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cleopatra, cleopatra coin
Scott Heppell/AP
The image of Cleopatra on a silver
denarius dated to 32 B.C.

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt

May 05, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
Was she a beautiful heroine who capably ruled ancient Egypt to prosperity and peace? Or was she a clever seductress who promoted her own image for personal gain? Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt and one of the most famous female rulers of all time, may have been both.

Cleopatra’s Early Days

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Born around 69 B.C., Cleopatra VII was the daughter of a king, Ptolemy XII. “Cleopatra learned how to govern by watching her father,” The Biography Channel reports. 

She was also a highly intelligent young woman who spoke several languages. Greek was her first language, but Cleopatra also spoke Egyptian, “which you might expect, since she was the queen of Egypt,” The Field Museum states. “But surprisingly, historians think that she was the first ruler in her family to do so.”

When her father died around 51 B.C., Cleopatra rose to power along with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, and the two were married. Cleopatra was 18 years old while Ptolemy was just 10, the BBC reports. As The Biography Channel Web site explains, “[B]rothers and sisters marrying was not uncommon for the royalty of ancient Egypt (sometimes it was the only way for a woman to rule).”

Brother and sister didn’t share power for long, however. Cleopatra wanted the throne for herself, but Ptolemy gained sole control of the Egyptian government and forced his sister to flee in 48 B.C.

Cleopatra’s Notable Accomplishments

Not one to go quietly, Cleopatra journeyed to Syria and formed a mercenary army. She returned to Egypt with her army and set up headquarters outside the Egyptian capital of Alexandria.

In the summer of 48 B.C., Julius Caesar, the Roman general, pursued a military rival to Alexandria. Wanting to restore stability to the region, which, “with its great agricultural wealth, was in Rome's economic interest,” Amy Crawford explains for Smithsonian Magazine, Caesar soon became involved in the conflict between brother and sister. He wanted to negotiate a truce between the siblings, but Ptolemy refused to allow his sister to return to Alexandria.

Cleopatra saw that Caesar could be a valuable ally in her fight for the throne—if only she could gain entry to the palace and plead her case to him. As legend has it, she had a servant wrap her in a carpet, sneak her into the palace and present her to Caesar.

“When Cleopatra emerged from the carpet—probably somewhat disheveled, but dressed in her best finery—and begged Caesar for aid, the gesture won over Rome's future dictator-for-life,” Crawford writes.

Cleopatra regained the throne and Ptolemy was killed. The new queen bore a son to Caesar, whom she named Caesarion. But Caesar was already married and, according to Egyptian custom, Cleopatra had to marry her remaining brother, Ptolemy XIV.

Cleopatra followed Caesar back to Rome, but when he was assassinated in 44 B.C., she returned to Egypt. It is believed that she had Ptolemy XIV killed, along with her half sister, Arsinoe. “Such ruthlessness was not only a common feature of Egyptian dynastic politics in Cleopatra's day, it was necessary to ensure her own survival and that of her son,” Crawford writes.

In 41 B.C., Roman general Mark Antony was fighting with Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, over who would rule Rome. Cleopatra, wanting to preserve her own power and Egypt’s independence from Rome, saw an opportunity to form a partnership—both political and romantic—with Mark Antony. The couple would eventually have three children together, and oppose Octavian together. However, they were forced to flee to Egypt after Octavian emerged victorious.

In 30 B.C., Octavian captured Alexandria, forcing Antony to kill himself. On Aug. 12, Cleopatra locked herself in her mausoleum and committed suicide. Many ancient poets and historians wrote of Cleopatra’s death; according to most, she poisoned herself, perhaps by allowing a poisonous snake to bite her.
 
The earliest source describing Cleopatra’s death is Greek historian Strabo’s early first century work Geographica. He writes, “she also put an end to her life secretly, in prison, by the bite of an asp, or (for there are two accounts) by the application of a poisonous ointment.”

Plutarch, in his late first century work Life of Antony, writes that Octavian captured Cleopatra and hoped to take her back to Rome alive. However, left alone with two of her servants, Cleopatra managed to kill herself. Plutarch presents the possibility that Cleopatra used an asp she had hidden in a bowl of figs, but concludes, “But the truth of the matter no one knows.”

The Rest of the Story

After 2,000 years, Cleopatra remains a mysterious figure. Her known lineage is Greek but her half sister’s skeleton was found in 2009, revealing a mix of white European, ancient Egyptian and black African characteristics. Was Cleopatra also of mixed race?

Whether she was beautiful has also been a matter of debate. As Smithsonian Magazine reveals, a coin, dated to 32 B.C., depicts “a rather homely Cleopatra with a large nose, narrow lips and a sharp chin.”

This image is quite in contrast to the popular image of Cleopatra as a seductive beauty, portrayed most famously by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film, “Cleopatra.” According to “Cleopatra Through the Ages,” a Time magazine feature, “Taylor's portrayal of a ravishing, imperious queen tossed about by the volatility of her love remains the most common visual reference of Cleopatra to this day.”

Aside from her appearance, what of Cleopatra’s character and personality? M.S. Mason wrote a review of The Field Museum’s 2002 exhibition, “Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth,” for The Christian Science Monitor. “In the attempt to separate history from myth, Egyptologists, art historians, and other antiquarians now see her as a fine stateswoman, a strong queen, and an ingenious politician,” Mason writes.

Although Octavian did everything he could to disparage the queen in his time, and Roman historians such as Lucan, Plutarch and Horace “vilified her,” Shakespeare later “made her a fully realized character,” Mason writes.

“Before Shakespeare, she was portrayed either as a paragon or as exemplary of everything sinful about women,” David Foster of the Field Museum told Mason. “His story was more true than any that had come before.” (The text of “Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare is available online.)

Questions also remain surrounding Cleopatra’s death. In 2009, Egyptologist Zahi Hawass announced that his team was making preparations to excavate what could be the tomb of Cleopatra. Located at Abusir, about 30 miles from Alexandria, the site may offer clues as to whether Cleopatra really did commit suicide.

“She definitely died at a very convenient time for Octavian,” Joyce Tyldesley, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool, told Time. “There is no absolute proof that she committed suicide, and so it is possible that she was either forced to do so, or that she was killed.”

Murder or suicide? Beautiful or homely? Astute politician or clever seductress? “The truth is more compelling than the myths,” Foster told Mason. “What emerges is a woman of immense political acumen and power at a turning point in human history. She was a power player with the most powerful men of her day.”

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