Who was Cleopatra? Her life, her love affairs and her children, plus 6 little-known facts

Cleopatra is one of the best-known women in history, famed for her supposed beauty and intellect, and her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Explore her incredible life, her quest her for power and her untimely end

c50 BC, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, the last and most famous of the Ptolemaic dynasty. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Cleopatra VII: a biography

Born: c69 BC

Died: 30 BC

Reigned: She assumed control of Egypt in 51 BC after the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, intially co-ruling with her brother XIII. Her reign ended with her death in 30 BC.

Known for: Bring the last pharaoh of Egypt, being a fabled beauty,  her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and – alongside Mark Antony – waging a war on Rome, which she ultimately lost.

Outside Europe, in Africa and in Islamic tradition, she was remembered very differently. Arab writers refer to her as a scholar, and 400 years after her death a cult statue of Cleopatra was being honoured at Philae, a religious centre that also attracted pilgrims from further south, outside Egypt.

Cause of death: Took her own life, possibly with poison. Legend has it that she encouraged a snake to bite her.

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Cleopatra VII: Ancient Egypt’s most famous daughter, and its last active Pharaoh. A woman immortalised in film, on canvas and in print. An enigmatic heroine to whom William Shakespeare devoted one of his greatest tragedies. Her story is one that has been retold throughout history – full of romance and love, riches and betrayal. But beneath the gold and glamour lies a far darker tale of sibling rivalry taken to the extreme, and a thirst for power that would change the course of history.

Born c69 BC, Cleopatra was the third of a possible six children, all of whom shared a common father, Ptolemy XII. The Ptolemaic dynasty, a Macedonian-Greek royal family that had ties to Alexander the Great, had ruled Egypt since 305 BC. Traditionally male rulers took the name Ptolemy, while Ptolemaic Queens were usually named Cleopatra, Arsinoë or Berenice.

How did Cleopatra become queen?

For Cleopatra, life as a royal daughter was one of luxury. The Egyptian capital Alexandria, the seat of Ptolemaic power, was a thriving cultural centre, attracting scholars, artists and philosophers from all over the world. It was also home to the great Pharos of Alexandria – the 137-metre-tall lighthouse that towered over the city and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Cleopatra’s first taste of power came at the tender age of 14, when she was made co-regent with her father, following his restoration to the throne after three years in exile, albeit with limited powers. Ptolemy XII’s return to the throne had cost Cleopatra’s elder sister, Berenice – who had seized power in his absence – her life.

There may have been a further elder sister, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, but she too had died by this point. All of this meant that it was 18-year-old Cleopatra who became co-regent with her brother, Ptolemy XIII (aged ten), when her father died in March 51 BC.

In true pharaonic tradition, which aimed to keep the royal bloodline as pure as possible, Cleopatra married her younger brother and co-ruler, but it soon became clear that she had no intention of sharing power with him. Within months, Ptolemy XIII’s name had been dropped from official documents and Cleopatra’s face appeared alone on coins.

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Carved wall scene depicting Cleopatra at Dendera Temple

Cleopatra is often portrayed by Hollywood as a glamorous femme fatale. Mary Hamer argues that most of what we think we know about Cleopatra is merely the echo of Roman propaganda. Here, she reveals six lesser-know facts about the Egyptian ruler…

 

Cleopatra made an ally of Julius Caesar, who helped to establish her on the throne

She then invited him to join her on a voyage up the Nile, and when she subsequently gave birth to a son, she named the baby Caesarion – ‘little Caesar’.

In Rome this caused a scandal. This was, firstly, because Egypt and its pleasure-loving culture were despised as decadent. But it was also because Caesar had no other sons – though he was married to Calpurnia, and had had two wives before her – and he had just made himself the most powerful man in Rome. Elite Romans were meant to share power, but Caesar seemed to want to be supreme, like a monarch. It was a doubly unbearable prospect: Caesarion, an Egyptian, just might grow up to claim to rule over Rome as Caesar’s heir.

 

Fantasies about Cleopatra’s beauty are just that

Plutarch, the Greek biographer of Mark Antony, claimed it wasn’t so much her looks that were so compelling, but her conversation and her intelligence.

Cleopatra took control of the way she appeared, coming across differently according to political need. For example, at ceremonial events she would appear dressed as the goddess Isis: it was common for Egyptian rulers to identify themselves with an established deity. On her coins minted in Egypt, meanwhile, she chose to be shown with her father’s strong jaw line, to emphasise her inherited right to rule.

Sculptures don’t give us much of a clue to her looks either: there are two or three heads in the classical style, but also a number of full-length statues in Egyptian style, and her appearance in these is quite different.

A coin with the head of Cleopatra. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
A coin with the head of Cleopatra. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

 

Cleopatra was living in Rome, as the mistress of Julius Caesar, at the time that he was assassinated

Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC meant Cleopatra herself was in danger, so she left at once. With her little son, Caesarion, she had been living in a palace of her own on the other side of the river Tiber from Caesar’s household (though it is likely she hadn’t taken up permanent residence there, but returned on regular visits from Egypt).

Not surprisingly, Cleopatra had been much disliked in a city that had got rid of its kings, for she’d insisted on being addressed as ‘queen’. It can’t have helped that to honour her, Caesar had placed a statue of Cleopatra covered in gold in the temple of Venus Genetrix – the goddess who brings forth life, who was held in high regard by his family.

 

Cleopatra was a mother as well as the ruler of Egypt

She had Caesarion, her eldest son, represented on the temple wall at Dendera alongside her, as sharing her rule. After her death, the Roman emperor Augustus lured Caesarion back with promises of power, only to have him killed. He was aged 16 or 17, though some sources say he was as young as 14.

Mark Antony was the father of Cleopatra’s other children, Ptolemy Philadelphus and the twins, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios. The twins were aged 10 and Ptolemy six when their mother died. They were taken to Rome and treated well in the household of Mark Antony’s widow, Octavia, where they were educated.

The adult Cleopatra Selene was married to Juba, a minor king, and sent to rule with him over Mauretania. She gave birth to another Ptolemy – Cleopatra’s only known grandchild. He died in adulthood by order of his cousin, Caligula, so none of Cleopatra’s descendants lived to inherit Egypt.

A colossal head of Caesarion (Little Caesar), the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, from the 1st century BC. The head went on show in Los Angeles in 2012. (Photo by World History Archive / Alamy)
A colossal head of Caesarion (Little Caesar), the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, from the 1st century BC. The head went on show in Los Angeles in 2012. (Photo by World History Archive / Alamy)

 

When we refer to the eighth month as ‘August’, we are celebrating the defeat and death of Cleopatra

Augustus founded his reign on the defeat of Cleopatra. When he had the chance to have a month named in his own honour, instead of choosing September – the month of his birth – he chose the eighth month, in which Cleopatra died, to create a yearly reminder of her defeat.

Augustus would have liked to lead Cleopatra as a captive through Rome, as other generals did with their prisoners, in the formal triumphs that celebrated their victories. But she killed herself to prevent that.

Cleopatra didn’t die for love. Like Mark Antony, who killed himself because there was no longer a place of honour for him in the world, Cleopatra chose to die rather than suffer the violence of being paraded, shamed and helpless, through Rome. Augustus had to make do with an image of her that was carried through the streets instead.

 

Cleopatra’s name was Greek, but it doesn’t mean that she was

Cleopatra’s family was descended from the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who had picked up Egypt in the shareout after Alexander died. But 250 years then passed before Cleopatra was born – 12 generations, with all their love affairs and secret assignations.

Today we know that at least one child in 10 is not attributed to their correct biological father – “Momma’s baby, Poppa’s maybe”, as they say. Egypt’s population included people of many different ethnicities, and naturally that included Africans, since Egypt was a part of Africa. So it’s not at all unlikely that long before Cleopatra was born, her Greek heritage had become mixed with other strains. And since the identity of her own grandmother is unknown, it is foolish to think that we’re sure of her racial identity.

Mary Hamer is the author of Signs of Cleopatra: Reading an Icon Historically (Liverpool University Press, 2008)


Cleopatra’s reign: the key moments

51 BC | Ptolemy XII dies

Having recovered his throne with Roman help in c55 BC, Ptolemy XII dies, leaving Egypt with considerable debts. Before his death, he declares that Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII are to co-rule.

48 BC | Cleopatra seduces Julius Caesar

Desperate to enlist Rome’s help to restore her to the throne, the banished Cleopatra smuggles herself into the presence of Julius Caesar, allegedly being delivered to him in a bed-sack.

Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony: how the last pharaoh’s love affairs shaped Ancient Egypt’s fate

Explore Cleopatra’s relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony – and why they had such fundamental consequences for both Egypt and Rome…

Julius Caesar meets Cleopatra in this 18th-century painting

47 BC | Caesar’s son is born

Cleopatra gives birth to her first child, whom she names Ptolemy Caesar – known as Caesarion. Although named after his father, Caesarion’s claim to Rome is never acknowledged by Julius Caesar.

41 BC | Cleopatra meets Mark Antony

After initially refusing Roman General Mark Antony’s requests for a meeting, Cleopatra travels to Tarsus where the two meet for the first time. Antony is keen to secure Egypt’s financial help with his military campaigns. He is immediately smitten with the Egyptian Queen’s charm and beauty.

40 BC | Cleopatra bears twins

Cleopatra gives birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, fathered by Mark Antony. After Cleopatra’s surrender and suicide in 31 BC, the pair are captured by Octavian and paraded through Rome in gold chains, behind an effigy of their mother.

37 BC | The lovers are married

After separating from his wife Octavia (sister of Octavian), Antony meets Cleopatra in Syria and the pair are said to have married. A third child, Ptolemy Philadelphus, is born the following year.

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33 BC | A crisis looms

Relations between Octavian and Antony reached crisis point in 33 BC, when the Roman Senate declared war on Egypt.

30 BC | Mark Antony is defeated

Following humiliating defeat at the Battle of Actium by Octavian (later Augustus) and a subsequent battle in Alexandria, Mark Antony attempts suicide. He is brought to Cleopatra’s hiding place where he soon dies.

30 BC | Cleopatra takes her own life

Unable to contemplate life as a prisoner of Rome, and without the protection of her Roman lover, Cleopatra takes her own life. According to legend, she is bitten by a poisonous snake, which kills her.

The battle of Actium, 31 BC: the beginning of the end for Mark Antony and Cleopatra

Military historian Julian Humphrys explains how this naval clash off the Greek coast presaged both the end of the Roman Republic and the deaths of one history’s most famous couples…

Mural of the battle of Actium from 1600

This article was first published on HistoryExtra in April 2015 and has been updated with content published in BBC History Revealed in 2014