The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


69 - 30 BC
Egyptian ruler


Cleopatra VII was the last ruler of Egypt from the house of the Ptolemy, a family that had ruled Egypt for generations. She earned an unfavorable reputation during her age, but as the lover of the Roman emperors Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.E.) and, later, Mark Antony (c. 81–30 B.C.E.), Cleopatra has become a romantic legend in modern times.

The House of Ptolemy

Third daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes (c. 61–51 B.C.E.), Cleopatra was born Cleopatra VII Philopator. Her family could be traced back to the Macedonian house of the Lagid Ptolemies, who took the throne after the death of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.). Fifteen consecutive Egyptian rulers from the house of Ptolemy led Egypt, beginning in 306 B.C.E. with Ptolemy I (died 284 B.C.E.) and ending with Cleopatra's death. The Ptolemaic rule was centered in the beautiful Egyptian city of Alexandria.

Historians report that Cleopatra had three sisters and two younger brothers. Both of her brothers ruled Egypt with Cleopatra before their early deaths—Ptolemy XIII (died 44 B.C.E.) drowned during a fight with Caesar; Cleopatra killed Ptolemy XIV (47–30 B.C.E.) herself.

Much like those that ruled before him, Ptolemy XII's court was plagued with violence and corruption. Cleopatra learned her political lessons from her father. She watched his humiliating efforts to maintain himself on the throne of Egypt by buying the support of powerful Romans. On one such trip to Rome, Ptolemy XII's daughter, Berenice, seized the throne. But her rule did not last, as she was put to death upon her father's return to Alexandria.

When Ptolemy XII Auletes died, he willed the throne to his children, Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII. The two ruled jointly as Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII Philopator. The ministers of Cleopatra's ten-year-old brother found him much easier to control than his sister, however. As a result, Cleopatra was driven from Egypt in 48 B.C.E.
Cleopatra and Julius Caesar

Cleopatra made preparations to return to Egypt by force, but when Caesar arrived in Alexandria after the Battle of Pharsalus, she saw the opportunity to use him. She had herself smuggled to him in a rug. Ptolemy XIII died fighting Caesar, who restored Cleopatra to the throne with another brother, Ptolemy XIV, as coregent, or acting ruler.

The relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra grew from their mutual longing for power and money. Caesar wanted the riches found in Cleopatra's court, while she longed for power in Rome. Contrary to legend, Caesar did not stay long in Egypt with Cleopatra.

Although in 46 B.C.E. she gave birth to a son whom she named Ptolemy Caesarion, Caesar never formally recognized him. That same year Caesar invited her to Rome. Although he spent little time with her, her presence in Rome may have contributed to the sour feeling towards him which led to his assassination (political murder).

After Caesar was killed by a group of men plotting to overthrow his empire, Cleopatra returned to Alexandria in April 44 B.C.E. Shortly thereafter Ptolemy XIV died under mysterious circumstances. It is commonly believed that Cleopatra herself poisoned him. After her brother's death, she made her son, Caesarion, her partner on the throne, and they awaited the outcome of the political struggle in Rome. She responded eagerly when Mark Antony summoned her and other puppet rulers to Tarsus in Cilicia after the Battle of Philippi. Matching her preparations to the man whose weaknesses she knew, she dazzled Antony and bent him to her will. She easily cleared herself of a charge of helping Brutus (85–42 B.C.E.) and Cassius (died c. 31 B.C.E.) in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. Also, at her request, Antony put to death three people she considered a threat to her throne.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony

In the winter of 41 and 40 B.C.E. Antony followed Cleopatra to Alexandria, where he enjoyed the pleasures of the Ptolemaic court and the company of the queen. Cleopatra hoped to tie him to her emotionally, but Antony left Egypt in the spring of 40 B.C.E.

In the autumn of 37 B.C.E. Antony sent his wife, Octavia, the sister of Roman Emperor Octavian (63–14 B.C.E.) back to Italy on the excuse that she was pregnant. He then went to Antioch to make final preparations for his invasion of Parthia. In Antioch he again sent for Cleopatra and went through a ritualistic marriage—a marriage with a ceremony but that was not recognized under Roman law. Antony was therefore still legally married to Octavia, although he recognized the twins Cleopatra had with him. Additionally, he made extensive grants of territory to her, including Cyprus, Cyrene, and the coast of Lebanon—all lands that were previously part of the Ptolemaic empire.

In 36 B.C.E. Cleopatra returned to Alexandria to await the birth of her third child with Antony. The failure of the Parthian campaign and Octavian's exploitation of Antony's misadventure drove Antony further into the arms of Cleopatra. In return, she gave him immense financial help in rebuilding his shattered army.

When Antony defeated Artavasdes of Armenia in 34 B.C.E., he celebrated his triumph not in Rome but in Alexandria. On the following day he declared Cleopatra and Ptolemy Caesarion joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus and overlords of all lands west and east of the Euphrates, a river in southwest Asia. For Cleopatra, acquiring these lands meant uniting the Ptolemaic empire with the land of the former Seleucid empire—all under her control. (Founded by the King of Babylon, Seleucus I [c.354–281 B.C.E.], the Seleucids were a family of kings that ruled over Macedonia from 312–64 B.C.E. The Romans had broken up the empire shortly before the time of Cleopatra's rule.) Meanwhile, Antony staked out his claims on Egypt's wealth for the coming struggle with Octavian.
Antony and Octavian

In Italy Octavian used the donations at Alexandria and Antony's relations with Cleopatra to turn public opinion against Antony. The Battle of Actium (September 2, 31 B.C.E.) was a fight for the control of the Roman Empire and led to disaster. Because Cleopatra's money built the fleet and supported it, she insisted on fighting at sea. When she fled from the battle with the war chest, Antony had little choice but to follow.

After Actium, Cleopatra tried to negotiate with Octavian for the recognition of her children as her successors in Egypt. But such recognition would cost her — Octavian demanded Antony's death. Cleopatra refused. After the final battle outside Alexandria on August 1, 30 B.C.E., Octavian's troops defeated Antony. After receiving a false report that Cleopatra was already dead, he stabbed himself. Antony died in Cleopatra's arms inside her mausoleum (tomb), where she had barricaded herself with the treasures of the Ptolemies to keep them from Octavian.

Tricked into surrendering herself, Cleopatra tried again to negotiate with Octavian. Cleopatra was refused. She then carefully planned her own death. On August 10, after paying last honors to Antony, she retired to her quarters for a final meal. How Cleopatra died is not known, but on her left arm two tiny pricks were found, presumably from the bite of an asp (a snake).


Cleopatra VII was a Hellenistic co-ruler of Egypt with her father (Ptolemy XII Auletes) and later with her brothers/husbands Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. She later became the supreme ruler of Egypt, as pharaoh, consummated a liaison with Gaius Julius Caesar that solidified her grip on the throne, and, after Caesar's assassination, aligned with Mark Antony, with whom she produced twins. In all, Cleopatra had four children, one by Caesar (Caesarion) and three by Antony (Cleopatra Selene II, Alexander Helios, and Ptolemy Philadelphus). Her unions with her brothers produced no children. It is possible that they were never consummated; in any case, they were not close. Her reign marks the end of the Hellenistic Era and the beginning of the Roman Era in the eastern Mediterranean. She was the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt (her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, ruled in name only before Augustus had him executed). Even though she still bore the ancient Egyptian title Pharaoh, her society's language was Greek and its culture was Hellenistic. When Cleopatra was born, the Great Pyramid was already at least 2,500 years old. Her society's understanding of the Ancient hieroglyphic language and culture of Egypt already was spotty. It was at best a reconstruction, not first-hand knowledge. Cleopatra adhered to pagan worship. Her patron goddess was Isis, and thus during her reign, it was believed that she was the re-incarnation and embodiment of the goddess of wisdom.

After Antony's rival and Caesar's legal heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian (who later became the first Roman Emperor, Augustus), brought the might of Rome against Egypt, it is said that Cleopatra took her own life on 12 August 30 BC, allegedly by means of an asp. Her legacy survives in the form of numerous dramatizations of her story, including William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Bernard Shaw's Caesar & Cleopatra, several films and the recent HBO/BBC series Rome.

Her mother was Cleopatra V of Egypt—who co-ruled Egypt with another daughter, Berenice IV, for a year before her death—yet Cleopatra, borne of the union with Ptolemy XII Auletes, was a direct descendant of Alexander the Great's general, Ptolemy I Soter, son of Arsinoe and Lacus, both of Macedon. A Greek by language and culture, Cleopatra is reputed to have been the first member of her family in their 300-year reign in Egypt to have learned the Egyptian language.

Cleopatra is one of the few historical figures who remains, to this day, popular in modern culture. Tales of legendary beauty and an unrivaled strength of will have made her an idolized character of various forms of media. These claims are largely unsubstantiated, as the traditional concepts of beauty have been subject to reappraisals throughout the ages. It is reasonably certain, however, that Cleopatra possessed significant political influence.

Centralization of power and corruption led to uprising in and loss of Cyprus and of Cyrenaica, making Ptolemy's reign one of the most calamitous of the dynasty. When Ptolemy made a journey to Rome with Cleopatra, Tryphaena seized the Crown of Egypt. Shortly after arrangements for Roman assistance in Egypt, Ptolemy's followers assassinated Tryphaena and killed her guard. Berenice's guards in turn killed those followers.

In 58 BC Cleopatra's older sister, Berenice IV seized power from her father. With the assistance of the Roman governor of Syria, Aulus Gabinius, Ptolemy XII overturned his eldest daughter in 55 BC and had her executed. Cleopatra's other older sister Tryphaena took over shortly after that. She was killed as well, which left Cleopatra with her husband and younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, joint heirs to the throne.

Accession to the throne

Ptolemy XII died in March 51 BC, making the 17-year-old Cleopatra and her brother, the 12-year-old Ptolemy XIII joint monarchs. The first three years of their reign were difficult, due to economic difficulties, famine, deficient floods of the Nile, and political conflicts. Although Cleopatra was married to her young brother, she quickly showed indications that she had no intentions of sharing power with him.

In August 51 BC, relations between the sovereigns completely broke down. Cleopatra dropped Ptolemy's name from official documents and her face appeared alone on coins, which went against Ptolemaic tradition of female rulers being subordinate to male co-rulers. This resulted in a cabal of courtiers, led by the eunuch Pothinus, removing Cleopatra from power and making Ptolemy sole ruler in circa 48 BC (or possibly earlier, as a decree exists from 51 BC with Ptolemy's name alone). She tried to raise a rebellion around Pelusium, but she was soon forced to flee Egypt with her only surviving sister, ArsinoŽ.

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar

Assassination of Pompey

While Cleopatra was in exile, Pompey became embroiled in the Roman civil war. In the autumn of 48 BC, Pompey fled from the forces of Julius Caesar to Alexandria, seeking sanctuary. Ptolemy, only fifteen years old at that time, had set up a throne for himself on the harbour from where he watched as on September 28 48 BC Pompey was murdered by one of his former officers, now in Ptolemaic service. He was beheaded in front of his wife and children, who were on the ship he had just disembarked from. Ptolemy is thought to have ordered the death as a way of pleasing Julius Caesar and thus become an ally of Rome, to which Egypt was in debt. This was a catastrophic miscalculation on Ptolemy's part. When Caesar arrived in Egypt two days later, Ptolemy presented him with Pompey's severed, head. Caesar was enraged. This was probably due to the fact that, although he was Caesar's political enemy, Pompey was a Consul of Rome and the widower of Caesar's only legitimate daughter, Julia (who died in childbirth with their son). Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

Eager to take advantage of Julius Caesar's anger with Ptolemy, Queen Cleopatra returned to the palace rolled into a Persian carpet and had it presented to Caesar by her servants: when it was unrolled, Cleopatra tumbled out. It is believed that Caesar was charmed by the gesture, and she became his mistress. Nine months after their first meeting, Cleopatra gave birth to their baby. It was at this point that Caesar abandoned his plans to annex Egypt, instead backing Cleopatra's claim to the throne. After a short civil war, Ptolemy XIII was drowned in the Nile and Caesar restored Cleopatra to her throne, with another younger brother Ptolemy XIV as new co-ruler.

Despite the almost thirty year age difference, Cleopatra and Caesar became lovers during his stay in Egypt between 48 BC and 47 BC. They met when they were 21 (Cleopatra) and 50 (Caesar). On 23 June 47 BC Cleopatra gave birth to a child, Ptolemy Caesar (nicknamed "Caesarion" which means "little Caesar"). Cleopatra claimed Caesar was the father and wished him to name the boy his heir, but Caesar refused, choosing his grand-nephew Octavian instead. Caesarion was the intended inheritor of Egypt and Rome, uniting the East and the West.

Cleopatra and Caesarion visited Rome between 47 BC and 44 BC and were probably present when Caesar was assassinated on 15 March, 44 BC. Before or just after the assassination she returned to Egypt. When Ptolemy XIV died due to deteriorating health, Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent and successor. To safeguard herself and Caesarion she also had her sister Arsinoe killed, a common practice of the times.

In 42 BC, Mark Antony, one of the triumvirs who ruled Rome in the power vacuum following Caesar's death, summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus to answer questions about her loyalty. Cleopatra arrived in great state, and so charmed Antony that he chose to spend the winter of 41 BC–40 BC with her in Alexandria. On 25 December 40 BC she gave birth to two children Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II.

Four years later, in 37 BC, Antony visited Alexandria again en route to make war with the Parthians. He renewed his relationship with Cleopatra, and from this point on Alexandria would be his home. He married Cleopatra according to the Egyptian rite (a letter quoted in Suetonius suggests this), although he was at the time married to Octavia Minor, sister of his fellow triumvir Octavian. He and Cleopatra had four more children, including Ptolemy Philadelphus.

At the Donations of Alexandria in late 34 BC, following Antony's conquest of Armenia, Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of Egypt and Cyprus; Alexander Helios was crowned ruler of Armenia, Media, and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene II was crowned ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus was crowned ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia. Cleopatra also took the title of Queen of Kings.

Antony's behavior was considered outrageous by the Romans, and Octavian convinced the Senate to levy war against Egypt. In 31 BC Antony's forces faced the Romans in a naval action off the coast of Actium. Cleopatra was present with a fleet of her own. Popular legend tells us that when she saw that Antony's poorly equipped and manned ships were losing to the Romans' superior vessels, she took flight and that Antony abandoned the battle to follow her, but no contemporary evidence states this was the case.

Following the Battle of Actium, Octavian invaded Egypt. As he approached Alexandria, Antony's armies deserted to Octavian on August 12 30 BC

There are a number of unverifiable but very famous stories about Cleopatra, of which one of the best known is that, at one of the lavish dinners she shared with Antony, she playfully bet him that she could spend ten million sesterces on a dinner. He accepted the bet. The next night, she had a conventional, unspectacular meal served; he was ridiculing this, when she ordered the second course — only a cup of strong vinegar. She then removed one of her priceless pearl earrings, dropped it into the vinegar, allowed it to dissolve, and drank the mixture. The earliest report of this story comes from Pliny the Elder and dates to about 100 years after the banquet described would have happened. The calcium carbonate in pearls does dissolve in vinegar, but slowly unless the pearl is first crushed.

Mark Antony committed suicide, having been told Cleopatra was dead. According to the doctor Olympus (an eye-witness), he was brought to Cleopatra's tomb and died in her arms. A few days later, on 12 August, Cleopatra also died by snakebite in the breast. The ancient sources generally agree that she had two asps hidden in a fig basket so as she was eating she would never know when she would die. Her two handmaidens died with her. Octavian, waiting in a building nearby, was informed of her death, and went to see for himself.

Cleopatra's son by Caesar, Caesarion, was proclaimed pharaoh by the Egyptians, but Octavian had already won. Caesarion was captured and executed, his fate reportedly sealed by Octavian's famous phrase: "Two Caesars are one too many." This ended not just the Hellenistic line of Egyptian pharaohs, but the line of all Egyptian pharaohs. The three children of Cleopatra and Antony were spared and taken back to Rome where they were taken care of by Antony's wife, Octavia Minor, who was also Octavian's sister.










This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008