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Cleopatra VII › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 28 February 2014
Roman Portrait of Cleopatra (Sergey Sosnovskiy)

Cleopatra VII (c. 69-30 BCE) was the last ruler of Egypt before it was annexed as a province of Rome. Although arguably the most famous Egyptian queen, Cleopatra was actually Greek and a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE) which ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great (lived 356-323 BCE). Cleopatra is probably best known for her love affair with the Roman general and statesman Mark Antony (lived 83-30 BCE) as well as her earlier affair with Julius Caesar (lived 100-44 BCE) but was a powerful queen before her interaction with either.
She was fluent in a number of languages, is reported to have been extremely charming, and was the most effective among the later Ptolemaic pharaohs of Egypt. Her involvement with Mark Antony brought her into direct conflict with Octavian Caesar(later known as Augustus Caesar, r. 27 BCE-14 CE) who would defeat Cleopatra and Antony and the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, ending her reign. She and Antony would then both commit suicide the following year.


In June of 323 BCE, Alexander the Great died and his vast empire was divided among his generals. One of these generals was Ptolemy I Soter (r. 323-282 BCE), a fellow Macedonian, who would found the Ptolemaic Dynasty in ancient Egypt. The Ptolemaic line, of Macedonian-Greek ethnicity, would continue to rule Egypt until the rise of the Roman Empire and the death of Cleopatra VII.
Cleopatra VII Philopator was born in 69 BCE and ruled jointly with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes. When she was eighteen years old, her father died, leaving her the throne. Because Egyptian tradition held that a woman needed a male consort to reign, her twelve-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, was ceremonially married to her. Cleopatra soon dropped his name from all official documents, however, and ruled alone.
The Ptolemies, insisting on Macedonian-Greek superiority, had ruled in Egypt for centuries without ever learning the Egyptian language or embracing the customs. Cleopatra, however, was fluent in Egyptian, eloquent in her native Greek, and proficient in other languages as well. Because of this, she was able to communicate easily with diplomats from other countries without the need of a translator and, shortly after assuming the throne, without bothering to hear the counsel of her advisors on matters of state. The historian Plutarch writes,
It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter.


Her habit of making decisions and acting on them without the counsel of the members of her court upset some of the high ranking officials. One example of this was when Roman mercenary lieutenants employed by the Ptolemaic crown murdered the sons of the Roman governor of Syria to prevent them from requesting her assistance. She immediately arrested the lieutenants responsible and turned them over to the aggrieved father for punishment.
In 48 BCE her chief advisor, Pothinus, along with another, Theodotus of Chios, and the General Achillas, overthrew her and placed Ptolemy XIII on the throne, believing him to be easier to control than his sister. Cleopatra and her half-sister, Arsinoe, fled to Thebaid for safety.


At about this same time the Roman general and politician, Pompey the Great, was defeated by Julius Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus. Pompey was the state-appointed guardian over the younger Ptolemy children and, on his campaigns, had spent considerable time in Egypt. Believing he would be welcomed by friends, Pompey fled from Pharsalus to Egypt but, instead of finding sanctuary, was murdered under the gaze of Ptolemy XIII as he came on shore at Alexandria.
Caesar's army was numerically inferior to Pompey's and it was believed that Caesar's stunning victory meant that the gods favoured him over Pompey. Further, it seemed to make more sense to Ptolemy XIII's advisor Pothinus to align the young king with the future of Rome rather than the past.
Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra VII

Upon arriving in Egypt with his legions, in pursuit of Pompey, Caesar was allegedly outraged that Pompey had been killed, declared martial law, and set himself up in the royal palace. Ptolemy XIII fled to Pelusium with his court. Caesar, however, was not about to let the young ruler slip away to foment trouble and had him brought back to Alexandria.
Cleopatra was still in exile and knew there was no way she could simply walk into the palace unmolested. Recognizing in Caesar her chance to regain power, she is said to have had herself rolled in a rug, ostensibly a gift for the Roman general, and carried through the enemy lines to the palace and presented to Caesar. She and Caesar seemed to strike up an instant affinity for each other and, by the next morning when Ptolemy XIII arrived to meet with Caesar, Cleopatra and Caesar were already lovers. The young pharaoh was outraged.



Ptolemy XIII turned to his general Achillas for support and war broke out in Alexandria between Caesar's legions and the Egyptian army. Caesar and Cleopatra were besieged in the royal palace for six months until Roman reinforcements were able to arrive and break the Egyptian lines.
Before the victory, however, Cleopatra's half-sister, Arsinoe, who had returned with her, fled the palace for Achillas' camp and had herself proclaimed queen in Cleopatra's place. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile attempting to escape after the battle and the other leaders of the coup against Cleopatra were killed in battle or shortly afterwards. Arsinoe was captured and sent to Rome in defeat but was spared her life by Caesar who exiled her to live in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus where she would remain until 41 BCE when, at Cleopatra's urging, Mark Antony had her executed.
Relief of Cleopatra VII and Caesarion at the Dendera Temple

Relief of Cleopatra VII and Caesarion at the Dendera Temple

Cleopatra travelled through Egypt with Caesar in great style and was hailed by her subjects as Pharaoh. She gave birth to a son, Ptolemy Caesar (known as Caesarion) in June of 47 BCE and proclaimed him her heir. Caesar himself was content with Cleopatra ruling Egypt as the two of them found in each other the same kind of stratagem and intelligence, bonding them together with a mutual respect.
In 46 BCE, Caesar returned to Rome and, shortly after, brought Cleopatra, their son, and her entire entourage to live there. He openly acknowledged Caesarion as his son (though not his heir) and Cleopatra as his consort. As Caesar was already married to Calpurnia at this time, and the Roman laws against bigamy were strictly adhered to, many of the members of the Senate, as well as the public, were upset by Caesar's actions.


When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, Cleopatra fled Rome with Caesarion and returned to Alexandria. Caesar's right-hand man, Mark Antony, joined with his grandnephew Octavian and friend Lepidus to pursue and defeat the conspirators who had murdered Caesar. After the Battle of Phillipi, at which the forces of Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius, Antony emerged as ruler of the eastern provinces, including Egypt, while Octavian held the west.
Silver Tetradrachm portraying Antony and Cleopatra

Silver Tetradrachm portraying Antony and Cleopatra

In 41 BCE, Cleopatra was summoned to appear before Antony in Tarsus to answer charges she had given aid to Brutus and Cassius. Cleopatra delayed in coming and then delayed further in complying with Antony's summons, making it clear that, as Queen of Egypt, she would come in her own time when she saw fit. Egypt was, at this time, teetering on the edge of economic chaos but, even so, Cleopatra made sure to present herself as a true sovereign, appearing in luxury on her barge, dressed as Aphrodite :
She came sailing up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along, under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like Sea Nymphs and Graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes...perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal while the word went, through all the multitude, that Venus was come to feast with Bacchus for the common good of Asia. (Plutarch, Life of Marcus Antonius )
Mark Antony and Cleopatra instantly became lovers and would remain so for the next ten years. She would bear him three children and he considered her his wife, even though he was married, first, to Fulvia and then to Octavia, the sister of Octavian. He eventually divorced Octavia to marry Cleopatra legally.
Cleopatra's Death

Cleopatra's Death


During these years, Antony's relationship with Octavian would steadily disintegrate to the point where civil war broke out.Cleopatra's and Antony's forces were defeated by Octavian's at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and, a year later, they both committed suicide. Antony, upon hearing the false report of Cleopatra's death, stabbed himself. He learned, too late, that she still lived and Octavian allowed him to be brought to the queen where he died in her arms.
Octavian then demanded an audience with the queen where the conditions of her defeat were made plain to her. The terms were hardly favorable and Cleopatra understood she would be brought to Rome a captive to adorn Octavian's triumph.Recognizing that she would not be able to manipulate Octavian as she had Caesar and Antony, Cleopatra asked for, and was granted, time to prepare herself.
She then had herself poisoned through the bite of a snake (traditionally an asp, though most scholars today believe it was an Egyptian cobra). Octavian had her son Caesarion murdered and her children by Antony brought to Rome where they were raised by Octavia; thus ended the Ptolemaic line of Egyptian rulers.
Although traditionally regarded as a great beauty, the ancient writers uniformly praise her intelligence and charm over her physical attributes. Plutarch writes:
Her own beauty, so we are told, was not of that incomparable type that immediately captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible and there was an attraction in her person and in her conversation that, along with a peculiar force of character in her every word and action, laid all who associated with her under her spell.
Cleopatra has continued to cast that same spell throughout the centuries since her death and remains the most famous queen of ancient Egypt. Movies, books, television shows, and plays have been produced about her life and she is depicted in works of art in every century up to the present day. Though she was Macedonian-Greek, not an Egyptian, she has come to symbolize ancient Egypt in the popular imagination more than any other Egyptian monarch.
Author's Note: Special thanks to scholar Arienne King for contributions to this article.

Mark Antony › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 20 December 2011
Bust of Mark Antony (Tataryn77)

Marcus Antonius (lived 83-30 BCE, known popularly as Mark Antony ) was a Roman general and statesman best known for his love affair with Cleopatra VII (c.69-30 BCE) of Egypt. As Julius Caesar 's friend and right-hand man, he gave the funeral oration after Caesar 's assassination which turned the tide of popular opinion against the assassins.
As part of the Second Triumvirate of Rome, he ruled uneasily with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, famously fell in love with Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and, after his defeat at the Battle of Actium (31 BCE), committed suicide in 30 BCE. With no other contenders for power, Octavius became Rome's first emperor and the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.


Antony was born 14 January, 83 BCE to Marcus Antonius Creticus and Julia of the Caesars (thus relating him to Julius Caesar). He was instructed in rhetoric by his mother and, by all accounts, was given to education and philosophy in particular, until he became friends with the young Pubilius Clodius Pulcher and another young man named Curio. Plutarchrelates:
Antony gave brilliant promise in his youth, they say, until his intimate friendship with Curio fell upon him like a pest. For Curio himself was unrestrained in his pleasures, and in order to make Antony more manageable, engaged him in drinking bouts, and with women, and in immoderate and extravagant expenditures. This involved Antony in a heavy debt and one that was excessive for his years — a debt of two hundred and fifty talents.


This sum of two hundred and fifty talents would be the equivalent of five million dollars today and this he owed before the age of twenty. Dodging his creditors, Antony slipped away to Greece where he spent his time studying oratory and military exercises.
He was persuaded by the Roman general Aulus Gabinius to join an expedition against Syria, in which Antony proved an able commander of cavalry, and then continued on with Gabinius to put down revolts against Ptolemy XII in Egypt. At this time he may have first met his later wife, Cleopatra VII, who would have been about fourteen years old.
Rising quickly to prominence in Gabinius' ranks, Antony was promoted and called by Julius Caesar to join his forces in Gaul in 54 BCE. Here, as in the east, Antony proved himself a brilliant commander but his appetite for luxury, drink and sexual excesses alienated him from Caesar and the other officers. The common soldiers, however, embraced Antony. Plutarch writes:
What might seem to some very insupportable, his vaunting, his raillery, his drinking in public, sitting down by the men as they were taking their food, and eating, as he stood, off the common soldiers' tables, made him the delight and pleasure of the army. In love affairs, also, he was very agreeable: he gained many friends by the assistance he gave them in theirs, and took other people's raillery upon his own with good-humour. And his generous ways, his open and lavish hand in gifts and favours to his friends and fellow-soldiers, did a great deal for him in his first advance to power.
In spite of his hedonism, Antony continued to be of great assistance to Caesar in the conquest of Gaul and, in 50 BCE, Caesar supported Antony in his election as tribune.


In the senate, Antony was a fierce supporter of Caesar's policies. Antony's long-time friend, Curio, had moved away from the aristocratic party and aligned himself with Caesar's populist party, using his eloquence in oratory to convince others to do the same. Antony and Curio faced constant frustration and rejection by the senate in anything having to do with Caesar and, in 49 BCE, they fled Rome for Gaul and Caesar's camp, dressed as servants. Caesar took this affront to the young tribune and the orator as his excuse to march on Rome in defiance of the senate's orders, instigated by Pompey the Great, that Caesar disband his army and return to Rome as a private citizen.
After taking Rome without a fight, Caesar turned his attention to Pompey ’s forces in Spain and left Antony to rule the city.Though an effective military leader, Antony had little skill as a politician. Plutarch states, “He was too lazy to pay attention to the complaints of persons who were injured; he listened impatiently to petitions; and he had an ill name for familiarity with other people's wives.”
Although an incompetent administrator, Antony was still able enough to keep the supply lines open to Caesar's forces and continually send reinforcements. In 48 BCE Antony joined Caesar in Greece, leaving Lepidus to care for Rome and, at the Battle of Pharsalus, commanded Caesar's left wing of cavalry, helping to defeat the forces of Pompey the Great.
Battle of Pharsalus

Battle of Pharsalus

Following the battle, Caesar followed the fleeing Pompey to Egypt and Antony returned to Rome where he neglected his administrative duties regularly to the point of bringing disgrace upon Caesar's newly-won rule. As a result, Antony was removed from his position upon Caesar's return from the east, and power conferred upon Lepidus. Two years later, however, Antony was again a part of Caesar's close circle.


In 44 BCE, after Caesar's assassination, Antony took the opportunity as speaker at the dictator's funeral to turn the tide of popular opinion against the conspirators and drive them from Rome. Antony seems to have had no intention of pursuing or punishing Caesar's assassins until the appearance in Rome of Caesar's nineteen-year-old heir, Gaius Octavius Thurinus (Octavian).
Octavian's arrival, and legal claim as Caesar's heir, was an unpleasant development for Antony and two men were instantly at odds with each other. Octavian insisted that Caesar's will be followed to the letter, including dispensing the monies which were to be given to the people of Rome; Antony disagreed with this as he also took offense at a `boy' (as Antony would frequently call Octavian) offering him advice on anything.
Outmaneuvered by Octavian politically and intellectually, Antony fled with his legions to Gaul where his forces were defeated by Octavian's. At a truce, Antony, Octavian and Lepidus formed what is known today as The Second Triumvirate and agreed to partitioning Rome's holdings among them to rule jointly. Lepidus was given Africa to rule, Octavian the west, from Rome, and Antony the east.


After defeating the armies of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, Octavian returned to Rome and Antony went east where, at Tarsus in 41 BCE, he summoned the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII to appear before him. He planned on charging Cleopatra with sedition against Rome in order to fine her a substantial sum to help pay his army. Cleopatra, however, manipulated her entrance to Tarsus in such a way that she immediately cast a spell over Antony which he would never be able to break. As Plutarch describes:
She received several letters, both from Antony and from his friends, to summon her, but she took no account of these orders; and at last, as if in mockery of them, she came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. [...] On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good-humour and courtesy, he complied, and went.He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equaled for beauty.
Antony and Cleopatra immediately began their famous love affair, though he was at that time married to Fulvia, and he considered her his wife even before legally marrying her. In 40 BCE, Fulvia died and, in an effort to try to cement the further deteriorating relationship between the two rulers, Octavian and Antony agreed that Antony would marry Octavian's sister, Octavia (even though, that same year, Cleopatra gave birth to Antony's children, the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene).
The relationship between Octavian and Antony deteriorated further as the years passed and Antony continued his relationship with Cleopatra while married to Octavia. In 37 BCE, Antony sent Octavia back to Rome and, in 35 BCE, when Octavia came with troops, supplies and funds to meet Antony in Athens, he refused to meet her and had her again sent home.
Cleopatra's Death

Cleopatra's Death

Leaving Athens on campaign, Antony successfully subdued and annexed Armenia to Rome. Instead of returning to the city of Rome for his triumph, however, Antony held his parade and celebration in Alexandria with Cleopatra at his side. He formally ceded territories to Cleopatra and their children and proclaimed Caesarion (Cleopatra's older child by Julius Caesar) the true, legitimate heir to Caesar, thus publicly challenging Octavian's claim and right to rule.


Octavian, acting swiftly as usual, read a document in the senate, allegedly Antony's will, which, he claimed, proved Antony was preparing to take over Rome and which gave away precious Roman resources to Cleopatra and her children. Wisely deciding to avoid declaring war on Antony (which could have alienated some members of the senate and the populace) Octavian had the senate declare war on Cleopatra.
The forces of Antony and Cleopatra met those of Octavian, under the leadership of the General Agrippa, at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE where they were defeated by Agrippa's superior tactics and their own ineptness at waging war on the sea.For the next year, Antony would fight a series of small, futile battles with Octavian until, in 30 BCE, upon hearing that Cleopatra was dead, he stabbed himself.
The rumor was false, however, and, dying, he was brought to Cleopatra where he died in her arms. She killed herself shortly afterwards through poison. Octavian had Cleopatra's son, Caesarion, murdered and also killed Antony's oldest son. The two young twins were brought to Rome where they were raised by Octavia along with her own children by Antony, one of which, Antonia Major, would later be grandmother of the emperor Nero. Octavian was now the sole power of Rome and, in 27 BCE, took the name Augustus Caesar and initiated the birth of the Roman Empire.


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