strength of spirit and courage in defeat. For further information, consult the many primary sources, ancient and subsequent, in English in P. Jones (2006); view Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Handel's opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto, G.B. Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra; see also Burstein (2007), Kleiner (2005), Miles (2011), D. Roller (2010, 2018), Volkmann (1958) in the Bibliography.

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Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero

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pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus

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ornare pulvinar deorum

  4tempus erat dapibus, sodales.                         listen here

 

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antehac nefas depromere Caecubum

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cellis avitis, dum Capitolio

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regina dementis ruinas,

  8funus et imperio parabat

 

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contaminato cum grege turpium

morbo virorum, quidlibet impotens

sperare fortunaque dulci

 12ebria. Sed minuit furorem

 

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vix una sospes navis ab ignibus,

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mentemque lymphatam Mareotico

redegit in veros timores

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 16Caesar, ab Italia volantem

 

remis adurgens, accipiter velut

mollis columbas aut leporem citus

venator in campis nivalis

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 20Haemoniae, daret ut catenis

 

fatale monstrum. Quae generosius

perire quaerens nec muliebriter

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expavit ensem, nec latentis

 24classe cita reparavit oras;

 

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ausa et iacentem visere regiam

voltu sereno, fortis et asperas

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tractare serpentes, ut atrum

 28corpore combiberet venenum,

 

deliberata morte ferocior:

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saevis Liburnis scilicet invidens

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privata deduci superbo

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 32non humilis mulier triumpho.

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