In June of 323 BCE, Alexander the Great died and his vast empire was divided among his generals. One of these generals was Ptolemy I Soter, a fellow Macedonian, who would found the Ptolemaic Dynasty in ancient Egypt. The Ptolemaic line, of Macedonian-Greek ethnicity, would continue to rule Egypt until the rise of the Roman Empire and the death of the last Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII.
Cleopatra's Youth & Ascent
Cleopatra VII Philopator was born in 69 BCE and ruled jointly with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes. When she was eighteen years old, her father died, leaving her the throne. Because Egyptian tradition held that a woman needed a male consort to rule, her twelve-year old brother, Ptolemy XIII, was ceremonially married to her. Cleopatra soon dropped his name from all official documents, however, and ruled alone.
The Ptolemies, insisting on Macedonian-Greek superiority, had ruled in Egypt for centuries without ever learning the Egyptian language or embracing the customs. Cleopatra, however, was fluent in Egyptian, eloquent in her native Greek, and proficient in other languages as well. Because of this, she was able to communicate easily with diplomats from other countries without the need of a translator and, shortly after assuming the throne, without bothering to hear the counsel of her advisors on matters of state. The historian Plutarch writes, “It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter.” Her habit of making decisions and acting on them without the counsel of the members of her court upset some of the high ranking officials. One example of this was when she ordered the deaths of the sons of the King of Syria when they came to the court requesting her assistance. In 48 BCE her chief advisor, Pothinus, along with another, Theodotus of Chios, and the General Achillas, overthrew her and placed Ptolemy XIII on the throne, believing him to be easier to control than his sister. Cleopatra and her half-sister, Arsinoe, fled to Thebaid.
At about this same time the Roman general and politician, Pompey the Great, was defeated by Julius Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus. Pompey was the state-appointed guardian over the younger Ptolemy children and, on his campaigns, had spent considerable time in Egypt. Believing he would be welcomed by friends, Pompey fled from Pharsalus to Egypt but, instead of finding sanctuary, was murdered under the gaze of Ptolemy XIII as he came on shore at Alexandria. Caesar’s army was numerically inferior to Pompey’s and it was believed that Caesar’s stunning victory meant that the gods favoured him over Pompey. Further, it seemed to make more sense to Ptolemy XIII’s advisor Pothinus to align the young king with the future of Rome rather than the past.
Upon arriving in Egypt with his legions, in pursuit of Pompey, Caesar was allegedly outraged that Pompey had been killed, declared martial law, and set himself up in the royal palace. Ptolemy XIII fled to Pelusium with his court. Caesar, however, was not about to let the young ruler slip away to foment trouble and had him brought back to Alexandria. Cleopatra was still in exile and knew there was no way she could simply walk into the palace unmolested. Recognizing in Caesar her chance to regain power, she had herself rolled in a rug, ostensibly a gift for the Roman general, and carried through the enemy lines to the palace and presented to Caesar. She and Caesar seemed to strike up an instant affinity for each other and, by the next morning when Ptolemy XIII arrived to meet with Caesar, Cleopatra and Caesar were already lovers. The young pharaoh was outraged.
Caesar & Cleopatra
Ptolemy XIII turned to his general Achillas for support and war broke out in Alexandria between Caesar’s legions and the Egyptian army. Caesar and Cleopatra were besieged in the royal palace for six months until Roman reinforcements were able to arrive and break the Egyptian lines. Before the victory, however, Cleopatra’s half-sister, Arsinoe, who had returned with her, fled the palace for Achillas’ camp and had herself proclaimed queen in Cleopatra’s place. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile attempting to escape after the battle and the other leaders of the coup against Cleopatra were killed in battle or shortly afterwards. Arsinoe was captured and sent to Rome in defeat but was spared her life by Caesar who exiled her to live in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus where she would remain until 41 BCE when, at Cleopatra’s urging, Mark Antony had her executed.
Cleopatra travelled through Egypt with Caesar in great style and was hailed by her subjects as Pharaoh. She gave birth to a son, Ptolemy Caesar (known as Caesarion) in June of 47 BCE and proclaimed him her heir. Caesar himself was content with Cleopatra ruling Egypt as the two of them found in each other the same kind of stratagem and intelligence, bonding them together with a mutual respect. In 46 BCE, Caesar returned to Rome and, shortly after, brought Cleopatra, their son, and her entire entourage to live there. He openly acknowledged Caesarion as his son (though not his heir) and Cleopatra as his consort. As Caesar was already married to Calpurnia at this time, and the Roman laws against bigamy were strictly adhered to, many of the members of the senate, as well as the public, were upset by Caesar’s actions.
Mark Antony & Cleopatra
When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, Cleopatra fled Rome with Caesarion and returned to Alexandria. Caesar’s right-hand man, Mark Antony, joined with his grandnephew Octavian and friend Lepidus to pursue and defeat the conspirators who had murdered Caesar. After the Battle of Phillipi, at which the forces of Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius, Antony emerged as ruler of the eastern provinces, including Egypt, while Octavian held the west.
In 41 BCE, Cleopatra was summoned to appear before Antony in Tarsus to answer charges she had given aid to Brutus and Cassius. Cleopatra delayed in coming and then delayed further in complying with Antony’s summons, making it clear that, as Queen of Egypt, she would come in her own time when she saw fit. Egypt was, at this time, teetering on the edge of economic chaos but, even so, Cleopatra made sure to present herself as a true sovereign, appearing in luxury on her barge, dressed as Aphrodite.
She came sailing up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along, under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like Sea Nymphs and Graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes...perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal while the word went, through all the multitude, that Venus was come to feast with Bacchus for the common good of Asia. (Plutarch)
Mark Antony and Cleopatra instantly became lovers and would remain so for the next ten years. She would bear him three children and he considered her his wife, even though he was married, first, to Fulvia and then to Octavia, the sister of Octavian. He eventually divorced Octavia to marry Cleopatra legally.
Rome's Civil War & Cleopatra's Death
During these years, Antony’s relationship with Octavian would steadily disintegrate to the point where civil war broke out. Cleopatra’s and Antony’s forces were defeated by Octavian’s at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and, a year later, they both committed suicide. Antony, upon hearing the false report of Cleopatra’s death, stabbed himself. He learned, too late, that she still lived and Octavian allowed him to be brought to the queen where he died in her arms. Octavian then demanded audience with the queen where the conditions of her defeat were made plain to her. The terms were hardly favorable and Cleopatra understood she would be brought to Rome a captive to adorn Octavian’s triumph. Recognizing that she would not be able to manipulate Octavian as she had Caesar and Antony, Cleopatra asked for, and was granted, time to prepare herself. She then had herself poisoned through the bite of a snake (traditionally an asp, though most scholars today believe it was an Egyptian cobra). Octavian had her son Caesarion murdered and her children by Antony brought to Rome where they were raised by Octavia; thus ended the Ptolemaic line of Egyptian rulers.
Although traditionally regarded as a great beauty, the ancient writers uniformly praise her intelligence and charm over her physical attributes. Plutarch writes:
Her own beauty, so we are told, was not of that incomparable type that immediately captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible and there was an attraction in her person and in her conversation that, along with a peculiar force of character in her every word and action, laid all who associated with her under her spell.
Cleopatra has continued to cast that same spell throughout the centuries since her death and remains the most famous queen of ancient Egypt. Movies, books, television shows, and plays have been produced about her life and she is depicted in works of art in every century up to the present day. Though she was Macedonian-Greek, not an Egyptian, she has come to symbolize ancient Egypt in the popular imagination more than any other Egyptian monarch.