The last ruler of the Macedonian dynasty, Cleopatra’s name has crossed history as the great temptress of the Romans. She captured the love of not one Roman leader but two. Cleopatra used her womanly charms and cleverness to maintain her kingdom and outwit her enemies. The Greek Queen of Egypt was ruthless and determined, winning wars against siblings, conquering countless Greek rulers, and in the end, dying by her own hand through the poisonous asp. Cleopatra’s story and character has been twisted throughout the years to make her many things, but one thing she was not, was boring.
Child of the Nile
Cleopatra was born in 69 B.C. She was the third daughter of the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy XII. Her mother is believed to have been Cleopatra V Tryphaena, Ptolemy’s half-sister. Little is known about Cleopatra’s childhood. She had two older sisters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice IV, as well as a younger sister, Arsione IV. She also had two younger brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. It is believed that Cleopatra’s oldest sister died as a child. Cleopatra spoke Egyptian and Greek as well as at least six other languages and she had a great love for music. It is also known when Cleopatra was twelve she fled to Rome with her father, who took refuge in Rome from his angry people who were plotting against him. While Ptolemy was gone his second daughter, Berenice, seized power. The Roman’s however assisted in placing Ptolemy back on his throne and his first act was to have his daughter beheaded for her betrayal. This moved Cleopatra up in line for the throne.
In 51 B.C, when Ptolemy XII died, he named his eighteen year old daughter and ten year old son as joint heirs. The two were married, as was typical during this time. However, co-ruling did not prove their strong point. Ptolemy’s advisors disliked Cleopatra and worked against her. Besides the advisors, nature seemed to also be working against Cleopatra. The Nile failed to rise high enough to flood the lands and therefore the harvest was poor. Food shortages caused discontent among the people with their new rulers. Many peasants deserted their villages to avoid paying taxes.
Cleopatra’s initial handle over foreign affairs did not raise her people’s hopes for a good ruler either. Cleopatra believed strongly in the ties with Rome her father had established. As a result she ordered Egyptian troops to help the Roman governor of Syria in fighting against the Parthians. The soldiers refused, unconcerned with the problems of Rome. Cleopatra, fearing an uprising, fled to Rome and her brother’s supporters seized control of the government.
The Roman Savior
As Cleopatra fled Egypt the Roman leader Pompey, who was engaged in a civil war with Caesar, fled to Egypt. Pompey sought refuge in Alexandria but quickly learned how soiled his reputation had become in Egypt. As he stepped on shore he was murdered on September 28, 48 B.C. by rule of young Ptolemy XIII. Four days after the murder of his adversary, Caesar arrived in Alexandria, bringing with him thirty-two hundred legionaries.
Cleopatra, in the meantime, had raised an army of mercenaries to attempt to wrangle power and control from her brother. Caesar, having arrived, took up residence in the palace in Alexandria and quickly inserted himself into the siblings’ feud. Caesar called forth a peace conference, but Ptolemy ordered his forces to block the return of his sister to the palace. Cleopatra, paying no mind to her brother’s order, had every intention of gaining an audience with Caesar. Cleopatra convinced her servant Apollodoros to wrap her in a carpet and smuggle her into the palace to meet the Roman leader.
Cleopatra’s delivery into Caesar’s arms is a well-known tale. Cleopatra pleaded her case and wooed the Roman leader, charming him and quickly taking him into her bed. The next morning, when the peace conference was to begin, Ptolemy noticed immediately that Caesar and Cleopatra had developed a relationship. He stormed out screaming about his betrayal in order to arouse the people. His ploys were unsuccessful; Caesar’s guards soon captured him and brought him back to the palace. It was Caesar’s plan to make Cleopatra the sole ruler of Egypt and use her as a puppet for Rome.
Ptolemy was not willing to surrender his power to his sister, despite the Roman leader backing her. Ptolemy XIII rebelled against Caesar and entered into a civil war. The Alexandrian Wars began in November and Ptolemy’s soldiers surrounded Caesar in Alexandria. The war that ensued destroyed many warehouses and part of the famous Alexandrian Library. Caesar’s forces were outnumbered, but he captured Pharos lighthouse and therefore was able to control the harbor. After four months of fighting Roman reinforcements arrived and Ptolemy was forced to flee Alexandria.
During his flight Ptolemy XIII died, supposedly drowning in the Nile River. Some believe he was murdered in the Nile, under the orders of Caesar and Cleopatra, but there was no proof to indicate Ptolemy’s death was anything less than an accident. With the death of her brother Cleopatra was now the sole ruler of Egypt, at least for a short time.
Immediately Caesar restored the throne to the rather unpopular Cleopatra. To maintain Egyptian traditions and please the priests and people of Alexandria Cleopatra married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. Though married again, Cleopatra maintained her relationship with the married Roman Lord. Caesar remained with Cleopatra for a short while and during this time she became pregnant.
Around June 47 B.C. Cleopatra gave birth to a son. She named him Ptolemy Caesar and it was widely believed that he was Caesar’s son (this may have been Caesar’s aim all along). The child was known to the Egyptian people as Caesarion, meaning Little Caesar. However, despite his suggestive name, Caesar never acknowledged Caesarion as his son.
In 46 B.C. Caesar left Cleopatra and returned to his duties and wife in Rome. His return was marked with honor and he was granted a ten-year dictatorship. He celebrated for a month, pleased at his rise in power. Cleopatra was also travelled to Rome during this time. It is said that her sister, Arsinoe was taken to Rome as well and displayed as a war captive from the Alexandrian war. Cleopatra’s presence was offensive to many of the Romans. Caesar was already married to a Roman woman, Calpurnia, and yet Cleopatra also claimed to be his wife. When Caesar established Cleopatra in his home the conservative Republicans were outraged. Besides Caesar’s offensive actions, Cleopatra herself caused a stir by comparing herself to the Goddess Isis and living in luxury within Caesar’s palace. The Roman leaders were outraged and growing weary of Caesar’s power and his Egyptian concubine.
Return to Egypt
Though both Cleopatra and Caesar were unaware of it, trouble was brewing in Rome. In 44 B.C. Caesar was assassinated by the other Roman leaders. With her lover and protector gone Cleopatra returned to Egypt. Cleopatra and her son had not been mentioned in Caesar’s will and therefore they were left with nothing from her longtime lover.
Soon after Cleopatra’s return her husband in name, Ptolemy XIV, died. Still needing to maintain Egyptian tradition of having a male co-regent Cleopatra named her three-year-old son co-regent making her sole ruler in all but name. With her power secure from competition Cleopatra now turned her eye back to Rome to determine who her new ally would be.
After Caesar’s brutal death a power war ensued. Brutus and Cassius, part of the conspiracy, were killed and Antony, Octavian and Lepidus emerged triumphant. Egypt had been asked to aid in the fighting and eventually Cleopatra had supported the three men. After their triumph in 42 B.C. Octavian and Antony divided power in Rome. Cleopatra, still wanting Rome’s support, looked to the new rulers to decide who to associate with. Octavian, ill, went back to Italy which left Cleopatra to deal with Antony.
Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony soon summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus, in 41 B.C. Cleopatra was summoned to answer questions and explain her role in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. Cleopatra agreed readily, already conniving to place herself back in alliance with Rome. Cleopatra sailed in an elaborate ship and made a lavish entrance, maintaining her reputation as the new Isis as well as playing on Antony’s weaknesses. Antony, like his predecessor, was captivated by the tempting queen and pledged to help protect Cleopatra’s crown. The two also began their love affair around this time and when Cleopatra left to return to Egypt Antony followed her. The romantic couple spent the winter of 41 B.C. together in Alexandria. At some point Antony agreed to assassinate Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoe, erasing all threats to her claim on the throne. During this time, Cleopatra became pregnant as well and in 40 B.C., after Antony had left Cleopatra to return home, Cleopatra gave birth to his twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene.
Antony had left around April to meet the Parthians. He did not get far before his wife called him up to Greece. During Antony’s time away his wife, Fulvia met her end, the cause being unclear. With her passing Antony mended a broken relationship with the Roman leader Octavian. Though Antony was now free to be with Cleopatra his newfound friendship with Octavian would not allow him to remain so. To seal their friendship Octavian offered his twenty-nine year old sister Octavia to Antony to replace the empty place in his bed and Antony accepted, recognizing the political advantages. Octavia, besides being a political pawn, was also hoped to sway Antony away from his love for Cleopatra. Though Octavian was a skilled politician, in matters of the heart his tactics would prove worthless. Antony remained under the spell of the foreign queen.
It would be four years before the lovers would meet again. During this time Octavia bore Antony two daughters and Cleopatra raised her twins alone. Cleopatra had not been thrilled at Antony’s alliance with Octavian, who was committed to destroying her. Nonetheless, Cleopatra lived her life outside of the drama occurring in other countries. Cleopatra received news, from 40 B.C. to 37 B.C., of the political goings of her neighbors, allies and enemies.
After three and a half years Antony become rather tired of the intrigues of his political life; he recognized that he was being controlled and even played by his wife and brother-in-law. The ambitious leader set off towards the east, arriving in Syria and sending a message to Cleopatra in Alexandria. He wished for her to meet him in Antioch and Cleopatra set sail to meet the father of her children. After the couple arrived together coins began to circulate with the portraits of the lovers and it became clear that they were a team once again. With his return to his smoldering passion Antony ensured that he would never again see his wife.
The Ambition of Egypt
On her trip Cleopatra had two very important attendants in tow, her children. Antony was able to meet his twins for the first time as he prepared for battle. Cleopatra secured for Antony much needed funds and in exchange Antony showered on her the authority she possessed over Cyprus. He also granted her Coele-Syria (Lebanon), Cyrene (Libya), Cilicia (part of Turkey), and portions of Crete. The additional land made Cleopatra ruler of a vast kingdom that stretched over the entire eastern Mediterranean coast. Besides expanding her land, Cleopatra also expanded her resources. The regions she had gained were rich in timber and would allow Egypt to build ships from the Cilician coast, creating a powerful naval fleet. While Cleopatra was expanding her empire through Antony, Antony was expanding his legacy through Cleopatra. In 36 B.C. the Queen was once again bound herself pregnant, making for Antony’s third royal child.
In 36 B.C. Cleopatra gave birth to another son, Ptolemy Philadelphos. Cleopatra returned home while Antony continued his fights and diplomacy. In the winter Cleopatra received an urgent message from Antony imploring her to join him and bring provisions and gold. Cleopatra was slow in arriving but she brought with her gold and clothing for the men. Antony meanwhile was in despair; despite his hopes for victory he had a disastrous campaign against Parthia that resulted in a hasty retreat. Antony made his way to the Syrian coast, a third of his army gone. Antony and the rest of society would blame the defeat at Parthia on Cleopatra.
Cleopatra remained with Antony for several weeks while he plotted his next move. He made efforts to ally himself with the Median king. At the same time, his wife, Octavia, began travelling towards her husband with fresh supplies. Cleopatra was not looking forward to a reunion between husband and wife and was adamant about holding Octavia off. Cleopatra took to a tactic of proving her love to Antony and showing her deep despair at the idea of him leaving. She began a fast, swearing off food. She acted depressed and in despair, and her courtiers egged the idea on by chastising Antony for his terrible treatment of their mistress. Antony was drawn like a moth to the flame, he believed Cleopatra’s entrancing act and sent Octavia back to Rome as a woman scorned.
Antony and Cleopatra returned to Egypt, seeming more in love than ever. Eventually Antony would launch another campaign, this time venturing into Armenia. Antony was successful in this endeavor and rewards financially. When Antony returned again to Egypt, victorious at last, he took with him not only his riches but also the disgraced royal family of Armenia. Antony paraded through the city of Alexandria and Cleopatra put on a lavish ceremony to celebrate the victory. She also accepted the tribute from her lover, which added to her treasury. At this assembly Cleopatra, by Antony’s command, was to be henceforth known as “Queen of Kings.” Besides Cleopatra’s new title, her children also received titles. Caesarion became co-ruler with Cleopatra. Alexander Helios became Great King of the Seleucid empire and his twin, Cleopatra Selene, was called Queen of Cyrenaica and Crete. Ptolemy Philadelphos, Antony’s youngest son, was made King of Syria and Phoenicia, and Cilicia. Some of the lands bequeathed had yet to be conquered, but Antony did not seem concerned. Cleopatra’s rule was extending and her power grew each day.
The Power Struggle
Though Cleopatra and Antony were pleased with the changes in power, Rome, particularly Octavian, was not. The insult of Antony’s actions enraged the Roman Lord. The power of Cleopatra had grown too much for Rome, and Octavian resented the gifts being lavished on a woman he viewed as a harlot. Further, it had been made clear that whatever plans the lovers had in store for the East, Octavian was not included in them. Antony and Octavian battled verbally, both trying to discredit the other. Their insults ranged and covered a broad spectrum of topics.
In 32 the Senate was visited by a hostile Octavian who insisted that Antony was a threat to Rome. Octavian threatened the Senate members and following dismissal many of them fled to Ephesus, where Antony and Cleopatra were now staying. Antony’s colleagues pleaded with Antony to dismiss Cleopatra so he would not jeopardize his position. Antony followed their advice and told Cleopatra to return to Egypt, but she refused. Though Antony and Cleopatra argued about the issue, Cleopatra, with assistance from Antony’s general, won the battle. Cleopatra was the monetary provider for much of the war, it was essential she remain nearby. This would soon seem a small issue compared to larger ones brewing.
The Queen’s War
Antony seemed to feel invincible with his victories and his Egyptian Queen by his side. In May of 32 B.C. Antony took the final step in separation and divorced Octavia. Antony went further and instructed her to leave their home; salt to the wound. Octavia was in disarray and packed in tears, taking her children and Antony’s son by Fulvia with her. The two men, Antony and Octavian, both seemed overjoyed. The lynch pin their relationship had been ripped out and there was now nothing standing in the way of a full out war.
With the break Octavian first launched a war on Antony’s reputation, painting him as a man controlled by the evil heretic queen. Antony was the victim of his passion and bewitched. His love blinded him to his own downfall. A terrible reputation however was not enough for Octavian to go to war over. He added another twist to the tale of one-sided love. Cleopatra, he asserted, demanded Rome from Antony, in return for her favor. The tale was so widely believed that Antony was stripped of his titles and power and, in October, Octavian declared war on Cleopatra.
The war would take battle at sea. The battle occurred near Actium in Greece. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa led Octavian’s forces, planning out his victory and blockading his enemies in. Antony, meanwhile, faced defections from his soldiers and resentment with the presence of the Egyptian Queen. Antony, after sixteen weeks of blockade, opted for a naval campaign. He was met with opposition and found he could not withstand the assaults of Octavian’s force. Cleopatra fled from defeat and Antony followed her is a single ship, leaving the rest of his fleet to be destroyed.
As Cleopatra and Antony both fled to Alexandria Octavian celebrated his victory. However, Cleopatra knew he would not stop at defeating her at sea. Upon returning to Egypt she had all her detractors arrested and killed. Cleopatra found wealth wherever she could, preparing for Octavian’s descent. Cleopatra fished for allies to help her. She was readying herself for a battle at home.
The battle would arrive with Octavian launching an assault on land and sea. Octavian waited outside the gates of Alexandria while his fleet waited beyond the harbor. Antony watched his forces row out to meet Octavian, only to be despaired when he saw them surrender and join forces. Antony flew into the palace, convinced Cleopatra had betrayed him, only to be met with a messenger that reported Cleopatra had died.
Sources say Antony cried out “O Cleopatra, I am not distressed to have lost you, for I shall straightaway join you; but I am grieved that a commander as great as I should be found to be inferior to a woman in courage.” Whether or not he said this, Antony did proceed to brandish his sword one final time and turn it on himself, running it straight through his ribs and into his abdomen. Not dead, Cleopatra, hearing of his attempted suicide, called to have Antony brought to her, where he died in her arms.
The war was quickly lost, and though grieving, Cleopatra was still Queen of Egypt. She now faced Octavian head on, for he was victorious. Octavian made sure all means of death were removed from the Egyptian Queen. Octavian wanted Cleopatra alive. Eventually Cleopatra was made aware of her role. Octavian intended for Cleopatra to be displayed as a slave to the cities, to show Octavian’s victory.
Conniving and cunning, Cleopatra refused this bargain through her actions. A basket of figs was brought to the Queen, with a deadly escape inside. Cleopatra wrote a letter to Octavian, having his guard deliver it. While gone, Cleopatra’s maidservants prepared her for death. When Octavian arrived, having read the letter that asked to be buried with Antony, Cleopatra was already dead, the poison of the cobra having done its work. At 39, Cleopatra joined her lover in death and ended the rule of her dynasty.
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, has become a woman of legend. Her greed, ruthlessness, beauty, and cunning led her to rule Egypt almost entirely alone. She immortalized herself in life and death and rose to be greater than the Egyptian Goddess Iris, who she claimed to be incarnate of. Even today, the legend of Cleopatra still entices us.
Cleopatra. (2013). The History Channel website. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/Cleopatra.
Crawford, A. (2007). Who was Cleopatra? Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/biography/cleopatra.html
Schiff, S. (2010). Cleopatra: A Life. New York: Little Brown and Company.