Fact about Cleopatra

The Life of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt - History of Cleopatra VII

Read the biography of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and find out more about the life of the world's much-adored Queen of Egypt.
Talk of ancient Egypt and the image most likely to spring to mind is the pyramid complex at Giza, built by Pharaohs who claimed to be Gods on Earth. Most of these ancient rulers have been lost in the midst of antiquity.

But if you were asked to name a few, the most obvious ones would be either the boy King Tutankhamun or maybe, the beautiful and intelligent, yet tragically forlorn Cleopatra VII Philopator.

Let's take a glimpse back at ancient Egypt, to the times of murder, mystery and intrigue, and the life of Cleopatra VII, the last of the Pharaohs.

Early Life: A time of Turmoil

The last queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty which ruled Egypt for over 300 years, Cleopatra VII was born in October of 69 BC, to Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes and his wife Cleopatra V Tryphaena. The Ptolemaic dynasty was then in its decline, facing severe challenges from natural disasters such as famine, disease and sociopolitical dangers such as civil war and widespread corruption. The Ptolemy's were of Greek origin, and Cleopatra's father traced his lineage from one of the satraps under Alexander the Great, Ptolemy I. He was known as Auletes as he played the flute. The Ptolemy's refused to speak Egyptian and conducted all their official affairs in Greek. It alienated them from the people of the country and weakened the power structure over time. Cleopatra showed signs of leadership in childhood, being the only one of her family to learn Egyptian and mastered six languages. She also learned literature, philosophy, art and medicine, and could converse fluently on complex political and social issues. Yet, being one of six, spoiled, power-hungry siblings, in a royal family where succession was decided merely on the will of the Pharaoh, she had to be wary of every move the others made.

Another major threat was Rome, the most powerful empire in the world. During the time of Cleopatra, it was beset by civil wars and controlled largely by Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), and Marcus Licinius Crassus, together known as the 'First Triumvirate'. Ptolemy II was afraid Rome would conquer Egypt and thus, wanted an alliance with these powerful men. Cleopatra had to flee Egypt with her father after repeated assassination attempts by Cleopatra V Tryphaena. They went to Rome, where he harnessed support from the Roman Senate and returned with an army in 55 BC. Tryphaena was dead by then, possibly murdered by one of Cleopatra's own sisters, Berenice I, who had seized power. Ptolemy II Auletes regained the throne and had Berenice beheaded, after which he appointed Cleopatra as a minor co-ruler.
Taste of Power: Ascension and Exile

Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes died in 51 BC, leaving his throne in the hands of his daughter Cleopatra VII (she ruled alongside her father, while he was still alive) and sons Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. She then married her two brothers, out of compliance to the Egyptian custom. She later ruled Egypt single-handedly. However at the time, she had no intention of letting Ptolemy XIII rule, where the documents and currency showed Cleopatra's likeness, without any mention of her brother. She ruled for three years in a country ravaged by famines, wars and political subterfuge and grew steadily unpopular. This was in part due to the machinations of Pothinus, and a few other conspirators like Achillas, and Theodotus. Pothinus was a royal adviser to Ptolemy XIII who wanted to establish the young king as a puppet monarch and secretly assume power. His false propaganda led to an uprising among the populace and, as a result, Cleopatra was forced to go into exile in Syria with her sister Arsinoe IV, and her brother became the ruler around 48 BC.
Rome: Julius Caesar, and a Royal Carpet

As Cleopatra schemed in exile, trying to bring together an army so she could march on Alexandria, things were happening in Rome that were destined to change the geopolitical scenario of Egypt forever. Rome was embroiled in a civil war, a long drawn conflict between the legions of Julius Caesar, a powerful Roman leader and the legions of Pompey, who had assumed emergency command of the Roman Senate. After numerous brutal skirmishes Caesar defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus, after which the vanquished dictator fled to Egypt. Here too, there was but death waiting for him, as Ptolemy XIII, poisoned by his corrupt advisers ordered his execution as he came ashore. The Egyptians wanted to the earn the favor of Caesar by killing his enemy but this only enraged him when he reached Egypt. He executed the murderers and stayed in Alexandria to decide the fate of the Egyptian empire. He was aware of Cleopatra's claim to the throne and wanted to hear both sides before he made his decision to annex Egypt.

Cleopatra knew her brother would make her entry into Alexandria impossible, so she arrived unnoticed on the wharf beside the palace, in a small dingy, under the cover of darkness. According to legend, she then hid herself in a beautiful carpet and was presented to Caesar as a gift. Caesar was charmed by her wit, humor and intelligence, and they began a love affair which resulted in the birth of a child in 47 BC whom Cleopatra named Ptolemy Caesar or Caesarion (little Caesar). Caesar then fought Ptolemy XIII at the Battle of the Nile and defeated him. Ptolemy drowned, and Cleopatra was declared Queen along with another younger brother Ptolemy XIV as co-ruler. Caesar took Cleopatra and Caesarion to Rome, causing an outrage among the people as he was already married at the time. However, the good times were not meant to last as Caesar, now dictator of Rome, was assassinated by his own Senate members in 44 BC. Cleopatra fled back to Egypt with her son, whom she made co-ruler after the sudden death of Ptolemy XIV.
Mark Antony and Cleopatra: The Beginning of the End

After the assassination of Caesar, Rome once again fell into disarray. There was a power vacuum resulting in the formation of the 'Second Triumvirate', an alliance of three leaders, Caesar's friend and consul Mark Antony, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Caesar's official heir, Octavian. Mark Antony wished to know where Egypt's loyalty lay and so, sent for Cleopatra in 41 BC. Cleopatra realized this as a chance to once again garner Rome's support and presented herself in all her splendor. Mark Antony was, like Caesar before him, totally taken in by her personality and spent a year with her. She gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II in 40 BC and four years later when Mark Antony visited Alexandria, another boy, Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Mark Antony was married to Octavia Minor, the sister of Octavian, and slowly but steadily relations between them became strained. He married Cleopatra according to Egyptian rites and prepared for his conquest of Parthia. The Donations of Alexandria was the straw that broke the camel's back, when Mark Antony gave away lands he had won in his campaign of Parthia to the children of Cleopatra. Caesarion was given many titles and proclaimed king of Egypt and heir to Julius Caesar. This caused a fatal breach between Mark Antony and Octavian, as the latter convinced the Roman Senate of the threat from Egypt and particularly Cleopatra, who they thought was out to conquer the world. It resulted in the Battle of Actium, a naval confrontation between the forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony against the might of Octavian and Rome. They were defeated and had to head back to Alexandria. Octavian had tasted blood and moved in on the Egyptian capital.
Defeat and Death: Of Asps and Bloodshed

Mark Antony was routed in his battle against Octavian as a majority of his forces defected, and Alexandria fell to the Roman legions. He was given the false news of Cleopatra's death and heartbroken and betrayed, he committed suicide. On August 12th 30 BC, Cleopatra shut herself in her tomb, built on her royal grounds, with a few trusted maid servants. The manner of Cleopatra's demise is still very much contested as there have been a number of sources that give different accounts of her suicide. Strabo, a Roman historian alive during the time, is of the view that she let an Egyptian Cobra, commonly known as an Asp, bite her on the breast. Another version is of her applying a poisonous ointment to her skin. Research by a German historian Christoph Schäefer in 2010 suggests she actually drank a deadly mix of poisons. Octavian depicted Cleopatra's effigy with an asp around her neck on his march back to Rome. Whatever the manner of Cleopatra's death, it befitted the enigma and divine status of an Egyptian queen, turning her tragedy-ridden life into legend which passed from antiquity into modern times. The Ptolemaic line came to an end with her death and Egypt became a principality of the Roman empire. Her son Caesarion was captured and killed by Octavian after hearing an adviser say 'One Caesar is one too many'. Her other children were spared and taken under the care of Mark Antony's widow Octavia Minor, in Rome.

Cleopatra's life and times have been depicted numerous times in literature and media in the 2000 years since her death. Possibly the most famous one remains William Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra, printed first in 1623. In more recent times the epic film Cleopatra (1963) starring Elizabeth Taylor, was one of the more memorable depictions of the ancient queen. Cleopatra's character and motivations have been debated and scrutinized over centuries. With some writers and historians deeming her an opportunistic and promiscuous temptress, whereas others think she was among the most brilliant tacticians of her time. Unlike modern depictions in films, the real Cleopatra wasn't a great beauty, yet her intelligence, linguistic skills and persona made her irresistible to the world's most powerful men at the time. Whether she did this as a means to secure her nation's future, or because she was an adventuress, is a question best left to the silent Egyptian pyramids.