Cleopatra VII Philopator was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, nominally survived as pharaoh by her son Caesarion.
As a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, she was a descendant of its founder Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general and companion of Alexander the Great. 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.
In 58 BC, Cleopatra presumably accompanied her father Ptolemy XII during his exile to Rome, after a revolt in Egypt allowed his eldest daughter Berenice IV to claim the throne. The latter was killed in 55 BC when Ptolemy XII returned to Egypt with Roman military assistance. 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 open civil war. After losing the 48 BC Battle of Pharsalus in Greece against his rival Julius Caesar in Caesar’s Civil War, the Roman statesman Pompey fled to Egypt, a Roman client state. Ptolemy XIII had Pompey killed while Caesar occupied Alexandria in pursuit of Pompey.
Caesar, a consul of the Roman Republic, attempted to reconcile Ptolemy XIII with Cleopatra. Ptolemy XIII’s chief adviser Potheinos viewed Caesar’s terms as favoring Cleopatra, and so his forces, which eventually fell under the control of Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe IV, 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.
Arsinoe IV was exiled to Ephesus, and Caesar, now an elected dictator, declared Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIV as joint rulers of Egypt. However, Caesar maintained a private affair with Cleopatra that produced a son, Caesarion (Ptolemy XV). Cleopatra traveled to Rome as a client queen in 46 and 44 BC, staying at Caesar’s villa. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Cleopatra attempted to have Caesarion named as his heir, but this fell instead to Caesar’s grandnephew Octavian (known as Augustus by 27 BC, when he became the first Roman emperor). Cleopatra then had Ptolemy XIV killed and elevated Caesarion as 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. After their meeting at Tarsos in 41 BC, Cleopatra had an affair with Antony that would eventually produce three children: Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene II, and Ptolemy Philadelphus. Antony used his authority as a triumvir to carry out the execution of Arsinoe IV at Cleopatra’s request. He became increasingly reliant on Cleopatra for both funding and military aid during his invasions of the Parthian Empire and the Kingdom of Armenia.
In the Donations of Alexandria, Cleopatra’s children with Antony were declared rulers over various erstwhile territories under Antony’s authority. This event, along with his marriage to Cleopatra and divorce of Octavian’s sister Octavia Minor, led to the Final War of the Roman Republic. After engaging in a war of propaganda, 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 the 31 BC Battle of Actium by Octavian’s general Agrippa. Octavian’s forces invaded Egypt in 30 BC and defeated those of Antony, leading to his suicide. When Cleopatra learned that Octavian planned to bring her to Rome for his triumphal procession, she 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. Roman historiography and Latin poetry produced a generally polemic and negative view of the queen that pervaded later Medieval and Renaissance literature. In the visual arts, ancient depictions of Cleopatra include Roman and Ptolemaic coinage, statues, busts, reliefs, cameo glass, cameo carvings, and paintings. She was the subject of many works in Renaissance and Baroque art, which included sculptures, paintings, poetry, theatrical dramas such as William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1608), and operas such as George Frideric Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724).
In modern times Cleopatra has appeared in both the applied and fine arts, burlesque satire, Hollywood films such as Cleopatra (1963), and brand images for commercial products, becoming a pop culture icon of Egyptomania since the Victorian era.
“Greek was her first language,
and in Greek literature and culture she was educated.”.
– Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra
Was Cleopatra 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.”
In general, most experts agree that Cleopatra herself, and her contemporaries, would have described Cleopatra as Greek.