Cleopatra took the throne from her father, Ptolemy XII, at the age of eighteen. A few years later, she was swept off of it, eventually helped by the Romans.
Cleopatra VII, Pharaoh of Egypt, was called many things: Great Lady of Perfection, Goddess who is Beloved of Her Father, Isis Incarnation. In Rome – who wrote of her life and histories – she is scorned as a sorceress of a sort, bewitching men into her bed and spending her money on perfumes, love potions and golden palaces. However, the real Cleopatra was a competent ruler who was only concerned for her country and her children’s birthrights.
Cleopatra’s Family and Early Life
Cleopatra was a descended from Pharaoh Ptolemy I (r. 323-283 B.C.E.), who was a Greek General of Alexander the Great. Three hundred years later, the Greek dynasty ruling Egypt was bankrupt, corrupted and beaten, its once mighty empire shrunken in size. Called a client kingdom of Rome, Cleopatra’s father – Ptolemy XII – was in debt with the Romans, constantly asking their military help to regain his throne.
Petitioning in Rome and taking Cleopatra (aged around eleven) with him left his other children to scheme. Cleopatra’s eldest sister, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, took the throne and was then reported to be poisoned by her father’s supporters. The next sister, Berenice IV, took the throne next, but in 55 B.C.E., she was disposed and executed when her father came back to the throne, leaving Cleopatra to be his heir.
In 51 B.C.E., Ptolemy XII died, leaving Cleopatra, aged eighteen years old, the throne of Egypt. However, in his will, Ptolemy specifically stated that his daughter was to rule and marry her younger brother, also named Ptolemy, and rule alongside him, according to ancient Egyptian custom. The younger Ptolemy and the youngest sister, Arsinoe, remained in the wings, waiting for their turn as monarchs if their older siblings did not reproduce or heirs came from Cleopatra.
Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII and XIV, Pharaohs of Egypt
It was not long before the two siblings, not yet married, fought. In 47 B.C.E., Ptolemy XIII and his advisors overthrew Cleopatra, who fled Egypt’s seat of power and capital, Alexandria. Gathering an army of her own, Cleopatra was saved by the Roman General, Julius Caesar. Going to Egypt to collect the country’s large debts to Rome, Caesar was trapped in Alexandria by the politics and the weather.
Ptolemy XIII welcomed Caesar, but it was Cleopatra who wanted the Roman’s attention. Reputed to have wrapped herself in a carpet and delivered to Caesar, Cleopatra arrived in Caesar’s quarters at her royal palace, passing guards posed to kill her. That night, the two became lovers, although history does not record whether the two had a passionate relationship, considering Caesar’s reputation with women, queens especially. The next morning, they were caught by Ptolemy and his advisors, Cleopatra said to be naked.
Although Caesar left Cleopatra pregnant (a son, Ptolemy Caesar, that was not acknowledged by his father due to Roman law) and Ptolemy jealous, he managed to set the two siblings together on the throne and had them married. The temporary peace was soon disrupted and the two continued to fight. However, Cleopatra was soon rid of her brother when Caesar pretended to offer military advice to Ptolemy, telling him to stay with his forces during a battle. During the fighting, the Pharaoh drowned in the Nile River, his gold body armor holding him down.
Afterward, Caesar had Cleopatra marry her next brother, Ptolemy XIV, who was twelve at the time of his marriage to his older sister. Wanting nothing to do with politics except in ceremonies, the young brother-husband of Cleopatra was contented to play while his older sister ruled Egypt. In effect, this made Cleopatra sole ruler of Egypt in all but name.
Around 45 B.C.E., Caesar invited the two rulers and Ptolemy Caesar to Rome. While there, he entertained them, but also scandalized Rome with his continuing affair with Cleopatra. There were fears that the two would marry (even though Caesar was already married, he could divorce) and create an empire, which Rome did not appreciate. Also not appreciated was Caesar’s plain dedication to the Egyptian Queen. In his family temple, dedicated to the goddess Venus, Caesar was said to have put up a statue of Cleopatra, in the guise of Venus herself.
On the Ides (the fifteenth of the month) of March, 44 B.C.E., Caesar was assassinated. Cleopatra was probably in the city when the incident happened and escaped as a civil war brewed and exploded in Rome. That autumn, she returned to Alexandria, but at a cost: her brother, Ptolemy XIV, died, leaving her the sole ruler of Egypt.