Cleopatra’s Signature - A tantalizing document from ancient Egypt

Everyone knows about the famous queen Cleopatra who ruled Egypt over two thousand years ago, but how many know there might be a document with her signature?

History is full of lost records, and yet there appears to be a tantalizing papyrus with a signature (yes, a handwritten signature) by the hand of Cleopatra herself—possibly the only surviving documentary fragment from the Egyptian side of her rule.

First, let’s look at this fragment:

a document fragment with possible Cleopatra's signature

source: Berlin museum

Translations: van Minnen 2000 and 2003 (for slightly different translations, see Jones 2006 and Bagnall and Derow 2004)

Written on Feb 23, 33 B.C., about two and half years before the fateful battle of Actium against Caesar Octavian, the royal decree is a grant to (possibly) a Publius Canidius and says the following:

“We have granted to Publius Canidius (Crassus) and his heirs the annual exportation of 10,000 artabas of wheat and the annual importation of 5,000 Coan amphoras of wine without anyone exacting anything in taxes from him or any other expense whatsoever. We have also granted tax exemption on all the land he owns in Egypt on the understanding that he shall not pay any taxes, either to the state account or to the special account of us and others, in perpetuity.”

The decree further grants additional exceptions, including a prohibition from commandeering his beasts of burden for the army.

And there, at the bottom left of the right side of the fragment, is a single word in Greek (you might need to enlarge the image—look for the word that looks like it ends with a y):

Ginesthoi - or so ordered, possibly signed by Cleopatra


Which means, Make it so, or So ordered.

Some scholars believe that at the time of the document, only Cleopatra could have signed off on this decree. She was still the supreme ruler of Egypt, and no one else would be authorized to grant such an exemption and offer. Who is Canidius? He was a Roman general in service of Mark Antony and was part of Antony and Cleopatra’s forces in the eventual conflict, making it seem like this grant could be an enticement for his support.

What I find exciting is that there are practically no documents from the ancient world with the handwriting of a famous ruler. Even though Caesar’s entire Gallic wars have survived, they are not in his handwriting—and somehow, it might just be possible that we have one word that came from the ink of the quill Cleopatra held in her hand over 2000 years ago.

I can almost imagine her sitting on a chair or perhaps a recliner, reading the edict carefully, making sure it offers just what she thinks is right for the man, and then signing off with a flair. This may have been one of the many administrative documents she approved. Cleopatra was known for her intelligence and acumen, and it is not surprising that she might be involved in the day-to-day affairs of administering the kingdom. In his works, Plutarch even says, “…one so well versed in managing large administrative affairs….”

But. A big but, like everything from history, some argue that this is unlikely her hand (doubts about the handwriting being different from the rest of the document because it’s unlike the queen herself wrote the entire decree), but could be that of a senior administrator. Could it have been Charmian instead? There are also doubts about whether this is the same Canidius as Mark Antony’s general. We will never know, but it’s great to imagine that either of them did it.

Nevertheless, what we can say with some certainty is that it was written during Cleopatra’s reign, it did show the connection to Rome, it grants exemptions she would have certainly approved of, even if she didn’t sign it by her hand—and gives a glimpse of the barters of the time.

Me? I would prefer to think it was her sign. We know Canidius was an important player and close to Antony, and if this paper were about him, there is a high chance she was intimately involved in the terms and perhaps even the signing.

If you want to read more, here’s a great page by Jennifer Cromwell that goes into more depth on the papyrus.

Intrigued about Cleopatra? Well, you should check out my Last Pharaoh trilogy that takes you to her world from regency to her conflict with Caesar Octavian. This is not the portrayal of a seductress or enchantress as the Romans reduced her.

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cover image for Regent
360 pages e+print

51 B.C., Alexandria, Egypt

Some wells have poisoned waters.

With her father sick and her sister dead by his hands, sixteen-year-old Cleopatra is poised to assume the heavy mantle of power and exercise the divine authority vested in her by the gods of Egypt.

But the gilded arches and marble columns hide a grim reality and the gathering of storm clouds. A surly Rome is banging on her doors for debt repayments, the kingdom is on the verge of a civil war, and the dying king’s powerful advisors seek to discard her like a rag and control the kingdom through her brother.

Now, the young regent must confront her adversaries and walk the tightrope over an abyss of treachery and conflict, because one wrong move means ending three thousand years of Pharaonic rule and turning up as a corpse in the Alexandrian marshes.

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