The life of Cleopatra VII, the last Egyptian pharaoh, was infamous, but she was far more than just the lover of Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Born in 69 BC, she was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes, a notoriously lackadaisical monarch, and rose to power as co-ruler with her brother in 51 BC.
Who was Cleopatra, aside from a queen? Eventually, after her other siblings died or were killed, Cleopatra became sole ruler of Egypt, with Caesar’s help. They conceived a secret love child, but after his death, she took up with his number one guy, Antony. They had a ton of fun together, but trouble was brewing in the form of Antony’s brother-in-law and arch-rival, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus). Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in Greece in 31 BC, after which she and Antony committed suicide.
And what did Cleopatra do during her reign? She maintained Egypt’s independence until her dying breath by allying herself with her most powerful enemies, and in the tradition of Hellenistic and Egyptian monarchs, she divinized herself and played the role of a goddess. Unlike her predecessors, though, Cleopatra bothered to learn Egyptian, making herself popular with her subjects. Brilliant, charming, and ruthless, Cleopatra was one of the most fascinating rulers of the ancient world.
She Was Married to Two of Her Own Brothers (And May Have Killed One of Them)
In true royal Egyptian fashion, members of the Ptolemaic dynasty married their siblings and immediate relatives. Cleopatra was no different. Upon the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, this 18-year-old began to rule Egypt alongside her 10-year-old brother, the inventively named Ptolemy XIII. The two probably got married; he exiled her from Egypt, and she went to Rome to get Julius Caesar’s help in retaking her kingdom. When the Romans invaded Alexandria, Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile, probably due to the weight of his armor. To maintain dynastic face, Cleopatra then wed her other surviving brother, Ptolemy XIV, whom she may well have murdered after she had a son of her own, a son she named Ptolemy XV Caesarion and claimed was fathered by the Roman general.
Sadly for Cleopatra, she probably didn’t match her famed portrayer in the looks department. Archaeologists uncovered a coin bearing her face, on which she looks pretty plain, but ancient accounts differ. Roman historian Cassius Dio claimed “she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking.” Plutarch alleged that her intelligence, charm, and voice were more alluring than her physical appearance, though neither of these accounts were contemporary. But the academic consensus today is that her political brilliance and alluring manner were her real attractions.
Cleopatra Used Julius Caesar to Help Her Get the Throne
Cleo didn’t flirt with Caesar because he was hot; she used him to get what she wanted. Rome started to threaten Egypt during her father’s reign, with some politicians talking about annexing Egypt and granting its lands to the Roman citizenry. Cleopatra’s father fled to the Eternal City once he was deposed, and the Senate – and Caesar – helped him get his throne back, but at a cost. The Romans gave him a “finance minister” to help him out, but the guy stole a lot of money from Egypt.
Cleopatra needed money and military help to stay in power, so she matched wits with the man at the top – Julius Caesar. Cleo used him to cultivate military support for herself over her little brothers. They met in 48 BC, when Caesar’s arch-rival Pompey landed on Egyptian shores and was promptly killed by Cleo’s little brother. Caesar followed Pompey and came to Egypt, where he met a brilliant young queen who appealed to him intellectually and sexually. And history was made.
Legend Says She Smuggled Herself Into Caesar’s Bedroom Wrapped Up in a Rug
Legend has it that Cleopatra had herself wrapped in a rug and smuggled into Caesar’s room, but that was probably false. Plutarch states she was tucked into a “bed sack” (probably a bag for royal linens) and plopped into his chambers. Other sources claim she was rolled into a carpet to evade her brother’s forces. Regardless of how she really arrived at Caesar’s side, it is no wonder he was enraptured with her: she was brilliant, charming, sexy, and less than half his age.
They went on Nile cruises together, probably made love until dawn, and exchanged political ideas. Who knows exactly what they discussed? But he did leave her with a present – a bun in the oven.
Cleopatra Made Herself a Goddess
In true Egyptian fashion, Cleopatra declared herself a goddess. Although her Ptolemaic predecessors had done the same, often assuming the roles of Greek deities, she went one step further and echoed previous Ptolemaic queens by associating herself with Isis, the mother goddess. Isis was the mother of Horus, the first pharaoh-god of Egypt.
By making herself Isis incarnate, Cleopatra was declaring she was the divine mother and protectress of the Two Lands and her people. She also tied herself to her subjects and solidified her rule. Like Isis and other mortal queens, Cleopatra married her brother(s). She wore sacred robes at a festival and had herself portrayed as Isis in statuary. She was dubbed “Nea Isis,” or “new Isis.” In fact, her consort Mark Antony became Osiris in these depictions, to show that a divine pair was once again ruling Egypt.
In Order to Fund Her Treasury, Cleopatra Stole Gold from Alexander the Great’s Grave
Alexander the Great’s tomb was located in Alexandria, and it was a major tourist attraction into late antiquity (whether or not the king was actually buried in a giant vat of honey). The first Ptolemaic king had brought it there, but successive generations looted Alex’s grave. Cleopatra was no different. After the Battle of Actium that pretty much wiped out her forces, Cleo raided Alexander’s mausoleum and her own ancestors’ resting places to get precious metals to fund her continuing campaign against Rome. She took gold from Alex’s grave, in particular, for her mission. Ironically, it wasn’t until the Roman Octavian, Cleopatra’s mortal enemy, conquered Alexandria that Alexander got a gold crown again.
She Journeyed to Rome with Her Illegitimate Son to Put Pressure on Caesar
Our fave queen visited Rome twice: in 46 and 44 BC. The Romans saw her as a scandalous foreign temptress (arriving with her incestuous her brother-husband) who was in their city to seduce their leader. She stayed at one of Caesar’s villas outside the immediate city, along with her son by Caesar, little Caesarion. Perhaps she was not-so-subtly hinting that her kid should be Julius’s heir?
Some have suggested Cleopatra was just hanging out in Rome on Caesar’s dime, but that was far from the case. In reality, she was working to make alliances and secure her own throne back home; she’d learned from her father’s example that rulers of independent kingdoms needed Roman support to thrive. This was a state visit, not a pleasurable one.
Cleopatra Dressed Up as a Goddess to Seduce Mark Antony
After Caesar was murdered, Cleopatra needed a new ally in Rome. Who better than Caesar’s number-one ally, Marcus Antonius (better known as Mark Antony)? He was a womanizer (who was also married multiple times), so Cleopatra knew she had to dress to impress when she met him. He summoned her to him multiple times, but she came on her own time!
When Cleo met Antony, she sailed up the river in regal style befitting a mysterious foreign queen, as the Romans saw her. Plutarch noted that she rode in “a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes.” Cleopatra herself was lying on a bed with a golden canopy and was dressed like the Roman goddess“Venus in a painting,” with her servants made up as nymphs.
Needless to say, Antony was impressed and invited her over, but she ordered that he come on board her ship. He did as he was told, and was impressed by Cleopatra’s opulence, charm, and intelligence (she could speak many different languages, and had a strong command of political and military sciences). And so an affair was begun…
She Kept Mark Antony Flattered, Charmed, and Entertained
Sure, they had sex, but Cleopatra and Antony did other things together, too. She lured him to Alexandria with promises of gambling and debauchery (so said the Roman Plutarch). Antony had a supper club called the Inimitable Livers, and “every day they feasted one another, making their expenditures of incredible profusion.” The royal chef had to make a lot of meals!
Cleopatra was always keeping Antony entertained, “ever contributing some fresh delight and charm to Antony’s hours of seriousness or mirth, kept him in constant tutelage,” according to Plutarch. They played dice games, got drunk, hunted together, she watched him work out, and when he went out drinking, she went with him, dressed up as a commoner.
Once, when he went fishing, Antony couldn’t catch anything, so he ordered someone to hook a pre-caught fish to his line. Cleopatra was clued in and brought a crowd the next day, so when he hooked a “salted Pontic herring,” he was terribly embarrassed. She mocked him lovingly, saying he should give up his fishing rod. His sport, she said, was “the hunting of cities, realms, and continents.”
Cleopatra Stole Antony – Caesar’s BFF – from His Wife
It wasn’t unusual for anyone to have affairs in the ancient world – no weirder than it is now, and probably less so – but Marc Antony was a real womanizer. He was on his fourth marriage when he met and wed Cleopatra bigamously, but he couldn’t just divorce his fourth wife as easily as he had some of the earlier ones. Why? She was Octavia, sister of his arch-rival, the uber-powerful Octavian (later Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, who defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC). This was an important alliance.
But Antony didn’t mind giving up Octavia for an exciting foreign queen. To keep Antony, Plutarch claimed, “she therefore pretended to be passionately in love with Antony herself, and reduced her body by slender diet; she put on a look of rapture when Antony drew near, and one of faintness and melancholy when he went away.”
She basically wheedled him so he’d choose her, his mistress-wife, over his lawful wife, on which the Romans didn’t look fondly. Then Cleopatra traveled with Antony to Athens. He threw Octavia and their kids out of their house there. (Ironically, after Cleopatra’s death, Octavia raised her and Antony’s surviving children in a weird version of The Brady Bunch.)
She Committed Suicide Either by Snakebite or a Fatal Opium Cocktail
The story goes that, after Cleopatra and Antony lost everything, Cleo committed suicide by having a snake bite her. Plutarch claims that she hid an asp in a basket of figs and let it nibble on her. He admits, though, that “the truth of the matter no one knows; for it was also said that she carried about poison in a hollow comb and kept the comb hidden in her hair; and yet neither spot nor other sign of poison broke out upon her body.”
Or perhaps Cleopatra didn’t die by snakebite, but instead she downed a lethal cocktail. What would her beverage have contained? Perhaps opium, hemlock (what Socrates used to kill himself), and deadly wolfsbane.
Unlike Her Greek Ancestors, Cleopatra Learned Egyptian and May Have Been Part Egyptian
The Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, founded by Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter (“Savior”), was of primarily Macedonian Greek descent. Greek-born Ptolemy was one of Alexander the Great’s BFFs. After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy and Alexander’s other generals carved up his empire; Ptolemy got Egypt, along with a few other, tinier territories. He kept his Greek name, but modeled himself after Egyptian rulers by making himself pharaoh. His successors went one further by marrying their siblings, a hallmark of many ancient kings, Egyptians in particular. So a lot of Cleopatra’s family was Macedonian Greek and not native Egyptian.
But unlike her predecessors, Cleo actually took the time to learn the Egyptian language, meaning she could effectively communicate with her subjects. She may actually have been of part-Egyptian descent herself. Her dad, Ptolemy XII, was mostly Greek, but we don’t know the identity of either his own mother or Cleopatra’s mother. Perhaps Cleo’s grandmother or mother were Egyptian and instilled a love of their native country in the young princess.