Cleopatra VII: The Life and Death of a Pharaoh
Cleopatra was born to Ptolemy XII (or Autles) and his sister Cleopatra Tryphaena in 69 B. C. She was one of six children-Cleopatra VI (who disappeared sometime between 58 B. C. – 55B. C. ), Berenice IV, Ptolemy XIII, Ptolemy XIV, and Arsinoe IV. Though born a member of Egyptian royalty, she was Greek and Macedonian by blood. She and her siblings were well learned from the library in Alexandria, despite custom that women should not be educated.
She spoke nine languages, and was the only individual in her family who could speak Egyptian. In 58 B. C. , the Egyptians unfavorable opinion of Ptolemy XII became violent, and he fled to Rome with Arsinoe and Cleopatra VII, seeking shelter and assistance from Pompey, a member of Rome’s Triumvirate. During this interval, his daughter Berenice seized the throne. Extreme and Tyrannical, the Egyptians dislike her even more than they had her father. Very little opposition was met three years later when Ptolemy returned with the support of Pompey. Berenice was beheaded in 55 B. C. , alone and abhorred. Ptolemy ruled Egypt until his death in 51 B. C.
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He had given much thought as to who his successor might be, and believed that Cleopatra had the charm and intelligence needed to rule the country. However, a queen could not rule alone in ancient Egypt- she was named co-ruler with her then ten-year-old brother Ptolemy XII. Pompey was to supervise the entire matter. Though he was regarded as primary ruler, Cleopatra was determined to have the upper hand. She removed her brother’s name from official documents and ordered that the coinage bear her profile.
Pompey became concerned with her ambitiousness and convinced Ptolemy XIII to overthrow Cleopatra and take full control of the throne. Cleopatra fled to Syria in September of 48 B. C. , in hopes of building an army strong enough to restore her throne. Earlier in the year, Pompey had been fighting a civil war with Caesar after Rome’s ruling Triumvirate had come to an end. Pompey lost the war after Caesar won in Pharsalia and Greece. Theodotus, Achillas, and Ponthius, Ptolemy’s advisors, did not want him to be connected in any way to the loser of this war.
When Pompey landed in Egypt, they immediately seized and beheaded him. His head was sent to Caesar, in an attempt to somehow solidify an alliance between him and Ptolemy. Caesar, upon receiving this “gift” became appalled and extremely angry. He and Pompey had their differences, but it was the death of Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife Julia that had brought them closer together. Caesar, bitter and angry, stayed in Egypt to collect money Autles had owed him. While Caesar was in Egypt, he saw the state of affairs the monarchy was in and decided that a unified Egypt would make an excellent ally.
He summoned Cleopatra and her younger brother to the palace to reconcile them. Cleopatra, however, was anxious, because she would have to pass through Achillas’ army in order to reach the palace, which meant a certain death for her. After careful planning, she decided to have her loyal friend Apollodorus, a merchant from Sicily, wrap her in a beautiful Persian rug and deliver her to Caesar himself. He dressed as a servant and brought her into Caesar’s chambers. When the rug was unrolled, the Queen of Egypt tumbled out before him.
Fascinated by her cleverness and awestruck with her boldness, Cleopatra soon became his newest lover. Caesar backed Cleopatra’s claim to the throne and ordered a startled Ptolemy to make amends with his sister and rule Egypt jointly. Achillas realized that Caesar would never leave Egypt unless he were defeated and driven back to Rome. Acting on this thought, he sent 20,000 men to march upon Alexandria. When the Egyptian people saw that Caesar was not only trapped in the city, but also in the palace, they rioted fiercely against Roman soldiers.
Caesar kept close watch on the remaining royal family. Arsinoe, convinced Caesar would lose the upcoming war, snuck out of the palace, joined Achillas, and proclaimed herself co-ruler with Ptolemy XIII. Ptolemy XIII and Ponthius made plans to join her, but Caesar soon found out about this plan. Ponthius was then killed for treason, leaving Ptolemy with no way out. Arsinoe and her advisor Ganymedes disagreed with Achilles, and soon, his murder had been arranged. Arsinoe then put Ganymedes in charge of the war and he promptyl cut off water supply to the palace.
Caesar, clever as he was, dug trenches for wells near the beach to solve this problem. Ptolemy found a way out of the palace somehow and joined Arsinoe on the outside. It seemed as if they were winning the war, but as soon as Caesar’s reinforcements arrived, they were hopelessly defeated. Ptolemy drowned in the Nile river in the process of fleeing from Caesar, and Arsinoe was caught and forced to march in chains during Caesar’s victory parade. Cleopatra was then married to her only remaining male sibling Ptolemy XIV to show the Egyptians that Caesar respected their traditions.
He stayed several months with Cleopatra, completely enamored by her inexplicable charm and wit. Together, they spent whimsical days cruising down the Nile and lavish nights feasting in the dining room. He enjoyed himself in Egypt, so when matters of state became even more pressing, he was hesitant to go. Cleopatra urged him to go to Rome, for a rebellion had broken out and another war had started. She had already achieved what she craved from Caesar, a strong alliance, and she found that in their unborn son, Ptolemy Caesar. In 47 B. C. Caesar left Rome, never to return again. On June 23, 47 B. C. Caesar’s son, Ptolemy Caesar (or Caesarion) was born. His father lavished him and his mother with high titles and rich presents. When Caesar won the war he had been fighting, she traveled to Rome with their son, where Caesar had built a temple to Venus and Isis, the goddesses Cleopatra supposedly embodied. On the Ides of March 44B. C. , when Caesar was scheduled to start his campaign against Parthia, Brutus and Cassius gathered a group of more than twenty senators in the senate hall. Shortly after he entered, he was surrounded by the conspirators, who had hidden daggers beneath their cloaks.
At a signal, they started stabbing Caesar in frenzy, while he desperately fought them off. Within minutes, Caesar lay dead at the foot of the statue of his old enemy Pompey. Once Cleopatra heard this news, she quickly rushed back to Egypt. Determined to keep any kind of power that remained, she murdered her last remaining sibling Ptolemy XIV and proclaimed her son Ptolemy Caesar as her co-ruler. She believed that placing her half- Roman son at her side would strengthen her ties to the new Roman ruler, whoever it might be.
In the meantime, Marc Antony, Caesar’s friend and comrade during many of his campaigns, had given a moving speech at Caesar’s funeral. This speech so moved the Romans that they built an immense funeral pyre for Caesar in the Roman Forum. Presiding over the funeral was his Great nephew, Gaius Octavius who was preparing himself to succeed Julius Caesar as Rome’s next great ruler. In 43 B. C. , Antony, Octavius, and Marcus Lepidus allied and formed the second Triumvirate. They drew up the supposed conspirators of the Ides of March, and had them promptly executed.
As expected, the triumvirs declared war against Brutus and Cassius, who had fled Rome in fear. Cleopatra now had to decide which side to take. Though she had loved Caesar dearly, she must side with the winning company in order to ensure safety for her and her country. With careful planning, she chose to ally with the Triumvirs against Brutus and Cassius, as they had recognized Ceasarion and her as rulers of Egypt. Cleopatra chose wisely, for in October of 42 B. C. the triumvirate defeated the villainous pair when they opted to committed suicide rather then surrender to their enemies.
The spoils were divided and assigned new rulers: Antony would rule Greece and the wealthy East, Octavius Rome and the West, and Lepidus inherited everything in Africa. Antony was seen as the true heir of Julius Caesar, and was celebrated as such. He was associated with the Roman god Dionysus, who ruled over wine and revels. He was now the most powerful man in Rome, and Cleopatra, having a certain knowledge of men, particularly the Roman type, saw that Antony could be just as useful to her as Caesar had been. So when he summoned her to Tarsus in 41 B. C. o explain certain rumors he had heard, she prepared her finest ships and jewels to sail with her to greet her future ally. When Antony saw the dazzling barges and brilliant treasures glistening in an endless line along the Nile River, he was instantly awestruck. She held a banquet for Antony and his men aboard her vessels and in return, Antony held a banquet in her honor the next night. As anyone could have foreseen, the two became lovers. Antony was intrigued by her lavish lifestyle and charm, while Cleopatra was attracted to his strength, power, and devastating good looks.
Their relationship was fleeting and frivolous, with them disguising themselves as servants for childish games, and extravagant parties being held every night. Cleopatra though in love, was still sensible, and reached a political deal with Antony. She would help him in his campaign against Parthia, and he would murder her only living sibling, Arsinoe. After spending the winter in Alexandria, Antony returned to Rome to settle conflicts with other members of the Triumvirate. In 40 B. C. he and Octavius settled land disputes in Brundisium, a port city southeast of Rome.
To seal this treaty, Antony married Octavius’ beautiful and kind sister Octavia. Displeased and hurt by this unexpected news, the then twenty-nine year old Cleopatra returned to matters of state. She was not worried about her alliance with Antony, because she was pregnant with his twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. For the next three years, Cleopatra ruled in solitude, until Antony sent word for her to meet him in Antioch, where a secret marriage ceremony was held. When news of this broke out among the Roman people, they were shocked, because Roman law clearly prohibited marriage to more than one person.
Octavius and his sister had now been insulted by Antony on more than one occasion. Now reconciled, Cleopatra agreed to keep her promise and fund his military campaign in Parthia. As a gesture of gratitude, he gifted her with the land in the Middle Eastern region. Romans were outraged, because to them, Antony had no right to give a foreigner land belonging to the Roman Empire. Octavius, still angry about being publicly shamed by Antony, did nothing to calm the riots in the empire. After several years of planning, Antony was finally ready to march into Parthia.
In 36 B. C. , Antony began a military campaign that was supposed to equal him with Alexander the Great. Instead, it ended with humiliating defeat. As Antony returned to Antioch, Cleopatra had just given birth to their third child, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Antony began preparing for another military campaign in against Armenia, which would avenge the country for helping defeat him in his campaign in Parthia. When Octavia heard about this defeat and possible new campaign, she set out from Rome with ships and troops.
Antony was overjoyed and sent word for her to send all she had bought forward, but for her to return to their home in Rome to help soothe over things with Octavius’. Antony most likely made this decision out of fear of Octavius’ growing power in Rome. He had a disagreement with Lepidus, and had officially bought the troubled Triumvirate to an end. If he was strong enough to simply dismiss a joint leader, one can only imagine what he could do to the much-detested Antony. Antony decided to live with Cleopatra, where he was worshipped as the god Dionysus and confident of loyalties.
After his successful campaign in Armenia, they decided to name their three children heirs to several sections of the Roman Empire and Caesarion as heir to Caesar’s throne and ruler of the West. In 32 to 31 BC, Antony finally divorced Octavia. This forced the Western part of the world to recognize his relationship with Cleopatra. He had already put her name and face on a Roman coin, the silver denarii’s. The denarii’s were widely circulated throughout the Mediterranean. By doing this, Antony’s relationship with anyone in the Roman Empire was ended and Octavian decided to publish what he claimed was Antony’s will.
In it he named Cleopatra and her children heir to the entire Roman Empire and stated that he wished to be buried in Egypt next to Cleopatra- a dire insult to Rome. The Roman people were once again out raged and cried out to Octavius for help. Octavius then formally declared war against Cleopatra. Antony’s name was nowhere mentioned in the official declaration. Octavius believed this action would bring more Romans- who didn’t want another civil war between Roman leaders and who believed Cleopatra was a bad influence- to his side.
Accusations began to arise about Cleopatra’s character, which were most likely made out of fear of Cleopatra and Antony. Many probably thought that the New Isis would prevail and that Antony would start up a new wave of world conquest and rule in a co-partnership with Cleopatra from Alexandria. In the fall of 32 B. C. , Cleopatra and Antony prepared their ships for the decisive Battle of Actium. Antony decided to attack during the afternoon, when the northern winds, which are common on the Mediterranean Sea, would favor his plan.
Octavian and Agrippa strengthened the wings of their navy, because they wanted to prevent Antony from outflanking them. Antony, however, wanted to break away, and ordered the main attack through the weakened center. And indeed, when the battle began, Antony’s center defeated the center of Agrippa and Octavian, which was commanded by Lucius Arruntius. Suddenly, in the heat of the battle, Cleopatra’s ships- which contained the treasury-turned South and headed straight for land. Shocking everyone except Cleopatra, Antony quickly followed her. Confused and shocked by the abandonment of their leader, Antony’s forces were badly defeated.
As the news of the Battle of Actium spread, rulers who had been allies of Cleopatra and Antony switched their loyalty. Cleopatra’s enemies volunteered to help Octavius by attacking Egypt from the east and the west. Antony, believing this situation was hopeless, asked Octavius for the chance to live in Alexandria as a private citizen, stripped of all rank and privilege. Octavius refused all of his pleas. Depressed and broken, Antony moved out of the royal palace and into a small house near the Pharaoh’s light house. Cleopatra was in a similar situation.
She tried to persuade Octavius to her to rule Egypt indepentdently, and that Caesarion be allowed to inherit the throne of Egypt. He accepted all of her gifts, but refused her pleas. In the spring of 30 B. C, he marched into Egypt, prepared for a full scale attack. Knowing the end was nearing, Antony pulled himself together and moved back into the palace, where he and Cleopatra threw lavish parties. They swore to entertain themselves until they would either escape or meet their death’s together at Octavius’ hands. in a final attempt to save his part of the Empire, he attacked Octavius’ army, at first driving them back.
But they quickly regrouped and forced his army to retreat. Antony then tried to bribe the enemy soldiers to his side, but none accepted. The Egyptian navy surrendered the next day, and the Arabian army burned what was left of it. Cleopatra, with no way to escape, fled inside a vault in the royal palace with three of her servants. Antony received false word that she was dead, and turned to his faithful servant Eros to kill him. Unable to do the deed, he rather turned the sword on himself. Desparate to somehow end up like his love pulled another sword from its scabbard and plunged it into his stomach.
He dropped his weapon and staggered to the ground. News of Antony’s death spread quickly, and upon Cleopatra’s orders he was lifted through a window leading to the vault. Upon seeing Antony, she began to sob uncontrollably and beat herself in frenzy. Antony told her to stop and told her not to pity him for he had “fallen not ignobly, a Roman by a Roman overcome. ” With a final gasp for breath, he died in Cleopatra’s arms. Octavius too had heard of Antony’s death and sent a small section of his army to break into the mausoleum and capture the queen.
She was allowed to attend Antony’s funeral, and would then be taken to Rome to march in Octavius’ upcoming victory parade. Cleopatra, though a prisoner, was still Queen of Egypt and would not stand for such an injustice to her pride. So she bathed, dressed in her finest clothes and enjoyed a sumptuous meal prepared from the finest foods and spices that she could acquire. A servant then brought her an Egyptian asp hidden in a basket of figs. She watched carefully as the snake struck and its poison worked its way to her heart.
Within minutes, Egypt’s last Pharoah lay dead, and with her, Egypt’s last glimpse of freedom. Cleopatra is a symbol of strength, intelligence and ambition, recognized the world over. From the moment Cleopatra stepped onto the political scene over two thousand years ago, she has been seen as a threat to the natural order of ancient Rome, where men ruled and women obeyed. Though noted more for her lasciviousness than for her benefits to society, she is a symbol of strength and ambition to all women. I learned that you should not manipulate people to get what you want from them.