Cleopatra: Things You Didn't Know About The Last Ruler Of Egypt

By | October 14, 2020

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Most likely a posthumously painted portrait of Cleopatra with red hair and her distinct facial features, wearing a royal diadem and pearl-studded hairpins, from Roman Herculaneum, Italy, 1st century CE. (Ángel M. Felicísimo/Wikimedia Commons)

Even though she's one of the most well-known figures in history, the life of Cleopatra (or Cleopatra VII, to be more historically accurate) is really only known in broad strokes. She ruled Ancient Egypt from an early age, first alongside her father before taking the reigns with her two younger brothers and then finally, with her son. Known for her beauty and romantic liaisons with some of the most powerful men in the western world as much as her political acumen, Cleopatra spent three decades caring for Egypt in one way or another, but separating her real life from the mythology surrounding her is harder than you'd think.

Born To Be Queen

Without a contemporary history of the life of Cleopatra, there's no way to know the exact situation surrounding the early life of this young ruler. We have the Greco-Roman scholar Plutarch to thank for much of what we know about her, but even then, her life takes some work to piece together. Born around 69 B.C.E. to Ptolemy XII, it's most likely that her mother was Ptolemy's half-sister, Cleopatra V Tryphaena. Following the death of her father in 51 B.C.E, the throne shifted to the teenage Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII.

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Cleopatra Before Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1866. (Jean-Léon Gérôme/Wikimedia Commons)

Cleopatra And Caesar

Pretty much immediately after Cleopatra ascended to the throne, her brother's advisors pushed her out of Egypt, likely because they knew she could exert her will better than he could. She fled to Syria, where she spent the next year gathering a following of mercenaries and rogues. In 48 B.C.E., Cleopatra returned to Egypt to wage war at Pelusium, an area on the eastern edge of the country near the Nile Delta.

At the same time she was making play for the Egyptian throne, Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria, and everyone wanted a piece of the Roman ruler. Rather than let her brother endear himself to Caesar, Cleopatra made her way to Alexandria in disguise, supposedly wrapped in a carpet, and unveiled herself to Caesar, who became immediately smitten with the young beauty. He was instrumental in reinstating Cleopatra as Egypt's ruler, although she was joined on the throne by her 13-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIV. In short order, Cleopatra gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar, better known as "Little Caesar." (Not the pizza.)