Cleopatra VII – 69 BCE – 30 BCE – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

CleopatraVII

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.

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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

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

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

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

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

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur

Aftermath

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.


In fiction:

To this day, Cleopatra remains a popular figure in Western culture…

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatta 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra 1891

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in 'Caesar and Cleopatra' 1945

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ 1945

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

A full list of depictions of Cleopatra VII on film can be found here.


References:

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


Image credits:

Click here for the image credits for this post.

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Tausret – d. 1189 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Ruling during the Trojan wars, Tausret was the last woman to rule Egypt as Pharaoh until Cleopatra VII, over 1000 years later.

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The story of Tausret (also known as Twosret or Ta-Usret, meaning powerful one) and her rise to power is in many ways very similar to her predecessors Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut, though she only ruled for a fraction of the time Hatshepsut did – approximately two years.

Like the two female Pharaoh’s who came before her, she was first the wife of a King; Seti II. When Seti died, he left behind only a ten year old boy, named Sitpah, as heir.

“Twosret” by en:User: John D. Croft – English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Like Hatshepsut, Tausret was regent on the behalf of the boy-king. This continued for around six years, before Sitpah died in his mid-teens. At this point, Tausret was the logical choice for Pharaoh, with her royal connections and experience in power. Similarly to Hatshepsut and Sobekneferu, Tausret used both female and male iconography to refer to herself in statues and carvings.

While her reign as an independent Pharaoh lasted around two years (c.1191 – 1189 BCE), there is evidence that she included Sitpah’s reign as her own, making it seem as though she ruled for close to eight years. The reason for this may have been Sitpah’s shaky parentage – which is still disputed. We know that he was not Tausret’s son, nor was he likely to have been Seti’s child. He may have been a nephew or cousin. Sitpah’s apparent illegitimacy may have been the cause of a civil war which marked the end of the 19th dynasty. Tausret’s absorbing his reign into her own might have been a way of asserting her own kingship, as her royal blood was not under question.

We do not know how Tausret’s reign ended – whether she simply died, or was overthrown by Setnakhtre, who founded the 20thdynasty. What we do know is that he really disliked her. He took over her tomb (which she shared with Seti), removed her body and plastered all of the walls, removing any trace of the female king.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Theban Tomb Mapping Project

On Wikipedia:

Nefertiti – c.1370 – 1330 BCE – Amarna, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Her face is one of the most well known in history and her striking beauty has been praised for thousands of years. But Queen Nefertiti was a lot more than just pretty. Together with her husband she instigated a religious revolution, founded a city, modernised Egyptian art, and may have ruled as Pharaoh herself for a time.

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As is the case with many Egyptian women, little is known about Nefertiti’s life before her marriage to Amenhotep IV. What is known is that the royal couple were radicals. They put themselves at odds with the Egyptian establishment by worshipping Aten, the sun disk, over all other Gods, turning their backs on Egypt’s polytheistic religion. Five years into Amenhotep’s reign, they both changed their names becoming Akhenaten and Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti (perfect are the beauties of Aten, the beautiful one has come).

“Nefertiti Standing-striding Berlin” by Photo: Andreas Praefcke – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The couple were not satisfied simply changing the nations belief system. Their next move was even more unusual, as they relocated the entire royal court from Thebes to a newly built city in the desert, Akhetaten (now known as Amarna). Akhetaten became the centre of the cult of Aten, with several open air temples and an enormous palace, from which Akhenaten and Nefertiti ruled during Egypt’s most prosperous era.

Turning a centuries old system on its head was an enormous undertaking, and Nefertiti proved herself to be an expert at PR. She left her mark everywhere. Never before had the face of a ruler been shared so widely – in fact Nefertiti appears in carvings twice as often as her own husband, the Pharaoh. In some images, Nefertiti is surrounded by her six daughters; in others she is shown smiting her enemies. She took up a string of titles including; Great of praises, Sweet of Love, Lady of All Women, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. Even her distinctive tall cap-crown was designed to flatter her beauty, following the lines of her face. She was a Queen who wanted to be known to her people.

Art changed entirely during this period – the images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti are unlike any other ancient Egyptian portraits, in that they are a clear attempt at realism. While the tradition was to portray the royal family as tall, lean, androgynous beings, like the Gods, images of Akhenaten present an extremely unusual looking man. He has a large jaw and cleft chin, spindly arms and a pot belly. Queen Tiye, his mother, has

“Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

visible age lines on her face. Nefertiti is the most striking of all, and her angular face and cylinder crown have become iconic symbols of ancient Egypt in western consciousness.

There is strong evidence that in year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti was elevated to co-regent, ruling alongside her husband with all the power of a Pharaoh. Though Royal wives had wielded power before, Nefertiti’s rise was unprecedented. In fact, it is believed that she outlived her husband and ruled alone, as the mysterious Pharaoh Neferneferuaten (who may also be Nefertiti’s daughter, Meritaten). If this is the case, it means that Nefertiti ruled three years into her stepson, Tutankhamun’s reign.

It was during Tutankhamun’s short reign that Amarna was abandoned and Thebes reinstated as the capital. The cult of Aten was disbanded and even art reverted back to its traditional style. Akhenaten was branded ‘the Heretic King’ and the new world that he and his Queen had fought to create was abandoned in the desert.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

On Wikipedia:


In fiction:

Hatshepsut – 1508 – 1458 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

“I never slumbered as one forgetful, but have made strong what was decayed. I have raised up what was dismembered.”

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Princess Hatshepsut was born to rule. As the only child of the Pharaoh and his Great Royal Wife, Hatshepsut had the strongest claim to the throne and during her father’s reign held the important office of God’s Wife. Her name meant Foremost of the Noble Ladies and by the time she was fifteen the princess was an experienced and capable administrator.

There was only one problem; she was not a man. When her father Pharaoh Thutmose I died, Hatshepsut was obliged to marry her younger half-brother, whose mother was a minor wife of the Pharaoh. Still, the teenage Queen took an active role in the affairs of the Kingdom, knowing that it was only through marriage to her that Thutmose II was King at all.

“Thutmose III and Hatshepsut” by Markh – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Thirteen years into his reign, Thutmose II died of an illness. He and Hatshepsut had a daughter, Neferure, together, but it was his son Thutmose III, who he fathered with a secondary wife, who would inherit the throne. However, Thutmose III was very young and would need a regent to run the kingdom until he reached maturity. With her royal bloodline and wealth of experience, thirty year old Hatshepsut was the logical choice. Two years later, she declared herself King of Egypt.

Pharaoh Hatshepsut ruled Egypt for over twenty years in her own right, and is regarded as one of the most successful of Egypt’s rulers. While her father had spent his reign at war with the Hyksos in the Nile Delta, Hatshepsut maintained a largely peaceful foreign policy and took the opportunity to establish important trade routes, building the wealth of her dynasty.

She oversaw expeditions to the land of Punt, bringing frankincense and myrrh to Egypt for the first time. The frankincense she used for kohl

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut by Ian Lloyd - lloydi.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut by Ian Lloyd – lloydi.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

eyeliner, and the myrrh trees were planted in her extensive funeral complex at Deir el-Bahri. Her mortuary temple was to become the envy of all Pharaohs who followed her, and is now the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

Hatshepsut, like her father, was an extensive builder. The wealth brought into Egypt from her international trade routes was put towards funding hundreds of construction projects, grander than any of her predecessors, raising the standard of Egyptian architecture. So much statutory was produced that today every major museum in the world contains at least one statue built by Hatshepsut.

To assert herself as Pharaoh, rather than a Queen, images of Hatshepsut portray her with all of the traditional symbols and regalia of kingship – including the khat headcloth, shendyt kilt and false beard. There is no indication that Hatshepsut dressed as a man, and it is thought that in statues and carvings she is depicted in this way so that there can be no doubt she is Pharaoh.

Meanwhile, her step-son Thutmose III was also Pharaoh, in title only. Though he had little power over the empire, Hatshepsut appointed him head of her armies. There is no indication that Hatshepsut’s leadership was ever challenged, and until her death Thutmose III remained in a secondary role quite amicably. As head of her powerful armies, he would have had the power to overthrow her at any time, and clearly never chose to.

It is true that towards the end of his own reign Thutmose III began to remove Hatshepsut from historical records, chiseling her name and images away from stone walls, leaving obvious gaps in artwork. Her statues were also torn down or disfigured and buried in a pit that would not be discovered for many centuries.

It’s not clear why Thutmose chose to do this, especially as he did not seem to take issue with Hatshepsut during her rule. One theory is that he was simply doing what he believed to be correct at the time – as at the time it was not considered possible for a woman to be Pharaoh, he may have been attempting to return her to her place as his co-regent.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Hatshepsut: from Queen to Pharaoh Metropolitan Museum of Art 

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge

The Hatshepsut Trilogy by Patricia O’Neill

Sobekneferu – c.1806 BCE – Faiyum, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

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The original Queen of the Nile…

The last pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom, a golden age for Egypt, was Sobekneferu; Egypt’s first known female king. While Merneith had ruled on behalf of her son over a millennium earlier and queens (king’s wives) often had some administrative powers, Sobekneferu is the first woman to rule with the title of Pharaoh (king) in her own right.

She was the daughter of pharaoh Amenemhat III, whose greatest achievement was the construction of a man-made lake in Faiyum. The lake brought prosperity to the area by channelling the floods from the Nile into a reservoir. For this reason Amenemhat became closely associated with the crocodile-headed god of the Nile, Sobek.

A cult of crocodile worshippers developed around Faiyum, leading the Greeks to later name the area Crocodilopolis (Crocodile City).

Sobekneferu means ‘the Beauties of Sobek’ – cementing this family’s close ties with the city.

Amenemhat was succeeded by his son, Amenemhat IV, who was either Sobekneferu’s brother or step-brother. When Amenemhat IV died he left no children to inherit the kingdom, leaving to position open for Sobekneferu.

Unusually, Sobekneferu never took the title ‘King’s Wife’, so was probably not married to Amenemhat IV. There is very little explanation at all for how she rose to power, but there is evidence of a few shrewd political moves on her part.

She consistently emphasised her right to rule by associating herself with her father

Egyptian crocodile head from the Walters Art Museum (source)

rather than her brother, and was likely the reason Amenemhat III was deified (made a god) in Faiyum– being the daughter of a god meant that her right to rule was sacred.

Though she only ruled for four years and died childless, Sobekneferu is included on all later king’s lists in Egypt. This indicates that unlike many other female rulers, later historians considered Sobekneferu a legitimate pharaoh.

See also: Only three other women ruled Egypt as pharaoh’s in their own right. They are Hatshepsut, Tausret and Cleopatra VII.


Notes

The title Queen did not have the meaning it had today, but meant ‘the wife of a king’. There was no specific word for a female ruler in ancient Egypt, so women who did rule, like Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut, took the title of King.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

On Wikipedia: