Cleopatra VII (69- 30 BC) ruled Egypt for twenty-two years and is one of the most recognizable figures in world history. Numerous movies, articles and books explore her life and legacy. Yet, we know very little about her. Contemporary accounts of her life, many from Roman officials who despised her, offer less than reliable information. She is primarily known as Egypt’s last Queen and the lover of two powerful and famous Roman leaders – Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. These liaisons and her dramatic death – alleged suicide by snake bit – tend to overshadow a woman who displayed competent leadership, extraordinary intelligence, bravery, and resolve.
Early Years. Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra hailed from a long line of the Ptolemaic dynasty that began when Ptolemy I of Macedonia took control of Egypt shortly after the death of his friend and leader – Alexander the Great. (d. 323 BC)The legitimacy of the Ptolemaic line would rely, to a large degree, on this link to Ptolemy I.
Egyptian women (especially royal women) enjoyed high status relative to other countries. Women were educated, held property, and could initiate divorces. Cleopatra, as biographer Stacy Schiff points out, “enjoyed the best education available in the Hellenistic world” (28). She studied literary greats, especially Homer, math and science, and rhetoric and public speaking. An avid learner, Cleopatra spoke many languages, including Egyptian, which allowed her to converse directly with her people. Perhaps the only Ptolemaic leader to do so.
Sibling Rivalry. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII (117-51 BC), ruled Egypt until his death from natural causes in 51 BC. The Ptolemy tradition promoted domestic unions, so Cleopatra (age 18) and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII (age 10) wed and succeeded their father. Domestic competition for power pervaded a Ptolemaic history littered with betrayal and murder. Soon after their father’s death, the ruling siblings fell into conflict. Both signed documents without the signature of the other and conspired with advisors to out the other. Buoyed by influential advisors led by the cunning Pothinus, Ptolemy XIII got the upper hand, and Cleopatra left Alexandria (or was exiled) in 49 BC. Now recognized by the Ptolemaic court as “leading dynast,” Ptolemy had the upper hand. However, events to the west would offer Cleopatra a political opportunity.
The Encroaching Shadow of Rome. By this time, the Republic of Rome had taken significant steps toward becoming a great empire, steadily extending its territory and influence. Egypt, acutely aware of Roman ambitions, knew the budding empire required careful diplomacy. Allying with influential Roman leaders became essential for Egyptian survival. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy, paid a vast amount to retain status as a friend and ally of the Roman people. As biographer Stacy Schiff writes, “it was essential to befriend the most powerful Roman of the day.” (3)
Not an easy task with Rome embroiled in a civil war between rival factions that threatened to tear the budding empire apart. Two Roman leaders, Pompey (106-48 BC) and Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) fought for competing visions of Rome. Both Romans had ties to Egypt. Caesar recognized Cleopatra’s father as a friend to Rome and loaned the Egyptian king a considerable and still outstanding sum of money. However, Ptolemy XIII decided on Pompey, the Ptolemy family’s longstanding benefactor and provided him with ships, wheat and other provisions in exchange for Pompey recognizing Ptolemy as sole ruler of Egypt. It seemed that a Pompey victory would guarantee Cleopatra’s permanent exile or execution.
Julius Caesar arrives in Alexandria. But Caesar prevailed. In 48 BC, he defeated Pompey, who fled to Egypt seeking refuge. Not wanting to offend the victorious Caesar, Ptolemy VIII watched as his men killed Pompey, beheaded him, and presented Caesar with the gory proof of Ptolemaic loyalty. The gesture failed. Caesar backed Cleopatra after she smuggled herself into Alexandria and his temporary quarters. Why? Caesar could have readily turned Cleopatra over to her brother. The answer lies far beyond the simple and sexist versions that insist Cleopatra seduced him. There were more significant issues at hand. Perhaps, as some suggest, Caesar did not want to associate the murderer of Pompey, a respected Roman leader. Historian Barry Strauss believes Caesar resented Ptolemy for robbing him of Ptolemy’s surrender and refusing to pay Caesar’s troops. “Sound political reasoning,” Strauss argues, led Caesar to the more politically vulnerable Cleopatra, who offered financial backing in exchange for supporting her claim to the throne. (Strauss, 35)
Coveting a stable Egypt, Caesar demanded that brother and sister reconcile as co-regents as stated in their father’s will. Ptolemy XIII initially complied but soon resisted and died in the ensuing skirmishes in Alexandria. In 46 BC, buoyed by Caesar’s support, Cleopatra secured Rome’s recognition as an allied monarch, helping to solidify her rule. (Roller 4)
A Capable Leader. To appease public opinion, Cleopatra married her remaining brother, Ptolemy XIV. With Caesar’s backing, they set about stabilizing Ptolemaic rule. Some critics note how Cleopatra invited spectacle. She identified – at least publicly – as a deity, often Isis, goddess of fertility, and in Ptolemaic tradition, styled herself as Egyptian royalty. But these efforts promoted her legitimacy in the public eye – a vital sign of stability during unstable times.
Cleopatra offered much more than pageantry. As Stacey Schiff writes, Cleopatra was a “capable, clear-eyed sovereign. She knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, and alleviate famine. (2) For instance, when faced with longstanding drought and famine through much of the 40s, Cleopatra distributed grain from the royal warehouses. Besides staving off starvation, she offered political security associated with the longstanding Ptolemaic dynasty. Roman politics, however, would again test Cleopatra’s resolve and political skill.
Fall of Julius Caesar. Within a year of meeting Caesar, Cleopatra bore a son, claiming him as father and naming him Ptolemy XV Caesarion (b. 47 BC). By most accounts, Romans did not approve of Caesar’s relationship with a foreign woman, especially a wealthy and influential Queen. Their association, some scholars suggest, contributed to his demise. However, the overarching issue was a growing senatorial concern that Caesar had become a dictator and a threat to the Republic.
Julius Caesar died in 44BC during one of history’s most famous assassinations. The implications for Cleopatra and Egypt were dire. Caesar stood as a powerful ally who could protect Egypt from annexation. In Rome at the time of the assassination, Cleopatra left after failing to secure Roman recognition of Caesarion as Julius Caesar’s heir. Returning to Alexandria, she arranged her brother’s assassination and named her son co-regent. Cleopatra had lost a vital ally in Rome, but another opportunity would soon arrive.
Marc Antony. As one of Caesar’s generals and supporters, Marc Antony teamedwithOctavian (Caesar’s nephew)and Marcus Lepidus (another Caesar general) to create a triumvirate that defeated Caesar’s assassins – Brutus and Caesar –in 42BC. After this victory, Octavia established himself in Rome and “Antony obtained a commission to settle the East.” (Green, 128) One of Antony’s primary goals: conquer the Parthian Empire, “the only border state that threatened Rome.” (Strauss, 54) To do this, he needed Egypt as a base and supplies ships and provisions. Cleopatra agreed in exchange for Antony’s support for her status as Queen of Egypt and to arrange for the death of her sister, Arsinoe. They both fulfilled their obligations, became lovers, and conceived male twins (b. 39 BC). Antony missed their birth as he returned to Rome between 40 and 37BC and married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. Octavia bore him children in 39 and 36 BC – both daughters. The marriage solidified Antony and Octavian’s East-West alliance. Both unions, however, would be short-lived.
The Tide Turns. Antony returned to Egypt in 37 BC to extend Rome’s eastern territories. However, he experienced a humiliating defeat by the Parthian Empire in 36 BC. To make matters worse, his support in Rome began to wane. Antony’s ambitions and personal and political connection with Cleopatra did not sit well with some in Rome. Seeing Antony as a rival, Octavian portrayed Antony as dependent on Cleopatra and a man of the East. Some historians claim that Octavian went so far as to read a copy of Antony’s will that he requested his burial in Egypt and placed his children with Cleopatra on equal status with his children with Octavia’s. Conflict deepened when Antony divorced Octavia in 32 BC and placed Cleopatra’s image on his official coinage. Seizing the political advantage, Octavian portrayed his sister as the spurned wife of a man who succumbed to the Egyptian Queen’s wiles. Antony’s credibility in Rome plummeted.
A Dramatic End. By late 32 BC, the Roman Senate stripped Antony of all titles. Soon after, Octavian declared war on Egypt, partly on the pretense of retrieving Egypt’s outstanding debts to Rome. In 31 BC. Octavian and Agrippa defeated Antony and Cleopatra in a naval battle. Antony and Cleopatra escaped to Alexandria. Utterly defeated, Antony and Cleopatra completed suicide in 30 BC. Versions of their suicide vary. Some suggest they died together, while others, like Duane Roller, assert that Cleopatra tricked Antony into suicide, hoping that his death might save her and Egypt. (6). Octavian, however, had no intention of preserving either, and Cleopatra decided her fate. Her death hailed the end of the almost 300-year Ptolemaic dynasty. Rome would annex Egypt and Octavian became August Caesar in 27 BC, Rome’s first emperor of the Roman Empire.
Conclusion. Traditional portrayals of Cleopatra VII have focused on her alleged seduction of Roman leaders and her opportunism. However, these descriptions overlook and belittle her legacy. It is impossible not to be impressed. She played a crucial role in events that would alter world history, standing as the last Ptolemaic leader of Egypt before becoming a Roman province. As a ruler, she used her negotiating skills to navigate Egypt through formidable challenges, including an unstable but growing Rome, competitive siblings, drought and famine. Historian Duane Roller adeptly summarizes traditional misrepresentations. He writes, “Like all woman, she suffered from male-dominated historiography in both ancient and modern times and was often seen merely as an appendage of the men in her life and was stereotyped into typical chauvinistic female roles as seductress or sorceress.” (Roller, 2)
Cleopatra, as we can see, was much more.
Cooney, Kara. When Women Ruled the World. Six Queens of Egypt. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Partners, 2018.
Green, Peter. The Hellenistic Age: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2007.
Roller, Duane W. Cleopatra: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra, A Life. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
Strauss, Barry. The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination. Toronto: Simon and Shuster, 2015.
Tyldesley, Joyce. Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt. New York: Basic Books, 2008.