Who is Cleopatra? Learn all about one of the most famous queens of all time all the way from her rise to power to her death in this new Do You Know episode from English Plus Podcast.
Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.), ill-fated queen of Egypt (51-30 B.C.), the last monarch of Egypt and the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty. In attempting to maintain Egypt’s independence from Rome, Cleopatra formed alliances (famously involving love affairs) with the Roman generals and statesmen Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Her strategy ultimately failed, however, as Caesar’s heir Octavian (who became the first emperor of Rome as Augustus in 27 B.C.) conquered Egypt and made it a Roman province. Faced with a crushing defeat, Cleopatra committed suicide.
RISE TO THE THRONE
Cleopatra descended from a long line of Macedonian (Greek) rulers whose reign over Egypt began in 323 B.C. with the death of Alexander the Great. That year, Alexander’s Macedonian generals divided his vast empire among themselves, with Ptolemy taking Egypt as his share. Thereafter the Ptolemies ruled from the port city of Alexandria, a flourishing cultural and commercial center that Alexander had founded in 332 B.C.
However, by Cleopatra’s time the Ptolemaic dynasty was fraught with internal power struggles, and its grip over Egypt was weakening. In addition, Rome was relentlessly expanding its domains and wanted to control Egypt and its vast wealth. In 58 B.C. the Romans took over Cyprus, which had been part of the Ptolemies’ empire for more than 200 years. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, ascended to the throne and maintained Egypt’s nominal status as an independent kingdom only by giving generous bribes to powerful Roman senators.
Ptolemy XII died in July 51 B.Cm. In accordance with his wishes, Cleopatra succeeded jointly to the throne with her eldest brother, Ptolemy XIII, after the two were married. The Ptolemaic dynasty had long followed the Egyptian custom of marriage between brother and sister in ruling families. In this way, the Ptolemies had maintained a purely Macedonian bloodline. Cleopatra was the first of her dynasty to learn the Egyptian language.
Cleopatra became queen of Egypt at the age of 18, while her co-ruling brother was only about 10. At first Cleopatra dominated the throne, but in the third year of her reign Ptolemy XIII’s chief advisers Pothinus and Achillas contrived against her, driving her into exile in Syria (then a Roman province). Not easily deterred, Cleopatra raised an army to regain her rightful place on the throne. In 48 B.C. the forces of Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra met at Pelusium, at the eastern edge of the Nile Delta, and prepared for battle. However, they received messages from Roman general Julius Caesar urging them to return to Alexandria to settle their differences. Caesar, who had arrived at Alexandria in pursuit of his defeated rival Pompey, claimed the right to arbitrate the quarrel as the representative of Rome. Ptolemy returned to Alexandria, leaving Cleopatra behind.
CLEOPATRA AND CAESAR
Determined to present her case to Caesar, Cleopatra secretly sailed to Alexandria, entering the harbor at night in a small boat with her attendant Apollodorus. Then she rolled herself up in a carpet (or bedding, according to some sources), and Apollodorus smuggled her into Caesar’s quarters in the royal palace. Her ingenuity, intelligence, and powers of persuasion must have impressed Caesar, for the next day he had Cleopatra restored to the throne in joint rule with Ptolemy XIII.
However, Pothinus and Achillas fomented a rebellion against Caesar, surrounding him in Alexandria with about 20,000 soldiers. During the ensuing Alexandrian War in 48-47 B.C., Pothinus was executed on Caesar’s orders and Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile in the course of battle. With this victory Caesar easily could have declared Egypt a Roman province, but instead he retained Cleopatra as queen. Cleopatra was obligated by custom to marry her other younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, who was about 12 years old.
Meanwhile, Caesar and Cleopatra had become lovers, and Caesar delayed attending to important matters of state to remain in Egypt. Cleopatra took him on a sightseeing cruise up the Nile, sailing the royal barge and 400 of Caesar’s ships in a display of power to her people. In 47 B.C. Cleopatra gave birth to a son, naming him Ptolemy Caesarion (“Little Caesar”).
The following year Cleopatra joined Caesar in Rome, bringing Caesarion and Ptolemy XIV with her. She lived in one of Caesar’s villas as his mistress and ruled Egypt by dispatch. Meanwhile, many Romans grew suspicious of Caesar’s near-absolute power. Rumors spread that he intended to subvert the Roman Republic and establish a monarchy, ruling as a king with Cleopatra, a despised foreigner, as his queen. In 44 B.C. a mob of Roman senators assassinated Caesar. Cleopatra quickly returned to Egypt, her power no longer secured by Caesar’s influence. Ptolemy XIV died suddenly in 43 B.C., and Cleopatra is said to have poisoned him. She made her toddler son Caesarion co-regent, crowning him as Ptolemy XV.
CLEOPATRA AND ANTONY
Roman Civil War
Following Caesar’s death, the Roman world plunged into civil war. The chief conspirators in his assassination, the Roman senators Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, believed his death would restore the domination of the Roman Senate, taking power out of the hands of the generals.
However, a triumvirate formed in 43 B.C. to defend Caesar’s legacy. The triumvirate comprised Caesar’s chief deputy and co-consul Mark Antony, Caesar’s grandnephew and designated heir Gaius Octavian, and Antony’s ally Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. The three men joined their forces to fight against those of Brutus and Cassius.
Cleopatra was approached for support by Cassius, who vied for control over Syria against Publius Cornelius Dolabella, an officer who claimed the province for the triumvirate. Cleopatra sided with Dolabella and sent three legions to his aid, but he lost his claim to Syria and the troops went over to Cassius. Cleopatra later sailed from Alexandria with her fleet to offer assistance but a storm forced her to turn back. Nevertheless, in October 42 B.C. Antony and Octavian emerged victorious in the Battle of Philippi, and Brutus and Cassius committed suicide. The three victors then divided the Roman domains among themselves, with Antony taking the eastern part.
Cleopatra Charms Antony
Antony repeatedly summoned Cleopatra to meet with him in the city of Tarsus, in Cilicia (an ancient region of Asia Minor, now part of Turkey). After considerable delay Cleopatra complied, but on her own terms. Dressed as the Roman goddess Venus, she sailed up the Cydnus River to Tarsus in a magnificently decorated and perfumed boat. Crowds rushed to the river to see the spectacle of Cleopatra’s barge. The queen then received Antony as a guest on her barge, and they spent the following days in feasting and entertainment.
Cleopatra’s charms and opulent display captivated Antony, who became her lover. He agreed Egypt would remain independent rather than become a Roman province. In 41 B.C. he returned with Cleopatra to Alexandria, where the extravagant feasting and revelry continued. At Cleopatra’s request Antony caused rebels against her authority to be slain.
In 40 B.C. Antony heard news that his wife, Fulvia, had raised and led an army against Octavian. Antony quickly returned to Italy to restore relations with his triumvirate partner. As part of their renegotiated agreements, Antony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in 39 B.C. (Fulvia had since taken ill and died.) Back in Egypt, meanwhile, Cleopatra gave birth to Antony’s children, twins named Alexander (later known as Alexander Helios, “the Sun”) and Cleopatra (later known as Cleopatra Selene, “the Moon”). Also in 39 B.C. Parthian invasions reached Egypt’s borders.
Antony’s Ally in the East
In 37 B.C. Antony returned east and sent for Cleopatra to join him in Antioch, Syria. She pledged to help finance his long-postponed campaign against Parthia on the condition he gave her lands to rule. She saw this as a restoration of the Ptolemies’ former dynastic empire, which had included much of the coastal seaboard of the eastern Mediterranean. Antony knew that with the queen’s wealth and help he could amass huge armies and naval fleets. So he promised to give her much of Syria and Ituraea (in present-day Lebanon), as well as land in modern Jordan and in coastal Cilicia.
Antony also promised to marry Cleopatra and legitimize their children. They were married, probably in 36 B.C., at Antioch, during the Parthian campaign. (However, Antony was still married to Octavia, and Roman law would not recognize any marriage to a foreigner.) After Cleopatra returned to Alexandria that summer, she gave birth to their third child, a son named Ptolemy Philadelphus. When Antony was failing in the middle of the campaign, Cleopatra brought him supplies. Antony’s Roman wife, Octavia, also set out to bring him supplies, but when she reached Athens he bade her leave the supplies and return to Rome. Antony’s campaign ended in failure.
Donations of Alexandria
In 34 B.C. Cleopatra accompanied Antony as far as the Euphrates on his campaign to invade Armenia. Antony returned to Alexandria victorious, and an extravagant parade was held to celebrate his triumph. Then the couple staged a lavish public ceremony in the Gymnasium at Alexandria. Sitting on golden thrones, Cleopatra was dressed as the Egyptian goddess Isis, and Antony as the Greek god Dionysus. Their three children and Caesarion were seated on silver thrones before them. Antony publicly recognized Caesarion as the son and true heir of Caesar (an affront to Octavian). He declared Cleopatra “Queen of Kings” and Caesarion “King of Kings,” formally pronouncing them joint rulers of Cyprus and Egypt. Antony also divided his eastern provinces, as well as lands that he had not yet conquered (including Parthia), among his and Cleopatra’s three children, endowing them with royal titles. The ceremony, which became known as the Donations of Alexandria, cemented Antony’s allegiance with Cleopatra.
The Romans were shocked when they learned that Antony had given Roman territories to the Egyptians. Octavian launched a vicious propaganda campaign against Antony and Cleopatra. He painted Cleopatra as the true enemy of Rome, and Antony as her corrupted plaything. Octavian also produced a document that he claimed to be Antony’s will (apparently forged), and had it read aloud in the Roman Senate. Antony reportedly left everything to Cleopatra and his children by her. Octavian received a swell of support, and consolidated his power in the Senate. Antony finally severed all ties with Octavian by divorcing Octavia.
Battle of Actium
In 32 B.C. the Roman Senate declared war against Cleopatra. Antony’s forces began assembling at Ephesus, on the coast of Asia Minor, and Cleopatra joined him there with the Egyptian fleet. The forces of Antony and Octavian finally met at Actium in 31 B.C.. Octavian’s fleet, commanded by Marcus Agrippa, trapped Antony and Cleopatra’s ships in the Gulf of Ambracia. Cleopatra convinced Antony to fight a naval battle, although his land forces were superior. The Battle of Actium began on September 2, 31 B.C., when Antony’s ships emerged from the gulf to face Octavian’s fleet. The battle took a surprising turn when Cleopatra ordered the Egyptian contingent of 60 ships, including her flagship loaded with her royal treasury, to leave the scene, setting sail for Egypt. Antony followed her, in the process so disrupting his forces that Octavian won a sweeping victory.
Cleopatra returned to Alexandria, pretending to have won the war so her people would remain loyal to her. Antony arrived later, having learned that his huge land armies had defected to Octavian. Octavian’s strengthened forces converged on Egypt from the east and west. Cleopatra sent a message to Octavian offering her abdication, provided her children could rule in her place. Octavian responded that she must first have Antony exiled or killed. Antony also sent a message, offering to retire. However, Octavian knew he was on the verge of victory, and soon took the port of Pelusium. Cleopatra’s fleet defected to Octavian, and Antony’s army was quickly defeated in a battle near Alexandria.
Death of Cleopatra
Cleopatra fled to the mausoleum that she had had built for herself, amassing all her treasure as her only protection. When Antony heard a false report that she had died, he stabbed himself in the chest. Two attendants then carried Antony to the mausoleum, where he died in Cleopatra’s arms.
Cleopatra became a virtual prisoner in her own mausoleum, and she refused food. Octavian threatened to harm her children if she died, and Cleopatra began to eat again to regain her health. But when she learned that Octavian had ordered her sent to Rome, to be led as a captive in the procession celebrating his triumph, she committed suicide. The exact cause of her death remains unknown, but legend has it that she allowed an asp (also known as the Egyptian cobra) to bite and poison her. She died on the last day of August in 30 B.C. and was buried by Antony’s side, as she had requested.
Following Cleopatra’s suicide, Octavian had Caesarion put to death. Cleopatra Selene was taken in by Octavia in Rome and was later married to King Juba II of Numidia. The fate of Cleopatra’s other two children, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus, remains unclear, but most sources claim their lives were also spared.
CLEOPATRA IN LITERATURE
Cleopatra has figured prominently in poetry and drama. The Roman poets Virgil and Horace presented her in their works, although neither mentions her name. Probably the most influential description of Cleopatra is that given by the Greek historian Plutarch in his Parallel Lives, in which he provides an account of her love affair with Mark Antony. This work inspired William Shakespeare to write his great tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. The play All for Love; or the World Well Lost (1678) by English dramatist John Dryden provides another version of their love affair. In more recent works, Cleopatra appears as a youthful heroine in Caesar and Cleopatra by British playwright George Bernard Shaw.