“For the last time in two thousand years Cleopatra VII stands offstage.
In a matter of days she will launch herself into history,
which is to say that faced with the inevitable,
she will counter with the improbable. It is 48 BC.”
— Stacy Schiff
Cleopatra (69BC 30-BC) was a master of self-preservation. She lived a life under constant threat and yet never fell victim to it. Her success was so uncommon, particularly for a woman, that it seems like history has been trying to make excuses for it for over 2000 years. But as Stacy Schiff illuminates in her book, Cleopatra: A Life, her story is worth learning and taking inspiration from. Cleopatra has a lot to teach us about drawing on all our resources in the face of adversity.
Self-preservation in the biological sense is about our very profound instinct to keep ourselves alive. This instinct is exhibited by all animals and is about the survival of our genes. It’s not about spirituality or morality or about how we feel. It’s a biological desire to live until we can pass our genes onto the next generation and ensure their survival.
As John Medina explains in Brain Rules, “Without a flexible, immediately available, highly regulated stress response, we would die. Remember, the brain is the world’s most sophisticated survival organ. All of its many complexities are built toward a mildly erotic, singularly selfish goal: to live long enough to thrust our genes on to the next generation. Our reactions to stress serve the live-long-enough part of that goal. Stress helps us manage the threats that could keep us from procreating.”
This sophisticated stress response is an extremely useful system to have. It works when it needs to — no effort required — propelling us to fight, flight, or freeze. It allows us to process information so quickly that we are not conscious of the thoughts. We obey our bodies when it tells us not to move a muscle, to attack with as much violence as possible, or to run like hell.
But it has to be able to turn off. It can’t be the only system you use every day. Why? Because it is meant to come out only in situations where our life is threatened.
Our stress responses were shaped to solve problems that lasted not for years, but for seconds. … These days, our stresses are measured not in moments with mountain lions, but in hours, days, and sometimes months with hectic workplaces, screaming toddlers, and money problems. Our system isn’t built for that. And when moderate amounts of hormone build up to large amounts, or when moderate amounts of hormone hang around too long, they become quite harmful.
And so, in human society, which often seems one long, ongoing battle, we can’t exist in a constant state of fight/flight/freeze if we are to preserve both our genes and our sanity. We need to integrate other capabilities of our brain into our dealings with stress, such as rational, strategic thought that leverages the resources of knowledge we’ve built over the years. And this is where Cleopatra excelled.
To be fair, we all don’t respond the same way to stress. As Medina says, “Psychiatrists long have observed that some people are more tolerant of stress than others. … Some people’s genetic complement naturally buffers them against the effects of stress, even the chronic type.”
We will never know if this is true for Cleopatra, but there is no doubt she rose to the formidable challenges of being Queen of Egypt circa 40 BCE. She adapted, survived, and thrived despite constant peril. So maybe her story can illuminate for us a different mindset with which to deal with our daily stressors.
First she had to deal with a tradition of murder within her own family.
Schiff explains in Cleopatra: A Life:
Over the generations the family indulged in what has been termed ‘an orgy of pillage and murder’ … Over and over mothers sent troops against sons. Sisters waged war against brothers. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother fought one civil war against her parents, a second against her children.
Because, in Cleopatra's Ptolemy line, brothers often married sisters, all children had legitimate claims to the throne and often ended up disposing of each other. In keeping up with family practices, Cleopatra got rid of a brother/husband and a sister who had designs on her throne.
So right from the beginning it was kill or be killed. There were no allies in the home.
When Caesar arrived in 48 BCE, Cleopatra’s brother was occupying the throne having banished her to the desert.
That summer she rallied a band of mercenaries, at a desert camp, under the glassy heat of the Syrian sun. She was twenty-one, an orphan and an exile. Already she had known both excessive good fortune and its flamboyant consort, calamity. Accustomed to the greatest luxury of the day, she held court two hundred miles from the ebony doors and onyx floors of home. Her tent amid the scrub of the desert was the closest she had come in a year. Over those months she had scrambled for her life, fleeing through Middle Egypt, Palestine, and southern Syria. She had spent a dusty summer raising an army.
She was resourceful. She took the throne back and held on for 18 tumultuous years.
Politics in the Mediterranean during her time were volatile. Changing allegiances, murder, competing personalities and ideologies characterized the Roman spirit. Caesar had formed a vision of how powerful Rome could be, and this was tempting to many.
Egypt was the richest country on the Mediterranean. Because it had the most fertile soil, it could grow and produce exceptional amounts of food. So it was an early stop in any attempts to conquer the world, because it could fund the efforts.
Rather than focus on the things she couldn’t overtly control (e.g. the timing of Roman invasions), she set to order those elements within her sphere of power and influence. The Greek language, “by Cleopatra’s day [was] the language of business and bureaucracy … While Egyptian speakers learned Greek, it was rare that anyone ventured in the opposite direction. To the punishing study of Egyptian, however, Cleopatra applied herself. She was allegedly the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled.”
She worked hard to gain and maintain the support of her people because no monarch wants to be fighting on two fronts at once. She got rid of her competitors, spent money on developing Egypt’s infrastructure, and as Schiff explains, learned Egyptian culture so well that she was able to invoke their Goddess Isis as “provider of wisdom and of material and spiritual sustenance.” Rome was always going to be a problem, but she did an excellent job keeping peace on the home front. She had the longest reign of all the Ptolemies.
When the inevitable Roman intrusions came she aimed to best support Egyptian interests, sometimes backing the wrong horse. After Caesar, there was a fight for Roman leadership. When the dust settled Mark Antony was in charge of everything East of Rome and Cleopatra was in the awkward and potentially fatal position of not having supported him.
Confident though she may have been, contemptuous though she may have appeared, Cleopatra left nothing in her preparation to chance. … She would have known she was entering a sort-of sweepstakes for Antony’s attention. She seemed determined to conjure a display so stunning it would propel Plutarch to Shakespearean heights, as it would elicit from Shakespeare his richest poetry. And she succeeded. In the annals of indelible entrances – the wooden horse into Troy; Christ into Jerusalem; Benjamin Franklin into Philadelphia; the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s stage – Cleopatra’s alone lifts off the page in iridescent color, amid inexhaustible, expensive clouds of incense, a sensational, simultaneous assault on every sense.
She was also extremely adept at framing her actions to suit whatever narrative she needed to preserve her power. By the time she was dealing with Mark Antony, “her ability to molt, instantly and as the situation required, to slide effortlessly from one idiom to another, her irresistible charm, were already well established.”
Cleopatra worked her whole life to keep her independence from Rome, to maintain her control over the land of which she was Queen. She fought to preserve her power and in doing so preserve her self and give her children the best chance of survival. “Cleopatra could generally be counted on to do the intelligent thing,” Schiff writes. “She was fighting for her life, her throne, and her children. She had ruled for two decades, and was without illusion.”
She adapted to the many vicissitudes of life by learning as much as she could, making sure her risks were calculated, and never giving up control of the position she held. Even her death was on her own terms. Although Schiff artfully argues that the actual circumstances of her death are unlikely to ever be know for sure, “for any number of reasons Cleopatra was unlikely to have recruited an asp, or an Egyptian cobra, for the job. A woman known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to a wild animal.”
Eventually, Cleopatra could not outrun the aggression of Rome in pursuing the fertile Nile valley. But her intelligence and adaptability allowed her to last a remarkably long time in the face of a lifetime of tumult.