Opportunities and power


Research has substantiated the belief that, in the ancient world, Western women had far more opportunities and power with lesser restrictions than Eastern women. Undoubtedly there were a number of very strong willed women who disregarded custom and ruled their families with the sheer force of their personalities, but they were the exception. Cleopatra, one of the most famous women of all time, tried to find a balance between independence and co-operation with Rome. E.M. Forster states that, "It is almost impossible to think of Cleopatra as an ordinary person." (Prior, 1998:p1) Although Cleopatra was considered vastly renowned and significant in the ancient world it can be argued as to whether or not the power wielded by her was unique throughout various ancient societies.

In the world of antiquity, proportionately few women had either power or prestige. The position of Egyptian women as we now understand it was within the limits of a male-dominated world. Although most admired in the traditional roles of wife and mother, Egyptian women in many ways suffered far fewer restrictions than women in other contemporary cultures. Perhaps more importantly, some compensation for lack of a woman's political or professional power was found in the moral and cultural authority she was held to possess, to which the Egyptians paid genuine tribute throughout their history. Egypt treated its women better than any of the other major civilizations of the ancient world, hence it became infamous for its various queens, and female pharaohs. The Egyptians believed that "joy and happiness were legitimate goals of life and regarded home and family as the major source of delight". (Estensen, 1998:p463) It was taken for granted in the ancient world that the head of the house was the man. The true meaning of this fact for women varied considerably from one place and time to another and the impact was much greater if the law drew a distinction between a man and a woman. We tend to think of "women's liberation" and feminism as a late twentieth century phenomenon, but even in the ancient world there were a few women who carved out significant roles for themselves, and the status of women varied considerably from one civilization to another. Marriage and offspring were always considered desirable, but in some societies wives were simply domestic servants and offspring acquired importance only when they grew up or if they were of the male sex. Fortunately, in Egypt, love and emotional support were considered to be important parts of marriage. Egyptians loved children as people and not just as potential workers and care-takers. Similar to Egyptian women, Celtic women and girls were distinct in the ancient world for the liberty and rights they enjoyed and the position they held in society. Compared to their counterparts in Greek, Roman and other ancient societies, they were allowed much freedom of activity and protection under the law. On the contrary, in Ancient China, girls were brought up to be quiet and obedient to their fathers and brothers while sons were considered an honour to a Chinese family. Fu Xuan, an Ancient Chinese poet expresses in her poem A Girl's Upbringing, "How sad it is to be a woman - Nothing else is held so cheap..." (Eshuys et al, 1984:p The comparisons between Egyptian women and Celtic women form the basis of the argument that Cleopatra's position in power was significant but not one of a kind.

When comparing Cleopatra with other women in dominant positions, it is easy to find many parallels between her and other western women such as Hatshepsut, Nefertari and Boudicca. Then again, it is almost impossible to find any similarities between Cleopatra and an eastern empress such as L Bang. Cleopatra came to power in Egypt at the age of 17 and reigned as queen from 51 B.C. - 30 B.C. As a Ptolemy, Cleopatra was Macedonian, but even though her ancestry was Macedonian, she was still considered an Egyptian and reigned as an Egyptian queen. Cleopatra was not intended to be the only ruler. Her father's dying wish was for Cleopatra to rule alongside the elder of her two half-brothers. "Cleopatra was to be queen and ten-year-old Ptolemy was to be king." (Prior, 1998:p12) Cleopatra had no intention of working alongside her half-brother and insisted that messengers "Tell all Egypt I am queen. Mint new coins with my picture on them, and mark them Cleopatra Philopater: 'Cleopatra who loves her father'. That way everyone will know that I am King Ptolemy's dutiful daughter." (Prior, 1998:p13) Although, in actual fact, by refusing to share the throne she was directly challenging her father's dying wishes. Many people would not take her seriously because she was a woman, while others were angry at her for disobeying her father. Cleopatra managed to hold her throne for only a short while before her brother and his 'power hungry' followers managed to hatch a plot against her, taking control by force. Since Cleopatra was legally obliged to have either a brother or son for her consort, she married her brother Ptolemy XIII when he was 12. Eventually, Ptolemy and his followers tipped her off the throne. To rid herself of her brother/spouse Ptolemy XIII, who had sent her into exile, Cleopatra needed Roman support. After she enticed Caesar with the infamous gift of herself rolled up in carpet, Ptolemy was killed. In 47 B.C., Cleopatra respectfully married the next Ptolemy brother in line, Ptolemy XIV, an 11-year old, and then went on a cruise with her lover, Caesar.

"Cleopatra's union with Julius Caesar... would have placed Egypt firmly back on the map as a world power after a period of increasing weakness, with Caesar and Cleopatra reigning as joint rulers of the classical world. With this in mind she promptly produced the necessary son and heir to launch the dynasty. Republicans in Rome thwarted this by assassinating Caesar on the steps of the Senate before he was offered a Throne..." (Cleopatra VII Ptolemaic Dynasty, http://interoz.com/egypt/cleopatr.htm: 17th August 2003)

The outcome of the affair between Caesar and Cleopatra was a son, the soon-to-be murdered Caesarion, whom Cleopatra set up as a co-regent after the murder of her second brother, Ptolemy XIV. In 41 B.C. Mark Antony arranged to meet Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. He fell in love with her, and had Plutarch write a description of her as, "Her beauty was not of that incomparable kind... but the charm of her presence was irresistible, and there was an attraction in her person and her talk... that laid all who associated with her under its spell."( Although Mark Antony married a Roman, Octavia, sister of Caesar's heir, Octavian, it was with Cleopatra that he lived. Ultimately he divorced his Roman wife when Octavian declared war on him. By 37 B.C. Cleopatra and Mark Antony were married, giving Cleopatra the Roman support she needed to rule. Octavian managed to convince the Roman Senate that,

"Mark Antony was under Cleopatra's control and no longer had the interests of Rome at heart. In 32 B.C. the Senate denounced Mark Antony as an enemy of Rome and declared war on Cleopatra... Antony was defeated in a sea battle at Actium... In 30 B.C. Antony committed suicide"

Cleopatra attempted to make peace with Octavian but failed and in desperation of being publicly overthrown by him, Cleopatra had an asp "a symbol of divine royalty" placed upon her to bite and kill her. "Octavian later had their son Caesarion strangled following Cleopatra's defeat and ritual suicide". (Cleopatra VII Ptolemaic Dynasty, http://interoz.com/egypt/cleopatr.htm: 17th August 2003)

It is notably possible to find parallels between the reign of Cleopatra and the reign of Queen Boudicca, widow of Icenian king Prasutagus. Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, made an alliance with Rome so that he would be allowed to rule his territory. When he died in 60 A.D., Tacitus, an ancient writer, reports that he made the emperor and his own two daughters heirs, hoping, thereby, to placate Rome. Such a will was not in accordance with Celtic law; nor did it satisfy the new emperor, "for centurions plundered Prasutagus' house, whipped his widow, Boudicca, and raped their daughters." (Athena Review Vol.1, No.1, http://www. athenapub.com/tacitus1.htm: 22nd August 2003) Similar to Cleopatra's outrage of being tipped off the throne, ancient writer, Tacitus, explains in The Annals by Tacitus of Boudicca's rebellion after the Roman officials had seized the entire kingdom, revoking land grants and publicly "disgraced her (Boudicca) with cruel strips; her daughters were ravished, and the most illustrious of the Icenians were, by force, deprived of the position which had been transmitted to them by their ancestors." (Athena Review Vol.1, No.1, http://www.athenapub.com/tacitus1.htm: 22nd August 2003) Although Boudicca's revolt against the Romans was more successful than that of Cleopatra's, their target was one in the same. Tacitus recounts in The Annals by Tacitus, Boudicca, in a chariot with her two daughters drove through the ranks addressing the different nations in their turn,

"This, she said, is not the first time that the Britons have been led to battle by a woman... She took the field, like the meanest amongst them, to assert the cause of public liberty, and to seek revenge for her body seamed with ignominious stripes, and her daughters infamously ravished." (Athena Review Vol.1, No.1, http://www.athenapub.com/tacitus1.htm: 22nd August 2003)

Boudicca, as ruler and war leader of the Iceni, led a retaliatory revolt against the Romans. Enlisting the support of the neighbouring tribe Trinovantes and possibly others, she headed towards the Roman town, Camulodunum and virtually annihilated the town and townspeople. After defeating the troops at Camulodunum, Boudicca's forces headed towards what is now known as London, slaughtered all Romans and demolished the town. Eventually Boudicca was defeated, but not captured by the Romans. Not unlike Cleopatra in her ways, she and her daughters are thought to have taken poison to avoid capture and ritual execution at Rome. The recount of Boudicca's liberation against Rome and the evidence of power she held, in ways, was similar to that of Cleopatra's. Both women gained their power from a wealthy and powerful background and continued on fighting for their right to be ruler and to be respected as a woman. There were more influential ancient women like Boudicca ruling throughout different societies which supports the theory that Cleopatra, although momentous in her own right, was not one of a kind.

In contrast, eastern countries such as China were not recognized for immense women's rights. China had strict protocol on the actions of women. Women were best known for being inferior to men so it was not often that a woman would step out into the ranks and rule alone as empress. A somewhat recognized empress in ancient China was empress L, wife of Emperor Liu Bang. In 195 B.C., emperor Liu died from an arrow wound. "Theoretically, the emperor designated his successor from among the boys born to his empress and his numerous concubines: the eldest was not automatically chosen." (Hyslop et al, 1988: p147) The wish of emperor Liu did not please his widow, empress Lu. She was determined to ensure that her son, "who was neither the first-born nor the late emperor's favourite, succeeded him. To accomplish this, she had to dispose of both the designated heir and his concubine mother" (Hyslop et al, 1988: p147) During her reign, empress L wished to rule alongside her relatives in her own name. "Empress L ennobled several of her kinsmen and made a bid to supplement the Liu family with her own..." (Hyslop et al, 1988: p147) L died 15 years later. Liu's followers regrouped and disposed of L's relations, leaving the throne open to another of Liu Bang's son, Emperor Wen. Unlike Cleopatra, L used her power to appoint others, her son and relatives, as rulers. The fact L appointed males to dominate was completely opposing the reign of Boudicca and, in some ways, the reign of Cleopatra. The tale of empress L proves Chinese women were unable to gain extensive power and make influential decisions.

In conclusion, although Cleopatra was a remarkable woman and leader in her time she should not be described as unique because there are other like-minded women who through fair means, or foul, attempted to achieve goals and status that were not the norm in their particular society. Women such as Cleopatra, Boudicca and L were all powerful in their own right but their degree of power and the purpose for which they used their power differ because of the extent to which their society enforced certain customs, laws and traditions along with their attitude towards women.

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