Antony’s Cleopatra continues to captivate the western imagination but despite the legends she was a scheming seductress, just like her ancestors.
Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies was born in Alexandria in 69 BC, and was the third daughter of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes by his wife, Cleopatra V Tryphaena – her elder siblings were Cleopatra VI Tryphaena and Berenice IV.
Life as an Egyptian Princess
Her father, Ptolemy – ‘The Flute Player’ had angered Egypt by imposing a system of heavy taxation in order to pay bribes to Rome for protection and for the security of his crown. Due to his frequent connections with the imperial city – he was considered as a friend of Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar.
Until this time Cyprus had been part of Egypt, but when Rome invaded the island in 58 BC, Ptolemy failed to respond – and a rebellion broke out in Alexandria. Ptolemy took the young Cleopatra and fled to Rome leaving Egypt under the control of his wife Cleopatra Tryphaena, and their daughter Berenice, who ruled together.
Meanwhile in Rome, the exiled king and his teenage pleaded their case before the Senate declaring that Cleopatra Tryphaena had became too powerful, Ptolemy managed to bribe the tribune Aulus Gabinius with a huge sum of money to raise an army in their support, and his offer was successful and an extensive and well-equipped army was formed.
Cleopatra Tryphaena died in 57 BC, leaving Egypt under the sole rule of Berenice IV for a period of two years. With the assistance of Gabinius, Ptolemy besieged the city and had Berenice beheaded, he reclaimed his throne and had Cleopatra crowned as his co-ruler. He and Cleopatra VII Philopator – (meaning ‘One who loves their father’) – ruled together from 55 BC and Gabinius’ troops remained in Alexandria to secure the crown, but Auletes owed huge debts to Rome.
Ptolemy Deposes Cleopatra
Cleopatra’s father was a drunkard and loved music, hence he acquired the epithet Auletes, meaning Flute Player at some point he may have repudiated Cleopatra V Tryphaena and taken another bride, and had three younger children, Arsinoe, and two younger sons both named Ptolemy. Auletes became ill and died in 51 BC. His will stipulated that Cleopatra would succeed and marry her brother Ptolemy XIII – Pompey approved the Will in Rome.
Cleopatra who was aged eighteen remained ruler due to her eleven year old brother’s minority, Ptolemy’s eunuch Pothinus acted as Regent – but the two contrived plots to depose Cleopatra so that Ptolemy could rule alone under Pothinus. Cleopatra was forced to flee to Syria in 48 BC, during which time their sister Arsinoe IV claimed the throne.
Following the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, Pompey sought refuge in Egypt, but Ptolemy and Pothinus had Pompey murdered hoping to win Caesar’s support. They presented Pompey’s head to Caesar which unfortunately for them disgusted Caesar – who ordered an appropriate funeral, and the murderers to be executed.
Cleopatra Becomes The Last Queen of Egypt
Caesar’s men recovered Cleopatra from exile, and she deliberately seduced Caesar with her wit and charm for protection. Caesar had her reinstated, his men executed Pothinus but Ptolemy was still determined to oust Cleopatra, and formed an army with Arsinoe against them – and thus began the Alexandrian War. Arsinoe and Ptolemy fled and the young king drowned crossing the Nile – enabling Cleopatra to rule with the younger twelve year old brother Ptolemy XIV from 47 BC.
Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar’s illegitimate son in 47 BC, naming him Caesarion, and moved to Rome as guests until Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. Back in Egypt, Cleopatra proclaimed Caesarion as her co-ruler, and Ptolemy XIV disappeared – it is believed Cleopatra had him poisoned. Many have suggested that Caesarion was not even Caesar’s son, because he had had numerous wives, and at an advancing age – he had only fathered one daughter.
Mark Antony and Cleopatra
Octavian and Antony avenged the murder of Caesar at Philippi in battle against Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius in 42 BC, and a new arrangement was made to govern the empire – Octavian would control the Roman west, and Antony would control the richer eastern provinces.
Cleopatra wanted recognition for Caesarion, and Antony who was becoming consumed with power realised that as Caesar’s natural son, he would grow to threaten Octavian – Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son, so he summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus in 41 BC, where they became lovers – spending the winter in Alexandria, and she used him to murder Arsinoe – who was in exile at Ephesus.
Antony was married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia Minor at Brundisium (modern day Brindisi in 40 BC) and she bore him two daughters, but Antony who was forever in the east formed an alliance with Cleopatra whose throne still needed Roman protection, Antony repudiated Octavia in 35 BC and divorced her in order to marry the Egyptian queen.
She bore Antony a daughter and two sons, but their fate was sealed when Octavian discovered Antony had declared Caesarion to be Caesar’s rightful heir, and that his children by Cleopatra would inherrit the eastern provinces. Rome launched a navy bound for Alexandria, and Octavian defeated them at Actium and besieged the ancient Egyptian capital in 30 BC.
With no means of escape Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide – their deaths are shrouded in legend, but it is believed that Antony fell upon his sword, and Cleopatra placed her hand into a basket of venomous asps. Octavian had Antony’s son by a previous wife and Caesarion killed, and he took their three young back to Rome to be raised by Octavia.