De mulieribus claris

Cleopatra, the ambitious young princess, soon queen of Egypt and lover of two powerful Roman generals such as Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius, was always depicted as an immoral woman by authors both from ancient and medieval times. Particularly, in Boccaccio’s point of view, Cleopatra had too many vitia and too few virtutes. Her character didn’t seem to fit the opinion of a male Christian writer.

  • 51 BCE
    Death of Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII Auletes.
  • 49 BCE
    Both Caesar and Pompey recog- nised only the rule of Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra was forced to run out from Alexandria.
  • 48 BCE
    Caesar defeats Pompey during the battle of Pharsalus; Pompey flees to Egypt and is killed by Ptolemy XIII.
  • 48 BCE
    Caesar arrives in Egypt and orders Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra VII to disband their armies, but instead, war breaks out and Ptolemy was killed during the battle.
  • 47 BCE
    23 June 47 BCE Birth of Cleopatra’s son, named Caesarion; Caesar is said to be the father.
  • 47 BCE
    Cleopatra VII is only ruler of Egypt; she presents herself as the goddess Isis.
  • 44 BCE
    15 March Julius Caesar is killed; Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV return to Egypt, where Ptolemy is soon killed and Caesarion recognized as king; first of a series of bad harvests.
  • 41 BCE
    Cleopatra meets Marc Antony in Tarsus. The Roman needs the Egyptian queen in his war against the Parthian Empire, and returns the rule of old Ptolemaic territories to her.
  • 34 BCE
    An elaborate coronation ceremony in which Caesarion and Alexander Helios were named King and their mother Cleopatra VII was named Queen of Kings, took place in the Egyptian capital.
  • 31 BCE
    Marc Antony and Cleopatra move to Greece, where they are isolated by Octavian’s admiral Agrippa in Actium
  • 31 BCE
    Cleopatra flees to Alexandria and opens negotiations with Octavian; her purpose is to save her children and keep the Ptolemaic kingdom intact.
  • 31 BCE September 2
    The Battle of Actium. Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII.
  • 30 BCE
    After Octavian has declined to negotiate, Cleopatra reportedly commits suicide; Mark Antony does the same. Their children survive, but Caesarion is killed.


Boccaccio introduces Cleopatra

Cleopatra, Aegyptia femina, totius orbis fabula, etsi per multos medios reges a Ptolemaeo, Macedone rege et Lagi filio, originem traheret et Ptolemaei Dyonisii seu – ut aliis placet– Minei regis filia (sc. esset), ad imperandum, per nefas tamen, ipsi regno pervenerit, nulla fere re nisi hac et oris formositate (...)refulsit, cum e contrario avaritia, crudelitate atque luxuria omni mundo conspicua facta sit.

Cleopatra was an Egyptian woman rumoured all over the world. Although she descended, through many generations, from Ptolemy I Soter, Macedonian king and son of Lago, and she was born from Ptolemy XII Philopator or from Ptolemy Minnaei - as others say-, however, she gained the throne of the reign with impious acts. She shone almost for nothing but her physical beauty. On the contrary, she had been made famous everywhere in the world by her greed, cruelty and lust.

1 Goya - Maia Desnuda

1 Goya - Maia Desnuda

Cleopatra as sister and wife

Quod, eo quod familiarissima esset apud Aegyptios turpitudo matres filiasque tantum a coniugiis excludere, exsecutum est. Porro exurente Cleopatra regni libidine, ut nonnullis visum est, innocuum adulescentem eundemque fratrem et virum suum, quindecimum aetatis annum agentem, veneno assumpsit et sola regno potita est

[Ptolemy’s directive about the marriage] was accomplished because Egyptians had a repugnant tradition which stated to avoid only mothers and daughters in marriages. Therefore, Cleopatra, burning for the desire of the reign, as many understood, killed her 15-years-old innocent brother, [who was also her] husband with poison and she reigned alone.

2 Guido Reni- Salomè con la testa del Battista

2 Guido Reni- Salomè con la testa del Battista

3 Klimt - Giuditta

3 Klimt - Giuditta

The marriage of Cleopatry and Antony

Inde vero in fugam ex Parthis redeunti Antonio accersita occurit (sc. Cleopatra). Antonius quidem cum fraude Arthabazanem, Armeniae regem, cepisset et thesauris permaximis spoliavisset atque argentea catena vinctum traheret, ut avidam in suos amplexūs provocaret, effeminatus venienti (sc. Cleopatrae) captivum regem cum omni regio ornatu et praeda deiecit in gremium. Quo laeta munere cupidissima mulier adeo blande flagrantem complexa est, ut repudiatā Octaviā, Octaviani Caesaris sorore, illam totibus affectibus sibi uxorem iungeret.

Lectio Ecclesiastica (Italian Group)
Afterwards Cleopatra, having been invited, ran to meet Antony, who was coming back to Egypt fleeing from the Parthians. Antony, having caught Artabazanio, king of Armenia, with a fraud and having deprived him of his great treasure and dragged him, bound with a silver chain, in order to propel the greedy woman into his embraces, threw in a seductive way the captured king with all of his regal ornaments and riches the on the feet of Cleopatra, who was arriving. The very lustful woman, content of this present, hugged him in a such seductive way that he, burning of desire, having renounced Octavia, Caesar Octavianus’ sister, was joined with her in marriage with all his passion.

Cleopatra’s seductive power

Cleopatra was a noble woman descending from the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy I Soter, a successor of Alexander the Great. She was probably born from Ptolemy XII Philopator, (or maybe from Ptolemaeus Minnaei). She was a charming and powerful woman as she was the single ruler of the whole reign of Egypt. On the other side, she was unscrupulous, lustful and greedy. Images [1] and [4] show these characteristics: the woman lays naked on a bed with polished drapes, decorated using an oriental style; her position reflects her power to seduce thanks to her beauty and her high social position. She also was a mysterious character, according to other sources in fact, Cleopatra’s father was Ptolemy XII Philopator (Ptolemaeus Dionysius). There is no information concerning Ptolemae- us Mineus. In this text Boccaccio characterizes her figure negatively. She is said to be a matter of gossip all around the world in a negative sense.

4 Ingres, Grande Odalique

4 Ingres, Grande Odalique

Cleopatra’s cruelty

Cleopatra is featured with cruelty and heartlessness: she is such a lustful woman that she is able to kill one of her closest relatives in order to obtain power. Boccaccio highlights Cleopatra’s cruelty telling about Lysanias’ murder. He suggests there were sources reporting this episode but he doesn’t explain them in detail. For this reason, she can be compared with Salome, image [2] and Judith [3]+. Salome is a biblical figure represented by Guido Reni with the head of St. John the Baptist on a tray in her hands. Judith is one of the female figures most frequently painted by Klimt, she’s a biblical heroine too, famous for having beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes with her sword. Both these wom- en, as Cleopatra, were capable of cruel actions to gain the power.

Cleopatra’s political influence

According to the text, Antony is described as a powerful, seductive and a lustful man, because he is said to have defeated a strong king and made Cleopatra fall in love with him thanks to his richness and his charm. On the other hand, Cleopatra is described as a very beautiful and fascinating woman; she is also ambitious and she aspires to richness and power. The meeting of Antony and Cleopatra (image 5) by Giambattista Tiepolo, is one of a few exam- ples of paintings in which Antony and Cleopatra are together. Antony wears a typical roman armour representing his power as a general. At his side, Cleopatra is dressed with a splendid rich dress with a wide neckline which highlights her sensuality. Thanks to her seductive power she was able to gain a great power prevailing over famous Roman generals such as Cesar and Antony. Boccaccio chose Cleopatra as one of his mulieres clarae because she was wily and clever. She was also important for European history because she convinced Antony to repudiate Octavia. Therefore, she was the reason why the civil war between Antony and Octavian Caesar broke out.

Richard Strauss, “Dance of the Seven Veils”

The figure of Salome represented in the homonymous opera by Rich- ard Strauss seems to resemble the figure of Cleopatra, described by Boc- caccio in his ‘De Mulieribus Claris’. Salome, like Cleopatra, thanks to the power of her beauty and seduction manages to get from her father Herod what she wants, the severed head of John the Baptist. Dance of the Seven Veils is from the ballet Salome, composed in 1905, on the Ger- man translation of the French play Salomé by Oscar Wilde.