Biography of Cleopatra, Last Pharaoh of Egypt

Antony and Cleopatra, from a 17th or early 18th century painting
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Cleopatra (69–August 30, 30 BCE) was the ruler of Egypt as Cleopatra VII Philopater, She was the last of the Ptolemy dynasty of Egyptian rulers, and the very last Pharaoh of Egypt, ending a dynastic rule of some 5,000 years.

Fast Facts: Cleopatra

  • Known For: The last dynastic pharaoh of Egypt.
  • Also Known as: Cleopatra Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII Philopater; Cleopatra Philadelphus Philopator Philopatris Thea Neotera.
  • Born: Early 69 BCE.
  • Parents: Ptolemy XII Auletes (d. 51 BCE, ruled 80–51 BCE except for 58-55 BCE) and Cleopatra V Tryphaina (co-ruler 58–55 BCE with their daughter, Berenice IV, sister of Cleopatra VII).
  • Died: August 30, 30 BCE.
  • Education: Studied with a tutor and at the Mouseion at the Library of Alexandria, medicine, philosophy, rhetoric, oratory, and many languages, including Greek, Latin, and Aramaic.
  • Spouse(s): Ptolemy XIII, Ptolemy XIV, Marc Antony.
  • Children: Ptolemy Caesarion (b. 46 BCE, by Julius Caesar); and three children by Marc Antony, twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene (born 40 BCE), and Ptolemy Philadelphus (born 36 BCE).

Cleopatra VII was the descendant of Macedonians who were established as rulers over Egypt when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 323 BCE. The Ptolemy dynasty was descended from the Greek Macedonian named Ptolemy Soter, whom Alexander the Great installed in Egypt, so much of Cleopatra's ancestry was Macedonian Greek. There is some controversy about the possible African origins of her mother, or her paternal grandmother.

Early Life

Cleopatra VII was born around the beginning of 69 BCE, the second of five children of Ptolemy XII and his wife Cleopatra V. Tryphania. Although not much is available about her early life, young royal women of the Ptolemaic dynasty were well educated, and although the Library of Alexandria was no longer the intellectual powerhouse of the Mediterranean, it and its adjacent research center the Mouseion was still a center for learning. She took medical studies--she was a medical writer as a young woman--and she studied philosophy, rhetoric and oratory with a tutor. She was a gifted linguist: in addition to her native Greek, Plutarch reported that she spoke Ethiopian, Trogodyte, Hebraic (probably Aramaic or less likely Hebrew), Arabic, Syrian, Median, and Parthian as well as many others. She undoubtedly read Greek, Egyptian and Latin, and perhaps others.

During Cleopatra's early years, her father Ptolemy XII tried to maintain his failing power in Egypt by bribing powerful Romans. In 58 BCE, her father fled Rome, to escape the anger of his people for the failing economy and Cleopatra, then aged about 9, likely went with him. Her oldest sister was Berenike IV, and when Ptolemy XII fled, she and her mother Cleopatra VI Tryphaina, and his eldest daughter, Berenice IV, assumed the rulership jointly. When he returned, apparently Cleopatra VI had died, and with the help of Roman forces, Ptolemy XII regained his throne and executed Berenice. Ptolemy then married his son, about 9 years old, to his remaining daughter, Cleopatra, who was by time about eighteen.

Rule and Political Strife

On the death of Ptolemy XII in February or March of 51 BCE, the rule of Egypt was to go to Cleopatra and her brother and husband, Ptolemy XIII; but Cleopatra moved swiftly to take control, but not without issues.  

When Cleopatra VII took the double crown, Egypt was still facing the financial issues that her predecessors had created—Julius Caesar was owed 17.5 million drachmas—and there was still scattered civil strife. Drought, failed crops and food shortages were becoming more serious, and by 48 BCE, the Nile flood was extremely low. Cleopatra set about restoring the bull cult; but the largest issue was the presence in her kingdom of Ptolemy XIII, only about 11 years old at the time. 

Ptolemy had the support of his tutor, Potheinos, and a powerful set of advisers, including many of the top generals, and by the autumn of 50 BCE, Ptolemy XIII was in the dominant position in the country. At the same time, Pompey—with whom Ptolemy XII had allied himself—appeared in Egypt, chased by forces of Julius Caesar. In 48 BCE, Pompey named Ptolemy XIII the sole ruler, and Cleopatra went first to Thebes, then to Syria to gather an army of supporters among the opponents of Pompey, but her army was halted in the Nile delta region at Pelousion by Ptolemy's forces.

In the meantime, Ptolemy's advisers were becoming alarmed at the rise in turmoil in the Roman Empire, and seeking to back away from that conflict, they had Pompey assassinated and his head sent to Caesar. Shortly thereafter Julius Caesar arrived himself in Alexandria. He sent messages to Cleopatra and Ptolemy asking them to disband their armies and reconcile with one another; Ptolemy kept his army but came to Alexandria, Cleopatra set messengers and then came herself to see Caesar.

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar

Cleopatra, according to the stories, had herself delivered to Julius Caesar's presence in a rug and won his support. Ptolemy XIII died in a battle with Caesar, and Caesar restored Cleopatra to power in Egypt, along with her brother Ptolemy XIV as co-ruler.

In 46 BCE, Cleopatra named her newborn son Ptolemy Caesarion, emphasizing that this was the son of Julius Caesar. Caesar never formally accepted paternity, but he did take Cleopatra to Rome that year, also taking her sister, Arsinoe, and displaying her in Rome as a war captive. That he was already married (to Calpurnia) yet Cleopatra claimed to be his wife added to a political tensions in Rome that ended with Caesar's assassination in 44 BCE.

After Caesar's death, Cleopatra returned to Egypt, where her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIV died, probably assassinated by Cleopatra. She established her son as her co-ruler Ptolemy XV Caesarion.

Cleopatra and Marc Antony

When the next Roman military governor of the region, Marc Antony, demanded her presence— along with that of other rulers who were controlled by Rome—she arrived dramatically in 41 BCE, and managed to convince him of her innocence of charges about her support of Caesar's supporters in Rome, captivated his interest, and gained his support.

Antony spent a winter in Alexandria with Cleopatra (41–40 BCE), and then left. Cleopatra bore twins to Antony. He, meanwhile, went to Athens and, his wife Fulvia having died in 40 BCE, agreed to marry Octavia, the sister of his rival Octavius. They had a daughter in 39 BCE. In 37 BCE Antony returned to Antioch, Cleopatra joined him, and they went through a sort of marriage ceremony in 36 BCE. That same year, another son was born to them, Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Marc Antony formally restored to Egypt—and Cleopatra—territory which the Ptolemy's had lost control of, including Cyprus and part of what is now Lebanon. Cleopatra returned to Alexandria and Antony joined her in 34 BCE after military victory. He affirmed the joint rulership of Cleopatra and her son, Caesarion, recognizing Caesarion as the son of Julius Caesar.

Octavian and Death

Antony's relationship with Cleopatra—his supposed marriage and their children, and his granting of territory to her—was used by the Roman emperor Octavian to raise Roman concerns over his loyalties. Antony was able to use Cleopatra's financial support to oppose Octavian in the Battle of Actium (31 BCE), but missteps—probably attributable to Cleopatra -- led to defeat.

Cleopatra tried to get Octavian's support for her children's succession to power, but was unable to come to an agreement with him. In 30 BCE, Marc Antony killed himself, reportedly because he'd been told that Cleopatra had been killed, and when yet another attempt to keep power failed, Cleopatra killed herself.

Legacy

Much of what we know about Cleopatra was written after her death when it was politically expedient to portray her as a threat to Rome and its stability. Thus, some of what we know about Cleopatra may have been exaggerated or misrepresented by those sources. Cassius Dio, one of the ancient sources that tell her story, summarizes her story as "She captivated the two greatest Romans of her day, and because of the third she destroyed herself."

What we know for certain is that Egypt became a province of Rome, ending the rule of the Ptolemies. Cleopatra's children were taken to Rome. Caligula later executed Ptolemy Caesarion, and Cleopatra's other sons simply disappear from history and are assumed to have died. Cleopatra's daughter, Cleopatra Selene, married Juba, king of Numidia and Mauritania.

Sources

  • Chauveau, Michel. "Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society under the Ptolemies." Trans. Lorton, David. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2000. Print.
  • Chaveau, Michel, ed. "Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth." Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002. Print.
  • Kleiner, Diana E.E. , and Bridget Buxton. "Pledges of Empire: The Ara Pacis and the Donations of Rome." American Journal of Archaeology 112.1 (2008): 57-90. Print.
  • Roller, Duane W. "Cleopatra: A Biography. Women in Antiquity." Eds. Ancona, Ronnie and Sarah B. Pomeroy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.