When it comes to recognizing great women of history, Cleopatra cannot be overlooked. Her legacy bridges upon the legendary. From her exotic appearance to her storied relationship with Romans Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, to her tragic death from fatal asp venom, few women in history left a legacy as pondered over as did Cleopatra. The following essay reflects on the life and achievements of Cleopatra and has been submitted by one of the professional essay writers at Ultius.
Women of history: Cleopatra
In August of 30 B.C., Cleopatra entered a mausoleum in Alexandria and committed suicide. She had spent the last two decades as the last independent Pharaoh of Egypt. Cleopatra battled her siblings ruthlessly for power, engaged the Roman emperor in military action, and carried on more than one passionate and well-known affair. She is one of the most loved and alluring figures in ancient history, constantly defying gender roles and female stereotypes, and her life was steeped in adventure and mystery.
Cleopatra was born in Egypt in 69 B.C. However, she was not Egyptian; her ancestry traces back to Macedonian Greece and one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Ptolemy I Soter. Ptolemy took over Egypt after Alexander’s death integrating ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures in his rule in a dynasty that lasted for almost three centuries (“Cleopatra: The Woman Behind the Name.”). Though she is not Egyptian, Cleopatra was well-loved by her subjects and was the first in her family line to learn Egyptian. Like many in her family line, she was the product of incest. In an effort to preserve her family bloodline, many of her ancestors were married to siblings or cousins and it is believed that her parents were brother and sister (Andrews). Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, died in 51 B.C., leaving the throne to the eighteen-year-old girl and her ten-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. The two married and ruled over an Egypt that suffered a number of problems, from their struggling economy to terrible famine (Crawford). Shortly after she and her brother assumed power, they struggled against complications in their relationship. Cleopatra fled to Syria raised an army and returned in 48 B.C. to dethrone her brother.
Cleopatra and Caesar
During the time when Cleopatra and her brother were entwined in battle, Julius Caesar and Pompey were in the midst of a civil war in Rome (“Cleopatra”). Pompey sought refuge in Egypt was but murdered on the order of Ptolemy. In an attempt to confront his rival, Caesar arrived in Egypt. There, he met and fell in love with Cleopatra. The story of their meeting is a well-known one. Cleopatra’s flair for the dramatic was in full effect when Caesar arrived. In order to hide their meeting from her brother, Cleopatra had herself wrapped in a carpet or linen sack and had it smuggled into Caesar’s personal quarters. Stories say she dazzled him in her royal garb and the two quickly became lovers. With Caesar at her side, she finally had enough military might to successfully overthrow her brother and take her place as sole ruler of Egypt. Caesar restored Cleopatra to the Egyptian throne and Ptolemy, fleeing, drowned in the Nile River.
The following year, Cleopatra bore Caesar’s son. This son would be heir to the Egyptian throne and Cleopatra was delighted.
With a son by her side, Cleopatra VII could abandon any thought she might have had of adopting the role of a female king and could develop instead a powerful new identity as a semi-divine mother: an identity that had the huge advantage of being instantly recognizable to both her Egyptian and her Greek subjects. (Jarus)
The boy was named Caesarion, though Caesar never acknowledged the boy as his own son. To this day, historians still debate the boy’s paternity. Cleopatra came to Rome with their child and Caesar made no attempt to hide their affair. He even erected a statue of Cleopatra in the temple of Venus Genetrix (Andrews). She even made an impact on everyday Greek life. Her exotic hairstyles and jewelry set with pearls became inspirations for fashion trends within Rome and the people copied her glamourous style. In 44 B.C., Caesar was murdered in the Roman senate and Cleopatra had to escape back to Egypt.
Marc Antony and Cleopatra
In 41 B.C., Marc Antony was part of the second Triumvirate that took over the Roman throne after the death of Caesar. He sent his men to retrieve Cleopatra and bring her back to him so that he could question her about her allegiance to Rome’s fallen ruler. She returned without struggle and made a grand and lavish entrance into the city. She arrived on a golden barge decorated with magnificent purple sails and rowed by silver oars. Cleopatra had her servants make her up to look like the goddess Aphrodite and she sat beneath a gilded canopy, surrounded by attendants who were dressed as cupids. Antony was immediately enchanted by her beauty and threw himself into a passionate love affair with the Egyptian pharaoh. Their relationship produced three children.
A relationship of pleasures
Though their relationship undoubtedly had a political component, the couple is also known to have genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. During the winter between 41-40 B.C., they lived in leisure and excess in Egypt. The two formed a drinking club called the “Inimitable Livers” that participated in drinking binges and sumptuous midnight feasts. The group held contests and elaborate games. Supposedly, a favorite game of the couple involved disguising themselves and walking through the streets, pranking its citizens (Andrews).
Mounting tension over rule of the empire
Much like Rome’s former ruler and Cleopatra’s previous lover, Antony was locked in a battle for control over Rome. His rival was Gaius Octavius, better known as Caesar Augustus, nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. When Octavius and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus set their sights on the second Triumvirate, Antony saw an opportunity for financial gain and military support to secure his position in the beautiful Cleopatra. She agreed to help Antony under the condition that he return Egypt’s eastern empire, including large areas of Syria and Lebanon, to her control. The couple returned to Alexandria in 34 B.C. with much grandeur and flair. Countless people swarmed the procession, desperate to catch a glimpse of the couple on their golden thrones beside their children. Antony provoked Caesar by declaring Caesarion to be the true heir of Caesar over Octavian. Octavian fought back by announcing that he had seized the will of Antony and that Antony had turned over Rome to Cleopatra who would make Alexandria the new capital of Rome (“Cleopatra VII”).
A doomed campaign
In 31 B.C., Cleopatra and Antony decided to combine their military forces and march on Octavian in a vicious sea battle on the Grecian west coast. Unfortunately for the Pharaoh and her lover, though, the attack was detrimental to their forces. While Antony’s ships were larger and held more troops, they were no match for Octavian’s ships’ superior maneuvering and the greater experience of his crew. Octavian gained control of the sea and his troops marched on Alexandria. Antony was able to win a minor land battle, but they were trapped. Antony was delivered the news that Cleopatra had died. This was not true, but Antony was so distraught at the news of the death of his love that he stabbed himself and died. History reports that upon hearing of the death of his wife, he said:
“I am not pained to be bereft of you, for at once I will be where you are, but it does pain me that I, as a commander, am revealed to be inferior to a woman in courage.” (Jarus).
Cleopatra was equally upset when she heard that Antony had died that she entered the mausoleum and allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (“Cleopatra VII”). Though this cause of her death was widely accepted for many years, some historians feel that that she may have died another way. The Pharaoh was known to carry a comb impregnated with deadly venom and many believe that she used this comb or a pin dipped in venom to kill herself. The two share a burial site and Egypt, once again, became part of the Roman Empire.
After her death, Octavian had Caesarion murdered. He spared Cleopatra’s other three children, though, and they were sent to live with Octavian’s sister Octavia, who was previously married to Antony. Two of their children died during childhood. The third, Cleopatra Selene, aged into adulthood and was married to Juba II, a protégé of Octavian who would later become ruler of Numidia, modern-day Algeria. Cleopatra’s daughter gifted her new kingdom with Egyptian art and the Greek culture and language.
More than beauty
Modern history often paints Cleopatra as an immoral temptress who wielded her sexual appeal like a weapon. During her lifetime, in fact, Roman propaganda painted her this way in order to ensure the people’s dislike for her. Philosopher Plutarch described her beauty as:
“not, in and of itself, completely incomparable, nor was it the sort that would astound those who saw her; but interaction with her was captivating, and her appearance, along with her persuasiveness in discussion and her character that accompanied every interchange, was stimulating.” (Jarus).
But Cleopatra was much more intelligent than most people know. History tells us that she spoke as many as a dozen languages and had been educated in:
Sources described her as a leader:
“who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.” (Andrews).
Some believe that she was not as beautiful as we like to think, as coins with her portrait show a woman with a large, hooked nose and manly feature (Stilo). Still, there are historians that believe that she portrayed herself in this way on purpose in order to be taken more seriously as a ruler.
Cleopatra and her life have been an enthralling subject to historians and the general public alike. One of the things that make her story so captivating is that she was a woman living in a world dominated by males and served as Pharaoh, a position that was traditionally held by men. Despite this, she was able to run a country during internal and external turmoil, proving herself to be a powerful leader amongst her male counterparts. Her love affairs with Caesar and Marc Antony inspired William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra in 1607 and she has been played by movie versions of her life by Theda Bara in 1917, Claudette Colbert in 1934, and Elizabeth Taylor in 1963. The 1963 version starring Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most expensive movies of all time (Andrews). Due to script problems and production obstacles, the budget abruptly rose from two million to forty-four million, including over two hundred thousand dollars for Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe alone. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive movie ever made (Andrews) and nearly bankrupted the studio despite making a lot of money in the box office.
Cleopatra is one of history’s most famous and admired figures. Her beauty, charm, and intellect were captivating and she was a formidable force on the Egyptian throne. Despite having to rule a country at a young age through many hardships and obstacles, she continuously persevered against the odds and established herself as a powerful figure of authority in a male-dominated position and world. The last true Pharaoh of Egypt, she stood strong in the face of countless difficulties and remains a strong, fearless female figure of history.
Andrews, Evan. “10 Little-Known Facts About Cleopatra.” History. A&E Television Networks, 12 August 2015. Web. 22 May 2016. .
“Cleopatra.” History. A&E Telivision Networks, 2016. Web. 22 May 2016. .
“Cleopatra VII.” Biography. A&E Television Networks, LLC., 2016. Web. 22 May 2016. .
“Cleopatra: The Woman Behind the Name.” Tour Egypt. Tour Egypt, 2013. Web. 22 May 2016. .
Crawford, Amy. “Who Was Cleopatra?” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian, 31 Mar. 2007. Web. 22 May 2016. .
Jarus, Owen. “Cleopatra: Facts & Biography.” Live Science. Purch, 13 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 May 2016. .
Stilo, Aelius. “Was Cleopatra Beautiful?” University of Chicago, n.d. Web. 22 May 2016. .