Cleopatra: The Last Pharaoh of Egypt

Cleopatra: The Last Pharaoh of Egypt
Posted on: July 28th, 2023

Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-30 BC) was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, who left an indelible mark in world history with her intelligence, charisma, and the political turmoil that marked her reign. She was a woman of exceptional political acumen and flair, combined with a passionate and dramatic personal life. This article delves into the fascinating life and the tragic end of Cleopatra, one of the most iconic figures in ancient history.

Cleopatra's Early Life

Cleopatra VII was born in 69 BC into the Macedonian Greek dynasty that had ruled Egypt since the death of Alexander the Great. The dynasty was known as the Ptolemaic dynasty, named after its founder, Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Her father was Ptolemy XII Auletes, and although her mother’s identity isn’t definitively known, she is traditionally believed to be Cleopatra V Tryphaena.

Cleopatra of Egypt was not the only child of Ptolemy XII. She had two older sisters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice IV, as well as a younger sister, Arsinoe IV, and two younger brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. However, most of her siblings would eventually become her rivals for power.

Unlike other Ptolemaic rulers who spoke only Greek, she was multilingual and is reported to have spoken as many as nine languages. This linguistic proficiency was a testament to her exceptional education. Cleopatra was raised in one of the most intellectual societies of the ancient world. The city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, was a center of learning and housed the Great Library of Alexandria, which was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world.

Her education would have included mathematics, philosophy, oratory, and astronomy among other subjects. Early on, she would have been trained in politics, religion, and leadership skills, in preparation for her potential future role as a ruler. She was also tutored in the Egyptian language and culture, which was unusual as previous Ptolemaic rulers did not assimilate into the Egyptian culture to the same extent.

Did You Know?

Cleopatra was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn and speak Egyptian. The Ptolemies, being of Macedonian Greek heritage, typically spoke Greek, and previous rulers did not learn the language of their Egyptian subjects. However, Cleopatra broke this tradition. Not only did she learn Egyptian, but she also reportedly spoke as many as nine languages and was renowned for her intellect.
This fluency allowed her to communicate directly with her subjects, enhancing her ability to rule effectively. She also embraced Egyptian religion and culture, presenting herself as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis. These actions strengthened her connection with her subjects and showed her respect for their traditions, which likely contributed to her successful reign as one of Egypt’s most remembered pharaohs.

In 58 BC, Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was forced into exile by a rebellion led by Cleopatra’s older sister, Berenice IV. Cleopatra accompanied her father to Rome, where they stayed until 55 BC when Auletes, with the aid of the Roman general Pompey, regained the throne. However, Berenice IV was executed upon their return.

When Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, the fifteen-year-old Cleopatra and her ten-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, inherited the throne. However, their early reign was fraught with difficulties, including economic hardship caused by her father’s expensive lifestyle and the cost of the Roman alliance.

In these formative years, Cleopatra’s experiences—her exposure to political instability, her rigorous education, and her early brushes with power—were instrumental in shaping the clever, resourceful, and ambitious ruler she would become. Her charisma, coupled with her intelligence and political acumen, would soon help her navigate through the turbulent events that lay ahead.

Accession to the Throne

She was only 18 when she and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, ascended to the throne upon their father’s death in 51 BC. As was customary in the Ptolemaic dynasty, the siblings were also married to each other to solidify their joint rule. The early years of her reign were filled with strife and challenges, marking a tumultuous beginning to her rule as Egypt’s pharaoh.

Her father, Ptolemy XII, had left the country in a state of economic crisis due to his lavish lifestyle and the cost of securing Rome’s support for his rule. Despite this, she quickly demonstrated her strong will and political acumen, managing to stabilize Egypt’s economy and assert her authority as a ruler. She was the first of the Ptolemaic rulers to learn the Egyptian language and embraced many of Egypt’s ancient customs, winning the respect and support of her subjects.

However, her early reign was not without significant challenges. The major conflict arose with her co-regent and sibling-husband, Ptolemy XIII. Their relationship was far from harmonious; Ptolemy XIII and his advisors—particularly the influential eunuch Pothinus and the Egyptian general Achillas—began to vie for power, leading to a divide in the royal court.

By 48 BC, the rivalry had escalated to a civil war. She was driven out of Alexandria and retreated to the eastern frontier of Egypt. This was a significant turning point in her life and reign, but she was not one to accept defeat easily. It was during this period of exile that she sought the support of Julius Caesar, a move that would dramatically change the course of her life and the history of Egypt.

Her early years as a ruler, marked by political strife and civil war, shaped her as a leader. She faced adversity with resilience and strategic intelligence, traits that would remain a constant throughout her reign. Her effective handling of these challenges demonstrated her abilities as a ruler and set the stage for her eventual return to power, forever enshrining her as one of the most influential pharaohs in Egyptian history.

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar

In 48 BC, Cleopatra’s search for allies to reclaim her throne led her to Julius Caesar, the rising star of Roman politics. Caesar had arrived in Egypt in pursuit of his rival, Pompey, only to find Pompey murdered by orders of Ptolemy XIII in a misguided attempt to win Caesar’s favor. This act repulsed Caesar, and he decided to arbitrate the dispute between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII, possibly seeing it as an opportunity to gain control over the rich kingdom of Egypt.

Legend tells us that in a bold and strategic move, Cleopatra had herself smuggled into Caesar’s palace rolled inside a carpet. Upon meeting him, she quickly charmed the Roman general with her intelligence and charisma. This meeting marked the beginning of a partnership that was as much about romance as it was about political survival and ambition.

Her alliance with Caesar was a shrewd political move. As the ruler of the Roman Republic, Caesar had significant military and political power, which she could use to reclaim her throne. For Caesar, an alliance with the Egyptian queen offered access to Egypt’s vast wealth, resources, and strategic geographic location.

Their partnership soon blossomed into a romantic relationship, and she gave birth to a son in 47 BC, whom she named Caesarion (Little Caesar). Though Caesar never officially acknowledged Caesarion as his heir, she consistently presented him as Caesar’s son.

In 47 BC, with Caesar’s military support, Cleopatra fought to reclaim her throne. The war culminated in the Battle of the Nile, where Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile River while attempting to flee. Following this victory, she was reinstated as Egypt’s ruler, this time alongside her other younger brother, Ptolemy XIV.

She also visited Rome at least twice during her relationship with Caesar, living in his villa outside the city. Caesar’s open affair with the foreign queen and the presence of their son was a significant scandal in Rome, where Caesar was already married to Calpurnia.

Their relationship came to an abrupt end with Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, when she fled back to Egypt as the political landscape in Rome became too dangerous. Despite their relationship’s abrupt end, the alliance between Cleopatra and Caesar significantly altered the political landscapes of both Egypt and Rome, marking a pivotal period in both their lives and their respective histories.

The Era of Antony and Cleopatra

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the political landscape of Rome underwent a dramatic shift. Power was divided among three men: Mark Antony, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Caesar’s adopted heir, Gaius Octavius Thurinus (later known as Augustus). This triumvirate ruled Rome, each man seeking to expand his individual power.

In 41 BC, Mark Antony sought out Cleopatra to question her loyalty during the conflict with Caesar’s assassins and to request financial and military support for his intended war against the Parthian Empire. She saw in Antony an opportunity to strengthen her position and secure the future of her kingdom.

Their meeting led to a passionate and politically beneficial romance. The alliance was cemented both personally and politically in 40 BC when Cleopatra gave birth to twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II. Antony spent the winter of 40-39 BC in Alexandria, a period known as “The Alexandrian Winter,” during which they formed their own drinking society known as the “Inimitable Livers.”

In 37 BC, Antony returned to Egypt after several years of conflict with the Parthians, and Cleopatra bore him another child, Ptolemy Philadelphus. That same year, Antony officially recognized and bestowed royal titles to his children with her, a move that Octavian used to foster resentment against Antony in Rome, presenting him as a man seduced and corrupted by Egypt’s queen.

Antony’s abandonment of his Roman wife, Octavia (sister of Octavian), and his decision to publicly affirm his relationship with her, further escalated tensions. In 34 BC, Antony celebrated his military victories in the East with a grand parade in Alexandria, known as the “Donations of Alexandria,” during which he granted vast territories to her and their children. This spectacle was seen as an overt insult to Rome, solidifying Octavian’s position against Antony and Cleopatra.

The tension between Octavian and Antony culminated in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Antony and Cleopatra’s combined naval forces were defeated by Octavian’s general, Agrippa. The couple fled to Egypt, and the victorious Octavian pursued them.

In 30 BC, with Octavian’s forces closing in, Antony, receiving false news of Cleopatra’s death, fell on his own sword. Cleopatra, in deep grief and facing the end of her reign, also decided to end her life. Legend holds that she committed suicide by allowing an asp, an Egyptian cobra, to bite her.

The era of Antony and Cleopatra marked a period of intense political struggle, grand ambition, and ultimately tragic love. Their relationship significantly shaped the history of the Mediterranean and marked the end of the Hellenistic era, ushering in the period of Roman dominion.

The End of Cleopatra

Following the defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Antony and Cleopatra retreated to Alexandria. This period was marked by desperation and turmoil. The once-great city of Alexandria was under siege, its people suffering from famine and disease. Cleopatra began to plan for her possible surrender and even met with Octavian to negotiate terms. However, the negotiations proved fruitless.

Cleopatra was a queen who had reigned supreme, but now she found herself cornered, her kingdom crumbling around her. In a tragic turn of events, Mark Antony, believing false reports of Cleopatra’s death, fell on his own sword. Before he died, he was taken to Cleopatra, who had secured herself in a mausoleum with her closest aides.

On August 12, 30 BC, Cleopatra herself decided to end her life. The details of her death are shrouded in mystery and conjecture. The most popular narrative, perpetuated by ancient historians like Plutarch and Strabo, suggests that Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing an asp, or Egyptian cobra, to bite her. This account has been romanticized in art and literature throughout history, symbolizing Cleopatra’s defiant nature and her desire to control her own destiny.

However, some modern historians question this narrative due to the lethal speed and significant pain associated with cobra bites. Some theories suggest she might have used a mixture of poisons instead. The truth may never be known, as Octavian allegedly ordered her body to be embalmed quickly, which would have hidden signs of poisoning.

Upon her death, Octavian seized control of Egypt, turning it into a province of Rome and ending the age of pharaohs. Cleopatra’s son Caesarion was killed, but her children with Antony were spared and taken to Rome to be raised by Antony’s Roman wife, Octavia.

Cleopatra’s death marked the end of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Hellenistic Era, with Octavian, soon becoming the first Roman Emperor and taking the name Augustus. The once-proud queen of Egypt, who held the affections of two of Rome’s most powerful men and ruled an empire, was laid to rest in an unknown tomb, leaving behind a legacy of power, seduction, and political intrigue that continues to captivate historians and the public to this day.

Legacy: An Enduring Symbol of Power and Seduction

Cleopatra’s legacy is both vast and enduring. As the last pharaoh of Egypt and one of the most famous female rulers in history, she has left a mark on the world that continues to resonate over two millennia after her death.

Despite her non-Egyptian descent, Cleopatra is often remembered as one of the most significant queens of ancient Egypt. She was a successful ruler who navigated her kingdom through a period of immense political upheaval and instability. Her efforts to stabilize Egypt’s economy, endorse major building and infrastructure projects, and her significant command over multiple languages allowed her to communicate with her subjects directly, which helped to strengthen her rule.

One of the most influential aspects of Cleopatra’s legacy is her strategic alliances with two of Rome’s most powerful figures, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. These alliances not only served to solidify her power but also greatly influenced the Roman Empire’s political landscape. Her relationships with these powerful men have been immortalized in numerous works of literature and art, depicting her as a woman of immense charm and seductive prowess.

Cleopatra’s life and reign have been the subject of countless adaptations, from ancient Roman propaganda to Shakespearean drama and Hollywood movies. Often depicted as a great beauty, it is her intelligence, political acumen, and willpower that truly defines her. Despite the many portrayals, often colored by the perceptions and biases of the time, Cleopatra continues to be a source of fascination and study.

Her death marked the end of the Hellenistic Era and the beginning of Roman dominion over Egypt. The subsequent Roman emperors respected and were fascinated by Egyptian culture, incorporating Egyptian art, architecture, and religious symbols into their own culture. This fusion led to the “Egyptomania” that spread during the Roman Empire and continues to this day.

In modern times, Cleopatra has become a feminist icon, a woman who ruled in a male-dominated world, asserting her authority and making her own decisions in matters of state and personal relationships. Her story inspires debates about women’s roles in politics and leadership.

Cleopatra’s legacy is complex, multifaceted, and at times contentious, but her impact is undeniable. As the last pharaoh of Egypt, she stands as a potent symbol of female power, political savvy, and historical significance. Despite the many interpretations and portrayals of her life, Cleopatra remains an enduring figure in world history, a woman whose story continues to captivate us over two thousand years after her death.

Bonus: Was Cleopatra black?

There has been much controversy over Cleopatra’s skin color after a documentary that featured a black Cleopatra on Netflix. The show repeatedly stated that she was, in fact, a black African woman. Starting an age-old discussion on the color of her skin.

However, the exact color of her skin is not known. No contemporary images or detailed descriptions of Cleopatra’s physical appearance exist. What we know of her comes from ancient coinage, statues, and busts, which provide a stylized representation rather than a true likeness.

Cleopatra was of Macedonian Greek descent and was the descendant of Ptolemy I, a Macedonian Greek general who served under Alexander the Great and became ruler of Egypt after Alexander’s death. The Ptolemies, including Cleopatra, were part of the Hellenistic culture, which dominated the Eastern Mediterranean after Alexander’s conquests.

Keep in mind that the Ptolemaic dynasty was known for inbreeding; they often married within the family to keep the bloodline pure and to consolidate power. Therefore, it’s highly likely that Cleopatra retained her Macedonian Greek heritage’s physical characteristics.

That being said, there’s a possibility Cleopatra may have had some Egyptian or other regional ancestry, given that she was born in Egypt and her family ruled there for several centuries. However, no solid historical evidence supports this. If this were the case, her skin tone could range from a lighter Mediterranean complexion to a darker North African complexion.

While the precise color of Cleopatra’s skin remains a mystery, she was most likely of typical Macedonian Greek appearance for her time, possibly with a lighter Mediterranean complexion. But remember, Cleopatra’s historical significance lies in her political acumen, her strategic alliances, and her rule of Egypt during a time of great political change—not her physical appearance.

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