Cleopatra (69-30 BCE) was the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. Noted for her intelligence and charm, she formed alliances with Roman leaders Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Augustus. Her reign ended with Roman conquest, and she remains a significant figure in ancient history.
Intriguingly erudite and undeniably cunning, Cleopatra was a polyglot, capable of communicating in multiple tongues and held an undeniable authority in all of her shared reigns. Her captivating story is further embroidered by her romantic and strategic entanglements with the prominent Roman leaders, the audacious Julius Caesar and the valiant Mark Antony.
Rumours of her intoxicating beauty and hypnotic allure, combined with her strategic alliances and lovers, have granted Cleopatra an indelible mark in the annals of history and the canvas of popular folklore. Her tale, shrouded in allure and power, resonates as a symbol of timeless seduction and political prowess.
Formative Years and Rise to Power
Cleopatra’s life narrative is clouded with enigmas as there are no contemporaneous records of her existence, making it challenging to weave together her biography with any real assurance. The glimpses we have of her life originate from the writings of Greco-Roman academics, notably Plutarch.
Born under the Egyptian sun in 70 or 69 B.C., Cleopatra was the progeny of Ptolemy XII (Auletes), a descendent of Ptolemy I Soter – a distinguished general under Alexander the Great, and the architect of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. It’s generally held that her mother was Cleopatra V Tryphaena, the queen consort and likely the half-sister of the king.
Upon the seemingly natural demise of Auletes in 51 B.C., the opulent throne of Egypt was inherited by Cleopatra, then just 18 years old, and her 10-year-old sibling, Ptolemy XIII.
However, the siblings’ ascension sparked a power struggle, with Ptolemy’s counsellors moving against Cleopatra. Consequently, she was compelled to escape Egypt for Syria in 49 B.C. Determined to regain her throne, she assembled an army of mercenaries and returned the subsequent year, confronting her brother’s army in a civil conflict at Pelusium, Egypt’s eastern frontier.
In a concurrent twist of events, Ptolemy XIII permitted the assassination of Roman general Pompey and then hosted Pompey’s adversary, Julius Caesar, in Alexandria. Sensing an opportunity, Cleopatra sought to secure Caesar’s allegiance to her cause. Legend has it that she daringly smuggled herself into the royal palace to personally petition him.
Cleopatra’s Relationship with Julius Caesar
Caesar, grappling with his own political battles back in Rome, required financial support and looked to Egypt, expecting repayment of the enormous debts accrued by Auletes. Following a gruelling four-month conflict between Caesar’s outnumbered troops and those loyal to Ptolemy XIII, Roman reinforcements arrived. Subsequently, Ptolemy was compelled to abscond Alexandria and was presumed to have met his fate in the depths of the Nile River.
As Caesar strode into Alexandria, he was viewed as an unwelcome invader. Nevertheless, he restored the throne to the equally maligned Cleopatra and her youthful brother, Ptolemy XIV, who was merely 13 at the time. Caesar lingered in Egypt, entwined in a romantic liaison with Cleopatra. Around 47 B.C., she bore a son, Ptolemy Caesar, popularly known to the Egyptian populace as Caesarion or Little Caesar, believed to be the progeny of Caesar himself.
In a span of time between 46-45 B.C., Cleopatra, alongside Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion, journeyed to Rome to visit Caesar, who had previously returned. Following Caesar’s gruesome assassination in March 44 B.C., Cleopatra retreated to Egypt. Soon after, Ptolemy XIV met a suspicious end, potentially at the hands of Cleopatra’s agents, paving the way for the toddler Caesarion to be declared co-regent alongside his mother, taking the title Ptolemy XV.
By this juncture, Cleopatra had deeply associated herself with the goddess Isis, the divine wife-sister of Osiris and the mother of Horus. This association reinforced her regal position, adhering to the ancient Egyptian tradition of merging royalty with divinity. Cleopatra III had also claimed affinity with Isis, leading to Cleopatra VII being hailed as the “New Isis”. Gifted with linguistic proficiency, she was fluent in nearly a dozen languages and was celebrated for her “irresistible charm”, as Plutarch fondly reminisced.
Cleopatra’s Relationship with Mark Antony
With her young son as her co-regent, Cleopatra’s reign over Egypt became more stable than ever before. However, the kingdom was not without its problems. Unpredictable Nile floods led to crop failures, resulting in an economic crisis and widespread hunger. Simultaneously, Rome was engulfed in a brutal conflict between Caesar’s allies, forming the second triumvirate (Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus), and his assassins, Brutus and Cassius. Both factions sought Egyptian aid. After some calculated hesitation, Cleopatra dispatched four Roman legions, previously stationed in Egypt by Caesar, to support the triumvirate. Following their triumph over Brutus and Cassius in the battles of Philippi in 42 B.C., Mark Antony and Octavian divided Rome’s power amongst themselves.
Soon, Mark Antony summoned Cleopatra to the Cilician city of Tarsus, located in what is now southern Turkey, to clarify her role in the complex aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. As the story goes, famously chronicled by Plutarch and later dramatized by William Shakespeare, Cleopatra embarked on a journey to Tarsus aboard an ornate ship, cloaked in the regalia of Isis. Antony, who fancied himself akin to the Greek god Dionysus, was bewitched by her captivating charm.
In a pledge to secure Egypt and Cleopatra’s crown, Antony offered his support to eliminate her younger sister and rival, Arsinoe, who was then living in exile. Cleopatra returned to Egypt, with Antony quickly following, leaving behind his third wife, Fulvia, and their children in Rome. He spent the winter of 41-40 B.C. in the allure of Alexandria, where he and Cleopatra famously formed a convivial society known as “The Inimitable Livers.” Upon Antony’s return to Rome in 40 B.C., Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios (the sun) and Cleopatra Selene (the moon).
Power Struggles of Cleopatra
Following the unfortunate illness and subsequent death of Fulvia, Antony found himself compelled to demonstrate his allegiance to Octavian, thus entering into a strategic marital union with Octavia, Octavian’s half-sister. Under Cleopatra’s stewardship, Egypt thrived, and in 37 B.C., Antony sought out Cleopatra once again, hoping to secure funds for his long-awaited military expedition against Parthia. In return, he promised to restore much of Egypt’s eastern territories, including Cyprus, Crete, Cyrenaica (present-day Libya), Jericho, and vast swathes of Syria and Lebanon. Their love was rekindled, and Cleopatra bore another son, Ptolemy Philadelphos, in 36 B.C.
Upon suffering a crushing defeat in Parthia, Antony publicly spurned the reconciliation attempts by his wife Octavia, choosing instead to return to Egypt and the arms of Cleopatra. During a public jubilation known as the “Donations of Alexandria” in 34 B.C., Antony declared Caesarion as Caesar’s legitimate heir, bypassing Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian. He further gifted land to each of his children with Cleopatra. This act ignited a propaganda war between Antony and an enraged Octavian, the latter alleging that Antony was entirely enthralled by Cleopatra, ready to forsake Rome and establish a new capital in Egypt. In the waning months of 32 B.C., the Roman Senate stripped Antony of all his titles, and Octavian, in a remarkable move, declared war not on Antony, but on Cleopatra.
Death of Cleopatra
Cleopatra died in 30 BCE, and while the exact cause remains a mystery, it’s widely believed she died from an asp bite. After the defeat by Augustus, she chose death over Roman capture, solidifying her legend as a tragic yet powerful figure in ancient history.
On September 2, 31 B.C., Octavian’s troops emerged victorious in the Battle of Actium, dealing a crushing blow to Antony and Cleopatra’s forces. In the chaotic aftermath, Cleopatra’s fleet deserted the battle, seeking refuge in Egypt. Antony managed to extricate himself and, with a handful of ships, pursued her. As Octavian’s forces descended upon Alexandria, a rumour of Cleopatra’s suicide reached Antony. In despair, he impaled himself on his sword, succumbing to his wound just as news reached him that the tale of Cleopatra’s death was false.
On August 12, 30 B.C., following Antony’s burial and a meeting with the triumphant Octavian, Cleopatra sequestered herself in her chamber alongside two of her handmaidens. The exact cause of her death remains a mystery, but numerous scholars, including Plutarch, propose that she ended her life at the age of 39 using an asp, a venomous snake seen as a symbol of divine royalty. In accordance with her final wishes, Cleopatra was laid to rest alongside Antony, leaving Octavian, soon to be Emperor Augustus I, to revel in his conquest of Egypt and his solidified grip on Rome.
Legacy of Cleopatra
Children and successors
Following her tragic suicide, Cleopatra’s three remaining children, Cleopatra Selene II, Alexander Helios, and Ptolemy Philadelphos, were transported to Rome. They were placed under the guardianship of Octavian’s sister Octavia the Younger, who had previously been married to their father. The children witnessed the triumphant celebration of Octavian in Rome in 29 B.C. After this, the destinies of Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphos become shrouded in the mists of history.
Octavia arranged for Cleopatra Selene II to be betrothed to Juba II, son of Juba I, whose kingdom of Numidia in North Africa had been annexed by Julius Caesar as a Roman province due to Juba I’s allegiance to Pompey.
After their nuptial in 25 B.C., Emperor Augustus appointed Juba II and Cleopatra Selene II as the rulers of Mauretania. The couple worked diligently to transform the ancient Carthaginian city of Iol into their capital, renamed Caesarea Mauretaniae, in present-day Cherchell, Algeria. Cleopatra Selene II invited many renowned scholars, artists, and advisors from her mother’s court in Alexandria to assist in the shaping of Caesarea, which was imbued with Hellenistic Greek culture. She honoured their Ptolemaic lineage by naming her son Ptolemy of Mauretania.
Cleopatra Selene II’s life ended around 5 B.C., and upon Juba II’s death in 23/24 A.D., their son Ptolemy succeeded him. Unfortunately, Ptolemy was executed by the Roman Emperor Caligula in 40 A.D., possibly under the pretext of illegal royal coinage and usurping imperial regalia. Ptolemy of Mauretania was the last confirmed monarch of the Ptolemaic dynasty, though Queen Zenobia of the short-lived Palmyrene Empire claimed lineage from Cleopatra during the Crisis of the Third Century. Fascinatingly, as late as 373 A.D., a cult dedicated to Cleopatra still existed, as evidenced by an Egyptian scribe named Petesenufe who noted that he “overlaid the figure of Cleopatra with gold.”
Medieval and Modern Reception
Cleopatra, the ancient queen of Egypt, has transcended the annals of history to become an emblem of popular culture, an evolution underscored by theatrical productions, artwork, and films. Her posthumous influence looms significantly larger than the comparatively sparse historical accounts of her reign, profoundly shaping the public’s perception of this powerful woman.
Centuries after her death, Cleopatra’s tale was reinterpreted by the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer in the Middle Ages, casting her and Antony as quintessential lovers caught in a courtly romance. Chaucer dismissed Cleopatra’s portrayal as a wanton seductress, focusing instead on her relationships with just two men – an implicit critique of Giovanni Boccaccio’s negative depiction of the Egyptian queen in his Latin works.
From the canvas of illuminated manuscripts to the marble of Renaissance sculptures, Cleopatra’s likeness began to appear across a myriad of mediums. Renowned artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo etched her figure in prints while others gave her a place in their woodcuts.
Her magnetic life story seeped into the realm of performing arts, inspiring playwrights like Samuel Daniel and William Shakespeare. They reimagined Cleopatra’s story, sparking a fascination with her sensual persona and the stark contrast to England’s Virgin Queen. Operas like George Frideric Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” echoed the allure of Cleopatra’s love affair with Caesar.
Victorian Britain was besotted with Cleopatra, her image being woven into the fabric of everyday life, appearing on household products and postcards. Her character was immortalized in fictional novels such as H. Rider Haggard’s “Cleopatra” and Théophile Gautier’s “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” where she was portrayed as an enchanting and mystical Easterner.
On the stage, French and Irish playwrights Victorien Sardou and George Bernard Shaw brought her story to life, while the biting humour of F. C. Burnand’s “Antony and Cleopatra” satirized the legendary queen. Cleopatra’s resonance was so profound that even far East, Qing-dynasty Chinese scholar Yan Fu penned an extensive biography of her.
The magic of cinema saw Cleopatra’s story unfold on silver screens around the world, from the silent era to the spectacle of Hollywood. Films like “Cleopatra” starring Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, and the iconic Elizabeth Taylor shaped the celluloid image of Cleopatra. Her potent mix of power and allure came to represent a prototype of exotic femininity. Cleopatra’s influence in pop culture was so enduring that by the turn of the 21st century, her story had inspired hundreds of films, plays, novels, operas, and ballets.
- Encyclopædia Britannica. “Cleopatra | Biography & Facts.” Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cleopatra-queen-of-Egypt.
- HISTORY.com Editors. “Cleopatra.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, November 9, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-egypt/cleopatra.
- Wikipedia contributors. “Cleopatra.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, July 25, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra.