Third daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes, Cleopatra VII Philopator (her full name) learned her political lessons by watching the humiliating efforts of her father to maintain himself on the throne of Egypt by buying the support of powerful Romans. When he died in 51 B.C., the ministers of Cleopatra's brother Ptolemy XIII feared her ambition to rule alone and drove her from Egypt in 48.
Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
Cleopatra made preparations to return by force, but when Caesar arrived in Alexandria after the Battle of Pharsalus, she saw the opportunity to use him. She had herself smuggled to him in a rug. Ptolemy XIII died fighting Caesar, who restored Cleopatra to the throne with another brother, Ptolemy XIV, as coregent.
Contrary to legend, Caesar did not dally in Egypt with Cleopatra. Although in 46 she gave birth to a son whom she named Ptolemy Caesarion, Caesar never formally recognized him. That same year Caesar invited her to Rome. Although he spent little time with her, her presence in Rome may have contributed to the resentment against him which led to his assassination.
In April 44 B.C. Cleopatra returned to Alexandria, where Ptolemy XIV had died under mysterious circumstances. She made Caesarion her partner on the throne and awaited the outcome of the political struggle in Rome. When, after the Battle of Philippi, Antony summoned her and other puppet rulers to Tarsus in Cilicia, she responded eagerly. Matching her preparations to the man whose weaknesses she knew, she dazzled Antony and bent him to her will. She easily cleared herself of a charge of helping Brutus and Cassius, and at her request Antony put to death three persons she considered a threat to her throne.
Cleopatra and Mark Antony
In the winter of 41/40 Antony followed Cleopatra to Alexandria, where he reveled in the pleasures of the Ptolemaic court and the company of the Queen. Cleopatra hoped to tie him emotionally to her, but Antony left Egypt in the spring of 40.
In the autumn of 37 Antony sent his wife, Octavia, back to Italy on the excuse that she was pregnant and went to Antioch to make final preparations for his invasion of Parthia. In Antioch he again sent for Cleopatra and went through a ritualistic marriage not recognized under Roman law. He also recognized the twins Cleopatra had with him and made extensive grants of territory to her, including Cyprus, Cyrene, and the coast of Lebanon, all of which had once been part of the Ptolemaic empire.
In 36 Cleopatra returned to Alexandria to await the birth of her third child by him. The failure of the Parthian campaign and Octavian's exploitation of Antony's misad-venture drove Antony further into the arms of Cleopatra, who gave him immense financial help in rebuilding his shattered army. When Antony defeated Artavasdes of Armenia in 34, he celebrated his triumph not in Rome but in Alexandria. On the following day he declared Cleopatra and Ptolemy Caesarion joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus and overlords of all lands west and east of the Euphrates. For Cleopatra this meant the potential union of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires under her control, and Antony staked out his claims on the wealth of Egypt for the coming struggle with Octavian.
In Italy, Octavian used the donations at Alexandria and Antony's relations with Cleopatra to turn public opinion against him. The Battle of Actium (Sept. 2, 31), fought for the control of the Roman Empire, led to the final disaster. Because Cleopatra's money built the fleet and supported it, she insisted on fighting at sea. When she fled from the battle with the war chest, Antony had little choice but to follow.
After Actium, Cleopatra tried to negotiate with Octavian for the recognition of her children as her successors in Egypt. But as his price Octavian demanded the death of Antony, and Cleopatra refused. After the final battle outside Alexandria on Aug. 1, 30 B.C., in which his troops deserted him, Antony stabbed himself when he received a false report that Cleopatra was already dead. Antony died in Cleopatra's arms inside her mausoleum, where she had barricaded herself with the treasures of the Ptolemies to keep them from Octavian.
Tricked into surrendering herself, Cleopatra tried again to negotiate with Octavian. Rebuffed, she carefully planned her own death. On August 10, after paying last honors to Antony, she retired to her quarters for a final meal. How Cleopatra died is not known, but on her left arm were found two tiny pricks, presumably from the bite of an asp.
The principal ancient sources on Cleopatra are Plutarch and Dion Cassius. H. Volkmann, Cleopatra: A Study in Politics and Propaganda (1953; trans. 1958), offers a well-balanced and penetrating analysis of the political implications of Cleopatra's relations with Julius Caesar and Antony. Arthur Weigall, The Life and Times of Cleopatra (1914; new ed. 1923), and Oscar von Wertheimer, Cleopatra: A Royal Voluptuary (trans. 1931), overemphasize Cleopatra's domination of Antony. In S. A. Cook and others, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 10 (1934), W. W. Tarn views Cleopatra as dominated more by ambition for empire than by love. To Ronald Syme in The Roman Revolution (1939), both Antony and Cleopatra were playing a cynical game of politics with each other. □
Queen of egypt
Learned Leader. Although the men, her two brothers and her son, who ruled Egypt alongside her are generally forgotten, the name Cleopatra conjures images of a seductress and schemer. A descendant of the Macedonian rulers who came to Egypt during the invasion of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.), Cleopatra was the second daughter of Ptolemy XII. She was bright and intelligent and reportedly learned multiple languages, including the native tongue of her subjects. When Ptolemy XII died in 51 B.C.E., she ascended to the throne along with her brother and husband, Ptolemy XIII. The real power in Egypt, however, were the Romans, who had essentially dictated policy since 168. Cleopatra was determined to use Roman power and saw an opportunity when Julius Caesar arrived in 48. A union of mutual benefit was established, and Cleopatra used the Roman emperor to reestablish her place on the Egyptian throne. Caesar soon left to return to Rome, although he may have left behind a son by Cleopatra. She made lavish expenditures on her fleet and personal transports and impressed the Roman men with whom she pursued her imperial ambitions. Cleopatra followed Caesar to Rome in 46, but the emperor was assassinated in 44, and she returned to Egypt.
The Logistics of Power. Perhaps better than any other political rival or ally of her day, with the possible exception of Caesar, Cleopatra understood the importance of communication, public image, the movement of wealth and troops, and the knowledge of geography in the acquisition of political power. She soon decided to cast her fate with Mark Antony, who was consolidating his power on the Roman throne. When Antony came east to pursue a campaign against Persia, Cleopatra seduced and entranced him. In Rome, however, Octavian was gaining power. Antony later married Cleopatra (37), but Roman sentiment was against the union. She managed to get Antony to give her lands that formerly belonged to Herod the Great of Judaea, but she created an implacable enemy. Octavian turned against Antony and defeated a fleet commanded by Antony and Cleopatra in 31 at the Battle of Actium. Antony killed himself, but Cleopatra tried again to use her wiles, but this time failed to capture another Roman emperor. Rather than suffer humiliation, she also committed suicide, and was buried beside Antony. She was remembered by future Romans as a dangerous public enemy in the negative propaganda of Augustus.
J. P. V. D. Balsdon, Julius Caesar and Rome (London: English Universities Press, 1967).
Michael Grant, Cleopatra (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972).
Julia Samson, Nefertiti and Cleopatra: Queen-Monarchs of Ancient Egypt (London: Rubicon Press, 1985).
Dorothy J. Thompson, “Cleopatra VII,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, third edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 347.
Cleopatra's Needles a pair of granite obelisks erected at Heliopolis by Tuthmosis III c.1475 bc. They were taken from Egypt in 1878, one being set up on the Thames Embankment in London and the other in Central Park, New York. They have no known historical connection with Cleopatra.
Cleopatra's nose is taken as the type of a single feature a change in which would have been of immeasurable influence; the reference is to a comment by the French mathematician, physicist, and moralist Blaise Pascal (1623–62), ‘Had Cleopatra's nose been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed.’
The story of Cleopatra has been a perennial favorite for the Hollywood cinema. The most notorious version remains the 1963 epic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton—a film whose box office failure is credited with helping to destroy the Hollywood studio system. Made for a then staggering 44 million dollars, the production was fraught with setbacks and scandals, and film historian David Cook noted that the "disastrous" four-hour film had not broken even, some thirty-six years later. Received badly by both audiences and critics, Cleopatra paled in comparison to the off-screen antics of its stars. The cast's real-life adultery, life-threatening illness, and the grand passion between Taylor and Burton provoked the first major paparazzi feeding frenzy of the 1960s.
Brodsky, Jack, and Nathan Weiss. The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1963.
Cook, David. A History of Narrative Film. 2nd ed. New York, W.W.Norton and Company, 1990.