Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII) was the daughter of Ptolemy XII and was born in Alexandria in 69 BC. She was heir to the Ptolemaic dynasty, a 250-year-old Greek dynasty that began when Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, seized Egypt, the most glittering prize in the conqueror’s disintegrating empire after Alexander’s death. Ptolemy moved Egypt’s capital to the new Greek-speaking city of Alexandria reorganized the country’s economy and managed to die peacefully in his bed at the ripe old age of 84, an age and a feat matched by few of his violent descendants.
After the death of Cleopatra, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire, marking the end of the Hellenistic period that had lasted since the reign of Alexander (336–323 BC). While her native language was Koine Greek, she was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn the Egyptian language.
Cleopatra accompanied her father Ptolemy XII during his exile to Rome in 58 BC. When Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, he was succeeded by Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII as joint rulers, but a falling-out between them led to a civil war.
Caesar attempted to reconcile Ptolemy XIII with Cleopatra but Ptolemy XIII’s chief adviser Potheinos viewed Caesar’s terms as favoring Cleopatra, and so his forces besieged Caesar and Cleopatra at the palace. The siege was lifted by reinforcements in early 47 BC and Ptolemy XIII died shortly thereafter in the Battle of the Nile.
Caesar declared Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIV as joint rulers of Egypt. He maintained a private affair with Cleopatra that produced a son, Caesarion (Ptolemy XV). After Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Cleopatra tried to have Caesarion named as his heir but failed (Octavian, later known as Augustus by 27 BC, when he became the first Roman emperor ,was named Caesar’s heir instead). Following this Cleopatra retuned to Alexandria and had had her brother Ptolemy XIV killed so that she could elevate Caesarion (now Ptolemy XV) as her co-ruler.
In the Liberators’ civil war of 43–42 BC, Cleopatra sided with the Roman Second Triumvirate formed by Octavian, Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Cleopatra had an affair with Mark Antony that would eventually produce three children: Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene II, and Ptolemy Philadelphus.
In Final War of the Roman Republic between Octavian and Mark Antony Cleopatra sided with Mark Antony. Octavian forced Antony’s allies in the Roman Senate to flee Rome in 32 BC and declared war on Cleopatra. The naval fleet of Antony and Cleopatra was defeated at Battle of Actium in 31BC. Following this defeat Octavian’s forces invaded Egypt in 30 BC and defeated those of Mark Antony, leading to Mark Antony’s suicide. Cleopatra also committed suicide by poisoning, with the popular belief being that she was bitten by an asp.
Cleopatra’s legacy survives in numerous works of art, both ancient and modern including Roman and Ptolemaic coinage, statues, busts, reliefs, cameo glass, cameo carvings, and paintings. Cleopatra has also been the subject of many works in Renaissance and Baroque art, including paintings, scultpures, poetry, and theatrical dramas such as William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1608)
In modern times Cleopatra has been the focus of films such as Cleopatra (1963) played by Elizabeth Taylor.
“Greek was her first language,
and in Greek literature and culture she was educated.”.
– Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra
Was Cleopatra Greek?
Cleopatra’s first language was Greek (Greek Koine) and she was educated in Greek literature and culture. In general, most experts agree that Cleopatra herself, and her contemporaries, would have described Cleopatra as Greek.
In his book “Anthony and Cleopatra”, Adrian Goldsworthy writes:
“Greek was her first language, and in Greek literature and culture she was educated. Although representing on Egyptian temples and some statuary in the traditional headgear and robes of the pharaohs’ wives, it was unlikely she actually dressed this way save perhaps occasionally to perform certain rites. Instead, she wore the headband and robes of a Greek monarch. Cleopatra proclaimed herself the ‘New Isis’, and yet her worship of the goddess betrayed a strongly Hellenised version of the cult. She was no more Egyptian culturally or ethnically than most residents of modern-day Arizona are Apaches.”