The last pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE, ruled 51-30 BCE), is among the most recognized of any Egyptian pharaoh by the general public, and yet most of what we 21st-century people know of her are rumors, speculation, propaganda, and gossip. The last of the Ptolemies, she was not a seductress, she did not arrive at Caesar's palace wrapped in a carpet, she did not charm men into losing their judgment, she did not die at the bite of an asp, she was not stunningly beautiful.
No, Cleopatra was a diplomat, a skilled naval commander, an expert royal administrator, an orator fluent in several languages (among them Parthian, Ethiopian, and the languages of the Hebrews, Arabs, Syrians, and Medes), persuasive and intelligent, and a published medical authority. And when she became pharaoh, Egypt had been under the thumb of Rome for fifty years. Despite her efforts to preserve her country as an independent state or at least a powerful ally, at her death, Egypt became Aegyptus, reduced after 5,000 years to a Roman province.
Birth and Family
Cleopatra VII was born in early 69 BCE, the second of five children of Ptolemy XII (117-51 BCE), a weak king who called himself the "New Dionysos" but was known in Rome and Egypt as "the Flute Player." The Ptolemaic dynasty was already in shambles when Ptolemy XII was born, and his predecessor Ptolemy XI (died 80 BCE) came to power only with the interference of the Roman Empire under the dictator L. Cornelius Sulla, the first of the Romans to systematically control the destiny of the kingdoms bordering Rome.
Cleopatra's mother was probably a member of the Egyptian priestly family of Ptah, and if so she was three-quarters Macedonian and one-quarter Egyptian, tracing her ancestry back to two companions of Alexander the Great-the original Ptolemy I and Seleukos I.
Her siblings included Berenike IV (who ruled Egypt in the absence of her father but was killed on his return), Arsinoë IV (Queen of Cyprus and exiled to Ephesos, killed at Cleopatra's request), and Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV (both of whom ruled jointly with Cleopatra VII for a time and were killed for her).
In 58 BCE, Cleopatra's father Ptolemy XII fled to Rome to escape his angry people in the face of a declining economy and the dawning perception that he was a puppet of Rome. His daughter Berenike IV seized the throne in his absence, but by 55 BCE, Rome (including a young Marcus Antonius, or Mark Antony) reinstalled him, and executed Berenike, making Cleopatra the next in line for the throne.
Ptolemy XII died in 51 BCE, and Cleopatra was put on the throne jointly with her brother Ptolemy XIII because there was significant opposition to a woman ruling on her own. Civil war broke about between them, and when Julius Caesar arrived for a visit in 48 BCE it was still ongoing. Caesar spent the winter of 48-47 settling the war and killing off Ptolemy the XIII; he left in the spring after putting Cleopatra on the throne alone. That summer she bore a son she named Caesarion and claimed he was Caesar's. She went to Rome in 46 BCE and obtained legal recognition as an allied monarch. Her next visit to Rome came in 44 BCE when Caesar was assassinated, and she attempted to make Caesarion his heir.
Alliance with Rome
Both political factions at Rome-the assassins of Julius Caesar (Brutus and Cassius) and his avengers (Octavian, Mark Anthony, and Lepidus)-lobbied for her support. She eventually sided with Octavian's group. After Octavian took power in Rome, Anthony was named Triumvir of the eastern provinces including Egypt. He began a policy of expanding Cleopatra's possessions in the Levant, Asia Minor, and the Aegean. He came to Egypt the winter of 41-40; she bore twins in the spring. Anthony married Octavia instead, and for the next three years, there is almost no information about Cleopatra's life in the historical record. Somehow she ran her kingdom and raised her three Roman children, without direct Roman influence.
Anthony returned east from Rome in 36 BCE to make an ill-fated attempt to gain Parthia for Rome, and Cleopatra went with him and came home pregnant with her fourth child. The expedition was funded by Cleopatra but it was a disaster, and in disgrace, Mark Anthony returned to Alexandria. He never went back to Rome. In 34, Cleopatra's control over the territories that had been claimed by Anthony for her was formalized and her children were designated as rulers of those regions.
End of a Dynasty
Rome led by Octavian began to see Mark Anthony as a rival. Anthony sent his wife home and a propaganda war about who was Caesar's true heir (Octavian or Caesarion) erupted. Octavian declared war on Cleopatra in 32 BC; an engagement with Cleopatra's fleet took place off Actium in September of 31. She recognized that if she and her ships stayed in Actium Alexandria would soon be in trouble, so she and Mark Anthony went home. Back in Egypt, she made futile attempts to flee to India and set Caesarion on the throne.
Mark Anthony was suicidal, and negotiations between Octavian and Cleopatra failed. Octavian invaded Egypt in summer of 30 BCE. She tricked Mark Anthony into suicide and then recognizing that Octavian was going to put her on exhibition as a captured leader, committed suicide herself.
After Cleopatra's death, her son ruled for a few days, but Rome under Octavian (renamed Augustus) made Egypt a province.
The Macedonian/Greek Ptolemies had ruled Egypt from the time of the death of Alexander, in 323 BCE. After two centuries power shifted, and during the reigns of the later Ptolemies Rome became the hungry guardian of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Only tribute paid to the Romans kept them from taking over. With Cleopatra's death, the rule of Egypt finally passed to the Romans. Although her son may have held nominal power for a few days beyond Cleopatra's suicide, she was the last, effectively ruling pharaoh.
- Chauveau M. 2000. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society Under the Ptolemies. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
- Chaveau M, editor. 2002. Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Roller DW. 2010. Cleopatra: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.