Cleopatra and the Jews
7 little known facts about Cleopatra and the Jewish communities she ruled.
News that Israeli actress Gal Gadot is to play Cleopatra in a new film has ignited a storm of protests. Critics accuse Gadot of perpetrating “genocide” and cultural appropriation by planning to play the ancient Egyptian queen. A prominent Pakistani journalist blasted “Your country steals Arab land & now you're stealing their movie roles…” Some are claiming that a Jew cannot play Cleopatra, and the role should go to an African or Arab actress instead.
Cleopatra was a complex figure. Cleopatra VII (there were many Queen Cleopatras in Egypt – the final queen is the most famous) lived 69-30 BCE, and reigned during a tumultuous time in Egyptian history. Her political life touched on many regions, including far away Israel and Rome. Cleopatra didn’t rule in a vacuum – she was a real woman, who played a central role in Middle Eastern politics. No matter how much we think we know about Cleopatra, there’s always more to discover.
Here are seven surprising facts about Cleopatra – and her important relationship with the land of Israel and ancient Jews.
Civil War – and Jewish Allies
Cleopatra VII was born into the Macedonian Greek family that ruled Egypt in 69 BCE. (Cleopatra wasn’t African – though she did distinguish herself by becoming the only monarch to bother learning the Egyptian language.) She became queen at age 18, reigning with her brother Ptolemy XIII, whom she later married.
Egypt at the time was riven by intrigue and nearly bankrupt after years of civil wars. Under Cleopatra’s rule, Egypt also became embroiled in Rome’s civil wars, openly siding with the Roman dictator Julius Caesar against his enemy Pompey. In the year 48 BCE, Cleopatra’s brother exiled her: Cleopatra formed a military alliance (and a storied romance) with Julius Caesar, who helped restore her to Egypt’s throne.
Egypt at the time had a thriving Jewish community, and many of Cleopatra VII’s most ardent supporters were Egyptian Jews. Historian Stacy Schiff, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her masterful biography Cleopatra: A Life (Little Brown and Company, New York: 2010) notes that in First Century BCE Egypt, Jews “were river guards, police officers, army commanders, and high-ranking officials” and ardent supporters of Cleopatra’s line of succession. Egyptian Jews “numbered among Cleopatra’s supporters in the desert in 48. And they had fought for her during the Alexandrian War (in 47 BCE), at the end of which Caesar had granted them citizenship.”
Hoping to Rule Over the Land of Israel
Once Julius Caesar assured Cleopatra’s position on the throne of Egypt, Cleopatra tried to restore her kingdom to encompass the larger territories that her ancestors had formerly ruled. Cleopatra also needed help to fill the nation’s empty coffers. She asked Julius Caesar to help her secure the port city of Joppa (today Jaffa, a beautiful neighborhood in the southern part of Tel Aviv) as part of Egypt. Julius Caesar refused, instead granting Cleopatra the island of Cyprus.
In 47 BCE, after visiting Egypt, Julius Caesar left three Roman legions in the Egyptian city of Alexandria to help ensure Cleopatra’s security on the throne, and made his way back to Rome. Historian Dr. Joann Fletcher notes that at the time relations with the region's Jewish communities were uppermost in Caesar’s mind.
“Sailing out of Alexandria’s Great Harbour past the palaces, the Pharos and the colossus of Isis,” Dr. Fletcher describes; “Caesar did not go straight back to Rome. Needing to shore up Jewish support for his forthcoming struggles against Pompeius’ sons, he sailed along the coast to Acre (in present day Israel’s north) to reward Pompeius’ former supporters Antipatros and Hyrcanus for their valuable help… As Rome’s representative, he confirmed their regime, excused them all tribute, allowed them to rebuild Jerusalem and gave them the port of Joppa (Jaffa) which Cleopatra had wanted herself as part of her plans to regain the Ptolemies’ former territories.” (Quoted in Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend by Dr.Joann Fletcher, Harper Collins, New York: 2008). The empires and kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean were incredibly diverse and complex, and the region’s Jewish communities were key players in maintaining support for local rulers.
Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and a Golden Age for Jews
Cleopatra was with Julius Caesar in Rome when he was murdered there on March 15, 44 BCE, by a group of senators who objected to his tyrannical rule. The line of succession following Julius Caesar’s death was exceedingly complicated. His great nephew (and adopted son) Octavian emerged as his most likely heir. (Indeed, he would eventually reign – considered a living god by his followers – as Rome’s first emperor, from 27 BCE to 14 CE). In the year after Julius Caesar’s death, however, the Roman General Mark Antony vied for power, and reigned alongside Octavian as part of Rome’s Second Triumvirate for a time, until he broke with Octavian and started a civil war in 31 BCE.
Seeking access to Egypt’s fabulous wealth, Antony turned to Cleopatra – they formed an alliance as well as a storied romance together. Antony and Cleopatra travelled to Egypt, and united in fighting Octavian’s forces in Rome. During this period Cleopatra used to dress like the Egyptian goddess Isis, and Antony called himself and dressed up as the Greek god Dionysus. The image of these two monarchs haunts western literature and imagination: “Eternity was in our lips and eyes,” Cleopatra famously utters in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra. The pair was a larger than life couple.
This didn’t occur in fiction: Antony and Cleopatra were real life rulers, and their actions had consequences for real people – including the sizable Jewish community in Egypt at the time. “The Jews linked Cleopatra’s rule with a golden age,” notes historian Stacy Schiff. The Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, a museum dedicated to Jewish Diaspora communities, estimates that in the First Century of the Common Era – just a hundred years after Cleopatra's Rule – up to a million Jews lived in Egypt; it was one of the largest concentrations of Jewish life in the world, and one that was relatively secure, open and free.
Hosting King Herod
In the year 39 BCE, Cleopatra VII would host another distinguished visitor: one of the Roman Tetrarchs, or governors, of the province of Judea – present day Israel – named Herod. Three years later, Herod would be promoted to King of Judea by the Roman empire, and would terrorize his Jewish subjects. He was a paranoid, brutal ruler who murdered many of the leading Jewish religious figures and rabbis of the day. Yet in 39 BCE, that was still a long way off and Herod entered Egypt as a harried refugee.
Nomadic Parthian fighters had entered the land of Israel, harrying Herod and his allies. Herod escaped Jerusalem and fled with his family to the fortress he’d built on top of a mountain called Masada, which still stands today. With few friends, Herod had no place to go nearby, and travelled to Egypt, where he threw himself on the hospitality of Cleopatra, a fellow client ruler of the Roman empire. Both Herod and Cleopatra had formerly been loyal to Pompey, and Herod's father had been an ally of Cleopatra’s Ptolemaic royal family.
“Herod was...an entertaining companion, glib and keen, fanatical in his loyalties, expert in his displays of deference,” notes historian Stacy Schiff. Cleopatra asked Herod to take part in an invasion of Ethiopia with her, but the Roman Tetrarch declined. After a lengthy visit, Cleopatra evidently wished Herod to leave, and gave him a galley ship to convey him back to Judea. It was winter, however, and the Mediterranean seas were rough. Herod shipwrecked off the coast of Cyprus, only arriving back in Judea later on.
Visiting – and Fleeing – Jerusalem
In the year 36 BCE, Cleopatra was at the height of her power. She’d successfully restored much of her father’s empire, and decided to take a trip to her newly acquired territories. Cleopatra travelled in a grand procession with many attendants. With her love of luxury and flair for the dramatic, it must have been a sight to behold.
She travelled through modern day Syria, south into present day Lebanon, then into the land of Israel to visit King Herod, her erstwhile friend and ally. Herod was now the Roman Empire’s client “King” of Judea, and was letting his bloodthirsty nature have free reign. Cleopatra barely escaped with her life.
Cleopatra’s territory extended all the way to the Israeli city of Jericho, where Mark Antony had succeeded in seizing territory for her. Cleopatra now owned lush groves of balsam trees, which once had belonged to Herod. She leased the land back to him for an annual rent of 200 talents. Now, on her visit, she collected cuttings, ordering them to be taken back to Egypt and planted there, so that she could have her own supply of incense with which to supply Egypt’s pagan sun-worshipping temples.
Taking the cuttings seems to have aroused Herod’s anger, but it was Cleopatra’s open alliance with Herod’s brother-in-law that truly enraged the brutal king. Herod was born into an Idumean Arab family: he wanted to serve as the Cohen Gadol, or High Priest, in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, but was not able to do so because of his non-Jewish birth. Cleopatra called for Herod to appoint his brother-in-law Aristobulus, a descendent of the Jewish Hasmonean royal family, as High Priest instead.
Herod feared that Cleopatra was plotting against him, and began to plan her assassination. (Herod also planned the murder of his own wife and children, which he carried out – effectively ending the Hasmonean bloodline and ensuring his own continuation as king.) Cleopatra got wind of Herod’s plans, and fled back to Egypt with her entourage. Instead, Herod tried to destroy her reputation, spreading the rumor that she’d tried to seduce him and seize the kingdom of Judea.
Cleopatra in the Talmud
Cleopatra is mentioned twice in the Talmud. (While there were several Queen Cleopatras in Egyptian history, Cleopatra VII lived closest in time to the age of the Talmud’s sages, and seems to be the Cleopatra who is referenced.). One of the Talmud’s passages seems to fit very well with what historians already know about Cleopatra’s casual cruelty, and the spirit of scientific inquiry for which she was also known.
The passage involves gruesome medical experiments that “Cleopatra, Queen of Alexandria” carried out on condemned prisoners. “Since her maidservants were sentenced to death by the government, she took advantage of the opportunity and experimented on them…” (Talmud Niddah 30b). “Given the preponderance of medical professionals at court,” historian Stacy Schiff notes, the Talmud’s description of Cleopatra’s medical experimentation rings true. Yet the sages of the Talmud rejected Cleopatra’s gruesome experiments. After hearing about the Egyptian queen’s medical hypotheses, the Talmud recounts that Rabbi Yishmael called her a “fool”.
Cleopatra’s Death and Legacy
In 31 BCE, Cleopatra and Mark Antony joined forces to engage Ocatvian’s navy in a sea battle at Actium, off the coast of Greece. Cleopatra’s and Mark Antony’s ships were defeated, and the royal couple retreated to Egypt. Octavian followed them, waging war on them in Egypt. Octavian conquered Alexandria in the year 30 BCE, and turned Egypt into a province in Rome’s vast Empire.
Facing utter ruin, legend has it that Antony and Cleopatra ended their own lives, Antony by stabbing himself and Cleopatra by embracing a poisonous snake. Cambridge University Professor Mary Beard doubts their ending matched the legends that soon sprung up. “Suicide by snake bite is a hard feat to pull off,” Prof. Beard notes in her history of the Roman Empire SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright Publishing, New York: 2015). She believes it's more likely that Octavian killed Cleopatra.
“The luxury of Cleopatra’s court was wildly exaggerated” after Cleopatra’s death, Dr. Beard explains, “and relatively innocent occasions in Alexandria were twisted out of all recognition.” Much of what we know about Cleopatra and Mark Antony was written by the Roman poet Plutarch, who exaggerated Cleopatra’s Eastern exoticism for the benefit of Roman readers.
This is the legacy that’s come down to us: Cleopatra as an Eastern potentate, mysterious and sensual. Yet dismissing Cleopatra as some sort of cartoonish exotic Middle Eastern princess diminishes her real life historical role. Cleopatra VII was a remarkable woman living in a consequential, complicated era. She was the product of her times, and played a vital role in the ancient Middle East. She engaged with Jewish communities, and ensured that Egypt’s Jewish population became one of the ancient world’s most free and secure.
Instead of sparking arguments over who should depict her in a movie, it would be wonderful if the forthcoming blockbuster about Cleopatra’s life led us to learn more about this remarkable queen – and the complicated, real times she and her contemporaries inhabited.