Cleopatra is one of the most well-known monarchs of the ancient world. Most people know of her but not much about her, so who was this enigmatic woman who stole the heart of not one, but two of the ancient world’s most important men?
Cleopatra was born in 69 BC in Alexandria to Ptolemy XII and most probably Cleopatra V. She was a direct descendant of Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals and ruler of Egypt after the sudden death of Alexander in 323 BC. Therefore Cleopatra was not Egyptian but Macedonian, a fact many people do not know or choose to forget. She was one of six children, her siblings were Cleopatra VI, Berenice IV, Arsinoe IV, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, both her younger brothers, Ptolemy XIII and XIV, she later married. She herself gave birth to 4 children, fathered by two (very powerful) men.
Cleopatra VII Philipator became queen when she was 17 or 18 years old, by marrying her younger brother Ptolemy XIII who was only 12 at that time. Officially Cleopatra was ‘only’ the wife of the king, but in practice she ruled Egypt while her brother was kept in the background. For three years she was one of the most powerful heads of state in the world, however, in 48 BC Ptolemy XIII and his advisors conspired against her and forced her into exile in Syria where she remained for only a short time.
In Rome a power struggle between Pompey and Caesar raged for the control of the city. When Pompey lost this struggle he fled to Egypt to seek the help of Ptolemy XIII, but was met with death instead, for the pharaoh had decided to side with Caesar. Ptolemy XIII send Caesar Pompey’s head as a gift but Caesar was appalled by this act and marched on the city. Cleopatra was requested to appear before Caesar, along with her brother, but she could not enter the city safely and was sure to be killed by Ptolemy XIII’s men on sight. It is said that instead she smuggled herself inside the palace in a rug and when Caesar opened it, she appeared and enchanted Caesar.
The intimate relation between Caesar and Cleopatra that followed this enchantment caused Ptolemy to launch himself and the rest of the city into a six months war against Caesar. In the end Ptolemy’s armies were defeated and Ptolemy XIII drowned, whilst trying to flee from a sinking ship. Afterwards the city of Alexandria fully surrendered to Caesar and Cleopatra was restored to the throne. In Egyptian tradition Cleopatra then married Ptolemy XIV, who was only 11, keeping her the rightful queen of Egypt. In the short period after the ‘peace’ Cleopatra had a son with Caesar, called Caesarion or Little Caesar. Caesar recognized this child as his own, despite some rumors that it might not be his son. After almost a year in Egypt Caesar returned to Rome and left three legions in Egypt for Cleopatra and their son’s protection. In 46 BC Cleopatra travelled to Rome with her son and brother/husband and lived in Caesar’s villa in Rome for almost two years. Rome there was growing more and more discontent about Caesar who was becoming too powerful, and in 44 BC Caesar was stabbed to death at a Senate meeting. Immediately after his death Cleopatra fled back to Egypt, where her husband/brother suddenly died (probably at her command) and she crowned Caesarion her co-regent.
Mark Anthony and her death
After the death of Caesar the loyalty of his legions were divided between Octavian and Marcus Antonius, also known as Marc Anthony. Marc Anthony had been Caesars most important general and Octavian was Caesars heir by adoption. Both men worked together in the war of the second Triumvirate against the republican advisories, the same men who murdered Caesar at the Senate in 44 BC. After the battle of Phillipi, Octavian ruled the West and Marcus the east. In 42 BC Marcus summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus (in Turkey) to question her about her loyalty. She arrived in a such a manner that she charmed Marc Anthony so much, that he accompanied her back to Egypt. In 40 BC Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II. In the same year Marcus left her to return to his duties, ruling part of a large empire. For four years the most powerful couple in the world was apart, in which time Marc Anthony married Octavian’s sister Octavia. Octavia and Marc Anthony had two daughters together, both named Antonia. In 37 BC Marc Anthony met with Cleopatra again on his way to invade Parthia, after the successful invasion he moved to Alexandria to stay with Cleopatra and their children. In 36 BC Cleopatra gave birth to another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus and Marc and Cleopatra wed. Two years later, at the Donations of Alexandria, Marc crowned Cleopatra as the ‘Queen of King’s’, Alexander Helios as king of Armenia, Cleopatra Selene II as Queen of Cyrenaica and Crete, Ptolemy Philadephus as king of Syria and Caesarion was even proclaimed a god.
Back in Rome there was a growing discontent with Marc Anthony, his betrayal of the Octavia and the ‘arrogance’ of crowning his children and proclaiming Cleopatra the ‘Queen of Kings’ did not sit well with Octavian and proclaimed war on Egypt. In the Battle of Actium, in 31 BC, Cleopatra went with sixty of her ships, but when the battle appeared to be lost Cleopatra fled, and Anthony (who was there with legions of his own) followed her back to Egypt. This abandonment of his men affirmed the believe of the roman Senate that Marc Anthony could no longer act on his own, but was Cleopatra’s puppet. Soon after his troops surrendered themselves to Octavian and in 30 BC both Cleopatra and Marc Anthony committed suicide, no longer seeing a way to escape captivity and\or death by Octavian. They did not commit suicide together, Cleopatra was allowed to arrange Marc Anthony’s funeral and was briefly Octavian’s prisoner. However, she ached to be with her husband and it is said that the was killed by an asp (a poisonous snake) that was sneaked into the palace in a basket of figs.
After the death of Cleopatra Egypt was no longer a kingdom, it became a roman province. Caesarion was an immediate threat to the authority of Octavian and the emperor had Caesar’s heir killed. Cleopatra’s other children were send to Rome to be raised by Octavia, a rather cruel decision. Egypt became the most important province of the roman empire, it was also called ‘the granary of the empire’, feeding Rome and its many legions.