Cleopatra VII, Last of Ptolemies, Reigns

Cleopatra VII became joint ruler of Egypt with her brother, Ptolemy XIII; her reign signified the nexus of Roman and Hellenistic cultures and the end of the Greek domination of Egypt.

Summary of Event

Numerous accounts have been propagated about Cleopatra VII since her life, many of them based on myth or fiction rather than fact. The Egyptian queen has fascinated European artists and writers for many epochs. Cleopatra VII
Caesar, Julius
Antony, Marc

Cleopatra hailed from the Lagides family, which entrenched itself as a ruling class monarchy in ancient Egypt starting in 323 b.c.e., with Ptolemy (later Ptolemy Soter), son of Lagos and a close associate of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy established a kingdom that extended over the eastern Mediterranean, with Alexandria as its capital. Though the Hellenistic culture was all encompassing in most Greek colonies, the Egyptians refused to surrender their indigenous culture and tenaciously held on to their autochthonous practices and mores.

The Ptolemaic era was characterized by formidable queens, starting with Ptolemy II Philadelphus’s sister and consort Arsinoe II Philadelphus around 274 b.c.e. Cleopatra VII entered the queenship as part of this continuity of strong queens. She was probably born around 69 b.c.e., the daughter and third child of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos (Auletes). She was distinctive among her preceding monarchical peers in that she possessed a superlative intellect and received a rigorous education. Benefitting from the Egyptian pharaonic tradition in which girls received an education identical to that of boys, she read the epic poetry of Homer, the tragedies of Euripides, the comedies of Menander, and the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides. She studied arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and medicine. She mastered several languages, including the indigenous Egyptian language, Mdw Ntr, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Ethiopian, Median, Partian, and Latin, enabling her to be a skilled diplomat with political savvy. In contrast, not one of her predecessors spoke the Egyptian language.

The court of Cleopatra VII.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Cleopatra VII co-ruled with her father, Ptolemy XII. Following his death, he was succeeded by Ptolemy XIII. Adhering to the tradition of her predecessors, Cleopatra VII co-ruled by edicts and decrees, aided by courtiers and close associates. Their rule was initially characterized by perennial obstacles: The indigenous Egyptians were asserting rebellious nationalist sentiment against the Greek monarchy; poverty was rife, with the peasantry decimated by famine; the Egyptian currency had been significantly devalued; and most troubling of all, Rome had become the principal sustainer of Egypt. The Ptolemaic Empire, which had once encompassed places as far as Asia Minor in the north and Syria in the east, had become confined to Egypt alone. Compounding these difficulties were rivalries from Cleopatra VII’s sister, Arsinoe, who desired the throne, and her brother-husband, who had grown hostile to her. Skillfully exercising her political mettle, she devalued the currency by a third to make exports more attractive, initiated social and land reforms, and launched a strategy to assuage Rome so that war would be prevented. She was challenged by the boy-king Ptolemy XIII, who was placed under the tutelage of the Roman leader, Pompey the Great, following the military assistance extended by Ptolemy XIII to Pompey against Julius Caesar. Following disputes between Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII, she was removed from the throne and forced to flee to Syria in 48 b.c.e.

In early June, 48 b.c.e., Caesar and his troops routed Pompey at Pharsalus in Thessaly. Pompey fled to Egypt, hoping to exact revenge on Caesar with help from Ptolemy XIII. However, he was quickly assassinated. Soon thereafter, Caesar sailed into Alexandria. Caesar treacherously sought to obtain financial returns from occupying Alexandria, realizing that Egypt’s riches were vast. He forced Ptolemy XIII to withdraw his army from the frontier, leaving the ruler little choice as he had become a prisoner of Caesar’s Roman troops.

When Cleopatra heard that Caesar was in Alexandria, she was determined to see him but realized that Achillas, commander of the Egyptian forces, would not permit her return. She thus surreptitiously bundled herself into a rolled-up carpet, and with the aid of a faithful servant, Apollodorus, was carried, undetected, into Caesar’s quarters. The Roman general was initially shocked but captivated by both Cleopatra VII’s wit and beauty. However, he insisted that he arbitrate between Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII. Caesar publicly read the testament from Ptolemy XIII in view of the two rulers and the assembly of people, emphasizing the role that Rome was accorded in the administration of Egypt. He assured the gathering that Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII were the joint rulers of Egypt, and declared that he was restoring the island of Cyprus to Egypt, to be jointly ruled by the younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, and his sister, Berenice. Caesar thus returned control of a land that Rome had controlled for a decade, underscoring the personal relationship that quickly developed between Cleopatra VII and him. Cleopatra VII had successfully manipulated the leader of the strongest empire in the world at that time, to her defense.

Caesar returned to Rome to continue with his colonial conquests. Cleopatra VII gave birth to a son named Ptolemy Caesar, even though there is no clear evidence that the child was fathered by Caesar. Caesar was killed in 44 b.c.e.

Cleopatra VII returned to Alexandria to the duty of ruling. She devoted the following three years to administering rule over Egypt, even in the face of the dwindling waters of the Nile. She was asked to provide and did deliver assistance to both Cassius and Marcus Junius Brutus, Caesar’s assassins, and to Marc Antony, Caesar’s consul, who teamed up with Octavius, Caesar’s nineteen-year-old son and adopted nephew.

Thus began a long relationship of political interdependence and sexual passion between Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony, who left his wife, Fulvia, to spend time with Cleopatra in Alexandria. Antony married Octavius’s sister, Octavia, following Fulvia’s death and had an ongoing relationship with Cleopatra VII, who had three children by him. Cleopatra, fully conscious of the fragile political path she was treading with Antony, was nevertheless an efficient and rigorous ruler and a firm negotiator. She urged Antony to give her control over the lands of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and southern Turkey. Antony, out of love for Cleopatra, agreed to her demands.

In 35 b.c.e., Antony decided to throw his lot in with Cleopatra and abandoned Octavia. Octavius convinced the Roman citizenry that Antony was an enemy of Rome and intended to establish a capital in Alexandria. In 32, Octavius declared war against Antony and Cleopatra. Soon, with five hundred warships, seventy-five thousand legionnaires, twenty-five thousand light armed infantry, and twelve thousand cavalry, Agrippa, Octavius’s leading skilled war admiral, destroyed much of Cleopatra VII’s and Antony’s warfleet. Octavius was able to secure new territory as he conquered Asia Minor and defeated his opponents at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31. In the spring of 30, Octavius approached Egypt. On August 1, 30, the entire Egyptian fleet surrendered to Octavius. Antony stabbed himself and died in Cleopatra VII’s arms. She, in turn, attempted to stab herself with a hidden dagger but was overpowered and taken prisoner. Later, when she asked the man guarding her to take a letter to Octavius, she killed herself, evidenced only by two scratch marks on her body. The cause was not known, although some speculated that it was the bite of a smuggled poisonous asp that killed her.


Cleopatra VII was the strongest of the Ptolemaic rulers, and her influence was recorded in inscriptions on coins used in Hellenic Egypt. Fifteen coin issues bore Cleopatra VII’s head. Her reign marked the culmination of the Ptolemaic era in Egypt and symbolized the confluence of both religious authority and political power. From the wall relief at Dendera, evidence indicates that she made religious offerings to the Egyptian deities of the temple, Hathor, often associated with Isis, and her son, Harsomtus. Though she was of the Hellenistic monarchical tradition, she still saw fit to identify with the religio-political traditions of classical ancient Egypt.

Further Reading

  • Chauveau, Michael. Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. A concise academic text that provides a factual account and balanced analysis of Cleopatra VII’s reign.
  • Flamarion, Edith. Cleopatra: From History to Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Though this book focuses heavily on the legend of Cleopatra, with extensive reference to historical paintings and film depictions, it does offer some valuable historical material on Cleopatra VII.
  • Grant, Michael. From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. An informative work that illuminates the cultural and historical complexity of the Hellenistic world that spawned the Ptolemy era and Cleopatra VII’s intriguing reign.
  • Hamer, Mary. Signs of Cleopatra: History, Politics, Representation. New York: Routledge, 1993. An important work discussing issues of gender dynamics and political depiction of Cleopatra VII, both in Egyptian history and European culture.
  • Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams, and Distortions. New York: Harper and Row, 1990. This is an insightful work clarifying issues of fiction from fact with regard to Cleopatra VII.
  • Weigall, Arthur. The Life and Times of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt: A Study in the Origin of the Roman Empire. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. This work attempts to provide a sensible portrait of Cleopatra VII and furnishes a historical backdrop of the Egypto-Roman monarchy of the first century b.c.e.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa; Marc Antony; Arsinoe II Philadelphus; Augustus; Berenice II; Julius Caesar; Cleopatra VII; Pompey the Great; Ptolemy Soter. Cleopatra VII