The English may perhaps be forgiven their belief that they invented patriotism because the term is said to have first been coined in the Elizabethan Era. However, patriotism as a personal feeling and political tool is something far older and embraced by no lesser personage than Cleopatra VII of Egypt.
The word patriotism itself finds its root from the Greek patri?t?s . Both the ancient Greeks and the Romans had a strong notion of attachment to their fellow citizens, to their cultural identities, and sometimes to their homelands. The Romans, in particular, made highly effective use of national honor to persuade their soldiers to shun personal battle glory in favor of collective might. On their rise to super power status in the ancient world the Roman Republic frequently called upon its citizenry not simply as clans and coalitions but by their collective identity as Romans.
Roman patriotism could also be turned to more sinister purposes and this lesson was probably not lost upon Cleopatra VII who took two Roman generals as lovers.
Because the famed Queen of the Nile has been so often misrepresented as a product of more ancient Egyptian tradition, depicted in full Pharaonic regalia as if she stepped out of a Middle Kingdom tomb, modern scholars trip over themselves to remind us all that she was primarily a Hellenistic queen. But Cleopatra VII was not only a Hellenistic queen; her relationship with Egypt and its native citizens was decidedly more complicated.
Because of the Ptolemaic practice of brother-sister marriage, historians can account for almost all of Cleopatra’s ancestors, pure-blooded Macedonians. However, Cleopatra’s mother is not known. Ptolemaic scholar Gunther Holbl has theorized that the queen may have descended, on her mother’s side, from an Egyptian priestly family. This theory has also been adopted by Professor Duane W. Roller who writes in his recent scholarly biography with the Oxford University Press, “Cleopatra VII, then, was perhaps three-quarters Macedonian and one-quarter Egyptian, and it was probably her half-Egyptian mother who instilled in her the knowledge and respect for Egyptian culture and civilization that had eluded her predecessor Ptolemies, including an ability to speak the Egyptian language.”
Whether she learned the language because it accounted for part of her heritage or simply because it was politically expedient, the fact remains that she was the first member of her dynasty to do so. Whereas her predecessors sometimes seem to have considered themselves as the rulers of Alexandria, Cleopatra took a more expansive view of her country. She traveled extensively in her kingdom and showed great respect to the indigenous religions. She funded temples of the native Egyptian goddess Hathor and attended the burial rites for the Apis Bull-something which would later be used against her in a propaganda war that attempted to present her as an exotic, foreign Oriental who worshipped beasts and dabbled in magic.
Certainly, Cleopatra’s official portraits-the ones she wanted to be seen internationally-depict a thoroughly Macedonian-Greek queen, with the symbolic diadem and melon coiffure. However, Cleopatra was a known lover of costumes. She’s noted for having dressed on occasion as an incarnation of Isis. Because Isis had been thoroughly embraced by the Greeks and equated with Aphrodite, this may not have been an Egyptian costume. On the other hand, Cleopatra may well have adopted native dress on special occasions to appeal to her subjects.
While one must view with skepticism all the propaganda leveled by her enemies portraying her as a sensualist and painted Egyptian whore, there was some degree of cultural fusion in Alexandria, and when not dressing to impress the international community of Greeks, Cleopatra may well have adopted some forms of native Egyptian adornment. For example, heavy black eye-liner and wigs were often adopted by non-native Egyptians for their practicality. Kohl was thought to protect eyes from disease and the effects of the sun. Wigs helped prevent the rampant spread of lice in the ancient world.
Whether or not the queen actually dressed in the traditional garb of Egypt, wearing the double-crown and carrying the crook and flail of a Pharaoh, is less important than the fact that she was not shy about being portrayed this way. This is why all the misleading iconography depicting Cleopatra as a sandy-skinned temptress wearing transparent linen is still relevant to any discussion of her. As numerous statues and carvings attest, Cleopatra sought to forge a bond with her countrymen as Egyptians on either side of the cultural divide. The best evidence for the queen’s patriotism is a remarkable action she took just prior to the war with Octavian.
For most of her life, the queen was known as Cleopatra VII Philopater to show respect and love for her father. But in the last years of her life she adopted the title of Philopatris in which she declared a love of her country. Michel Chauveau writes, “With this single word, she erased centuries of foreign occupation: It was no longer a right born of the Macedonian conquest that established her royalty over Egypt, but rather a strong attachment, a quasi-mystical bond with the land of the Nile and all who dwelled in it, whatever their origin.”
Cleopatra may have embraced patriotism as a political tool or these sentiments may have been entirely heartfelt. Because she lost the war, we will simply never know, but Roller’s biography of the queen suggests that Egypt was always foremost on her mind and that Romans ignored this at their peril.