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

Ancient History | October 16, 2020

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.

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.)

The Banquet of Cleopatra by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, oil paint on canvas, 1744. (National Gallery of Victoria/Wikimedia Commons)

Cleopatra The Ruler

It's not clear what kind of ruler Cleopatra was, but Plutarch notes that she was fairly popular with the public because she went out of her way to endear herself to the Egyptian people. Like most of the rulers from Alexandria, Cleopatra was of Greek descent, but she made a point of speaking the Egyptian language and following Egyptian customs, unlike the rest of her family. She went so far as to commission a portrait of herself in the traditional Egyptian style which referred to her as "she who loves her country," which may make her the first politician to use patriotism to win over her people.

During her rule with Ptolemy XIV, it's believed that she had her brother offed by a group of her followers. She then brought in her son, the three-year-old Little Caesar (or Caesarion, if you like), to fill her dead brother's spot.

Cleopatra's Gate in Tarsos (now Tarsus, Mersin, Turkey), the site where she met Mark Antony in 41 B.C.E. (U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)

Cleopatra And Mark Antony

Following the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C.E., Cleopatra set her sights on Mark Antony, a general who played a key role in transforming Rome from a republic into the Roman Empire. After Cleopatra sent four Roman legions to support Antony's bid for the Roman government over Brutus and Cassius, he invited the canny Egyptian ruler to the Cicilian city of Tarsus to have a meeting of the minds.

Upon arrival in Tarsus, Cleopatra and Antony began a protracted romance that continued in Egypt when Antony left his third wife, Fulvia, and their three children before following the pharaoh back to her homeland. He spent the winter of 41–40 B.C.E. in Alexandria living it up—the couple even formed a drinking club called "The Inimitable Livers" during their time together. Following Antony's departure from Egypt to prove his allegiance to Fulvia's family, Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene.

Venus and Cupid from the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus at Pompeii, most likely a depiction of Cleopatra VII. (Unknown artist/Wikimedia Commons)

The Wrath Of Mrs. Antony

One thing that's clear about Cleopatra's time as a ruler it's that she turned Egypt into an incredibly prosperous nation. It's no surprise that, in 37 B.C.E, Antony returned to Egypt to ask for funds to pay for his war against Parthia in exchange for Cyprus, Crete, Libya, Jericho, and large portions of Syria and Lebanon. While raising money in Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra had another child, Ptolemy Philadelphos, in 36 B.C.E.

All the money in the world wouldn't help Anthony's war against Parthia. He was defeated easily, and instead of returning to Rome and his wife, Octavia, Antony went back to Egypt and the arms of Cleopatra. Accepting Antony back after years of "will they, won't they" proved to be Cleopatra's undoing. In 34 B.C.E., Antony declared Caesarion Caesar’s son and rightful heir while shunning his adopted children with Octavia, which was a huge mistake. Octavia began circulating propaganda that Cleopatra put Antony under her spell and enticed him to abandon Rome forever. Two years later, Antony was stripped of his titles, and Octavia went to war with Cleopatra.

The Death of Cleopatra by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, oil in canvas, 1796–1797. (Museum Kunstpalast/Wikimedia Commons)

Death Of A Pharaoh

Egyptian forces were no use for the Roman military, soundly defeated at the Battle of Actium when Cleopatra's ships just up and deserted the fight. In the heat of battle, rumors that Cleopatra had died of suicide began to swirl, and when Antony got wind of them, the former Roman leader fell on his sword without hesitation. He allegedly heard the truth moments before he died.

The events surrounding Cleopatra's actual death shortly thereafter are much more curious. We know that she (and allegedly, two of her female servants) probably ingested poison before she was found dead in 30 B.C.E., but in wilder versions of the tale, she closed herself up in her chamber with an asp, the symbol of divine royalty, and allowed it to bite her. Either way, after her death, Cleopatra was buried next to Antony to join the two of them together forever.

Tags: ancient egypt | julius caesar | royal family

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.