Want to know more about Cleopatra, the last of the Egyptian pharaohs? Understand the relationship she had with Caesar and then with Mark Antony? Understand the political reasons which lead to her tragic suicide?
You've come to the right place: we've prepared a biography of the most famous Egyptian queen: Cleopatra.
Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra VII Philopator is the last of the pharaohs of Egypt. After taking power in Egypt with the help of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra was his mistress until he was assassinated in 44 BC. Later, she married one of Caesar's generals, Mark Antony.
We will see together in this article:
- The historical context of Egypt at the birth of Cleopatra
- Cleopatra's seizure of power with the help of Julius Caesar
- The conquests led by Cleopatra and Mark Antony
- The death of Cleopatra after the victory of the Roman general Octavian over Mark Antony
After reading this article, you will know all about the Egyptian sovereign who inspired a significant number of paintings, novels, plays and movies.
Let's get started without further ado!
When we speak of "Cleopatra", we traditionally speak of Cleopatra VII Philopator. Indeed, the intrigues in which she took part alongside Caesar and Mark Antony gave her a much more prominent place than the six other Cleopatra in Egyptian history.
A) Historical context (69 BC)
Cleopatra belongs to the 31st dynasty of pharaohs: the "Ptolemaic dynasty" (or the "Lagids"). This Ptolemaic dynasty is a Hellenistic dynasty (i.e., ancient Greek dynasty) that began with power's seizure of Ptolemy I over Egypt. Ptolemy is a former general of Alexander the Great who retained control of Egypt after Alexander's death in 323 BC.
Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra VII Philopator was one of the daughters of pharaoh Ptolemy XII. It is today assumed that Cleopatra's mother was an Egyptian courtesan (and not a Greek courtesan as the Ptolemies' tradition had it). This speculation is supported by Cleopatra's nickname "Philopator," which means "the one who loves her people".
This name could come from the fact that she is related to the Egyptian people by her mother of Egyptian origin (unlike the other members of her family who are of Greek descent because her ancestor was the general Ptolemy I Soter).
A map of the distribution of Alexander the Great's empire at his death in 323 BC. As it can be seen, it was the ancestor of Cleopatra Ptolemy I who recovered Egypt.
B) The coup d'état of Berenice IV (-58)
Cleopatra's youth is rather eventful.
In 58 BC, when Cleopatra is only 10 years old, Ptolemy XII's only legitimate daughter, Berenice IV, overthrows the latter. Berenice IV blames Ptolemy XII for a series of bad decisions that led to the indebtedness of the Egyptian state, the corruption of civil servants and the loss of Cyprus (and a part of Syria, both of which were formerly owned by Egypt before to be claimed by the Roman Empire).
At first, Ptolemy XII failed to convince the Roman army to help him regain power. However, through the Roman politician Pompey, Ptolemy XII corrupted the Roman governor of Syria, Gabinius, who invaded Egypt in 55 BC. Gabinius' Roman legions put an end to the reign of Berenice IV and restored Ptolemy XII to the throne of Egypt.
Pharaoh again, Ptolemy XII will begin a strong crackdown on his political enemies. He immediately has Berenice IV executed and carries out several massacres of his daughter's supporters.
Thus, Ptolemy XII no longer had any legitimate children (from a Greek woman), and it was his illegitimate children (like Cleopatra VII) who would be brought to rule upon his death.
C) Cleopatra coronation
In 51 BC, at the death of her father, at the age of seventeen, Cleopatra must share power with her brother and husband, Ptolemy XIII (aged eleven years old).
Cleopatra speaks many languages (Latin, Greek, Egyptian and six other oriental languages). In fact, Cleopatra is one of the few in her family to speak Egyptian. Indeed, although it may seem surprising (for the dynasty reigning over Egypt), her family speaks only Greek and Roman. Cleopatra is also a very cultured woman thanks to the fortune of her family, which owns many books and parchments.
Reputed of a great beauty, she nevertheless gets along very badly with her young brother.
In 53 BC, Cleopatra had to flee to Syria for fear that her brother and husband Ptolemy XIII, guided by his advisers, would have her assassinated.
2) Cleopatra and Caesar
A) The assassination of Pompey
In -53, it is the end of the First Triumvirate (composed of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus) which shared the power in Rome. Indeed, the death of Crassus during the battle of Carrhae in Asia awakened more and more intense tensions between Pompey and Caesar which will take the form of a civil war.
In June of the year -48, Julius Caesar put an end to the civil war by defeating Pompey's armies at the battle of Pharsalus in Greece. Caesar was then awarded the title of "imperator" by the Roman Senate.
Pompey tries to take refuge in Egypt in Alexandria with Ptolemy XIII of which he was the guardian and tutor. Nevertheless, Ptolemy XIII's advisers suggest to the latter to make assassinate Pompey to gain the favors of Caesar.
Caesar is the last surviving member of the First Triumvirate, an informal alliance founded in the 60 BC that established a division of the powers of the Roman Republic between three men (Caesar, Pompey and Crassus). Thus, in 48 BC, Caesar sought to forge new alliances in order to remain in a position of strength in front of the Roman Senate.
When Caesar arrives in Egypt and learns the news of Pompey's death, he is furious. However, Caesar is interested in Egypt because it plays a strategic role in supplying Rome with wheat. Caesar thus sees in the control of Egypt a means of pressure on the Roman Senate which would make it possible to starve Rome if necessary.
B) The establishment of Cleopatra as the sole ruler of Egypt (48 BC)
To gain control of Egypt, Caesar attempts to reconcile Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII by summoning them to Alexandria. Ptolemy XII, however, prevented Cleopatra from reaching Caesar by posting guards at all entrances of Caesar's palace. In this way, Ptolemy XIII hoped to be able to negotiate freely with Caesar to obtain terms that would be favorable to him at the expense of Cleopatra.
To get to Caesar, Cleopatra will have to trick her brother. She will make herself roll up in a carpet then will make bring this carpet by slaves as a gift for Caesar. Ptolemy XIII thus loses the exclusivity of the negotiations with Caesar.
Caesar asks the two spouses to reconcile and to respect the co-regency wanted by their father Ptolemy XII. Ptolemy XIII refused Caesar's wishes and decided to lay siege to Alexandria with the aim of killing Caesar and Cleopatra in November 48 BC. It was during this period of siege that Julius Caesar and Cleopatra (30 years younger than Caesar) became lovers.
On January 15, 47 BC, Ptolemy XIII was found drowned in the Nile. The siege of Alexandria came to an end. It is now assumed that he was murdered by Caesar's forces (a natural drowning is not a very likely situation during a siege of a city!).
Confident in Cleopatra, Caesar gives her absolute power over Egypt while asking her to marry another of his brothers, Ptolemy XIV, to keep up appearances before the Egyptian people. Unlike her previous marriage, Cleopatra is now the only one to hold real power. At the end of 47 BC, Cleopatra and Caesar had a son, Ptolemy XV (also known as "Caesarion").
The relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar is particularly well known thanks to the 6th volume of Asterix released in 1968: "Asterix and Cleopatra" (to be re-released in 2002 in the form of a French movie: "Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra").
In 46 BC, Caesar defeated Pompey's last supporters. He can thus freely return to Rome accompanied by Cleopatra.
The passion linking Caesar and Cleopatra will continue until the tragic assassination of Caesar by the partisans of the Republic in -44 (to which they reproach to want to become a tyrant).
3) Cleopatra and Mark Antony
A) The reason for the presence of Mark Antony in the East (39 BC)
After Caesar's death, a new civil war will break out. This war pitted Caesar's assassins (notably the Roman general Cassius and Brutus, Caesar's adopted son) against Caesar's former supporters seeking revenge.
The former partisans of Caesar, Caius Octavian (Caesar's grand-nephew), Mark Antony (one of Caesar's generals) and Lepidus (another of Caesar's generals) chase Brutus and Cassius as far as Eastern Macedonia.
Meanwhile, Cleopatra takes advantage of the confusion settling in the area to renew her dreams of a "Great Egypt". She seizes Cyprus (annexed by the Romans during the reign of her father). Moreover, fearing that her husband and younger brother Ptolemy XIV would fight to take a part of the power, Cleopatra had him assassinated in -44.
In -42, Cleopatra sends her Egyptian troops and the Roman forces remained in Egypt to join the forces of the old partisans of Caesar in Eastern Macedonia.
In Eastern Macedonia, after two battles delivered to Philippi, Cassius then Brutus commit suicide in turn after their respective military defeats at the time of these two battles. Winners, Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus form a "Second Triumvirate".
After the "Pact of Misenum" (a city in the south of the Italian peninsula), Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus share the sovereignty of the lands of the Roman Republic. Mark Antony inherits the East (see map below). Mark Antony then takes over Caesar's old plans for the eastern conquest and prepares to invade Parthia.
The division of the Roman Republic between Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus in 39 BC
The Parthian forces being numerous and well-trained, Mark Antony is looking for allies in the region. In 41 BC, he summoned the leaders of the Client Kingdoms (i.e. the lands under Roman protectorate, which included Cleopatra's Egypt).
Knowing Mark Antony's love for great feasts, Cleopatra presents herself to Mark Antony on board a richly gilded ship. Her crew is disguised as nymphs (the minor Greek female deities), nereids (the nymphs of the seas) and dryads (the nymphs of the forests).
After the military meeting arranged by Mark Antony, Cleopatra invites the latter to a splendid banquet on board his boat. It is here that begins a liaison between the queen of Egypt and Mark Antony which will last 10 years (compared to 4 years for the one between Cleopatra and Caesar).
B) The reconquest of the lands lost by Egypt (40 BC)
In winter -40, the East was attacked by the Parthians who snatched Syria and Cilicia from Mark Antony. The latter then plans a vast counteroffensive.
Unfortunately, in the summer of -40, Mark Antony had to return to Rome to avoid a new civil war. His supporters and those of Octavian quarrel in the Senate. The meeting between Mark Antony and Octavian in Rome results in a pact called "the Pact of Peace of Brundus" (recording the marriage between Mark Antony and Octavian's sister, Octavia).
Mark Antony will stay with Octavia for three years (until relations between Mark Antony and Octavian deteriorate). During the winter of the year -37, Mark Antony returns to Cleopatra in Alexandria.
From -37 to -36, Cleopatra and Mark Antony join forces to attack the Parthians. This attack is however a bitter failure. This failure is due to an extremely harsh winter that prevents Mark Antony's soldiers from maneuvering in the mountains of Parthian territory.
In -36, Octavian sends Octavia and Mark Antony's two daughters to join the latter in Egypt. However, not showing the will to be reconciled with Octavian, Mark Antony asks his wife to return to Italy before she arrives in Alexandria where Mark Antony is staying with Cleopatra.
In -36, the triumvirate is dissolved. Indeed, Lepidus and Octavian fought over Sicily (previously taken over by Sextus Pompey, Pompey's last son). Lepidus and Octavian both claimed Sicily. Unable to reach an agreement, a battle was being prepared. However, just before the battle broke out, Octavian convinced Lepidus' armies to join him. Lepidus is exiled to his villa on Mount Circe in Italy where he will spend the last 23 years of his life under high surveillance.
In -35, Mark Antony and Cleopatra lead a new expedition to the Parthians. This expedition takes place with a more favorable meteorology for the Roman and Egyptian troops. Thus, Mark Antony and Cleopatra retake Syria from the Parthians and obtain the allegiance of Armenia and Medea.
To celebrate this victory, Mark Antony organized a triumph in the streets of Alexandria. As Roman triumphs normally take place in Rome, Octavian is furious of the choice of this place of triumph. Even worse for Octavian, Mark Antony marries Cleopatra the same year (while he is still married to Octavian's sister, Octavia).
In -32, a vast public denigration of Mark Antony is organized by Octavian in Rome. Indeed, Octavian still fears Mark Antony, who is still very popular in the Senate. This campaign of denigration is particularly aimed at Cleopatra. The latter is portrayed as a "foreign queen enslaving Mark Antony, a great man who became a slave of corrupt and non-Roman morals".
At this point, a conflict between Mark Antony and Octavian seems inevitable. Octavian as well as Mark Antony and Cleopatra raise armies.
C) The battle of Actium
On September 2, 31 BC, Mark Antony and Cleopatra fought both a naval and land battle against Octavian in Greece, at Actium.
Mark Antony and Cleopatra owned 300 Roman and 200 Egyptian ships. They also have a major asset: the presence of the admiral Agrippa, an expert in naval battle.
Octavian has only 400 Roman ships.
On land, Mark Antony and Octavian had 120,000 foot soldiers and 12,000 horsemen each. Octavian is therefore slightly inferior by his smaller fleet.
The battle begins first on the sea. At first, Cleopatra and Mark Antony take the upper hand thanks to the attack and defense strategies imagined by the admiral Agrippa. Unfortunately for Mark Antony, Cleopatra thinks (wrongly) that the battle is lost. So, she fled with her Egyptian ships to Egypt.
Extremely disturbed by the flight of his lover in a battle he thought had been won, Mark Antony leaves the battle to return to Egypt in his turn. This double flight leaves the crews of Mark Antony's ships completely unmotivated. Octavian destroys almost all of Mark Antony's ships. It is thus he who wins the battle at sea.
On land, Mark Antony's troops feel abandoned and betrayed. The officers on land quickly agree to join Octavian when his emissaries come to find them.
Above: "Battle of Actium" painted in 1672 by Lorenzo A. Castro. In this painting we can distinguish:
- In the high center; Octavian's flagship, larger than all the others.
- In the lower center; an Egyptian ship (recognizable by its figurehead representing the Egyptian falcon-headed god Horus). This ship sinks surrounded by drowning soldiers. It represents the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
- Bottom left; Cleopatra fleeing the battle of Actium on a small ship.
4) The death of Cleopatra
After the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, the couple returned separately to Egypt.
On August 1, -30, Mark Antony arrived in Alexandria.
In the city, a rumor announces that Cleopatra would have killed herself (rumor which will turn out to be false). Considering the rumor to be true, Mark Antony felt betrayed by everyone and committed suicide at the age of 53 by throwing himself on his sword.
Arriving in Alexandria before Mark Antony, Cleopatra quickly learns the news of her lover's suicide. However, before she could think of taking her own life, she was put under close surveillance by her former allies in Alexandria as they prepared to join Octavian's camp.
However, on August 12, 30 BC, despite the surveillance set up around her, Cleopatra still manages to get two poisonous cobras brought to her. To do so, she asks her two most faithful servants, Iras and Charmion, to hide the snakes in a fruit basket. The three of them lock themselves in Cleopatra's room and let themselves be bitten by the cobras.
"The Death of Cleopatra" (1874) by Jean André Rixens
When Octavian's agents come to find Cleopatra in her room, they only discovers her inert.
Because Octavian had decided to annex Egypt (which subsequently failed to claim its independence), Cleopatra is now considered the last of the pharaohs of Egypt.
5) The world after Cleopatra
Octavian is Caesar's adopted son (he is adopted by Caesar in his will). Having used this distinction to put himself forward on the political scene (which helped him a lot), he knows that there is a danger in leaving the sons of Cleopatra alive. Indeed, their status as "sons of illustrious fathers" could cause trouble in Rome in the future.
Thus, Octavian follows the advice of his teacher Arius Didyme indicating that "two Caesars is one too many". He thus executes Caesarion (the first son of Cleopatra and Caesar) and Marcus Antonius Minor (the first son of Cleopatra and Mark Antony). Accused of being too cruel to his enemies, Octavian will leave the other sons and daughters of Cleopatra alive.
Egypt is now under the exclusive control of Rome. Imports of wheat commodities are therefore guaranteed for the Roman people. Thus, upon his return, Octavian is celebrated as a hero for ending the civil war.
Octavian uses this popularity to keep the powers he was granted by the Senate in his fight against Mark Antony (notably his title of "imperator"). However, Octavian is careful to show the people that he is a protector and supporter of the Roman Republic.
Octavian does not want to become a tyrant. However, he knows that a slackening of his power over Rome would again lead to political games that could lead to a new civil war with dramatic consequences.
To this end, he gives the people the possibility of electing the magistrates who vote the laws. However, this "democracy" is only a facade (because Octavian has completely taken control of the Senate). Indeed, his powers as imperator allow him to summon senators and choose whether or not to dismiss them.
In -27, Octavian is named "Augustus" by the Senate (derived from the word "augur" and meaning "interpreter the will of the god Jupiter"). The newly appointed Augustus also becomes "princeps" (meaning "prince of the Senate"). By the reinforcement of the powers of Augustus, a new form of state governance located between the Republic and the Empire settles in Rome: the Principality.
Augustus creates great military, administrative and agrarian reforms. To keep the love of the people, he chains the great and expensive works in Rome. He also makes sure to consolidate the Roman borders, he puts an end to the policies of military conquests of Rome to concentrate on the defenses of the young Roman Principality.
In -19, with the death of Augustus, as he has no direct heir, it is his son-in-law, Tiberius, who succeeds him and who will become the first Roman emperor.
An Egyptian queen
You now know all about Cleopatra's story. Indeed, we saw together:
- The story of Cleopatra's youth
- The story of the encounter between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
- The story of the encounter between Cleopatra and Mark Antony
- The story of Cleopatra's death, followed by the ascension of Octavian, who became "Augustus"
Having arrived here, now that you know the story that closes the period of "ancient Egypt", perhaps you want a timeless memory of it! In this regard, you will find on our site rings and signet rings in the colors of ancient Egypt.
To discover them, simply click on the image below!