- Curious Peoples
- Cleopatra VII
The Last Pharaoh of an Ancient Dynasty
Cleopatra VII, a figure of intense passion and debate, held the throne of Egypt for 22 years. Her reign was marked by losing and regaining her kingdom, building an empire, and ultimately losing it all. She became queen at 18 and, at her zenith, wielded power over almost the entire eastern Mediterranean coast.
Despite being one of history’s most renowned women, precise details about Cleopatra are scarce. Though known as a famous Egyptian queen, she was actually of Greek descent, belonging to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE). This dynasty was established in Egypt following Alexander the Great’s death and was founded by Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian general of Alexander.
Marble bust of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, ca. 40-30 BCE
Born in 70/69 BCE, Cleopatra VII co-ruled with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes. At 18, she ascended to the throne upon his death. Adhering to Egyptian tradition, which mandated a male partner for a reigning queen, she was ceremonially wed to her twelve-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. However, Cleopatra soon excluded him from power, governing independently.
The Ptolemaic Dynasty, insisting on Macedonian-Greek superiority, had long ruled Egypt without fully integrating into its culture. Unlike her predecessors, Cleopatra was fluent in Egyptian and Greek and knew several other languages, allowing her to engage directly with foreign diplomats without the need for translators or advisors.
Although Cleopatra achieved significant accomplishments, some members of her court were displeased with her independent approach. In 48 BCE, she was dethroned in favor of the more controllable Ptolemy XIII. Cleopatra fled to Syria, raised an army, and returned to Egypt that same year, confronting her brother at the empire’s eastern frontier.
Cleopatra on a coin of 40 drachms, minted at Alexandria, ca. 51-30 BCE
Around the same time, Rome was in political turmoil involving Julius Caesar and Pompey. Pompey sought refuge in Egypt but was killed on Ptolemy XIII’s orders. As Pompey’s rival, Julius Caesar was welcomed in Alexandria. Cleopatra, seeing an opportunity, sought Caesar’s support. Despite a 30-year age gap, their shared intelligence and strategic minds led to mutual respect and a romantic bond. With Caesar’s military support, Cleopatra regained her throne, ruling now alongside her younger brother Ptolemy XIV.
In 46 BCE, Caesar returned to Rome with Cleopatra, their son Caesarion (or Little Caesar), and her entire entourage. Even with Roman laws against bigamy, Caesar acknowledged Caesarion as his son and Cleopatra as his wife. This relationship, controversial among the Senate and the Roman public, didn’t discourage the pair from appearing together publicly.
Julius Caesar and Cleopatra by Carl Gottlieb Venig, ca. 1875-1900
Following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, Cleopatra fled to Alexandria with Caesarion. Her brother Ptolemy XIV died soon after, possibly at Cleopatra’s command, making three-year-old Caesarion her co-regent as Ptolemy XV. During this time, associating herself with the goddess Isis, Cleopatra secured her grip on power in Egypt more than ever.
As Rome faced internal conflicts, Mark Antony, Caesar’s close ally, formed a triumvirate with Octavian and Lepidus, avenging Caesar’s murder. Antony took control of the eastern provinces, including Egypt, while Octavian managed the west.
In 41 BCE, Cleopatra was summoned by Antony to address allegations of supporting Brutus and Cassius, Caesar’s murderers. Demonstrating her sovereignty, she delayed her appearance, eventually arriving in grandeur, portraying herself as the goddess Isis. Captivated by Cleopatra, Antony neglected his marriage and soon joined Cleopatra in Alexandria, treating her as an equal monarch rather than a subordinate.
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885
Antony fathered three children with Cleopatra: twins Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios, and later Ptolemy Philadelphus. During this period, his relationship with Octavian soured. Antony, following the death of his wife, sought to reaffirm his loyalty to Octavian by marrying his half-sister Octavia in a political alliance.
However, by 37 BCE, Antony realized that lasting peace with Octavian was impossible. He returned to Cleopatra, seeking her financial support for his campaign against Parthian Empire. In return, Cleopatra insisted on regaining extensive territories for Egypt.
Octavian’s displeasure with Antony’s actions, including his alliance with Cleopatra, led to a further deterioration in their relationship, culminating in civil war. In a series of battles favoring Octavian, Cleopatra and Antony were ultimately defeated in 31 BCE. The following year, both committed suicide. Antony, misled by false news of Cleopatra’s death, stabbed himself and died in her arms, brought to her by Octavian’s allowance.
Octavian then demanded an audience with Cleopatra, outlining the harsh terms of her surrender. Realizing she couldn’t sway Octavian, Cleopatra sought time to prepare herself. She chose death by snake poison, refusing captivity in Rome.
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892
In the aftermath, Octavian ordered the execution of her son, Caesarion, and took her children with Antony to Rome, where Octavia raised them. This marked the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt.
Cleopatra passed away at 39, having ruled Egypt for more than two decades. In an era when female political leadership was exceedingly rare, she not only asserted control but also sustained Egypt’s independence throughout her reign. Mindful of her people’s needs, Cleopatra endeavored to uphold the ancient Egyptian principles of balance and harmony, navigating the challenges of her era with a commitment to her nation’s traditions.
Words of wisdom
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” —Alice Walker
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” —Oscar Wilde
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“Well done is better than well said.” —Benjamin Franklin
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