By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Cleopatra VII was born in 69 B.C. in Alexandria, the ancient city founded by Alexander the Great. An important queen of ancient Egypt, she is still a famous historical figure. Despite a lack of primary sources from the ancient world, historians have pieced together much that has allowed her legacy to carry on for thousands of years.
Cleopatra was a daughter of Ptolemy XII and a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals and the founder of the Ptolemaic line in Egypt. When Alexander had gone east from Macedonia, he’d conquered many lands and put Ptolemy in charge of Alexandria. Thus, Cleopatra’s family line is evidence of her Macedonian and Greek heritage.
In ancient times, ruling families rarely got along—most were destroyed from the inside by competition for the throne, often resulting in conspiracy and murder. This trend began for Cleopatra’s family after the death of Ptolemy XII in 51 B.C., when the throne passed to 18-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, who became her husband and soon plotted to oust her from power.
Cleopatra wanted to strengthen Egypt’s friendship with the Romans, potential allies during a civil war in Egypt. Her main ally was General Pompey. Although Cleopatra wished to protect Egypt, her diplomatic maneuvers led Ptolemy XIII to accuse her of treason, forcing her to flee Egypt. However, she demonstrated her relentless resolve, even in exile, by acquiring an army of mercenaries and, in under a year, fighting Ptolemy XIII at Pelusium. Her brother then killed General Pompey, believing it a strategic way to get Pompey’s rival, Julius Caesar, to join him. Ironically, Cleopatra gained Caesar’s support, defeating Ptolemy XIII and taking back the throne. Caesar remained in Egypt with Cleopatra for a time, and around 47 B.C. she gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar, known as Caesarion by the Egyptians.
Soon after, Cleopatra brought Caesarion to Rome. It is suggested that Cleopatra hoped Caesarion might have a leading role in Roman society one day because of his connection to Caesar. However, after Caesar was murdered in March, 44 B.C., Cleopatra and Caesarion returned to Egypt. Cleopatra’s desire for notoriety and power was not over though. She declared Caesarion her co-regent, and began to associate herself with the Egyptian goddess Isis. Her power in Egypt became more secure than it had ever been.
A new conflict in Rome had begun with the dawn of a war between the second triumvirate (Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) and Caesar’s assassins. Both sides sought Egypt’s support, but Cleopatra assisted the triumvirate. In 42 B.C., after winning the Battle of Philippi, Mark Antony and Octavian divided power in Rome.
After the battle, Mark Antony agreed to protect Egypt and Cleopatra’s crown and sought her affection. One of the most famous romances of the ancient world thus began. In 40 B.C., after Antony returned to Rome, Cleopatra gave birth to twins. A few years later, Antony returned to Cleopatra in Egypt, slighting Octavian and his family. Antony publicly declared Caesarion as the rightful heir to the Roman throne and awarded land to each of his children with Cleopatra. This angered Octavian; in 32 B.C., the Roman Senate stripped Antony of all his titles, and Octavian declared war on Egypt.
Octavian’s army defeated Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium. A rumor that Cleopatra had killed herself prompted Mark Antony to kill himself just before he could be informed the rumor was false. After burying Antony, and pressured by the threat of public humiliation, imprisonment, and death at the hands of the Romans, Cleopatra closed herself in her chambers with two female servants. It is said she used a poisonous snake to commit suicide.
The poet Horace’s moving poem, Ode 1.37, offers a Roman’s perspective on Cleopatra. Horace portrays her as a maddened woman. She knows she will be forced to march through Rome in shame. The outcome of the Battle of Actium would undoubtedly lead to an embarrassing end to her reign and her life. To preserve her legacy and avoid shame she elects to end her life on her own terms. Horace allows readers to see this side of Cleopatra:
But it diminished her frenzy when
there was scarcely one ship unhurt by the flames,
and Caesar Octavian returned her mind,
crazy with Mareotic wine,
to true fear, flying from Italy
with straining oars, like a hawk
[hunts] tender doves or a swift hunter
[hunts] a hare on the plains of
snowy Thessaly, to put in chains
that deadly monster, who, wanting
to die more nobly, did not have a
feminine dread of the sword, nor find
hiding shores with her swift fleet,
but, having ventured out to see her palace lying
[in ruins] with a tranquil face, was brave [enough]
to handle harsh serpents and drink their black
venom into her body.
Horace focuses on Cleopatra’s humbling defeat instead of Octavian’s victory. She seems more human than her Roman enemies. She doesn’t let them deprive her of her dignity, but heroically chooses her fortune, thereby exposing the almost hollow triumph of Octavian over Cleopatra: it was not Octavian or the Romans who killed her, but the snakes she set upon herself.
Cleopatra exemplifies strength and intelligence. Although she faced countless obstacles, she aided her homeland: she bolstered the Egyptian economy and became a popular ruler by embracing Egyptian culture, despite her Greek heritage. Her legacy lives on, and will continue to in poetry, film, music, and stories for generations to come.