Cleopatra 68 BCE–30 CE

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68 bce–30 ce

Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the last pharaonic ruler of Egypt. The Ptolemies, descendents of the Macedonian general Ptolemy I (c. 366–283 bce), had ruled Egypt for more than two centuries by the time of Cleopatra's birth. Cleopatra, an astute politician, attempted to resist the growing might of Rome by forming an eastern alliance with Mark Antony (c. 82–30 bce). But her plans failed, and her death saw Egypt absorbed into the Roman Empire.


Ptolemy XIII and his sister-wife Cleopatra VII came to the throne in 51 bce. The relationship between the two quickly deteriorated, and in summer 48 bce, Rome was forced to intervene to prevent civil war. Julius Caesar (r. 58–44 bce) summoned Ptolemy and Cleopatra to Alexandria and, angered by Ptolemy's involvement in the murder of the Roman statesman Pompey (106–48 bce), declared Rome's support for the queen. Cleopatra and Caesar spent the winter besieged in Alexandria. By the time Roman reinforcements arrived the following spring, the two were lovers. Defeated, Ptolemy XIII fled and drowned in the Nile.

Cleopatra, now married to her eleven-year-old brother Ptolemy XIV, was restored to her throne. In June 47 bce, she gave birth to Caesar's son, Ptolemy Caesar (Caesarion, 47–30 bce). Cleopatra and Ptolemy followed Caesar to Rome, returning to Egypt after Caesar's assassination in 44 bce. Ptolemy died soon after and the three-year-old Caesarion became Ptolemy XV.


Two men ruled the Roman World at that time: Octavian (later called Augustus, 63–14 bce) controlled the western empire and Mark Antony controlled the east. Cleopatra allied herself with Antony and the two became lovers. In 40 bce, Cleopatra gave birth to twins. But back in Rome, Antony was preparing to marry Octavian's sister, Octavia.

In 37 bce Antony left Rome for Syria, where he sent for Cleopatra. Together they planned an alliance that would restore the Egyptian empire. Initially all went well, and Egypt regained some of its lost eastern territories. But the 36 bce Parthian campaign was a disaster, and in 31 bce, Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. Cleopatra retreated to Alexandria and, as Antony set off for battle, locked herself in her mausoleum. Incorrectly informed that Cleopatra had committed suicide, Antony fell on his sword. He was taken back to Alexandria and died in Cleopatra's arms. Cleopatra committed suicide by either snakebite or by poisons on August 12, 30 bce.


Cleopatra's story was recorded by contemporary historians primarily interested in the lives of the Roman rulers. Plutarch's Parallel Lives served as the inspiration behind William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra's appearances on stage, page, and screen have led to her acceptance as the archetypal femme fatale. Contemporary images of Cleopatra, however, suggest that she was not an outstanding beauty. Her portraits may be split into two distinct groups: Whereas the Egyptian-style images show a traditional Egyptian queen, her classical portraiture shows Cleopatra in Roman dress and hairstyle. Perhaps most lifelike of all, her coins show a woman with a prominent nose and chin who looks determined rather than seductive.

see also Egypt, Pharaonic.


Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. 1990. Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams, and Distortions. London: Bloomsbury.

Walker, Susan, and Sally-Ann Ashton, eds. 2003. Cleopatra Reassessed. London: British Museum.

                                           Joyce A. Tyldesley

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Cleopatra 68 BCE–30 CE

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