Home - Literary Portrayal - Visuals - Map - Genealogy - Citations

Historical Analysis of Cleopatra VII

www.richeast.org/htwm/Greeks/ Romans/Caesar/Caesar.html

        In the year 69 B.C., a baby girl was born that would enjoy a lifetime of royalty and power, but would also experience a significant amount of anguish and hardship.  Born into the lavish courts of Egypt, Cleopatra and her three siblings had a very privileged and extravagant childhood.  At the age of 18, Cleopatra became the ruler of Egypt when her father, Ptolemy XII, died and left the throne in her hands.  Cleopatra, descended from a line of kings and quite possibly born illegitimate, became a queen who demanded a great deal of respect from her subjects.  She gave birth to four children by two different fathers who were, as far as we know, the only real lovers in her life.  Even her death shows that she had a strong will: she would not allow herself to be demoted and ridiculed in the streets of Rome.  Queen Cleopatra was a powerful woman who became a great ruler in a previously male-dominated society, and still managed to bear the responsibilites of motherhood.

The Real Cleopatra

        Although Cleopatra has often been portrayed as a beautiful Egyptian goddess-like figure, her actual appearance is not known.  Some scholars believe she looked distinctly Greek with blonde hair, pale skin, and that she was not strikingly beautiful.  Also, though she became extremely educated and knew several languages, including the native Egyptian tongue, she was somewhat disconnected from the true Egypt because of her location in Alexandria.  This was more like a Greek city than an Egyptian one because its location was so far up in Lower Egypt, which is actually in the northern portion of the country. 

Cleopatra's First Ties to Rome

When Cleopatra first ascended the throne in 51 B.C., there was a great deal of controversy over whether the ruler of the state should actually be Cleopatra or her brother and husband, Ptolemy XIII (Nardo, 23).  In order to have a legitimate heir to the throne, both parents had to be descended from the gods.  Members of the royal family were the only ones considered divine and so they were married.  It was common for royal Egyptian siblings to hate each other because of competition for the throne and jealousy of the one with the crown.  Her brother was very young, but his advisors would not stand to see Cleopatra as the queen and so publicly discredited her by blaming unavoidable crises on her, such as the Nile not rising for two years, which ultimately sent her into exile (Nardo 23-24). 

Once she was out of exile in 48 B.C., Cleopatra truly began her reign as the Queen of Egypt.  This was when she formed her close ties with Julius Caesar.  Her affair with Caesar raised her status throughout the Roman world, and also generated her son, Caesarion, meaning “Little Caesar.”  At his first meeting with her, where she made the grand entrance by arriving in his palace wrapped in a carpet, Caesar was instantly seduced by Cleopatra (Chauveau 24).  Although it has not been proven that Cleopatra’s son was Caesar’s as well, the boy had the same “falling sickness,” the term that was used for epilepsy, as Julius Caesar, which is a hereditary condition and evidence that seems to contradict those claiming that Caesarion was not Caesar’s son (Desmond 38-43).  Also, it would have been in the interest of Caesar to have an heir to the throne who was of mixed blood because he then would be able to annex Egypt to the Roman Empire (Bradford 74).

            In Egypt, the rulers were synonymous with the gods, so the pharaohs had some heavenly counterpart by whose name they were called.  As Cleopatra was known as Isis, Caesar had to be accepted as the reincarnation of Amon for their son to be a legitimate heir to the throne (Bradford 79-80).  This also made their marriage legitimate because Caesar was not a foreigner to Egypt any longer; he was a divine being.  In Egypt, marriage between an Egyptian and a foreigner was not accepted, but this no longer posed a problem for the two rulers (Desmond 23-25).

A New Love

        While Caesar was accepted as a pharaoh in Egypt, Cleopatra had yet to be secured as the queen in Rome, especially since Caesar was already married.  Unfortunately, before she could be designated as a ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar was brutally murdered.  This also meant that her son could no longer be the legitimate heir to the Roman throne.  For two years after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra ruled Egypt alone, without Ptolemy XIII or Julius Caesar, while staying out of the civil war raging in the Roman Empire (Nardo 35-37).  Once Antony was the clear victor, she gladly fulfilled his requests of supplies from her country (Nardo 39).  The two soon became lovers, which quite possibly could also have been an economically and politically motivated relationship, because they both could gain from the other.  Cleopatra wanted protection for her country while Antony sought materials produced by Egypt.

            Whatever the reason for the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, it produced three more children, a set of twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and a boy named Ptolemy Philadelphus.  While Cleopatra was pregnant with the twins, Antony was forced to return to Greece to settle an incident, and while he was there, Cleopatra gave birth (Desmond 65-67).  Soon after the twins were born, Antony married Octavian Caesar’s sister, Octavia, which was originally suggested by Octavian himself so as to secure the link between the triumvirs (Desmond 67).  The triumvirate was the union of Antony, Octavian Caesar, and Lepidus who jointly ruled the Roman Empire.  Antony ended up remaining in Greece with his new wife and away from Cleopatra for about three and a half years.  Cleopatra was left alone to raise their children.  She was enraged at Antony for leaving her, and so refused to be near their children because they reminded Cleopatra of her absent husband.  She became dependent on her son, Caesarion, by turning to him for comfort, which he could not provide.  Her children eventually became estranged without a real mother figure.

Cleopatra Alone

Meanwhile, Cleopatra was left to rule her country alone, where she earned her status as a great ruler in the ancient world.  She expanded agriculture by increasing the food quantities which lowered overall food prices and eliminated the food shortage; paid respect to Egyptian tradition, which her predecessors had failed to do, by acting as the incarnation of Isis; became very educated from her pleasure in reading and then in writing; and unlike her ancestors, she handled the state’s money well and did not run the country into debt while still living extravagantly (Nardo 49-56).  Her last contribution was an extremely important part of her success as a ruler, because nearly every ruler before her had completely depleted Egypt’s treasury.  It is not known how she managed to do this, but it is believed that a portion of the money came from selling some of the surplus food in the granaries, and possibly leasing a part of the land where significant medicines were found (Nardo 56).  Though she was a woman, Cleopatra developed her country better than any of the men before her, which made her a great and even legendary ruler.

The Downfall

In 37 B.C., Cleopatra and Antony were reunited once again, which seemed to show that he was turning his back on Rome since he was choosing his Egyptian lover over his Roman wife.  However, this may not be the case because Antony had secured his ties with Octavian Caesar by granting him the use of several ships.  By renewing ties with Cleopatra, he could gain politically by having Egypt on his side in the new war against Parthia (Chauveau 50-51).  Once the two lovers were together again, Antony granted Cleopatra the land that she wanted, and in return she provided him with the resources he needed for the war (Bradford 170).  Whatever his reasons at the time, in the following years he began cutting his ties with Octavian.  At one point he sent Octavia back to Rome, but kept Cleopatra at his side in Syria, which helped to destroy his reputation in Rome (Nardo 60-63).  To the Romans, this was offensive because Antony was choosing a foreign lover over his Roman wife.  Cleopatra was seen as a considerable threat to the Roman Empire, because it appeared to be her fault that the triumvirate was demolished.  Just the idea of the exotic state of Alexandria seemed like a threat because it was so unlike anything in Roman culture.

            During this reconciliation, Antony and Cleopatra’s third child was born, whom she named Ptolemy Philadelphus.  At the time of the child’s birth, Antony was not actually with Cleopatra; he was being defeated by the Parthian army, but he soon returned home to focus his attention on Octavian and how he could possibly be defeated (Desmond 74-83).  Once they had prepared for war against Octavian, which took a great deal of planning in itself, and had decided to attack on the water, Antony and Cleopatra, each commanding several ships, set out to battle (Nardo 69-77).  When Cleopatra saw that her army was being defeated, she ordered her ships to flee.  In a famous episode, Antony’s fleet followed her lead, which ultimately led Octavian Caesar to victory (Nardo 77-78).  Cleopatra still felt that Octavian could be defeated, but she soon realized that she could not build an army because no one believed that Egypt would prevail if given another chance.

            By this time Cleopatra’s long-term lover had become a middle-aged alcoholic, and their relationship had grown very strained.  It became clear to both of them that they would soon face Rome’s taking over Egypt, but Cleopatra at least wanted to assure that Caesarion would inherit the Egyptian throne.  Cleopatra publicly declared her two oldest sons, Caesarion, 18, and Alexander Helios, 16, to be grown men though this only provoked Octavian to be rid of both of them so that neither could take the Egyptian throne (Bradford 250).  They were both murdered, but not until after the famous deaths of both Cleopatra and Antony.  The other two children were to be ridiculed on the streets of Rome in place of their mother, and then raised by Octavia, Octavian Caesar’s sister and Antony’s Roman wife.

Cleopatra had heard that Antony was blaming her for his failures, so she retreated to her tomb and sent word to him that she had killed herself.  Being completely grief stricken with this knowledge, Antony put his sword into his body, but without successfully committing suicide (Bradford 257-258).  From here he was brought to Cleopatra, where the two supposedly had a tragic and heartbreaking final reunion.  Once Antony was finally dead and Cleopatra was about to kill herself, Caesar invaded her tomb and restrained her so that she could not join Antony in death.  She would be Caesar’s conquered prisoner who would walk the streets of Rome as a whore in his triumph (Nardo 85).  Once Cleopatra learned of Octavian’s intentions, she was determined to die before she could be made a mockery.  She had a man bring a basket of figs concealing an extremely poisonous snake to her and her two servants, and she immediately attached the serpent to her breast and then to her arm, which killed her, and then her servants, abruptly (Bradford 269-270).


        Cleopatra was a multi-talented woman who ruled her country with distinction.  She advanced Egypt far beyond what it had been prior to her reign.  In her time, Egypt flourished with luxurious assets which made it a desirable place for her Roman counterparts, those being Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.  Politically astute, yet with a passionate heart, she succeeded in turning her business partners into lovers.  Their stories, though a bit romanticized, are basically common knowledge in our world today.  Cleopatra lived a rich life with a great deal of love, through her lovers and her children.  Seen as Isis by her subjects, she had the elevated status as the reincarnation of a goddess, which reveals how much her people honored her.  Cleopatra was strong in mind and heart, and had pride that even death could not conquer.

Back to Main