The thing with a historical figure as iconic as Cleopatra is that lots of people know about her, but less people know her actual deal. Every October there are lots of Cleopatra Halloween costumes, every few years there’s a new Cleopatra appearance on a miniseries or movie; she’s inevitably included is most posters and fridge magnet sets and books about Important Women From History. The main things most people may know about her are that she was famously glamorous, she drove at least two Roman men wild with desire, and she died from a snake bite. Guess what! All three of those things are maybe true, but are also some of the least interesting and least important things about her. So why is that what she’s best known for? THE PATRIARCHY STRIKES AGAIN.
So the thing is that nobody has found any Egyptian or Greek (because she was also Greek, more on that in a bit) writing surviving from Cleopatra’s lifetime. What does survive are the writings of several Roman men who truly detested her, and who made sure to include every cruel insult about her they could in their histories of that era. It’s not just a “history written by the victors” scenario but also a “slanderous history written by the misogynist haters who were also the victors” situation. But, between their various catty insults emerges the story of a person who was truly impressive, who accomplished a number of incredible things, and who deserves to be remembered for a lot more than for her wigs and who she happened to sleep with.
Ancient Egypt: An Incredibly Brief History
To set the scene and to understand the chaos she was born into, we need to first take a VERY QUICK sojourn into the history of ancient Egypt.
A very, very long time ago, there were a bunch of independent villages and one day, someone unified them into the kingdom of Egypt in around the year 3150 BCE. The famous Pyramids, etc., came around during what’s known as the Old Kingdom, which was the era from approximately 2686–2181 BCE (remember because this is all before the year 0, the numbers get smaller as time passes chronologically). During this time, Egyptians worshipped their King as literally a God on earth. Part of this stemmed from their belief that the King was directly responsible for water level of the Nile, which flooded every year and which helped with their crops. Because of the Nile, Egypt was able to produce amazing crops, which helped feed everyone and set them up to be really good trade partners with other places. Compared to other nearby areas, Egypt was doing amazing, sweetie vis-a-vis crops and the overall development of a sophisticated cultural identity.
And the centuries went by, passing through the Middle Kingdom era (c. 2030 – 1650 BCE), and into the the New Kingdom era (c. 1550 – 1069 BCE). This is when some names you may recognize, such as Hatshepsut, arrive. Although it was uncommon for women to hold solo leadership roles in Egyptian society, they weren’t entirely opposed to the idea, which is how Hatshepsut wound up ruling for about twenty years alongside her husband Thutmose II (because rule was usually shared in man-woman pairs of Kings and Queens). It was during Thutmose II’s reign (after Hatshepsut had died) that the word “Pharaoh” started to be used to refer to their monarch. Other notable names from the New Kingdom era included Queen Nefertiti, her step-son Tutankhamen, and the later King Rameses The Great (who reigned for sixty-seven years).
And more years went by, and Egypt went from being THE wealthiest and most successful and culturally significant kingdom to being slightly less influential. This had a lot to do with the Nile, which dried up from time to time; without that annual flooding, crops didn’t grow, which meant Egypt lost a lot of its ability to trade with neighbours. And then, suddenly, it’s the year 332 BCE and famous Greek teenager Alexander The Great stormed in and conquered Egypt (which had, at that point, been under the control of the Persians) (the Egyptian people themselves had been under a series of colonizers for awhile). Alexander created a new capital city named after him, Alexandria, and left the kingdom under the care of his trusted general, Ptolemy.
And for the next three hundred years, Ptolemy’s descendants would rule Egypt as the Ptolemiac dynasty. And although the Ptolemies adopted several cultural practices from the Egyptians, including their deities and the concept of incestuous brother-sister royal marriages, the Egyptian people never forgot that these were conquerors. For their part, the Ptolemies didn’t even go to the effort of learning the Egyptian language* (*which was its own dialect during this time period), conducting all of their business in Greek. So it’s a conquest situation, where the Egyptian people were oppressed and the Ptolemies were oppressors, and bear that in mind for what happens later.
Also note that the Ptolemies seem to have only had a handful of acceptable names. All of the boys and men were named Ptolemy, and the girls and women were all named either Cleopatra, Arsinoe, or Berenike. And wouldn’t you know it, today’s heroine was one of four sisters: Cleopatra (not our heroine), Berenike, Cleopatra (our heroine), and Arsinoe. And it’s worth looking at the two oldest sisters to get a sense of this family dynamic.
The Royal Ptolemy Sisters
As previously noted, the Ptolemies were intent on inbreeding in order to maintain the purity of their family line, and also probably because they were so busy murdering and scheming against one another that introducing other people would make it all too chaotic. Like, this was a wildly ambitious and competitive family where, when they weren’t marrying uncle to niece or brother to sister, wives were killing husbands and brothers were killing fathers. Just EVERYONE killing EVERYONE all the time to the point that if you weren’t paranoid, you were probably about to be murdered. In order to survive, you had to gather enough supporters around you for protection; in order to thrive, you had to kill your siblings before they killed you.
This generation’s father was Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, the illegitimate son of Ptolemy XI. He’d only wound up Pharaoh because all of XI’s other sons had been murdered by each other, because, this cannot be stressed enough: this family was very prone to murdering one another. XII’s wife was named Cleopatra V, and their eldest daughter (not today’s heroine, remember) was named Cleopatra VI. When Cleopatra V died (murdered??), Cleopatra VI swooped in to take over because of the whole “there has to be a man-woman pair of King+Queen at all times” thing. However, Cleopatra VI was very quickly murdered, potentially by the next youngest-sister, Berenike. Like imagine Jo and Amy March but in The Hunger Games, and that’s what these siblings were like.
Upon the death of Cleopatra VI, Ptolemy XII took on his daughter Berenike as the new Queen. And then he went on a business trip out of town, at which point Berenike SEIZED THE THRONE FOR HERSELF. In order to get the traditional King and Queen pairing, you’d think she would marry one of her brothers at this point, but her two younger brothers, both named Ptolemy, were basically preschoolers so that wasn’t what she wanted to do. And so Berenike decided to go this alone as a solo female Queen of Egypt.
This freaked out a lot of people, mostly men, who pressured her to marry someone because having a woman in charge made them very uncomfortable. So after a few months, Berenike decided to marry her cousin, Prince Seleucid. But clearly she changed her mind, because he died after one week, seemingly poisoned BY HER. Berenike was NOT messing around vis-a-vis killing anyone who got in her way, or who annoyed her. She then chose a new husband, Archelaos, but she never allowed him to be co-regent and continued to be basically entirely in charge of Egypt herself. Until Ptolemy XII came back to town, with the full support of Roman forces!!
And so Ptolemy XII took over again and had Berenike executed. And it’s at this point that his third daughter, Cleopatra VII (our heroine), enters the scene, aged fourteen, the new Queen of Egypt.
Cleopatra: The Early Years
Because we’re mostly depending on Roman writings to learn about Cleopatra, she’s first mentioned when she begins having dealings with powerful Roman men. So we don’t know much about her early years specifically, but based on how she turned out and what’s known about Egyptian society at the time, we can assume several things. She was clearly extremely well educated in every subject known at the time, including math, politics, history, philosophy, reading, and writing. She was fluent in as many as nine languages, including Egyptian, because for a welcome change she figured she’d give a shit about the language of her literal subjects.
(Conspiracy corner: there may have been another reason for her to learn the Egyptian language, and that’s that she was potentially at least part Egyptian. Now, the Ptolemies had been intermarrying among their Greek family for three hundred years but genetically, there’s no way any of them would have children after that long without introducing any foreign DNA. Cleopatra’s father, remember, was an illegitimate child. Surely earlier in the family tree, other nationalities had been introduced as well. And although XII had been married to a woman named Cleopatra V, it’s unclear if that woman was our Cleopatra’s mother. In fact, nobody knows who her mother was. As such, it’s possible that she was half-Egyptian.)
It is almost certain that Cleopatra was probably not conventionally beautiful. This point is extremely important so let’s just repeat that: Cleopatra was probably not conventionally beautiful. From the coins that have been found from her lifetime, she’s presented as certainly impressive, but is not styled to resemble the beautiful faces of statues from that era. Considering the amount of influence and power she would later amass, it’s somehow easier to assume she must have been gorgeous because that could explain why people agreed to work with her. But isn’t it more interesting to know that she may not have been beautiful, and that it was her magnetism, charisma, intelligence, and wit that won people over to her side.
She also clearly learned from the death of her two older sisters that a) her immediate family was not at all trustworthy and b) if she was going to stage a coup, she had to make sure she had powerful allies on her side. And so she waited for her chance.
And surprise! When she was around eighteen years old, having been Queen and successfully not having been murdered for four years, her father died. As per his will, Cleopatra was married to her younger brother, who became her co-ruler Pharoah Ptolemy XIII. Can you blame Cleopatra, this extremely smart and capable person, for deciding she’d rather not job-share with her tweenage brother-husband? She set to work straightaway cutting him out of most of the job duties, including having his name removed from official documents, and minting new coins that showed only her face instead of both of them. These were MAJOR declarations of war and Ptolemy XIII’s advisors and regents (because Ptolemy himself was still a kid) got extremely pissed off about all of this. Not only had she snuck around everyone’s back to claim extra power, she’d upended the expectation that Queens should be subordinate to and supportive of Kings: a woman wasn’t expected to rule on her own, that was SHOCKING to them.
And so, although she had her own supporters, her brother had more supporters and they exiled her from Alexandria. Cleopatra was like, “Screw you, I didn’t want to be here anyway!” and grabbed her younger sister Arsinoe (yes! Another sister! Don’t worry, she’s going to be amazing also) and took off to Syria, probably scheming all the way because she was obviously not going to accept this turn of events. And her plan involved taking advantage of the currently ongoing Roman civil war to get the back-up she needed to defeat her brother-husband.
Ancient Rome: An Incredible Brief History
There’s no time to get into the very long and complicated history of ancient Rome, so we’ll cut right to the point right now which is that Roman men hated a) women and b) the entire idea of hereditary monarchy. Cleopatra, as a woman and a Queen, was basically their worst nightmare. Women in ancient Roman society were considered property/children for their whole lives, and had no rights at all. In fact, their medical and philosophical understanding of the concept of sex was that women were mutated, incomplete men who hadn’t fully turned into men in the womb. Like, basically women had slightly less rights than barnyard chickens. It was a BAD SCENE.
Also, since 509 BCE Rome had been ruled by a non-King-based system where sometimes two and sometimes three consuls ruled at the same time, for no more than five years per person to ensure no one person would ever become too powerful. Not just anybody could become a consul, you had to be descended from one of the oldest noble families in Rome (which is not entirely unlike a hereditary monarchy, but don’t tell them that). The point is that there was more than one person in charge. That didn’t stop a number of civil wars from breaking out, though.
Twenty years before Cleopatra was born, there was yet another Roman civil war. In this one, a man named Sulla took over as sort of emergency Emperor because the multiple-consuls model wasn’t working very well in a time of great crisis. Having seen this in action, younger men like Julius Caesar and Pompey decided they’d each like to have that sort of power, themselves. As they didn’t want to share, Caesar and Pompey began fighting against each other and just kept on fighting and suddenly it’s 48 BCE and we’re caught up to where Cleopatra was (on the run with her sister, at war against her brother-husband).
Pompey wound up fleeing to Egypt, where he thought he could find refuge for awhile but SURPRISE he was stabbed to death basically upon arrival because that’s just how fast things happened when Ptolemies were around. And, although Caesar had been at war with Pompey, he wasn’t a fan of this assassination, and ordered Cleopatra and her brother-husband to reconcile and get out of his way, basically. Cleopatra had no intention of doing so, and so she headed off to try and convince Caesar to join her side against her brother-husband. (Note: this is where, if the people of Egypt had been bigger fans of the Ptolemies, they may have stepped up to offer her assistance. That they didn’t is maybe one small clue to the fact that they viewed both her and her brother-husband as their oppressor, not as their legitimate rulers).
Anyway, this is the bit where, in legends based on some very dramatic writings, she may have hidden herself in a rolled-up carpet to sneak into Caesar’s room to SEDUCE HIM. That may or may not have happened. But for sure she snuck off without telling her brother-husband, and whatever she said to Caesar totally worked: he was now willing to ally with her against Ptolemy XIII. And a power couple emerged!
Cleopatra: The Caesar Years
This is where Cleopatra being very beautiful and very sexy would be an easy way to explain how she so quickly won Caesar over to her side. But remember: Cleopatra was not conventionally beautiful. And, having been married to her tweenage brother for the past several years, was likely not very sexually experienced (in fact, let’s just state for the record now, the only men we know she ever slept with were Julius Caesar and Mark Antony). What she was, was extraordinarily well educated, in possession of almost supernatural amounts of personal charm and charisma, and was unlike any woman Julius Caesar had ever encountered before. Because, not only was she assertive, extremely well educated and overflowing with charisma, she was self-assured and likely the sort of spoiled one becomes when one spends ones formative years being told you’re literally a Goddess and you’re made Queen at age fourteen.
Did she go to Caesar willing to seduce him? And if she did, was it to manipulate him with her sexy ways, or was it because this was the Ancient world, and often alliances were sealed with marriages and/or babies? What’s mostly definite here is that she knew without the support of Egyptian forces, and with most of the palace supporting her brother-husband, she needed to find an outside source of support for her claim to the throne. And if that meant sleeping with the enemy, she was all in. Again, remember what her family and entire childhood and teen years had been like: she knew that to succeed, you had to do WHATEVER it took, and having a baby was nothing compared to murdering a family member. So she went full Ptolemy and won Caesar over to her side.
But then, twist!! Because Cleopatra’s younger sister Arsinoe was just as badass as her three older sisters, and she also knew that you have to shoot your shot when you get the chance. Just fifteen years old, Arsinoe decided to try and take over Egypt herself with their other brother, also named Ptolemy, as her co-regent. These Ptolemy sisters, honestly!! It’s just like Little Women, but in ancient Egypt and with brother-sister marriage and murder. Honestly, this move has Big Amy March Energy and I’m very into it.
A Brief Note on Arsinoe IV
As anyone who has read Little Women and/or Pride and Prejudice knows: one should never underestimate a younger sister. Arsinoe had spent time on the run with Cleopatra, and knew firsthand just how badass a young women could be. She was like, “So what if I’m just fifteen years old? I am fully prepared to DEFEAT JULIUS CAESAR!! Let’s do this!!”
Here’s what went down. Arsinoe fled down with her mentor/eunuch/pal, Ganymedes, and declared herself Queen Arsinoe IV and took control over the Egyptian army. She also named Ganymedes as her second in commend. She commanded the Egyptian army in battle against the Romans, utilizing clever tactics like closing off some streets in order to trap Caesar and Cleopatra in the palace, where they were trapped for basically an entire year. Ultimately, Caesar recognized he was about to be defeated by one of history’s coolest teenagers, and so he took off his identifiable cloak and armour and swam away. During this time period, Ptolemy XIII drowned to death, and Ganymedes died in battle.
The Egyptian army then decided they weren’t big fans of Queen Arsinoe anymore, and so they decided to exchange Arsinoe for Ptolemy XIV (her brother-husband, who at this point was being held captive by the Romans because everything is chaos). And so, Arsinoe wound up a Roman prisoner. She was forced to be included in Caesar’s victory parade, humiliating herself in front of everyone as a captive Queen, and then was sent into exile. Pour one out for Arsinoe, teen Queen of Egypt: she was a real one.
Cleopatra: The Caesar Years, Continued
So by now, it’s the year 48 BCE and Julius Caesar’s term as consul was due to expire. He managed to get one extra year as Emergency Dictator, because who else but him would be able to settle the dynastic troubles in Egypt? And so he appointed Cleopatra co-ruler alongside her other, even younger brother, Ptolemy XIV. Did she have to sibling marry him? Yes, because that’s just how these things were done. She was 22 and pregnant with Julius Caesar’s baby, and in order to rule Egypt had to marry her 12-year-old brother. Sometimes, that’s just how things go. But re: her love life, Cleopatra continued to live with Caesar as long as he was in town. Also FYI: Caesar was also already married to someone else, a Roman woman named Calpurnia.
Julius was out of town when Cleopatra’s son was born on June 23, 47 BCE. She named him Caesarion, which means basically Caesar Jr., and told everyone that Julius Caesar was his father. Caesar, though, never officially acknowledged Caesarian as his son for various reasons, mostly because he was married to someone else and Cleopatra was married to someone else and this was all kind of messy but they both loved drama so you know they were living for it.
Cleopatra and her new boy brother-husband went to hang out in Rome, leaving baby Caesarion behind. They moved into a villa just across from where Caesar lived with his wife, which sounds kind of awkward, and which Caesar’s advisors also found kind of odd. But Caesar had always done his own thing, never mind what other people think* (*this is part of why he winds up murdered in the next paragraph). For instance, Caesar was busy overseeing the construction of a new temple to the goddess Venus, which included a huge gold status of the goddess herself. And he was like, “Sculptors! I need you to make a second statue, also in gold, of my lover, Cleopatra!” And they did, and put that statue up next to the one of Venus, and that statue stayed there for like two hundred more years because it was apparently just that gorgeous a piece of art.
But then came the Ides of March, which is when Caesar was stabbed to death by a bunch of his former friends who were mad about his whole “doing what I want, don’t care what you think, I’m dictator for life” routine. Cleopatra was like, “Great, so my son with Caesar, Caesarion, will become the next Emperor, right?” And the Romans were like, “Actually, we all hate you, and also Caesar named his adopted son Octavian as his heir so…” and so Cleopatra packed up her things and peaced out of Rome, headed back to Egypt to regroup. Knowing what we know about Cleopatra, it’s unclear if she was unprepared for this contingency. She likely had sussed out who was who in Rome, who hated who, and which dude would be her best option to get what she wanted.
While en route back to Egypt, Cleopatra’s brother-husband Ptolemy XIV died of either some sort of illness, this is not suspicious at all except for the part where it’s suspicious as fuck so I think it’s pretty apparent she probably poisoned him. Because guess what, with him out of the way and no more little brothers waiting in the wings, her only choice for her co-regent was her son, three-year-old Caesarion! Would you look at that, she was now for all intents and purposes the solo queen of Egypt. And yet, without the support of the people of Egypt, she knew she’d need another assist from Rome if she was going to stay in power.
It is a fact universally acknowledged that if a woman can get on without a man, she will do so. So the fact that Cleopatra moved onto her Plan B indicates that she knew in her politically-savvy, resilient, survivor’s mind of hers that the odds were too great for her to tackle this next stage of her Queenship on her own.
Which is why she turned to Mark Antony.
Cleopatra: The Mark Antony Years
Given that Julius Caesar had been assassinated partly for wanting to begin a dynastic monarchy in Rome, it makes sense that the leaders there were reluctant to declare his nephew Octavian the new Emperor. Instead, they set up a Triumvirate of three leaders: Octavian, Caesar’s former right-hand man Mark Antony, and a third guy who mostly doesn’t matter or do anything, named Lepidus. These three men, as you might imagine, weren’t eager to share this power with each other and the in-fighting and power plays began almost right away. By 42 BCE, Octavian was controlling most of the Western part of the Roman Empire, and Antony was controlling most of the Eastern part (Lepidus didn’t really do anything but be the third point in the triumvirate’s triangle), and it seemed obvious that either Octavian or Antony was going to kill the other.
A note on Mark Antony: please note that Mark Antony was a piece of man candy of the first degree. In writings by people who knew him, he was described as basically gorgeous, with “mighty thighs” and a perfect face and curly hair and just a total dreamboat. All the stuff you think these Roman dudes would have written about Cleopatra re: gorgeousness, they actually wrote about Mark Antony. He was not just gorgeous, he was also one of the most successful and brilliant military generals ever, everyone adored him, he was a major heartthrob and hero to everyone in Rome*.
* This was an issue for Octavian, who was working very hard to make everyone in Rome hate Antony. Octavian was a skinny and sickly teen with blond hair (Romans preferred dark hair) who had nowhere near as many impressive military victories as Mark Antony. How could Octavian win everyone over to his side against this Roman Star Quarterback with the mighty thighs??? STAY TUNED.
So anyway, famous dreamboat Mark Antony was in need of some funding to help pay for these continued battles against sickly teen Octavian, and figured he’d ask for an assist from the wildly wealthy Egypt who he remembered had helped out his pal Julius Caesar once or twice before. He sent out an invitation for Cleopatra to come by and chat with him about this and she was like, No thanks, am busy washing my hair, etc. Several refused invitations later, she finally agreed to come and meet him and then the most Rihanna BDE situation you could ever possibly IMAGINE WENT DOWN. GET READY.
So, purple was the most expensive and rarest dye in this place and time, because it was made from the slime of thousands of sea snails which meant it took forever to make the dye let alone to dye SAILS let alone to dye ALL OF THE SAILS ON A SHIP. But guess who had a ship with all purple sails? Cleopatra. And her ship didn’t have regular oars, she was using SILVER OARS that just cut through the water like gigantic KNIVES, glinting in the Mediterranean sunshine.
So just imagine Antony, hanging out waiting for this meeting, to be met by this incredible display of wealth just cruising up next to him. When the ship got closer, he’d have seen Cleopatra making THE GREATEST ENTRANCE IN WORLD HISTORY. She was dressed up like the goddess Isis, covered in jewels, and surrounded by incense so you could literally SMELL the decadence. On top of that, she had little children dressed like CUPIDS running around her with little BOWS AND ARROWS to fully paint the picture which was: My name is Cleopatra, and I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly. And then??? Rather than pulling up her ship next to him to meet with him, Cleopatra’s BOAT OF LUXURY just kept on sailing past, leaving Mark Antony like, “WTF just happened and also? I think I’m in love.”
Because Cleopatra did not come when you invite her; she summons you to her and that’s just how it goes. Antony headed over to greet her on her ship, where she was like, “Sit, enjoy some wine and music and jewels and opulence for two days while we chat,” and he was like, “HEART EYES EMOJI” and two days later, a deal was struck where she’d help support him in his battle against Octavian, and he would worship and adore her for the rest of his life. And: can you blame him.
During this luxury yacht sex summit, Cleopatra got Antony to agree to have Arsinoe (who was still alive! In exile, back in Rome) put to death because that was a loose end, and Cleopatra didn’t like loose ends. Antony was like, “Anything you want, babe” and arranged for Arsinoe to be murdered on the front steps of the temple where she’d been living. Now note, killing someone on the steps on a temple was not the usual Roman way, and in fact this action upset a lot of people quite a lot, and is the first hint that Antony maybe wasn’t the best at winning over the Roman people to his side. But he was so good-looking, he was able to get away with a lot. FOR NOW.
Now, while the whole Cleopatra and Julius Caesar relationship was clearly sexual in the sense of she got pregnant with his child, those two never had the PALPABLE SEXUAL CHEMISTRY of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. She was ruthless, brilliant, and unstoppable and he had mighty thighs and and insatiable appetite for LIFE and the two of them together just make all the sense in the world. Also, she’d gone from marriage to her tweenage brother to an affair with a very intense but not very fun fifty-year-old man, and she deserved to have some fun with Rome’s Sexiest Man Alive*.
* He was not, however, Rome’s Most Eligible Bachelor as he was already married to a woman named Fulvia.
And once these two paired up, it was like LOOK OUT, THE ANCIENT WORLD! Mark Antony had already been known for throwing the most amazing parties, and Cleopatra was known for being amazing at everything, and they were both young and having fun. They started a social organization called the Inimitable Livers which was basically a party/drinking club, spent literally days in bed together, and were just doing The Most. Bear in mind, they were also both still being successful leaders, and Antony was happy to use his power as part of the Triumvirate to help Cleopatra out by restoring some of the her family’s former lands back to her.
Think about how Cleopatra’s entire young life had been spent being constantly almost murdered by one of her siblings; after she made her first big power move, she wound up exiled from Egypt, and only fought her way back with the help of Julius Caesar. She’d lived a paranoid, cautious, dangerous and stressful life and FINALLY now as Queen on her own terms, she could let loose and enjoy herself. This relationship brought out both wonderful things in each other (shared ambitions and goals) as well as, perhaps, some of their shared toxic qualities (overindulging in a way that Octavian was able to easily use against them). And it’s here that Cleopatra may have made the substantial error of underestimate Octavian, who was becoming more powerful and influential and still had it out for Antony.
In around the year 40 BCE, Cleopatra gave birth to boy-girl twins named Cleopatra (of course) and Alexander (after Antony’s ancestor, Alexander the Great). Unlike Caesar, Antony acknowledged both as his children even though, like Caesar, he was already married to someone else. But shortly after the twins’ birth, Antony’s wife Fulvia died (probably not poisoned, because this is the sort of story where you have to note that sort of thing). This death brought out a brief period of detente between Antony and Octavian. In the whole “it’s the ancient world, so we solidify alliances with marriages” style, this peace was confirmed by Antony agreeing to take as his next wife Octavian’s sister, Octavia the Younger. #AWKWARD
Meanwhile, Cleopatra was busy raising three small children and had to contend with a new rival, the Judean King Herod (the one from the Bible, who demanded that all the babies be killed in case one of them was Jesus; not a cool guy, even if he accidentally sort of invented Christmas). The thing is that Egypt and Judea were both kingdoms allied with Rome who were geographically nearby to each other, and Cleopatra sided with Herod’s mother-in-law against him and they made a sort of Girl Gang, and I could never tell this story any better than Anne Thériault did in this Longreads article so maybe pop over there and come back here when you’re done.
You’re back? Great! BUCKLE UP.
In around 37 BCE, Cleopatra went to visit Antony, which is when he met their three-year-old twins for the first time and he was like, “Look how cute they are! I love them!” because, unlike Caesar, Antony was happy about having children with Cleopatra and because the twins were probably super cute and Cleopatra probably dressed them in adorable costumes. One year later, Cleopatra gave birth to another child, a son named Ptolemy (because you know she had to throw that name in there somewhere) Philadelphus. But just as her reproductive abilities were going strong, Mark Antony’s military prowess was starting to become less amazing and his psychological state was becoming more paranoid. And, despite Cleopatra’s continued financial support, the Antony vs Octavian battles kept going on, complicated by the fact that Antony was married to Octavian’s sister, who he was constantly abandoning to hang out with Cleopatra. Even Lepidus (remember him? The third part of the Triumvirate?) got involved, rebelling against Octavian and winding up under house arrest. Nice try, Lepidus, but everyone knows you’re the least interesting part of this whole story.
It all sort of came to a head when Cleopatra and Antony staged a huge festival-party called The Donations of Alexandria. They threw this event partly because they both had always loved parties, partly because Cleopatra was really good at spectacles, and partly to try and convince everyone that Antony’s campaigns in Parthia and Armenia had gone amazingly well (the one in Parthia had not gone well, but the one in Armenia had, and he wanted to emphasize the latter). The party was planned to be similar to a Roman triumph, and included a bit where Antony’s prisoner of war, the Armenian leader Artavasdes, was walked in front of everyone in humiliation (as had been done with Arsinoe years before). The Armenian royal family was brought before Cleopatra and told to kneel, but they did not, and she freaked out, and that’s maybe a sign that things weren’t actually going as well as Cleopatra and Antony were pretending they were.
Anway, for the grand finale, Antony dressed up in a costume blending the Roman god of wine Dionysus with the Egyptian god of the underworld, Osiris, and Cleopatra dressed as a mixture of the Roman god of love Aphrodite and the Egyptian goddess of life and magic. Her son Caesarion was dressed up as the god Horus, who is the son of Isis. And then everyone in Cleopatra’s family got a new name and/or title:
- Cleopatra was proclaimed Queen of Kings, Queen of Egypt (co-regent with Caesarion), as well as Queen of Cyprus, Libya, and central Syria
- Alexander was given the middle name Helios (which means “the sun”), and named King of Armenia, Media, and Parthia
- Cleopatra (not our heroine, her daughter) was given the middle name Selene (which means “the moon”) and named Queen of Cyrenaica and Libya
- Ptolemy Philadelphus was named King of Syria and Cicilia
- Caesarion was proclaimed King of Kings as well as the legitimate heir of Julius Caesar
It is also speculated that Cleopatra and Antony were officially married during this event, and certainly they began acting like he wasn’t married to anyone else (although he wouldn’t divorce Octavia the Younger for awhile yet). The whole thing was loud, in your face, over the top, and totally on brand for Cleopatra+Antony. But to the people of Rome, it was all tacky and tasteless and made them all dislike both Antony and Cleopatra even more because this whole time, Octavian had latched onto the idea that he could win the PR battle by making himself seem pious and respectable vs Antony’s famously decadent lifestyle.
And if you’re wondering how a PR campaign is run in ancient Rome, in a time before the invention of the printing press, the answer is: hand-calligraphed flyers!! It’s from this time of PR wars that a lot of the mean rumours and popular misconceptions about Cleopatra first came into existence. All the greatest hits started out from this era: “She’s sexy and manipulating men with her beauty!” “She’s using witchcraft to bend Mark Antony to her will!” “She seduced Caesar and then Antony because she wants to destroy Rome!” “She’s too powerful and smart, it’s unnatural for a woman!” “Mark Antony does whatever she says, which is gross, because women aren’t people and men should be in charge!!” etc.
(So the next time you’re around someone who says something like this about Cleopatra, you can be like, “Oh, how original, where’d you get that idea, one of Octavian’s flyers from the year 31 BCE?” Because the idea that strong women are DANGEROUS SCHEMERS whose feminine wiles can trick POPULAR YOUNG PRINCES INTO MOVING TO CANADA AGAINST THEIR WILL is literally a story as old as time. Time for a new narrative, misogynists!!)
Honestly, Cleopatra’s connection with Antony was fucking up her life a lot more than it was his. When they’d started their relationship, he was the Roman Heartthrob/Hero who seemed destined to become the next Emperor. But as time went on, his hard-drinking/partying lifestyle caught up with him, as did probably a lifetime of PTSD from his years of military service, and he seems to have started breaking down psychologically. Their whole deal was based on him being an amazing military leader and her bankrolling him, but with him losing battles (and Octavian’s forces getting stronger all the time), he was starting to look like a poor investment on Cleopatra’s part. But bear in mind, she’d been running Egypt like a literal boss this whole time too, with forward thinking decisions about taxes and budgeting, and doing her best to lead a country that was entirely dependent on whether the Nile flooded or not every year which is a CHALLENGING JOB TO DO.
And THEN!! So, Octavian was re-elected as a consul but Antony’s time had ended, making him now just a regular Roman citizen. As such, the fact that he continued to battle against Octavian with Cleopatra’s funding, became sort of illegal. And so in a totally genius but also terrible act of using a loophole, Octavian had Rome declare war on Cleopatra for providing military support to a Roman citizen. So now the war was not Octavian vs Antony, but All Of Rome vs Antony, leaving Cleopatra in yet another awkward situation. But she of course was here to support her man, so off she went in her purple-sailed ship to help out.
This war was waged mostly at sea, where Cleopatra and Antony initially seemed to have the advantage as they had more ships. However, Octavian’s smaller fleet was comprised of professionally-trained Roman soldiers who were better equipped to battle than were their mercenary forces. It all came down to the Battle of Actium, which began on September 2, 31 BCE. The battle ended with a massive number of defections of Cleopatra and Antony’s troops to Octavian, and with Cleopatra and Antony themselves fleeing the scene. Cleopatra headed back to Egypt, where again, her family’s history of oppression was likely part of the reason that the Egyptian people weren’t prepared to stand up for her and fight Octavian. They’d do their job and be her royal guards, etc., but don’t seem prepared to lay down their lives and fight for her as they may have done for a non-Greek monarch.
Cleopatra, now trapped in Egypt and capture by Octavian seeming an inevitability, began to figure out a new scheme. Octavian seemed intent on keeping her alive so that he could parade her through the streets in a triumph as had been done to her sister Arsinoe years before. Cleopatra, proud as she was, was determined not to give him the satisfaction of humiliating her. She also knew that he was intent on looting her treasure for his own coffers, so she sent word to him that she was prepared to light herself and all of her treasure on fire. This got his attention, and Octavian sent a representative out to negotiate with her.
These negotiations did not go well, obviously, because Cleopatra and Octavian were equally stubborn and strong-willed, and so Octavian decided to invade Egypt. Antony was taken prisoner as he attempted to protect her, and he died by suicide while in captivity. He was 53 years old. Octavian permitted Cleopatra to attend Antony’s funeral, where she participated in the mourning rituals of the time and place: screaming non-stop and beating and clawing at her skin. As a result of this, she wound up with septic wounds. She stopped eating, perhaps hoping to die in this manner rather than by execution or after having had to parade through town as a prisoner of war. Octavian was not going to let his prized prisoner get away so easily, though, and she wound up recovering from these wounds.
Cleopatra died, aged 39, sometime that same month. Two of her loyal maidservants, Eiras and Charmion, died with her. Her manner of death was most likely poison, although the rumours of a poison snakebite are likely false. After all, Cleopatra had always been smart and organized, and she’d never leave something like this to chance. She had a small window of opportunity to kill herself; why risk it on a snake who may or may not bite her in the right time? Allegedly, the poison was smuggled in a basket of figs, which would also be a terrible way to sneak a venomous snake in to someone. She likely ate poisoned food or applied a poisoned ointment, as did her maidservants.
Conspiracy corner: If you look at ancient Roman history and mythology, women dying by suicide is a weirdly common theme of women being sort of quiet and not wanting to be a bother, which was how Romans wanted their women to behave, and which was certainly not how Cleopatra ever would have behaved. The news of her suicide came out from Octavian, and was written about by other men who hated her and who were writing to please Octavian, so it’s possible that was a cover-up story for something else. Perhaps Octavian actually killed her. Perhaps she tried to rally up supporters and stage a big coup and escape prison, but it failed and she died in the battle. In a story this wild, with a woman as prepared to do whatever it takes, anything is possible.
Whatever the manner of her death, Cleopatra almost certainly died on her own terms, and Octavian was super frustrated, so if she had to go at least her death was a final fuck you.
Cleopatra: Her Legacy
Cleopatra’s son Caesarion, renamed Ptolemy XV, reigned for just eighteen days before he was tricked to come visit Octavian, who murdered him. Upon his death, the Ptolemiac dynasty came to an end and Egypt was absorbed as a province of the newly-created Roman Empire.
Cleopatra Selene married King Juba II of Numibia and Mauretania, with whom she had one daughter and one son. Her son, Ptolemy (what else would she have named him) was later murdered by his cousin, CALIGULA!! (A story for another day). Three hundred years later, Syria’s Queen Zenobia, who faced off against the Roman Empire in her own badass story, claimed to be a descendant of Cleopatra Selene.
The fates of Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philodelphus are unknown, though they seem to have been sent to Rome to be raised by Antony’s widow, Octavia the Younger, following the death of their parents.
Octavian renamed himself Augustus, and became the first official non-emergency Roman Emperor. He re-named the month of August after himself, to celebrate his defeat of Cleopatra, which is just such a dickish move I hate him and now I kind of hate the month of August out of loyalty to Cleopatra. This fucking guy. Ugh.
Much of the legend of Cleopatra developed based on the Roman writings from around the time of her downfall, which describe her as a witch/ slut/ seductress/ femme fatale who single-handedly destroyed Mark Antony’s life. These are the most widely known sources of information about her life, however, other sources focus more on other aspects of her political career and persona.
Some medieval Arabic writings seem to have been drawn from Greek histories that may present Cleopatra similarly to how she’d portrayed herself. These sources do not refer at all to her beauty (or lack thereof) or even to her love affairs. Instead, she is depicted as a scholar known as “Cleopatra the Wise” or “The Virtuous Scholar”; a woman revered for her intelligence and inventiveness, with keen interests in philosophy, alchemy, mathematics, and medicine.
References & Further Reading
The primary source I used to write this essay was Stacy Schiff’s excellent biography, Cleopatra: A Life. I also referred to Kara Cooney’s book When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt as well as getting background info on ancient Rome from Emma Southon’s Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World.
Other sources include:
6 things you (probably) didn’t know about Cleopatra (BBC History Extra)
Episode LX: Cleopatra (Emperors of Rome podcast)
Cleopatra: Ms. Understood (Stuff You Should Know podcast)
Cleopatra’s Little Sister vs. The World (Drunk History)
Cleopatra VII: Scholar, Patron, Queen (Ancient Research Center in Egypt)
The Virtuous Scholar: Cleopatra seduced through intellectual prowess not physical beauty, says new book (University College London)
Cleopatra: Scientist, Not Seductress? (Seeker.com)