69 - 30 BC
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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This web page was last updated on:
09 December, 2008