Cleopatra VII ruled ancient Egypt as co-regent (first with her two younger brothers and then with her son) for almost three decades. She became the last in a dynasty of Macedonian rulers founded by Ptolemy, who served as general under Alexander the Great during his conquest of Egypt in 332 B.C. Well-educated and clever, Cleopatra could speak various languages and served as the dominant ruler in all three of her co-regencies. Her romantic liaisons and military alliances with the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, as well as her supposed exotic beauty and powers of seduction, earned her an enduring place in history and popular myth.
- Cleopatra: Early Life and Ascension to Throne
- Caesar and Cleopatra
- Cleopatra’s Seduction of Mark Antony
- Cleopatra: Power Struggle
- Cleopatra: Defeat and Death
- Little-Known Facts About Cleopatra
- 1. Cleopatra was not Egyptian.
- 2. She was the product of incest.
- 3. Cleopatra’s beauty wasn’t her biggest asset.
- 4. She had a hand in the deaths of three of her siblings.
- 5. Cleopatra knew how to make an entrance.
- 6. She was living in Rome at the time of Caesar’s assassination.
- 7. Cleopatra and Mark Antony formed their own drinking club.
- 8. She led a fleet in a naval battle.
- 9. Cleopatra may not have died from an asp bite.
- 10. A 1963 film about her was one of the most expensive movies of all time.
Since no contemporary accounts exist of Cleopatra’s life, it is difficult to piece together her biography with much certainty. Much of what is known about her life comes from the work of Greco-Roman scholars, particularly Plutarch. Born in 70 or 69 B.C., Cleopatra was a daughter of Ptolemy XII (Auletes), a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander The Great’s generals and the founder of the Ptolemaic line in Egypt. Her mother was believed to be Cleopatra V Tryphaena, the king’s wife (and possibly his half-sister). In 51 B.C., upon the apparently natural death of Auletes, the Egyptian throne passed to 18-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII.
Did you know? In the days between Cleopatra’s death and Octavian’s formal annexation of Egypt, her 16-year-old son Caesarion was officially sole ruler. He had no way of taking power, however, and was captured and executed shortly after his mother’s suicide.
Soon after the siblings’ ascension to the throne, Ptolemy’s advisers acted against Cleopatra, who was forced to flee Egypt for Syria in 49 B.C. She raised an army of mercenaries and returned the following year to face her brother’s forces in a civil war at Pelusium, on Egypt’s eastern border. Meanwhile, after allowing the Roman general Pompey to be murdered, Ptolemy XIII welcomed the arrival of Pompey’s rival, Julius Caesar, to Alexandria. In order to help her cause, Cleopatra sought Caesar’s support, reportedly smuggling herself into the royal palace to plead her case with him.
For his part, Caesar needed to fund his own return to power in Rome, and needed Egypt to repay the debts incurred by Auletes. After four months of war between Caesar’s outnumbered forces and those of Ptolemy XIII, Roman reinforcements arrived; Ptolemy was forced to flee Alexandria, and was believed to have drowned in the Nile River. Entering Alexandria as an unpopular conqueror, Caesar restored the throne to the equally unpopular Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIV (then 13 years old). Caesar remained in Egypt with Cleopatra for a time, and around 47 B.C. she gave birth to a son, Ptolemy Caesar. He was believed to be Caesar’s child, and was known by the Egyptian people as Caesarion, or Little Caesar.
Sometime in 46-45 B.C., Cleopatra traveled with Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion to Rome to visit Caesar, who had returned earlier. After Caesar was murdered in March 44 B.C., Cleopatra went back to Egypt; Ptolemy XIV died soon after, and the three-year-old Caesarion was named co-regent with his mother, as Ptolemy XV. By this point, Cleopatra had strongly identified herself with the goddess Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. (This was consistent with the ancient Egyptian tradition of associating royalty with divinity in order to reinforce the position of kings and queens. Cleopatra III had also claimed to be associated with Isis, and Cleopatra VII was referred to as the “New Isis.”) She spoke as many as a dozen languages and was renowned for her “irresistible charm,” according to Plutarch.
With her infant son as co-regent, Cleopatra’s hold on power in Egypt was more secure than it had ever been. Still, unreliable flooding of the Nile resulted in failing crops, leading to inflation and hunger. Meanwhile, a conflict was raging in Rome between a second triumvirate of Caesar’s allies (Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus) and his assassins, Brutus and Cassius. Both sides asked for Egyptian support, and after some stalling Cleopatra sent four Roman legions stationed in Egypt by Caesar to support the triumvirate. In 42 B.C., after defeating the forces of Brutus and Cassius in the battles of Philippi, Mark Antony and Octavian divided power in Rome.
Mark Antony soon summoned Cleopatra to the Cicilian city of Tarsus (south of modern Turkey) to explain the role she had played in the complicated aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. According to the story recorded by Plutarch (and later dramatized famously by William Shakespeare), Cleopatra sailed to Tarsus in an elaborate ship, dressed in the robes of Isis. Antony, who associated himself with the Greek deity Dionysus, was seduced by her charms.
He agreed to protect Egypt and Cleopatra’s crown, pledging support for the removal of her younger sister and rival Arsinoe, then in exile. Cleopatra returned to Egypt, followed shortly thereafter by Antony, who left behind his third wife, Fulvia, and their children in Rome. He spent the winter of 41-40 B.C. in Alexandria, during which he and Cleopatra famously formed a drinking society called “The Inimitable Livers.” In 40 B.C., after Antony’s return to Rome, Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios (sun) and Cleopatra Selene (moon).
After Fulvia took ill and died, Antony was forced to prove his loyalty to Octavian by making a diplomatic marriage with Octavian’s half-sister Octavia. Egypt grew more prosperous under Cleopatra’s rule, and in 37 B.C. Antony again met with Cleopatra to obtain funds for his long-delayed military campaign against the kingdom of Parthia. In exchange, he agreed to return much of Egypt’s eastern empire, including Cyprus, Crete, Cyrenaica (Libya), Jericho and large portions of Syria and Lebanon. They again became lovers, and Cleopatra gave birth to another son, Ptolemy Philadelphos, in 36 B.C.
After a humiliating defeat in Parthia, Antony publicly rejected his wife Octavia’s efforts to rejoin him and instead returned to Egypt and Cleopatra. In a public celebration in 34 B.C. known as the “Donations of Alexandria,” Antony declared Caesarion as Caesar’s son and rightful heir (as opposed to his adopted son, Octavian) and awarded land to each of his children with Cleopatra. This began a war of propaganda between him and the furious Octavian, who claimed that Antony was entirely under Cleopatra’s control and would abandon Rome and found a new capital in Egypt. In late 32 B.C., the Roman Senate stripped Antony of all his titles, and Octavian declared war on Cleopatra.
On September 2, 31 B.C., Octavian’s forces soundly defeated those of Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium Cleopatra’s ships deserted the battle and fled to Egypt, and Antony soon managed to break away and follow her with a few ships. With Alexandria under attack from Octavian’s forces, Antony heard a rumor that Cleopatra had committed suicide. He fell on his sword, and died just as news arrived that the rumor had been false.
On August 12, 30 B.C., after burying Antony and meeting with the victorious Octavian, Cleopatra closed herself in her chamber with two of her female servants. The means of her death is uncertain, but Plutarch and other writers advanced the theory that she used a poisonous snake known as the asp, a symbol of divine royalty, to commit suicide at age 39. According to her wishes, Cleopatra’s body was buried with Antony’s, leaving Octavian (later Emperor Augustus I) to celebrate his conquest of Egypt and his consolidation of power in Rome.
While Cleopatra was born in Egypt, she traced her family origins to Macedonian Greece and Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Ptolemy took the reigns of Egypt after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., and he launched a dynasty of Greek-speaking rulers that lasted for nearly three centuries. Despite not being ethnically Egyptian, Cleopatra embraced many of her country’s ancient customs and was the first member of the Ptolemaic line to learn the Egyptian language.
Like many royal houses, members of the Ptolemaic dynasty often married within the family to preserve the purity of their bloodline. More than a dozen of Cleopatra’s ancestors tied the knot with cousins or siblings, and it’s likely that her own parents were brother and sister. In keeping with this custom, Cleopatra eventually married both of her adolescent brothers, each of whom served as her ceremonial spouse and co-regent at different times during her reign.
Roman propaganda painted Cleopatra as a debauched temptress who used her sex appeal as a political weapon, but she may have been more renowned for her intellect than her appearance. She spoke as many as a dozen languages and was educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy, and Egyptian sources later described her as a ruler “who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.” There’s also evidence that Cleopatra wasn’t as physically striking as once believed. Coins with her portrait show her with manly features and a large, hooked nose, though some historians contend that she intentionally portrayed herself as masculine as a display of strength. For his part, the ancient writer Plutarch claimed that Cleopatra’s beauty was “not altogether incomparable,” and that it was instead her mellifluous speaking voice and “irresistible charm” that made her so desirable.
Power grabs and murder plots were as much a Ptolemaic tradition as family marriage, and Cleopatra and her brothers and sisters were no different. Her first sibling-husband, Ptolemy XIII, ran her out of Egypt after she tried to take sole possession of the throne, and the pair later faced off in a civil war. Cleopatra regained the upper hand by teaming with Julius Caesar, and Ptolemy drowned in the Nile River after being defeated in battle. Following the war, Cleopatra remarried to her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, but she is believed to have had him murdered in a bid to make her son her co-ruler. In 41 B.C., she also engineered the execution of her sister, Arsinoe, who she considered a rival to throne.
Cleopatra believed herself to be a living goddess, and she often used clever stagecraft to woo potential allies and reinforce her divine status. A famous example of her flair for the dramatic came in 48 B.C., when Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria during her feud with her brother Ptolemy XIII. Knowing Ptolemy’s forces would thwart her attempts to meet with the Roman general, Cleopatra had herself wrapped in a carpet—some sources say it was a linen sack—and smuggled into his personal quarters. Caesar was dazzled by the sight of the young queen in her royal garb, and the two soon became allies and lovers.
Cleopatra later employed a similar bit of theater in her 41 B.C. encounter with Mark Antony. When summoned to meet the Roman Triumvir in Tarsus, she is said to have arrived on a golden barge adorned with purple sails and rowed by oars made of silver. Cleopatra had been made up to look like the goddess Aphrodite, and she sat beneath a gilded canopy while attendants dressed as cupids fanned her and burned sweet-smelling incense. Antony—who considered himself the embodiment of the Greek god Dionysus—was instantly enchanted.
Cleopatra joined Julius Caesar in Rome beginning in 46 B.C., and her presence seems to have caused quite a stir. Caesar didn’t hide that she was his mistress—she even came to the city with their lovechild, Caesarion, in tow—and many Romans were scandalized when he erected a gilded statue of her in the temple of Venus Genetrix. Cleopatra was forced to flee Rome after Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman senate in 44 B.C., but by then she had made her mark on the city. Her exotic hairstyle and pearl jewelry became a fashion trend, and according to the historian Joann Fletcher, “so many Roman women adopted the ‘Cleopatra look’ that their statuary has often been mistaken for Cleopatra herself.”
Cleopatra first began her legendary love affair with the Roman general Mark Antony in 41 B.C. Their relationship had a political component—Cleopatra needed Antony to protect her crown and maintain Egypt’s independence, while Antony needed access to Egypt’s riches and resources—but they were also famously fond of each other’s company. According to ancient sources, they spent the winter of 41-40 B.C. living a life of leisure and excess in Egypt, and even formed their own drinking society known as the “Inimitable Livers.” The group engaged in nightly feasts and wine-binges, and its members occasionally took part in elaborate games and contests. One of Antony and Cleopatra’s favorite activities supposedly involved wandering the streets of Alexandria in disguise and playing pranks on its residents.
Cleopatra eventually married Mark Antony and had three children with him, but their relationship also spawned a massive scandal in Rome. Antony’s rival Octavian used propaganda to portray him as a traitor under the sway of a scheming seductress, and in 32 B.C., the Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra. The conflict reached its climax the following year in a famous naval battle at Actium. Cleopatra personally led several dozen Egyptian warships into the fray alongside Antony’s fleet, but they were no match for Octavian’s navy. The battle soon devolved into a rout, and Cleopatra and Antony were forced to break through the Roman line and flee to Egypt.
Cleopatra and Antony famously took their own lives in 30 B.C., after Octavian’s forces pursued them to Alexandria. While Antony is said to have fatally stabbed himself in the stomach, Cleopatra’s method of suicide is less certain. Legend has it that she died by enticing an “asp”—most likely a viper or Egyptian cobra—to bite her arm, but the ancient chronicler Plutarch admits that “what really took place is known to no one.” He says Cleopatra was also known to conceal a deadly poison in one of her hair combs, and the historian Strabo notes that she may have applied a fatal “ointment.” With this in mind, many scholars now suspect she used a pin dipped in some form of potent toxin—snake venom or otherwise.
The Queen of the Nile has been portrayed on the silver screen by the likes of Claudette Colbert and Sophia Loren, but she was most famously played by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 sword-and-sandal epic “Cleopatra.” The film was plagued by production problems and script issues, and its budget eventually soared from $2 million to $44 million—including some $200,000 just to cover the cost of Taylor’s costumes. It was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release, and nearly bankrupted its studio despite raking in a fortune at the box office. If inflation is taken into account, “Cleopatra” remains one of the priciest movies in history even today.
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