Cleopatra is one of the most iconic women in history. Historians have chronicled her exploits for over 2000 years. She’s considered the quintessential “dangerous woman.” Despite being known as a sex symbol, Cleopatra was a powerful monarch feared and respected in the Ancient World. Her complex life makes her one of my favorite historical figures.
She was born in 69 BC as the second daughter to Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes. Her mother is unknown, but likely to be Ptolemy XII’s wife, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena who gave birth to her older sister, Berenice. Only a few months after her birth, her mother disappears from history. We don’t know if she was murdered, expelled from the Royal Court, or died. Ptolemy XII had three more children after Cleopatra—a daughter named Arsinoe, and two sons both named Ptolemy.
Cleopatra received the best education in the Ancient World. Next to the Royal Palace, the Library of Alexandria allowed the finest minds of the day to teach the royal children. Cleopatra had an interest in medicines and sciences. She also had a gift for languages. Although Greek was her mother tongue, she could speak Ethiopian, Hebrew, Arabic, Syrian, Median, Parthian, and Latin. She was also the first monarch of her dynasty (who had reigned for almost 300 years) to speak the native Egyptian language.
The Kingdom of Egypt was a wealthy state. Not only did the country contain vast amounts of precious metals and stones, but the River Nile ensured they did not rely on food imports. This did not escape the growing Roman Republic’s attention. As early as 65 BC, Roman Senators argued they should annex Egypt to Rome, although nothing happened. Ptolemy XII he knew a threat when he saw one. Desperate to prevent a Roman invasion, he gave food, money and soldiers to the Roman military efforts to strike an alliance.
Ptolemy’s efforts were not in vain. Rome awarded him the title of “friend and ally of the Roman people” in 60 BC. The title also cost him the entire yearly tax revenue of Egypt. Coupled with Ptolemy’s indulgent spending, the country was bankrupt. To reduce his financial woes, Ptolemy raised taxes, angering the poor and leading to strikes by farmers. He also took out loans with Roman banks, putting Egypt in debt.
This was not the end of Ptolemy’s woes. In 58 BC, Rome accused Ptolemy’s brother, the ruler of Cyprus, of aiding pirates attacking Rome’s fleet. When Rome invaded Cyprus, Ptolemy’s brother killed himself. Ptolemy did not turn his back on Rome after this incident. Disgusted, his subjects forced him into exile. Ptolemy travelled to Rome to seek the help of his Roman allies to regain control. Eleven-year-old Cleopatra accompanied him. Whilst Ptolemy VII had fled, his eldest daughter, Berenice had declared herself Queen. Styling herself as Berenice IV, she sent messengers to Rome to declare herself the true ruler. Initially, the Romans did not assist Ptolemy. His debtors were very influential and persuaded support for him. Rome gave him an army to take back Egypt in 55 BC.
Ptolemy regained control and had Berenice alongside her supporters executed. He seized their land and let the Roman army loot and plunder their valuables. After the bloodshed, he installed his chief Roman debtor as his financial advisor. The fourteen-year-old Cleopatra would have also accompanied her father on this military mission. She learned the military might and political power of Rome, and that power is fleeting. Above all, you must never lose the support of your people. In Ptolemy’s Roman army was a young man named Mark Antony. He later claimed he had fallen in love with her at first sight.
Several years later, Ptolemy VII died. He named his successors Cleopatra VII and his eldest son, Ptolemy XIII. In Ancient Egyptian tradition, the siblings married. Although incestuous marriage disgusted the Greeks, the tradition dated back thousands of years. Their parents had likely been siblings (if not cousins) and her dynasty continued incestuous marriage to ensure their legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian people. It was an evil, but a necessary one.
Cleopatra had no intent of ruling with her little brother. She networked support and allies. Religion was an important part of Ancient Egyptian culture. The Egyptians believed as the descendants of the gods the Pharaoh was their messenger on earth and had divine powers. They held a Pharaoh who respected the Gods in high regard. Cleopatra installed a sacred bull at a major temple near Thebes and forged a friendship with her half-cousin Pasherienptah, a powerful high priest. It wasn’t smooth sailing for her. A low flooding of the River Nile caused a famine. She dealt with this by releasing stores from the granaries and regulating supplies. She also inherited her father’s debts. Egypt now owed Rome some 17.5 million drachmas.
Despite Cleopatra’s attempts to push him out, Ptolemy XIII had powerful allies, including a regent who loathed Cleopatra. Conflicts between the two escalated until it forced Cleopatra to leave Egypt in 48 BC. She fled to Syria to gain support for an invasion. Meanwhile, Ptolemy XIII had his own problems. A war between Caesar and Pompey destroyed Pompey’s fleet. Believing Ptolemy XIII would support him, he arrived in Egypt. Not wanting to be caught up in a Roman Civil War, Ptolemy had Pompey stabbed to death. They preserved his head as a gift to Caesar. When Caesar arrived at Ptolemy XIII’s request, the murder horrified him.
A Political Romance With Julius Caesar
With Caesar furious at Ptolemy, Cleopatra knew this was the time to enter negotiations with him. Caesar had a history of sleeping with royal women, so she sought a personal meeting. Without Ptolemy’s knowledge, she arrived in Egypt and held a secret meeting with Caesar. Historians of the time wrote that they rolled her inside a carpet to sneak her past Ptolemy’s guards. Her intelligence impressed Caesar. He mediated the situation between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII, referring to their father’s will which named them as joint successors. However, as Caesar had a clear bias towards Cleopatra, Ptolemy and his allies attacked the army Cleopatra had raised in her exile. The forces of Ptolemy and Arsinoe laid siege to the Royal Palace, with Caesar and Cleopatra trapped inside.
In early 47 BC, Caesar’s reinforcements from Rome arrived, forcing Ptolemy to the Nile. Ptolemy tried to escape, but after his boat capsized, the young boy drowned. Cleopatra was absent from these conflicts. She was pregnant with Caesar’s child.
To appease her Egyptian subjects, she declared her other brother, again named Ptolemy, as her co-ruler. As Ptolemy XIV was only twelve, Cleopatra ruled alone. She had total power over her kingdom. The entire well-being of Egypt rested on her shoulders. She was an excellent ruler. She eliminated her father’s debt and made Egypt a rich country again. As the chief religious figure in Egypt, Cleopatra built many religious monuments to the gods. She even established her own cult. Cleopatra identified herself as Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess. In public, she dressed as the Goddess, encouraging her subjects to believe she was her reincarnation. Rulers linking themselves to gods was not new. Alexander the Great declared himself the son of Zeus, Hatshepsut of Egypt said she was the daughter of Amun, and Caesar claimed descent from Venus.
Cleopatra continued to live with Caesar despite likely marrying Ptolemy XIV. Caesar and Cleopatra even a legendary cruise of the Nile upon a luxury barge complete with dining rooms, staterooms and holy shrines. Caesar left Egypt in April 47 BC, two months before his son’s birth. Cleopatra named her child Ptolemy Caesarion, a direct reference to his father. Caesar remained silent about Caesarion, after all, he had a wife. In Rome’s eyes, Caesarion was a bastard. Cleopatra took any opportunity to declare Caesar as the father.
Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV visited Rome in 46 BC, for business and pleasure reasons. The prominent politicians of Rome considered Cleopatra arrogant. Not that this mattered to Caesar, as he unveiled a golden statue of Cleopatra adorned as the goddess Isis in his temple to Venus, associating Cleopatra with the mother of the Romans. Cleopatra remained in Rome after Caesar’s assassination on 15 March 44 BC. It is likely she was attempting to have Caesarion recognized as Caesar’s heir. Her efforts were in vain. Caesar’s will stipulated his grandnephew Octavian as his heir. After this failure, she returned in Egypt. While the Romans saw Caesarion as illegitimate, that did not matter to Cleopatra; he was still half-Roman. Believing the Romans would never invade a country led by one of their own, Cleopatra poisoned Ptolemy XIV and raised Caesarion as her co-ruler.
Rome swirled in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. Many factions fought each other. As a Roman ally, they all called on Cleopatra to provide support. She bided her time, coming with excuses for her lack of support. Once the squabbling settled, Mark Antony, now in charge of the Eastern half of the Empire, demanded Cleopatra explain her lack of support in person. Cleopatra delayed this meeting until 41 BC. Antony used this meeting to ignite a romantic relationship with Cleopatra.
An Affair With Mark Antony
After meeting Antony in his headquarters in Tarsos, Cleopatra invited him to Egypt. Her choice of Antony was more strategic than romantic, at least at the beginning. Antony was the most powerful man in Rome after Caesar’s demise. He held authority in the Eastern provinces of Rome located closer to Cleopatra than other prominent Romans—like Octavian. By controlling Antony, she controlled Rome’s forces. Between 41-40 BC, Antony transferred conquered lands to Cleopatra, not even a year into the relationship.
Like Caesar, Antony had to leave Egypt to attend to his duties. Cleopatra became pregnant. Before the end of 40 BC, she gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Antony’s ambitious wife, Fulvia, wanted to limit Cleopatra’s influence. She caused trouble for Antony with Octavian. Her sudden death must have been a relief, but Octavian offered his sister Octavia as a wife to bury the hatchet with Antony. Needing resolve his own problems first, he married her. Cleopatra was not happy.
Regardless of her feelings, at least her position was secure. She had produced a son with Antony, one he acknowledged, so she knew he would not be willing to invade soon. They would not meet again until 37 BC, where he met his three-year-old twins for the first time. At this meeting, he gave Cleopatra extensive lands, including parts of present day Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Libya and Crete. Although most of this territory he gave in theory to the twins, Cleopatra would govern it until they reached majority.
These transfers did not go down well in Rome. They considered handing over conquered land to a non-Roman monarch blasphemous. Octavian played this to his advantage. He decried against the empowerment of a foreign queen at the expense of the republic and the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. Wasn’t Antony already married? To Octavian’s sister? Octavian and Rome’s rising anger didn’t seem to bother the couple who continued to expand their lands and family. Their third child together, Ptolemy Philadelphus was born in 36 BC. Rather than declare his triumphs in Rome, like any well-respected conqueror, Antony declared his triumphs in Alexandria instead—delivering royal prisoners to Cleopatra. Holding such a time-honored event and ritual in Egypt for the Egyptian queen instead of the Roman citizens in the republic disgusted the Romans. It is also possible Antony and Cleopatra married despite his Roman marriage to Octavia.
The Battle Against Octavian
By 34 BC, Antony and Octavian were fighting a war of propaganda with each other. Antony accused Octavian of disposing of his rivals and merging power in the western half of Rome (somewhat the truth). Octavian accused Antony of marrying Cleopatra and supporting Caesarion as Caesar’s heir instead of Octavian. This propaganda is responsible for how people view Cleopatra to this day. It accused her of witchcraft and placing a spell on Antony. Her enemies wrote stories about her lavish lifestyle, such as dissolving pearls in vinegar to win a bet.
Only two years later this war of words turned into armed conflict. After Octavian entered the senate with armed guards, the Roman republic was at war again. Antony still had many powerful Romans supporting him. Cleopatra wanted a key role in the conflict. She believed blocking Octavian in Greece would make it easier to defend Egypt. Her insistence on being involved in the Battle for Greece led to several key Romans defecting. To make matters worse, Octavian forced his way into the Temple of Vesta and acquired Antony’s will. He discovered Antony wished to name Caesarion as Caesar’s heir, for his children with Cleopatra to rule the lands he had captured, and when he died, to lay alongside Cleopatra in Egypt. The most shocking part was Antony’s wish to make Alexandria the new capital of the Roman Republic. With Antony’s will revealed, and with the approval of Senate, Octavian declared war on Cleopatra in 31 BC.
Antony and Cleopatra in their empire building had also forged alliances with various kings. When the couple called upon their support, they found many of them ignored their messages. With a lack of military support, the two lost multiple skirmishes to Octavian in Greece. Cleopatra pressed for a naval war to keep Octavian’s fleet away from Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra had a larger fleet than Octavian, but a poorly trained navy, with many vessels being merchant ships. In comparison, Octavian had a professional force.
The two sides clashed at the Battle of Actium on 2nd September 31 BC. Scholars believe Antony’s forces placed Cleopatra at the back to limit her influence. This wasn’t all bad. It gave Cleopatra a quick escape when defeat became clear. Prioritizing Egypt over any relationship with Antony, she fled. Antony soon followed and boarded her ship. During their three-day voyage, the two avoided each other. Meanwhile, the battle raged on, and massive amounts of soldiers, commanders, and allies defected to Octavian’s side.
In Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra went their separate ways. Antony went to raise more troops, while Cleopatra arrived in Alexandria to give the false impression of a victory. Regardless, news of Octavian’s victory spread. Many potential allies flocked to his side. Those that liked Antony tried to convince him to betray Cleopatra. While he remained loyal, Cleopatra saw him as a liability. She planned to abdicate her throne to Caesarion and prepared him for sole ruler ship. When he was ready, she would then travel to the East via the Red Sea to convalesce. A supporter of Octavian dashed these hopes by burning her fleet. This forced her to negotiate with Octavian.
Cleopatra’s Final Fate
Cleopatra made her demands clear. She requested he let her children inherit Egypt and allow Antony to live in Egypt as an exile. She sent Octavian money and lavish gifts to sweeten the deal. Octavian’s diplomat advised Cleopatra to kill Antony. We don’t know if she would have considered this offer, as Antony intercepted the diplomat and flogged him before he could return to Octavian. As diplomacy had broken down, Octavian had no other option but to invade Egypt in 30 BC. After several skirmishes, Antony surrendered himself to Octavian. Cleopatra hid in her tomb and sent a message to Antony that she had killed herself. Upon reading the message, Antony stabbed himself in the stomach. They brought him to Cleopatra in his dying moments. Upon witnessing Antony’s death, Cleopatra wanted to set herself and her vast treasures ablaze in the tomb. Antony’s entourage prevented it. They let her bury him before they took her to Octavian.
Upon meeting Octavian she informed him “I will not be led in a triumph,” the only recording of her exact words. Octavian promised to keep her alive. When a spy warned her Octavian was planning to move her to Rome, she killed herself. Longstanding legend says Cleopatra died from the bite of an asp, although they found no snake venom. Plus, it would have been difficult to find a snake whilst being watched by guards. Contemporary accounts describe Cleopatra either scratching or injecting a poison into herself. They found tiny puncture wounds on her arm, supporting this theory. Octavian was furious at her suicide, but buried her alongside Antony.
Before she died, Cleopatra sent Caesarion away so he could flee to Nubia, Ethiopia, or India. Octavian sent a message to Caesarion, informing him Rome would let him remain a king. When Caesarion arrived, Octavian executed him. With the fall of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egypt became a Roman province. In only three years, Octavian amassed powers that allowed him to establish himself as the first Roman Emperor, taking the name “Augustus.” He sent Cleopatra’s three other children, Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphos, to live with Octavia, Mark Antony’s widow. Alexander and Ptolemy disappear from history. Whether the boys just died, or he murdered them, we may never know. Little Cleopatra married a Roman vassal king and died a natural death at 35.
In her 39 short years, you cannot deny Cleopatra left her mark. While she loved and cared for the Egyptian people, she was not above eliminating those who stood in her way or outlived their usefulness. Cleopatra was an intelligent woman able to rule her country, but insisted they give her military commands despite no experience. Did Cleopatra believe she could become an incredible commander on the battlefield? She was a complex woman–intelligent, murderous, resourceful, charismatic, and calculating. This makes her still fascinating thousands of years after her death. Who said you have to like your favorite historical figure?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.