Feature – Cleopatra

Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, is one of the great romantic heroines of history. The daughter of Ptolemy XII, she was married to her younger brother, as was the custom. With Julius Caesar, she revolted against her husband, and won the kingdom. After her husband died, she married another brother, but she was the mistress of Caesar, and in Rome she bore a son, said to be his. Returning to Egypt after the murder of Caesar, she was visited by Marc Anthony, who fell in love with her. They were married in 36 B.C. She seems to have hoped to use him to re-establish her throne’s power; but the Romans were hostile, and Octavian (later Augustus) defeated Antony and Cleopatra off Actium in 31 B.C. Failing to defend themselves in Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves.

When Cleopatra VII ascended the Egyptian throne, she was only seventeen. She reigned as Queen and Pharaoh between 51 and 30 BC, and died at the age of 39.

What were the keys to her rise and fall? The demise of the Ptolemy dynasty’s power coincided with the rise of the Roman Empire. Having little choice, and seeing one city after another fall into Rome’s grip, the Ptolemies allied themselves with the Romans, a pact that lasted for two centuries. During the rule of the later Ptolemies, Rome gained more and more power over Egypt, and was declared guardian of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII had to pay tribute to the Romans to keep them away from his Kingdom. Upon his death in 51BC, the fall of the Dynasty seemed even closer.

Cleopatra, then about 17 years old, and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, a child of about 12 years, succeeded jointly to the throne of Egypt with the provision that they should marry. In the third year of their reign Ptolemy XIII, encouraged by his advisers, assumed sole control of the government and drove Cleopatra into exile. She promptly gathered an army in Syria but was unable to assert her claim until in 48BC, in the middle of this turmoil, Julius Caesar visited Alexandria.


During his stay in the Palace, he received the most famous gift in history: an oriental carpet… with a 22 year old Cleopatra wrapped inside. She counted on Caesar’s support to alienate Ptolemy XIII. With the arrival of Roman reinforcements, and after a few battles in Alexandria, Ptolemy XIII was defeated and killed. Caesar proclaimed Cleopatra queen of Egypt.

Cleopatra was then forced by custom to marry her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, who was then about 11 years old.

In the summer of 47 BC, Cleopatra and Caesar embarked for a two month trip along the Nile, aboard a legendary boat. Together, they visited Dendara, where Cleopatra was being worshipped as Pharaoh, an honor beyond Caesar’s reach. They became lovers, and she bore him a son, Caesarion. In 45 BC, Cleopatra and Caesarion left Alexandria for Rome, where they stayed in a palace built by Caesar in their honor.

After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Cleopatra is said to have poisoned Ptolemy XIV. She then returned to Egypt and made Caesarion her coregent. Cleopatra had hesitated to take sides in the civil war following Caesar’s death, so Mark Antony summoned her to meet him to explain her conduct. He fell in love with her and returned with her to Egypt.

Mark Antony’s alliance with Cleopatra angered Rome. The senators called her a sorceress, and accused her of all sorts of evil. The Romans became even more furious as Antony was giving away parts of their Empire – Tarsus, Cyrene, Crete, Cyprus, and Palestine – one after the other to Cleopatra and her children.

After living with her for some time, Antony was compelled to return to Rome, where he married Octavia, a sister of Caesar’s heir Octavian, later Roman emperor as Augustus. After Antony’s departure Cleopatra bore him twins. In 36 BC Antony went to the East as commander of an expedition against the Parthians. He sent for Cleopatra, who joined him at Antioch. They were married, and a third child was born.


In 34 BC, after a successful campaign against the Parthians, he celebrated his triumph at Alexandria. He continued to reside in Egypt. In 32 BC, Octavian declared war against Cleopatra and Antony, and Antony divorced Octavia.

It was the boiling point when Octavian declared war on Cleopatra, and off the coast of Greece in the Adriatic Sea they met in one of the most famous battles in history: Actium.

Cleopatra insisted on taking part in the campaign. At the naval engagement at Actium , believing Antony’s defeat to be inevitable, she withdrew her fleet from action, and she and Antony fled to Alexandria. On the approach of Octavian, Antony, deceived by a false report of the death of the queen, committed suicide.

Hearing that Octavian intended to exhibit her in his triumph at Rome, Cleopatra killed herself, probably by poison, or, according to an old tradition, by the bite of an asp. Caesarion, the last member of the Ptolemy dynasty, was put to death by Octavian.

With the death of Cleopatra, an entire era in Egyptian history was closed. Alexandria remained Egypt’s capital , but Egypt was now a province of Rome. Egyptian Monarchs gave way to Roman Emperors, and Cleopatra’s death gave way to the rise of Rome. The Ptolemies were of Macedonian descent, yet they ruled Egypt as Egyptians – as Pharaohs. Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh.