The Egyptian queen Cleopatra, known in history and theatre as Julius Caesar’s lover and later as Mark Antony’s wife, was born in 70 or 69 BCE and died in Alexandria on August 30, BCE. Her full name is Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (“Cleopatra the Father-Loving Goddess”).
When her father, Ptolemy XII, died in 51 BCE, she succeeded him as queen. She shared the throne with her two brothers, Ptolemy XIII (51-47) and Ptolemy XIV (47-44) and her son, Ptolemy XV Caesar (44–30).
It is challenging to piece together Cleopatra’s biography with great certainty because there are no contemporaneous accounts of her life.
Her life’s knowledge is largely derived from the writings of Greek and Roman academics, particularly Plutarch. She was a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals and the start of the Ptolemaic line in Egypt.
She was born around 70 or 69 B.C. Her mother was said to be the king’s wife, Cleopatra V Tryphaena (and possibly his half-sister). Following Auletes’ ostensibly natural death in 51 B.C., the Egyptian kingdom was assumed by Cleopatra, age 18, and Ptolemy XIII, her 10-year-old brother.
Ptolemy’s advisors took action against Cleopatra soon after the siblings took the kingdom, forcing her to depart Egypt for Syria in 49 B.C.
In order to fight her brother’s armies in a civil war at Pelusium, on Egypt’s eastern frontier, she gathered an army of hired assassins and returned the following year.
Pompey’s opponent, Julius Caesar, was welcomed to Alexandria by Ptolemy XIII after he had permitted the death of Pompey, the Roman general.
Cleopatra supposedly snuck into the royal palace to make her case to Caesar in order to get his backing for her cause.
Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Egypt came under Roman rule as a result of Octavian’s (the future emperor Augustus) Roman soldiers defeating their combined forces. At a critical time in Roman politics, she aggressively influenced the government.
1. Cleopatra was not an Egyptian
Cleopatra was born in Egypt, but she was descended from Ptolemy I Soter, an officer under Alexander the Great, who was from Macedonian Greece.
After Alexander’s demise in 323 B.C., Ptolemy ruled Egypt and established a dynasty of Greek-speaking kings that lasted for nearly three centuries.
Cleopatra was the first member of the Ptolemaic line to acquire the Egyptian language, despite not being of Egyptian ancestry. She also adopted many of the country’s traditional practices.
2. She was an incest child
In order to maintain the chastity of their bloodline, Ptolemaic dynasty members frequently wed other family members. It’s likely that her parents were brothers and sisters because more than a dozen of her forebears were married to cousins or siblings.
Following this tradition, she eventually wed both of her young brothers, who each functioned as her ceremonial partner and co-regent at various points throughout her rule.
3. Cleopatra’s greatest advantage was not just her beauty
Although she was portrayed in Roman propaganda as a promiscuous temptress who used her sexual allure as a political tool, she may have been more well-known for her intelligence than her attractiveness.
She was educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory, and astronomy and could speak up to a dozen languages. Later Egyptian sources characterized her as a monarch “who promoted the ranks of academics and enjoyed their companionship.”
There is also proof that Cleopatra wasn’t as attractive physically as was once thought. Although some historians assert that she purposefully portrayed herself as masculine as a demonstration of power, coins featuring her likeness show her with manly features and a wide, hooked nose.
According to the ancient author Plutarch, Cleopatra’s beauty was “not wholly unique,” and that which made her so desirable was her eloquent speaking voice and “irresistible appeal.”
4. Three of her siblings died as a result of her involvement
The Ptolemaic practice of family marriage included power grabs and assassination schemes, and Cleopatra and her siblings were no exception.
After she attempted to assume sole control of the throne, her first sibling-husband, Ptolemy XIII, expelled her from Egypt; the two eventually engaged in a civil war.
By collaborating with Julius Caesar, Cleopatra recovered the upper hand, and Ptolemy drowned on the Nile River after losing the battle.
After the war, she remarried to her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, although it’s thought that she killed him in an effort to co-rule with her son.
She also planned Arsinoe’s execution in 41 B.C. because she saw her sister as a potential heir to the throne.
5. Cleopatra was skilled at making an entrance
She frequently employed skillful stagecraft to win over potential supporters and cement her celestial reputation because she thought of herself as a living goddess.
She had a reputation for being dramatic, as evidenced by the arrival of Julius Caesar in Alexandria in 48 B.C. during her conflict with her brother Ptolemy XIII.
She had herself covered in a carpet—some historians claim it was a linen sack—and smuggled into the Roman general’s private quarters because she knew Ptolemy’s forces would obstruct her attempts to meet with him.
The young queen in her royal attire fascinated Caesar, and the two quickly grew to be allies and lovers.
Later, when Cleopatra and Mark Antony met, she used a similar theatrical device. She is claimed to have traveled in a golden barge with purple sails and silver oars when summoned to Tarsus to see the Roman Triumvir.
Also read: 11 Egyptian gods and goddesses
Cleopatra was transformed into the goddess Aphrodite, and she sat beneath a gilded canopy with cupid-themed servants fanning her and lighting fragrant incense. Antony was immediately mesmerized because he saw himself as the personification of the Greek god Dionysus.
6. When Caesar was killed, she was a resident of Rome
Beginning in 46 B.C., Cleopatra moved to Rome to join Julius Caesar, and it seems that her presence there created quite a stir.
Many Romans were outraged when Caesar constructed a gilded statue of her in the temple of Venus Genetrix since she didn’t try to hide the fact that she was his lover and even brought their lovechild, Caesarion, with her.
Cleopatra had already left her mark on Rome when she was forced to leave after Caesar was fatally stabbed in the Roman senate in 44 B.C.
According to the historian Joann Fletcher, “so many Roman ladies adopted the ‘Cleopatra appearance,’ that their statuary has often been mistaken for Cleopatra herself.” Her unusual hairstyle and pearl jewelry went into high popularity.
7. Mark Antony and Cleopatra established their own drinking bar
In 41 B.C., Cleopatra started her fabled romance with Roman general Mark Antony. They had a political component to their relationship—Antony required access to Egypt’s wealth and resources, while Cleopatra needed Antony to safeguard her throne and preserve Egypt’s independence—but they were also renowned for enjoying each other’s company.
They allegedly spent the winter of 41–40 B.C. in Egypt living a life of luxury and excess, and even started their own drinking club called the “Inimitable Livers.”
In addition to nightly feasts and alcohol binges, the group’s members also periodically participated in elaborate competitions and games. Antony and Cleopatra reportedly enjoyed exploring Alexandria’s streets as one of their favourite hobbies.
8. She commanded a fleet in a naval conflict
The relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony ultimately resulted in their marriage and the birth of three children, but it also caused a huge scandal in Rome.
The Roman Senate waged war on Cleopatra in 32 B.C. after Octavian, Antony’s adversary, utilized propaganda to paint him as a traitor controlled by a cunning seductress. The following year, at Actium, a legendary naval battle brought the conflict to a close.
Numerous Egyptian warships that Cleopatra personally sent into battle alongside Antony’s fleet were no match for Octavian’s navy. The conflict quickly turned into a rout, forcing Cleopatra and Antony to cut through the Roman defenses and flee to Egypt.
9. Perhaps Cleopatra didn’t pass away from an asp bite
After Octavian’s army pursued Cleopatra and Antony to Alexandria in 30 B.C., they famously committed suicide. Cleopatra’s method of suicide is less known, although Antony is reported to have fatally stabbed himself in the stomach.
The ancient chronicler Plutarch acknowledges that “what truly took place is known to no one,” notwithstanding the legend that she was killed by luring a “asp”—likely a viper or Egyptian cobra—to bite her arm.
He claims that Cleopatra had a reputation for hiding a lethal poison in one of her hair combs, and historian Strabo speculates that she may have applied a lethal “ointment.”
Given this, many academics now believe she used a pin that had been soaked in a strong toxin, maybe snake venom.
10. One of the most expensive movies ever made was one on her from 1963
The Queen of the Nile has been represented on film by actors such as Claudette Colbert and Sophia Loren, but Elizabeth Taylor is most well-known for portraying her in the 1963 sword-and-sandal epic “Cleopatra.”
Due to several production and scripting troubles, the movie’s budget eventually increased from $2 million to $44 million, including almost $200,000 solely to pay for Taylor’s clothes.
Even though it made a ton of money at the box office, it was the most costly film ever filmed at the time of its release. “Cleopatra” is still among the most expensive films in history after accounting for inflation.