For nearly three decades, Cleopatra VII ruled ancient Egypt as co-regent (first with her father, then with her two younger brothers, and last with her son). Ptolemy, who served as a general under Alexander the Great during his conquest of Egypt in 332 B.C., formed a dynasty of Macedonian monarchs. Cleopatra was a well-educated and astute monarch who spoke several languages and ruled over all three of her co-regencies. Her personal entanglements and military alliances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, as well as her alleged exotic beauty and seducing skills, gained her a place in history and popular legend.
Early Life and Ascension to the Throne
It’s difficult to piece together Cleopatra’s biography with any confidence because no contemporary reports of her life remain. Much of what we know about her life comes from Greek and Roman historians, mainly Plutarch. Cleopatra was a descendant of Ptolemy XII (Auletes), a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals and the founder of the Ptolemaic line in Egypt, who was born around 70 or 69 B.C. Cleopatra V Tryphaena, the king’s wife, was thought to be her mother (and possibly his half-sister). The Egyptian throne passed to 18-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, in 51 B.C., after the apparently natural death of Auletes.
Ptolemy’s advisers acted against Cleopatra soon after the brothers’ ascent to the kingdom, forcing her to abandon Egypt for Syria in 49 B.C. She gathered a mercenary army and returned the following year to fight her brother’s armies in a civil war near Egypt’s eastern border at Pelusium. Meanwhile, after allowing the assassination of the Roman general Pompey, Ptolemy XIII welcomed Julius Caesar, Pompey’s rival, to Alexandria. Cleopatra supposedly smuggled herself into the royal palace to plead her case with Caesar in order to gain his support for her cause.
Caesar and Cleopatra
Caesar, for one, wanted money to bankroll his return to power in Rome, and he needed Egypt to pay Auletes’ obligations. After four months of fighting between Caesar’s outmanned army and Ptolemy XIII’s, Roman reinforcements came, forcing Ptolemy to abandon Alexandria and drowning in the Nile River. Entering Alexandria as an unpopular conqueror, Caesar reinstated Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIV to the throne (then 13 years old). Caesar stayed in Egypt with Cleopatra for a while, and she gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar in 47 B.C. Caesarion, or Little Caesar, was the Egyptians’ name for him, as he was thought to be Caesar’s child.
Cleopatra traveled to Rome with Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion in 46-45 B.C. to see Caesar, who had returned earlier. Cleopatra returned to Egypt after Caesar’s assassination in March 44 B.C.; Ptolemy XIV was assassinated soon after (perhaps by Cleopatra’s spies), and the three-year-old Caesarion was declared co-regent with his mother as Ptolemy XV.
Cleopatra had identified herself with the goddess Isis, Osiris’ sister-wife and Horus’ mother, by this time. (This was in keeping with the ancient Egyptian habit of linking royalty with divinity to strengthen kings and queens’ positions.) Cleopatra III had claimed to be related to Isis, and Cleopatra VII was dubbed the “New Isis.” She learned several languages and was known for her irresistible attractiveness, according to Plutarch.
Cleopatra’s Seduction of Mark Antony
Cleopatra’s grip on power in Egypt was stronger than it had ever been, thanks to her young son’s role as co-regent. Nonetheless, inconsistent Nile floods resulted in failed crops, causing inflation and starvation. Meanwhile, in Rome, a conflict erupted between Caesar’s allies (Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) and his assassins (Brutus and Cassius). Both factions requested Egyptian assistance, and after some deliberation, Cleopatra dispatched four Roman legions stationed in Egypt by Caesar to assist the triumvirate. After defeating Brutus and Cassius’ armies in the Battles of Philippi in 42 B.C., Mark Antony and Octavian split authority between Rome.
Cleopatra was summoned to the Sicilian city of Tarsus (south of modern-day Turkey) by Mark Antony to explain her role in the tangled aftermath of Caesar’s killing. Cleopatra traveled to Tarsus in an expensive ship, draped in the robes of Isis, according to Plutarch’s account (later notably portrayed by William Shakespeare). Antony, who identified with the Greek god Dionysus, was swayed by her allure.
He agreed to preserve Egypt and Cleopatra’s throne in exchange for her younger sister and rival Arsinoe’s removal from exile. Antony, who had left behind his third wife, Fulvia, and their children in Rome, returned to Egypt shortly after Cleopatra. He spent the winter of 41-40 B.C. in Alexandria, where he and Cleopatra famously formed the Inimitable Livers, a drinking group. Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios (sun) and Cleopatra Selene, after Antony’s return to Rome in 40 B.C.
After Fulvia fell ill and died, Antony was forced to prove his loyalty to Octavian by marrying Octavian’s half-sister Octavia in a diplomatic marriage. Under Cleopatra’s rule, Egypt prospered, and Antony visited her again in 37 B.C. to gather funding for his long-delayed military campaign against the kingdom of Parthia. He agreed to surrender most of Egypt’s eastern empire, including Cyprus, Crete, Cyrenaica (Libya), Jericho, and significant swaths of Syria and Lebanon, in exchange. They rekindled their romance, and in 36 B.C., Cleopatra gave birth to another son, Ptolemy Philadelphos.
Antony publicly refused his wife Octavia’s efforts to rejoin him after a humiliating defeat in Parthia, and instead returned to Egypt with Cleopatra. Antony recognized Caesarion as Caesar’s son and lawful successor (as opposed to his adopted son, Octavian) and donated property to each of his children with Cleopatra in a public celebration known as the “Donations of Alexandri” in 34 B.C.
This sparked a propaganda battle between him and Octavian, who claimed Antony was completely under Cleopatra’s influence and that he would depart Rome and establish a new city in Egypt. The Roman Senate deprived Antony of all his titles in late 32 B.C., and Octavian waged war on Cleopatra.
Defeat and Death
In the Battle of Actium on September 2nd, 31 B.C., Octavian’s armies soundly crushed Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s ships quit the battle and retreated to Egypt, and Antony was able to break away and pursue her with a small fleet. When Octavian’s army attacked Alexandria, Antony heard a report that Cleopatra had committed suicide. He collapsed on his sword and died just as word came that the story was unfounded.
Cleopatra locked herself in her apartment with two of her female maids on August 12th, 30 B.C., after burying Antony and meeting with the victorious Octavian. Her cause of death is unknown, but Plutarch and other writers speculated that she killed herself at the age of 39 with a deadly snake known as the asp, a sign of heavenly royalty. Cleopatra’s remains were interred with Antony’s, allowing Octavian (later Emperor Augustus I) to celebrate his conquest of Egypt and consolidation of power in Rome, as she had requested.