The details of her life were so tragic that they inspired Shakespeare to write a play. She was born into a dynasty that had ruled Egypt for at least 100 years before her birth. Her family was notorious for treachery, poisonings, and murder. They made The Sopranos look benevolent. Cleopatra was Macedonian/Greek, a direct descendant of Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, who took over Egyptian rule following Alexander’s death in 323 BC. Her father was King Ptolemy XII, and her mother was most likely her father’s sister. This isn’t really shocking since her family married among siblings, cousins, or other relatives to keep the rule of Egypt exclusive to their blood line.
She became queen of Egypt at the age of 17, in the year 51 BC, co-ruling with her father. It was a time of turmoil and unrest for Egypt, with threat always looming from the mighty Roman Empire. After the death of King Ptolemy XII, a marriage was arranged to her brother, Ptolemy XIII, and they co-ruled. She and Ptolemy XIII had strong disagreements over how they should rule, and by the time she was 21, he and his advisors had successfully removed Cleopatra from Alexandria, the capital of Egypt.
In 47 BC, Julius Caesar, the Roman Emperor, arrived in Alexandria to collect on a debt Egypt owed to Rome and to assess the annexation of Egypt. Caesar was staying at the royal palace. Cleopatra needed Caesar’s support. However, she had been banned and Ptolemy’s troops would never allow her access. Cleverly, she arranged to be smuggled into his suite of rooms by rolling herself up in an ornate carpet that was delivered to him. He was 52 years old and more than 30 years her senior, but she consummated a relationship and love affair with Caesar that solidified her claim to the throne. Caesar abandoned any plans for annexing Egypt and made sure she was returned to the throne by using his army to remove Ptolemy XIII. Ptolemy XIII drowned in battle and was out of Cleopatra’s way. She was returned to the throne, and she married and co-ruled Egypt with her other younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, who was no match for his sister/wife.
Some 9 months after she met Caesar, Cleopatra gave birth to their son, Caesarian, and though she wanted Caesar to claim him as his rightful heir, that never happened. Caesar maintained that his nephew Octavian was his sole heir. Nonetheless, Cleopatra traveled to Rome in 46 BC with Caesarian and Ptolemy XIV in tow, and she lived there for 2 years, leaving a month after Caesar’s assassination on March 15, 44 BC (the Ides of March). Ptolemy XIV was poisoned upon his return to Egypt (presumably by Cleopatra) and died. Cleopatra appointed Caesarian as her co-regent, renamed Ptolemy XV Caesar. A woman of high political aspirations, her plans were to support her son in a bid to rule Egypt as well as the Roman Empire.
Cleopatra identified herself as a reincarnation of the goddess Isis, who coveted motherhood, fertility, and magic. Until recently, she was most often portrayed as a seductress, or a woman who got what she wanted through sexual means. She was also most likely a highly intelligent, shrewd, determined woman. She could hold her own in a treacherous political landscape. Cleopatra successfully waged a war against one brother and poisoned the other.
Cleopatra was married a total of 3 times. No children were born from the marriages to her brothers. After Julius Caesar’s death, Marc Antony became a very powerful general of the Roman Empire. In 42 BC, Antony summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus (in modern-day Turkey) to learn of her political alliances. He was captivated by the Egyptian queen. Her third marriage was to Mark Antony, though he was married to Octavia Minor (Julius Caesar’s grand-niece), who lived in Rome. She had 3 children with Antony. On December 25, 40 BC, Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II. She then bore another child, her fourth, Ptolemy Philadelphus.
Things then started to go downhill for Cleopatra. She had planned to annex Judea but this never came to fruition because King Herod was a strong ruler and had alliances with Rome. Antony went to battle against Octavian and Rome. Octavian marched into Egypt and defeated Antony’s army, and Antony was fatally wounded and died after hearing (falsely) that Cleopatra was dead. Cleopatra bargained to have Antony buried in Alexandria.
In lieu of having Octavian (now Augustus) parade her through Rome in his triumph, Cleopatra arranged for Caesarian to be smuggled out of Egypt safely, and she then committed suicide on August 12, 30 BC. There are several accounts regarding the means of her death. The most famous is that she died from the bite of an asp that had been smuggled into her quarters in a basket. That’s unlikely because it would have caused paralysis and a slow painful death, and Cleopatra knew far too much about poisons to opt for such an end. Another account is that Augustus had her killed, or agreed to spare Caesarian if she were to kill herself. That’s been discounted as well since he would have gained far more notoriety by parading her through the streets of Rome. Others believe she concocted and drank a poisonous cocktail that would have been quick and pain-free.
Augustus had Caesarian hunted down and killed. Her other 3 children were raised by Antony’s wife in Rome.
Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of Egypt. To date, her tomb, which is believed to be shared with Marc Antony, has never been found.
- Cleopatra VII. Biography website. http://www.biography.com/people/cleopatra-vii-9250984.
- Cleopatra. Encyclopedia website. 2004. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404701412.html.
- Cleopatra. History website. http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/cleopatra.
- Cleopatra. Jewish Virtual Library website. 2008. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0004_0_04347.html.
- Ptolemy XIV Theos Philopator II.Encyclopaedia Britannica website. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/482197/Ptolemy-XIV-Theos-Philopator-II.
- Watkins T. The timeline of the life of Cleopatra. San José State University website. http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/cleopatra.htm.