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Cleopatra VII Philopator was the last ruler of an independent Egypt and one of the most important women of the ancient world.
In addition to being a brilliant and cunning ruler in her own right, she was also famously associated with two of the most powerful men in the late Roman Republic.
Yet was her involvement with these men that ultimately led to the downfall of her and of Egypt.
Learn more about the rise and fall of Queen Cleopatra on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before I get into the life of Cleopatra herself, it is necessary to understand the dynasty she inherited.
The Ptolemaic Dynasty was the 33rd and last dynasty in Ancient Egypt. It began in 305 BC and lasted through the death of Cleopatra.
The Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled Egypt, but they were most emphatically not Egyptian. They were Greek.
Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, and control was then assumed by one of his top generals, Ptolemy, in 305 BC.
When I said the Ptolmeys were emphatically Greek, at no point in their almost 300 years of rule did any of the rulers bother to learn Egyptian. Everyone spoke Greek until Cleopatra. She was the first and only Ptolemaic ruler who ever bothered to learn it.
Moreover, their family tree didn’t branch out very much. Almost every Ptolemaic ruler married their sisters to keep the blood life pure.
While the Ptolmies kept their Greek identity, they were willing to go through the motions of being an Egyptian ruler. New pharaohs were crowned in Memphis by Egyptian priests, but they lived and ruled in Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great.
They wore Egyptian dress and put on a show to keep their rule intact, but beyond that, they remained culturally Greek.
That was the family that Cleopatra was born into.
The name Cleopatra is a Greek name. Cleopatra is Greek for “glory of the father.” Alexander the Great’s sister was named Cleopatra.
Cleopatra was born in either 69 or 70 BC. Her father was the Pharoah Ptolemy XII, and her mother is unknown, but it is assumed it was Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, the sister of Ptolemy XII.
She was raised in the royal palace in Alexandria and was tutored by Philostratus of Alexandria, who was a scholar at the Library of Alexandria.
There is much we don’t know about Cleopatra, but what we do know is that she was highly intelligent. In addition to her native Greek, she could speak Egyptian, Syriac, Hebrew, Arabic, Ethiopian, Median, Parthian, and Latin.
She also got a hard lesson in politics and diplomacy growing up. Her family was extremely dysfunctional. So much so that the story of the late Ptolmeys would make a great soap opera.
Her father, Ptolemy XII, ruled Egypt as a client of Rome. Egypt wasn’t a part of Rome, but Rome was constantly breathing down their necks. Egypt was incredibly important because they were the breadbasket of the Mediterranean.
Rome had interfered in Egyptian affairs for decades. They approved who would sit on the throne, and they loaned Egypt large sums of money.
There had been calls in the Roman Senate for years to annex Egypt, and the Egyptians knew this.
In 58 BC, Ptolemy XII was deposed by his daughter and Cleopatra’s older sister, Berenice IV, and he fled to Rome to live in exile. He most probably had his eleven-year-old daughter Cleopatra with him in Rome.
In 55 BC, Rome ordered the governor of Syria to invade Egypt to restore Ptolmey XII to the throne. In this expedition was a young officer named Marcus Antonius, or as he was called by Shakespeare and is better known today, Mark Antony.
Ptolemy was restored to power but died in 51 BC when Cleopatra was 18 years old.
Cleopatra was named co-ruler of Egypt alongside her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, who was only eleven years old. The two were ceremonially married.
Immediately after taking power, Cleopatra faced a host of problems. Flooding on the Nile that year had been poor, which resulted in a famine.
Soon after taking power, Cleopatra began to act as the sole ruler of Egypt. She is listed as the sole ruler in several communications with Rome, her face appeared on coins by herself, and given the age of her brother, she was the de facto ruler of Egypt.
However, as her brother grew up, he became influenced by court eunuchs who didn’t want to see Cleopatra as the ruler of Egypt.
By 49 BC, she and her brother were openly fighting, and by early 48 BC, her brother gained the upper hand and she had to flee Egypt.
While all of this was happening, Rome was in the middle of a huge civil war between the forces of Julius Caesar and those of the Senate led by Pompey Magnus.
In August 48, the Civil War ended with the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece. Caesar is victorious, and Pompey decides to flee to Egypt to continue the fight and raise forces. Pompey had very good relations with the Egyptians in the past.
However, when Pompey showed up in Alexandria, Ptomley XIII decides to kill Pompey to curry favor with Caesar.
Caesar follows Pompey to Egypt and arrives in October with a small force of 4,000 troops and is presented with the embalmed head of Pompey.
Ptolmey’s plan massively backfired. Not did he not gain favor with Caesar, Caesar was horrified. Pompey might have been his enemy, but he was still a great Roman and deserved better for this.
Caesar orders both Cleopatra and Ptolmey’s forces to disband. Ptolemy ignores the order and shows up to Alexandria at the head of his army.
Cleopatra took a totally different approach. Without notifying her brother, she snuck into Alexandria to meet Caesar in person.
According to legend, she managed to get into the palace by hiding in a rolled-up carpet, but there is nothing to support this story.
Caesar had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and Cleopatra used this to her advantage. She went on a charm offensive and worked on seducing Caesar to get him on her side. If she could get Rome to back her, she would easily win the war with Ptolemy.
She was successful, and she began a romantic affair with Caesar which resulted in a child, Caesarion.
I should note that Caesar was 52 when they met, and Cleopatra was around 22 years old.
In the will of Ptolemy XII, Rome was to be the arbitrator. Caesar, now the ruler of Rome, ruled that Ptolmey XIII and Cleopatra should rule jointly.
Ptolemy didn’t like this, so his 20,000 men laid siege to the Royal Palace, where Caesar and Cleopatra were holed up. However, Caesar eventually had reinforcements arrive by land, and the Egyptians were no match for the Romans. Ptolemy drowned in the Nile while trying to flee.
Caesar left Egypt in 47 BC and named Cleopatra as the joint ruler with her younger brother, now known as Ptolemy XIV…..with four Roman legions in Egypt to watch over everything.
The two meet up again in Rome in late 46 BC, and Caesar was extremely open about his affair with Cleopatra. She stayed in his villa during the stay, and he flaunted his son with the queen.
In March 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated, and Cleopatra was in Rome at the time. She hung around a bit, hoping that Caesarion would be declared Caesar’s heir, but that never happened as he posthumously adopted his grand-nephew Octavian.
Cleopatra left Rome and, a few months later, poisoned her brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV. She then named her son Caesarion as her co-ruler, even though he was just three years old.
With Caesar, her Roman benefactor, dead, she had no one in Rome who would protect her and Egypt.
Rome again fell into civil war. At first, between Octavian and Caesar’s right-hand man, Mark Antony, and then between Octavian and Mark Antony against Caesar’s assassins.
Octavian and Mark Antony win the civil war and split the empire between them. Octavian got the western half, including Rome itself, and Mark Antony got the richer eastern half.
In 42 BC, Mark Antony summoned Cleopatra to his headquarters in Tarsus in modern-day Turkey. She refused several summonses but eventually made the trip, but only if Mark Antony would meet with her on her ships.
After two days of lavish banquets on her ships, the two hit it off. She invited Mark Antony to visit her in Alexandria, which he did the next year.
This began a relationship that would last for over a decade. The impetus behind the relationship was similar to that of Caesar and Cleopatra. However, Mark Antony and Cleopatra actually seemed to be in love with each other.
The two were married and had three children together.
The problem was, two Roman rulers wasn’t a stable situation.
For years there was a passive-aggressive conflict between the two, and both parties knew that there would eventually be a war.
Over time, Mark Antony and Cleopatra got sloppy. Mark Antony arrogantly assumed that he was too popular to lose the support of the Roman people, and if it came to war, he could easily be Octavian.
When the couple got married, the problem was Mark Antony was already married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia. This was highly controversial and was considered an insult to both Rome and Octavian personally.
Cleopatra and Mark Antony became hedonists, hosting lavish parties and dressing up as Egyptian gods and goddesses.
Perhaps worst of all, Mark Antony began giving Egypt territory that was controlled by Rome. It wasn’t just a little bit of land either, it was an enormous part of what Rome controlled in the east.
In 34 BC, a public event was held known as the Donations of Alexandria. There, Mark Antony declared Caesarian to be Caesar’s true heir, not Octavian and also divided up the territories in the east to Cleopatra and their children.
All of this became propaganda fodder for Octavian back in Rome. Because Octavian controlled Rome, he was able to control the narrative. He didn’t portray Mark Antony as the bad guy. Rather, he focused his attention on Cleopatra, the foreign woman.
Mark Antony was bewitched or put into a trance by Cleopatra. She was using Mark Antony to take Roman territory and steal Roman funds.
The constant news of outrageous behavior coming from Egypt eventually caused Antony’s loyalists to turn on him.
As everyone expected, war did eventually break out. At the battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, Octavian’s forces destroyed the forces of Antony and Cleopatra in a naval battle.
Following the battle, most of the Roman forces under Antony defected to Octavian. As Octavian’s forces marched to Alexandria, they hardly had to fight.
When they arrived at the palace in Alexandria, Mark Antony mistakenly heard that Cleopatra had died. Upon hearing the news, he killed himself by running himself through with his sword.
Cleopatra, however, wasn’t dead. She was holed up in her tomb, which was being built for her.
She began a correspondence with Octavian about a possible surrender. She had one wish, and that was not to be paraded as a trophy during a triumph.
Octavian made no firm promises and didn’t say anything about her future.
On October 10, 30 BC, at the age of 39, Cleopatra took her own life. According to legend, she allowed a poisonous snake to bite her, either a viper or an asp.
Within two weeks, Caesarion was also killed on the order of Octavian at the age of 17. Supposedly, Octavian said, “Too many Caesars is not good”
Egypt never had a pharaoh again. It became a special province of Rome administered directly by the emperor himself. Egypt literally became the personal property of Octavian.
History has painted Cleopatra as a temptress and a seductress, but was she?
Honestly, I don’t think she was any different from rulers who existed centuries before and after her. She developed relationships with Caesar and Antony for her protection and political gain.
Rome was the 800-pound gorilla in the Mediterranean. If she and Egypt wanted to survive, she needed Rome on her side, and that is exactly what she did.
Had Caesar or Antony not been powerful men in Rome, she probably wouldn’t have given them the time of day. Likewise, if she wasn’t the queen of Egypt, the largest food producer in the Mediterranean, she would have got
On a related note, Cleopatra has also been described as incredibly beautiful throughout history. Was she?
We don’t have much in the way of images of Cleopatra. There is a bust of her in a museum in Berlin, and there are surviving coins with her image on them. To me, at least, assuming the images are representative, she looks rather average. Then again, looks was probably not the reason why Caesar and Antony got involved with her.
Cleopatra holds the distinction of being the last of the Egyptian Pharaohs. She also played a central role in the drama, which was the destruction of the Roman Republic.
Cleopatra proved to be a capable leader who managed the affairs of Egypt rather well. Had anyone else ruled Egypt instead, it probably would have resulted in Egypt losing its independence decades sooner.