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Cleopatra VII

"Cleopatra" - Kelley McMorris

Arguably the most famous ruler in Egyptian history, Cleopatra VII Philopator was the last queen of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. After her death, Egypt ceased to exist as an independent state, and was absorbed into the Roman Empire under the leadership of Augustus (Octavian). Her life was as glamorous and iconic as you might imagine, but also fraught with deception, violence, and death.

Born in 69 B.C.E. to Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes and Queen Cleopatra Tryphaena, Cleopatra had four siblings: an older sister named Berenice, a younger sister named Arsinoe, and two younger brothers both named Ptolemy. Hailing from a long line of powerful Ptolemaic queens, Cleopatra was given an incredibly thorough education. Tutored by Alexandria's best and brightest, she could recite Homer from memory, was gifted in public speaking, and is recorded as being fluent in nine languages. Interestingly, Cleopatra VII is the first and only Ptolemaic ruler to have ever bothered learning Egyptian (Demotic, to be precise), the language of the country over which she would one day reign.

In 51 B.C.E., Cleopatra assumed the throne at only seventeen, acting as co-regent to her ten-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. By this point, older sister Berenice was out of the picture, having been executed by her father, Ptolemy Auletes, for taking part in a coup against him. Following ancient Egyptian and Ptolemaic customs, Cleopatra married her brother (in this case, a purely symbolic gesture). The boy king despised his older sister: from the beginning of their joint reign, Cleopatra had chosen to act as a sole ruler and to essentially ignore the existence of her co-regent, a fact her brother found to be quite vexing. This culminated in 48 B.C.E., when Ptolemy forced Cleopatra into exile and gained complete control over Egypt.

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: the Egyptian and Roman politics of Cleopatra's day can get incredibly complicated, so I'm going to try to condense things as much as possible. Essentially, when Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII came to power, the two major players in the Roman political arena were Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey). To put it lightly, they didn't like one another. This eventually evolved into a civil war and Egypt, as a close ally of Rome, had to pick a side. At this point, Cleopatra was still in power, and out of loyalty to her father sided with Pompey. Following her exile, Ptolemy XIII decided that he didn't quite like Pompey, and therefore had the Roman executed and his severed, pickled head presented to Caesar on a platter.

Not long after, Cleopatra burst back onto the scene in a pretty spectacular fashion. Concealed in a sack, (or, according to another account, rolled up in a carpet,) Cleopatra was smuggled into the palace where Caesar was staying, and then popped out in front of him, surprising the general and making a unique, unbeatable first impression. Through a bit of negotiation, Cleopatra successfully convinced Caesar to join her side in removing Ptolemy from power: the boy king was killed in 47 B.C.E. and Caesar established Cleopatra and her youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV, as the new rulers of Egypt. The twenty-one-year-old queen and the fifty-two-year-old statesman hit it off; contrary to popular belief, Cleopatra was not as classically beautiful as we think she was, and Caesar's attraction to her was most probably based on her charisma, confidence, and intelligence. In 46 B.C.E. Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar's son, Ptolemy Caesar (Caesarion), and later that year traveled to Rome to stay with Caesar on his estate (which must have been really awkward for his wife). Caesar and Cleopatra's relationship was anything but secret: Caesar had a golden statue of her erected in a shrine to Venus in Rome, and the name of her son, "Caesarion," literally means "Little Caesar."

Following Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C.E., Cleopatra left Rome and returned to Egypt. It's around this time all record of Ptolemy XIV disappears: it's assumed he was poisoned by his sister, allowing her to proclaim Caesarion as her co-regent in Ptolemy's place. Cleopatra began the process of deifying herself, aligning herself with the goddess Isis and Caesarion with Isis's son, Horus. In 41 B.C.E. she was summoned to Anatolia by Marc Antony (Caesar's friend and ally), and per usual, arrived in style, ferried down the river in an opulent barge dressed as Isis/Aphrodite. She soon became Antony's lover, and the couple had three children together: twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and a younger son named (you guessed it) Ptolemy Philadelphus. Cleopatra attempted, with the aid of Egypt's military, to help Marc Antony defeat Octavian (later Augustus), Caesar's heir and the first Emperor of Rome. Octavian had his sights set on assimilating Egypt into the empire as a Roman province, and wanted to take Marc Antony and Cleopatra down in the process. Following their defeat at the Battle of Actium, this was all too easy. In 30 B.C.E., Marc Antony fled to Egypt and committed suicide in Cleopatra's arms. With Octavian's forces closing in, she soon followed suit: whether Cleopatra's end came from the deadly bite of an asp or a poisoned comb, we'll never know for sure. With her death, Egypt lost all sovereignity. The Ptolemaic Dynasty had come to its end, ushering in a new era for Egypt under Roman dominion.

** Cover photo/illustration credit to Kelley McMorris.

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