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Cleopatra VII Philopator, also known as Cleopatra the Father-Beloved, was one of the last rulers of ancient Egypt.

She served as co-regent to Egypt, initially with her father and two brothers and finally with her son, for almost 30 years. She was an influential figure during her reign and had a strong lineage that spanned an ancient dynasty of Macedonian royalty. Her forebears served under the famous general Alexander the Great during his Egyptian conquest, which is why she inherited the Egyptian throne.

Cleopatra is a unique historical figure that was highly educated, intelligent, and a dominant force during her time as ruler. She had several interactions – romantically and as part of a military alliance – with Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Her beauty gained particular renown, and she is an icon for beauty and seduction, even today.

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The early life of Cleopatra

Accounts of the early life of Cleopatra are pretty sparse, which has made it difficult for historians to create a comprehensive biography of her younger years. Most historical accounts stem from Greco-Roman works, with Plutarch’s work being of particular interest. It is believed that Cleopatra was born around 69 – 70 BCE and was the daughter of Ptolemy XII. Her lineage descends from Ptolemy I Soter, who famously commanded an army under Alexander the Great during his Egyptian conquest.

After her father’s death, Cleopatra ascended the throne of Egypt, aged only 18 years old. She took to the throne alongside her brother, Ptolemy XIII, who was 10 years old at the time of ascension. It didn’t take long for her ‘advisors’ to go against Cleopatra, which resulted in her escape to Syria in 49 BCE. There, she amassed a large army of soldiers for hire before returning to Egypt to begin a civil war against her brother. The battle took place in eastern Egypt in Pelusium.

During this civil war, Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemy XIII, met with Julius Caesar in Alexandria. However, Cleopatra intercepted Caesar by hiding in the royal palace to convince him to ally.

Cleopatra’s relationship with Julius Caesar

Caesar saw an opportunity to gain military and financial support in Egypt to help him return to the Roman throne. During a four-month skirmish in Egypt and dwindling Roman troops, Caesar’s army was on the brink of losing. However, reinforcements arrived just in time to oust Ptolemy XIII from the throne in Egypt. It is believed that the usurped king drowned in the River Nile while trying to escape toward Alexandria. This victory paved the way for Cleopatra to rule Egypt again, but she wasn’t a favorite with the people of Egypt. Regardless, she ascended along with her brother Ptolemy XIV.

Caesar stayed in Egypt with Cleopatra for a few years, and they eventually had a son named Ptolemy Caesar. The Egyptians called Cleopatra’s son Caesarion, which means Little Caesar.

Around 45 BCE, Cleopatra went with Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion to visit Caesar in Rome. However, the reunion was short-lived, as Caesar was famously assassinated in 44 BCE, causing Cleopatra to return to Egypt. This was soon followed by the assassination of her brother Ptolemy – with some arguing that Cleopatra’s men committed the murder. This allowed Cleopatra’s son, who was only three years old at the time, to ascend the Egyptian throne as co-regent alongside Cleopatra.

Cleopatra made sure that the Egyptian people revered her as a powerful figure, going as far as comparing herself to the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis. Ancient Egyptians would regularly connect royalty with gods to elevate the role and standing of kings and queens of the realm. Cleopatra wasn’t the first to do this, with Cleopatra III aligning with Isis. Her character also played into this, as she was fluent in a dozen languages and had a reputation for having an irresistible charm about her.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony

Cleopatra successfully brought her son to the Egyptian throne as a co-regent, so her position of power in Egypt was very secure. However, a glut of natural disasters – including floods and crop failures – brought civil unrest to the country. This happened when Rome was dealing with internal conflicts of their own. Caesar’s old allies, which included historical figures like Mark Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian, squared off against those who assassinated Caesar – Brutus and Cassius.

Cleopatra found herself in a unique situation where both sides of the Roman infighting asked for her support. She decided to join forces with Mark Antony’s side, sending legions to Rome for support. By 42 BCE, the army of Brutus and Cassius had fallen, and Mark Antony and Octavian ruled Rome.

Not long after, Mark Antony requested Cleopatra’s presence in the ancient city of Tarsus (now southern Turkey). He aimed to ascertain Cleopatra’s involvement in the assassination of Julius Caesar. So Cleopatra decided to set sail to Tarsus in style – boarding an extravagant vessel adorned with the clothes of Isis. Antony, who himself aligned himself with the Greek god Dionysus, was enraptured by Cleopatra when she arrived.

After the initial meeting, Mark Antony vowed to protect both Egypt and Cleopatra’s claim to the throne. He helped oust Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe, exiled from Egypt, and rid Cleopatra of notable rivals. Cleopatra then returned to Egypt, and Antony followed shortly after. Their relationship blossomed, and they stayed in Alexandria for years. They even created a drinking society known as The Inimitable Livers. By 40 BCE, Antony had returned home to Rome, and Cleopatra had given birth to two twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene.

Cleopatra’s struggle for power

Although Mark Antony entered into a relationship with Cleopatra, he was already married to a Roman noble called Fulvia. When she died, powers in Rome expected Mark Antony to marry Octavian’s half-sister Octavia. Meanwhile, Egypt flourished under Cleopatra’s reign, and the country enjoyed a moment of prosperity. In 37 BCE, Antony met with Cleopatra to raise funds for a military operation in Parthia. In exchange for her financial backing, Antony agreed to return the eastern empire of Egypt to Cleopatra, which included Cyprus, Crete, Jericho, and portions of Lebanon and Syria. This political partnership would rekindle their romantic relationship, leading to the birth of another son – Ptolemy Philadelphus – in 36 BCE.

The military campaign in Parthia did not go well for Antony, who was resoundingly defeated. Following this loss, Antony rebuffed his wife’s attempts to rejoin him and made his way back to Egypt – and Cleopatra. This ushered in a mass celebration in Egypt known as the Donations of Alexandria. During this celebration, Antony publicly declared that Caesarian was the son of Julius Caesar – and the rightful heir instead of his adopted son, Octavian. Portions of the land were distributed to his children and Cleopatra, which sparked a propaganda war.

Octavian was livid that the throne was taken from him, so he began a smear campaign that portrayed Antony as a puppet for Cleopatra. Fears from this propaganda spurred rumors that Antony would abandon Rome entirely for Egypt, which caused uproar in Rome. By the end of 32 BCE, Antony had been stripped of all Roman titles and honors, and Octavian declared war on Egypt and Cleopatra.

The defeat and death of Cleopatra

Octavian’s forces made light work of Antony and Cleopatra’s armies, with a resounding victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Cleopatra’s warships fled the battlefront and returned to Egypt, with Antony following close behind. Alexandria was already under direct attack from Octavian’s army, though, which made communication between Antony and Cleopatra difficult. Through rumors, Antony feared that Cleopatra had committed suicide. Devastated by this news, Antony fell on his sword and killed himself. In a cruel twist of fate, as he died, news came in that the rumors of Cleopatra’s death were false.

Following the burial of Antony on August 12, 30 BCE, Cleopatra shut herself in her chambers with two of her servants. From here, historians are unsure about what happened next. Some historians, including Plutarch, believe that she used an asp – a poisonous snake and symbol of royalty in Egypt – to commit suicide. Regardless of how she died, Cleopatra lived to be 39 years old. Her body was buried alongside Mark Antony’s, but the whereabouts of the Tomb of Antony and Cleopatra remain unknown to this day.