Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Cleopatra - A Drunken Bet - Extra History - #1

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How do you start the story

of one of the most famous women in history?

Maybe with her birth?

Eh, a little bit conventional.

Okay, what about with her death?

[snake hiss]

Nah, that seems gauche. Come back later, aspen.

Oh! I know! How about we start with a drunken wager?

Yeah! Now we're talking!

[Extra History theme]

41 BCE

Cleopatra, pharaoh of Egypt, is at her palace in Alexandria

entertaining her new beau

the Roman general and politician Mark Antony

The official reason for Antony's visit is to prepare for a new campaign

against Rome's hated enemy in the East, the Parthians

In reality, however, Antony has fallen head

over sandals in love with Cleopatra and the two

are using this time before the campaign

to enjoy life together

Each night the lovers throw a luxurious banquet

in honor of their union

and revel in an evening of excess

And they're joined by a group of court friends & hangers on

playfully referred to by Cleopatra

as the "Order of the Inimitable Life"

The group dines off gold plates

and afterward spends the night drinking and playing games

And one evening after being stuffed with food & drink

Antony idly mentions that the two have reached the height of their revels

There's nowhere to go from here

But Cleopatra scoffs

and tells Antony that she could spend

10 million sesterces on a single banquet

To which Antony tells her to prove it

So the next night, Cleopatra holds a new banquet

And while it's sumptuous

it's no greater than the couple's usual excesses

Midway through the meal

Antony boasts that he'd won the wager

But at that moment

The Queen declares that she's now ready to spend her 10 million sesterces

and calls for a cup of vinegar

As the revelers look on, Cleopatra then takes off one of her

priceless pearl earrings and drops it into the cup

And the fine pearl

one of the largest in the world at the time

disintegrates in the glass

Then she drinks...

and wins the bet.

Though this was a small event in the queen's life

this story does illustrate three important things

First: How to make an incredibly expensive

albeit gnarly, cocktail

Second: That Cleopatra was willing to go to any lengths to win

And third: That no one in the ancient world

not even the most powerful men in Rome

were about to get one over on the Queen of the Nile

Julius Ceasar

Mark Antony

& Octavian

may fill the history books

but in her life, Cleopatra dunked on them all

and in many ways, she continues to dunk on them

2 millennia after her death

[snake hiss]

Nope, not your cue yet.

Go wait in the green room, we'll call ya.

So how is it that she ended up

getting the better of Rome's greatest figures

in an era of high male chauvinism?

While a lot of it has to do

with characteristics unique to Cleopatra

another important factor was Cleopatra's family

the Ptolemies

A family with so many tales of

intrigue

incest

and backstabbing...

that dealing with the Romans must have seemed like a walk in the park

Because before she romanced Roman generals

and captured our imaginations,

Cleopatra had to first survive her family

The story of the Ptolemies starts,

like a lot of other stories in the ancient world

with Alexander the Great

In the 4th century BCE,

as Alexander ran roughshod over the Mediterranean world,

his entourage included his close childhood friend Ptolemy

Ptolemy was simultaneously

Alexander's military commander,

personal bodyguard,

and official historian

chronicling Alexander's deeds

so everyone knew just how great The Great was

See, in the ancient world, you weren't anyone unless you had

someone recording your deeds

and denigrating your enemies

In fact, "historians" of this time were more like a public relations officer

rather than a scholar

When Alexander died without an heir in 323 BCE

the members of his retinue stepped up to fill the power vaccum

and Ptolemy was one of those men

And though they founded several

successor states to Alexander's empire

Ptolemy captured the jewel in the crown: Egypt

But he also captured an even more valuable prize:

Alexander's corpse

Alexander and his commanders were Macedonian Greeks

And in ancient Macedonia, a dead king's successors asserted their claim

by conducting the burial rituals of their fallen leader

So by possessing Alexander's body,

Ptolemy laid claim to his throne and his legacy

Though the corpse was originally destined to be buried in Macedonia,

Ptolemy intercepted Alexander's body

and buried it in the Egyptian city of Memphis

Then when the Ptolemaic dynasty took Alexandria as their seat of power,

they moved the dead king to a massive new tomb there

That symbolic victory went a long way toward legitimizing Ptolemy's rule

for his fellow Macedonians and Greeks

who were helping him run Egypt,

but that was only part of the equation

Because Ptolemy's Egypt was a foreign-led kingdom

and without Egyptian support, it wasn't gonna last

To that end,

Ptolemy and his successors looked for ways to combine their Greco-Macedonian rule

with local customs and traditions

Though they still considered themselves part of the Greek world,

the Ptolemies adopted the trappings & imagery of the ancient pharaohs

In addition to trappings and dress, however, the Ptolemies also pursued

with gusto,

another practice of the ancient pharaohs

Incestuous marriage

By the 3rd century BCE, the Ptolemies regularly married brother and sister

making them co-rulers of Egypt,

often with the older of the two siblings - regardless of gender -

playing the leading role in the kingdom

These marriages not only helped to keep the dynasty in the family,

but also played a role in courting the support of Egyptians,

who expected their leaders to replicate the model of rule

set out by the ruling deities Isis and Osiris

And in their quest to maintain power

the Ptolemies were willing to do whatever it took

And because of that willingness to fit into Egyptian society,

the Ptolemies thrived

Alexanderia became the greatest city in the Mediterranean world

an epicenter for commerce and culture

and the site of incredible landmarks

like the Great Library

and Pharos Lighthouse

And although the Ptolemies were not known for military prowess,

they successfully maintained control

via strategic alliances with strong neighbors

like Rome, offering money and grain in exchange for protection

Now one could posit that this lack of military success may seem like a weakness

but look at it this way:

Rome had to do all the work

while the Ptolemies sat back and enjoyed the richest lifestyle

the ancient world had to offer

Rome got the glory, sure

but Egypt got the gold

Essentially playing it smarter, not harder

But for all of their wealth and political skill

the Ptolemies couldn't get out of their own way

All that money and power

led to infighting and a lot (and I mean a lot)

of murder

Fratricide, sororicide, matricide, patricide

and, of course when royal advisors got involved,

plain old vanilla homicide

And there's really too much history to go through here

but just know that the Ptolemy family

were a real nest of vipers

snake hiss

Ahh, still not yet, but in fairness

I kinda set you up for that one so apologies

By the time of Cleopatra's birth in 69 BCE

all of this infighting & murder has weakened the kingdom

Case in point, consider how Cleopatra herself came to the throne

First, her cousin Ptolemy the 11th had to be assassinated,

then her sister Cleopatra the 6th was assassinated,

then her other sister, Berenice the 4th was, also, assassinated...

And finally her father, Ptolemy the 12th managed to die of a disease

Wow that's a pretty relatively easy exit

all things considered

Especially for a guy who bribed the Romans to invade Alexandria

and execute his own daughter

Only after all that did the 11 year old Ptolemy the 13th & his sister

Cleopatra the 7th, the then 18 year old Cleopatra from our tale,

ascend to the throne as co-rulers

And in this blood-soaked context, Cleopatra stepped onto the world stage

Unlike many of her siblings, she lived long enough to receive

an impressive education in math, astronomy, literature, & rhetoric

She could speak seven different languages

and had become the first Ptolemaic ruler to speak fluent Egyptian

During the previous decade she'd been at her father's side as he ruled

both in Alexandria and when he'd spent time exiled in Rome

She posessed experience, intellect, money, power

and if not outright classical beauty, a certain indescribable charm & magnetism

that made her hard to resist

And most importantly of all,

she was a Ptolemy through and through

capable of cutthroat, cold-blooded action when necessary

And she would rely on all of these skills

and attributes over the next decade

to deftly avoid treachery,

build important alliances,

and seduce the greatest men of the era -

all while maintaining her independence

And we'll get into all of that next week

when Cleopatra really begins tipping the scales

snake hiss

Wrong kinda scales Aspen!

Seriously, you know you're at the end of this story right?

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The Description of Cleopatra - A Drunken Bet - Extra History - #1