Cleopatra has been called a shameless temptress who used blatant sexuality to maintain her grip on the throne of Egypt. The truth is much more complex and fascinating for if she had offered nothing else except her sexuality, it is hard to believe she could have lasted more than a few weekends.
Her ancestor, the first Ptolemy, acquired the throne of Egypt when the empire of the deceased Alexander the Great was divided among his chief generals. The first three Ptolemies were reasonably competent rulers, but there was never any doubt that they were Greek, not Egyptian. Until Cleopatra VII they did not even bother to learn the native language, retaining just enough Egyptiann tradition to gain a grudging acknowledgement of legitimacy.
More territory was acquired, including the whole of the eastern Mediterranean coastline. Egypt's new capital, Alexandria became one of the great cities of the ancient world. Its two harbors presided over by one of the ancient world’s Seven Wonders, the Pharos lighthouse, were together capable of holding twenty-four hundred ships at a time. The city’s library held some 700,000 scrolls and was home to many of the greatest thinkers of the age.
Egypt had always had autocratic government, though most kings realized that their personal well-being and that of the nation as a whole were inextricably linked. While Ptolemaic rule began well, it was not long before greed, indolence, ineptitude, and internecine struggles started to take their toll. The country continued to produce great wealth but the benefits went disproportionately to the Greek ruling class. The Nile’s harvest was generous as long as a centralized bureaucracy existed to co-ordinate the required water control systems, but Upper Egypt seemed too remote to interest the lazy Ptolemies and scant attention was paid to changes taking place in the rest of the world.
When Ptolemy XII, nicknamed Auletes, came to the throne in 80 BCE he took the view that it was too late to stem the tide of the Roman advance. Egypt had the money, but Rome had a massive army and seemed poised to take over the world. Auletes made the avoidance of a quarrel with Rome the centerpiece of Egyptian policy. His fellow Greeks felt this was misguided and worked with the Egyptians to overthrow him in favor of his daughters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice IV.
Auletes had always expected trouble and had agreed to pay two Roman triumvirs, Pompey and Caesar, six thousand talents in return for a Roman guarantee of his throne. Although Auletes had to borrow the money from a Roman businessman, the Romans did deliver and the king was restored to his throne. When he died the crown and the debt passed to Cleopatra VII and her ten year old brother Ptolemy XIII.
There is nothing in the record to tell us the name of Cleopatra's mother. Normally, when that sort of thing happens, historians just move quietly on to the next question, but in this case the absence of evidence has made Cleopatra the centerpiece of ethno-political rivalry, as first one group and then another attempts to claim her as one of their own. On her father's side Cleopatra could have traced her ancestors directly back to Macedonia, though well before Alexander the Great had finished his conquests the upper class Macedonians had adopted everything Greek and the Ptolemies would certainly have called themselves Greek. It is futile to argue over the ethnicity of her mother because the evidence has vanished, but we can look at the possibilities and consider the odds.
The Romans hated Cleopatra and spilled a great deal of ink explaining why. Since they never questioned the legitimacy of her claim to the throne, we may reasonably assumed they found nothing scandalous in the circumstances of her birth. One possibility, then, is that Cleopatra's mother was none other than her father's wife. If that is the case, Cleopatra was one hundred percent Macedonian Greek. Many other women, the wives and daughters of senior government officials and assorted royal cousins, would have lived at court, and any one of them could in theory have been Cleopatra's mother. Most of them would have been Greek, but there would have been a few upper class Egyptian women who had learned to speak Greek and even perhaps a hand full of Nubian who had made the long trek north. The many servants and slaves can be discounted for the reasons noted above.
The Ptolemies were foreign interlopers who had usurped the throne of Egypt. To reduce the number of challengers, they began a policy whereby the pharaoh married a sister and the two siblings would share the throne together. The unwritten expectation was that the man would be the senior ruler, but when Cleopatra ascended the throne her brother was only ten years old and too young to take an active role in government.
Cleopatra’s reign began well. She went to Thebes to preside over the ceremonies inaugurating a new sacred bull. The animal was believed to contain the earthly spirit of the great god Amun-Re and its consecration was one of the most important moments in Egyptian religious life. It was the first time a Ptolemy had traveled that far south and her visit was well received. The capital city presented a different picture, however. A quarrel with the Gabinians, the ragtag remnant of a Roman legion based in Alexandria, a disastrous harvest, and the gift to the Roman general Pompey of sixty ships and a large quantity of grain galvanized the opposition and she was driven from the throne in 49 BCE.
The following year Julius Caesar, having defeated Pompey in battle, arrived in Alexandria, hoping to collect the balance of the loan and raise a little extra for his next campaign. Cleopatra had been able to organize a small army in Thebes but it was not enough to enable her to regain the throne. In similar circumstances her father had successfully used the services of Rome and she hoped to do the same. Needing a way to visit Caesar without being arrested and executed by her brothers' supporters she enlisted the aid of a loyal servant. He disguised himself as a merchant, wrapped his mistress in a carpet, slung her and it over his shoulder and marched boldly into the Roman general's suite. Imagine the look on Caesar's face when the carpet was unrolled and the Queen of Egypt popped out.
Caesar proclaimed Ptolemy and Cleopatra joint rulers. His well trained army of four thousand men was sufficient to withstand the attacks of Ptolemy's much larger but ill-disciplined horde of supporters, but not enough to break out of the palace. Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe, escaped the palace, proclaimed herself Queen of Egypt and tried to lead a full-scale rebellion. It was several months before reinforcements arrived and Caesar could break out of the siege and formally capture Alexandria. Ptolemy XIII died in the battle. The victorious Caesar installed Cleopatra and another brother, Ptolemy XIV on the throne. History does not tell us how the Queen felt about successfully driving one brother from the throne only to have him replaced by another. In any event he was quite young and very little is ever heard of him after the coronation.
After a trip up the Nile with Cleopatra in her luxurious 100-meter royal barge Caesar went home, taking in chains the disgraced Arsinoe and leaving behind a pregnant Cleopatra. Their son, Caesarion, was born in June 47 BCE. Apparently popular enough in the rest of Egypt, Cleopatra was hated by all classes in Alexandria and held on to the throne only with the aid of three Roman legions. The following year she went to Rome where she lived on an estate owned by Julius Caesar. The Romans regarded her presence with a curious mixture of fascination and revulsion. None could deny her understanding, scholarship and wit, but Egypt, especially the Hellenistic city of Alexandria, was thought to be especially depraved, Cleopatra’s assumption of divinity was sacrilegious, and her unforgivable influence was thought to be leading Caesar to contemplate becoming king.
Caesar built in Rome a gilded statue to honor Cleopatra and never denied fathering her child. It was even rumored that he would marry her and move his capital to Alexandria, but there is no evidence that they ever resumed their affair, and on the Ides of March 44 BCE the would-be emperor was struck down by republican assassins. Cleopastra went back to Egypt.
In Egyptian mythology the pharaoh is seen as the reborn Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. Several inscriptions picture Cleopatra and Caesarian as divine. A sandstone relief outside the temple of Hathor at Denderah shows Cleopatra as Isis standing beside Caesarian as Horus. In this case, of course, Julius Caesar was the Osiris father and Caesarian Caesar is poised to become ruler of a united Rome and Egypt. The idea would not sit well in Rome, but Egyptians might be prepared to accept it as a justification for her apparently pro-Roman policy.
Caesar’s assassination settled nothing in Rome. The assassins, Brutus and Cassius, along with Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, and Marc Antony were simply the most prominent of the combatants for power; Cleopatra was unprepared to participate until she could feel more confident that she was backing a winner.
Many years of civil war had weakened Rome’s hold on its empire. Antony was sent to the east where he had some success but failed in his quest to take Parthia. Desperate for cash to rebuild his army he summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus. How should she respond to such an imperious demand? She delayed enough to demonstrate that her visit was voluntary, and then arrived on a magnificent, gold encrusted royal barge. Antony expected Cleopatra to come to his palace but he was forced to go to the Queen once her barge had docked.
They undoubtedly had a very hot affair from the beginning, but within a year of its start Antony went back to Rome and cemented an alliance with Octavian by marrying his sister, Octavia. By 35 BCE both the marriage and the alliance were in tatters. They were probably doomed from the start. Rome was fated to have a single ruler and it was just a question of deciding who would fill that role. The endgame was about to begin.
Antony and Cleopatra were married in 33 BCE. The marriage was illegal under Roman law, but that was no longer relevant: he had severed once and for all his ties with Rome. She was Isis, he adopted the guise of Dionysus and their heads appeared together on the coins of both empires. He would acquire land not for Rome but for the revived empire of Alexander the Great.
In the Donation of Alexandria, Antony proclaimed Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya and Syria. Caesarion, Julius Caesar’s son, was her consort. The remainder of the eastern portion of the Roman empire was divided among the three children of Antony and Cleopatra. Some of the land so divided had not yet been conquered and the rest of it already had client kings in place so this was a theoretical not a real transfer of power. Even so, the beneficiaries of this deal were not Roman citizens, making it a challenge that Octavian could not possibly ignore. It would be a fight to the finish where the winner took all. Compromise was not possible.
The ending, when it came, was an anticlimax. The two sides met at Actium on the northwest coast of Greece and Octavian was the clear winner, though mopping up operations meant another year before Octavian arrived to claim Alexandria. Cleopatra and Antony committed suicide.
The record suggests Cleopatra had only two lovers and was celebate for more than half her adult life, thus putting the lie to the Roman charge that she was a wanton whore. Her detractors argue that she entered the bed of Julius Caesar so she could get rid of her brother and sister and rule Egypt herself. Her supporters would say that she truly believed an alliance with Caesar and Rome offered the best chance for maintaining an independent Egypt. What are we to make of her relationship with Antony? Some would call it one of the great love affairs of the Ancient World, while others would claim that she unashamedly led him down the garden path to betray his homeland. Which view is correct? Rome had been beset by civil war for many years. The western half was now firmly in the hands of Octavian, but the eastern half was still in dispute. Alson in question was Egypt's continuation as an independent state. Antony had a large, well trained army and Cleopatra had a navy and lots of money. It was not unreasonable to think that by pooling their resources and working together they both gain what they wanted. That they failed does not mean they were dreaming silly castles in the air. Their defeat at the battle of Actium marks one of the pivotal events in the development of Western Civilization.
Rather than face the humiliation of appearing in chains as the star attraction of a parade down the streets of Rome, Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp.