She was intelligent, witty, ambitious, fabulously wealthy and feared and admired by the men who ruled the lands around her. Lover of Julius Caesar and then Mark Anthony she bore children for both and at times looked ready to rule the known world as a divine Empress. However, her vision was cut down by the man who would become the first Roman Emperor.
Cleopatra was born in 68BC into the Ptolemaic dynasty that had ruled Egypt from Alexandria since the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.
The Ptolemies were a lively bunch of Macedonians who took to the Egyptian royal tradition of brother-sister marriage. When they weren’t getting hitched to their siblings they were plotting against relatives and having each other killed.
Ptolemy XII, was known to his subjects as a drunken flute player and when this inebriated musician died he left Egypt to his 18 year old daughter Cleopatra to rule jointly with her 10 year old brother Ptolemy XIII.
The usual family squabbles, egged on by eunuchs and other court officials, drove Cleopatra from Alexandria. Young Ptolemy’s guardians held the government while Cleopatra raised an army to prepare for her return.
Meanwhile in Rome things were kicking off with civil war between supporters of conqueror of Gaul and many a senator’s wife’s bedchamber Julius Caesar and the celebrated general Pompey the Great, owner of the finest quiff in antiquity.
Pompey’s forces were eventually defeated and Pompey sought refuge at Alexandria. After all he’d helped Ptolemy XII keep his throne. Surely his kids would repay the favour? Nope. Ptolemy’s advisers decided to murder Pompey and get on Caesar’s good side. It backfired and Caesar wept upon being presented the great general’s head on a platter.
With Caesar in Alexandria Cleopatra had to find a way to get to him, past her brother’s forces and palace fortifications. Legend and lascivious fantasy have Cleopatra hidden in a carpet and then unrolled at Caesar’s feet to reveal the queen in all manner of titillating attire. More sober accounts have her fully clothed in a plain tunic and then bundled into a hemp or leather sack and smuggled past the guards that way.
There’s no time to muse on Caesar’s motivation at this point but after an evening with Cleopatra the new ruler of Rome decided to sort out Egypt’s mess. Not everyone was happy with Caesar’s decisions and more fighting broke out. Caesar and Cleopatra’s forces prevailed. Ptolemy XIII drowned and Cleopatra’s similarly ambitious sister was captured. Instead of annexing Egypt at this point he put Cleopatra on the throne but made sure to stick to tradition and had her marry her other brother Ptolemy XIV.
Cleopatra and Caesar went cruising down the Nile for a month before the general returned to Roman business. With Caesar gone the queen put her house in order and Ptolemy XIV mysteriously perished leaving Cleopatra as sole ruler of Egypt. She then gave birth to Caesar’s son and went to Rome with the one-year-old boy to see her sister paraded in chains. Her visit coincided with the dreaded Ides of March and she fled Rome after Caesar’s assassination.
The two main players in Rome were now Mark Anthony and Octavia, Caesar’s designated heir. Anthony summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus where she appeared with a full fleet and in spectacular costume. Many days of feasting followed and the two hit it off, eventually giving Cleopatra more half-Roman children. Their relationship increased rivalry with Octavian who saw Cleopatra’s son as competition for title of Caesar’s heir. The boy had been declared king of Egypt by Cleopatra and was seen as a threat to the seat of power in Rome but the world seemed to hold no limits for the ambitious queen.
Soon the forces of Anthony and Cleopatra were going up against those of Octavian. The gains they had made were lost and the pair retreated to Alexandria. Octavian and his army caught up with them. Anthony fell on his sword but missed his heart and slowly died in Cleopatra’s arms. Octavian arrived and had Cleopatra arrested. She had no desire to be paraded through the street like her sister as part of Octavian’s triumph and so she made the ultimate escape. Popular myth has her bitten by an asp or a cobra. It’s more likely that she took poison herself rather than rely on an animal. She was however dressed in magnificent garb and exited the world with the dignity of an ancient queen. In death she asserted the independence that so troubled the men holding power around her.
Cleopatra achieved greatness in a brutal world dominated by men and has enjoyed a bumpy reputation. Even those had to admit that the last queen of Egypt was quite extraordinary.
Sources: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff (2010), Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003), The World’s Wickedest Women: Intriguing Studies of Eve and Evil Through the Ages by Andrew Ewart (1964)