We all know the name of Queen Cleopatra, her love affair with Anthony and her suicide by snake bite; this article explores the reality behind the legend.
The Queen Cleopatra we all know was the seventh and last monarch of Egypt to bear that name. She was the descendent of Ptolemy, a general of Alexander the Great, whose dynasty ruled Egypt for almost three hundred years; from 305 to 30 BCE, when Cleopatra, the last ruling Ptolemy, was defeated by the Roman general Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and committed suicide.
As rulers of Egypt, the Ptolemies adopted many of the titles, customs and iconography of the Pharaohs although they continued to use the Greek language. Under their patronage, a distinctive blend of Greco-Egyptian culture developed. One custom the Ptolemies borrowed from the Pharaohs was that of brother-sister marriages. It was usual for a brother and sister to reign together as husband and wife. Despite this familial intimacy, the history of the Ptolemies is full of lurid accounts of ruthless murder and Machiavellian plots, as family members fought each other for supremacy.
Cleopatra’s Early Life
Cleopatra is a typical example of this. Born in 69 BCE, the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes (the fluteplayer), she inherited the throne of Egypt, aged eighteen in 51 BCE, reigning jointly with her husband and brother Ptolemy XIII Philopator, who was ten years old. Unhappy with Cleopatra’s pre-eminence, the advisers of the young Ptolemy pushed him into staging a coup and Cleopatra fled Egypt. She retreated to Syria, to raise an army, and Ptolemy meanwhile, prepared to meet her attack on the coast.
At this point, Egyptian internal affairs coincided with events in Rome. In 48 BCE Rome was in the throes of civil war, as the generals Caesar and Pompey struggled for supremacy. Pompey had just lost the decisive battle of Pharsalus and had fled to Egypt. Previously, Ptolemy and Cleopatra had jointly pledged Pompey Egyptian support. Pompey therefore expected to be receive sanctuary from Ptolemy. Instead, knowing of his defeat, Ptolemy’s advisers ruthlessly decided to ingratiate themselves with the victor, Caesar. Pompey was welcomed aboard a small boat and rowed away. Still in sight of his horrified wife and children, he was stabbed to death. When Caesar arrived at Egypt, in pursuit of Pompey, the boy-king’s advisors triumphantly presented him with Pompey’s severed head. Instead of rewarding them however, Caesar expressed outrage at this treacherous murder.
Julius Caesar became embroiled in the quarrel between Cleopatra and her brother. It is then that the famous ‘carpet incident’ is said to have occurred. Knowing that Caesar was notoriously susceptible to feminine charms, Cleopatra cunningly infiltrated Ptolemy’s palace where Caesar was staying, hidden in rolled up bedding (not in fact a carpet!) and thus secured an audience. Charmed by this ruse and by the young woman, Caesar took her side. He insisted that the two siblings must share the throne, in accordance with their father’s will. Unhappy with this decision, Ptolemy’s advisors started a war against Caesar, led by another sister, Arsinoe. Caesar was victorious and in the course of the struggle, Ptolemy was drowned, crossing the Nile.
Returning to Rome, Caesar left Cleopatra on the throne, with Ptolemy XIV, her thirteen year old brother, at her side. As a result of her relationship with Caesar, Cleopatra bore him a son, Caesarion. In 46 BCE, she visited Rome with her young son and Caesar provoked Roman condemnation by publicly continuing his relationship with the queen. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra attempted to have Caesarion recognised as his heir but, unsuccessful, she returned to Egypt.
After the defeat of Brutus and the other conspirators against Caesar, Rome was controlled by a Triumvirate of Octavian who was Caesar’s great nephew, Lepidus and Marcus Antonius who had been Caesar’s right hand man. Anthony controlled the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire and in that capacity, met with Cleopatra and they began a relationship in 41BCE. Shortly after this, Cleopatra gave birth to twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Around this time, Anthony made a politically expedient marriage to Octavia, the sister of Octavian. Over the next three years Cleopatra governed her kingdom.
In 37 BCE, Anthony returned to the East; they resumed their relationship and Cleopatra bore her fourth and final child Ptolemy Philadelphus. Anthony vastly extended Cleopatra’s territories, encroaching on those of neighbouring client kings, so that together, they controlled a significant part of the Near East. In a ceremony known as the Donations of Alexandria, this expansion was formally consolidated and Cleopatra’s children were awarded lofty titles.
Not surprisingly, this caused consternation in Rome on both a personal and political level. Anthony’s open liaison with and aggrandisement of the Egyptian queen was both a personal affront to Octavia and her brother and a potentially serious political threat: this of course was exacerbated by the fact that Cleopatra claimed to be the mother of Caesar’s son, thus undermining the legitimacy of Octavian’s claim to be Caesar’s heir. After attempts at rapprochement had failed, Octavian declared war on Cleopatra in 31 BCE.
Actium Defeat and Death
To protect Egypt from invasion, Cleopatra took her fleet to the west coast of Greece while Anthony accompanied her with his forces by land. In September, 31 BCE, Cleopatra’s fleet was defeated by Octavian and she retreated to Egypt accompanied by Anthony. After prolonged negotiations came to nothing, Octavian invaded Egypt. Desperate to save herself and her children, it seems that Cleopatra decided Anthony was a liability. As Anthony’s troops deserted him, defecting to Octavian, he gave way to despair. Cleopatra barricaded herself in the Mausoleum and allowed Anthony to believe she was dead; he stabbed himself but did not die immediately. Pitying him, Cleopatra and her maids drew him up to her in the Mausoleum on ropes and he died in her arms.
From within the Mausoleum, Cleopatra tried to negotiate with Octavian; she was determined to preserve her kingdom and for her children to keep some of their former grand titles. Octavian wanted to bring Cleopatra back to Rome as a captive to be displayed in his victory triumph. He therefore continued the negotiations, so that she would not give up hope and would stay alive. Wanting to bring her under closer control, he had the Mausoleum invaded by men on ladders. who confiscated Cleopatra’s dagger and anything else with which she could harm herself and he kept her under close watch.
Realising that she was facing the ultimate humiliation of being led in chains through the jeering Roman crowd, Cleopatra appeared resigned to her fate, anxious to ingratiate herself with her captors, so that they relaxed their watch. Cleopatra managed to have a poisonous snake smuggled into the Mausoleum. Arraying herself in her finest robes and jewellery, she succumbed to the snake’s venom.
Octavian had her teenage son Caesarion murdered, thus establishing himself as Caesar’s heir. His sister Octavia adopted the remainder of Cleopatra’s children.
- Cleopatra: A Sourcebook by Prudence J Jones, University of Oklahoma Press, 2006
- Cleopatra: A Biography by Duane W. Roller, Oxford University Press, 2010