Cleopatra was the most infamous queen of Egypt, a woman known for her legendary powers of seduction. Queen Cleopatra VII would stop at nothing, not even murder to achieve her goals. The life and career of Cleopatra, arguably the most visible face of the ancient world, required this descendent of Ptolemy to be cold and calculating to protect her throne, protect her people and most of all, protect herself.
Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt
The name Cleopatra became synonymous with cleverness, intrigue and seduction. She inspired legends throughout the Roman dominated world for her two great love affairs: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. While little is known of Cleopatra's life before she ascended the throne, her reign left an indelible mark in the ancient world.
In 51 B.C.E. Ptolemy Auletes, the ruler of Egypt passed away leaving his throne to his eighteen year old daughter Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII. The Roman General Pompey, a longtime ally of Ptolemy Auletes was charged with administering Ptolemy Auletes' will.
Egyptian law required that Cleopatra VII take a consort who was either her brother or her son. Despite their Greek roots (Cleopatra's ancestor Ptolemy served Alexander the Great and took Egypt as his prize), the family followed the customs of a long line of Egyptian pharaohs, consolidating their power base within their family. By this custom, Cleopatra VII wed her twelve-year-old brother. But unlike her predecessors, Cleopatra inherited a crumbling empire suffering from strife abroad and famine at home. Her younger brother was neither strong enough nor intelligent enough to support her plans for Egypt.
Soon, civil war erupted in Egypt as Cleopatra and her armies battled her younger brother and his advisors. Overseas, another war was waged between Pompey and Julius Caesar. When his legions failed, Pompey fled to Egypt seeking sanctuary with the family he was supposed to be overseeing. Unfortunately for Pompey, the young Ptolemy was persuaded by his advisors to execute the General lest he side with Cleopatra and present his corpse to Caesar in a bid to win Roman support.
Caesar soon arrived and was installed in the palace at Alexandria. Ptolemy XIII was summoned before Caesar and Cleopatra smuggled herself behind enemy lines to participate. It was soon clear that Caesar and Cleopatra were lovers and Ptolemy stormed away. His armies, aroused to a fever pitch at the idea of a Roman invasion, surrounded Alexandria in a great battle that saw the Library, a repository of ancient knowledge, burned along with half the city. But in the end, it was the Roman Legions that won the day.
Ptolemy's death during the war assured Cleopatra of the throne. The Queen then wed her even younger brother to please the Egyptians, but was pregnant by Caesar either just before or just after the wedding. It is unclear whether Caesar coddled the young Queen to create a legacy, take control of Egypt or out of genuine love, but the two were inseparable for months and in 47 B.C.E. Cleopatra VII gave birth to Caesarian or Ptolemy Caesar. Less than a year later, Caesar returned to Rome, receiving many accolades including Dictator for ten years. He soon invited Cleopatra and their son(s) to Rome.
Cleopatra's arrival led to a revival of the Isis faith within Rome and to upset among Roman citizens for fear that Julius Caesar planned to become a bigamist by marrying the Queen. However, in 44 B.C.E. Caesar was murdered on the steps to the Senate and Cleopatra VII fled home to Egypt with her children, desperate to protect them from Roman traitors and the mob.
End of a Empire
It was not long before Mark Antony's legions succeeded in hunting down every participant in Caesar's murder. Alongside Octavian, Caesar's acknowledged heir, Antony became part of a triumvirate to rule Rome. Caesar's foreign Queen also fascinated him. The two courted each other through letters, grand displays and passionate declarations. It was not long before civil war rocked the Roman Empire pitting Antony's forces, backed by Cleopatra against Octavian's.
In 30 B.C.E. Antony's forces were defeated at Alexandria and he committed suicide, the only honorable exit left to him. Cleopatra was captured and dragged before Octavian. He informed her that he would not reconcile with her nor treat her as ally, from that day forth she would be his slave and displayed as such. At the age of 39, Cleopatra used an asp that had been smuggled to her by loyal servants to end her own life. Not long after, her eldest son was strangled, likely under the orders of Octavian to assure he would be no threat to his position.
Cleopatra's remaining children by Caesar and Antony were taken to Rome and raised as Roman citizens. The death of Queen Cleopatra VII ended irrevocably the rule of Pharaohs.