But who was Cleopatra really? Was she a seductress who destroyed Mark Antony and brought about the end of the Egyptian dynasty? Or was she a powerful ruler who used men for her own purposes? Was she Black or pure Macedonian Greek and why does it matter? Will the real Cleopatra please stand up? Classical portraits portray her as an ethereal beauty. But that was far from the contemporary versions of the Queen.
Well for starters she reigned as Cleopatra VII (Cleopatra being a popular name in the Ptolemy dynasty. In fact her mother was Cleopatra V). As you can see from the coin minted during Cleopatra's lifetime, she was far from the beauty portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert and others in movies. She was probably no more than five foot one, and more than likely plump. If Cleopatra seduced men it was more from her personality, her charisma, her powerful leadership and her brain, than it was from her looks.
The Ptolemaic dynasty descended directly from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's generals. So in fact, Cleopatra was pure Greek. In fact, Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic Pharaoh to bother to learn to speak Egyptian. It was among the nine languages that she spoke. The seat of power had moved to Alexandria, on the coast of the Mediterranean. At the time of Cleopatra's reign, it was the largest, most populist, multicultural and most cosmopolitan city in the world. Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and probably even Jews lived side by side. The city was much closer to contemporary New York. It was a center of learning with one of the most well known libraries in the ancient world.
She was born probably around 69 B.C. and after ascending the throne at 17, ruled for the next 20 years. There is speculation that Cleopatra's grandmother could have been an Egyptian or African concubine, although there is no evidence that this is true. Cleopatra had five siblings, all of whom died before her. Besides her two brothers, she had a sister Arsinoe who was killed on Cleoptra's orders. Her older sisters Tryphaena and Berenice had been killed when they each tried to seize the throne from their father Ptolemy XII. Later there is a legend that Cleopatra herself poisoned her brother/husband Ptolemy XIV, leaving her children by Caesar and Mark Antony as the sole heirs to the Eygptian throne. Clearly she could add ruthless to her other sterling qualities.
As was tradition, Cleopatra married her 12 year old brother (the throne of Egypt came through the female line so for a male to rule, he had to marry a female family member), Ptolemy XIII who she later battled for control of Egypt. Around this time, Caesar's co-consul Pompey was vying with him for control of the Roman Empire. After losing the battle of Pharsalos to Caesar, Pompey fled to Alexandria to seek the protection of Cleopatra's brother/husband Ptolemy XIII. However, Ptolemy's advisors thought it better for Ptolemy to throw his lot in with Caesar. On Pompey's arrival, he was assasinated. Just as Caesar was about to enter the city of Alexandria, he was presented with Pompey's head. Caesar was furious at what had been done to his one time friend and ally. He issued a decree that both Ptolemy and Cleopatra were to dismiss their armies and meet with him to settle the dispute.
This is where Cleopatra first showed the seductive arts that were to make her famous. She had herself delivered to Caesar rolled up in a Persian carpet. When it was unrolled, Cleopatra tumbled out looking like a rumpled kitten. Charmed by this gesture, Caesar took Cleopatra as his mistress. She later gave birth to his son Caesarion. Now backed by Caesar's forces, she defeated her brother, who later drowned while fleeing Caesar's henchmen. She then married her other brother Ptolemy XIV, who was even younger.
Despite the 30 year age different, Caesar and Cleopatra were lovers during the two years he spent in Egypt. While Cleopatra hoped that Caesar would make her son Caesarion his heir, he refused, choosing his grand-nephew Octavian instead. Instead, Caesarion would rule over Egypt and Rome, uniting the East and the West. Cleopatra left Egypt to be with Caesar in 46 B.C. on his invitation. While in Rome, Caesar showered his mistress with many titles and gifts. He even had a statue of her erected in the temple of Venus which scandalized the Roman nobility. Caesar already had a wife named Calpurnia and Caesar's flaunting of his affair with Cleopatra was frowned upon. It was even rumored that Caesar would divorce Calpurnia, marry Cleopatra and make Caesarion his heir instead of Octavius. Unfortunately Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. by a host of conspirators including his close friend Brutus, who were afraid that Caesar would declare himself Emperor. Cleopatra fearing for her safety, fled back to Egypt. She now made her son Caesarion her co-regent after the death of her second brother/husband.
In 42 B.C. Mark Antony entered the picture. Cleopatra had been approached for support by Cassius, one of the chief conspirators against Caesar. No dummy, Cleopatra wasn't about to side with the man who was responsible for the death of her lover. Instead she sided against him with his rival Publius Cornelius Dolabella and sent legions to his aid in his attempt to claim Syria. Unfortunately Dolabella lost. Mark Antony summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus to question her about her loyalty to the triumvirate. Cleopatra arrived on her great barge dressed like the goddess Venus, impressing Antony with her wealth. She invited him to dine with her that night, and before he knew it, Antony was just as captivated by Cleopatra as Caesar had been. He even agreed to spend the winter with her in Alexandria where they became lovers. She gave birth to Antony's children, the twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and then later another son (these children were eventually raised by Octavia, Antony's ex-wife and Octavian's sister after Antony and Cleopatra's death). According to Plutarch, Cleopatra basically catered to Antony's every little whim, whether he wanted to go hunting or carousing, gambling, she drank with him, and played mischievous tricks with him, basically she never let him out of her sight.
When Antony finally managed to rouse himself from the splendors of Egypt, he returned to Rome to pick up his duties as a ruler of the Roman Empire, part of the triumvirate of Octavian and Lepidus. His wife Fulvia had raised an army against Octavian in his absence and Antony was needed to smooth things over. While in Rome, he married Octavian's sister, Octavia (Fulvia had conveniently taken ill and died), probably to cement the alliance between the two men. Still, Antony's heart was in Egypt with Cleopatra.
After a four year absence (I guess it did make the heart grow fonder), Antony stopped off in Egypt on his way to invade Parthia for a little rendezvous. After rushing through his military campaign, Antony made his way back to Cleopatra's waiting arms. Her charms were such that from that point on, Antony based himself in Alexandria, marrying Cleopatra in 36 B.C. (I wonder if he bothered to divorce Octavia!). Cleopatra gave birth to her third child by Antony soon after, a boy named Ptolemy Philadelphus.
Meanwhile back on the homefront, Octavia remained loyal to her bigamous jerk of a husband. When Cleopatra caught wind that Antony was going to go meet with Octavia, she threw a fit, crying, fainting and weeping until she got her way. Being a woman, she probably sensed that the sensible Octavia might play on Antony's guilt at abandoning her and their two daughters. Antony cancelled the meeting.
It was a mistake that Antony would live to regret. The people in Rome were just a little disgusted at Antony's treatment of Octavia, not the least being her brother, Octavian. Rumors abounded that Antony and Cleopatra had declared themselves gods (the new Isis and Dionysus, how appropriate). Then in 34 B.C. Antony made his children, Alexander King of Armenia and little Cleopatra, Queen of Crete, and finally little Ptolemy ended up with Syria. Antony had also promised Cleopatra lands to rule in exchange for her help with his campaign against Parthia. Cleopatra saw this as her opportunity to regain the Ptolemies' former dynastic empire, and Antony needed Cleopatra's wealth for his armies and his fleet. It was a match made in ambition and greed.
Now completely pissed off, Octavian went to the Senate to declare war on Egypt and Cleopatra. He made Cleopatra out to be the real enemy of Rome, using Antony as her besotted plaything. He even went so far as to read a document he claimed to be Antony's will (probably forged) which reportedly left everything to Cleopatra in the event of his death. In 31 B.C. Antony's forces met up with Octavian's at sea in the battle of Actium in Greece. Cleopatra had provided 60 ships of her own. However, when she saw that Antony's ships were losing to the Romans, she hightailed it out of there. Antony, meanwhile, made the cardinal sin of abandoning his men to follow her. This provided proof to Rome that Antony was just a pawn in Cleopatra's hands.
All was not well with two lovers however. Antony refused to see or to speak to Cleopatra for 3 days after the defeat. When they returned to Egypt, Antony went off to brood, while Cleopatra prepared her country for invasion by Rome. When Antony learned of the surrendar of his forces at Actium and that his allies had changed sides, he decided to join Cleopatra to party like it was 1999.
Cleopatra had begun to experiment with poisons in the likelihood that she would need to take her life. She also built a magnificent mausoleum to which she moved all her worldly goods. In 30 B.C. Octavian finally reached Alexandria. When Mark Antony marched his army out to meet the enemy, he discovered that his fleet had gone over to Roman side. Then Antony's calvary deserted him. With his army defeated, Antony returned to the city, screaming that Cleopatra had betrayed him. Fearing for her life, Cleopatra fled to her mausoleum and barricaded herself inside, ordering her servents to tell Antony that she was dead.
Hearing that Cleopatra was dead, Antony decided to take his own life by stabbing himself with his sword. Unfortunately, he didn't die. He begged his servants to finish him off but instead they ran off. Cleopatra's servent discovered him and told him that his mistress was still alive. Antony was carried to the mausoleum where he died in Cleopatra's arms.
Cleopatra was now a prisoner in her mausoleum, refusing to eat, until Octavian threatened to harm her children if she died. But when she heard that he planned to parade her as a captive in the procession to celebrate his triumph in Rome, she committed suicide rather than be humiliated. No one is quite sure who she died. Shakespeare of course has her dying from the bite of an asp. She died at the end of August and was buried by Antony's side as she requested.
After her suicide, Octavian ordered her son Caesarion put to death. Her daughter by Antony later married King Juba II of Numidia, but the fate of her other two children by Antony, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus, remains unknown but most sources claim that their lives were also spared by Octavian.
Did Cleopatra love Antony or was he a means to an end. No one really knows for sure if it more was ambition and lust that brought them together, but that's a pretty combustible combination. Cleopatra while able to survive twenty years as Pharaoah and countless attempts to over throw her rule will still be known as the seductress of the East who lured two of Rome's greatest men away from their duties.
During her reign, she promoted herself endlessly (shades of Madonna, Britney and Lola Montez), making constant public displays of her power, her image as Pharoah and as a goddess. She also personally led rituals that were associated with Isis, the most important Egyptian goddess at the time. By doing so, Cleopatra insured that her people would be loyal to her.
After her death, Octavian contributed to the making of her legend, by spreading stories about her. The legend grew as writers such as Shakespeare, Plutarch, and Shaw were taken by aspects of her story and by the many movies and television shows since then. Everyone has their image of Cleopatra in their head and no matter of new information will dislodge it. She has passed from history into an icon.