Cleopatra – or Cleopatra VII Philopator, to give her full title – was the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt.

She was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greek origin that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death during the Hellenistic period.

Throughout their dynasty, the Ptolemies spoke Greek, and refused to speak Egyptian – which is the reason that Greek as well as Egyptian languages were used on official court documents of the time.

Cleopatra did learn to speak Egyptian, and represented herself as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess, Isis.

A Legendary Beauty

Cleopatra was regarded as a great beauty – even in the ancient world. Whether this was true in the “conventional” sense, is open to debate.

In his “Life of Antony”, Plutarch remarks “her beauty, as we are told, was in itself neither altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” Rather, what ultimately made Cleopatra attractive were her wit, charm and “sweetness in the tones of her voice.”

Cassius Dio also spoke of Cleopatra’s allure: “For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone. Being brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate everyone, even a love-sated man already past his prime, she thought that it would be in keeping with her role to meet Caesar, and she reposed in her beauty all her claims to the throne.”

Her legacy survives in numerous works of art and many dramatizations of her story in literature and other media, including William Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, Jules Massenet’s opera Cléopâtre and the 1963 film Cleopatra (which starred Elizabeth Taylor).

In most of these, Cleopatra is portrayed as a great beauty, and her successive conquests of the world’s most powerful men are taken as proof of her aesthetic and sexual appeal.

A Colorful Life

The identity of Cleopatra’s mother is unknown, but she is generally believed to be Cleopatra V Tryphaena of Egypt, the sister or cousin (and wife) of Ptolemy XII – or possibly another Ptolemaic family member who was the daughter of Ptolemy X and Cleopatra Berenice III Philopator.

Cleopatra’s father Auletes was a direct descendant of Alexander the Great’s general, Ptolemy I Soter, son of Arsinoe and Lagus, both of Macedon.

Ptolemy XII’s reign was one of the worst of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Centralization of power and corruption led to uprisings in, and the losses of, Cyprus and Cyrenaica.

When Ptolemy went to Rome with the young Cleopatra, her mother Cleopatra V Tryphaena seized the crown – but died shortly afterwards in suspicious circumstances.

It is believed (though not proven by historical sources) that Berenice IV poisoned her, so she could assume sole rulership.

Berenice ruled until Ptolemy Auletes returned in 55 BC, with Roman support, capturing Alexandria, aided by the Roman general Aulus Gabinius.

Berenice was imprisoned and executed shortly afterwards, her head allegedly being sent to the royal court on the decree of her father, the king.

Cleopatra was, at age 14, put as joint regent and deputy of her father – though her power was likely to have been severely limited.

An Eventful Reign

Cleopatra originally ruled jointly with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, and later with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, whom she married as per Egyptian custom.

Ptolemy XII died in March 51 BC, making the 18-year-old Cleopatra and her brother (the 10-year-old Ptolemy XIII) joint monarchs. The first three years of their reign were difficult, due to economic difficulties, famine, deficient floods of the Nile, and political conflicts.

Although Cleopatra was married to her younger brother, she quickly made it clear that she had no intention of sharing power with him.

In August 51 BC, relations between Cleopatra and Ptolemy completely broke down. Cleopatra dropped Ptolemy’s name from official documents, and her face appeared alone on coins – which went against the Ptolemaic tradition of female rulers being subordinate to male co-rulers.

In 50 BC Cleopatra came into a serious conflict with the Gabiniani, powerful Roman troops of Aulus Gabinius, who had left them in Egypt to protect Ptolemy XII after his restoration to the throne in 55 BC.

The Gabiniani had killed the sons of the Roman governor of Syria, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, when they came to ask for the assistance of the Gabiniani for their father against the Parthians. Cleopatra handed the murderers over in chains to Bibulus – whereupon the Gabiniani turned into bitter enemies of the queen. This conflict was one of the main reasons for Cleopatra’s fall from power shortly afterward.

The sole reign of Cleopatra was finally ended by a cabal of courtiers, led by the eunuch Pothinus, in connection with a half-Greek general, Achillas, and Theodotus of Chios.

Circa 48 BC, Cleopatra’s younger brother Ptolemy XIII became sole ruler.

Cleopatra tried to raise a rebellion, but was soon forced to flee with her only remaining sister, Arsinoë.

A Complex Web

While Cleopatra was in exile, the general Pompey became embroiled in the Roman civil war.

After his defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus, in the autumn of 48 BC, Pompey fled from the forces of Caesar to Alexandria, seeking sanctuary.

Ptolemy – only thirteen years old at that time – had set up a throne for himself on the harbor. From here, he watched as, on September 28, 48 BC, Pompey was murdered by one of his former officers, now in Ptolemaic service.

Pompey was beheaded in front of his wife and children – who were on the ship from which he had just disembarked. Ptolemy is thought to have ordered the death to ingratiate himself with Julius Caesar, thus becoming an ally of Rome, to which Egypt was in debt at the time.

However, when Caesar arrived in Egypt two days later, and Ptolemy presented him with Pompey’s severed head, Caesar was enraged.
Although he was Caesar’s political enemy, Pompey was a Roman consul and the widower of Caesar’s only legitimate daughter, Julia (who died in childbirth with Pompey’s son).

Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

A Political Seduction

Eager to take advantage of Julius Caesar’s anger toward Ptolemy, Cleopatra had herself smuggled secretly into the palace to meet with him.

Plutarch in his “Life of Julius Caesar” gives a vivid description of how she entered past Ptolemy’s guards rolled up in a carpet that Apollodorus the Sicilian was carrying.

Cleopatra became Caesar’s mistress, and in 47 BC – nine months after their first meeting – Cleopatra gave birth to their son, Ptolemy Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion, which means “little Caesar.”

At this point, Caesar abandoned his plans to annex Egypt, choosing to back Cleopatra’s claim to the throne.

After Mithridates raised the siege of Alexandria, Caesar defeated Ptolemy’s army at the Battle of the Nile; Ptolemy XIII drowned there.

Caesar restored Cleopatra to her throne, with another younger brother (Ptolemy XIV) as her new co-ruler.

Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIV, and Caesarion visited Rome in the summer of 46 BC. The Egyptian queen resided in one of Caesar’s country houses.

The relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar was obvious to the Roman people – and was a scandal because the Roman dictator was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis.

But Caesar erected a golden statue of Cleopatra represented as Isis in the temple of Venus Genetrix (the mythical female ancestor of Caesar’s family), which was situated at the Forum Julium.

Cleopatra and her entourage were in Rome when Caesar was assassinated on 15 March 44 BC.

A Historic Romance

After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra allied herself with Mark Antony in opposition to Caesar’s legal heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus).

To safeguard herself and Caesarion, she had Antony order the death of her sister Arsinoe, who was living at the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, which was under Roman control. The execution was carried out in 41 BC on the steps of the temple, and this violation of temple sanctuary scandalized Rome.

With Antony, Cleopatra bore the twins Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios, and another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus (Her unions with her brothers had produced no children).

Relations between Antony and Octavian – disintegrating for several years – finally broke down in 33 BC.
Octavian convinced the Senate to levy war against Egypt.

In 31 BC, Antony’s forces faced the Romans in a naval action off the coast of Actium. Cleopatra was present with a fleet of her own.

According to Plutarch, Cleopatra took flight with her ships at the height of the battle, and Antony followed her.

Following the Battle of Actium, Octavian invaded Egypt. As he approached Alexandria, Antony’s armies deserted to Octavian on August 1, 30 BC.

After losing the Battle of Actium, Antony committed suicide.

Plutarch tells us of the death of Antony.

When his armies deserted him and joined with Octavian, he cried out that Cleopatra had betrayed him. She, fearing his wrath, locked herself in her monument with only her two handmaidens, and sent messengers to tell Antony that she was dead. Believing them, Antony stabbed himself in the stomach with his sword, and lay on his couch to die.

Instead, the blood flow stopped, and he begged any and all to finish him off.

A messenger came from Cleopatra with instructions to bring him to her, and he (rejoicing that Cleopatra was still alive) consented.

Cleopatra would not open the door, but instead tossed ropes out of a window. After Antony was securely trussed up, she and her handmaidens hauled him up into the monument.

After dragging Antony in through the window, they laid him on a couch. Cleopatra tore off her clothes and covered him with them. She raved and cried, beat her breasts and engaged in self-mutilation. Antony told her to calm down, asked for a glass of wine, and died upon finishing it.

An Ambiguous Death

Ancient sources (particularly the Roman ones) are in general agreement that Cleopatra killed herself by inducing an Egyptian cobra to bite her.

The oldest source is Strabo, who was alive at the time of the event, and might even have been in Alexandria. He says that there are two stories: that she applied a toxic ointment, or that she was bitten by an asp on her breast.

Several Roman poets, writing within ten years of the event, all mention bites by two asps, as does Florus, a historian, some 150 years later. Velleius, sixty years after the event, also refers to an asp.

Plutarch – writing about 130 years after the event – reports that Octavian succeeded in capturing Cleopatra in her mausoleum after the death of Antony. He ordered his freedman Epaphroditus to guard her (to prevent her from committing suicide), because he allegedly wanted to present her in his triumph.

But Cleopatra was able to deceive Epaphroditus and kill herself, nonetheless.

Plutarch states that she was found dead, her handmaiden Iras dying at her feet, and another handmaiden, Charmion, adjusting her crown before she herself fell. He then goes on to state that an asp was concealed in a basket of figs that was brought to her by a rustic, and – finding it after eating a few figs – she held out her arm for it to bite.

Other stories state that it was hidden in a vase, and that she poked it with a spindle until it got angry enough to bite her on the arm.

Suetonius, writing about the same time as Plutarch, also says Cleopatra died from an asp bite.

Other authors have questioned these historical accounts, however, stating that it is possible that Augustus had her killed.

In 2010, the German historian Christoph Schaefer challenged all other theories, declaring that the queen had actually been poisoned, and died from drinking a mixture of poisons.

After studying historical texts and consulting with toxicologists, the historian concluded that the asp could not have caused a slow and pain-free death, since asp (Egyptian cobra) venom paralyses parts of the body, starting with the eyes, before causing death.

Schaefer and his toxicologist Dietrich Mebs decided Cleopatra used a mixture of hemlock, wolfsbane and opium.

Cleopatra’s burial place remains a mystery.

The site of the mausoleum is uncertain, though the Egyptian Antiquities Service believes it is in or near the temple of Taposiris Magna, southwest of Alexandria.

A Fading Royal Line

Cleopatra’s son by Caesar (Caesarion) was proclaimed pharaoh by the Egyptians, after Alexandria fell to Octavian.

Caesarion was captured and killed – his fate reportedly sealed when one of Octavian’s advisers paraphrased Homer: “It is bad to have too many Caesars.”

This ended not just the Hellenistic line of Egyptian pharaohs, but the line of all Egyptian pharaohs.

The three children of Cleopatra and Antony were spared and taken back to Rome where they were taken care of by Antony’s wife, Octavia Minor. The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, was married through arrangements of Octavian to Juba II of Mauretania.

It’s the end of the line for this one, too.

Hope to see you again.