Kleopatra VII Philopator, known commonly as ‘Cleopatra’, is perhaps the most well-known woman so far in this project, and one of the most famous figures in history.
Though she was not the first woman to rule Egypt (see Merneith, Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Tausret), she was the last active pharaoh (only very briefly survived by her son) of Egypt as an independent country.
Cleopatra’s reputation precedes her. Thanks to hundreds of paintings, plays, operas, novels and films, the story of the ‘Queen of the Nile’ continues to be shared worldwide. She is remembered by turns as a great beauty, a seductress, a tragic lover, a passionate ruler and a cold, calculated femme fatale.
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Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra was a Ptolemy; a Macedonian Greek family who had ruled Egypt for three hundred years and could trace their lineage back to Ptolemy Soter, General to Alexander the Great. (See other Ptolemies in this project: Arsinoë II, Bilistiche, Arsinoë III, Cleopatra II).
The Ptolemaic dynasty was marked by corruption and power struggles. Before she was even fourteen years old, Cleopatra had seen both of her elder sisters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice overthrow their father – both were killed; one executed, one found dead in suspicious circumstances.
Ptolemaic princess, thought to be Cleopatra VII
Now the eldest living daughter, the teenage Cleopatra was elevated to co-regent beside her father.
Her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes died when she was eighteen. As was tradition, Cleopatra married her younger brother, ten year old Ptolemy XIII, with whom she became joint ruler. It was clear that this arrangement was not a happy one. To assert her authority over her brother Cleopatra withdrew Ptolemy’s name from official documents and issued coins which showed only her face.
This sole reign caused uproar among certain factions in the royal court, and in 48 BCE Cleopatra was chased out of Egypt along with her younger sister, Arsinoë.
Cleopatra was not without supporters. An intelligent young woman with a
Cleopatra VII as the goddess Isis
political mind, she was the first Ptolemy ruler who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. (In fact, including her mother-tongue, Greek, Cleopatra spoke nine languages fluently, making her very popular with foreign diplomats as she rarely needed an interpreter). She also fully embraced the religion of Egypt like no Ptolemy before her, presenting herself as a reincarnation of the goddess Isis.
During Cleopatra’s exile, her thirteen year old brother-husband made a very powerful enemy. Julius Caesar had been at civil war with his General and co-ruler Pompey. When Pompey fled to Alexandria to seek sanctuary, the young pharaoh had him beheaded as he watched from a throne in the Alexandrian harbor.
Hoping that the execution would win him favor with Rome, Ptolemy cheerfully presented Caesar with the head of his enemy when the dictator arrived in Alexandria two days later. Caesar was furious. Though they had been political rivals, Pompey was a Roman consul and the widower of Caesar’s only legitimate daughter, Julia. Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.
At this point, Cleopatra famously had herself smuggled back into Alexandria – many stories describe her being rolled up in a carpet and carried to Julius Caesar’s bedroom by her servants. However she arrived, the twenty one year old queen quickly managed to charm the Roman ruler and the two became lovers.
Nine months later, Cleopatra gave birth to her first child, a boy she named Caesarion (little Caesar) and Julius Caesar sent his army after Ptolemy. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile and Cleopatra was married to her other brother, Ptolemy XIV with whom she became co-ruler.
Cleopatra VII presenting her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera
The young queen travelled to Rome to visit Caesar with their son in the summer of 46 BCE. There she was invited to stay in one of Caesar’s luxury country houses, causing scandal as he was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis. The dictator had a golden statue of Cleopatra as Isis built and displayed in the Forum Julium, but he refused to acknowledge Caesarion as his heir, preferring instead his grandnephew Octavian.
Cleopatra was forced to return to Egypt with her family when Julius Caesar was assassinated in March 44 and Rome erupted in civil war. Soon after, Ptolemy XIV died – some say poisoned – and Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent and successor.
Three years later, Marc Antony arrived in Egypt.
Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Marc Antony had come to ask Cleopatra for Egypt’s allegiance as he prepared to fight the Parthians. She promised this and more as the two greatest political figures of their time came together and fell in love.
The queen had the Roman solider enthralled – she took him on an exotic pleasure cruise down the Nile, held lavish banquets and showed off her immense wealth.
In time, Cleopatra gave birth to Marc Antony’s twins – Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. In return, Antony had Cleopatra’s younger sister and last remaining rival Arsinoë killed.
Four years passed before Antony returned to Alexandria. He had clearly missed Cleopatra because this time he stayed for good. Though he was still married to Octavian’s sister Octavia, he married Cleopatra in an Egyptian ceremony and they had a third child – Ptolemy Philadelphus.
Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony on their coins
When Antony conquered Armenia in 34 BCE, Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of both Egypt and Cyrprus, and the other children were made rulers of Armenia, Media, Parthia, Curenaica, Libya, Phoenicia, Syria and Cicilia. Cleopatra became ‘Queen of Kings’ and Caesarion was declared a god king.
The people of Rome were not pleased. It looked as through Cleopatra and Antony were planning war, and Octavian decided to strike first. The battle of Actium took place in 31 BCE between the Roman and Egyptian naval forces. Egypt fell when Marc Antony’s armies defected and joined Octavian.
The details of what happened next are not clear, and differ depend on who is telling the story. We do know that both Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide rather than face their defeat. Marc Antony probably fell on his sword, while Cleopatra famously allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (cobra).
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur
Caesarion was proclaimed pharaoh by the Egyptians, but quickly killed by Octavian. The victorious Emperor returned to Rome triumphant with the three remaining children of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in chains.
Cleopatra’s death marked not only the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, but the end of all Egyptian pharaohs. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.
Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene, lived a long life and married Juba of Namidia, bringing a large dowry provided by Augustus. She and Juba went on to rule Mauretania. Their first son was named Ptolemy.
To this day, Cleopatra remains a popular figure in Western culture…
Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891
Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra 1891
Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906
Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912
Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912
Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915
Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934
Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ 1945
Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963
A full list of depictions of Cleopatra VII on film can be found here.
Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra –Joyce Tyldesley
The Reign of Cleopatra – Stanley Mayer Burstein
Cleopatra: A Life – Stacy Schiff
Click here for the image credits for this post.