Cleopatra VII Philopator
(January 69 BC – August 12, 30 BC) was queen
of ancient Egypt, the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty and hence the last
Hellenistic ruler of Egypt. Although many other Egyptian Queens shared the name,
she is usually known as simply Cleopatra
, and all of her similarly named
predecessors have been mostly forgotten.
As co-ruler of Egypt with her father (Ptolemy XII Auletes), her
brother/husband Ptolemy XIV, and later her son Caesarion, Cleopatra survived a
coup engineered by her brother's courtiers, consummated a liaison with Julius
Caesar that solidified her grip on the throne, and, after Caesar's
assassination, aligned with Mark Antony, with whom she produced twins. She later
married Mark Antony and gave birth to another son.
After Antony's rival and Caesar's legal heir, Octavian, brought the might of
Rome against Egypt, Cleopatra took her own life on August 12, 30 BC. Her legacy
survives in the form of numerous dramatizations of her story, including William
Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and several modern films.
Early life and name
"Cleopatra" is Greek for "father's glory," and her full name, "Cleopatra Thea
Philopator" means "the Goddess Cleopatra, the Beloved of Her Father." She was
the third daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes, a Graeco-Egyptian born in Alexandria,
Egypt. She was first briefly co-ruler with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes and
on his death became co-ruler with her brother Ptolemy XIII in the spring of 51
BC. She was at the time the oldest child of Auletes, since two older sisters had
died. She also had one younger sister whose name was Arsinoe IV. She was
subsequently co-ruler with her brother, Ptolemy XIV. Following the deaths of her
brothers she named her eldest son co-ruler as Ptolemy XV Caesarion (44–30 BC).
At the age of 18, she was left the throne on the death of her father, Ptolemy
XII Auletes, in spring 51 BC, to rule jointly with her 12 year old brother,
Ptolemy XIII. However, by August she was dropping his name from official
documents, which flew in the face of Ptolemaic tradition that female rulers be
subordinate to male co-rulers. Furthermore, it was Cleopatra's face alone that
appeared on coins. Perhaps because of her independent streak a cabal of
courtiers led by the eunuch Pothinus, removed Cleopatra from power — possibly in
48 BC, possibly earlier — a decree exists with Ptolemy's name alone from 51 BC.
She tried to raise a rebellion around Pelusium but she was soon forced to flee
Egypt. Her sister Arsinoë accompanied her.
In the autumn of 48, however, Ptolemy imperiled his own power by
injudiciously meddling in the affairs of Rome. When Pompey, fleeing the
victorious Julius Caesar, arrived in Alexandria seeking sanctuary, Ptolemy had
him murdered in order to ingratiate himself with Caesar. Caesar was so repelled
by this treachery that he seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as
arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra. (It should be noted
that Pompey had been married to Caesar's daughter, who died giving birth to
their son). After a short war, Ptolemy XIII was killed and Caesar restored
Cleopatra to her throne, with Ptolemy XIV as new co-ruler.
Caesar wintered in Egypt in 48 BC–47 BC, and Cleopatra shored up her
political advantage by becoming his lover. Egypt remained independent, but three
Roman legions were left to protect it. Cleopatra's winter liaison with Caesar
produced a son whom they named Ptolemy Caesar (nicknamed Caesarion, little
Caesar). However, Caesar refused to make the boy his heir, naming his
grand-nephew Octavian instead.
Cleopatra and Caesarion visited Rome between 46 BC and 44 BC and were present
when Caesar was assassinated. Before or just after she returned to Egypt,
Ptolemy XIV died mysteriously. Cleopatra then made Caesarion her co-regent. She
may have poisoned her brother.
In 42 BC, Mark Antony, one of the triumvirs who ruled Rome in the power
vacuum following Caesar's death, summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus to
answer questions about her loyalty. Cleopatra arrived in great state, and so
charmed Antony that he chose to spend the winter of 42 BC–41 BC with her in
Alexandria. During the winter, she became pregnant with twins, who were named
Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios.
Four years later, in 37 BC, Antony visited Alexandria again while on route to
make war with the Parthians. He renewed his relationship with Cleopatra, and
from this point on Alexandria would be his home. He may have married Cleopatra
according to the Egyptian rite (a letter quoted in Suetonius suggests this),
although he was at the time married to Octavia, sister of his fellow triumvir
Octavian. He and Cleopatra had another child, Ptolemy Philadelphus. At the
Donations of Alexandria in late 34 BC, following Antony's conquest of Armenia,
Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of Egypt and Cyprus; Alexander
Helios was crowned ruler of Armenia, Media, and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene was
crowned ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus was crowned ruler
of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia. Cleopatra also took the title of Queen of
There are a number of unverifiable but famous stories about Cleopatra, of
which one of the best known is that, at one of the lavish dinners she shared
with Antony, she playfully bet him that she could spend ten million sesterces on
a dinner. He accepted the bet. The next night, she had a conventional,
unspectacular meal served; he was ridiculing this, when she ordered the second
course — only a cup of strong vinegar. She then removed one of her priceless
pearl earrings, dropped it into the vinegar, allowed it to dissolve, and drank
Antony's behavior was considered outrageous by the Romans, and Octavian
convinced the Senate to levy war against Egypt. In 31 BC Antony's forces faced
the Romans in a naval action off the coast of Actium. Cleopatra was present with
a fleet of her own, but when she saw that Antony's poorly equipped and manned
ships were losing to the Romans' superior vessels, she took flight. Antony
abandoned the battle to follow her.
Following the Battle of Actium, Octavian invaded Egypt. As he approached
Alexandria, Antony's armies deserted to Octavian. Cleopatra and Antony both
committed suicide, Cleopatra by using a snake to poison herself on August 12, 30
BC. Cleopatra's son by Caesar, Caesarion, was executed by Octavian. The three
children of Cleopatra with Antony were spared and taken back to Rome where they
were reared by Antony's wife, Octavia.
It is often said that Cleopatra used an asp to kill herself. "Asp"
technically refers to a variety of venomous snakes, but here, it refers to the
Egyptian cobra, which was sometimes used to execute criminals. There is also a
story that Cleopatra asked several of her servants to test out various forms of
suicide, before choosing the method which she believed to be most effective.
Other sources suggest that she experimented different forms of "suicide" on
prisoners. There is also an alternate theory that suggests she was assassinated
by Octavian, instead of committing suicide; but this theory does not appear to
be substained by our sources.
A Greek by language and culture, Cleopatra is reputed to have been the first
member of her family in their 300-year reign in Egypt to have learnt the
The race debate
There is often a debate between Egyptologists and Afrocentric historians as
to what race Cleopatra belonged to. Egyptologists say that Cleopatra was
descended from the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Macedonian family, whose patriach
Ptolemy I Soter was once a general for Alexander the Great. Ptolemy I was the
son of Arsinoe of Macedonia by either her husband Lagus, a Macedonian nobleman,
or her lover Philip II of Macedon.
Egyptologists say the Ptolemaic family tree indicates that there was a great
deal of interbreeding in the family, and that because Cleopatra was the first
monarch to learn Egyptian, that Cleopatra was Caucasian. Ancient busts and coins
of Cleopatra also appear to point to her Caucasian ancestry. Contemporary
descriptions of Cleopatra describe her as being short, average build, with a
hawk-nose and red-brown hair.
Afrocentric historians, however, claim that ancient Egypt was a predominately
black civilization and that most ancient Egyptians were black people,
considering that Egypt is an African country. Such a statement is however
controversial since generally modern day Egyptians can be said to reflect a
mixture of European, Middle Eastern, and East African and while mummies of
leaders and royalty are generally not black.
Even though they acknowledge Ptolemy was white, they believe there must have
been sexual liaisons between the monarchs and the people of Egypt. Since
Cleopatra's mother is not known (not identified on the Ptolemaic family tree),
many believe she was an Egyptian concubine.
However, a version that her mother was Auletes's sister, Cleopatra V
Tryphaena (it was commonplace for members of the Ptolemaic dynasty to marry
their siblings) exists. Significantly, the charge of illegitimacy was never made
against Cleopatra, which is surprising considering the wealth of Roman
propaganda against her, which adds credence to the latter theory regarding her
mother. In light of the matrilineal nature of Egyptian succession, it is
unlikely that her father would have named her as his heir had she been the
offspring of a concubine considering she had a legitimate sister Arsinoe IV of
Egypt. Further, no Roman historian ever describes Cleopatra as black, another
odd omission from the propaganda against her if it was true.
And finally, earlier known mistresses to the Ptolemaic family bore Greek
names, so the presumed origin of an unknown mistress should not be a native
Egyptian woman, but a member of the hellenistic population of Alexandria - or
other Ptolemaic strongholds in the Mediterranean. The Ptolemies were not only
Egyptian kings; there was a Ptolemaic court in the Greek city of Cyrene and
another on Cyprus, where Cleopatra's ancestors spent much of their time.
Cleopatra in art, film, TV, and literature
Cleopatra's story has fascinated scores of writers and artists through the
centuries. No doubt, much of her appeal lay in her legend as a great seductress
who was able to ally herself with two of the most powerful men (Caesar and
Antony) of her time.
Among the more famous works on her:
- Cléopâtre by Jules-Émile-Frédéric Massenet
- Incipit Legenda Cleopatrie Martiris, Egipti Regine from Geoffrey
Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women
- Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
- All for Love by John Dryden
- Cléopatre by Victorien Sardou
- Cleopatra (1889) by H. Rider Haggard
- Caesar and Cleopatra by George Bernard Shaw
- The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George
- Clone High
- Many Asterix books, with a Cleopatra inspired by Elizabeth Taylor.
Films about Cleopatra
The earliest Cleopatra-related motion picture was Antony and Cleopatra
(1908) with Florence Lawrence as Cleopatra. The earliest film on Cleopatra as
the main subject was Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, starring Helen Gardner
Among the film/TV works inspired by the Queen of the Nile:
- (1917): Cleopatra: Theda Bara (Cleopatra), Fritz Leiber (Caesar),
Thurston Hall (Antony). Directed by J. Gordon Edwards. Based on Émile Moreau's
play Cléopatre, Sardou's play Cléopatre, and Shakespeare's
Antony and Cleopatra.
- (1934): Cleopatra: Claudette Colbert (Cleopatra), Warren William
(Caesar), Henry Wilcoxon (Antony). Oscar-winning Cecil B. DeMille epic.
- (1946): Caesar and Cleopatra: Vivien Leigh (Cleopatra), Claude Rains
(Caesar), Stewart Granger, Flora Robson — Oscar-nominated version of George
Bernard Shaw's play. Leigh also played Cleopatra opposite then-husband's
Laurence Olivier's Caesar in a later London stage version.
- (1953): Serpent of the Nile: Rhonda Fleming (Cleopatra), Raymond Burr
(Mark Antony), Michael Fox (Octavian).
- (1963): Cleopatra: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Rex Harrison
(Caesar), Richard Burton (Antony). Oscar-winning block-buster most (in)famously
remembered for the off-screen affair between Taylor and Burton and the
at-the-time massive $44 million cost.
- (1964): Carry On Cleo, a spoof of the 1963 film, with Amanda Barrie
as Cleopatra, Sid James as Mark Antony, and Kenneth Williams as Caesar.
- (1974): Antony & Cleopatra: performed by London's Royal Shakespeare
Company. Starred Janet Suzman (Cleopatra), Richard Johnson (Antony), and Patrick
- (1999): Cleopatra (movie): Leonor Varela (Cleopatra), Timothy Dalton
(Caesar), Billy Zane (Antony). Based on the book Memoirs of Cleopatra by
Margaret George and closer to the facts than the others.
Teresa Pavlinek portrayed Cleopatra in an episode of History Bites set during
the Battle of Actium.
A longer discussion of Cleopatra films is at: Cleopatra (movie).
Paintings of Cleopatra
The most famous painting of Cleopatra is one that almost certainly no longer
exists now: because the queen died in Egypt well before Augustus' triumph could
be put on in Rome, in which she would have walked in chains, he commissioned a
large painting of her, which was carried in his triumphal procession, and which
may have represented her being poisoned by an asp. The sources for the story are
Plut. Ant. 86 and App. Civ. II.102, although the latter may well refer to a
statue, and Cass. Dio LI.21.3 reports that the "image" was of gold, and thus not
a painting at all. The purported painting was seen and engraved in the early
19th century: it was in a private collection near Sorrento. Since then, this
painting is said to have formed part of a collection in Cortona, but there no
longer appears to be any trace of it; its quiet disappearance is almost
certainly due to its being a fake. For comprehensive details on the entire
question, see the external links at the end of this article.
Otherwise, Cleopatra and her death have inspired hundreds of paintings from
the Renaissance to our own time, none of them of any historical value of course;
the subject appealing in particular to French academic painters. A very partial
chronological list follows:
- Suicide of Cleopatra. Oil on canvas. 46 x 36-3/4 in. (116.8 x 93.3
cm) painted by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, also called Guercino. Painted in
1621 and which hangs in the collection in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena,
California. It shows Cleopatra and in her hand a snake that she prepares to use
in her suicide.
- The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743–5). Oil on Canvas, 248.2 x 357.8cm.
Painted by Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), which hangs in the National Gallery
of Victoria, Australia, depicting the banquet in which Cleopatra dissolves her
pearl earring in a glass of vinegar.
- Cleopatra and the Peasant (1838). Oil on canvas. Painted by Eugène
Delacroix. Hanging in the Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina. The
work shows a man providing Cleopatra with the snake she uses to kill herself.
- Cleopatra and Caesar (Cléopâtre et César) (1866). Oil on
canvas. Painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). The original painting has been
lost, and only copies remain. The work depicts Cleopatra standing before a
seated Caesar, painted in the Orientalist style.
- The Death of Cleopatra, painted by Jean André Rixens, painted in 1874
and which hangs in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France.
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