When you try and think of famous women from history, often the names that come up are those of Queens or other rulers. This isn’t because of the significance of their reigns, but because it was so rare for a woman to take control when nearly all recorded civilizations were patriarchal. And that Queens are remembered more than peasants isn’t because the royal women themselves were in any way more interesting or noteworthy, but because their actions were recorded.
The saying “well-behaved women seldom make history,” in its context, isn’t an invitation to misbehave but rather the matter-of-fact explanation for why so few women show up in history. For women to merit note in history’s texts, they must be either notable due to their status or their actions. Cleopatra VII has been a commonly recognized figure, usurping the other numerous Egyptian female rulers (many of whom were also named Cleopatra) by both her status, the timing of her rule, and her singular character.
Like so many controversial women in history, most of the records we have about her life were written after her death by a man who wanted her to become notorious. In this case, Caesar Augustus aka Octavian set the propaganda machine of the Roman Empire against her, demonizing her actions in order to further glorify his victory against her. But the basic facts of her life are mostly all agreed upon, and combine to share the story of a facinating, ambitious, ruthless, and charismatic woman who set the ancient world aflame.
Cleopatra VII was born into a controversial time. Her father, Ptolemy XII, was a descendant of the Macedonian General granted Egypt after Alexander the Great conquered it. Her family was of Macedonian and Greek descent, and spoke and wrote exclusively in Greek — alienating them from their Egyptian subjects. Her father was banished from Egypt for a time, eventually returning with the assistance of Rome. Egypt’s custom was for Kings and Queens to rule in tandem, upon her mother’s death, Cleopatra served as co-regent with her father for four years, starting when she was 14.
Even as a girl, she was written about in very glowing terms not just for her beauty but for her character. Plutarch, a great chronicler of the ancient world, noted that “her beauty, as we are told, was in itself neither altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” In other words, she was pretty, but it was the extra je ne sais quoi that elevated her above those around her. Also, interestingly, many chronicles note what an appealing speaking voice she had. She’s known today for being both etherally beautiful and wildly seductive, dangerous and lovely, seemingly cast about once per decade by that generation’s most vaunted beauty in a glamorous film. To her contemporaries and to those who wrote about her later, she was also revered for her intellect, speaking at least nine languages and rarely needing an interpreter.
When she was 18, her father died, leaving instructions in his will that Cleopatra should continue on as ruler… with her 10-year-old brother, Prolemy XIII, who she was then married to (this was the custom at the time). Cleopatra was not here for sharing anything with her brother, so in fairly short order, she had her brother’s name removed from official documents and all coins minted to show only her face. Considering the custom of the time was for Queens to be subordinate, this was like an early clue that she was not one to be fucked around with. And so… her brother’s supporters instigate a coup against Cleopatra, banishing her from Alexandria, the royal city. She took off with her sister, Arsinoë (remember that name, she’ll become important in a bit).
Meanwhile back in Rome, Julius Caesar was engaged in a civil war against a man named Pompey. Pompey fled Rome for Egypt, where he was assassinated. This made Caesar a fan of Egypt and, therefore, Ptolemy XIII.
Cleopatra was determined to change Caesar’s allegiance from her brother to her, but since she’s still banished, she can’t exactly stroll in for a formal meeting. So what she does is like the Trojan Horse scenario but sexier, in that, she hides herself in a rolled-up carpet and has an associate carry her/the carpet into Caesar’s room. Once alone, she unrolls herself from the carpet, presenting her 21-year-old self to the 52-year-old Caesar. And just like that, Caesar was fully on #TeamCleopatra, taking her as his mistress, and agreeing to use his troops to help defeat her brother. Which, basically, he does, installing Cleopatra back on the throne, this time with her even-younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, as her co-regent/husband.
She gives birth to her first child at around this time, a boy named Ptolemy Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion, and generally understood to be Julius’s kid. She, her new husband-brother, and the child all head to Rome to hang out with Caesar (who is of course still married to someone else). He keeps busy with invading and battling and holding parades about his own amazingness, ultimately rubbing too many people the wrong way and finds himself assassinated. So, Cleopatra and her entourage head back to Egypt because: obviously. And then crazy coincidence, except probably not, her brother-husband dies of poisoning and she makes Caesarion her new co-regent.
Meanwhile, there’s a power struggle to take over from Julius Caesar, with the main options being his declared heir Octavian versus military general Mark Antony. Antony sends for Cleopatra who, needing the support of Rome, decides to back him in this struggle. Again her beauty and/or personality and/or brilliance and/or the whole package captivates Antony, as he abandons his plans to invade some other place in order to head back to her to Alexandria to be with her. At her request, he orders the assassination of her sister Arsinoë, who she saw as a threat to her and Caesarion. Arsinoë was killed on the steps of a Roman temple, violating the sanctuary of the temple and adding yet another tally on the reasons why Romans hate Cleopatra list.
Antony fathers Cleopatra’s next two children, twins named Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios. Mark Antony was married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia, but he couldn’t quit Cleopatra so he ran off to marry her too. As one might expect, Octavian wasn’t super into this idea, and the two men began battling again. Antony grants Cleopatra parts of the Roman territory in the Middle East, including lands in Labanon, Syria, and Jericho, which makes Octavian freak out even more and, more importantly, turns most of Rome against both Cleopatra and Antony, who go on to have one more child together, Ptolemy Philadelphus.
Octavian attacks by sea, and Cleopatra — fearing capture — withdraws her ships. Antony’s forces aren’t enough without her help, and he’s defeated, surrendering to Octavian. However, Antony himself slips away to join Cleopatra on her ship. He finds her grossed out by his act of cowardice, and this is where the story seems to be taken over by Octavian’s propaganda machine so assume the rest of this has an “allegedly” in front of it.
Octavian lets her know via messenger that if she kills Antony, he will help her out. And then we need to rely on some writings that make the rest of this story sound very Shakespearean, but also plausible, so I guess we can all decide what we want to believe.
Option 1: Cleopatra, afraid of being taken captive, locks herself in a mausoleum with all of her treasures, keeping two handmaidens with her. She sends a message to Antony that she is dead. He believes this and throws himself on his sword, but doesn’t quite die. He is brought to her, and dies in her arms.
Option 2: Cleopatra, knowing she can’t kill Antony in any obvious way, concocts a plan to get him to kill himself. She sends him a message that she’s killed herself; he stabs himself; perhaps he is brought to where she is, and may or may not die in her arms.
Option 3: Some parts of Option 1, some parts of Option 2, and some other things that nobody will ever know...
One way or another, both Antony and Cleopatra died in quick succession. Considering the way that Octavian gloated about both events, even holding a parade with a burning effigy of Cleopatra in it, it doesn’t strain credulity to think he may have spread rumours making their deaths sound particularly grisly and/or had some hand in one or both deaths. Caesarion was also killed, at Octavian’s orders, shortly thereafter. Her three children with Antony had their lives spared, and were sent to Rome to be raised by Antony’s wife. Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, ruled by Octavian at arms length, making Cleopatra the final Egyptian monarch.
Cleopatra lives on in countless ways: books, plays, TV shows, and films. Octavian may have set out to ruin her reputation, but it seems he’s only worked to glorify her even more. A great book that really digs into who she was and what her motivations were is the biography Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. Joyce A. Tyldesley’s biography Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt also gives a well-rounded idea of how this woman lived and died. And for a fiction take on her story, which is often the best way to really get into the mind of a historical figure, try The Memoirs of Cleopatra: A Novel by Margaret George.