Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator lived from 69 BC to 30 BC, a generation before Christ. She ruled Egypt from 51 BC to 30 BC, making her the last ruler of Ptolemaic dynasty. Although she is mostly remembered as the seductress who won the hearts of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, it must be granted her that she was a clever politician. By the way her memory has remained alive through the telling of her dramatic story in movies, we could call her an icon more than a historical figure, but perhaps not what she called herself, a goddess.
While the Philopator family were from Grecian descent, they made themselves out to be Egyptian Pharaohs, ruling with that ancient guise. This ancient throne over Egypt was on its decline when Cleopatra came to it, but she was determined to do what she could to keep it, by whatever means necessary. In 51 BC Cleopatra’s father died. She was 18 years old she at the time and as was the tradition she married her brother Philopator VIII, who was 10. They took the throne together, but she was not satisfied with sharing the role.
When she tried to make herself the sole sovereign, her brother banished her. She went to Syria and returned with troops, just outside of Alexandria, poised to regain control. Julius Caesar found himself in Alexandria after he followed his fleeing rival Pompey, now dead by the orders of Cleopatra’s brother. He wanted to unite the siblings and stabilize his ally country, trying to negotiate a peace talk. The brother wouldn’t hear of it.
At this point Rome was an ally of Egypt, its encroaching empire surrounding the country and benefiting from it’s agricultural prosperity. Being on good terms with the leader of the most powerful and grasping empire of it’s time was a necessity, and for Cleopatra, a way to regain her throne.
Cleopatra saw her opportunity to gain a powerful ally and cunningly stowed away in a carpet and was brought into Caesar’s palace. According to Crawford, as a grand entrance she unfurled herself from the carpet, and Caesar was cast under her spell. It is disputed about whether they were in love, but doubtless Cleopatra used her charm to partner with Caesar in inciting a civil war in which her brother drowned. However, she did not become sole sovereign, but had to marry her next brother. Caesar and Cleopatra had a son, Caesarion. However, Caesar never openly acknowledged him as such, being a married man already.They moved to Rome together, until 44 BC when Caesar was assassinated. Cleopatra then retreated to Egypt.
Killing for power was not uncommon in Cleopatra’s family, and she was no exception. She killed her brother, ensuring her throne and her son Caesarion the position as co-regent. She also dispatched her sister who was disloyal.
When Mark Antony and Octavian were warring over which of them succeeded Caesar, Cleopatra began a romance with Antony as well as a political alliance. Although it may seem like an affair of convenience or desperation to keep her empire, ancient sources say that they were truly in love with one another. They had two sons and a daughter. In 31 BC they combined forces against Octavian. They were defeated and fled back to Egypt. Octavian conquered Alexandria in the next year. Antony was defeated, his soldiers were abandoning him, and in despair he killed himself. Determined not to be captured by Octavian, on August 12, 30 B.C Cleopatra killed herself, either by the bite of an asp or a vial of poison.
While Cleopatra is widely remembered for the drama of her affairs, gaining and losing control of countries and their leaders with her sexuality, there was more to her than that. Her manipulation of these men, whether prompted by love for them or the power they provide, were ingenious political tactics. She gained influential allies that were ever expanding their territory to maintain, as long as she could, control of her own country, one which loved her. Cleopatra, unlike the leaders before her, actually took the time to learn the Egyptian language, instead of secluding herself in her family’s Grecian lifestyle. She identified herself as an Egyptian Pharaoh, embraced the culture, and was known then for loving her country.
Her legacy lives on, widely through Shakespeare’s play and the several cinematic adaptations of her drama. She is always portrayed as an strikingly attractive woman who allures these Roman leaders. However, the coins that bear her image speak otherwise. In ancient texts she was not praised for her beauty, but her intelligence, charismatic allure, political patriotism, charming conversation, and dynamic leadership.
Photograph courtesy Newcastle University, National Geographic News
Read more about Cleopatra:
“Cleopatra.” BBC History. BBC, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.
“Cleopatra: Exotic Queen and Femme Fatale.” Painting History. n.p. n.d. Web. 30 Jan.
Crawford, Amy. “Who Was Cleopatra?” Ask Smithonian. Smithonian.com. 31 March 2007.
Web. 30 Jan. 2017.
Mehta, Aalok. “Photo in the News: Cleopatra No Beauty Queen, Coin Suggests.”
National Geographic News. National Geographic Society. 15 Feb. 2007.
Schiff, Stacy. “‘Cleopatra’, That Egyptian Woman.” The New York Times, Sunday Book
Review. The New York Times Company. 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.