sixteenth ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Greco-Roman period, ruled 51–31 BCE. Despite the racist insinuations of Strabo (c.64/63 BCE–21 CE), who denigrated her lineage in the service of Roman imperial propaganda, careful study of the ancient inscriptional evidence proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Cleopatra VII was born to Ptolemy XII Auletes (80–57 BCE, ruled 55–51 BCE) and Cleopatra, both parents being Macedonian Greeks. Cleopatra VII, called the Great, may have briefly shared the throne with her mother from 57 to 55 BCE, during the interval of her father's exile to Rome. In March of 51 BCE, she became coregent, at the age of seventeen, with Ptolemy XIII, her six-year-old brother, although at least one ancient Egyptian monument, dated to her first regnal year, described her as Egypt's sole monarch. In 48 BCE, the pursuit into Egypt by Roman general Julius Caesar of his rival, the Roman general Pompey, occasioned the death of Ptolemy XIII, by drowning, in a sea battle against Caesar. The younger brother Ptolemy XIV Philopator I was thereby elevated to the position of Cleopatra's coregent in 47 BCE.

Cleopatra's involvement with Julius Caesar began in 48 BCE and soon blossomed into an equal partnership, based on shared political objectives. To that end, she accompanied Caesar to Rome, was installed in opulent surroundings, and was presented as Venus (the mythological ancestress of the Roman race), an act in accord with Caesar's own imperial ambitions but perceived as sacrilegious by conservative Romans. In 47 BCE, she bore Caesar a son, Caesarion by name. His lineage was later denied by agents of Octavian, who became the emperor Augustus (r.27 BCE–14 CE), whose agenda it was to promote his own cause at the expense of Caesar's heir, whom they assassinated after entering Egypt in 30 BCE.

The assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome, in 44 BCE, had forced the return of Cleopatra VII to Egypt, at which time she murdered her brother and coregent Ptolemy XIV with a lethal dose of poison. In 41 BCE, she courted the assistance of Caesar's heir Mark Antony, who wed her in 37 BCE. She bore him three children—a set of fraternal twins and a second daughter, Cleopatra Selene. Together, she and Antony continued to implement her dream of world domination, eliminating all opposition at home, including that of her sister Arsinoe IV, whose murder they occasioned at Ephesus. On 2 September 31 BCE, Cleopatra and Antony challenged the might of Rome at Actium, in the ancient world's last sea battle. Recent excavations at Actium and a critical reassessment of the pertinent ancient texts suggest that Cleopatra's flight from that encounter was not due to cowardice but is rather to be attributed to a planned maneuver effecting her successful escape.

Realizing that her principles would be compromised if she effected a rapproachment with Augustus, and unwilling to subject herself to the humiliation of a Roman triumph, Cleopatra VII nobly chose ritual suicide rather than life as a captive. She took her own life on 12 August 30 BCE, eleven days after the ritual suicide of Antony. The means of her death remain unknown, although theories range from the bite of one or more serpents to poison, either ingested or pricked into the bloodstream with a pin. Her three children by Anthony survived her death, the twins being brought to Rome to be raised and the second daughter, Cleopatra Selene, eventually marrying Juba II, the king of Mauretania.

Hardly a beauty, as Cleopatra's coin portraits reveal, the ancient sources are, however, unanimous in their assessment of her intellect and political acumen. She was the only member of her Macedonian Greek dynasty who knew the hieroglyphs. Furthermore, she based the external trappings of her monarchy on the precedents provided by famous ancient Egyptian female monarchs, Hatshepsut among them, as were clearly demonstrated in her representations and the accompanying inscriptions at the temple of Hathor at Dendera. From both a Hellenistic Greek and an ancient Egyptian perspective, Cleopatra VII was a heroine, one who dared to assert her Greco-Egyptian legacy, openly consorting with and challenging the might of Rome. She lost. As a result, the triumphant Romans put their own spin on the legend of Cleopatra VII, casting calumny on all aspects of her character. They impugned her lineage and portrayed her as a vacuous sex kitten. The people of Egypt held a contrary view and honored the memory of this illustrious monarch. As late as 393 CE, Egyptians were still caring for her statues, such as the one on the island of Philae in the Nile, which was covered once again in gold at that time. So forceful was the impact of her real reputation in the region that subsequent queens of note, Xenobia of Palmyra (Syria) above all, were (in their biographies) cast in the mold of Cleopatra VII—so much so that it is difficult to discern their individuality.

Bibliography

  • Bianchi, Robert Steven, et al. Cleopatra's Egypt: Age of the Ptolemies. Brooklyn, 1988.
  • Murray, William M, and Photios M. Petsas. Octavian's Campsite Memorial for the Actian War. Transactions of the American Philological Association, 79. 4. Philadelphia, 1989.
  • Pomeroy, Sarah B. Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra. New York, 1984.
  • Ricketts, Linda. “The Administration of Late Ptolemaic Egypt.” In Life in a Multi-Cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond, edited by Janet H. Johnson, pp. 275–281. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 51. Chicago, 1992.
  • Thissen, H.-J. “Kleopatra VII.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 452–454. Wiesbaden, 1980.

Robert Steven Bianchi