Cleopatra VII Philopator, often simply called Cleopatra, was the last of a series of rulers called the Ptolemies who ruled ancient Egypt for nearly 300 years.
A member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, she was a descendant of its founder Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general and companion of Alexander the Great.
Cleopatra ruled an empire that included Egypt, Cyprus, part of modern-day Libya and other territories in the Middle East.
She was fluent in a number of languages, is reported to have been extremely charming, and was an effective diplomat and administrator.
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.
In June of 323 BC, Alexander the Great died and his vast empire was divided among his generals. One of these generals was Ptolemy I Soter, a fellow Macedonian, who would found the Ptolemaic Dynasty in ancient Egypt. The Ptolemaic line, of Macedonian-Greek ethnicity, would continue to rule Egypt until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC when it was taken by Rome.
Like all lives that lend themselves to poetry, Cleopatra’s was one of dislocations and disappointments. She grew up amid unsurpassed luxury and inherited a kingdom in decline. She and her 10-year-old brother assumed control of a country with a weighty past and a wobbly future. The pyramids, to which Cleopatra almost certainly introduced Julius Caesar, already sported graffiti. The Sphinx had undergone a major restoration—more than 1,000 years earlier. And the glory of the once-great Ptolemaic empire had dimmed.
Cleopatra was born in 69 BC and ruled jointly with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes. When she was 18 years old, her father died, leaving her the throne. Because Egyptian tradition held that a woman needed a male consort to reign, her twelve-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, was ceremonially married to her. Cleopatra soon dropped his name from all official documents, however, and ruled alone.
In 55 BC, 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 BC, his will said that Cleopatra should share the throne with her brother (and husband) Ptolemy XIII.
In 48 BC, Egypt became embroiled in the conflict in Rome between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Pompey fled to the Egyptian capital Alexandria, where he was murdered on the orders of Ptolemy. Caesar followed and he and Cleopatra became lovers. Cleopatra, who had been exiled by her brother, was reinstalled as queen with Roman military support. Ptolemy was killed in the fighting and another brother was created Ptolemy XIII. In 47 BC, Cleopatra bore Caesar a child – Caesarion – though Caesar never publicly
acknowledged him as his son.
Cleopatra joined Julius Caesar in Rome beginning in 46 BC, and her presence seems to have caused quite a stir. Caesar didn’t hide that she was his mistress—she even came to the city with their lovechild, Caesarion, in tow—and many Romans were scandalized when he erected a gilded statue of her in the temple of Venus Genetrix. Cleopatra was forced to flee Rome after Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman senate in 44 BC, but by then she had made her mark on the city.
In 41 BC, 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.
In 40 BC Cleopatra gave birth to twins, whom she named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Antony had already left Alexandria to return to Italy, where he was forced to conclude a temporary settlement with Octavian. As part of this settlement, he married Octavian’s sister, Octavia (Fulvia having died). Three years later Antony was convinced that he and Octavian could never come to terms. His marriage to Octavia now an irrelevance, he returned to the east and reunited with Cleopatra.
In 31 BC, 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.
In 30 BC, 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.
The Latinized form Cleopatra comes from the Ancient Greek Kleopátra (Κλεοπάτρα), meaning “glory of her father”, from κλέος (kléos, “glory”) and πατήρ (patḗr, “father”). The masculine form would have been written either as Kleópatros (Κλεόπατρος) or Pátroklos (Πάτροκλος). Cleopatra was the name of Alexander the Great’s sister, as well as Cleopatra Alcyone, wife of Meleager in Greek mytholog.