Cleopatra Biography: Queen of Egypt

Cleopatra VII is one of the most famous women who has ever lived. Her story has inspired poets, dramatists, and artists for more than 2,000 years. Through cunning and guile, she survived to rule Egypt as all of her siblings perished by the wayside. Her famed beauty and charm led to one of the most celebrated romances in history -and the Ancient world’s ultimate tragedy. In this week’s Biographics, we get up close and personal with the original Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra.

The Early Years

By the time of the birth of Cleopatra VII in 69 BCE, Egypt had a 3000-year-old history of power and decline. The country was rued by a dynasty of pharaohs, each with the name of Ptolemy, who had arrived from Macedonia in 323 BCE. Now, however, they faced the danger of invasion from the menacing Roman empire.

An ancient Roman bust of Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra VII of Egypt wearing a royal diadem band over her hair; dated to the mid-1st century BC (i.e. around the time of her visit to Rome), it was discovered in a villa along the Via Appia. It is now located in the Altes Museum, Berlin, in the Antikensammlung Berlin collection.

An ancient Roman bust of Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra VII of Egypt wearing a royal diadem band over her hair; dated to the mid-1st century BC (i.e. around the time of her visit to Rome), it was discovered in a villa along the Via Appia. It is now located in the Altes Museum, Berlin, in the Antikensammlung Berlin collection.

The first Ptolemies had ruled benevolently, but their descendants, including Cleopatra’s father proved to be weak, even foolish leaders. As a result, Cleopatra’s early years were unsettled. She knew that her family was at war – with the people it ruled, and with itself. The people suffered under the cruelty of Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s father, and they resented his alliance with Rome.

When Cleopatra was just four years old, the citizens of Alexandria rioted and chased Ptolemy out of Egypt. He fled to Rome and Cleopatra’s older sister Berenice became queen. Three years later Ptolemy returned to Egypt. With the help of Roman general Pompey, he snatched back power from Berenice and ruled again as Pharaoh. One of his first orders was for his oldest daughter to be executed.

Cleopatra now had two surviving sisters and two younger brothers. All of Ptolemy’s children hoped to eventually rule, which made them rivals. Shortly after the execution of Berenice, the next oldest daughter of Ptolemy, Cleopatra Tryphana died in mysterious circumstances. Many historians believe that she was poisoned by one of her siblings.

Now Cleopatra had only one sister still alive – the youngest Arsinoe. She must have wondered how long she would survive. Her two younger brothers were both named Ptolemy according to the custom. They would both eventually become rulers of Egypt – as Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV.

By the time she was fourteen, Cleopatra was Ptolemy’s oldest living daughter. When he died she would become queen as the wife of her younger brother Ptolemy XIII. For the young girl, the prospect filled her with both excitement and terror. Vividly recalling the fate of her two sisters, she feared that enemies might try to also kill her. But the young girl was clever. She had made friends with powerful courtiers who she felt would protect her.

Cleopatra was groomed for rulership from her early teens. She learned new languages, including Egyptian, which surprisingly was not spoken in the royal court – all her family members spoke Greek. She also used religion to support her claim to the throne, claiming to be the daughter of the Sun-God, an ancient royal title.

Cleopatra and her husband-brother, with their father having died, began their reign. It was 51 BCE and she was nearly 18 years of age, 10 years older than the new king. This allowed her to assume full responsibility for ruling the country.

It was a particularly complex time. In addition to domestic problems, which included a discontented peasantry, brought to its knees by famine, not to mention the hostility of other members of her own family, there were problematic foreign relations. The most pressing issue was the unrelenting demand for taxes coming Rome. In spite of the requirement of having her husband, Ptolemy XIII, appointed to rule with her, she didn’t take kindly to having him tagging along. Her solution was to oust him from his position and rule alone for the next eighteen months.

Sibling Rivalry

One thing that Cleopatra knew was that she could not beat the Romans at their military game at this point, so she had to take off where her father had left off and keep appeasing the Roman overlords. She attempted damage control by working with the Roman oppressors in the hope that they would give up Egypt entirely.

Like her father she chose survival, but she had one advantage over him – Cleopatra was quite clever, and she knew how to play the cards she was dealt to her best advantage. She would continue to do so throughout her reign, up until the very end. She wasn’t about to fold her hand if she could see any way to play to the best of her ability, and she would bluff if necessary. She would eliminate every other foe in the game and keep a few aces up her sleeve by winning key Alexandrians, Romans and the priests over to her side. She was a brilliant strategist, even at the young age at which she became co-regent.

A posthumous painted portrait of Cleopatra VII of Ptolemaic Egypt, from Roman Herculaneum, made sometime between 30 BC, i.e. Cleopatra's death, and 79 AD, i.e. the destruction of Herculaneum by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius; it is located in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Dr. Joann Fletcher (Cleopatra the Great: the Woman Behind the Legend, New York: Harper, 2008, plates between pp. 246-247), Honorary Research Fellow at the University of York, writes the following in description of this painting: “Painted image from a villa at Herculaneum portraying a red-haired woman whose facial features, royal diadem and hairstyle adorned with fine pearl-studded hairpins suggest a posthumous portrait of Cleopatra VII.”

A posthumous painted portrait of Cleopatra VII of Ptolemaic Egypt, from Roman Herculaneum, made sometime between 30 BC, i.e. Cleopatra’s death, and 79 AD, i.e. the destruction of Herculaneum by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius; it is located in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Dr. Joann Fletcher (Cleopatra the Great: the Woman Behind the Legend, New York: Harper, 2008, plates between pp. 246-247), Honorary Research Fellow at the University of York, writes the following in description of this painting: “Painted image from a villa at Herculaneum portraying a red-haired woman whose facial features, royal diadem and hairstyle adorned with fine pearl-studded hairpins suggest a posthumous portrait of Cleopatra VII.”

Of course, given that she was ruling Egypt, and given the tempestuous history of her family, nothing was going to come that easy to a new ruler, especially a female one. Her little brother had his supporters, or should I say, his controllers, and they wanted to have the power in their hands, not Cleopatra’s. When I say ‘they’, I am speaking mainly of a man named Gnaeus Pompey, who at the time was the supreme controller of Rome, the man who gave her father the title king, and the person to whom was given the right to possess Cyprus. It is highly likely that Pompey saw Cleopatra as too smart to be simply mollified as her father had been. She would be hard to control and a constant threat to Roman dominance over Egypt. Her little brother needed some assistance and this was given in the form of Roman support: Pompey would show up occasionally to formally recognize the little brother over the big sister as ruler of Egypt.

With Pompey’s backing, Ptolemy XIII went to war with his big sister, driving her from power. In 49 CE, Cleopatra discovered that her husband was plotting with Pompey to send soldiers to kidnap and possibly kill her.  She knew that she must leave Egypt and so set sail for Syria. There she hoped to recruit an army to help her win back the throne from her now sixteen-year-old husband/brother.

Cleopatra chose to flee to Syria because the Ptolemies had once ruled there. The king of Syria was also an enemy of Rome. Like Cleopatra, he feared that his own country would be taken over by the mighty Roman empire. She took her only surviving sister, Arsinoe, into exile with her. This was partly to protect the younger girl from her brother’s wrath, but also to stop her from seizing the throne for herself.

Enter Julius Caesar

While these dramas were playing out in the Ptolemaic dynasty, up north a bloody civil war was taking place. General Julius Caesar battled and defeated the forces of General Pompey. Pompey arrived in Pellucidum, Egypt hoping to get money, food, men and ships because he was running low on what he needed to defeat Caesar. Up until that time the Egyptians had been on the receiving end of much support from Rome due to the relationship established between Cleopatra’s father and Pompey before Caesar rose up to challenge the Roman general. And now that Pompey had just lost badly to Caesar in Pharsalus, he needed Egypt’s help.

Meanwhile Caesar was in pursuit and also looking for aid for his military needs. He arrived in Alexandria with a rather modest military force. However, it seemed to the young Egyptian king and his advisers that Caesar was going to be eventual victor in Rome. If the king continued to support Pompey to continue his war against Caesar on Egyptian soil, the battles could devastate Egypt. And, if Pompey eventually lost, Caesar would be enraged against the Egyptian rulership.

Tetradrachm of Seleucis and Pieria in Syria, with Mark Antony on obverse and Cleopatra VII on reverse.

Tetradrachm of Seleucis and Pieria in Syria, with Mark Antony on obverse and Cleopatra VII on reverse.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, as soon as Pompey landed with his troops at Pelessium, Ptolemy XIII had Pompey ambushed and killed. He then delivered Pompey’s head to Caesar. However, the king miscalculated how happy Caesar would be to see his enemy’s head presented to him by the Egyptian king. Pompey may have been his rival, but it was up to Caesar to decide Pompey’s fate, not have the upstart Egyptian king usurp the right.

Even though he was horrified by the brutal murder of Pompey, Caesar wanted to keep the peace – he had come to Egypt to collect a huge sum of money that he claimed Cleopatra’s father had owed him. He ordered both Ptolemy and Cleopatra to meet with him to discuss a peace treaty.

The now twenty-one-year-old queen saw her opportunity to act. She slipped past Ptolemy’s general Achillas, who was blocking Pellucidum, and sailed along the coastline to Alexandria by way of the Nile. Then she went to see Caesar at the palace. Cleopatra had developed into a very mature and savvy young woman. Legend tells us that she secreted her in a rolled-up bedroll in order to get into the palace, but this has largely been debunked. She did not need to go to quite so covert lengths to get an audience with Caesar in Alexandria. She had been communicating with him from her post over the border. Surely, before sneaking past Achillas, and heading toward Alexandria, she had sent word to Caesar that she was coming or he had sent word to her telling her to come; either way, it likely was no surprise that Cleopatra was arriving in the harbor that night.

Apparently, Cleopatra donned her most impressive outfit and took great effort to look her most beautiful for her audience with Caesar. Whatever she did, it worked a treat and Caesar ordered that she be restored to her throne.

Naturally, when Ptolemy arrived to find Cleopatra in the palace reinstalled as co-regent he was not at all pleased. In fact, he threw a right royal fit. As impressed as Caesar was with the queen, he wisely took into consideration the support thst her brother had among many of the upper crust Alexandrians, and so handled the situation quite astutely. He wisely read to brother and sister the will of their father, which stated that he wanted them to rule together.

But the young king was not appeased. He ran out of the palace and threw down his crown in a terrible rage. An amused Caesar allowed Ptolemy to leave the city and join his sister, Arsinoe, in Sicily. Days after the Alexandrian war ended, the abdicated king’s body was found lying in the harbor.

Seducing Caesar

For the first time in years, Cleopatra now felt safe. Her enemy husband, along with his advisors, were dead and Caesar had promised to protect her and her new husband – her surviving 11-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIV. With Caesar, she sailed down the Nile in order to meet her subjects and impress them with her power. Rumours spread that she was pregnant with Caesars’ child which came to be named Caesarion. When Caesar returned to Rome, he left 15,000 of his finest soldiers to guard the queen.

After taking control of Egypt, Cesar returned to Rome, where he was hailed as a hero. Before long, Cleopatra had come north to join him. She claimed that the trip was to negotiate a peace treaty between Egypt and Rome, but she also wanted to make sure of Caesar’s protection. She did not want her younger brother or his advisers to try to seize power in Egypt while she was away.

Many Romans chafed the relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar. It was widely feared that Caesar would name Caesarion as his heir and that Cleopatra would then have a hold on the Roman Empire through her son.

Cleopatra Before Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1866. Cleopatra confronts Gaius Julius Caesar after emerging from a roll of carpet. The Egyptian Queen had been driven from the palace in Alexandria by her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII. She had to disguise herself to regain entry and treat with Caesar for protection and restoration of her throne.

Cleopatra Before Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1866. Cleopatra confronts Gaius Julius Caesar after emerging from a roll of carpet. The Egyptian Queen had been driven from the palace in Alexandria by her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII. She had to disguise herself to regain entry and treat with Caesar for protection and restoration of her throne.

Caesar celebrated his victories by parading his captives through the streets of Rome. Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe, who had led the Egyptian army against Caesar, was dragged through the streets bare headed and in chains. It was a disgrace for a woman to appear in public this way – it was the custom for Egyptian women to wear a long cloak and veil outside of their homes. However, Arsinoe was lucky – unlike other prisoners she was not killed. Caesar felt that the Romans might riot if they saw a princess publicly executed.

To give thanks for the victory at the battle of Pharsalus, Caesar built a new temple in Rome. He also paid for a beautiful statue of Cleopatra to be put on display in the temple – it showed her as a mother holding Ceasarion in her arms.

Crisis

As a reward for his victories, the Senate made Caesar dictator for life. But some Romans feared that Caesar was becoming too powerful and that he wanted to be king. About sixty conspirators decided that Caesar had to be killed. The plot, which was led by Brutus and Cassius, was carried through immediately following a Senate meeting in 44 BCE.

The shocking news of Caesar’s murder spread through the Roman empire like wildfire. Cleopatra – who was in Rome at the time of the assassination – lost no time in hurrying back to Egypt. Now that Caesar, her protector, was dead, her kingdom was once more in danger.

Many hostile natiions saw Egypt as a rich prize and hoped to conquer it. Cleopatra kept her son, Caesarion close by her side, because she feared tht he might be murdered by Caesar’s enemies.

On her return to Egypt, Cleopatra found that her sister Arsinoe, who had been released from roman captivity, was plotting with an anti-Caesar faction in the hope of seizing power. Many of the nobles in the Egyptian court supported Arsinoe and joined her in her conspiracy against Cleopatra.

At this time, the nation was suffering a crisis due to failure of Nile floods. There was not enough water in the river to spread rich mud over the fields to irrigate them. As a result, farmers crops and animals died, and many families suffered from famine and disease. Many nobles and officials were angry that Cleopatra did not take moves to help the famine victims. The tenuous situation for Cleopatra required a new Roman protector who she could lean on. It came in the form of Mark Antony.

A Roman bust of the consul and triumvir Mark Antony, Vatican Museums

A Roman bust of the consul and triumvir Mark Antony, Vatican Museums

Caesar’s murder led to three terrible tears of warfare in Rome, as different groups of Roman senators and members of leading Roman families struggled to take control. The rival armies were led by three powerful men, and each hoped to take Caesar’s place as ruler. Their names were Octavian (who was Caesar’s nephew), Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidas. Finally, in 42 BCE, the Roman lands were divided among the three. Antony took control of the entire eastern Mediterranean region, which included Egypt.

The Great Seduction

Though he had control of Egypt, Antony still needed Cleopatra’s support, and he feared that she might support his enemies. He needed gold from Egypt in order to pay his armies to keep control of his share of the empire, along with Egypt’s grain in order to feed his men. Antony wrote to Cleopatra and when she did not reply, he summoned her to meet him.

Cleopatra was in no hurry to respond to Antony. Instead, she deliberately took her time. She knew that Antony needed Egypt’s gold and in return she planned to ask for his protection. She also wanted his help to kill her enemies – including her sister Arsinoe.

Left: Cleopatra dressed as a pharaoh and presenting offerings to the goddess Isis, dated 51 BC; limestone stela dedicated by a Greek man named Onnophris; located in the Louvre, Paris Right: a limestone stela of the High Priest of Ptah bearing the cartouches of Cleopatra and Caesarion, Egypt, Ptolemaic period, the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

Left: Cleopatra dressed as a pharaoh and presenting offerings to the goddess Isis, dated 51 BC; limestone stela dedicated by a Greek man named Onnophris; located in the Louvre, Paris Right: a limestone stela of the High Priest of Ptah bearing the cartouches of Cleopatra and Caesarion, Egypt, Ptolemaic period, the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

As Antony waited for Cleopatra to arrive to the planned meeting in Tarsus, he heard news of large crowds gathering to witness an amazing sight. Cleopatra was sailing up the River Cydnus in a barge with a gilded poop, its sails spread purple, is rowers urging it in with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lute. The sails were made of silk, a rare and costly cloth from China. It was a floating palace.

The queen herself was dressed as the Greek Goddess of Love, Aphrodite. She lay on a couch beneath a canopy of gold cloth. Mark Antony was mesmerized and he invited Cleopatra to dine with him. But the queen refused, insisting thst he join her on her royal barge. She took great care with her preparations – she wanted Antony to be delighted, astonished and, most importantly, impressed. She arranged for her barge to be decorated with thousands of tiny oil lamps and glittering, flickering patterns of lights.

Cleopatra met Antony several times during her visit to Tarsus. On each occasion she dressed as the Goddess Aphrodite. She offered Antony crowns of vine leaves, a symbol of Dionysus, the Greek God of wine. She was reminding Antony that, according to legend, Tarsus was the place where Aphrodite and Dionysus met and fell in love.

Cleopatra’s seduction worked. Her dramatic visit to Tarsus had won Antony’s support in her struggle to remain ruler of Egypt. Antony forgot his war against the Parthians and hurried to Egypt. They spent the winter of 41 BCE in Alexandria together, during which time Cleopatra hardly left Antony’s side. During this time, her two remaining siblings, Arsinoe and Ptolemy XIV were put to death. Shortly thereafter, Cleopatra became pregnant.

Antony did not remain in Egypt to see the birth of his twins – a boy and a girl. In 40 BCE he had to return to Rome because his wife, Fulva, was leading a rebellion against Octavian.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885

Cleopatra continued to rule Egypt, but Antony did not return for another four years. When he sailed back in 36 BCE, after a disastrous defeat in Parthia, Cleopatra welcomed him. She needed a strong ally to help her keep Egypt independent.

Antony planned to set up an empire in North Africa and the Middle east to challenge his rivals in Rome. Cleopatra supported his plans because they would increase her own power. In 35 BCE, the pair had a third child, a son who they named Ptolemy Philadelphus. Early in 34, Antony invaded Armenia, returning to Alexandria in triumph. In a magnificent celebration Cleopatra was crowned ‘Queen of the Kings.’

The couple’s young children were given royal titles over Middle Eastern lands.

A Tragic End

Top Roman politicians, led by Caesar’s nephew Octavian, were shocked by reports of Antony and Cleopatra’s bid to set up an empire of their own. They were also angry that Antony had divorced his Roman wife. An outraged Octavian personally declared war against Cleopatra – and all of Egypt.

Even though Antony had tried to avoid conflict with Rome, it had now become impossible to avoid. This was especially so after the Roman Senate found out about his will, in which he declared his intention to be buried in Egypt beside Cleopatra. Antony was dismissed from all public appointments. Even though the army assembled by Antony and Cleopatra was larger, the famous battle of Actium in September of 31 BCE constituted a first fundamental step toward their defeat.

The Death of Cleopatra

The Death of Cleopatra

By now they were both considered foreigners and enemies of Rome. Antony succeeded in taking Pelusium and getting close to the gates of Alexandria in the spring of 30 BCE. A mad whirl of events followed; rumor had it that Cleopatra – shut in the mausoleum that she had built for herself – was dead. On hearing this news, denied immediately after, but too late, Antony wounded himself fatally and as he was dying was taken to the mausoleum. Cleopatra wept for Antony and tried in various ways to take her own life but she was watched over by Octavian’s men who wanted to take her back to Rome, alive and in chains, as a symbol of the great Roman triumph over the enemy from the East. A few days before her departure, however, Cleopatra managed to evade surveillance and killed herself, probably with snake poison brought into the prison in a basket.

Cleopatra was the last independent ruler of Egypt, and her death marked the end of over 3,000 glorious years of Egyptian civilization and Egyptian power. Yet, she could not bare to live while foreigners ruled her beloved country. At her death, Egypt lost its most famous – and possibly its greatest – queen.

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