- History Classics
- Your Profile
- Find History on Facebook (Opens in a new window)
- Find History on Twitter (Opens in a new window)
- Find History on YouTube (Opens in a new window)
- Find History on Instagram (Opens in a new window)
- Find History on TikTok (Opens in a new window)
- This Day In History
- History Podcasts
- History Vault
- History Travel
By: History.com Editors
Updated: September 22, 2023 | Original: November 9, 2009
Cleopatra VII ruled ancient Egypt as co-regent (first with her father, then with her two younger brothers and finally with her son) for almost three decades. She was part of a dynasty of Macedonian rulers founded by Ptolemy, who served as general under Alexander the Great during his conquest of Egypt in 332 B.C. Well-educated and clever, Cleopatra could speak various languages and served as the dominant ruler in all three of her co-regencies. Her romantic liaisons and military alliances with the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, as well as her supposed exotic beauty and powers of seduction, earned her an enduring place in history and popular myth.
Cleopatra: Early Life and Ascension to Throne
Since no contemporary accounts exist of Cleopatra’s life, it is difficult to piece together her biography with much certainty. Much of what is known about her life comes from the work of Greco-Roman scholars, particularly Plutarch. Born in 70 or 69 B.C., Cleopatra was a daughter of Ptolemy XII (Auletes), a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander The Great ’s generals and the founder of the Ptolemaic line in Egypt . Her mother was believed to be Cleopatra V Tryphaena, the king’s wife (and possibly his half-sister). In 51 B.C., upon the apparently natural death of Auletes, the Egyptian throne passed to 18-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII.
Did you know? In the days between Cleopatra's death and Octavian's formal annexation of Egypt, her 16-year-old son Caesarion was officially sole ruler. He had no way of taking power, however, and was captured and executed shortly after his mother's suicide.
Soon after the siblings’ ascension to the throne, Ptolemy’s advisers acted against Cleopatra, who was forced to flee Egypt for Syria in 49 B.C. She raised an army of mercenaries and returned the following year to face her brother’s forces in a civil war at Pelusium, on Egypt’s eastern border. Meanwhile, after allowing the Roman general Pompey to be murdered, Ptolemy XIII welcomed the arrival of Pompey’s rival, Julius Caesar , to Alexandria. In order to help her cause, Cleopatra sought Caesar’s support, reportedly smuggling herself into the royal palace to plead her case with him.
Watch the three-episode documentary event, Ancient Empires . Available to stream now.
Caesar and Cleopatra
For his part, Caesar needed to fund his own return to power in Rome , and needed Egypt to repay the debts incurred by Auletes. After four months of war between Caesar’s outnumbered forces and those of Ptolemy XIII, Roman reinforcements arrived; Ptolemy was forced to flee Alexandria and was believed to have drowned in the Nile River. Entering Alexandria as an unpopular conqueror, Caesar restored the throne to the equally unpopular Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIV (then 13 years old). Caesar remained in Egypt with Cleopatra for a time, and around 47 B.C. she gave birth to a son, Ptolemy Caesar. He was believed to be Caesar’s child, and was known by the Egyptian people as Caesarion, or Little Caesar.
Sometime in 46-45 B.C., Cleopatra traveled with Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion to Rome to visit Caesar, who had returned earlier. After Caesar was murdered in March 44 B.C., Cleopatra went back to Egypt; Ptolemy XIV was killed soon after (possibly by Cleopatra’s agents) and the three-year-old Caesarion was named co-regent with his mother, as Ptolemy XV. By this point, Cleopatra had strongly identified herself with the goddess Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. (This was consistent with the ancient Egyptian tradition of associating royalty with divinity in order to reinforce the position of kings and queens. Cleopatra III had also claimed to be associated with Isis, and Cleopatra VII was referred to as the “New Isis.”) She spoke as many as a dozen languages and was renowned for her “irresistible charm,” according to Plutarch.
Cleopatra’s Seduction of Mark Antony
With her infant son as co-regent, Cleopatra’s hold on power in Egypt was more secure than it had ever been. Still, unreliable flooding of the Nile resulted in failing crops, leading to inflation and hunger. Meanwhile, a conflict was raging in Rome between a second triumvirate of Caesar’s allies ( Mark Antony , Octavian and Lepidus) and his assassins, Brutus and Cassius. Both sides asked for Egyptian support, and after some stalling, Cleopatra sent four Roman legions stationed in Egypt by Caesar to support the triumvirate. In 42 B.C., after defeating the forces of Brutus and Cassius in the battles of Philippi, Mark Antony and Octavian divided power in Rome.
Mark Antony soon summoned Cleopatra to the Cicilian city of Tarsus (south of modern Turkey) to explain the role she had played in the complicated aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. According to the story recorded by Plutarch (and later dramatized famously by William Shakespeare ), Cleopatra sailed to Tarsus in an elaborate ship, dressed in the robes of Isis. Antony, who associated himself with the Greek deity Dionysus, was seduced by her charms.
He agreed to protect Egypt and Cleopatra’s crown, pledging support for the removal of her younger sister and rival Arsinoe, then in exile. Cleopatra returned to Egypt, followed shortly thereafter by Antony, who left behind his third wife, Fulvia, and their children in Rome. He spent the winter of 41-40 B.C. in Alexandria, during which he and Cleopatra famously formed a drinking society called “The Inimitable Livers.” In 40 B.C., after Antony’s return to Rome, Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios (sun) and Cleopatra Selene (moon).
Cleopatra: Power Struggle
After Fulvia took ill and died, Antony was forced to prove his loyalty to Octavian by making a diplomatic marriage with Octavian’s half-sister Octavia. Egypt grew more prosperous under Cleopatra’s rule, and in 37 B.C. Antony again met with Cleopatra to obtain funds for his long-delayed military campaign against the kingdom of Parthia. In exchange, he agreed to return much of Egypt’s eastern empire, including Cyprus, Crete, Cyrenaica (Libya), Jericho and large portions of Syria and Lebanon. They again became lovers, and Cleopatra gave birth to another son, Ptolemy Philadelphos, in 36 B.C.
After a humiliating defeat in Parthia, Antony publicly rejected his wife Octavia’s efforts to rejoin him and instead returned to Egypt and Cleopatra. In a public celebration in 34 B.C. known as the “Donations of Alexandria,” Antony declared Caesarion as Caesar’s son and rightful heir (as opposed to his adopted son, Octavian) and awarded land to each of his children with Cleopatra. This began a war of propaganda between him and the furious Octavian, who claimed that Antony was entirely under Cleopatra’s control and would abandon Rome and found a new capital in Egypt. In late 32 B.C., the Roman Senate stripped Antony of all his titles, and Octavian declared war on Cleopatra.
Cleopatra: Defeat and Death
On September 2, 31 B.C., Octavian’s forces soundly defeated those of Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium . Cleopatra’s ships deserted the battle and fled to Egypt, and Antony soon managed to break away and follow her with a few ships. With Alexandria under attack from Octavian’s forces, Antony heard a rumor that Cleopatra had committed suicide. He fell on his sword, and died just as news arrived that the rumor had been false.
On August 12, 30 B.C., after burying Antony and meeting with the victorious Octavian, Cleopatra closed herself in her chamber with two of her female servants. The means of her death is uncertain, but Plutarch and other writers advanced the theory that she used a poisonous snake known as the asp, a symbol of divine royalty, to commit suicide at age 39. According to her wishes, Cleopatra’s body was buried with Antony’s, leaving Octavian (later Emperor Augustus I) to celebrate his conquest of Egypt and his consolidation of power in Rome.
HISTORY Vault: Ancient History
From Egypt to Greece, explore fascinating documentaries about the ancient world.
Sign up for Inside History
Get HISTORY’s most fascinating stories delivered to your inbox three times a week.
By submitting your information, you agree to receive emails from HISTORY and A+E Networks. You can opt out at any time. You must be 16 years or older and a resident of the United States.
- History & Culture
She ruled Egypt and seduced the Romans. But who was Cleopatra?
The legendary pharaoh is known for using her political savvy and considerable charm to gain power. But, in truth, there’s little we know for sure about her life.
Was she beautiful? Debatable. Was she charming? Probably. Was she politically astute and bent on using both her gender and her outsized power to further her needs? Certainly.
Perhaps no historical figure has so enflamed passions—and debates—than Cleopatra VII. Destined to be the last of her dynasty, the Egyptian pharaoh used seduction and political savvy to further the interests of ancient Egypt in the face of Roman expansion.
But though she is one of the best-known women in history, there’s little that historians and archaeologists can say for sure about Cleopatra. Here’s what is known about the legendary, yet mysterious, queen.
Who was Cleopatra?
Born to Egyptian king Ptolemy XII Auletes and an unknown mother in 69 B.C., Cleopatra was a member of an ancient Greek dynasty that had taken over Egypt in 305 B.C.
( Should women rule the world? The queens of ancient Egypt say yes .)
Though the Ptolemaic Kingdom had adopted some Egyptian religious traditions, it ruled from the largely Greek city of Alexandria. As a result, Cleopatra grew up speaking Koine Greek, though she was reportedly the only one of her lineage to also learn Egyptian. Her life would be inextricably bound to unrest in Egypt—and the politics of the Roman Empire.
How did she come to rule Egypt?
When her father died in 51 B.C. Cleopatra, then 18, was plunged into a controversy over which of Ptolemy XII’s children should rule Egypt. At first, she ruled jointly with the younger Ptolemy XIII, even marrying him in a nod to Egyptian tradition. But the young king wanted the throne for himself, and civil war soon broke out as they formed factions to help them gain full power. In response, Cleopatra briefly fled to Roman-controlled Syria.
Cleopatra’s father had been sympathetic to—and reliant on—Rome during his rule. The warring siblings were no different, and they quickly aligned themselves with different sides in Rome’s own brewing civil war. From her exile in Syria, Cleopatra turned to Julius Caesar , then a general and politician intent on becoming Rome’s sole dictator, for help regaining her throne.
Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
Despite a dramatic age difference—Caesar was about 30 years older than Cleopatra—and the fact that he was married, they began a romantic relationship, and he pledged his support for her.
In 47 B.C., while fleeing Caesar’s troops, Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile River near Alexandria. With Egypt in the hands of Caesar, Cleopatra took back the throne as her own, swiftly married her 12-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIV, and declared him her co-ruler. She gave birth to a child her contemporaries assumed to be Caesar’s son, whom she named Caesarion. (No, this is not the origin of the term “cesarean section.”)
( Egypt's last pharaoh was the 'love child' of Caesar and Cleopatra .)
Cleopatra and Caesar’s relationship lasted until his murder on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., at the hands of his enemies in the Senate.
Cleopatra had been on an extended visit to Rome at the time of Caesar’s murder and briefly remained there in the hopes of convincing the Romans to recognize Caesarion as the rightful heir of Roman power. Soon, though, she returned to Alexandria, where she is thought to have had her brother assassinated by poison before taking up her throne once more alongside Caesarion.
Antony and Cleopatra
Caesar was dead, but Cleopatra’s relationship with Rome was far from over. Roman general Mark Antony—who had ascended to power as one of Rome’s three joint leaders, or triumvirs—demanded a meeting with Cleopatra in an effort to continue the Egyptian-Roman alliance. Eager to maintain Egypt’s close relationship with Rome, Cleopatra traveled to Tarsus in modern-day Turkey to meet him in 41 B.C.
Cleopatra is believed to have arrived in Tarsus in high style on a sumptuous barge. “Cleopatra invested her ocean excursions with carefully chosen costumes, divine associations, expensive textiles and jewels, music, and exotic essences,” writes art historian Diana E. E. Kleiner. The pharaoh meant to impress, and it worked. Almost immediately, she began a torrid love affair with the married Antony, who moved to Alexandria to be with her.
The fall of Cleopatra
But Antony’s infatuation with Cleopatra—and the reputed excesses of their life in the Egyptian seat of power—led to both their downfalls. The Roman ruler plunged into outright war with his co-triumvirs and his own people, who resented what they saw as Egypt’s influence in Roman affairs.
( Inside the decadent love affair of Cleopatra and Mark Antony .)
After a battle in 30 B.C., the Egyptian queen realized that Antony’s troops were headed to total defeat. So she barricaded herself in her royal mausoleum and told Antony she planned to kill herself. In response, Antony stabbed himself, eventually dying in her arms.
Cleopatra attempted to negotiate with Octavian, her lover’s former co-ruler, but when she realized he intended to take her captive and parade her in the streets as a prize, she again barricaded herself in her tomb with some servants and killed herself, likely with poison. The rule of her dynasty was over, and Egypt was taken over by Rome.
What we don’t know about Cleopatra
Legend has it that Cleopatra took her life with the help of a poisonous viper called an asp, but there is no proof. Nor have archaeologists ever found the mausoleum where she, and likely Antony, died. As Chip Brown wrote for National Geographic 's July 2011 issue , “Most of the glory that was ancient Alexandria now lies about 20 feet underwater.”
There’s also no way to gauge the accuracy of historical portrayals of the queen, which are deeply contradictory and show the biases of their time. Some extant coins show Cleopatra as a plain-looking woman, while others depict a mirror image of Antony, reflecting their makers’ opinions about the female ruler’s liaison with her Roman lover. Debates also still rage about Cleopatra’s race, although historians point out that not only do we not know for sure but our entire concept of race didn’t exist in Cleopatra’s time.
( Searching for the true face—and the burial place—of Cleopatra .)
Written sources about Cleopatra are also scant. The library of Alexandria was destroyed multiple times, taking contemporary accounts of Cleopatra with it. According to the ancient chronicler Plutarch, whose biography of Antony is one of the most detailed accounts of Cleopatra’s reign, Cleopatra was a woman of “the most brilliant beauty and...at the acme of intellectual power.” But he wrote about the Egyptian queen hundreds of years after her death—and brought a decidedly Roman viewpoint to his work on the queen.
Despite our lack of understanding of Cleopatra’s life, she remains relevant today. From Shakespearean tragedy to Netflix docudrama, she has gained a nearly legendary reputation as a wily politician with an almost superhuman ability to seduce.
Though the former was almost certainly true, we may never know why some of the world’s most powerful men succumbed to Cleopatra’s charms. What is certain is that, more than 2,000 years after her death, the woman who so cannily ruled men—and her people—still manages to enchant and mystify modern audiences.
Read This Next
- History Magazine
Was this woman Egypt's first female pharaoh?
How a pharaoh with 100 children bungled his succession, who was egypt's first pharaoh, the woman who helped save egypt's temples from doom.
History & Culture
- Paid Content for Advertiser
- Your US State Privacy Rights
- Interest-Based Ads
- About Nielsen Measurement
- Do Not Sell or Share My Personal Information
- Nat Geo Home
- Attend a Live Event
- Book a Trip
- Inspire Your Kids
- Shop Nat Geo
- Visit the D.C. Museum
- Learn About Our Impact
- Support Our Mission
- Advertise With Us
- Customer Service
- Renew Subscription
- Manage Your Subscription
- Work at Nat Geo
- Sign Up for Our Newsletters
- Contribute to Protect the Planet
Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved
Cleopatra, who reigned as queen of Egypt during the 1st century B.C., is one of the most famous female rulers in history. Her life inspired a Shakespeare play and several movies.
Who Was Cleopatra?
Early life and macedonian lineage.
The last ruler of the Macedonian dynasty, Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator was born around 69 B.C. The line of rule was established in 323 B.C., following the death of Alexander the Great .
The era began when Alexander's general, Ptolemy, took over as ruler of Egypt, becoming King Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt. Over the next three centuries, his descendants would follow in his path. At its height, Ptolemaic Egypt was one of the world's great powers.
Cleopatra's father was King Ptolemy XII. Little is known about Cleopatra's mother, but some speculation presumes she may have been her father's sister, Cleopatra V Tryphaena. Debate also surrounds Cleopatra's ethnicity, as some suggest she may have, in part, been descended from Black Africans.
Queen of Egypt
In 51 B.C., Ptolemy XII died, leaving the throne to 18-year-old Cleopatra and her brother, the 10-year-old Ptolemy XIII. It is likely that the two siblings married, as was customary at the time. Over the next few years Egypt struggled to face down a number of issues, from an unhealthy economy to floods to famine.
Political turmoil also shaped this period. Soon after they assumed power, complications arose between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII. Eventually Cleopatra fled to Syria, where she assembled an army to defeat her rival in order to declare the throne for herself. In 48 B.C., she returned to Egypt with her military might and faced her brother at Pelusium, located on the empire's eastern edge.
Cleopatra and Caesar
Around this same time, the civil war between military leaders Julius Caesar and Pompey was consuming Rome. Pompey eventually sought refuge in Egypt, but, on orders by Ptolemy, was killed.
In pursuit of his rival, Caesar followed Pompey into Egypt, where he met and eventually fell in love with Cleopatra. In Caesar, Cleopatra now had access to enough military muscle to dethrone her brother and solidify her grip on Egypt as sole ruler. Following Caesar's defeat of Ptolemy's forces at the Battle of the Nile, Caesar restored Cleopatra to the throne.
Cleopatra eventually followed Caesar back to Rome, but returned to Egypt in 44 B.C., following his assassination.
Cleopatra and Mark Antony
In 41 B.C., Marc Antony, part of the Second Triumvirate that ruled Rome following the murder of Caesar, sent for Cleopatra so that she could answer questions about her allegiance to the empire's fallen leader.
Cleopatra agreed to his request and made a lavish entrance into the city of Tarsus, Cicilia. Captivated by her beauty and personality, Antony plunged into a love affair with Cleopatra.
Like Caesar before him, Antony was embroiled in a battle over Rome's control. His rival was Caesar's own great-nephew, Gaius Octavius, also known as Octavian (and later as Emperor Caesar Augustus). Octavian, along with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, rounded out the Second Triumvirate.
Antony, who presided over Rome's eastern areas, saw in Cleopatra the chance for financial and military support to secure his own rule over the empire. Cleopatra had her own motivations, as well: In exchange for her help, she sought the return of Egypt's eastern empire, which included large areas of Lebanon and Syria.
READ MORE: Antony and Cleopatra's Legendary Love Story
Defeat by Octavian
In 34 B.C., Antony returned with Cleopatra to Alexandria with a triumphant flair. Crowds swarmed to the Gymnasium to catch a glimpse of the couple seated on golden thrones that were elevated on silver platforms. Beside them sat their children.
Antony antagonized his rival by declaring Caesarion as Caesar’s real son and legal heir, rather than Octavian, whom the revered Roman leader had adopted. Octavian fought back, declaring he’d seized Antony’s will, and told the Roman people that Antony had turned over Roman possessions to Cleopatra and was planning to make Alexandria the Roman capital.
In 31 B.C., Cleopatra and Antony combined armies to try to defeat Octavian in a raging sea battle at Actium, off Greece’s west coast. The clash, however, proved to be a costly defeat for the Egyptians, forcing Antony and Cleopatra to flee back to Egypt.
After suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of Roman rival Octavian , Mark Antony, believing Cleopatra to be dead, killed himself. Cleopatra followed by also committing suicide, supposedly by being bitten by an asp, although the truth is unknown. After her death on August 12, 30 B.C., Cleopatra was buried alongside Antony in a yet to be discovered location. Following Cleopatra's death, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.
In the centuries since her reign, the life of Cleopatra has captivated historians, storytellers and the general public. Her story resonates because of what she represented in such a male-dominated society; in an era when Egypt was roiled by internal and external battles, Cleopatra held the country together and proved to be as powerful a leader as any of her male counterparts.
In 47 B.C., Cleopatra bore Caesar a son, whom she named Caesarion. However, Caesar never acknowledged the boy was his offspring, and historical debate continues over whether he was indeed his father. Later, she had three children with Antony: twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus.
Movies and Shakespeare Play
The saga of Cleopatra's life, rife with political ambition and romantic intrigue, has been the subject of many dramatic retellings over the years. Its most famous big screen incarnation was the acclaimed and wildly expensive 1963 feature Cleopatra , starring Elizabeth Taylor as the Egyptian queen. Previous versions include a 1917 film, starring Theda Bara, and a 1934 production, with Claudette Colbert.
Her affair with Rome's Mark Antony also inspired a famous play by William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, which was first performed in 1607.
- Name: Cleopatra
- Birth Year: 69
- Birth Country: Egypt
- Gender: Female
- Best Known For: Cleopatra, who reigned as queen of Egypt during the 1st century B.C., is one of the most famous female rulers in history. Her life inspired a Shakespeare play and several movies.
- Death Year: 30
- Death City: Alexandria
- Death Country: Egypt
We strive for accuracy and fairness.If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us !
- Article Title: Cleopatra VII Biography
- Author: Biography.com Editors
- Website Name: The Biography.com website
- Url: https://www.biography.com/royalty/cleopatra-vii
- Access Date:
- Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
- Last Updated: May 6, 2021
- Original Published Date: April 3, 2014
- I will not be triumphed over.
Napoleon and Josephine Had a Stormy Relationship
Ivan the Terrible
Diana and Charles’ Relationship Timeline
Queen Elizabeth II’s Prime Ministers
Princess Leonor Swears Her Loyalty to Spain
Queen Elizabeth II
Prince Harry and King Charles Might Meet Soon
Kate Middleton’s Olive Branch to Prince Harry
Who was Cleopatra? Her life, her love affairs and her children, plus 6 little-known facts
Cleopatra is one of the best-known women in history, famed for her supposed beauty and intellect, and her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Explore her incredible life, her quest her for power and her untimely end
- Share on facebook
- Share on twitter
- Share on whatsapp
- Email to a friend
Cleopatra VII: a biography
Cleopatra VII: Ancient Egypt’s most famous daughter, and its last active Pharaoh. A woman immortalised in film, on canvas and in print. An enigmatic heroine to whom William Shakespeare devoted one of his greatest tragedies. Her story is one that has been retold throughout history – full of romance and love, riches and betrayal. But beneath the gold and glamour lies a far darker tale of sibling rivalry taken to the extreme, and a thirst for power that would change the course of history.
Born c69 BC, Cleopatra was the third of a possible six children, all of whom shared a common father, Ptolemy XII. The Ptolemaic dynasty, a Macedonian-Greek royal family that had ties to Alexander the Great , had ruled Egypt since 305 BC. Traditionally male rulers took the name Ptolemy, while Ptolemaic Queens were usually named Cleopatra, Arsinoë or Berenice.
How did Cleopatra become queen?
For Cleopatra, life as a royal daughter was one of luxury. The Egyptian capital Alexandria, the seat of Ptolemaic power, was a thriving cultural centre, attracting scholars, artists and philosophers from all over the world. It was also home to the great Pharos of Alexandria – the 137-metre-tall lighthouse that towered over the city and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world .
Cleopatra’s first taste of power came at the tender age of 14, when she was made co-regent with her father, following his restoration to the throne after three years in exile, albeit with limited powers. Ptolemy XII’s return to the throne had cost Cleopatra’s elder sister, Berenice – who had seized power in his absence – her life.
There may have been a further elder sister, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, but she too had died by this point. All of this meant that it was 18-year-old Cleopatra who became co-regent with her brother, Ptolemy XIII (aged ten), when her father died in March 51 BC.
In true pharaonic tradition, which aimed to keep the royal bloodline as pure as possible, Cleopatra married her younger brother and co-ruler, but it soon became clear that she had no intention of sharing power with him. Within months, Ptolemy XIII’s name had been dropped from official documents and Cleopatra’s face appeared alone on coins.
Cleopatra: what is the real legacy of the last pharaoh?
For more than 2,000 years Cleopatra VII, final ruler of Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty, has been portrayed as a manipulative but tragic beauty. Yet, as Joann Fletcher reveals, such simplistic portrayals obscure her true legacy as a strong, politically astute monarch...
Cleopatra is often portrayed by Hollywood as a glamorous femme fatale. Mary Hamer argues that most of what we think we know about Cleopatra is merely the echo of Roman propaganda. Here, she reveals six lesser-know facts about the Egyptian ruler…
Cleopatra made an ally of Julius Caesar, who helped to establish her on the throne
She then invited him to join her on a voyage up the Nile, and when she subsequently gave birth to a son, she named the baby Caesarion – ‘little Caesar’ .
In Rome this caused a scandal. This was, firstly, because Egypt and its pleasure-loving culture were despised as decadent. But it was also because Caesar had no other sons – though he was married to Calpurnia, and had had two wives before her – and he had just made himself the most powerful man in Rome. Elite Romans were meant to share power, but Caesar seemed to want to be supreme, like a monarch. It was a doubly unbearable prospect: Caesarion, an Egyptian, just might grow up to claim to rule over Rome as Caesar’s heir.
Fantasies about Cleopatra’s beauty are just that
Plutarch, the Greek biographer of Mark Antony, claimed it wasn’t so much her looks that were so compelling, but her conversation and her intelligence.
Cleopatra took control of the way she appeared , coming across differently according to political need. For example, at ceremonial events she would appear dressed as the goddess Isis: it was common for Egyptian rulers to identify themselves with an established deity. On her coins minted in Egypt, meanwhile, she chose to be shown with her father’s strong jaw line, to emphasise her inherited right to rule.
Sculptures don’t give us much of a clue to her looks either: there are two or three heads in the classical style, but also a number of full-length statues in Egyptian style, and her appearance in these is quite different.
More like this
- Read more | What did Cleopatra really look like?
Cleopatra was living in Rome, as the mistress of Julius Caesar, at the time that he was assassinated
Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC meant Cleopatra herself was in danger, so she left at once. With her little son, Caesarion, she had been living in a palace of her own on the other side of the river Tiber from Caesar’s household (though it is likely she hadn’t taken up permanent residence there, but returned on regular visits from Egypt).
Not surprisingly, Cleopatra had been much disliked in a city that had got rid of its kings, for she’d insisted on being addressed as ‘queen’. It can’t have helped that to honour her, Caesar had placed a statue of Cleopatra covered in gold in the temple of Venus Genetrix – the goddess who brings forth life, who was held in high regard by his family.
- Read more | 8 ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses that you (probably) didn’t know about
Cleopatra was a mother as well as the ruler of Egypt
She had Caesarion, her eldest son, represented on the temple wall at Dendera alongside her, as sharing her rule. After her death, the Roman emperor Augustus lured Caesarion back with promises of power, only to have him killed. He was aged 16 or 17, though some sources say he was as young as 14.
Mark Antony was the father of Cleopatra’s other children, Ptolemy Philadelphus and the twins, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios. The twins were aged 10 and Ptolemy six when their mother died. They were taken to Rome and treated well in the household of Mark Antony’s widow, Octavia, where they were educated.
- 10 things you (probably) didn't know about ancient Egypt
The adult Cleopatra Selene was married to Juba, a minor king, and sent to rule with him over Mauretania. She gave birth to another Ptolemy – Cleopatra’s only known grandchild. He died in adulthood by order of his cousin, Caligula, so none of Cleopatra’s descendants lived to inherit Egypt.
When we refer to the eighth month as ‘August’, we are celebrating the defeat and death of Cleopatra
Augustus founded his reign on the defeat of Cleopatra. When he had the chance to have a month named in his own honour, instead of choosing September – the month of his birth – he chose the eighth month, in which Cleopatra died, to create a yearly reminder of her defeat.
- The bloody rise of Augustus
Augustus would have liked to lead Cleopatra as a captive through Rome, as other generals did with their prisoners, in the formal triumphs that celebrated their victories. But she killed herself to prevent that.
Cleopatra didn’t die for love. Like Mark Antony, who killed himself because there was no longer a place of honour for him in the world, Cleopatra chose to die rather than suffer the violence of being paraded, shamed and helpless, through Rome. Augustus had to make do with an image of her that was carried through the streets instead.
Cleopatra’s name was Greek, but it doesn’t mean that she was
Cleopatra’s family was descended from the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who had picked up Egypt in the shareout after Alexander died. But 250 years then passed before Cleopatra was born – 12 generations, with all their love affairs and secret assignations.
Today we know that at least one child in 10 is not attributed to their correct biological father – “Momma’s baby, Poppa’s maybe”, as they say. Egypt’s population included people of many different ethnicities, and naturally that included Africans, since Egypt was a part of Africa. So it’s not at all unlikely that long before Cleopatra was born, her Greek heritage had become mixed with other strains. And since the identity of her own grandmother is unknown, it is foolish to think that we’re sure of her racial identity.
Mary Hamer is the author of Signs of Cleopatra: Reading an Icon Historically (Liverpool University Press, 2008)
What are the key moments in Cleopatra's reign?
51 BC | Ptolemy XII dies
Having recovered his throne with Roman help in c55 BC, Ptolemy XII dies, leaving Egypt with considerable debts. Before his death, he declares that Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII are to co-rule.
48 BC | Cleopatra seduces Julius Caesar
Desperate to enlist Rome’s help to restore her to the throne, the banished Cleopatra smuggles herself into the presence of Julius Caesar, allegedly being delivered to him in a bed-sack.
Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony: how the last pharaoh’s love affairs shaped Ancient Egypt’s fate
47 BC | Caesar’s son is born
Cleopatra gives birth to her first child, whom she names Ptolemy Caesar – known as Caesarion. Although named after his father, Caesarion’s claim to Rome is never acknowledged by Julius Caesar.
41 BC | Cleopatra meets Mark Antony
After initially refusing Roman General Mark Antony’s requests for a meeting, Cleopatra travels to Tarsus where the two meet for the first time. Antony is keen to secure Egypt’s financial help with his military campaigns. He is immediately smitten with the Egyptian Queen’s charm and beauty.
40 BC | Cleopatra bears twins
Cleopatra gives birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, fathered by Mark Antony. After Cleopatra’s surrender and suicide in 31 BC, the pair are captured by Octavian and paraded through Rome in gold chains, behind an effigy of their mother.
37 BC | The lovers are married
After separating from his wife Octavia (sister of Octavian), Antony meets Cleopatra in Syria and the pair are said to have married. A third child, Ptolemy Philadelphus, is born the following year.
- Antony and Cleopatra, and 6 more of the best couples in history
33 BC | A crisis looms
Relations between Octavian and Antony reached crisis point in 33 BC, when the Roman Senate declared war on Egypt.
30 BC | Mark Antony is defeated
Following humiliating defeat at the Battle of Actium by Octavian (later Augustus) and a subsequent battle in Alexandria, Mark Antony attempts suicide. He is brought to Cleopatra’s hiding place where he soon dies.
30 BC | Cleopatra takes her own life
Unable to contemplate life as a prisoner of Rome, and without the protection of her Roman lover, Cleopatra takes her own life . According to legend, she is bitten by a poisonous snake, which kills her.
The battle of Actium, 31 BC: the beginning of the end for Mark Antony and Cleopatra
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in April 2015 and has been updated with content published in BBC History Revealed in 2014
Sign up for the weekly HistoryExtra newsletter
Sign up to receive our newsletter!
Subscribe and receive a book of your choice!
PLUS access to HistoryExtra
USA Subscription offer!
Save 70% on the shop price when you subscribe today - Get 13 issues for just $49.99 + FREE access to HistoryExtra.com
Listen to the latest episodes now
Cleopatra: Biography of the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt
Trysts were only one aspect of this powerful female ruler's life.
Who was Cleopatra?
Caesar and cleopatra, antony and cleopatra, battle of actium, death of cleopatra, fates of cleopatra's children, was cleopatra the last pharaoh, timeline of cleopatra's life, additional resources, bibliography.
Cleopatra VII, often simply called "Cleopatra," was the last of a series of rulers called the Ptolemies who ruled ancient Egypt for nearly 300 years. Cleopatra ruled an empire that included Egypt, Cyprus, part of modern-day Libya and other territories in the Middle East.
Modern-day depictions of Cleopatra VII tend to show her as a woman of great physical beauty and seductive skills — indeed, her romantic involvements with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony have been immortalized in art, music and literature for centuries. However, a number of ancient records, and historical research, tell a different story. These records describe Cleopatra as an intelligent, multilingual, female pharaoh who affirmed her right to rule Egypt and other territories.
Her "own beauty, as they say, was not, in and of itself, completely incomparable, nor was it the sort that would astound those who saw her; but interaction with her was captivating, and her appearance, along with her persuasiveness in discussion and her character that accompanied every interchange, was stimulating," wrote Plutarch, a philosopher who lived A.D. 46-120 (Translation by Prudence Jones).
"Cleopatra was no mere sexual predator, and certainly no plaything of Caesar," writes Erich Gruen, a professor emeritus of history at University of California Berkeley, in an article in the book " Cleopatra: A Sphinx Revisited " (University of California Press, 2011).
"She was queen of Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus, heir to the long and proud dynasty of the Ptolemies … a passionate but also very astute woman who had maneuvered Rome — and would maneuver Rome again — into advancing the interests of the Ptolemaic legacy," Gruen wrote.
Cleopatra was born in 69 B.C. into a troubled royal dynasty. The Ptolemies were descended from a Macedonian general who had served under Alexander the Great . Although they had ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries, their kingdom was eclipsed by the power of Rome and there was a great deal of internal dissension that eventually led to Cleopatra fighting against her own brother.
Cleopatra was the daughter of Ptolemy XII and a mother whose identity we do not know. Ptolemy XII (reign 80-58 B.C.) was under a great deal of pressure from the Romans and struggled to hold onto power.
"Ptolemy XII was heavily dependent upon the Romans and as their ‘friendship' put an increased strain upon the Egyptian economy, his rule came under increasing scrutiny from the Egyptian elite," writes Sally-Ann Ashton, a keeper at the University of Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum, in her book "Cleopatra and Egypt" (Blackwell Publishing, 2008). In 58 B.C., Ptolemy XII was exiled and a woman named "Cleopatra Tryphaena" (a different Cleopatra) became ruler of Egypt, dying not long afterwards. She was succeeded by another woman named Berenice IV.
In 55 B.C., with the support of the Romans, Ptolemy XII was put back on the throne and took his 17-year-old daughter Cleopatra VII as his co-ruler. After the king died in 51 B.C., his will said that Cleopatra should share the throne with her brother (and husband) Ptolemy XIII.
Ptolemy XIII and his advisers refused to acknowledge this arrangement and fighting broke out between them, with Cleopatra being forced to flee the royal palace. It would be Julius Caesar who helped Cleopatra regain her throne.
Caesar was about 30 years older than Cleopatra, and his arrival in Egypt was something of an accident. He had been fighting a civil war against the Roman general Pompey.
After a series of defeats, Pompey fled to Egypt in 48 B.C., hoping to win support from Ptolemy XIII. The young pharaoh decided that Pompey was more trouble than he was worth and had him executed.
When Caesar landed with a small body of troops in Alexandria, he was presented with Pompey's head — something that he was said to be unhappy about. For reasons lost to history, Caesar decided to stay in Egypt and deal with the dispute between Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra. It could be because Rome depended on Egypt for its grain supplies and a stable Egypt was seen by Caesar as being in Rome's interest.
Ptolemy XIII tried to convince Caesar to acknowledge him as sole ruler of Egypt and barred Cleopatra from seeing him. Cleopatra, however, managed to sneak into the palace in Alexandria and successfully plead her case to Caesar, something that surprised and enraged Ptolemy XIII.
According to Plutarch she had herself smuggled inside the palace rolled up in a "bed-sack" (although this is sometimes translated as "carpet" or "rug"). An assistant named Apollodorus "tied the bed-sack up with a cord and carried it indoors to Caesar" Plutarch wrote. It's a source of debate among modern-day historians whether Cleopatra was really smuggled into the palace like this.
"Ptolemy XIII had gone to bed that night a happy lad, secure in the knowledge that his sister, trapped at Pelusium, would be unable to plead her case before Caesar," writes Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley in her book "Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt" (Profile Books, 2008).
"He woke up the next morning to find that his sister had somehow arrived at the palace. She was already on the most intimate of terms with Caesar and had managed to persuade him to support her cause," Tyldesley writes.
"It was all too much for a thirteen-year-old boy to bear. Rushing from the palace he ripped off his diadem and, in a well-orchestrated public display of anger, the crowd surged forward, intent on mobbing the palace." However, "Caesar would not be intimidated. Before a formal assembly he read out (Ptolemy XII's) will, making it clear that he expected the elder brother and sister to rule Egypt together."
Caesar had saved Cleopatra and returned her to power. The two became intimate and had a son known as Caesarion (although Caesar never acknowledged the child as his own). Ptolemy XIII died in a failed rebellion in 47 B.C. and was replaced as co-ruler by his and Cleopatra's younger brother Ptolemy XIV, who Cleopatra would eventually have killed.
Being the mother of Caesar's son gave Cleopatra greater power, and the child eventually became Cleopatra's co-ruler.
"With a son by her side, Cleopatra VII could abandon any thought she might have had of adopting the role of a female king and could develop instead a powerful new identity as a semi-divine mother: an identity that had the huge advantage of being instantly recognisable to both her Egyptian and her Greek subjects," writes Tyldesley.
Cleopatra had already become a goddess toward the end of her father's reign. "But now she was to be specifically identified with Egypt's most famous single mother, the goddess Isis."
With the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. on the Ides of March, Cleopatra found herself in an awkward position. Ancient writers say that she was in Rome when the assassination occurred and she quickly returned to Egypt.
A civil war broke out between forces led by Antony and Octavian against those who had organized Caesar's assassination. After they prevailed, Octavian ruled the western half of the Roman Republic while Antony controlled the east.
In July 44 B.C., Cleopatra had her co-ruler and younger brother/husband Ptolemy XIV killed, and Caesarion became co-ruler of Egypt. In 41 B.C., she had her sister Arsinoe IV killed also.
In 41 B.C., after Antony took power in the east, he summoned Cleopatra to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) to question why she had not given support to his troops while they were fighting Caesar's assassins.
Cleopatra said that she had assembled a fleet to attack the assassins but it could not reach the battlefield in time.
"Antony, struck by her intelligence as well as her appearance, was captivated by her as if he were a young lad, although he was forty years old," wrote Appian, who lived in the second century A.D. (translation by Prudence Jones). "The acute interest Antony had once shown in all things suddenly dulled; whatever Cleopatra dictated was done, without regard for the laws of man or nature."
Antony and Cleopatra forged a close bond and had three children together, including the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene in 40 B.C., as well as a third child, Ptolemy Philadelphus, in 36 B.C. Antony also favored Cleopatra VII politically, ordering King Herod of Judea to hand over parcels of territory to Cleopatra.
Between roughly 40 B.C. and 36 B.C., Rome found itself at war with the Parthians, and Antony led Roman troops in the Middle East with Cleopatra sending supplies to aid him, wrote Barry Strauss, a professor of history and classics at Cornell University, in his book " The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian at Actium " (Simon & Schuster, 2022).
Despite having children with Cleopatra, Antony was still legally married to Octavia, the sister of Octavian. In 35 B.C., Octavia, who had been living apart from Antony, arrived in Alexandria but Antony told her to go back to Rome. Octavian was upset at Antony's behavior toward Octavia and had honors bestowed upon Octavia, something that publicized Antony's behavior and made it awkward for him in Rome, Strauss said.
Relations between Antony and Octavian frayed and in 32 B.C., the two officially went to war, with Octavian putting much of the blame, rightly or wrongly, on Cleopatra.
The leaders in Rome "voted to pardon and praise his (Antony's) supporters if they would desert him, and they unequivocally declared war on Cleopatra," wrote Cassius Dio who lived A.D. 155-235. (Translation by Prudence Jones)
At "the temple of Bellona, they performed all the rites for declaring war according to custom, with Octavian acting as priest. In word, war was declared on Cleopatra, but in fact the declaration was aimed at Antony."
Although Antony held a numerical advantage on land, the Battle of Actium was decided on the sea and ultimately by an engagement fought near Actium in 31 B.C. on the Ionian Sea. Ancient writers say that while Antony's ships were heavier and could hold more troops, Octavian's ships, led by general Agrippa, could maneuver better and had more experienced crews.
Before the battle, Octavian's forces had seized Methone, a city in Greece that had served as an important logistical supply base for Antony and Cleopatra's forces, Strauss said. This created problems for re-supplying Antony and Cleopatra's fleet. For instance, some of Antony's top advisers defected, and he had a shortage of rowers, wrote Strauss.
The lack of manpower and supplies meant that Antony had to burn some of his ships before the battle began, wrote Strauss, who noted that Antony was likely trying to withdraw from Actium and move his fleet to a more sustainable position when the battle occurred on Sept. 2, 31 B.C.
What happened during the battle itself is not entirely clear. From what can be ascertained from records, Octavian's fleet used its superior mobility to swarm parts of Antony and Cleopatra's fleet, Strauss wrote. Meanwhile, due to the lack of rowers and supplies (which meant the rowers they had were malnourished), Antony and Cleopatra's ships struggled to conduct successful ramming attacks.
Ancient sources claim that at one point Cleopatra fled the battle and Antony soon followed with the fleet then being routed.
The battle sealed Antony and Cleopatra's fate. With Octavian in control of the sea, he landed troops in Egypt and marched on Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. Although Antony managed to win a minor battle on land, he and Cleopatra were essentially trapped.
Antony, hearing falsely that Cleopatra had killed herself, decided to kill himself. According to Plutarch, Antony said of Cleopatra that "I am not pained to be bereft of you, for at once I will be where you are, but it does pain me that I, as a commander, am revealed to be inferior to a woman in courage." He stabbed himself, though he didn't die right away. Instead, he was found wounded and taken to Cleopatra, where he would die alongside her.
"When she received him into the mausoleum and laid him on a couch, she tore her clothing over him, beat her breast and scratched it with her hands, covered her face with his blood, called him her husband and master, and almost forgot her own misfortunes as she pitied his," wrote Plutarch.
When Octavian entered the city, Cleopatra tried to reason with him; however, it became apparent that she would be taken to Rome and paraded as a sort of war trophy, a fate she found intolerable.
After two failed attempts to die by suicide, "she dressed herself in her richest attire, as was her custom, and settled herself next to her Antony in a sarcophagus filled with aromatic perfumes. She then put snakes to her veins and slipped into death as if into sleep," wrote Florus in the second century A.D. (Translation by Prudence Jones).
The ancient historians Suetonius (who lived from A.D. 69 to 122) and Plutarch (A.D. 46 to 120) both claimed that Antony and Cleopatra were buried together inside a tomb. Plutarch wrote that Octavian gave orders that Cleopatra's "body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion" (translation by Bernadotte Perrin).
The tomb and bodies of Cleopatra and Antony have never been found and sources have told Live Science that anything left of them is likely underwater or underneath modern structures in Alexandria.
While media reports have described claims that the tomb may be at the site of Taposiris Magna, which is located about 31 miles (50 km) west of Alexandria, most scholars told Live Science they didn't agree with this idea. Other interesting finds at Taposiris Magna, however, include a cache of coins that bear the image of Cleopatra VII.
Octavian had Caesarion killed but spared the lives of the three children Cleopatra had with Antony. They were sent to live with Octavia.
While the three kids were allowed to live, the two oldest kids had to take part in a "triumph" for Octavian in Rome, where they were paraded along with an effigy of their dead mother. "Among other features, an effigy of the dead Cleopatra upon a couch was carried by, so that in a way she, too, together with the other captives and with her children, Alexander, also called Helios, and Cleopatra, called also Selene, was a part of the spectacle and a trophy in the procession" wrote Cassius Dio.
Two of the children, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus, died in childhood while a third, Cleopatra Selene, survived and was married to Juba II, a protégé of Octavian who became ruler of Numidia, a client kingdom of Rome in northwest Africa in what is now Algeria. She brought Egyptian art as well as Greek language and culture to that kingdom.
Although Cleopatra is often considered to be the last of the Egyptian pharaohs, we know from ancient inscriptions and art that the priests of Egypt did not believe this.
In 2010, researchers reported that a stele erected at the Temple of Isis at Philae in 29 B.C. has Octavian's name written in a cartouche, an honor reserved for a pharaoh. Future Roman emperors (such as Claudius) would also be depicted as pharaohs in Egypt.
Although Cleopatra was dead, and her dynasty was at an end, Egyptian priests refused to let go of the idea that Egypt had a pharaoh as ruler, even though the country was being incorporated into the Roman Empire as a province.
"(The priests) had to have an acting pharaoh, and the only acting pharaoh (possible) under Octavian was Octavian," said Martina Minas-Nerpel, a reader at Swansea University, in an interview that was published in The Independent newspaper. "The priests needed to see him as a pharaoh; otherwise, their understanding of the world would have collapsed."
Was Cleopatra Black?
Scholars are not certain of Cleopatra's appearance, and the question of whether she was black is an open one. The identity of Cleopatra's mother and paternal grandmother is uncertain.
"Cleopatra was of course part Greek, but it must also be noted that the suggestion she was part African is not based on wishful fantasy alone but on the fact that we do not know the identity of the mother of Ptolemy XII (Cleopatra's father)." writes Sally-Ann Ashton in her book.
Recently, the issue of Cleopatra's ethnicity and skin color has been in the news as Israeli actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play her in a movie. Some members of the public have called for an actress who has darker skin to be cast instead and some are also calling for an Egyptian actress to play the queen.
69 B.C.: Cleopatra VII was born.
58 B.C.: Cleopatra VII's father, Ptolemy XII, is exiled and a woman named Cleopatra Tryphaena became ruler of Egypt, dying not long afterward.
55 B.C.: Ptolemy XII is put back on the throne with Roman help.
52 B.C.: Ptolemy XII names his 17-year-old daughter Cleopatra VII as his co-ruler.
51 B.C.: Ptolemy XII dies, and Cleopatra VII and her husband/brother Ptolemy XIII become co-rulers. Ptolemy XIII's advisors do not approve of this and she is forced into exile.
48 B.C. – 47 B.C.: Caesar arrives in Egypt and says that Ptolemy XIII must be co-ruler with Cleopatra VII. Ptolemy XIII and his supporters revolt and are killed in 47 B.C. Cleopatra then becomes co-ruler with her husband/younger brother, Ptolemy XIV.
June 47 B.C.: After a romance with Julius Caesar, Cleopatra gives birth to their son, Caesarion. Caesar never acknowledges the child as his own.
March 15, 44 B.C.: Julius Caesar is assassinated in the Roman senate. Cleopatra VII is in Rome at the time and hurriedly returns to Egypt.
July 44 B.C.: Ptolemy XIV is killed on orders of Cleopatra VII. Caesarion becomes co-ruler of Egypt with Cleopatra.
41 B.C.: Cleopatra meets Antony at Tarsus in Turkey. The two form a romance that leads to the birth of three children. In this same year, Arsinoe IV, Cleopatra's sister, is killed.
40 B.C.: Cleopatra gives birth to the twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios. Their father is Mark Antony.
36 B.C.: Ptolemy Philadelphus, the third child of Cleopatra and Antony, is born.
32 B.C.: Antony and Cleopatra VII are at war against Octavian.
31 B.C.: Octavian's forces win the Battle of Actium, a naval battle that gives Octavian control of the Mediterranean Sea.
30 B.C.: Octavian's forces capture Alexandria; Antony and Cleopatra die by suicide.
- While Rome had no female emperors, it did have a number of influential women. You can read about these powerful female figures on Live Science.
- There are a number of statues that may depict Cleopatra VII, one of which you can see on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website .
- The Royal Ontario Museum also has a bust that may depict Cleopatra.
Ashton, Sally-Ann (2008) Cleopatra and Egypt . Blackwell Publishing
Miles, Margaret (ed, 2011) Cleopatra: A Sphinx Revisited . University of California Press
Strauss, Barry (2022) The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian at Actium . Simon & Schuster
Tyldesley, Joyce (2008) Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt . Profile Books
Editor's note: This article was updated on March 24, 2022.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.
Scottish boy digging for potatoes found 'masterpiece of Egyptian sculpture' on his school grounds. How did it end up there?
Baboon mummy DNA from ancient Egypt reveals location of mysterious port city not on any maps
Watch ancient, giant millipede the size of a car brought back to life in remarkable reconstruction
By Anna Gora October 06, 2023
By Anna Gora October 03, 2023
By Nicoletta Lanese October 01, 2023
By Anna Gora September 26, 2023
By Emily Cooke September 22, 2023
By Sarah Moore September 13, 2023
By Briley Lewis September 08, 2023
By Emily Cooke September 07, 2023
By Emma Bryce September 04, 2023
By Meg Duff September 01, 2023
- 2 Possible Arctic graveyard may be northernmost Stone Age cemetery — but there are no human remains to prove it
- 3 James Webb telescope reveals 'nursery' of 500,000 stars in the chaotic heart of the Milky Way
- 4 Nearly 8,000 medieval coins and 7 Bronze Age swords unearthed in Germany
- 5 Enormous hydrothermal vent field with ancient, 50-foot tall chimneys discovered near underwater volcano
- 2 Kangaroos might try to drown your dog. Here's why.
- 3 Tinnitus may stem from nerve damage not detectable on hearing tests
- 4 We could end the AIDS epidemic in less than a decade. Here's how.
- Classic Authors
- Myths & World
- Poems & Music
Cleopatra – the last queen of Ancient Egypt – has fascinated writers and artists for the past 2000 years. The roman poets often wrote about her (not too kindly). Shakespeare turned her life into a tragic play – Antony and Cleopatra. Hollywood celebrated her loves and life in an epic and very costly film staring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
She was the lover of two of the most powerful Romans of her time – Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony. But the Romans were also her enemies, and eventually brought Egypt into their empire. She was fabulously wealthy, witty, charming, intelligent, educated – and a woman with power and influence. Our story tells her life.
We tried a little history over Christmas with our story of Herod the Great. Let us know if you would like to hear more true stories like these.
Written by Bertie.
Read by Natasha.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
Hello, this is Natasha, and I am here with a story that is actually a piece of history. In fact, it’s a biography. A biography, as you probably know, is the story of a person’s life. The person in this case is one of the wealthiest and most glamorous women who ever lived. Her name was Cleopatra, and she was the last queen of Ancient Egypt. Her life was exciting and brilliant – but be warned, she met a tragic end.
But first, here’s three facts which you might have heard about Cleopatra:
She was Egyptian. She was smuggled in to see Julius Caesar rolled up in a carpet. She was a stunning beauty.
I bet even your mum and dad could have told you those facts! But actually, they would definitely have been wrong about the first one. In fact, Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian, she was Greek. She was a member of the Ptolemy family who had ruled Egypt since the time of the Greek general, Alexander the Great. The second fact about Cleopatra rolled up in the carpet, is not so far from the truth. The ancient historians say that she was smuggled in to see Julius Caesar, but they talk about a sack, rather than a beautiful carpet. And as for her beauty; impressions on her coins show a rather hook-nosed face – and the historian Plutarch says that her irresistible charm lay more in her wit and conversation than her looks.
First let me tell you a bit about her family. 300 years before she was born, Alexander the Great from Macedonia in Northern Greece had conquered a large part of the known world. His empire stretched around the shores of the Mediterranean sea. Ptolemy was one of his generals, and he became ruler of Egypt. His family ruled Egypt right up to Roman times.
If you think that your own family is a little bit difficult sometimes, just be glad that you are not a Ptolemy. Although they were magnificently rich and powerful, being born into the family that ruled Egypt was a mixed blessing. They did not like to share their power with people outside the royal family. For that reason, brothers and sisters were often expected to marry each other. Even worse, they were prone to murdering each other – often by poison. If you were king or queen of Egypt, you could live a life of fabulous luxury, but you would never feel entirely safe.
At least a ruler of Egypt would always be rich. The Egyptian pharaohs had perfected the art of collecting taxes. It was a wealthy country, and when the Ptolemys took over, they raked in the money. The crops grew amazingly well because Egypt had a wonderful combination: sunshine and water. Every summer, the River Nile flooded its banks and watered the fields. Its mines produced gold – which of course contributed immensely to its wealth – and also salt which was used to embalm the Egyptian mummies in their tombs.
The city of Alexandria was built on wide sweeping streets. Eight chariots could ride alongside each other down its main avenue. The pavements were sheltered from the Egyptian sun by colonnades. Almost every race in the world could be seen there.
Giant hawk-headed statues guarded the temples and palaces. Out to sea, a 400 foot tall beacon blazoned in the sky at night. The lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the highest buildings in its time – and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The most powerful city of the age was Rome, but the money and glamour were to be found in Alexandria.
I’ll just make a little note here about dates. When we are talking about years that are BC – or Before Christ – we are counting back. The year 10 BC is closer to our time than the year 100 BC.
Cleopatra was born in the year 69 BC and lived to 30 BC. Her father, Auletes, was king of the most important country in the Middle East. But on the other side of the Mediterranean sea, in Italy, the City of Rome was flexing its muscles. The Roman army was a highly scientific fighting machine. It was not invincible, but only the most warlike people could fend them off.
The Egyptians had many talents, but in a battle, they were no match for the Romans. Their main advantage was wealth. Roman leaders always needed money – and in return, the Senate declared that Egypt was a, “Friend and ally of the Roman People.” That meant that they wouldn’t invade it, at least for the time being.
The Romans were fairly conservative people. In their view, women should be loyal wives and good mothers. The idea that a woman could rule as a Queen was – to a Roman – quite unthinkable, barbaric even. The Egyptians were far more broadminded. Cleopatra was brought up to be a ruler – and the Ptolemaic idea of a ruler was somebody who was highly educated. Her city was a centre of learning. The Library of Alexandria was the greatest in the world and many of the best scholars were based there. The young Cleopatra had to do her homework well. She must know her Greek plays and philosophy. She had to practice speech-making. She was fluent in several languages. She took a deep interest in medicine, which in those days overlapped with the arts of magic and poison. She was as clever as she was educated. Many Romans saw her as an exotic witch – someone like Medea or Circe from Greek mythology.
Auletes died when Cleopatra was 18 years old, in 51 BC. She now ruled Egypt with her younger brother, Ptolemy. As was the custom in her family, Ptolemy was also her husband. It was a difficult time: the Nile failed to flood, causing famines. It was not long before Ptolemy and Cleopatra fell out. She had to flee from the country together with her sister, Arsinoe.
Now that Cleopatra was out of the way, her younger brother Ptolemy ruled alone – officially. But he was just a boy. In practice, his advisors made the real decisions. And soon they faced a crisis – one that would decide the future of Egypt. Two Roman generals were fighting each other for the leadership of Rome, and for world domination. One was called Julius Caesar, the other Pompey. In 48 BC, Caesar defeated Pompey at a battle in Greece. Pompey fled by ship with this family. He headed for Egypt where the old king Auletes had been his friend. For Egypt, this was a diplomatic crisis – old loyalties prompted them to back Pompey, but it looked like Caesar was already the master of the world. The clique of advisers who ruled in place of Ptolemy came up with a simple solution. They sent a small boat out to Pompey’s ship. The Roman general climbed into the boat, and began to sail ashore. On the way the Egyptian sailors murdered him. I am afraid to say that they cut off his head. When Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria a few days later, they gave it to him. They thought he would be pleased. In fact, he was horrified. Pompey was his enemy, but he was also a noble Roman and a great general. He deserved to be treated with dignity.
Fortunately for Cleopatra, she was out of the country, and could not be blamed for this crime. She knew that she had to see Caesar to win his backing. The Roman commander was staying in the palace in Alexandria, and it was surrounded by Ptolemy’s soldiers. How could she get through? She was a clever woman, and not short of enterprising ideas. She climbed into a sack, and her trusted servant Apollodorus slung her over his shoulder. He carried Cleopatra into the palace, saying that he had a present for the great Caesar. He stood before the Roman leader, and emptied the sack. When the exotic young queen sprung into view, the Roman general was amazed and totally enchanted. It was one of the most stunning entrances of all time.
Ptolemy heard that his sister was in the palace, and that she seemed to be getting on well with Caesar. He flew into a panic, and ran out of the gates shouting that he had been betrayed. In fact, Julius Caesar said that he wanted the brother and sister to rule Egypt together. Outside, the Egyptian army, led by Ptolemy’s courtiers, began to attack the palace. Caesar’s Roman guards where heavily outnumbered but they were much better soldiers. The struggle spilled over into the harbour, where ships were set alight. The fire spread, and warehouses around the waterfront began to burn. Then the flames reached the great library, and many of the most famous works of literature and philosophy were burned and lost for all time.
Julius Caesar, then in his 50s, was so besotted with the 21 year old queen that he was in no hurry to return back to Rome. It was not just her looks that attracted him. Plutarch – a historian from Roman times – says that it was, “a delight merely to hear the sound of her voice with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could flit from one language to another.”
It took six months to win the war against the forces of Ptolemy, and after that Caesar still did not want to go home. Cleopatra took him on a cruise up the Nile in her Royal barge. Eventually, Caesar could linger no longer in Egypt – he sailed for Rome. Soon after he left, Cleopatra gave birth to his son, whom she named Caesareon. No doubt she hoped that the Roman leader would declare his son as his legal heir. If she thought so, she was much mistaken. The Roman people would not accept the child of a foreign queen as their ruler.
A year and a half later, Cleopatra made the 2000 mile trip to Rome to visit Caesar. In the summer of 46 BC, She stayed in his villa outside the city. Caesar ordered a gold statue of her to be set up in the temple of Venus. Cleopatra arrived in time for Caesar’s celebration of his victory in the Egyptian war. It was a sort of military carnival, and a great holiday for the people of Rome. The triumphal procession included forty elephants, paintings of the River Nile, and a model of the Lighthouse of Alexandria complete with flames. By tradition, captives were made to take part in the triumph. Cleopatra’s sister, Princess Arsinoe, was forced to walk the streets of Rome in chains of gold. You can imagine how Arsinoe felt about that – especially when she knew that her sister was living in luxury in Caesar’s villa.
In Rome, Caesar was at the top of his career, but he also had enemies. Cicero, a well known speech maker, was constantly warning that Caesar was too powerful. Others went even further. A group of senators lead by Cassius and Brutus surrounded Julius Caesar as he came into the Senate, and they murdered him. Rome was plunged into Civil War and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt.
By the time the Romans had finished slaughtering one another, two men emerged as the victors. Both were friends of the dead Julius Caesar. One was a tall, flamboyant, and good-looking general called Mark Antony. Plutarch said that he resembled a statue of Hercules. The other was a young man endowed with great political cunning – his name was Octavian. Octavian was not so dashing, and not much of a general – but he had others to do the fighting for him. His claim to greatness was that his uncle, Julius Caesar, had adopted him as his heir.
Octavian and Mark Antony split the empire between them. While Octavian ruled Rome and the West, Mark Antony came out to the Middle East. Cleopatra soon realised that her future depended on this new Roman. She had already made a big impression on one Roman general. She decided to make an even bigger one on the next. This time, subtlety played no part in her plans.
Mark Antony was camped with his army at Tarsus, in what is now Southern Turkey. It was then part of the Roman Empire, and later on it would be the birthplace of St. Paul. Cleopatra sailed up river to meet Antony. The wonderful description of her barge made its way from Plutarch’s history into Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra.
“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver, Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made The water which they beat to follow faster, As amorous of their strokes. For her own person, It beggared all description: she did lie In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue, O’erpicturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature. On each side her Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids, With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, And what they undid did.”
Poor Antony could not help but be overwhelmed by the amazing sight of the queen on her barge. Cleopatra invited Antony and his generals to a lavish dinner. At the end she gave each of them fabulously expensive gifts. The next day Antony invited Cleopatra to his camp. He could not begin to match the opulence of her hospitality. The queen teased him that he was a man with the simple tastes of a soldier. Antony fell madly in love with Cleopatra.
Antony soon made his base in Alexandria, where he lived in the palace with Cleopatra. Like Caesar before him, he was deeply impressed by the amazing country. Cleopatra took him on a fishing trip on the Nile. When he failed to catch anything, she ordered her servant to fix a salted fish to his line. He pulled it out – and was about to boast of his catch – when he noticed that it had already been filleted and prepared for the dinner table. Cleopatra laughed and teased him saying:
“Leaving the fishing to us. You, Mark Antony, are a general, and your prey are cities, kingdoms, and continents.”
But not all Antony’s military campaigns went well. He led an expedition against the Parthians – fierce people of Asia whom the Romans never succeeded in conquering. Cleopatra provided much of the money to fund the campaign. The Parthians were famous for their cavalry tactics – their horsemen could turn and shoot arrows behind them as they galloped. Antony marched into Parthian territory – but he made the classic mistake of stretching his supply lines too far. He had to retreat, and on the way back a large part of his army died. The humiliation for Antony was a blow to his reputation.
In Rome, the young and wily Octavian was plotting to be sole ruler of the empire. He took advantage of Antony’s weakness, and started a propaganda campaign against him. He said that Antony had been growing soft while he was out in the east, that he was a drunkard who had been seduced by a foreign queen. Now this queen, he warned, wanted to take over Rome, and Antony planned to help her. Antony replied to Octavian’s insults with insults of his own, but he also wrote to Octavian asking that they remain friends. Octavian’s reply was to declare war on Cleopatra. Of course his ambition was to eliminate Mark Antony, but he understood that a new civil war would be unpopular. It sounded so much better to tell the Romans that they were going to war against a foreign queen who was plotting to take them over.
The fate of Antony and Cleopatra was decided off the coast of Northern Greece. This was the great sea battle of Actium in 31 BC.
A lot of war is about waiting, and choosing a favourable time and place to fight. The Battle of Actium was proceeded by a long hot wait. Octavian’s forces, commanded by his general, Agrippa, camped on one side of a narrow straight of water. Mark Antony’s forces, a collection of Romans, Egyptians, and soldiers from kingdoms all over the Middle East, camped on the other side. Cleopatra was with Mark Antony. She had a huge cache of gold with her. Mark Antony’s Roman generals did not like the sight of a woman. They thought it was unRoman for a female to have so much influence. She was rude to some of them. During the long delay, several of Antony’s oldest friends crossed over to join Octavian’s side. It was a huge blow to the morale of his troops.
Eventually Antony and Cleopatra decided that the time had come to fight the battle at sea. They mustered their ships and began to sail out to meet the opposition. Agrippa sent his ships out in a giant arc. They engaged closely and started to fight with spears, swords and burning torches. Half way through the battle, Cleopatra’s barge started to leave. Mark Antony’s ship followed her. No doubt Cleopatra did not want to wish to risk her gold to the fortunes of war. Perhaps Antony felt he had to protect her. But the sight of the two leaders fleeing the scene was too much. The battle was lost. Many of the kings and generals who had supported Antony and Cleopatra now defected to the other side. Nothing could stop Octavian and Agrippa from conquering Egypt. The victory was a turning point in Octavian’s career. He later changed his name to Augustus, and became the first Roman emperor.
Octavian arrived in Alexandria the following year. Mark Antony had little choice but to commit suicide – It was the Roman way. He fell on his sword. Cleopatra was taken prisoner. She did not wish to be made to walk the streets of Rome as a captive, like her sister Arsinoe. She tried to stab herself, but Octavian’s soldiers prevented her. A few days later she smuggled herself into her tomb with three loyal servants. Legend holds that she called for a bowl of figs with a venomous snake inside it. Perhaps she took poison, which would have been a more gentle death. What we do know is that Cleopatra killed herself. The last queen of Egypt was 39 years old when she died, and had been on the throne of Egypt for 21 years. For 11 of those years, Mark Antony had been at her side. She had kept Egypt prosperous and independent throughout her reign. It was probably inevitable that Rome would eventually conquer her country and bring it directly into its Empire. She had little choice but to befriend the greatest Romans of her day. She gambled, and in the end she lost. But the story of her life has fascinated people ever since.
I very much hope that you have enjoyed this retelling of her tale. Bertie has asked me to say that there are many sources for her life from the Ancient World, including Strabo, Plutarch, Cassius Dio, and Josephus. Bertie’s account was partly inspired by a recent history book, Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff, which you can find on Amazon. It gives you a great feel for the times in which Cleopatra lived. You can also find plenty of books about Cleopatra aimed at younger readers. We do hope that you have enjoyed our version, and that perhaps it has given you a taste for Ancient History. We will be doing more histories on Storynory.com.
For now, from me, Natasha