Cleopatra: It’s Her World

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (1963)
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (1963)

When we think of Cleopatra today, we think of an ancient sexy ruler or we think of Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton. But in reality, to the degree that we live in the West, we are living in the world that Cleopatra created. How so?

Cleopatra (69 BCE – 30 BCE) was the last active Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. She was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greek origin that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death (323 BCE).

She had an affair with Julius Caesar, the first ruler of Rome as an Empire, and had a son with him. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, she aligned herself with Mark Antony (with whom she had a torrid affair) in opposition to Caesar’s legal heir, Octavius. With Antony, she bore the twins Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios, and another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. After losing the Battle of Actium to Octavian’s forces, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.

It has been said that she wasn’t so beautiful, but that she was extremely intelligent and very sensual.

Bust of Cleopatra, Altes Museum, Berlin
Bust of Cleopatra, Altes Museum, Berlin

Unlike her predecessors, who spoke only Greek, Cleopatra learned Egyptian and assumed the traditional role of an Egyptian ruler, becoming a goddess. In her case, she became the incarnation of Isis. When she married Mark Antony, he was elevated to the status of the god Osiris.

All this may feel very distant from your life today, but it’s closer than you think.

Cleopatra instinctively understood that Rome was not to be messed with, and that what had been a small republic would now become a worldwide empire. She also understood that the old religion of Rome would not suffice as the glue to bind the new empire. In ancient Rome, the gods served the city. The empire now needed gods that would unite different cities and peoples into a single worldwide religion.

At the time, Judaism was the only monotheistic game in town. As a result, Romans were converting to Judaism in droves. But Cleopatra understood that worshipping an invisible God would be difficult for a pagan empire. She therefore proposed to Julius Caesar a Romanized version of what had worked in Egypt for thousands of years – a religion based on a deified ruler. Caesar didn’t take her ideas seriously, but after his death the Roman Senate deified him i.e., his status was changed from man to god. We still honor Julius Caesar with our month of “July”.

After Caesar’s assassination, she convinced Mark Antony to take on the role of man-god. At the same time, in Rome, Caesar was replaced by his adopted son, Octavius. He also became a man-god whose name was changed to “Augustus” i.e., the “Great One”. Legends started swirling. It was now said that Augusts was not the son of his biological father. Rather, it was said that his mother was visited at night by a god in the shape of a snake who impregnated her with Augustus. For his part, Osiris (Mark Antony’s new title) was a god who was betrayed, killed and later resurrected.

Basically, as Augustus fought Cleopatra and Mark Antony, the world oscillated between two models of religion – one involved a man-god without a wife (Augustus) and the other involved a man-god with a wife (Mark Antony and Cleopatra).

Gnosticism, which was an early form of Christianity, mainly based in Alexandria, Egypt, shaped Christianity in the image of Cleopatra. Images of Isis and her son Horus, were replaced by images of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. Gnosticism celebrated a married Jesus, whose mate was Mary Magdalene. Meanwhile, Paul of Tarsus adopted the other model created by Cleopatra i.e., of an earthly king, born of Immaculate Conception, who had no consort at all – no wife, no lover.

 Isis & Horus | Mary & Jesus
Isis & Horus | Mary & Jesus

The amazing thing is that both models of man-gods i.e., the married and the celibate, were created by Cleopatra.

After her demise, the Western world teetered between Gnosticism and Pauline Christianity. Paul won. A celibate Jesus replaced Augustus. As for Cleopatra, she was written out of history and her counterpart in Christianity, Mary Magdalene, was written out of Christian theology.

But it was Cleopatra, and Cleopatra alone, that understood that the West was ready for a new religion and that it would involve raising a man to the status of a god. She invented the religious ideas that would later be adopted by Christianity, when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In other words, she created the theological mindset that later made its way into Christianity. The Christian West in which we live in today is, in a sense, part of Cleopatra’s legacy.

About the Author
Simcha Jacobovici is a Canadian-Israeli filmmaker and journalist. He is a three-time Emmy winner for “Outstanding Investigative Journalism” and a New York Times best selling author. He’s also an adjunct professor in the Department of Religion at Huntington University, Ontario.