Cleopatra VII (69–30 BCE)

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Cleopatra VII (69–30 bce)

Queen of Egypt, mistress of Julius Caesar, eventual wife of Mark Antony, who was the last—but certainly not the least—of the Ptolemaic dynasty to rule Egypt. Name variations: sometimes known as Cleopatra VI. Born in 69 bce; committed suicide on August 10, 30 bce; daughter of Ptolemy XII (king of Egypt) and possibly Cleopatra V Tryphaena (c. 95–c. 57 bce); sister of Ptolemy XIII, Ptolemy XIV, Berenice IV (d. 55 bce) and Arsinoe IV (d. 41 bce); married brother Ptolemy XIII, in 51 bce; married brother Ptolemy XIV, in 47 bce; children: (with Julius Caesar) Ptolemy XV Caesar (Caesarion); (with Marc Antony) twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra V Selene (b. around 40 bce) and another Ptolemy (b. 36 bce).

Ascended to the throne (51 bce) as co-ruler with her brother-husband, Ptolemy XIII; became lover of Caesar; pregnant with Caesar's child and married brother Ptolemy XIV (47 bce); traveled to Rome to be with Caesar (46 bce) but remained no more than his mistress at the time of his assassination (44 bce); returned to Egypt; seeing her salvation in Antony, seduced him; with Antony, was in open war against Octavian, concluding in Octavian's victory (31 bce); along with Antony, forced into suicide (30 bce).

Cleopatra VII was of the Ptolemaic royal house, founded in Egypt by Ptolemy I at the end of the 4th century bce. Ptolemy I had been a Macedonian general in the army of Alexander the Great, through whose conquests Egypt had come within the Greek political orbit. Alexander seized Egypt from the Persians in 333 bce and thereafter founded Alexandria, the city that bore his name, from which his political successors ruled Egypt. When Alexander's direct line died out in 310 bce, Ptolemy I took possession of the rich kingdom centered on the Nile River valley. Ptolemy I's dynasty, however, did not sustain the political and military talent that had enabled him to wrest Egypt from his many rivals. By the

middle of the 1st century bce, until Cleopatra VII later revived its fortunes somewhat, degeneracy was the dynasty's norm.

Cleopatra's father Ptolemy XII, the "Flute-Player," was a pro-Roman hedonist who was unpopular with the Greek inhabitants of Alexandria (few native Egyptians were allowed inside the city, and its large Jewish population did not wield political clout), because they knew that he could not maintain his rule without foreign backing and that Rome craved Egypt for its enviable wealth. After Ptolemy XII came to the throne in 80 bce, his domestic authority deteriorated, leading to his expulsion from Egypt in 58 bce. He remained exiled in Rome until forcibly reinstated by a Roman show of power, obtained at enormous cost, in 55 bce. Thereafter, Ptolemy XII ruled under Rome's thumb until 51 bce. Officially married to his sister, Cleopatra V Tryphaena (since the reign of Ptolemy II, brother/sister royal marriage had been a Ptolemaic custom), he nevertheless fathered several children with other women of acknowledged status at the Alexandrian court. These offspring were considered fully legitimate and raised with all due honor. Among these was Cleopatra VII (born 69 bce), whose mother may, or may not, have been Cleopatra V.

We know little of Cleopatra VII's youth. The intelligence that would later seem so impressive to her contemporaries probably made her a precocious child, and modern scholars often note that her father must have early recognized this intelligence and promoted her education. Her father's example would have shown her that Roman senators were the most profound threat to an independent Egypt, but that these senators could be manipulated to the benefit of her nation. Her later policy would exploit this rationale.

Cleopatra had remained in Egypt during her father's exile. When she was 14, she met a young Marc Antony, a junior officer among the Romans responsible for her father's return; it is likely they took little notice of each other at the time. In Alexandria, Cleopatra developed the taste for reading, doubtless exposed to that city's famed Library, which fueled her curiosity and provided her with the intellectual range that her paramours would find so enticing. As a child, she learned the language of the native Egyptians—the first of her dynasty to have taken the time to do so. Her unique interest in her kingdom's non-Greek population marked a political sagacity long dormant among the Ptolemies. From an early age, Cleopatra understood that both her own future and Egypt's depended largely upon her ability to tap the loyalty of the ancient land's entire population.

For her beauty was not without compare, nor such as to enthrall those who saw her. Her conversation, however, was irresistibly charming, and her demeanor … was utterly arousing.

—Plutarch, Life of Antony

Upon their father's death in 51 bce, Cleopatra VII (then 17) and her brother, Ptolemy XIII (then around 11), married and jointly acceded to the throne. This, however, was no love match. In a marriage fostered by tradition and by palace power brokers—intended more to consolidate the influence of a political clique than to enhance the strength of Egypt—Cleopatra soon chafed under the restraints thrust upon her. As a result, the sibling/spouses and their respective factions feuded, with Ptolemy's bloc gaining the initial advantage. Cleopatra was expelled from Alexandria, probably fleeing first to Arabia before establishing herself amidst a garrison at Pelusium, on Egypt's northeastern coast.

Meanwhile, Rome's situation paralleled Egypt's somewhat since a civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) foretold the final collapse of its Republican constitution. When war erupted (49 bce), both Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra backed Pompey with money, ships, men, and supplies. Their rationale was simple: both thought Pompey would win, and each sought to curry favor, which could thereafter be turned to personal benefit. In addition to the rendering of military aid, Cleopatra is also said to have fostered her interests by having a willing advocate within Pompey's camp; she is reported to have seduced his son.

Caesar, however, surprised everyone with a lightning-swift campaign that ended in Greece with a victory over Pompey (48 bce). Defeated in battle but not captured, Pompey fled to Alexandria where he hoped to restore his fortunes. Before his arrival, Ptolemy XIII reconsidered the situation and decided that it was Caesar who must now be wooed. At Ptolemy's command, assassins killed Pompey as he attempted to step onto Egyptian soil.

Caesar quickly made for Alexandria and the hornet's nest of political conspiracy that city represented. Needing to secure Egypt swiftly, and grateful for the "service" rendered by the young king, Caesar seemed about to proclaim his support for Ptolemy XIII in the latter's struggle against Cleopatra. But, at night, Cleopatra had herself hidden in a bed-roll and smuggled into Caesar's room. Described as "imperious, determined, courageous, ambitious, intensely alive," by biographer Eleanor Goltz Huzar , Cleopatra has been called Caesar's female counterpart, even in intelligence and education. The next morning Caesar became her avid proponent.

Intrigue followed during which Caesar tried to reconcile the political marriage of Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra (while Caesar remained her lover), as well as to accommodate the concerns of two younger siblings—Arsinoe IV and Ptolemy XIV. Arsinoe, securing armed backing, was the first to rebel; soon, Ptolemy XIII joined the revolt and besieged Caesar and Cleopatra in Alexandria. The resulting clash almost cost Caesar and Cleopatra their lives. Caesar, however, heroically organized and led a harried defense. Some of Alexandria burned in the process, with perhaps a portion of the famous Library engulfed by the conflagration. Eventually, Caesar was reinforced and rallied to defeat his foes, after which the fleeing Ptolemy XIII abetted a quick resolution of the conflict by unheroically drowning in the Nile during the course of a naval campaign.

Thereafter, Caesar imposed order throughout the city and the realm. He took his time with the latter, in the process taking a leisurely cruise up the Nile with Cleopatra at his side. But by early 47 bce, events beyond Egypt intruded upon the momentary respite in his military responsibilities. Consequently, Caesar left Egypt for Syria, leaving Cleopatra in Alexandria with two significant mementos of his visit and political settlement: a new brother/husband, Ptolemy XIV (about age 11); and a son, Ptolemy XV Caesar, known as Caesarion. In light of Cleopatra's pregnancy (known before Caesar left Egypt, though the boy was not born until after Caesar's departure), and the fact that the child's father was in the process of becoming the sole ruler of the Roman world while still without a legitimate heir, few imagined that Ptolemy XIV would remain Cleopatra's spouse and co-regent for long. In fact, we can be fairly certain that Cleopatra hoped to see her union with Caesar officially acknowledged, so as to fuse Rome with Egypt and allow both to be ruled by a royal house established by their offspring.

In 46 bce, the lovers reunited in Rome, where Caesar erected a golden statue of Cleopatra in the temple of Venus Genetrix. With Cleopatra came Caesarion and Ptolemy XIV, with whom Cleopatra probably did not consummate her marriage. Officially, Cleopatra's status remained undefined. Despite his obvious infatuation, since 59 bce Caesar had been married to Calpurnia , whose impeccable Senatorial connections made her rejection in favor of a foreign queen a delicate matter. Equally dangerous would have been a public acknowledgement of Caesarion's paternity. With the civil war so recently won, the situation in Rome was fraught with ambiguity. Would Caesar agree to a continuation of traditional constitutional constraints upon his authority or would he now aspire to kingship? All the city's ruling elite were extremely nervous about Caesar's long-term ambitions. Whatever Caesar's intention, he did not need to stir up unnecessary opposition: the wisest course, therefore, was one of delay and political consolidation. This meant that Cleopatra would have to await a more settled political climate before Caesar could afford to endow her and her son with the legitimacy she sought.

That climate never materialized. On March 15, 44 bce, a republican coterie assassinated Caesar. With his death, Cleopatra lost a golden opportunity to elevate Egypt above servile dependency

and to augment her personal majesty. After the assassination, Cleopatra and Caesarion promptly returned to the relative safety of Egypt, anticipating the renewal of Roman civil war. This was an especially dangerous time for both, for whoever emerged triumphant from the looming carnage would be unlikely to tolerate the potential threat of Caesarion (unacknowledged as he was) to some day lay claim to Caesar's legacy. As dangerous as the times were for Cleopatra and Caesarion, they proved even more so for Cleopatra's husband Ptolemy XIV who had mysteriously died shortly after Caesar, probably poisoned at Cleopatra's command. Cleopatra then claimed joint rule with her son Caesarion, still a toddler, and coins from the period show her suckling him in the guise of the Egyptian goddess Isis nursing her divine son Horus.

By default, Mark Antony became the sole leader of the loyal Caesarian faction immediately after Caesar's murder. Nonetheless, he proceeded cautiously, not knowing the extent of the conspiracy, nor precisely how the Roman mob might react to developments. The assassins, whose anti-Caesarian propaganda held sway for a time, nonetheless lost control of the situation when they allowed Caesar's will to be read publicly. That document contained two especially important provisions: a generous legacy from Caesar's private fortune to every Roman citizen and the posthumous adoption as Caesar's heir—not of Caesarion but of Caesar's little known greatnephew, Octavian (the future Caesar Augustus). Knowing that his true friends expected his faction to continue but also realizing that they would not willingly follow the unacknowledged son of a foreign queen, Caesar had hoped to avoid another civil war by passing over Caesarion in favor of another blood relative. All political calculations were at once refigured.

After Caesar's will was read, the assassins were hounded to the provinces where they prepared for war. Mark Antony also mobilized, but, needing money to do so, he refused to distribute the largesse promised in Caesar's will. Antony's failure here opened the door for Octavian (whom Antony tried to ignore), who borrowed heavily to pay off his "father's" debt. Public sympathy then swung to Octavian. Machinations followed, but after a short time a compromise alliance (the "Second Triumvirate") was arranged between Antony, Octavian, and a Lepidus (a partisan soon outpaced by his colleagues) through which the Caesarian party was reunited. Unified and armed, the Caesarian junta sought vengeance for Caesar's death. The final blow came in 42 bce, with Antony hailed as the triumvir most responsible for victory against the assassins. Thereafter, much remained to be settled to the new junta's liking and so the Roman world was divided among them into three parts, with Antony taking the East.

Now that Octavian was Caesar's legal heir, Cleopatra and her son Caesarion had much to fear. In Egypt, she supported the Caesarians but not as enthusiastically as she might. When she finally collected a fleet for use against the assassins, foul weather prevented its deployment before the war ended. Held accountable for her apathy, Cleopatra was summoned to Tarsus by Antony to explain her passivity. A more golden opportunity for her to win a champion, split the ruling coalition, and rejuvenate the dream recently shattered by Caesar's death could not have been conjured. Although Antony (now married to Fulvia ) knew Cleopatra from Egypt and Rome, he was unprepared for what was coming—for she would soon loose upon him the full impact of her charm.

Cleopatra approached Tarsus leisurely, with many gifts and theatrical pomp. The last part of her trip was taken on a perfumed barge complete with silver oars and purple sails. Dressed as Venus, she planted rumors that Venus incarnate was coming to mate with Bacchus, then paraded to Antony's quarters escorted by boys attired as "Lusts" and girls arrayed as "Graces." While they feasted, Cleopatra's sophisticated wit and irresistible allure intoxicated Antony, who became her lover. Antony was so overawed by Cleopatra that she was accused of employing witchcraft or magic to enthrall him, since she was not known for her beauty. After this renewal of their acquaintance, Antony accepted an invitation to visit Alexandria. Meanwhile, Antony's wife and brother, outraged by the way Octavian was arranging Italian affairs against Antony's interests, though some suggested that Fulvia acted more to recall Antony from Cleopatra's arms, engaged Antony's nominal ally in open war (41 bce).

Grace Macurdy voiced a common perspective among modern historians of antiquity when she called Antony "strong in action and weak in will, gallant and brave where physical courage was required, but incapable of self-control and victim of his appetites." After months of immoderation, with Italy in an uproar and conditions deteriorating on Rome's Parthian frontier in the east, Antony felt constrained to stir (40 bce). Since the domestic situation was the more pressing, Antony proceeded

to Italy via Greece. In Egypt, Cleopatra remained, pregnant with the twins Alexander Helios (sun) and Cleopatra V Selene (moon) who would be born after their father's departure. Passing through Athens, Antony met and rebuffed his wife Fulvia, who died shortly thereafter. In Italy, political reality combined with his geographical distance from Cleopatra to persuade Antony to embrace a renewal of his alliance with Octavian—this time cemented by Antony's marriage to Octavian's sister, the well-educated and beautiful Octavia .

With the Triumvirate rejuvenated, Antony and his wife Octavia ventured to rule the East from Greece. For three years, they lived in apparent contentment, though the political ambitions of both Antony and Octavian put great strain on the marriage. Antony saw Octavia bear two children, even as she diplomatically intervened to prevent a breach between her brother and husband. Both Octavian and Antony, however, coveted the unfettered power of Caesar. Of the two, Octavian made the most out of the years of peace, carefully consolidating his personal following while simultaneously working loyal clients into positions of power. Though Antony was a capable leader, he lacked Octavian's aptitude for political manipulation. Over time, he saw himself being edged out of power and came to realize that only success in war could reestablish his power base in Rome. The East, where trouble had been festering with the Parthians since the 50s bce, gave him his opportunity.

Going to war against Parthia in 37 bce, Antony left behind Octavia (burdened with her third pregnancy) to continue her mediation with her brother Octavian while caring for her children. This separation provided Cleopatra with another opportunity to advance her political ambitions. She met Antony at Antioch in Syria with military support; once they were reunited, Antony again succumbed to her magnetism. Cleopatra forced Antony to burn many of his Roman bridges by inducing him to publicly acknowledge his paternity of their twins and their third child, another Ptolemy, born in 36 bce. Even more inflammatory, she convinced Antony to grant her authority over Phoenicia, Coele Syria, Cyprus, parts of Cilicia, and important revenues from the spice trade—all considered by Romans to be possessions of the Roman Imperium. The two traveled eastward together as far as the Euphrates frontier, permitting Cleopatra to cement her emotional hold over Antony. Before fighting began, she returned to Egypt via Judea, where she was feted by Herod the Great. Within a year, an unsuccessful Antony returned from Parthia with a tattered army. Depressed at the failure of his invasion and needing the comfort of Cleopatra's companionship, Antony summoned her to meet him in Phoenicia. She did so bearing material aid for the army and emotional solace for its general.

Despite his obviously insulting behavior, when news of Antony's loss reached Rome, Octavia also organized and personally led a relief effort. At Athens, however, she received an order to proceed no further, clearly at the instigation of Cleopatra, who feared Antony's emotional inconstancy. Octavia returned to Rome (35 bce), where remarkably she resisted her brother's insistence that she abandon Antony's interests. Rather, she maintained his Roman house (until formally divorced in 32 bce) and continued to look after their children.

After wintering in Alexandria, Antony relieved some of his frustration by subduing Armenia, for which he celebrated a Triumph in Alexandria, not Rome. Compounding the shock of this innovation, he also delivered the traditional thanksgiving offering not to Jupiter, but to Cleopatra dressed as the Egyptian goddess Isis. There followed an incredible scene in which Antony proclaimed himself and Cleopatra the king and queen of the East. Then he dispersed both Roman lands and others not under his control. To Cleopatra and Caesarion (whom he publicly declared Caesar's son and rightful heir—implicitly disinheriting Octavian), he gave Egypt, Cyprus, Libya, and Coele Syria. To Alexander Helios, he conferred Armenia, Media and Parthia. Cyrenaica went to Cleopatra Selene, and Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia to the younger Ptolemy. Cleopatra subsequently let it be known that she anticipated the day when she would dispense justice from the Capitol in Rome. Clearly, a Rubicon had been crossed; the forthcoming encounter would be for the possession of the entire Roman world.

Cleopatra V Selene (c. 40 bce–?)

Queen of Cyrene and Numidia. Name variations: Cleopatra of Cyrene. Born around 40 bce; daughter of Cleopatra VII (69–30 bce, queen of Egypt) and Marc Antony; married Rome's Mauritanian client king, Juba II, king of Numidia; children: Ptolemy Caesarion. Ruled Cyrene around 33–31 bce.

During the period of mobilization that followed, Octavian carefully prepared his ground through an adept manipulation of propaganda. Wanting all of Rome behind him, he accused Cleopatra of having seduced Antony from his responsibilities and his heritage. Although Antony and Cleopatra apparently went through some sort of marriage ceremony before 36 bce, Roman law and Octavian refused to recognize their union. She was depicted as archetypically evil—a demon against which all Romans had the patriotic obligation to fight. She thus was unfavorably contrasted with every virtue traditionally associated with "proper" Roman matrons (not surprisingly associated with Octavia, who piously bore Antony's inconstancy). Immoral and foreign, Cleopatra, if successful, would replace Rome's respect for law with oriental despotism, it was claimed. What news filtered back to Rome of Antony and Cleopatra's ostentation (he openly sported a golden scepter and royal attire, while she reportedly consumed pearls with her vintage wine) only seemed to confirm Octavian's allegations.

In 32 bce, Rome declared war, not against Antony, but against Cleopatra alone. Although some of Antony's friends attempted negotiations dependent upon a rejection of Cleopatra, all efforts to disassociate Antony from her failed. Perhaps to insure that distance would not erode her control over Antony, Cleopatra remained at his side (albeit with a considerable military contingent).

After some strategic maneuvering, the showdown came on September 2, 31 bce, when Octavian's navy, commanded by Marcus Agrippa, defeated his enemies at Actium, off the western coast of Greece. Antony and Cleopatra fled immediately to Egypt to attempt a defensive stand and ward off possible rebellion. In Egypt, disappointment fed feverish carousing and atrocities against any who might have had the wherewithal or inclination to side with Octavian. By the spring of 30 bce, Octavian's noose around Egypt began to tighten and frantic but unsuccessful negotiations were undertaken. Octavian, however, would neither allow Antony to live as a private citizen, nor permit Cleopatra's children to continue as Egypt's rulers. Whatever truth, if any, lay behind the charges that Octavian attempted to bargain with Cleopatra for Antony's murder is no longer recoverable. In the end, all alternatives were cut off but unconditional surrender. When Antony heard a false report of Cleopatra's suicide, he attempted to take his life and ultimately died in her arms. Cleopatra was captured, but, a queen to the very last, she smuggled a poisonous asp to her room and sought death in its bite—at the time, a symbol of Egyptian royal authority over 3,000 years old. She died on August 10, 30 bce, thinking she had seen her son Caesarion to safety. Caesarion, however, was quickly murdered. Cleopatra's children by Antony were sent to be raised by Octavia in Rome. Eventually, Cleopatra Selene married Rome's Mauritanian client king, Juba II. Although the fates of Cleopatra Selene's brothers are uncertain, they perhaps went with her to north Africa. Regardless, she alone of her siblings knew the prerogatives of royal power. When Cleopatra Selene's son Ptolemy Caesarion was executed by Caligula, the line of Ptolemies ended.

Though Cleopatra had only two known lovers, one of whom she married, Octavian's portrait of her as an evil harlot unfortunately prevails. Rather, she was the last ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, whose only crime seems to have been her desire to safeguard her country's independence and rebuild its power in the East.


[Caesar], Alexandrian War. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1922.

Cassius Dio. Dio's Roman History. Vols. IV, V, VI. NY: Putnam, 1914, 1916, 1917.

Huzar, Eleanor Goltz. Mark Antony: A Biography. Croom Helm, 1978.

Plutarch. Life of Caesar. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917.

——. Life of Antony. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920.

suggested reading:

Appian. Appian's Roman History. Vols. III and IV. Macmillan, 1913.

Bevan, E.R. The House of Ptolemy. Ares (reprint), 1968.

Grant, Michael. Cleopatra. 2nd ed. NY: Macmillan, 1974.

Lindsay, Jack. Cleopatra. NY: Coward, 1970.

Macurdy, Grace H. Hellenistic Queens. CT: Greenwood, 1975.

Pomeroy, Sarah Borges. Women In Hellenistic Egypt from Alexander to Cleopatra. Schocken, 1984.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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