Her name is synonymous with mystery.
When she crosses the threshold of human thought, words such as “elusive,” “seductive,” and “powerful,” flood the mind. Her death was as awe-inspiring as her life, and she continues to intrigue scholars centuries after her lifetime. Who could this woman be? There is only one possibility: Cleopatra VII. Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra was from the family line of Ptolemy and was of Greek heritage. She came to the Egyptian throne in 51 BC during the time of the Roman Republic, when she was only eighteen years old. She and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII inherited the throne after the death of their father, Ptolemy Auletes.
Theoretically, Ptolemy XIII should have been the dominant ruler, but the seven year difference in age between the two made her the more optimal choice for Queen Cleopatra accomplished much for her people in her reign, but the three most important events in her life were her relationship with lover Julius Caesar, her relationship with lover Mark Antony, and her tragic and premature death. By understanding these topics, we can better understand and appreciate Cleopatra for the brilliant and compassionate strategist that she was. Competition between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII escalated as Ptolemy grew older, and he eventually began strategizing ways to gain full control of Egypt. One of his plans to achieve this was to murder the rival of Julius Caesar, Pompey. By murdering Pompey, Ptolemy hoped to gain the support of the Romans and claim the Egyptian throne for himself. However when Caesar realized what Ptolemy had done, he sent for both Ptolemy and Cleopatra and declared his alliance with Cleopatra.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian citizens had declared Cleopatra’s younger sister Arsinoe IV the Queen of Egypt. Caesar and Cleopatra were trapped in the royal palace in Alexandria for a long winter, and it was there that their alliance became a passionate affair. When the two lovers were released by Roman forces in 47 BC, Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile River, and her younger sister Arsinoe was captured and taken back to Rome. Cleopatra now had full control over Egypt, and was free of competition with her siblings. Cleopatra bore the son of Julius Caesar in June of 47 BC, whom was named Ptolemy Caesar and nicknamed Caesarion.
Caesar, however, could not formally recognize this child as his own because he was already legally married to a Roman wife. The relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra was not simply a lustful desire for the other person, but a political move that solidified the alliance between Rome and Egypt. Egypt remained independent but was protected by Rome, and Rome benefited from Egypt’s fertile land and generosity. Cleopatra had successfully used her intelligence and seducing powers to help her country and its people, although her actions are often misinterpreted for promiscuity. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, a whirlwind of events took place.
Three men, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Marcus Lepidus sought to kill the assassins of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius. Rome, intent on revenge, asked for the support of Egypt; Cleopatra gladly gave her support to the triumvirate and sent a fleet of ships to Octavian and Mark Antony, but her fleets were destroyed by a storm. Before she could send another fleet, she heard the news that the assassins of Caesar had been defeated. Rome’s land was now ruled by two men: Octavian controlled the west, while Mark Antony controlled the East. Cleopatra decided to ally with Mark Antony; this was perhaps the only time her judgment failed her.
Mark Antony, less intelligent and less experienced than Julius Caesar had been, quickly submitted to Cleopatra’s alluring powers. She gave birth to his twins in 40 BC; meanwhile, Antony was in Rome about to marry Octavia, the sister of Octavian. The marriage was an attempt to reconcile with Octavian, but the relationship was short lived and quickly fell to pieces. Antony and Cleopatra reunited to form a grand scheme of restoring Egypt to some of its former glory; however, the plan was ultimately a failure. Antony and Cleopatra were at that point an official couple, which angered Octavian immensely. Octavian then defeated Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium, which effectively began the downfall of Cleopatra and Antony.
When Antony departed to fight his last battle, Cleopatra isolated herself in her mausoleum. Antony was misinformed that Cleopatra had committed suicide, and fell on his sword out of misery. He was taken back to Cleopatra, where she soon committed suicide herself. The date was August 30, BC. Cleopatra’s death was an alarming end to such a seemingly invincible human being; however, she left behind some mysteries that are still waiting to be solved. Her death is shrouded in uncertainty: How exactly did she commit suicide? Some believe that she had an asp (an Egyptian cobra) brought to her in a basket of figs, and the asp bit her.
The snake bite is the oldest and most commonly known theory, but where the snake bit her has been debated over the years. Most argue that she was bitten on the arm, while William Shakespeare’s version of the story entails her clutching the asp to her breast. Other historians believe an entirely different tale of her death: one such theory claims that the Queen drank a mixture of poisons including hemlock, wolfsbane and opium. Whatever the scenario was, the ultimate question remains: Where is her body? To this day, her remains have never been recovered. Perhaps it is Cleopatra’s way of ensuring that her legacy lives on, even if she does not. Cleopatra was by far the most powerful woman in ancient history.
She was not only intelligent and cunning, but kindhearted and devoted to her country. While her death was certainly a tragedy, her life is something to celebrate. We can still learn from her determination and self respect, even centuries after she lived. While some critics of Cleopatra may call her immoral and devious, she actually used her physical attributes and seductive powers to benefit her people, a method that is worth commending. She pursued relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in an attempt to help her country, and she died so that her and her nation’s dignity would remain intact.
Despite all of the shadows surrounding her life and death, one thing is for certain: Cleopatra hasn’t left us yet. Perhaps her body is waiting to be found, waiting to impart all her secrets to us. But maybe it is simply fortuitous that she will remain unfound. As stated in the July 2011 edition of National Geographic Magazine, “…Maybe finding her tomb would diminish what Shakespeare called her “infinite variety.” Disembodied, at large in the realm of myth, more context than text, Cleopatra is free to be of different character to different times, which may be the very wellspring of her vitality.” Long live Cleopatra, wherever she may be.