Cleopatra VII was born in 69 BCE as Cleopatra VII Philopator. She was also known as Cleopatra the Great. She was the last pharaoh ruling Egypt of the Ptolemy. After her death, the lands of the Egyptian state were incorporated into the Roman Empire and became the Roman province.
Cleopatra belonged to the Ptolemy dynasty, a family of Macedonian descent who ruled in Egypt, conquered by Alexander the Great. The reign of this dynasty in Egypt is referred to as the “Hellenic period.” Ptolemy used Greek, hence the official documents of the dynasty were written in Greek and Egyptian.
Cleopatra’s name is Greek in origin and literally means “that which comes from a great father”. It is worth mentioning that Cleopatra could speak Egyptian, and considered herself a reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess of fertility Isis.
Cleopatra’s mother remains unknown, but scientists assume that she was Cleopatra V – wife of Ptolemy XII Auletes. Father, in turn, came directly from the family of General Alexander the Great – Ptolemy I Soter.
Background of events
Ancient Egypt in the middle of the first century BCE experienced a serious political and social crisis. Pharaoh exercised power over the country thanks to Rome’s support, obtained through bribes for leading politicians and monetary donations for the Roman state (e.g. he paid 6,000 talents for being recognized as king by the Roman senate). The policy of submission to Rome during the annexation of Cyprus (58-56 BCE) and large donations burdening the royal budget and subjects led to an explosion of social discontent. Centralization of power and widespread corruption led to the rebellion and liberation of these lands from the rule of Ptolemy XII in Cyrenaica (now Algeria). Ptolemy in the face of the great dissatisfaction of the masses had to leave Alexandria and go into exile in 57 BCE Initially, he went to the island of Rhodes, and then to Rome.
After Ptolemy’s escape, power was taken over by his younger daughter Cleopatra VI, who, however, died in 56 BCE After her rule was taken over by an older sister – Berenike IV, who was suspected of poisoning her sister. Berenika reigned with the support of her husband Archelaos, claiming to be the son of the former ruler of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator.
Ptolemy at that time sought Roman support in regaining the throne. In April 55 BCE Ptolemy XII, with the support of the army of the Roman governor of Syria, Gabinius, desiring to return to the throne, entered Egypt and destroyed Archelaos’ troops. Bereniki’s husband fell in battle, and she and her supporters were executed.
Co-ruling of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII
In 52 BCE, Pharaoh’s 17-year-old Cleopatra VII, whose scope of authority was naturally marginal, became the queen’s pharaoh. In March 51 BCE Ptolemy XII died, earlier obliging Rome to patronage the dynasty. Cleopatra and her younger (10-year) brother Ptolemy XIII took over joint rule in Egypt. In accordance with the Egyptian custom of incestuous marriage, she married Ptolemy; however, this did not help the parties agree. The siblings competed for power, which was further complicated by the great hunger caused by the floods on the Nile.
In August 51 BCE, relations between siblings were completely broken. The sister ordered that Ptolemy’s name be removed from all official documentation, and the coins were minted only with her image – this was contrary to the previous paternalistic rule of the pharaohs.
In 50 BCE, Cleopatra entered into a serious conflict with soldiers (Gabiniani) of Aulus Gabinius, a Roman commander and supporter of Pompey’s. Gabiniani were Roman troops, 2000 legionaries and 500 cavalries remaining in Egypt after regaining the throne for Ptolemy XII. They were to be the guarantor of his power and stability. After his death, some of the legionaries killed the sons of the Roman governor of Syria – Mark Calpurnius Bibulus – after they wanted to ask them for support in their father’s war campaign against Parth. Cleopatra handed the killers to Bibulus, which caused the Roman unit to hate the Egyptian queen. Soon, around 48 BCE, the eunuch Ponthejnos, Achillas and Theodetes of Chios, who were followers of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII revolted. Cleopatra tried to defend herself at Peluzjum, but eventually, she had to escape, along with her only sister Arsinoe IV.
Cleopatra VII and Julius Caesar
In 48 BCE, at Farsalos, there was a decisive clash between Pompey and Julius Caesar. Defeated Pompey fled from Greece and eventually went to Egypt, where he wanted to rebuild his strength. However, he was treacherously killed by Achillas (commissioned by Ptolemy XIII), who wanted to secure Caesar’s favour in this way. However, the Roman commander was outraged at the way his rival was treated.
The queen saw in Caesar the only chance to regain power. To this end, she came up with the brilliant idea of Caesar’s seduction. To this end, she used her most important arguments: beauty, artistry of seduction and the wealth she possessed. She sneaked into the palace (messages are common that she was supposedly wrapped in a rug, which is unlikely) and got to Caesar. This is how Plutarch from Caesarea describes this event:
So Cleopatra, taking only Apollodorus the Sicilian from among her friends, embarked in a little skiff and landed at the palace when it was already getting dark; and as it was impossible to escape notice otherwise, she stretched herself at full length inside a bed-sack, while Apollodorus tied the bed-sack up with a cord and carried it indoors to Caesar.
– Plutarch of Cheronea, Caesar 49″
As it turned out, Caesar was so delighted with the young, beautiful and exotic queen that he began to share the bed with her. At the time of their meeting, Caesar was 52 years old and Cleopatra 21.
Caesar abandoned his plans to subordinate Egypt to Rome and eventually decided to restore Cleopatra to the throne. Caesar in the conflict between the royal couple supported Cleopatra. He demanded that Ptolemy XIII dissolve the army and reconcile with his sister-wife. Ptolemy XIII did not agree to Caesar’s proposal, and Potejnos (Ptolemy’s adviser) ordered the Egyptian army commander Achillas to remove Caesar from Alexandria. It was the beginning of the Alexandrian war.
Pothejnos stirred up the people of Alexandria against the Romans, and the remaining Egyptian army of 20,000 soldiers moved to Alexandria, besieging Caesar, who detained Ptolemy as a hostage. These troops announced Arsinoe IV, sister of Ptolemy, queen of Egypt. In fact, however, her guardian Ganymede took over and removed Achillas from command of the army. There was a ceasefire between opponents, during which Ptolemy was released from Roman captivity.
After his release, Ptolemy himself became the head of the army and moved against Roman reinforcements coming from Syria and Palestine, with which Caesar managed to connect. On March 27, 47 BCE, a battle took place in which the Egyptian army was completely destroyed by Caesar’s forces. The fleeing Ptolemy was killed when the ship carrying him sank in the Nile.
In this situation, Caesar ensured that Cleopatra was ruled in Egypt, along with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, who naturally did not have much influence on the fate of the state.
After pacifying Alexandria, Cleopatra and Caesar set off on a journey south along the Nile. At the end of April 47 BCE, Caesar left Egypt, leaving three legions in Alexandria (later the garrison was supplied with the fourth legion).
A few weeks after Caesar’s departure, Cleopatra gave him a son – just nine months after their first meeting – Caesarion1, which she intended rule the empire. Caesar recognized young Ptolemy as a son, giving him the right in the future to apply for an inheritance from his father.
In mid-46 BCE Cleopatra and her brother went to Italy to renew their alliance with Rome. It was located in a suburban villa Horti Caesaris, in accordance with legal restrictions that prevented the ruler of another country from staying within pomerium. The union of Caesar and Cleopatra was widely known in Rome and this caused a scandal due to the fact that the dictator already had a wife – Calpurnia. What’s more, Caesar ordered the golden statue of Cleopatra to be erected in the temple Venus Genetrix – a deity with whom he had Julius’ lineage, on whom the queen was to appear as the goddess Isis. Cleopatra was genuinely hated in Rome, especially by the elite. This is evidenced by one of the letters from the Roman speaker Cicero who claimed that he hated her terribly.
His relationship with Cleopatra, monarchist tendencies, and attempts to establish himself as God led Caesar to death in 44 BCE Cleopatra was still in Rome during this event. However, the situation forced her to return to Egypt.
Soon her brother Ptolemy XIV was killed, poisoned by his older sister. The queen then appointed Caesarion as co-ruler.
Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony
In 41 BCE, Mark Antony, one of the triumvirs, sent Quintus Dellius to Egypt to propose Cleopatra a meeting in Tarsus. Antony wanted to be assured that he could count on Egypt’s “friendship” and support in the planned ambitious expedition against the Parthians. According to Plutarch, Cleopatra charmed Antony so much that he spent with her the end of the year 41 and the beginning of 40 BCE in Alexandria.
Plutarch describes the accounts of Antony and Cleopatra:
But Cleopatra, distributing her flattery, not into the four forms of which Plato speaks, but into many, and ever contributing some fresh delight and charm to Antony’s hours of seriousness or mirth, kept him in constant tutelage, and released him neither night nor day. She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, and watched him as he exercised himself in arms.
– Plutarch of Cheronea, Antony 29
Antony, wanting to protect Cleopatra and Caesarion, ordered her sister Arsinoe and Serapion – her strategosa to be killed. Antony, however, had to leave the queen for several reasons. First, he organized an expedition against the Parthians, and secondly, he intended to implement the plan to marry Octavia, sister of Octavian Augustus, for political purposes.
On December 25, 40 BCE, Cleopatra gave birth to Antonius twins Aleksander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. The names given to the children, according to some researchers, could refer to the title of King of the Parthians: Brother of the Sun and Moon, although it is possible that they had no political overtones. The twin teacher was the historian Nicholas of Damascus.
In 36 BCE Antony visited Alexandria again, on his way to the expedition against the Parthians. It was then that he renewed his relationship with Cleopatra, and Alexandria became his proper seat. In addition, he married Cleopatra according to Egyptian customs; even though he already had a wife Octavia the Younger – Octavian’s sister. At that time, another son of Antony and Cleopatra – Ptolemy Filadelfos – was born.
Late 34 BCE Antoni divided his influence in the Eastern Mediterranean between Cleopatra and children. Cleopatra and Caesarion became co-ordinates of Egypt and Cyprus, and the queen received the title of “Queen of Kings”. After the conquest of Armenia, Alexander Helios sat on the throne of this land and of the Media and Party. Cleopatra II Selene received power in Cyrenaica and Libya; in turn, Ptolemy Philadelphus became the ruler of Phenicia, Syria and Cilicia.
As a result of the political alliance of Cleopatra and Antony, Egypt expanded its borders to Cyprus, Cyrenaica, part of Cilicia, Crete and the areas inhabited by the Nabatean Arabs, as well as the lands of Itureans with their most important city of Chalkis and the central part of the Phoenician coast. Despite pressure from Cleopatra, Antony did not surrender Egypt to Judea, ruled by Herod the Great.
Antony’s political opponents claimed that the Roman chief had gone mad and gave Roman lands to the east under Egyptian rule. It was feared that Cleopatra wanted to seize power in Rome and create a new Empire. In addition, it was emphasized that Antony, after returning from the expedition from the Party, triumphed not in Rome, but in Alexandria, which was a huge dishonour to the Roman elite.
For several years, the relationship between Octavian and Antony was gradually deteriorating. Finally, in 33 BCE there was a conflict, the result of which was Octavian’s persuasion of senators to declare war on Egypt; in fact Queen Cleopatra and Antony. In 31 BCE a decisive clash took place at Akcja, as a result of which Octavian’s army won, and Antony and Cleopatra had to flee to Alexandria. Octavian Augustus chased and landed on Egyptian land. There, on August 1, 30 BCE, the remaining Antony troops deserted. The end of Cleopatra and Antony was inevitably coming.
Ancient sources generally agree on Cleopatra’s death. According to most accounts, she was to die as a result of the bite of an Egyptian cobra. The earliest source – Strabon, who was in Alexandria at the time – says that the queen either used toxic ointment or was bitten by a viper in the breast2. He himself pointed out, however, that he was not entirely sure about the way she had died.
According to Plutarch – a historian writing 130 years after the events described – after the defeat at Actium in 31 BCE, the remaining army declared obedience to Mark Antony and joined Octavian’s army. Upon this news, Antony began to accuse his mistress of treason. Cleopatra, in order to avoid the wrath of Antony, locked herself in her mausoleum with two handmaids. Then she sent a letter to Antony saying that he was dead. The Roman, believing the message, stabbed his stomach with despair and fell on the sofa dying. The blow, however, was so unfortunate that the wound did not bleed profusely, and death was slow and painful; enough that Antony asked him to finish off. Cleopatra, learning about Antony’s attempted suicide, ordered him to be brought and pulled on the ropes to the monument. Seeing the beloved, the queen ripped off her clothes and covered the dying man. Then she began to despair, beat her chest and mutilate. Antony told her to calm down; then he asked for a glass of wine and died.
Plutarch claimed that Octavian had captured Cleopatra in the mausoleum after Antony had just died. The victor from Akcjum ordered a liberator, a certain Epaphroditus, to watch over the queen and stop her from suicide – Augustus wanted Cleopatra to honour his triumph in Rome. However, the queen managed to outsmart the guard and kill herself3.
The queen prepared for suicide for several months after the defeat at Actium. She was collecting strong poisons, whose effectiveness and degree of pain was checked on prisoners. To her surprise, she noticed that fast-acting poisons bring more pain, unlike slower-acting poisons. She also tested on animals. Eventually, she concluded that only a viper bite does not involve convulsions and severe pain. On the other hand, the bitten person is stunned and gradually weakened, which over time leads to a state similar to that of people suffering from a deep sleep.
According to a Roman historian, a viper was brought into the room in a basket filled with figs. Cleopatra was found dead along with the handmaid Iras who died at her feet and Charmiona corrected her crown. This is how Plutarch described this moment:
[…] they found Cleopatra lying dead upon a golden couch, arrayed in royal state. And of her two women, the one called Iras was dying at her feet, while Charmion, already tottering and heavy-handed, was trying to arrange the diadem which encircled the queen’s brow. Then somebody said in anger: “A fine deed, this, Charmion!” “It is indeed most fine,” she said, “and befitting the descendant of so many kings.” Not a word more did she speak, but fell there by the side of the couch.
– Plutarch of Cheronea, Antony 85, 86
Cleopatra was supposed to die on August 12, 30 BCE. She left behind her son Caesarion, who was the last representative of the Ptolemy dynasty and reigned as Ptolemy XV Caesarion.
We do not know well the last years of young Caesarion’s life. The bodyguard and young man’s guardian either cheated on him or gave in to Octavian’s promises of grace and returned to Egypt. The messages are unclear. Plutarch claims that Caesarion has reached India, but having received the promise to take the throne in Egypt, he decided to return.
It is believed that Caesarion was murdered in Alexandria on the order of Octavian, who had previously consulted Arejus Didymos. Octavian asked the philosopher Arejos if he had the right to kill Caesarion. The philosopher paraphrasing Homer said: “It’s not good to have too many Caesars”. So he ordered to strangle him at the end of August 30 BCE.
Death of Cleopatra in contemporary judgment
In 2010, the German historian Christoph Schaefer undertook to check all the theories of the death of the queen and stated that Cleopatra had died of drinking a drink made of many poisons (including hemlock, aconite and opium). He formulated his conclusions based on studied historical materials and consultations with toxicologists. According to his observations, the viper (Egyptian cobra) could not inflict a quick and painless death, because its poison before death paralyzes various parts of the body, starting from the eyes. Cleopatra certainly knew this. What’s more, a viper bite is not always fatal.