Cleopatra is one of those characters that evoke and tickle our curiosity, be her mytical beauty, her alleged craftiness and lust, or her legendary suicide alongside her lover, Mark Antony. Truth is, for a long time nearly all our knowledge of Cleopatra has been drawn from Roman sources, mostly very hostile to her memory, which we’ve taken at face value, without second thought or analysis. Who was the real Cleopatra? How did she look? What did she fight for? How did she die? All these answers and more, I’ll try to answer below.
1# The heir of Alexander the Great
Cleopatra was born in 69 BC, in Alexandria, Egypt. A memeber of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Greek lineage originated with Ptolemy, one of the closest generals of Alexander the Great, and who took control of Egypt after Alexander’s death (although they didn’t share parentage with Alexander, or with any previous Egyptian rulers for that matter). As a result, the Ptolemies and Alexandria were Greek in almost all conceivable aspects, spoke only Greek, and regarded themselves as the heirs of Alexander. In fact, Cleopatra is a Greek name meaning “glory of the father”. Although from very early, she proved to be made from a very different mould, becoming the only ruler of the nearly 300-year-old dynasty who could speak the native Egyptian language. In addition to, she also spoke Aramaic, Ethiophian, Median, Parthian and Latin, amongst others.
Her father was the ruling king or pharaoh, Ptolemy XII Auletes. The identity of her mother remains obscure, but she most likely Cleopatra VI Tryphaena. Her birth came in the middle of the decline of the proud Ptolemaic dynasty, family strife and interine wars had weakened them to the point that the Roman Republic intervened in their policies, and had even seriously debated annexation. Egypt was potentially the only Mediterranean state who could produce more grain that they consumed, hence their shipments were critical for the survival of Rome. That’s is why when Auletes was exiled when she was eleven, he was reinstated to the throne with the help of a Roman army. It was then that she possibly met the young Mark Antony, who served as a cavalry officer and whose destiny would one day become entangled with hers.
2# Queen of Egypt
When she was eighteen, her father died, bequeathing Egypt to her and her eleven or twelve-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. It was a tradition for Ptolemaic siblings to marry and rule together, and so it was done. But Ptolemies siblings had no lost love for her each other, and their lineage was stained with the blood of murdered kin. Soon Cleopatra and Ptolemy were at each other throats, and she was forced to flee from her brother’s supporters to Syria. At the same time, a civil war threatened to fracture the Roman Republic, between Pompey and Julius Caesar. Having historically supported Pompey, it was a devastating blow for the Ptolemies to see Caesar win the Battle of Pharsalus, which forced Pompey to flee to Egypt. Ptolemy’s XIII advisors then decided a change of sides was in order, and cut Pompey’s head to deliver it to Caesar.
Caesar was enraged to see such ignonimous end befell to a great Roman general, albeit his mortal enemy, and immediately ordered Ptolemy and Cleopatra to make peace. This was easier said than done. Pothinus and Achillas, Ptolemy’s closest advisors and the ones pulling the strings, secretely gathered the opposition to get rid of the pesky Romans and Cleopatra in one go. They feared, perhaps rightly so, that Caesar would ultimately support her. Although her physical appearance was never described as incomparable, the allure of her strong personality and charming manner certainly spoke by themselves as she managed to attract several of the most powerful men of the day; and oppose the rest. But the popular idea of the indomitable fifty-two-year-old Caesar totally enslaved by the beauty and spells of a young twenty-one-year-old girl, only came later from the pen of her numerous Roman detractors.
Initially Caesar intended to leave both siblings on the throne, as Auletes’ will dictated, but when he got wind of a plot by Pothinus to murder him, he must have realised it wouldn’t be that simple. He had Pothinus executed, which led to Achillas and Arsione (Cleopatra’s younger sister), rousing Alexandria’s populace against the Romans and Cleopatra, who was deeply loved by all Egyptians, but despised by the Alexandrians. With only 4.000 men at his disposal, Caesar and Cleopatra were besieged in the palace, together with Ptolemy XIII, who had now become their hostage. The story of Julius Caesar might have ended there, and the world would have become a very different place, if not by the infighting between the Alexandrian rebels. Arsinoe murdered Achillas, and Caesar liberated Ptolemy (possibly to trigger a struggle for power between him and Arsinoe). Caesar and Cleopatra emerged victorious in the Battle of the Nile, where they finally crushed the rebels, and where Ptolemy possibly died. Cleopatra was now the unopposed ruler of Egypt.
3# The son of Cleopatra and Caesar
Although the war in Egypt had ended, Caesar dallied in Alexandria. This led to speculation and dangerous accusations in Rome, that he had fought that unnecessary war out of blind passion for Cleopatra. But the truth is much simpler, Arsinoe and Ptolemy XIII couldn’t be fully counted on staying obedient to Rome, while Cleopatra could. Nonetheless, Caesar married her off to another of her younger brothers, Ptolemy XIV, and put him in the throne with her to quiet the gossips. But although greatly exaggerated, the rumours had a pinch of truth in it. Caesar and Cleopatra had an affair, of which a son was produced in 47 BC. Ptolemy XV Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion.
Cleopatra made no attempt to hide his parentage (as the name clearly suggests) and even followed Caesar back to Rome shortly after, with lots of baggage, her son, and her cuckolded, powerless, brother-husband. Again, her reasons for the trip were carelessly attributed to blinding love but most likely were politics. Caesarion gave her a political edge, both at home and in Rome, where she intended to secure new allies, as well, strengthen her critical alliance with Caesar through their son. Her time there might not have been an easy one, despite the Romans tolerating the extramarital adventures of powerful men, they were distrustful of women, specially ruling women. And an extremely rich queen to compound matters. Rome despised monarchies and its signature quality: unabated luxury. They regarded it as a characteristic of mindless barbarians. In short, she wasn’t precisely cheered by the Roman crowds.
Most certainly not by Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, who had to play the host for her husband’s lover. Whatever her motives for a long stay in dour Rome (the city was yet to acquire its later imperial splendor of marble, and was a provincial hole compared to the cultural Alexandria), with Caesar’s friendship secured―he was named dictator for life in 44 BC―it must had seemed to her that the future of Egypt looked bright. Destiny had not said the last word yet.
4# The Ides of March
On 15th March 44 BC, Caesar was stabbed to death by fellow senators on a meeting, the incident known to us as the Ides of March. The conspirators led by Brutus and Longinus intended to restore the republic, but the consequences of their act eventually backfired. Caesar was very popular with the people, who stirred by Caesar’s right hand, Mark Antony, caused riots. Caesar’s assassination meant Cleopatra had lost her champion, but that wasn’t all. On reading Caesar’s will, Cleopatra and Mark Antony discovered he had bequeathed them nothing. Instead, he had named his nephew, Octavian, as heir. More important, he gave him his name. Henceforth the eighteen-year-old would adopt the name Gaius Julius Caesar. In him Cleopatra would have a relentless enemy, for Octavian wouldn’t allow Caesarion to usurp his name.
Cleopatra fled back to Alexandria, to wait for the events to unfold, and although she was back at home, where her subjects revered her as a living goddess, the future looked bleak with the threat of a potential Roman invasion. Furthermore, the Nile had failed to rise in 43 BC, causing the crops to fail, and symptoms of plague had been detected in her kingdom. She must have felt the need to strengthen her position, having her brother-husband Ptolemy XIV murdered, and installing Caesarion as her co-ruler and pharaoh. And she was wise to do so, for the early stages of the war post-Caesar were a turmoil, with several factions, including the assassins, Octavian, Antony, Marcus Lepidus, and Sextus Pompey (the son of Caesar’s late rival), amongst others, fighting and vying for control. All requested troops and lends from Egypt, and Cleopatra manoeuvred as best she could in these stormy waters. Backing the loosing side meant a swift retribution of the victor upon Egypt. Eventually Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate to rule the republic, crushing Caesar’s butchers and stabilising the situation for the time being.
5# Mark Antony
It was Mark Antony who send her a summon, to meet him in Tarsus (modern-day Turkey). Antony might or might not have originally intended to depose her, but either way, the message was meant to frighten her for failing to aid the victors, or to send her to the feet of her Roman masters. Cleopatra would have none. She delayed her trip to Tarsus, and when she finally travelled there, she didn’t appear as a supplicant begging for forgiveness. She travelled in splendor as it was her wont, dressed as Venus, goddess of love, and instead of going to Antony’s quarters, she invited him over to dinner in hers. Because her display, her pride or beauty impressed him so much, or because Antony needed Cleopatra’s wealth to finance his intended invasion of Parthia, she went to sleep that night knowing her immediate future was once again safe from greedy Roman fingers.
Her sexual relationship with Antony might have started then, although again, it’s wise to the official line of writers like Plutarch or Appian with a pinch of salt, when they claimed Cleopatra was a bold seductress, full of guile and making the innocent Mark Antony dance to the pipe of her flute. Antony was no fool, he desperately needed her funds, and she desperately needed a powerful friend in Rome. As a sign of good gesture, Antony ordered her sister, Arsinoe (exiled in the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus) killed, and in November 41 BC, when he visited her in Egypt, he took a page of Caesar’s book and gave her an even more important gift. After he returned to Rome to avert an imminent bloodshed with Octavian, she delivered Antony’s twins, whom she named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene.
The inevitable clash between Octavius and Antony was averted only after Octavius married his sister Octavia to Antony. Nonetheless, Antony met Cleopatra again in 37 BC in Antioch, where he met his children by Cleopatra for the first time. To honour the occasion, he bestowed several territories to her, including: Cyprus, Cyrene, parts of Cilicia and Syria, portions of Crete and part of the Phoenician coast. As a result, Cleopatra found herself ruling nearly the entire eastern Mediterranean coast.
Obviously, these gifts were more like a payment, for Cleopatra was expected to finance the upcoming Parthian invasion, specially as Antony knew Octavian wouldn’t deliver the promised help. This generosity with Cleopatra would be later exploited by Octavian with devastating effect. Meanwhile, she accompanied Antony and his legions to the Euphrates River, where the Parthian invasion begun in 36 BC. She returned to Alexandria, where some time later she received news of the fiasco of the invasion. Betrayed by the client kingdom of Armenia and having failed to engage the Parthians in a decisive battle, Antony regrouped in Athens, where Cleopatra awaited him with their third son: Ptolemy Philadelphus.
It was then that Octavius sent Antony two thousand men escorting his sister, to rekindle the ashes of their marriage, and to contribute to Antony’s renewal of a campaign against Parthia and Armenia. Since he had actually promised eighteen thousand, it can only be assumed that Octavian meant to insult Antony, to provoke him into a fight. For while Antony’s Parthian campaign had been a disaster, Octavian had strenghtened his power base after subduing Pompey and Lepidus. Only Antony stood on the way of his attaining sole rule. He was ready for war. The only thing he needed was a pretext, and Cleopatra gave him one when she convinced Antony to refuse to see Octavia, thanks to her accomplished show of tears and implicit threat of suicide.
7# The Donations of Alexandria
The seeds of war were planted, and so while Octavian waited for them to grow, Antony paid a visit to Armenia to make them pay for their treachery two years earlier. He turned it into a new Roman province and engaged Alexander Helios to the daughter of the Armenian king, to provide his son with a future fiefdom. Instead of going back to Rome for the traditional parade, he opted instead to throw it into Alexandria, where together with Cleopatra, oversaw a victory parade Roman-style, and also minted coins for the occasion, depicting both Antony’s and Cleopatra’s faces.
Simoultaneously, Antony and Cleopatra carved kingdoms for their children out of the newly conquered territories, but also from Roman provinces and its eastern client kingdoms. The event is known as the Donations of Alexandria. The icing on the cake came when Cleopatra named herself Queen of Kings, and Caesarion King of Kings, the true heir of Caesar. It’s hard to tell what must have stung more in Rome, to have its territory given away to foreigners, to be stolen the glory of a military triumph, or to watch for the first time a foreign ruler (and a woman at that) engraved on their coins. Certainly, to Octavian, the fact that another was declared Caesar’s heir (when Caesar’s will had explicitly declared him as the sole heir) must have been the last streaw. And a threat impossible to ignore or forgive.
8# Enemy of Rome
Octavian made his first move towards all-out war in 32 BC, when a senator dared speaking in favour of Antony. Octavian brought armed men to the Senate, and those who didn’t hurry up to his side had to lift their togas off their knees and run to Antony in the East. Antony responded by divorcing Octavia, and the former colleagues engaged in a war of propaganda, in which Octavian held the upper hand thanks to, ironically, Cleopatra. The Donations had compounded the Roman vision of Cleopatra so much, that now even Antony’s supporters saw her as a liability that threatened his credibility. Octavian, who was a master propagandist, depicted the conflict as one of Roman, manly, republican, and sober values, versus the decadent, eastern, queen; an insatiable, lustful and bewitching woman.
Thus, Octavian had no trouble in turning the rest of the Senate against Cleopatra, until they declared war on her. It was a master stroke of Octavian, for it presented Antony with a simple but inescapable choice: will you join your mother Rome, or will you fight against her for the sake of a foreigner? As Octavian had expected, Antony refused to handle Cleopatra, giving the Senate a legal pretext to declare Antony an outlaw and traitor (according to Roman law a citizen surrendered his citizenship if he attached himself to another state). The last civil war of the Roman Republic begun in 32 BC, and just like Helen in the Trojan War, Cleopatra was blamed for it. Both sides begun massing legions, close to 400.000 men between both of them, and a thousand warships. Just like in Caesar’s Civil War against Pompey, Greece was earmarked again for the final showdown; specifically the entrance of the Ambraciot Gulf, near the town of Actium, where Octavian’s fleet under the command of the brilliant Marcus Agrippa, blockaded Antony’s.
There can be no doubt that Octavian was a clever political beast, but at times Cleopatra seemed to have served him weapons to use against her in a silver platter. Her presence in Antony’s camp was seen as an affront (no women were allowed to command armies, or fight in Ancient Rome), and her authority was understood as arrogance by the Roman soldiers, who weren’t accostumed to take orders from a woman. Several outstanding characters in Antony’s side, most notably Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, his most distinguished supporter, pressed for Antony to sent her back to Egypt. When Antony refused, Ahenobarbus and others deserted.
But did she had a choice? Octavian had declared war on her, not Antony, while their fleet was subsided almost entirely by her treasury. By all rights she could be present and have a voice in the military councils, but nonetheless, her presence was irremediably eroding moral. A moral that was already shaken by the blockade; Octavian and Agrippa had wisely decided on waiting, while Antony ran short on supplies but high on mosquitoes and disease.
9# Battle of Actium
Finally, on 2nd September 31 BC, Antony made his mind afer calling his war council. His Roman legionaries insisted on a land engagement, but Cleopatra’s insistence on a naval battle eventually prevailed. There were pros and cons to said of both strategies, Antony’s lack of naval experience vs a more cohesive land force in Octavian’s side, amongst many others. Be as it may, the Battle of Actium begun when Antony’s fleet sailed to engage the foe. What happened next is still a matter of debate. Cleopatra’s squadron in reserve, dashed amidst the thick of battle and made out to open sea, carrying the queen, her valuable treasure, and overall, a third of Antony’s ships. His own flagship followed her, leaving the rest of his forces stuck in Actium. What’s the truth of it? Was Cleopatra’s flight prearranged, or an independent act of hers? Or was the rest of Antony’s force meant to follow, but instead of trailing after the despised foreign queen, they decided to stay and fight? Or perhaps Cleopatra misjudged and made a premature exit when she wrongly thought the battle was being lost?
Whatever truly transpired, the famous couple set course to Egypt, while Octavian wrapped up the fight in Actium, and convinced or bribed Antony’s legions to join him. Antony was said to had refused to speak to Cleopatra for several days. Not only the war was lost, but he, a proud Roman general, had abandoned his loyal men who had fought for years under him.
10# Suicide and burial
While he wilted and became a former shadow of the energetic general, Cleopatra redoubled her efforts to come up with ideas to save the day. Some too far-fetched, but what else can be expected of one who is trapped between the sword and the wall? Her treasury was intact and she considered moving far from the clutches of Rome, India perhaps. The enterprise prematurely failed when she tried to move her fleet into the Eastern coast of the Red Sea, but the neighbouring Nabateans and Herod King of Judea (another Roman client state) had no lost sympathies for Cleopatra, resenting her interference on their domains in the past. The Nabateans scorched her fleet, leaving her no choice but to remain in Egypt.
On July 30 BC Octavian’s forces put Alexandria under siege, and within the month the remaining and depleted forces of Antony and Cleopatra would finally desert to Octavian. At this juncture, Cleopatra played Antony, making him believe she had commited suicide in her half-built mausoleum. Despaired, Antony fell on his sword (the chosen suicide method for Roman warriors) but didn’t die immediately. Antony could no longer offer her anything, but she hoped Octavian might be persuaded to allow her children to rule Egypt after her abdication. Octavian had given her no guarantees to her overtures, but had simply demanded she betray Antony. She did in the end, but feeling guilty or perhaps having grown genuine feelings to Antony, she had her dying lover brought to her in the mausoleum, where he expired in her arms.
Octavian’s men intervened in the nick of time to prevent her to follow him to death. But not for long. She had no intention to be paraded and mocked in the streets of Rome, like her sister Arsinoe had been by Julius Caesar. Slipping Octavian’s guards, she commited suicide on 10th August 30 BC, most probably by ingesting poison, and not by the bite of a snake as it has been popularly believed. Octavian was livid with anger. But if he was the perfect politician, his acting skills were on pair. Arsinoe’s presence in Caesar’s parade in 46 BC had drove the people of Rome to sadness and disgust; might be that Octavian had feared a similar outcome with Cleopatra? Certainly, it’s strange that she managed to slip past the tight vigilance so easily. Why risk to parade Cleopatra when a plaster effigy of her would do the trick? (She was depicted with an asp, a poisonous snake, hence the wrong belief that she commited suicide with the bite of a snake). Octavian allowed her an Antony decent burials, although their joint tomb has been lost to the ages, just like Alexander’s.
11# Legacy and heir: Cleopatra Selene
Cleopatra’s death marked the end of the last civil war in republican Rome. Egypt was annexed, and Octavian’s victory earned him the title of Augustus (majestic, venerable), with which he is known to our days, the first Roman Emperor. He would commemorate the fall of Alexandria with the creation of a new month on the calendar, August (named after his title), the 1st of August being the day Alexandria fell to his troops. Caesarion would be murdered under his orders, but Cleopatra’s other children were spared and brought up in Rome. It would be her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, who continued the Hellenistic legacy of the Ptolemies. Augustus married her off to Juba II, king of Mauretania (another Roman client kingdom), and their son would succeed them as Ptolemy of Mauretania, with whom the line finally ended.
Her influence would be felt in Rome too. Never before Cleopatra had women wielded power in Rome, but henceforth several of them became nearly as powerful as the emperors, amongst them Livia (Octavian’s wife), Octavia, and Agrippina the Elder and Agrippina the Younger. The plunder from Egypt was such that it also transformed both the Roman spirit and the looks of the city, hence Augustus’ claim that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. Specially his own mausoleum, modelled after Cleopatra’s. Indeed, Rome took over Alexandria as the most influential and cosmopolitan city of the Mediterranean. Moreover, Cleopatra’s immense treasure sparkled a taste for luxury items, which before had been seen as dissolute and debased, if out of the context of a victory parade.
Age hasn’t been kind with Cleopatra, Augustus and the Roman writers made sure of that. Posterior interpretations like Shakespeare’s play or Hollywood had continued with the myth, a seductress who led Antony to his doom. But as we’ve seen, Cleopatra cared first and foremost about the revival of Ptolemaic and Egyptian glory, the continuation of her line on the throne, and staving off the increasing pressure of Rome, the superpower of the time; or at least secure their friendship. Hence her relationships with Caesar and Antony. Hers is a story of defeat and tragedy, but also of bravery and struggle against the odds in a world increasingly dominated by the exclusively manly politics of Rome. But like Boudica, Arminius, or others who opposed the might of Rome, her defeat made her the stuff of legends.