The story of Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC) and her reputation as the lover of not just one but two powerful Roman leaders has endured for over 2000 years. Yet, there was much more to the woman than her perceived ability to seduce men.

She was a remarkable ruler of a vast and wealthy nation and was even worshiped as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess, Isis.  An excellent administrator, she was also politically and militarily savvy. She played the game well but lost it all by the time she was 39.

She was not the only Cleopatra in history but she was last one and also the last Pharaoh of Egypt. Yet, she was not Egyptian.  She was Macedonian Greek whose line descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's generals.  10 generations before she was born, Egypt had swiftly capitulated to Alexander and proclaimed him Pharaoh, the  new "master of the Universe" and son of the deity of Amun.  When he died young,  his generals swiftly divided up his empire with Ptolemy grabbing one of the richest prizes.

Ptolemy's descendants ruled from Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great. The Ptolemaic dynasty often followed the ancient Pharaoh custom of sibling marriage. There was no record of any genetic abnormalities but the family tree was exceedingly compact. Cleopatra's grandmother married her uncle which thus made this woman's father a brother-in-law as well. Cleopatra's parents were likely siblings, so she would have had only one set of grandparents.

While the practice of marrying close relatives kept the power and wealth within the family, the rivalry was so bad that many of them, including Cleopatra herself, often resorted to murder to get rid of pesky relatives. Cleopatra was the second of 5 children (3 daughters and 2 sons) of Ptolemy XII Auletes, all of whom became Pharaohs in turn and all died violently. But only Cleopatra, true to form, was able to choose the manner of her death.

By Cleopatra's time, mighty Egypt was in decline and threatened by the even mightier Roman Empire. It was no easy task to keep the Romans at bay because all through her lifetime, various Roman leaders were also jostling and fighting for power. So it was very important to cozy up to the right one i.e. the winner.

Cleopatra's father curried favor with Rome and the Roman leader Pompey with huge bribes financed by heavily taxing his subjects. Not surprisingly, no one liked Auletes except for Cleopatra who adored him. His eldest daughter, Berenice, usurped his throne when he was away in Rome - she was executed when he returned.  Auletes died when Cleopatra was 18. She then became co-Pharaoh alongside her 10 year-old brother-husband, Ptolemy XIII.

The first 3 years of their joint reign were difficult ones as Egypt was in political and economic turmoil, beset by famine.  Cleopatra wanted to rule on her own but lost out to her younger brother (aided by tutor-advisers) and was banished along with her younger sister Arsinoe. She languished in the Syrian desert trying to raise an army.

Julius Caesar
Meanwhile a Roman civil war erupted. Pompey lost to Julius Caesar and fled to Alexandria seeking Ptolemaic support. He didn't get it. Cleopatra's brother arranged for his assassination hoping to appease the victorious Caesar.  Caesar was furious when Pompey's head was delivered to him after he himself arrived in Alexandria.  While Pompey was his arch rival, Caesar took a dim view to the murder of a Roman consul who also happened to be his ex-son-in-law.

With Pompey out the picture, Cleopatra needed to meet with Caesar and garner his support for her restoration to the throne. She needed to sneak in to see him without her brother knowing. She had one of her loyal servants take her back in her own palace where Julius Caesar was staying.  She appeared in his palace quarters tied up in a  large sturdy hemp or leather sack.

Contrary to popular belief, she was unlikely to have been bejeweled or unclothed when she met Caesar. But she was probably wearing the diadem - a white ribbon around a head -  to signify her royal status.

Cleopatra Before Caesar  painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme,  1866
Cleopatra was lucky on 2 counts.  Firstly, Caesar was not an easy man to surprise. He could quite easily have had her killed in retaliation for Pompey's murder.  Secondly, Caesar was shrewd. He calculated his fellow countrymen would not like it if he sided with a Roman's killers, so he decided to back this young and captivating queen instead of her brother-husband.

While the 21-year-old Cleopatra was no beauty, she was unforgettable.  She also knew how to ingratiate. His fellow Romans and countless writers throughout history believe she must have 'bewitched' him. But in truth, no one really knows who seduced whom.  Caesar was 52, a veteran of many wars, many paramours...and a married man. They were very similar though in many ways despite the age gap. Both were eloquent and charming when they wanted to be but above all, both were level- headed pragmatists and strategists.

Their relationship became close at some point in the next several months as the Cleopatra's subjects rallied behind her brother and younger sister, Arsinoe, against the Roman intruders - they did not wish to bow to Rome. In the end, Caesar scored a decisive victory and Cleopatra's first brother-husband perished. Arsinoe, who also wanted to be queen, escaped. It took a while before Cleopatra could tie up that loose end.

Cleopatra reclaimed her throne, secure in her position thanks to his support. Caesar lingered in Egypt far longer than he should have. During that time he grew to admire not just Cleopatra herself but the country she ruled.  Cleopatra worked very hard to govern Egypt. She was very much a hands- on ruler with one distinct advantage none of her Greek speaking predecessors had. A gifted linguist who spoke several languages, she actually bothered to learn the language of her subjects and was able to speak directly to them in Egyptian.

Cleopatra painting by John William Waterhouse, 1888
She  stabilized Egypt's currency and its shaky economy and productivity rose during her reign. Egypt prospered.  It was a well oiled bureaucracy tasked with one major aim - filling the royal coffers. In a modern comparative list, Cleopatra was considered the 22nd richest person in history. Her wealth was estimated at 3 times that of Queen Elizabeth II's and she showed it all off.  Jewels and plenty of it were the symbols of her power.

When she regained her throne, one of the first things she did was to send out soldiers and workers to every gemstone mine in her kingdom to secure their valuable ore. Emeralds were synonymous with Egypt because they were only found there in her time. Emeralds were also studded everywhere in her opulent palace. 

She wore a lot of pearls - they were the most expensive gemstones in her time - as long strands on her body and in her hair. Pearls were also sewn on her clothes. Even her sandals were jeweled.  Everything in her palace that could be bejeweled, was. Mosaics of gold, garnet and topaz, ceilings studded with agate and lapis, ivory hallways, jasper couches, doors inlaid with mother-of-pearl , solid gold and silver even on gates.

Cleopatra then married her youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV as her people would only accept a ruling couple. But he was just a figurehead. She eventually bore Julius Caesar's son, Ptolemy Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion, which means "little Caesar." Her brother-husband thus became irrelevant when this boy was born. So Cleopatra had him poisoned.  She later made her son co-Pharaoh, neatly cementing her absolute control and appeasing her subjects both at the same time!

Caesarion - son of Cleopatra and Caesar. From the Cleopatra exhibit, "Unravel the Mystery," at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA.
Cleopatra followed Caesar back to Rome.  Her arrival scandalized Rome. Caesar had learned from her how to demonstrate power by showing off extreme wealth. Romans were further disgusted when he introduced laws limiting the use purple togas and some gemstones for his personal use only.  He was particularly fond of pearls - his invasion of Britain was really for access to Britain's then abundant river pearls.

On the Ides of March, 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated by some of his closest associates. They considered him a tyrant who wanted to rule the Roman Empire just as his mistress did in her country. His murder was a disaster not just for the now leaderless Roman Empire but also for Cleopatra who lost her lover and his powerful Roman support. Civil war and anarchy ensued.

Death of Caesar painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867
Mark Antony allied with Gauis Octavian, Caesar's grandnephew (adopted as a son) and heir and eventually defeated the assassins under Brutus and Cassius.  The two of them then divided the Roman Empire with Antony getting the Eastern region.

 Mark Antony and Gaius Octavian

Cleopatra tried to remain above the fray when the infighting began but it wasn't easy. Antony sent for her to explain her possible association with the assassins.  This meeting was so different from the one she had with Caesar years ago. This time she pulled out all the stops.  Dressed as the Egyptian goddess Isis, the now 28-year-old queen sailed up the river in a luxurious barge laden with gifts.

She knew Antony needed financial support for his military campaigns and that put her in a strong bargaining position.  Antony himself was captivated.  There were lavish dinner parties including one where Cleopatra supposedly bet that she could host the most expensive dinner ever by swallowing a pearl (see link below).

Anthony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885)
Antony was soon all hers.  The fact that he too was a married man didn't matter to either of them. He even left after that first meeting with a to-do list from her. One item was the execution of Cleopatra's scheming younger sister, Arsinoe, to safeguard Cleopatra's throne. 

They were together for 11 years. She  bore him 3 children;  first twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and then the youngest, a boy named Ptolemy Philadelphus.  Cleopatra became known as Queen of Kings. Caesarion was King of Kings and acknowledged as Caesar's son.  The Antony children were also given vast territories to rule. This became intolerable to Octavian because not only did Antony make it clear that Octavian himself was no true son of Caesar, huge swaths of the Roman world were being parceled out to Antony's family.

Another civil war erupted. Octavian eventually defeated Antony's and Cleopatra's joint army and navy.  Both retreated to Alexandria, with Cleopatra arriving first. Antony fell on his sword when he was mistakenly told that Cleopatra had died.  As he lay dying, he learned Cleopatra was alive. She had locked herself and 2 loyal ladies-in-waiting in her mausoleum. He had himself taken there where he died in her arms.

Death of Cleopatra painting by Reginald Arthur, 1892
The oft repeated story by classical writers over the centuries about her own death from asp bites is unlikely to be true. Nobody really knows for sure how she committed suicide but taking known poisons like hemlock would have been much more her style. Snakes are unpredictable and death by venom would not have been pleasant.  When people finally broke into her hiding place, Cleopatra and one of her ladies were already dead. The remaining lady was seen adjusting Cleopatra's headpiece before she too, died. Antony and Cleopatra were buried together.

The victor, Octavian or Augustus Caesar as he was later known, made sure he was the only Caesar left by getting rid of Caesarion. Cleopatra's other children by Antony were not a threat so he had his saintly sister who was once married to Antony raise them, which she did with kindness.

With Cleopatra's death, Egypt became a Roman province and remained so for the next 300 years.  The nation never gained its autonomy until the 20th century.


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