Cleopatra VII Philopator remains one of the most famous historical female figures to this day. Born in 69 BC, she was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. She functioned as its co-regent for almost three decades. Although her reign was filled with strategic political moves and battles fought to protect her people and country, although she was one of the most popular and loved Egyptian rulers of her time, we often limit her legacy to her affairs with powerful male Romans.
Cleopatra’s Exile With Her Father
Cleopatra’s name means ‘glory of her father’. She was most likely named after her mother, who is assumed to have been Cleopatra V Tryphaena. However, this has never been confirmed. Cleopatra’s adopted title, Thea Philopatora, means ‘goddess who loves her father’. These names are accurate and foreboding, given the events in her childhood.
Cleopatra’s father was exiled when she was 11 years old. Cleopatra accompanied him out of Egypt, where she would first meet Mark Antony three years later. Antony later claimed this was when he fell in love with her when she was only 14. However, the couple would not see each other again until many years after.
When Cleopatra’s father died in 51 BC, she returned to Egypt. There, she claimed her rightful place on the throne alongside her brother, Ptolemy XII. It is likely that the two of them married, as when custom for co-ruling siblings at the time. However, there are no official records to prove this.
A Different Ptolemaic Regent
The Ptolemaic Dynasty was a family of Hellenistic Greek monarchs who reigned over Egypt after Alexander the Great installed his rule there. This lineage is known for its frequent and violent tradition of family murders, which Cleopatra vigilantly upheld.
Though not Egyptian by heritage, Cleopatra embraced her country’s customs. She was the only Ptolemaic ruler who learned the native Egyptian language. The rest of her family spoke only Greek. She often wore traditional Egyptian garments and celebrated her country’s rites and rituals. Her connection to the Egyptian people was likely one of the main factors that made her such a revered and popular queen.
Cleopatra learned to speak multiple other languages before adulthood as well, including Ethiopian, Hebrew, Arabic, Median, and Latin. She was also highly educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory, medicine, and astronomy. She frequently developed and wrote theories relating to these fields. Cleopatra was a ruler who particularly enjoyed the company of scholars and elevated their ranks in society.
Since the age of 21, Cleopatra commanded full armies and led fleets in battle. Her main goal as Egypt’s ruler was to reclaim the North African and West Asian territories that had once belonged to the Ptolemaic kingdom. Unfortunately for her, she would never succeed.
Physically Attractive Or Desirable For Her Wit?
Many believe that Cleopatra wasn’t as beautiful as legend says. She was the only Ptolemaic queen to have coins issued in her likeness, which highlighted her masculine features, including her long, hooked nose, her sharp features, and her bushy eyebrows and hair.
The Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote that it was not Cleopatra’s physical beauty that made her so desirable, but instead her charm, wit, and her melodic speaking voice, informed by her oratory studies.
Meeting Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar moved to Alexandria in 48 BC, after Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XII, had killed one of his rivals, Pompey. During this time, tensions between Ptolemy and Cleopatra rose, as each sibling struggled to claim more power than the other.
When hearing of Caesar’s arrival, Cleopatra first sent her emissaries to welcome him. However, she soon learned that he often had affairs with royal women and decided to greet him in person instead. Plutarch reports that she had herself wrapped in an old rug and smuggled into Caesar’s palace to meet him, as she knew Ptolemy would try to stop her if he caught wind of her plans.
Caesar and Cleopatra
Caesar and Cleopatra’s affair started almost instantly, and Cleopatra remained residing in his quarters. The Roman fell so deeply in love with her that he had a golden statue of her erected in the Temple of Venus Genetrix, likening the queen to Venus herself. This was the first time a living person had their statue placed next to that of a deity in a Roman temple.
The Roman elite frowned upon Caesar and Cleopatra’s relationship, presumably because they disapproved of a woman in power. This, however, did not stop Caesar, and he remained in Egypt long after his advisors urged him to return to Rome.
The Attack On Caesar
Caesar drew up an agreement regarding Cleopatra and Ptolemy’s reign, but it clearly favored Cleopatra. This further deepened the divide between the siblings, and ultimately led Ptolemy and Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe IV, to stage a siege on Caesar’s palace, trapping Cleopatra and Caesar inside for many weeks.
Once Caesar’s reinforcements arrived from Rome, however, that the battle shifted in his favor. Arsinoe and Ptolemy withdrew their armies to the Nile but Caesar’s troops caught up with them at the river. They attacked, leaving Arsinoe and Ptolemy with nowhere to go. Ptolemy tried to escape in the water, but he drowned doing so. Caesar’s army captured Arsinoe and forcefully paraded her through Rome to celebrate Caesar’s triumph. Caesar then exiled her to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
Caesar appointed Cleopatra’s younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, as Cleopatra’s co-ruler when he was just 12 and Cleopatra was 22. Ptolemy and Cleopatra married, but Cleopatra continued to reside in Caesar’s palace, soon falling pregnant with his child.
Cleopatra In Rome
Cleopatra gave birth to Caesarion, often called “Little Caesar,” in 47 BC. While she publicly claimed Caesarion to be Caesar’s son, Caesar himself remained silent on the matter. Many believe that this was due to his childless marriage with his wife in Rome, Calpurnia.
Cleopatra moved to Rome with Caesar after the birth of their son and would remain there until after Caesar was assassinated. After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra stayed in Rome for several weeks, most likely in the vain hope of getting Caesarion recognized as Caesar’s rightful heir. When it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen, she returned to Egypt.
Even after her departure, Cleopatra’s presence remained in the city. Her pearl jewelry and Egyptian hairstyles became a fashion trend that many Roman women adopted.
Back To Egypt
In 44 BC, Cleopatra had her brother, Ptolemy XIV, killed by poisoning, elevating Caesarion, only three years old at the time, to her co-regent. She then publicly declared herself the “King of Queens” and her son the “King of Kings.”
Cleopatra continued to rule Egypt successfully and peacefully with support from her people and no revolts during her reign. When the Nile flooded and destroyed the crops, causing hunger and devastation, Cleopatra opened the granaries to the public, ensuring all civilians were fed and safe.
Mark Antony sent several letters to Cleopatra summoning her to his headquarters in Anatolia, desperate to meet the now grown, famous queen. However, Cleopatra declined all of them until Antony’s envoy personally came to invite her. She sailed to Anatolia in a beautiful ship, decorated with purple sails. Upon arrival, her love affair with Antony began and the couple returned to Egypt together.
Cleopatra chose her partners carefully to produce powerful future heirs and protect Egypt’s resources and stability. Following Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony was one of the most powerful Romans, having gained control of the eastern half of the empire.
Back in Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra started their own drinking society called ‘The Inimitable Livers.’ According to rumors, one of their favorite activities was to dress up as civilians and play tricks on Alexandria’s residents late at night.
In 40 BC, Antony departed Egypt for Syria, leaving a now pregnant Cleopatra behind. The two would not see each other again until three years later, although they continued to write letters. Some even claim that Cleopatra sent spies to Antony’s camp to keep an eye on him.
A few months after her partner’s departure, Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios, named after the moon, and Cleopatra Selene, named after the sun. Antony publicly acknowledged them as his children. Just a year later, however, he married Octavia, the sister of Caesar’s heir, Octavian, and had two more children with her.
Tensions Between Egypt And Rome
Cleopatra began worrying that her exiled sister, Arsinoe, may plan to exact revenge on her and wrote to Antony, asking him to have Arsinoe executed. After he did so, Cleopatra invited him to come back to Egypt, as she needed his help to protect her crown and maintain her country’s independence. Antony, his kingdom crumbling and his relationship with Octavian tense at best, agreed, grateful to have access to more resources.
A year after Antony’s return, Cleopatra gave birth to another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. She then convinced Antony to divorce Octavia, leading to Octavian’s wrath raining down on them. In a bitter political battle with Octavian, Antony went as far as to declare Caesarion as Caesar’s rightful heir. The divide between Egypt and Rome climaxed because Octavian felt that Antony had disrespected his family and feared the power of Cleopatra and Antony’s union.
Both men spread vicious political slander about each other, but Octavian’s often involved Cleopatra, whom he called a dangerous witch and sorceress who stole Roman men away from their wives and filled their heads with evil ideas.
The Beginning Of The End
In 31 BC, Rome attacked Egypt for the first time. With little support from other countries, Cleopatra and Antony led the fleets themselves but lost bitterly against the much more powerful Romans. The two were forced to retreat as Rome claimed Egyptian ground.
It is around this time that it is likely that Cleopatra started seeing Antony as a liability. Many were turning against him and by association, she was losing support that was vital for her country. Antony’s decision-making started strategically revolving around his and his family’s safety, while Cleopatra cared about protecting Egypt first and foremost.
To avoid capture and grant her country a new start, Cleopatra decided to pass her throne to Caesarion alone while she escaped. However, before she could do so, Romans burned her fleet down, forcing her to remain while Octavian completely invaded Egypt.
The First Suicide
Fearing for her safety, Cleopatra hid in a tomb with her closest attendants as the Romans took over the country. To throw the enemy off her trail, she had a message delivered to Antony claiming that she had committed suicide. However, this news destroyed Antony, and he stabbed himself in the stomach, committing suicide at 53 years old.
While Antony was bleeding out, word that Cleopatra was still alive traveled to him. He asked to be taken to her and, almost by miracle, made it there in time. As he lay dying in her arms, he begged Cleopatra to make up with Octavian so the Romans would spare her life.
Soon after Antony’s death, Octavian’s forces captured Cleopatra. He granted her the right to attend Antony’s burial. There, Cleopatra openly wailed and hurt herself, as was common for widows to do at the time. However, her injuries became infected. Resigned to her fate, she refused to treat them until Octavian threatened to harm her children if she did not.
Octavian wanted to keep Cleopatra alive solely to parade her around in his Roman triumphal procession. While he never told Cleopatra this directly, her spies found out and reported it to her.
Cleopatra could not bear the thought of being shown off in a cage in Rome. To avoid this fate, she committed suicide on the 10th of August, 30 BC, at just 39 years old. The method of her death is disputed, with some claiming that he enticed an asp to bite her, while others believe she stored poison in her hair combs.
Though Octavian was furious about Cleopatra’s death, he allowed for her to be put to rest together with Mark Antony. Their tomb has never been found.
The Modern Take On Cleopatra
Today, over 43 films, 200 plays and novels, 45 operas, and five ballets have been associated with the Egyptian queen. However, tales of seduction and sexuality color Cleopatra’s reputation, portraying the queen as an alluring vixen who enticed several of the most powerful Roman men. However, this image is still directly related to the propaganda that Octavian released. We assume that Cleopatra instigated these affairs, but both of her partners had relationships with countless women all their lives. Why are powerful women always defined by their sexuality, rather than their mental abilities? Why do we not mention Cleopatra’s love for her country, her intelligence, or her determination when we speak of her?
Cleopatra commanded naval forces, brought stability and prosperity to a country plagued by natural disasters and a shaky economy, and wrote several publications on Greek medicine, aiming to bring more science and safety to her people. Her love affairs with men were as political as they were passionate with Egypt at the heart of her every move. Cleopatra was a queen that combined the traditionally masculine values of power, strategy, and logic with the traditionally feminine values of compassion, love, and care.
A true King of Queens from the day she was born.