Written by Sarah Masih
The stories of Cleopatra’s beauty have traveled through the decades. Her name is still well-known amongst people today, as a symbol of grace. Almost everyone knows that Cleopatra was gorgeous, but not many realize that her strongest asset wasn’t her appearance. She was an incredibly smart politician who won over Egypt with her charm. She built up her country’s name and economy. However, she was painted as crazy and controlling by the Romans.
They created the narrative that Cleopatra was a politician who used her looks to manipulate her opponents. The Greeks took a slightly more favorable view, seeing her as a woman desperately in love, but both accounts are likely inaccurate. Nearly all versions of Cleopatra’s story were written by men, portraying her as nothing more than an attractive woman and discounting her impeccable wit, independence, and confident charisma!
A coin bearing a portrait of Cleopatra herself even suggests that she may not have been as physically beautiful as history describes her. Instead, her beauty was exaggerated to discredit her talent as a female leader.
Early Life and Origin
Contrary to popular beliefs, Cleopatra was actually not Egyptian. While she was born in Egypt, her family’s origin can be traced to Macedonian Greece and Ptolemy I Soter, who was one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Ptolemy took control of Egypt after Alexander died and launched an empire of Greek-speaking rulers that held the reigns for nearly three centuries. Despite Cleopatra not being Egyptian, she embraced their culture and became the first from her family to learn the Egyptian language.
There are no full accounts of Cleo’s life, which makes it difficult to analyze her life properly. Most of what we know about Cleo comes from the works of Greek/Roman scholars who were often biased sources.
What we definitely know is this: Cleopatra was born around 69 B.C to Ptolemy XII a.k.a Auletes and Cleopatra V Tryphaena. Her parents were possibly half-siblings, which would make Cleo a result of incest. In 51 B.C Auletes died of natural causes and the throne was passed onto 18-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII. Imagine being handed a throne at eighteen years old - insane pressure and expectations!
It’s like that iconic line from The Princess Diaries: “You know most kids hope for a car on their sixteenth birthday, not a country.” Not only this, but her brother was made her husband! Despite incest being common practice at the time, Cleo was not happy with it! Much like Mia Thermopolis, she began to embrace her power. Always the independent, she tried and failed to make herself the sole ruler.
Thrown out of her own home
Ptolemy’s advisers turned against Cleopatra and she was forced to flee to Syria in 49 B.C. There she trained an army of mercenaries, and a year later she faced her own brother’s army on the battlefield of Pelusium, Egypt.
Meanwhile, Ptolemy welcomed the Roman general Julius Caesar to Alexandria. Cleo realized that Caesar could help support her cause and so she reportedly smuggled herself into the royal palace to talk with him. She gained his alliance through her stunning entrance, having her servants carry her to his room wrapped in a blanket and emerging out gracefully.
Caesar went to war with Ptolemy over a debt Egypt owed the Romans for four brutal months. As more Roman soldiers arrived and the war came to a close, Ptolemy reportedly drowned in the Nile River. Although Caesar had conquered Alexandria, he returned the throne to Cleopatra and stayed there with her. Cleo ascended the throne once again, this time along with her new husband: her 13-year-old brother Ptolemy XIV. Around 47 B.C, Cleo gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar, believed to be Caesar's son, not Ptolemy’s. The Egyptians knew him as Caesarion or Little Caesar.
Sometime around 46 B.C, Cleo traveled to Rome along with her younger brother and son to visit Caesar, who had returned home. Despite both being married, Julius Caesar showed her off to his people. He proudly had a statue made of her and it was placed in the temple of Venus Genetrix. When Caesar was murdered in March 44 B.C, Cleo was forced to flee Rome. However, her influence on Rome remained. Many women embraced her hairstyle and pearl jewelry. Some statues of other women were thought to be of Cleopatra originally because of how they had adopted her style.
A Woman in Power
Soon after her return Ptolemy XIV was killed, possibly on Cleo’s orders, and three-year-old Little Caesar was announced as co-regent with his mother. If you thought being eighteen with a throne was bad, imagine doing that at three-years-old. While most kids are still learning to talk, Little Caesar was already in charge of a country.
At this point, Cleo had identified herself with Isis, the clever goddess of magic who was a friend to all. It was common in Egyptian tradition for the royals to associate themselves with the divine in order to reinforce the monarchy. Cleopatra VII was referred to as the “New Isis”. She spoke almost a dozen languages and became quite popular among the Egyptian nation. Not only did she associate with Isis, but she truly acted like a goddess with irresistible charm, mystique, and vitality.
Cleopatra’s power in Egypt was more secure than ever during her rule with her infant son. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long thanks to the flooding of the Nile, which led to failing crops and hunger. Meanwhile, Rome was in a conflict between Caesar’s allies - Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus - and his assassins Brutus and Cassius. Both sides wanted Cleopatra’s support, but Cleo stalled for as long as she could. Eventually, she sent four legions to Rome. Naturally, she supported the group that had not murdered her son’s father.
In 42 B.C, Mark Antony and Octavian defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius in the battles of Philippi and divided the land amongst themselves.
Mark Antony called Cleo to the city of Tarsus (south of Turkey) to thank her for the role she had played in the complicated story of Julis Caesar. As the legend says, Cleopatra sailed to Tarsus fully dressed up in the robes of Isis. The dramatics of this scene deserves more movie time! A gorgeous queen in a complete red carpet get-up sailing in a ship to her future husband. It’s very Nicholas Sparks meets Shakespeare.
And then they lived happily after. The End.
Unfortunately, that’s not how the story goes. However, one common rumor is true. According to Egyptian texts - Antony and Cleo were deeply in love. After Antony pledged his life to protect Cleopatra’s crown, he exiled Cleopatra’s younger sister and nemesis Arsinoe. Antony followed Cleo back to Egypt, abandoning his third wife Fulvia. Bit of a player, this one! He spent the winter of 41-30 B.C in Alexandria, during which he and his new wife Cleo formed a drinking society called the “The Inimitable Livers.”
Soon after Antony's return to Rome, Cleopatra gave birth to twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene.
After Fulvia’s death, Anthony felt pressure to maintain good relations with Octavian and so married Octavian’s half-sister, Octavia. So...that would mean that Octavia became his fifth wife.
Octavia, painting by Hans Makart
Egypt grew wealthier and stronger under Cleopatra’s rule and in 37 B.C, Antony met again with Cleopatra to ask her for aid in his invasion of the kingdom of Parthia. It stumps me, Cleo and Antony’s relationship. Was she aware that he was married to another woman? What about Octavia - was aware that he was still in love with Cleo? What about his and Octavia’s children? Since women didn’t do proper jobs during that time, how did his family provide for themselves? Sadly, Octavia’s history is an incomplete book. Perhaps in the future more will be uncovered.
Antony returned the favor by giving back Egypt’s eastern empire including Cyprus, Crete, Cyrenaica, Jericho, and most of modern-day Syria and Lebanon. Again, they fell in love and it resulted in the birth of their son Ptolemy Philadelphus in 36 B.C.
After Antony’s forces were defeated at Parthia, Octavia tried to rejoin him. However, Antony turned her down to be with his other wife Cleopatra.
In a celebration in 34 B.C known as the “Donations of Alexandria”, Antony named Caesarion as the rightful heir and awarded land to each of Cleo’s children. Word reached Octavian and he claimed Antony was under Cleopatra’s spell and was being disloyal to Rome. In 32 B.C, Rome stripped away Antony of all his titles, and Octavian decided to attack Cleopatra. He began this war in part to expand the Roman empire, but also to seek vengeance.
Nothing Lasts Forever
“All the greatest loves end in violence.” Though this seems like a wise quote from a philosopher, it is in fact a lyric from Kygo’s song “Remind Me to Forget” that I can’t get out of my head. This quote, in my opinion, greatly describes the story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.
The beginning of the end was when Octavian brutally defeated Cleo’s forces in the Battle of Actium. Her ships fled the battlefield and ran back to Egypt. Following them, Antony managed to break away and follow her with a few ships remaining.
While Alexandria was under attack, a rumor went around that Cleopatra had killed herself. Perhaps Cleo and Antony were star-crossed lovers, for just as in Romeo and Juliet, Antony killed himself while Cleopatra awaited their reunion. Cleopatra was alive, but now her beloved was dead. If only he would’ve waited a few more minutes.
On August 12, 30 B.C Cleopatra buried the love of her life and met with the newly crowned king Octavian. Man, that must’ve been the worst day of her life! After the meeting, she closed herself in a chamber along with two of her servants. Later that day, she was pronounced dead. Not just a rumor this time. The cause of her death is uncertain, but a commonly believed theory is that she used a poisonous snake to kill herself.
At 39 years old, Cleopatra was gone. In compliance with her wishes, she was buried beside Antony. Her death meant that Octavian, renamed as Emperor Augustus I, took over Egypt and celebrated his solidification of power in Rome. Much of the Roman history we use to understand Cleopatra is biased as a result of Octavian’s hatred for her.
Cleopatra is one of the few women throughout ancient history that are still loved and appreciated, even if we do not fully know her story. She was a woman deeply involved in politics, which was nearly unheard of at her time. Her stories remain an interest to so many historians today.
Only time will tell if we can learn more about her. As historians get more advanced, the world learns more and more. For example, it may be known that her death was not caused by a snake, rather by another poisonous substance that she poured onto herself.
Cleo’s story deserves to be told. She deserves to be known as more than a pretty lady. I mean, it’s not common knowledge that she herself led a naval fleet into battle. Yes, they lost, but she still did what no other woman would dream of doing. Cleopatra was legendary. If she’d have been alive today, she’d be a change-maker or a superhero, because Cleopatra was a woman of action.