The life of Cleopatra VII, the last Egyptian pharaoh, was infamous, but she was far more than just the lover of Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Born in 69 BC, she was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes, a notoriously lackadaisical monarch, and rose to power as co-ruler with her brother in 51 BC.
Who was Cleopatra, aside from a queen? Eventually, after her other siblings died or were killed, Cleopatra became sole ruler of Egypt, with Caesar’s help. They conceived a secret love child, but after his death, she took up with his number one guy, Antony. They had a ton of fun together, but trouble was brewing in the form of Antony’s brother-in-law and arch-rival, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus). Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in Greece in 31 BC, after which she and Antony committed suicide.
And what did Cleopatra do during her reign? She maintained Egypt’s independence until her dying breath by allying herself with her most powerful enemies, and in the tradition of Hellenistic and Egyptian monarchs, she divinized herself and played the role of a goddess. Unlike her predecessors, though, Cleopatra bothered to learn Egyptian, making herself popular with her subjects. Brilliant, charming, and ruthless, Cleopatra was one of the most fascinating rulers of the ancient world.
She Was Married to Two of Her Own Brothers (And May Have Killed One of Them)
Cleopatra Was Probably No Elizabeth Taylor in the Looks Department
Cleopatra Used Julius Caesar to Help Her Get the Throne
Cleopatra needed money and military help to stay in power, so she matched wits with the man at the top – Julius Caesar. Cleo used him to cultivate military support for herself over her little brothers. They met in 48 BC, when Caesar’s arch-rival Pompey landed on Egyptian shores and was promptly killed by Cleo’s little brother. Caesar followed Pompey and came to Egypt, where he met a brilliant young queen who appealed to him intellectually and sexually. And history was made.
Legend Says She Smuggled Herself Into Caesar's Bedroom Wrapped Up in a Rug
They went on Nile cruises together, probably made love until dawn, and exchanged political ideas. Who knows exactly what they discussed? But he did leave her with a present – a bun in the oven.
Cleopatra Made Herself a Goddess
By making herself Isis incarnate, Cleopatra was declaring she was the divine mother and protectress of the Two Lands and her people. She also tied herself to her subjects and solidified her rule. Like Isis and other mortal queens, Cleopatra married her brother(s). She wore sacred robes at a festival and had herself portrayed as Isis in statuary. She was dubbed “Nea Isis,” or “new Isis.” In fact, her consort Mark Antony became Osiris in these depictions, to show that a divine pair was once again ruling Egypt.
In Order to Fund Her Treasury, Cleopatra Stole Gold from Alexander the Great's Grave
She Journeyed to Rome with Her Illegitimate Son to Put Pressure on Caesar
Some have suggested Cleopatra was just hanging out in Rome on Caesar’s dime, but that was far from the case. In reality, she was working to make alliances and secure her own throne back home; she’d learned from her father’s example that rulers of independent kingdoms needed Roman support to thrive. This was a state visit, not a pleasurable one.
Cleopatra Dressed Up as a Goddess to Seduce Mark Antony
When Cleo met Antony, she sailed up the river in regal style befitting a mysterious foreign queen, as the Romans saw her. Plutarch noted that she rode in “a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes.” Cleopatra herself was lying on a bed with a golden canopy and was dressed like the Roman goddess“Venus in a painting,” with her servants made up as nymphs.
Needless to say, Antony was impressed and invited her over, but she ordered that he come on board her ship. He did as he was told, and was impressed by Cleopatra’s opulence, charm, and intelligence (she could speak many different languages, and had a strong command of political and military sciences). And so an affair was begun…
She Kept Mark Antony Flattered, Charmed, and Entertained
Cleopatra was always keeping Antony entertained, “ever contributing some fresh delight and charm to Antony’s hours of seriousness or mirth, kept him in constant tutelage,” according to Plutarch. They played dice games, got drunk, hunted together, she watched him work out, and when he went out drinking, she went with him, dressed up as a commoner.
Once, when he went fishing, Antony couldn’t catch anything, so he ordered someone to hook a pre-caught fish to his line. Cleopatra was clued in and brought a crowd the next day, so when he hooked a “salted Pontic herring,” he was terribly embarrassed. She mocked him lovingly, saying he should give up his fishing rod. His sport, she said, was “the hunting of cities, realms, and continents.”
Cleopatra Stole Antony - Caesar's BFF - from His Wife
But Antony didn’t mind giving up Octavia for an exciting foreign queen. To keep Antony, Plutarch claimed, “she therefore pretended to be passionately in love with Antony herself, and reduced her body by slender diet; she put on a look of rapture when Antony drew near, and one of faintness and melancholy when he went away.”
She basically wheedled him so he’d choose her, his mistress-wife, over his lawful wife, on which the Romans didn’t look fondly. Then Cleopatra traveled with Antony to Athens. He threw Octavia and their kids out of their house there. (Ironically, after Cleopatra’s death, Octavia raised her and Antony’s surviving children in a weird version of The Brady Bunch.)
She Committed Suicide Either by Snakebite or a Fatal Opium Cocktail
Or perhaps Cleopatra didn’t die by snakebite, but instead she downed a lethal cocktail. What would her beverage have contained? Perhaps opium, hemlock (what Socrates used to kill himself), and deadly wolfsbane.
Unlike Her Greek Ancestors, Cleopatra Learned Egyptian and May Have Been Part Egyptian
But unlike her predecessors, Cleo actually took the time to learn the Egyptian language, meaning she could effectively communicate with her subjects. She may actually have been of part-Egyptian descent herself. Her dad, Ptolemy XII, was mostly Greek, but we don’t know the identity of either his own mother or Cleopatra’s mother. Perhaps Cleo’s grandmother or mother were Egyptian and instilled a love of their native country in the young princess.