Episode 55 – Cleopatra versus Emperor Wu of Han

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Episode 55 – Cleopatra versus Wu of Han

Today’s episode matches one of the most famous people in world history, the last of the Ptolemy’s, Cleopatra against Emperor Wu of Han, one of the longest-serving Emperor’s in Chinese history, living around the same time as his adversary.

For today’s episode, my primary sources for Greek/Egyptian Pharaoh are Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams, and Distortions by Lucy Hughes-Hallett and the Pulitzer Prize winner, Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. For the Wu of Han, I relied on China: A History by John Keay and China: A History Part I, by Harold M. Tanner.

Cleopatra VII
Bust of Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra VII Philopator, born sometime in 69 BCE, was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes and presumably, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena. Of this, we have no real proof of who her mother indeed was, only conjecture. Was she the sister of Ptolemy? This would not be a surprise as incest was common amongst the elite ruling classes of the day.

Contrary to common belief, Cleopatra was not Egyptian but Greek, part of the family that settled in Egypt from the general who led part of the army of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy I Soter. His dynasty began around 302 BCE and continued until Cleopatra’s time.

The thing about Cleopatra is that there is more myth than reality surrounding her. Part of it may be due to her depiction by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 movie Cleopatra, but her legend has been building for many millennia. My job today is to give you the true story of who Cleopatra truly was. Luckily, the two books I have chosen were carefully researched, and the one by Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s purpose was to dispel all of the fallacies and distortions.

One of the best descriptions I’ve read about the Egyptian Queen was from the back cover of the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, which I very highly recommend. “Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first and poisoned the second; incest and assassination were family specialties. She had children by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most prominent Roman commanders of the day. With Antony, she would attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled both their ends. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone done in history for all the wrong reasons; her supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost.”

From Hughes-Hallett’s biography, we have this, “She is ‘the wickedest woman in history;’ she is a pattern of female virtue. She is a sexual glutton; she is a true and tender lover who died for her man. She is a royal princess whose courage is proof of her nobility; she is an untrustworthy foreigner whose lasciviousness and cunning are typical of her race. She is a public benefactor, builder of aqueducts and lighthouses; she is a selfish tyrant who tortures slaves for her entertainment. She is playful as a child; she is as old as sin. She is Cleopatra VII, the Queen of Egypt who died in 30 BC, a historical person about whom we a limited number of facts can be ascertained; but she is also, as Theophile Gautier wrote in 1845, ‘the most complete woman ever to have existed, the most womanly woman and the most queenly queen, a person to be wondered at, to whom the poets have been able to add nothing, and whom the dreamers find always at the end of their dreams.’”

Part of the reason Cleopatra’s life and her behavior has been so tricky to pin down honestly is due to Augustus who we met in episode 31. As they say the victors get to write the history. When the Roman Civil War, known as the Last War of the Roman Republic, raged on between Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s armies versus Octavian, the soon to be Augustus had been manipulating the Roman media to portray the two as traitors. They paid particular attention to the Egyptian Queen and stopped at nothing to make her look like an evil and manipulative woman.

Before we get into any of that, we need to go back to the time of her early reign. Egypt was in decline from the period when the first Ptolemy took control in 323 BCE. What once was an empire, capable of defending itself, was much weaker and financially unstable. Ptolemy Auletes, Cleopatra’s father, had pledged allegiance to Rome. He had implored the members of the First Triumvirate, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus to proclaim him a “Friend and Ally of the Roman People” in 59 BCE. The cost of the bribe necessary to get the Romans to agree was 6,000 talents or the revenue of the Egyptian government for one whole year. Ptolemy couldn’t raise that kind of money and had to borrow it from Gaius Rabirius Postumus.

The backing didn’t help Ptolemy as he was forced to flee to Rome for protection two years later. While away his eldest daughter, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, usurped the throne. Again, bribing the Romans to help gain back his throne, Gabinius, a military commander friend of Pompey’s, went off to Egypt. When he got there, Cleopatra VI was dead, and her other sister Berenice had taken the throne. She was quickly executed.

Just 7 years later, Ptolemy was dead, and our Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII were named joint-heirs. She was 18, he was a mere boy of ten. The first years of her reign were rough as the Nile failed to flood, which caused crop failures and ensuing food shortages. This and the debacle that occurred when the troops she sent to aid the Romans against the Parthians mutinied, Cleopatra was on the outs. She had to skip town to avoid being murdered by her brother and his eunuch advisor, Pothinus.

Rome was in the midst of a civil war between the forces of Pompey and Caesar. After the Battle of Pharsalus, which we will hear more of in episode 82, Pompey asked for aid from the Egyptians and in particular Pothinus. Not wanting to help the losing side of a civil war, the Roman general was ambushed and murdered with his head lopped off. Four days later, Julius Caesar arrived needing a lot of cash to pay for the expensive civil war. He wanted the 6,000 talents lent to the Egyptians by Postimus.

This is where Caesar and Cleopatra met, became lovers, and more importantly, allies. Caesar at first wanted to make Egypt a part of the Empire but was warned that any governor who would take the position would be wealthier and more powerful than almost anyone. Instead, he left Egypt in the hands of Cleopatra and her youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV who was a mere 12 years of age. Caesar returned to Rome in 46 BCE, and the Egyptian Queen was likely right behind with their son, Caesarion.

Cleopatra would remain in Rome until the Ides of March in 44 BCE when Caesar was murdered. Returning to Alexandria in July, her brother and co-ruler were dead, why, we do not know. Did Cleopatra have him killed? Probably, but we have no clear cut evidence.

As you might know, we now have another Roman Civil War between the assassins of Caesar and his supporters led by Lepidus, Octavian, and Mark Antony. Cassius, one of the murderers of the Roman dictator, asked for grain and ships from Cleopatra, but she claimed pestilence and famine had caused great hardships to her country and was unable to help. She was testing the waters and wanted to see who would come out on top before aiding anyone in earnest. Such was her shrewd behavior.

After defeating Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, the Roman world was split in two with Octavian receiving the west and Antony the east with Lepidus being left out because they thought him to be untrustworthy.

Mark Antony was a noted military commander and wanted to continue the military conquest that Julius Caesar was to undertake before he was murdered, and that was an attack on the Parthian Empire. To pull this off, he needed cash and lots of it. Guess where he set his eyes on? Yup, Egypt. They were to meet at Tarsus where Antony had set up camp.

It is here that the two likely became lovers. Over the coming years, tensions between Octavian and Antony would grow, but they patched things up with the Treaty of Brundisium in 40 BCE. Cleopatra and Antony would see each other from time to time. The problem that Antony had was that he was married to Octavian’s sister Octavia. Weeks after the marriage, Cleopatra was to give birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, fathered by Antony. Awkward.

The Egyptian Queen ruled her country well despite being an unpopular foreigner. It is now 37 BCE, and Antony was on the march with his armies again as well as becoming more and more irritated with Octavian and all of his broken promises. The Roman leader of the east then summoned Cleopatra to his side after abandoning her for years. Antony was seeing that there was going to be a break between him and Octavian, and he needed an ally to meet the upcoming challenge.

Now it was Octavia’s turn to be abandoned by Antony. This was to play right into the hands of Octavian. He would use the propaganda that a Roman general had left his Roman wife for a foreigner bringing great disgrace. Cleopatra wasn’t just going to give in to Antony asking for a large portion of the lands that he controlled for the troops and wealth he needed press on with the upcoming civil war with his adversary in Rome. Again, Octavian used this as another piece of news to turn the people of Rome away from their former hero.

Still, things between Octavian and Antony were on hold as there was another threat out there, Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great. He was by now a mighty pirate causing havoc throughout the Mediterranean. Pompeius was supposedly dealing with Rome’s archenemy, the Parthians as well. Antony along with Cleopatra, attacked one of Parthia’s allies in Armenia, defeating them and bringing their king back to Alexandria.

It is here that the split with Octavian occurs as instead of returning to Rome to have a triumph for winning the war, Antony decided to have a lavish triumph with Cleopatra in Alexandria known as the Donations of Alexandria. He made his lover the Queen of Queens and her son Caesarion the King of Kings. By doing so, he claimed that since Caesarion was the son of Julius Caesar, he was the rightful ruler of Rome. That was more than enough for Octavian to begin to act.

By 32 BCE, 300 senators in Rome defected to Antony’s and Cleopatra’s side. They had a deep loyalty to Antony but were irked by the Egyptian Queen’s presence. It pretty much made up the plan for Antony and Cleopatra. They couldn’t invade Italy as he would lose all of his Italian support with a foreign leader at his side. He had to face off against Octavian with Cleopatra’s help in a more neutral place. This would be near a town know as Actium. We will be talking about the battle that ensued in episode 76.

Needless to say, Antony and Cleopatra lost the war after the battle was held on September 2, 31 BCE. Unrest in Rome delayed Octavian’s return to finish off the pair until the following year. Antony was the first to commit suicide, followed shortly after that by Cleopatra.

Now for some myth-busting. It has been said that Cleopatra died from the bite of a poisonous snake known as an asp also known as an Egyptian cobra, but that is highly unlikely.  What is more likely is that she stabbed herself with a poisonous dagger which is suggested by Plutarch and Cassius Dio. Whatever the real story, Cleopatra VII Philopator, died on or about August 10th to 12th 30 BCE. She was 39 years old.

Now to our other contestant, Wu of Han.

Emperor Wu of Han
Emperor Wu of Han

Whereas Cleopatra is one of the most famous people throughout the world, Emperor Wu is only really well known in his native China. His reign of 54 years was the second-longest in Chinese history behind the Kangxi Emperor who ruled from 1661 to 1722 AD some 1,800 years after Emperor Wu. Born Liu Che on July 30, 157 BCE, he was to become the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty of China, following in the line starting with the Han founder, Liu Bang. You may remember him as he was one of the victors at the Battle of Gaixia which we learned about in episode 22. In some of the texts, I’ve used he is also known as Han Wudi. I will use the more common name of Wu.

The details about Liu Che’s early years are mired in myth and legend. What we do know is that he was the 10th son of Liu Qi, also known as Emperor Jing of Han. There supposedly was a lot of court intrigue surrounding who would become the successor to the Emperor Jing, but it was said that Liu Che was a very personable child and quickly became the Emperor’s favorite.

When Jing died in 141 BCE, Crown Prince Liu Che ascended to the throne as Emperor Wu at the delicate young age of just 15. He was to reign over a large swath of China until his death in 87 BCE. Liu Che’s mother was named the Empress Dowager Wang. An arranged political marriage was put together with his older cousin, who became Empress Chen.

Much of what we know of Emperor Wu comes from someone we’ve talked about in several previous episodes on Chinese history, Sima Qian. The historian did his work during the reign of Wu and, as you might expect, was very praiseworthy of his boss. This is why we have to be a bit careful in reviewing his life because Qian is our primary source for all things Wu and Han.

When Emperor Wu began his reign, there were two forces outside the country that had caused havoc for years and that were the Xiongnu to the north, an area covering modern-day Mongolia, and the Yue in the south. As John Keay writes in his book A History of China, “But for the authorities in Chang’an, the problem was the same; permeable border zones, with unpredictable enemies beyond the fickle dependents within, were incompatible with a well-regulated empire. In the far north, as in the deep south, the frontier had taxed the resolve of the Han Gaozu and his successors and would only be settled, after a fashion and at great cost, in the reign of Han Wudi.”

The Xiongnu has been thought by some historians to be the predecessor to the Huns, but that has been disputed by others. Both were nomadic pastoralists and fought on horseback, and as Keay said in his book on China, they “terrorized an empire and had to be bought off at great expense.” Just like the Huns hundreds of years later were bought off by the Romans, so to the Xiongnu were to be bought off by the Han’s.

The raids into China by the Xiongnu weren’t all bad for Emperor Wu. It actually bought in allies who were tired of being a punching bag for the raiders from Mongolia. The Wusun in 105 BCE decided to sign a treaty with the Han which netted Wu 1,000 horses and a defender in the north to work with. The man who did the bidding for Emperor Wu was Zhang Qian, who traveled throughout the north to learn about the peoples of the region. Not only did he make military alliances, but he was also able to find out more about the trade routes and products produced.

The development that came out of Zhang Qian’s embassies was to become the world-famous Silk Road. The only issue was the Xiongnu. Starting in 127 BCE and continuing through 119, alliances strengthened, and military incursions into Xiongnu territory led to not only securing the northern borders but a massive expansion west. The Silk Road opened up enormous trade which would eventually make it all the way to Rome, around the time of Cleopatra.

Not only did Emperor Wu crush the Xiongnu, but he also made them pay tribute to the Han Empire. But this was not just a one-way street as tributes would be bestowed on the leaders of the Xiongnu to keep them happy allies.

Emperor Wu was not just satisfied with heading west, he expanded his country towards the south to Guandong, Guangxi, and Annam, which is today’s northern Vietnam. Wu sent emissaries to the southwest region known as Yunnan and to the Korean peninsula.

When Emperor Wu took control of the government of China, the financial situation of the government was about as good as it could get. They had a surplus in their treasury, and the people were not burdened by excessive taxes. But, as you might guess, all this expansion and the defense of the expanding borders became more and more expensive. Taxes were raised, but not by enough to pay for everything. Raising taxes even more was not something that would be palatable to the people of China. A novel idea was necessary, and the man who Emperor Wu employed, Sang Hongyang would come up with it.

What he did was get the Han government involved in running businesses in order to bring in profits to fund operations. The Han’s were in an excellent place to pull this off as they were able to use convicts and slaves gained in wars to provide cheap labor. They also set up state-run monopolies like in the trade of salt.

Another way that Emperor Wu influenced his country was his adoption of the ethical teachings of Confucius. This was in direct opposition to episode 7 contestant, Qin Shi Huangdi who tried to destroy the writings of the Chinese philosopher.

Finally, there is one exciting aspect of the life of Emperor Wu that I wanted to share, and that is his family life. He had numerous concubines who provided him lots of children. The intrigue between the many wives was insane with one incident where competition between Empress Wei and Lady Li became violent. The five days of fighting was so dangerous that Emperor Wu left the city and parked himself at his summer residence until things settled down.

When Emperor Wu of Han died in 87 BCE, after a reign of 54 years, his country had doubled in size. While the intellectual class, along with the merchants did phenomenally well under Wu, the peasant class suffered greatly under the burdens laid down on them to fund the country.

Now we head on over to the scorer’s table to determine which of these giants of history will move on to the second round.

The first fifteen points are for the number of years they served as leader of their country. Cleopatra’s reign began in 51 BCE ending 21 years later in 30. Emperor Wu began in began in 141 BCE and ending in 87 for a total of 54 years. Fifteen points to the Chinese leader and 6 for the Egyptian Queen.

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Cleopatra’s influence covered the entire Mediterranean region while Emperor Wu mainly affected China, although he did blast open the Silk Road which caused trade to occur all the way to the Roman Republic. I am giving the Egyptian the full 20 points while her Chinese adversary 15.

Next up is their effect on world history. It is hard to imagine a person, much less a woman from ancient times to have as much of an effect on world history as Cleopatra. The shadow she casts is enormous. As for Emperor Wu of Han, most of his influence is on the people and history of China. As I said before his effect on the expansion of the Silk Road was great, and it would continue for over a millennium. Still, the Egyptian Queen ranks up with the best so I’m giving her the full 25 points for the effect on world history with the Chinese Emperor getting 10.

Finally, we have the big point giveaway of forty points for how they affected their country for the better as this is the truest test of a great leader. In this category, Wu of Han wins hands down.  The Han Dynasty would last for another 300 years. To this day, China’s majority ethnic group refers to themselves as the “Han Chinese” and the Chinese script is referred to as “Han characters”. Emperor Wu had a big hand in this.

Cleopatra on the other hand made some bad decisions which led to Egypt becoming a vassal state to the Roman Empire and became the last Pharaoh of her country.

For these reasons, I’m awarding Emperor Wu of Han forty points with Queen Cleopatra 20. The final score is 80 to 71 for the leader of China, Emperor Wu.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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