Some of the important queens of the Ptolemaic Period, namely Arsinoe II, Berenice II, and Cleopatra II, were presented in some detail in an earlier article. But Queen Cleopatra VII was the “best” of them all with her unique character and personality, as well as being the last queen of the Lagid (Ptolemaic) Period in Egypt. She was played in the 1963 historical epic drama Cleopatra by the Anglo-American actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Queen Cleopatra VII was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which held power in Egypt from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE until her death in 30 BCE. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII and was born in 70/69 BCE. She was most famous as the lover of the Roman general Julius Caesar and later as the wife of another Roman general Mark Antony.
Her Greek name, Cleopatra, means “Famous in Her Father”. Her full name, “Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator”, means “Cleopatra the Father-Loving Goddess”.
The identity of Cleopatra’s mother is not known. She may have been Cleopatra V, Ptolemy XII’s first wife, a royal concubine, or Ptolemy XII’s second wife (name unknown), who was the mother of the king’s three youngest children, Arsinoe IV, Ptolemy XIII, and Ptolemy XIV.
We do not know much about Cleopatra’s early life, but in the royal dynasty both boys and girls were educated, as women might rule alongside their male counterparts. The ancient historian Plutarch tells us that Cleopatra was the first of the Ptolemies to learn the Egyptian language and that she spoke seven languages. She also would have learned mathematics, astronomy, music, rhetoric, and Greek literature.
In 51 BCE, when Ptolemy XII died, Cleopatra, then aged 18, took the throne, ruling with her brother (or more probably half-brother) Ptolemy XIII who was ten years old when their rule began. Three advisers at the royal court, Achillas, Theodotus, and Pothinus, saw the young king as easily influenced and used him to further their own agenda. While Cleopatra was positively disposed toward the Romans, who had helped her father regain his throne, the advisers and Ptolemy XIII favoured a more independent Egypt.
By 48 BCE, Ptolemy XIII and his advisers had succeeded in driving Cleopatra beyond Egypt’s borders. While she was amassing an army in Syria to attempt to regain her throne, the Roman general Pompey was approaching Egypt, in retreat after losing the battle of Pharsalus to Julius Caesar. Based on his friendly relationship with Ptolemy XII, who had made him a ceremonial guardian of Ptolemy XIII, Pompey expected a favourable reception in Egypt. Instead, on Theodotus’ advice, Ptolemy XIII decided not to risk supporting the man whom Caesar was poised to defeat and thus to arouse his ire. Pompey was executed and his head was presented to Caesar when he arrived in pursuit.
Cleopatra saw Caesar as her best hope of regaining her throne and returned in secret to Alexandria by boat. She had herself smuggled into Caesar’s quarters in the palace wrapped in a bundle of bed linen. The ancient sources tell us that Cleopatra won Caesar’s support with her daring and her charm. Caesar announced to the Egyptians that the terms of the will of Ptolemy XII would be upheld with Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra ruling jointly. He granted their younger sister and brother, Arsinoe IV and Ptolemy XIV, the rule of Cyprus, which Rome had annexed.
Rebelling against Caesar’s decree, Achillas launched an attack on Caesar’s army, which became known as the Alexandrian War. The conflict lasted four months, during which time Arsinoe IV joined Achillas’ forces. Achillas then persuaded Caesar to send Ptolemy XIII to him, claiming that if Ptolemy wished them to surrender, they would do so. Caesar agreed, and Achillas used Ptolemy to rally the troops against Caesar. In the course of the renewed fighting, Ptolemy XIII fell from a boat and drowned in the Nile.
With Ptolemy XIII now dead, Caesar assigned Cleopatra to rule with Ptolemy XIV, then aged 12 years old. Cyprus was placed under their control, and Caesar brought Arsinoe IV to Rome and displayed her in triumph. When the Roman people objected to her execution, Caesar sent Arsinoe to Ephesus to take refuge in the sanctuary of the goddess Artemis.
Before returning to Rome, Caesar accompanied Cleopatra on a cruise up the Nile, an excursion that both reintroduced the Egyptians to Cleopatra and introduced Caesar to Egypt. It is significant that Cleopatra took this cruise with Caesar rather than with Ptolemy XIV, her co-ruler and brother-husband. As his absence suggests, Cleopatra was the dominant partner in their relationship and was not inclined to share power with him.
MOTHER AND SON: In 47 BCE, after Caesar left Egypt, Cleopatra gave birth to a son, Ptolemy XV, whom she called Caesarion, or Little Caesar. While Caesarion would not have been considered a legitimate child under Roman law, Caesar seems not to have refuted Cleopatra’s claims about her son’s paternity.
By 46 BCE, Cleopatra was in Rome, along with her son and Ptolemy XIV. They were the guests of Caesar and stayed in a house across the Tiber River from his residence. Caesar had dedicated a temple to Venus Genetrix, the goddess he considered the ancestor of his family, and he placed in the temple a statue of Cleopatra. Cleopatra may have returned to Alexandria for some period, but she was in Rome on the Ides of March 44 BCE when Caesar was assassinated. After his death, Cleopatra made a hasty return to Egypt, where she arranged for Ptolemy XIV to be poisoned.
Having rid herself of the second of her two brothers, Cleopatra made her son Caesarion her co-ruler. Since he was still a baby, Cleopatra was now effectively the sole ruler of Egypt. Cleopatra’s position and her control of Egypt’s wealth presented an opportunity for Mark Antony, a contemporary of Caesar now involved in a power struggle with Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) to be Caesar’s successor. Cleopatra, too, still saw the need for Egypt to have a Roman protector.
In 41 BCE, Antony summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus in Cilicia, ostensibly to determine whether she had provided resources to Caesar’s assassins to support their fight against Octavian as a way of hedging her bets after she no longer had Caesar’s protection. Although Cleopatra arrived in Tarsus at Antony’s bidding, she refused to leave her barge to meet him in the town square. Instead, she made Antony come to her, establishing a pattern in their relationship in which she always found a way to get the upper hand.
Cleopatra’s answer to Antony’s charge that she had provided troops to Dolabella, who was fighting against the assassins, but that the troops had gone over to the other side, must have satisfied Antony because he and Cleopatra began an alliance and a romance that lasted the rest of their lives. Cleopatra agreed to provide Antony with troops for his campaign against the Parthians. In return, Antony agreed to have several of Cleopatra’s enemies assassinated, including her sister Arsinoe IV.
After their meeting in Tarsus, Antony and Cleopatra spent the winter in Alexandria, where they engaged in lavish banquets to pass the time until the season for military campaigns arrived. This luxurious lifestyle contributed to the reputation for excess Cleopatra had with the Romans and fed Octavian’s propaganda against her and Antony.
In the spring of 40 BCE, Antony left to fight the Parthians. Six months later Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, whom Antony accepted as his own upon his return to Alexandria in 37 BCE. In addition, during Antony’s absence, Herod, an administrator of the Judean ruler Hyrcanus II, came to Alexandria to seek help against the Parthians, who had conquered Syria and were attacking Judea. Judea had been part of the Ptolemaic Empire but had since become an enemy.
As a result of the Parthian threat, however, Herod became an ally because of the overlapping of his interests with those of the Romans. Cleopatra offered Herod an army, but he preferred to make his request directly to the Romans. Antony persuaded the Roman senate to aid Herod and proclaim him king of the Jews.
Meanwhile, Antony and Octavian had formed the Second Triumvirate in Rome in an attempt to function as allies rather than as rivals. In 40 BCE, Antony married Octavian’s sister Octavia. In 34 BCE, however, Antony and Cleopatra held an elaborate ceremony known as the Donations of Alexandria, in which Antony granted territories and titles to Cleopatra, Caesarion, the twins, and their youngest child, Ptolemy Philadelphus, born in 36 BCE.
Military conflict: By 32 BCE, the alliance between Antony and Octavian was falling apart, and Antony divorced Octavia. He and Cleopatra travelled to Greece in preparation for war with Octavian and assembled their forces in Patras in northwestern Greece.
Octavian declared war on Cleopatra in order to avoid the perception that the conflict was a civil war. The Battle of Actium in 31 BCE began a year-long military conflict. Octavian’s navy blockaded Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet in the Gulf of Ambracia. Antony and Cleopatra lost a number of ships in the fighting but managed to break through the blockade and escape to Egypt. Octavian portrayed their flight as motivated by Cleopatra’s cowardice and Antony’s enslavement to the queen, but it is possible that escaping with the hope of continuing the fight on land was the best strategy available and, indeed, this is what happened.
The war continued for almost a year on Egyptian soil. In 30 BCE, when Octavian’s forces were about to enter Alexandria, Antony, having heard that Cleopatra was dead, attempted to kill himself. When he was unsuccessful and learned that Cleopatra was alive, he demanded to be brought to her.
Cleopatra had taken refuge in the mausoleum she was having constructed for herself. The entrance had been sealed, so Antony was hoisted in through a window and, once inside, he died in Cleopatra’s arms. Octavian then sent a guard to watch Cleopatra to make sure she did not commit suicide because, as our sources say, he wished to display her in his triumph. Cleopatra, however, eluded the guard by having an asp smuggled into her in a basket of figs. Most of the sources agree that this was her means of suicide.
Cleopatra’s death in 30 BCE marked the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. At this point Octavian annexed Egypt as Roman territory, keeping it closely under his own control by appointing a prefect rather than a provincial governor. Octavian had Caesarion executed while the boy was on his way to India where Cleopatra had ordered him to be taken in the hope that he would be safe there. As the son of Caesar and as a youth nearing adulthood, Caesarion had the potential to pose a threat to Octavian if a faction were to rally around Caesarion as the true son of Caesar, as opposed to Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son.
The younger children of the couple enjoyed a better fate. Octavian brought them to Rome, and they were raised in his own household. Cleopatra Selene is the only one of whom we have any knowledge as an adult. She was betrothed to Juba II, a Numidian prince whom Octavian allowed to rule his ancestral kingdom.
Cleopatra was a fascinating and controversial figure during her lifetime, and she has continued to command attention throughout subsequent ages. Whether she is cast as a heroine or a villain, Cleopatra emerges as a powerful and charismatic queen who captivated two of the most powerful men in Rome of her time.
Often remembered primarily as a lover, Cleopatra was an astute, if sometimes ruthless, ruler who employed her many talents to preserve Egypt as an independent state for as long as that was possible.
The writer is director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.