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When Cleopatra Celebrated Love on Samos, the Mykonos of Ancient Greece

Cleopatra Antony Samos
Antony and Cleopatra (1883) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicts Antony’s meeting with Cleopatra in 41 BC. Public Domain

Cleopatra, the Greek Queen of Ancient Egypt, whom a Netflix documentary has recently controversially portrayed as being black, and Marc Antony, the famous Roman general, conducted part of their decadent love affair on the Greek island of Samos in the summer of 32 B.C.

At the time, Samos was regarded as Mykonos is today. It was a cosmopolitan island which the rich and famous from all over the known world, especially Rome, wanted to visit and be seen in.

Unlike the arid climate you typically see on Greek islands, Samos had, and still has, ample greenery, with picturesque mountain villages, pine forests, and even flamingos.

During the Roman period, Samos was quite prosperous as a part of the Roman Empire’s “Province of Asia”. In 189 B.C., it became part of the Kingdom of Pergamos with the approval of the Romans. Later on, it belonged to the “Province of the Islands” along with other Aegean islands.

Pirates attacked Samos many times in the Roman Era, but the island managed to survive and retain  its glory.

Antony and Cleopatra, immortalized in a tragedy by William Shakespeare, during their stormy relationship, headed for a romantic tryst on Samos.

In her latest book, published in 2022, American historian, Adrienne Mayor gives a brilliant fictionalized account of their stay.

“Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws: Classical Myths, Historical Oddities, and Scientific Curiosities” (Princeton, 2022), by Princeton University Press, says that before modern tourists flocked to Greece to enjoy its sun, sea, antiquities, and adventure, people of the Roman Empire descended on Greece for the same reasons.

Samos becomes the setting of Cleopatra and Antony’s love affair

Rich, famous, and powerful globe-trotters, such as Cleopatra and Antony, cruised the Aegean in 40 to 30 B.C. In April of 32 B.C. the pair sailed from Ephesus to Samos, bringing with them a retinue of popular actors, comedians, and musicians.

Adrienne Mayor continues:

For three weeks their revels were the talk of Greece: the island resounded with the sounds of pipes and lutes; there were sumptuous drunken banquets and all-night performances.

Cleopatra’s souvenirs from Samos included life-size bronze statues of Zeus, Athena, and Heracles taken from the Temple of Hera. She also took home scores of paintings and thousands of books.

Antony bought Greek costumes for himself. Cleopatra was hoping to persuade Antony to get a divorce from his wife in Rome. But he was preoccupied with the upcoming showdown with Octavian (future emperor Augustus) in the Adriatic.

The couple sailed from Samos to Athens, alternately bickering and making up all the way.

The tempestuous affair continued in Athens, where the city raised statues to both lovers on the Acropolis and hailed Cleopatra as the Goddess of Love and Antony as Dionysos.

There were more riotous drinking bouts, torchlight parades, and outrageous behavior. Antony dressed up in a Dionysos costume. Cleopatra bought tablets of onyx and crystal, had them inscribed with love letters, and sent them to Antony. Antony caused a scandal by caressing her feet in public.

The lovers moved their celebrations to the city of Patras, but by September of 30 B.C. the party was over. They both committed suicide after their fleet was defeated by Octavian at Actium in the Gulf of Preveza.

Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt, was Greek

The ethnic background of Cleopatra, the famed queen of Ancient Egypt, has been a persistent topic of conversation for years. Despite the fact that she ruled over Egypt, Cleopatra was Greek.

Cleopatra VII Philopater ruled over Ancient Egypt from 51 to 30 BC, and was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt. After her death, the Roman Empire took control of the country.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty was formed by Ptolemy I Soter, a Greek general in Alexander the Great’s army, in 305 BC. Although located in Egypt, the dynasty that Ptolemy established remained incredibly Greek.

Cleopatra, a direct descendant of Ptolemy, was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn the Egyptian language, as all those before her solely spoke Greek. She was also believed to have spoken Ethiopian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac, Median, Parthian, and Latin.

The name Cleopatra comes from the Ancient Greek words κλέος (kléos), meaning “glory,” and πατήρ (pater), meaning “father,” which means “glory of her father.”

Related: Ptolemaic Dynasty, The Royal Family of Cleopatra

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