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Cleopatra (51-30 BC) last Egyptian pharaoh

Portrait of Cleopatra, Egyptian souvenir drawn on papyrus.

Hardly a ancient woman can fascinate as much as the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra VII (born 69 BC) or queen of Ptolemaic Kingdom (founded in Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great in 323). There are still many legends around her. Many historians call her a wise and skillful ruler on the Nile, but others gave her the name of an unscrupulous and power-hungry seductress, who killed her several siblings in order to gain sole control of Egypt.

In the year 52 BC, 17-year-old Cleopatra was from her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes intended as co-regent. Then she gave herself the nickname Philopator, the father-loving. After the death of Ptolemy XII, the following year Cleopatra ruled as co-ruler with her younger brother and also husband Ptolemy XIII. She probably tried from the beginning to gain sole control of Egypt, which she succeeded in the meantime but Ptolemy XIII forced Cleopatra to flee from Alexandria to Syria in 49 BC. In Syria Cleopatra quickly managed to organize a army of Syrian and Arabian mercenaries in order to return power in Egypt but without any particular success. Meanwhile in Rome the struggle between Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey reach the final stage when in 6 June 48 BC in the Battle of Pharsalus, Pompey fled from the battlefield to Lesbos and then with support of Ptolemy XIII he came to Egypt.

The relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar

At the day of his birthday, Pompey was invited personally by Ptolemy XIII to a little celebration. In order to impressed Caesar, Ptolemy XIII ordered Pompey’s murder and three days after these events, Caesar came to Egypt. But Ptolemy’s hopes of gaining Caesar favor has been failed because Cleopatra secretly approach and charmed Caesar. In Alexandria, the revolt broke out, which endangered even Caesar’s life because he did not have enough army to defend.

Interpretation of Cleopatra and Caesar by artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). Source of image: Mezzo Mondo Fine Art

Caesar and Cleopatra became lovers and they were spend the winter together besieged in Alexandria until January 47 BC. In the spring, Roman reinforcements from Syria arrived just in time to save Caesar from  defeat in Egypt. At the battle of Nile in February 47 BC Roman legions destroyed the Egyptian army and Caesar placed Cleopatra and her younger brother (also her new husband) Ptolemy XIV for co-rulers. Caesar spend some time in Egypt with Cleopatra until April 47 BC and then he went to the Rome. On June 23, 47 BC Cleopatra gives birth to a son and gave him a name Caesarion. Cleopatra insisted that Caesarion was the son of Julius Caesar but Caesar apparently did not officially acknowledge him. When Caesar destroyed his opponents (Pompey supporters) in Rome, Cleopatra within her brother-husband Ptolemy XIV and son Caesarion came to Rome.

Again two lovers Caesar and Cleopatra spend time together in Caesar’s private villa beyond the Tiber River. Cleopatra was just in Rome when Caesar was murdered by senators on the “Ides of March” 44 BC. Soon after, Cleopatra returned to Alexandria with her family but Ptolemy XIV suddenly died. Ptolemy was probably poisoned personally by Cleopatra because after the Caesar’s death she lose any support of the Roman army and therefore she afraid to lose again power in Egypt. So, Cleopatra after the death of Ptolemy ruled over the Egypt with her infant son, Ptolemy XV Caesar.

The relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, 41 BC by artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). Source of image: Sotheby’s

After the death of Caesar, a civil war began in Rome and soon after three important military commanders Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius), Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Gaius Octavius made an alliance so called Second Triumvirate which was confirmed by the Assembly in Rome. The Assembly gave them powers for five years with the aim of ending the civil war in Rome. After the agreement, Marcus Antonius and Octavius went to the eastern provinces and they defeated the army of Brutus and Cassius (Caesar’s killers). Marriage between Antonius and Octavia should be tightened relations between Octavius and Antonius. After victory over Brutus and Cassius, Marcus Antonius punished the cities with huge taxes who supported Caesar’s killers, but on the other side he rewarded those who resisted. Soon after, Cleopatra came in Tarsos 41 BC where Marcus Antonius stationed his army. Cleopatra came to Marcus Antonius in order to show that accusation of her support for Cassius were false. Historical sources point out that Antonius was astonished at Cleopatra’s prudence and beauty, and soon he became her lover and  instrument in the struggle for power. According to order of Antonius, Arsinoe IV sister of Cleopatra were killed in Ephesus together within several others who were marked as enemies of Cleopatra. By a Senatorial decree, Marcus Antonius and sister of Gaius Octavius, Octavia got married in October 40 BC.

But the whole winter 40 BC Marcus Antonius where spend in Alexandria together with Cleopatra. In the spring 39 BC Antonius went to Rome and after that he did not saw Cleopatra in the next four years. Meanwhile, Cleopatra gave a birth to two daughters Antonia the Elder in 39 BC and Antonia Minor in 36 BC. Marcus Antonius divorced Octavia in 32 BC. The relations between Octavius and Antonius were even worse when Octavius learned that Antonius intended to set Cleopatra’s son Caesarion to a legal successor of Julius Caesar. This was the reason for the invasion of Gaius Octavius on Egypt in order to punish Antonius and Cleopatra. In the naval battle of Actium on the Ionian See in September 31 BC Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra suffered a defeat by the Roman Navy under the command of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. The first ones ships who leave the battle were ships under the command of Cleopatra. Marcus Antonius fall back to a smaller ship and managed to escape the battle, taking with him a pair of ships as escorts to assist the breakthrough of the Octavian lines. The lovers Cleopatra and Antonius fled to Egypt.

Battle of Actium, interpretation by painter Lorenzo A. Castro (XVII century)

The rest of Antonius fleet were not fortunate enough, the ships were captured by the navy of Octavius and crew were killed. The rest of Antonius army in Egypt left him and soon after he committed suicide because he wanted to avoid capture and humiliation. Some sources pointed that Antonius committed suicide because he already heard information that Cleopatra had been killed. After the death of Antonius, Cleopatra tried to negotiate for the terms of surrender but this time her charm and negotiations skills failed because Octavius did not want to negotiate and he just wanted to revenge. After the failure in negotiations, Cleopatra also committed suicide. Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius were buried together somewhere near Alexandria in Egypt but the location of their grave still remained unknown. Cleopatra and Anthony’s children were spared and taken to Rome but Cleopatra’s son Ceasarion was killed by the order of Octavius. Within Cleopatra’s death and the death of her successor Ceasarion (Ptolemy XV), Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt has fallen and Egypt became a province of Rome in 30 BC.

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