Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra Selene Philopator
Queen of Egypt
Reign 51 BC–November 30 30 BC
Ptolemy XIII (51 BC–47 BC)
Ptolemy XIV (47 BC–44 BC)
Caesarion (44 BC–30 BC)
Born January 69 BC
Died November 30 30 BC
Predecessor Ptolemy XII
Successor None (Roman province)
Consort Ptolemy XIII
Julius Caesar
Mark Antony
Issue Caesarion, Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, Ptolemy Philadelphus
Father Ptolemy XII
Mother Cleopatra V of Egypt

Cleopatra (Greek: Κλεοπάτρα Φιλοπάτωρ; January 69 BC–November 30 30 BC) was a Hellenistic co-ruler of Egypt with her father (Ptolemy XII Auletes), her brothers/husbands Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, consummated a liaison with Gaius Julius Caesar that solidified her grip on the throne, and, after Caesar's assassination, aligned with Mark Antony, with whom she produced twins. In all, Cleopatra had four children, one by Caesar (Caesarion) and three by Antony (Cleopatra Selene, Alexander Helios, Ptolemy Philadelphus). Her unions with her brothers produced no children: it is possible that they were never consummated; in any case, they were not close. Her reign marks the end of the Hellenistic and the beginning of the Roman era in the eastern Mediterranean.

After Antony's rival and Caesar's legal heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian (who later became the first Roman Emperor, Augustus), brought the might of Rome against Egypt, it is said that Cleopatra took her own life on August 12, 30 BC, allegedly by means of an asp. Her legacy survives in the form of numerous dramatizations of her story, including William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and several modern films.

Cleopatra was a direct descendant of Alexander's general, Ptolemy I Soter, son of Arsinoe and Lacus, both of Macedon. A Greek by language and culture, Cleopatra is reputed to have been the first member of her family in their 300-year reign in Egypt to have learned the Egyptian language.



Early years


Father's reign

"Cleopatra" is Greek for "father's glory," and her full name, Cleopatra Thea Philopator, means "the Goddess Cleopatra, the Beloved of Her Father." She was the third daughter of the king Ptolemy XII Auletes, probably born to her father's sister, making her third in line to rule after her two other sisters died.

Little is known about Cleopatra's childhood, but she would have observed the disordered events and loss of public affection for the Ptolemaic dynasty under the reign of her father. It is said that her father survived an assassination attempt when a servant found a deadly puff adder in his bed. Her eldest sister Tryphaena also tried to poison her, so she hired food-tasting servants. This disloyalty occurred for many reasons, including the physical and moral degeneration of the sovereigns, centralization of power and corruption. This led to uprising in and loss of Cyprus and of Cyrenaica, making Ptolemy's reign one of the most calamitous of the dynasty.

In 58 BC Cleopatra's older sister, Berenice IV seized power from her father. With the assistance of the Roman governor of Syria, Aulus Gabinius, Ptolemy XII overturned his eldest daughter in 55 BC and had her executed. This left Cleopatra with her husband and younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, joint heirs to the throne.


Accession to the throne

Pharaoh Ptolemy XII died in March 51 BC, making the 18-year-old Cleopatra and the 12-year-old Ptolemy XIII joint monarchs. The first three years of their reign were difficult, due to economic difficulties, famine, deficient floods of the Nile, and political conflicts. Although Cleopatra was married to her young brother, she quickly showed indications that she had no intentions of sharing power with him.

In August 51 BC, relations between the sovereigns completely broke down. Cleopatra dropped Ptolemy's name from official documents and her face appeared alone on coins, which went against Ptolemaic tradition of female rulers being subordinate to male co-rulers. This resulted in a cabal of courtiers, led by the eunuch Pothinus, removing Cleopatra from power and making Ptolemy sole ruler in circa 48 BC (or possibly earlier, as a decree exists from 51 BC with Ptolemy's name alone). She tried to raise a rebellion around Pelusium, but she was soon forced to flee Egypt with her only surviving sister, Arsinoë.[1]


Cleopatra and Julius Caesar


Assassination of Pompey

While Cleopatra was in exile, Ptolemy became embroiled in the Roman civil war. In the autumn of 48 BC, Pompey fled from the forces of Julius Caesar to Alexandria, seeking sanctuary. Ptolemy, only fifteen years old at that time, had set up a throne for himself on the harbour from where he watched as on July 28 48 BC Pompey was murdered by one of his former officers, now in Ptolemaic service. Ptolemy is thought to have ordered the death as a way of pleasing Julius Caesar and thus become an ally of Rome, to which Egypt was in debt. This was a catastrophic miscalculation on Ptolemy's part. When Caesar arrived in Egypt two days later, Ptolemy presented him with Pompey's severed, pickled head. Caesar was enraged. This was probably due to the fact that, although he was Caesar's political enemy, Pompey was a Consul of Rome and the widower of Caesar's only daughter, Julia, who died in childbirth with their son. Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.


Caesar and Caesarion

In Plutarch, eager to take advantage of Julius Caesar's anger with Ptolemy, Queen Cleopatra returned to the palace rolled into a Persian carpet and had it presented to Caesar by her servants: when it was unrolled, Cleopatra tumbled out naked. It is believed that Caesar was charmed by the gesture, which made her his mistress. Some historians were relieved that it confirmed Caesar's interest in women, despite tales of his adventures in Bythinia and elsewhere. It was at this point Caesar abandoned his plans to annex Egypt, instead backing Cleopatra's claim to the throne. After a short civil war, Ptolemy XIII was drowned in the Nile and Caesar restored Cleopatra to her throne, with another younger brother Ptolemy XIV as new co-ruler.

Despite the thirty year age difference, Cleopatra and Caesar became lovers during his stay in Egypt between 48 BC and 47 BC. On 23 June 47 BC Cleopatra gave birth to a child, Ptolemy Caesar (nicknamed "Caesarion" which means "little Caesar"). Cleopatra claimed Caesar was the father and wished him to name the boy his heir, but Caesar refused, choosing his grand-nephew Octavian instead.

Cleopatra and Caesarion visited Rome between 47 BC and 44 BC and were present when Caesar was assassinated on 15 March, 44 BC. Before or just after the assassination she returned to Egypt. When Ptolemy XIV died mysteriously (possibly poisoned by Cleopatra) Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent and successor.


Cleopatra and Mark Antony

Anthony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
Anthony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

In 42 BC, Mark Antony, one of the triumvirs who ruled Rome in the power vacuum following Caesar's death, summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus to answer questions about her loyalty. Cleopatra arrived in great state, and so charmed Antony that he chose to spend the winter of 41 BC–40 BC with her in Alexandria. On 25 December 40 BC she gave birth to twins, who were named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene (II).

Four years later, in 37 BC, Antony visited Alexandria again while on route to make war with the Parthians. He renewed his relationship with Cleopatra, and from this point on Alexandria would be his home. He married Cleopatra according to the Egyptian rite (a letter quoted in Suetonius suggests this), although he was at the time married to Octavia Minor, sister of his fellow triumvir Octavian. He and Cleopatra had another child, Ptolemy Philadelphus. At the Donations of Alexandria in late 34 BC, following Antony's conquest of Armenia, Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of Egypt and Cyprus; Alexander Helios was crowned ruler of Armenia, Media, and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene (II) was crowned ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus was crowned ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia. Cleopatra also took the title of Queen of Kings.

With the aim of ensuring the succession of his own children Anthony is believed to be responsible for the death of Cleopatra's child with Caesar by some (although most sources believe the child was killed on the command of Octavian). The assination was arranged through a commander in Anthoy's Cairo legion, who took the child to Upper Egypt. Rumours that the commander spared the life of the child were common and a group of current day Egyptians living in Luxor claim to be the rightful heirs to the Egyptian pharonic crown.

There are a number of unverifiable but famous stories about Cleopatra, of which one of the best known is that, at one of the lavish dinners she shared with Antony, she playfully bet him that she could spend ten million sesterces on a dinner. He accepted the bet. The next night, she had a conventional, unspectacular meal served; he was ridiculing this, when she ordered the second course — only a cup of strong vinegar. She then removed one of her priceless pearl earrings, dropped it into the vinegar, allowed it to dissolve, and drank the mixture. The earliest report of this story comes from Pliny the Elder and dates to about 100 years after the banquet described would have happened. The calcium carbonate in pearls does dissolve in vinegar, but slowly unless the pearl is first crushed.[2]

Antony's behavior was considered outrageous by the Romans, and Octavian convinced the Senate to levy war against Egypt. In 31 BC Antony's forces faced the Romans in a naval action off the coast of Actium. Cleopatra was present with a fleet of her own. Popular legend tells us that when she saw that Antony's poorly equipped and manned ships were losing to the Romans' superior vessels, she took flight and that Antony abandoned the battle to follow her, but no contemporary evidence states this was the case.

Following the Battle of Actium, Octavian invaded Egypt. As he approached Alexandria, Antony's armies deserted to Octavian on August 12 30 BC



The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur

Antony committed suicide, having been told Cleopatra was dead. According to the doctor Olympus (an eye-witness), he was brought to Cleopatra's tomb and died in her arms. A few days later, on November 30, Cleopatra also died by her own hand. The ancient sources generally agree that she had two asps hidden in a fig basket so as she was eating she would never know when she would die. Her two handmaidens died with her. Octavian, waiting in a building nearby, was informed of her death, and went to see for himself.[3]

Cleopatra's son by Caesar, Caesarion, was proclaimed pharaoh by Egyptians, but Octavian had already won. Caesarion was captured and executed, his fate reportedly sealed by Octavian's famous phrase: "Too many Caesars". Thus ended not just the Hellenistic line of Egyptian pharaohs, but the line of all Egyptian pharaohs. The three children of Cleopatra with Antony were spared and taken back to Rome where they were reared by Antony's wife, Octavia.


Cleopatra in art, film, TV, and literature

Cleopatra's story has fascinated scores of writers and artists through the centuries. No doubt, much of her appeal lay in her legend as a great seductress who was able to ally herself with two of the most powerful men (Caesar and Antony) of her time.


Literature: Drama

Among the more famous works on her:


Literature: Other



Film poster for the 1917 Cleopatra film.
Film poster for the 1917 Cleopatra film.

The earliest Cleopatra-related motion picture was Antony and Cleopatra (1908) with Florence Lawrence as Cleopatra. The earliest film on Cleopatra as the main subject was Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, starring Helen Gardner (1912).

Among the film/TV works inspired by the Queen of the Nile:

A longer discussion of Cleopatra films is at: Cleopatra (film).






Ancient art—triumph painting, sculpture

The most famous painting of Cleopatra is one that almost certainly no longer exists now. Because the queen died in Egypt well before Augustus' triumph could be put on in Rome, in which she would have walked in chains, Augustus commissioned a large painting of her, which was carried in his triumphal procession, and which may have represented her being poisoned by an asp. The sources for the story are Plut. Ant. 86 and App. Civ. II.102, although the latter may well refer to a statue, and Cass. Dio LI.21.3 reports that the "image" was of gold, and thus not a painting at all. The purported painting was seen and engraved in the early 19th century: it was in a private collection near Sorrento. Since then, this painting is said to have formed part of a collection in Cortona, but there no longer appears to be any trace of it; its quiet disappearance is almost certainly due to its being a fake. For comprehensive details on the entire question, see the external links at the end of this article.


Paintings, Renaissance onwards

Cleopatra and her death have inspired hundreds of paintings from the Renaissance to our own time, none of them of any historical value of course; the subject appealing in particular to French academic painters.


The suicide

The Death of Cleopatra, Guido Cagnacci, 1658
The Death of Cleopatra, Guido Cagnacci, 1658




  1. Peter Green (1990). Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 661–664. ISBN 0-520-05611-6.
  2. Ullman, Berthold L. (1957). "Cleopatra's Pearls". The Classical Journal 52 (5): 193-201.
  3. Smith, William (ed.) (1867). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 802.

External links




Paintings of Cleopatra

Preceded by:
Ptolemy XII
Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt
with Ptolemy XII, Ptolemy XIII, Ptolemy XIV, and Ptolemy XV
Succeeded by:
Roman province

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