Who Was Cleopatra?
Cleopatra VII was part of the Macedonian dynasty that took over rule of Egypt in the late 4th century B.C. During her reign, she forged political alliances and became romantically involved with Roman military leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, until her death in 30 B.C. One of antiquity's most famous rulers, Cleopatra's life inspired William Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra and numerous film dramatizations, most famously a 1963 feature starring Elizabeth Taylor.
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.
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.
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