Cleopatra: what is the real legacy of the last pharaoh?

For more than 2,000 years Cleopatra VII, final ruler of Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty, has been portrayed as a manipulative but tragic beauty. Yet, as Joann Fletcher reveals, such simplistic portrayals obscure her true legacy as a strong, politically astute monarch

Carved wall scene depicting Cleopatra at Dendera Temple

On 22 March 51 BC, huge crowds gathered along the Nile at Thebes (modern Luxor), awaiting the arrival of a procession like no other they had seen before. At the centre of the cavalcade was the Buchis bull alongside the newly crowned pharaoh, Cleopatra. The bull was an earthly embodiment of Egypt’s chief male deities, so the ancient rites allowed her to demonstrate her own status as Egypt’s living goddess Isis, whose mystical union with such sacred creatures was believed to sustain the land’s fertility.

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Aged only 17, the young female pharaoh was the first monarch in living memory to actively participate in these ceremonies, hence the public reaction. For as the glamorous teenage monarch and the great bull were led in procession to the Nile, contemporary reports note that they were greeted by crowds “united in drunkenness and the noise was heard in heaven… as for the ruler, everyone was able to see her”. Cleopatra, “Lady of the Two Lands, the goddess… rowed him [the bull] in the barque of Amun” at the head of a great flotilla.

Scene from the film Cleopatra (1963), starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Richard Burton as Mark Antony and Elizabeth Taylor as the eponymous monarch in Cleopatra (1963) – a film that still colours views of her today (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

This dramatic moment was only one of many such events in a life still obscured by Roman propaganda, Elizabethan drama and Elizabeth Taylor. The woman so often depicted as nothing but a beautiful yet highly immoral Egyptian queen was actually very different: she was attractive as much for her character as her face, immoral only in the writings of her enemies, predominantly Greek by descent, and no mere queen but a pharaoh with full royal titles who ruled not only Egypt but lands far beyond the Nile.

Pharaonic family tree

These same lands that had once been part of Egypt’s ancient empire had been fought over by a succession of powers throughout the first millennium BC. The intermittent occupation of Egypt by Persia ended only when Macedonian king Alexander the Great liberated Egypt in 332 BC. He was then crowned pharaoh, and founded Egypt’s new capital, Alexandria, before travelling east to take over the rest of Persia’s empire.

After Alexander’s death aged just 32, his empire was carved up and his rumoured half-brother Ptolemy seized Egypt. Here he established a line of Greek pharaohs whose pattern of joint male-female rule, modelled on Greek gods Zeus and Hera and the twin Egyptian deities Osiris and Isis, lasted for over 200 years.

During this time wealthy Egypt grew ever more attractive to Rome, and the Ptolemies’ murderous exploits increasingly destabilised their country. This was the environment into which Cleopatra VII was born in 69 BC. Although the identity of her mother is still unknown, Cleopatra and her younger siblings were all hailed as gods from birth. When their father Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, having left instructions that Cleopatra was to rule jointly with her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII, she suppressed the news to avoid sharing the throne with a co-ruler controlled by his Greek courtiers.

Having first secured her position in Alexandria, she travelled south to gain the support of her Egyptian subjects, participating in temple rites and speaking to them directly in their own language. For she was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn Egyptian in addition to Greek and seven other languages – little wonder later Egyptian historians remembered her as the “virtuous scholar”.

The attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation… was something bewitching

She was also a determined leader. When her brother’s supporters ousted her in 49 BC, she prepared to retake her throne with a mercenary army. Hostilities were prevented only when Roman general Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria, seeking money the Ptolemies owed to Rome and ordering the two monarchs to appear before him. When young Ptolemy XIII declared Cleopatra a traitor and himself sole ruler, Caesar’s request for the outstanding debt so outraged his supporters that they besieged the palace.

Needing to put her case to Caesar, Cleopatra waited for nightfall before crossing enemy lines, according to legend rolling herself in a carpet or bedcover to be carried into the palace. Since ancient bed linen doubled as clothing, it seems more likely that she simply slipped into the palace wearing the voluminous robes fashionable at the time, drawn veil-like across the face.

So, rather than springing out of a carpet ‘Carry On’ style, she may simply have uncovered her face – which itself continues to divide opinion. Claims that she was no great beauty, based on coin portraits, ignore surviving portrait busts that support ancient sources claiming that “the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation… was something bewitching”.

It certainly affected Caesar, who restored her to the throne alongside her brother, Ptolemy XIII – much to the dismay of his faction, whose failed attempt to assassinate both Caesar and Cleopatra led to all-out war. Ptolemy drowned during the attack, so Cleopatra was reinstated alongside her remaining brother, 12-year-old Ptolemy XIV.

Later Arab sources claim she married Caesar, and soon she was pregnant, giving birth in June 47 BC. Though her son held the dynastic name Ptolemy, he was also known as Caesarion – Little Caesar – to acknowledge a father already planning legislation back in Rome to allow him more than one wife. He intended to gain an heir, though according to Roman law he already had one – his 17-year-old great-nephew Octavian.

Caesar then installed Cleopatra in his villa in Rome, where she had a real impact, both as a style icon – her appearance was widely copied – and politically: the presence of a foreign woman wielding absolute power as monarch outraged Caesar’s republican enemies. So did the life-sized gold statue of her that Caesar set up in his new temple to Venus in the Forum: no living individual had ever been portrayed in this way in Rome.

Rumours began to circulate that Caesar wanted to transfer government to Alexandria. When the senate awarded him a gold throne and powers for life, monarch in all but name, 60 senators conspired and stabbed him to death in March 44 BC, assuming that Rome would then return to their republican ideal.

Cleopatra's Banquet (c1675), by Gérard de Lairesse
Cleopatra’s Banquet (c1675), by Gérard de Lairesse, portrays a legendary moment when Cleopatra won her bet with Mark Antony to host the most expensive banquet, dissolving one of her priceless pearl earrings in wine-vinegar which she then drank (Sepia Times/Getty Images)

Instead, the assassination had quite the opposite result. Cleopatra returned to Egypt, eliminating her brother and making young Caesarion her co-ruler. Caesar’s deputy, Mark Antony, acted swiftly to restore order, joining forces with Octavian. After defeating Caesar’s assassins, Antony began to reorganise Rome’s client kingdoms, and requested Cleopatra’s attendance at a summit meeting in Tarsus (now in Turkey).

She arrived aboard her golden ship of state, showing that she alone had the resources Antony needed to take sole control of the Roman world. He accepted her invitation to spend the winter with her in Egypt, where they toured the ancient sites, went hunting and sea fishing, and set up an exclusive dining club with ever-more lavish banquets.

Empire restored

By February 40 BC, Cleopatra was pregnant by Antony, and gave birth to twins, Alexander and Cleopatra. Needing to secure his alliance with Octavian, Antony sealed this with a diplomatic marriage to Octavian’s sister, who bore him a daughter. Yet throughout this time Cleopatra continued to send Antony intelligence reports detailing encroachment by Parthia (former Persia) on Rome’s eastern territories. Realising he could tackle this threat only with Cleopatra’s financial support, Antony proposed marriage, offering surely the greatest wedding present of all time – lands stretching from modern Turkey to Syria, Phoenicia, Lebanon, Crete, Judaea and the Arab lands of Jordan.

Having regained Egypt’s empire through this marriage, Cleopatra was soon pregnant again, giving birth to her fourth child, Ptolemy Philadelphus, in September 36 BC. Meanwhile, Antony marched on Parthia, eventually returning to Alexandria to present Cleopatra with all the spoils of war. He also listed the territories bestowed upon her and their three children in the name of Rome, and declared her eldest child, Caesarion, sole legitimate heir of Julius Caesar.

Bronze bust of Julius Caesar from the first century BC
A first-century BC bronze bust of Julius Caesar, whose relationship with Cleopatra in Rome fuelled the conspiracy that climaxed with his assassination in 44BC (DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images)

Octavian responded by claiming that Antony had shown “contempt of his country” by taking an “Egyptian wife” in a “filthy marriage”, but half the senate supported the couple and left Rome to join them. Unwilling to announce hostilities against a fellow Roman, Octavian falsely claimed his largely Roman opponents were “a diseased Egyptian rabble” led by Cleopatra’s hair-dressing girl. Then, claiming that Cleopatra wished to be “queen of Rome”, Octavian persuaded the remaining senate to name her alone as “enemy of the state” and declare war on the 37-year-old mother of four.

In the event the battleground was Greece, not Rome. Antony and Cleopatra moored their 500 warships in the bay at Actium on the Ionian coast, but their battle plans were betrayed to Octavian’s men, who blockaded the bay. Sending their army back to Egypt by land, the couple broke out with their ships on 2 September 31 BC. Octavian himself was absent, suffering from seasickness, as Antony engaged the enemy, allowing Cleopatra to lead their ships out into open sea and head south. Only then did they discover that their land forces had been bribed to switch sides.

Ramesses II holding prisoners

Once back in Egypt, Cleopatra transported her remaining fleet overland to the Red Sea to fight on a second front, until these ships were destroyed by the Arabs of Petra, who had long resented her takeover of their trade routes. During a year-long stalemate, she completed work on her tomb, in which she interred half her treasure, giving the other half to her 16-year-old son Caesarion who, together with her other three children, was sent south to safety.

Octavian’s forces invaded Egypt in late July 30 BC and, though Antony put up a brave defence, he soon had no choice but to return to the palace. Finding that Cleopatra had already retreated to her tomb, Antony attempted suicide; she had him brought to her, and he died in her arms. Foiling her attempt to stab herself, Octavian’s men placed her under house arrest, adding the wealth from her tomb to the other half seized from Caesarion, who had been caught and executed.

The Roman spin-doctor poets Horace, Virgil and Propertius cast Cleopatra as 'the mad prostitute queen'

Knowing that she was to be shipped back to Rome as a prisoner along with her treasure, Cleopatra instead planned her own final chapter. Having written to Octavian, requesting burial with Antony, she dismissed all of her staff except her hairdresser Eiras and wardrobe mistress Charmion, with whom she withdrew into her private quarters. There, as the ancient sources admit, “what really took place is known to no-one”.

The snake-draped image of Cleopatra familiar today is actually based on descriptions of the wax effigy of her that Octavian paraded around Rome, the snakes around its forearms symbolising the creature associated with Cleopatra’s alter ego, Isis. By taking the effigy literally, most sources suggested that a snake must have been smuggled in to her, though less-known accounts claim that Cleopatra “carried poison in a hollow hairpin about which she wound her hair”.

Such pins were part of her everyday hairstyle; because the bound-up hair of a married woman was regarded as untouchable in Roman society, her coiffure would presumably have not been probed by the men guarding her. Cleopatra had also chosen to die in the company of Eiras, dismissed by Octavian as “Cleopatra’s hairdressing girl” incapable of any significant deed – yet she may have deprived him of his greatest triumph, supplying the hairpin with which Cleopatra broke her skin to absorb its fatal venom. When Octavian’s men found Cleopatra “upon a bed of gold in all her royal ornaments” they were unable to revive her. She was buried alongside Antony, while her vast treasure enabled Octavian to transform Rome – and to transform himself into its first emperor, taking the title Augustus.

Egypt was formally annexed by Rome on 31 August 30 BC, when 3,000 years of dynastic rule was brought to an end. Statues were toppled, images erased and documents destroyed. History was rewritten by the victor, as Octavian’s spin-doctor poets Horace, Virgil and Propertius cast him as the great hero who vanquished “the mad prostitute queen” and “her monstrous gods”. Crude images manufactured for the illiterate mob portrayed her naked atop a crocodile in a parody of ancient rites they could never understand.

In Rome’s version of events, the noble, masculine west had defeated the corrupt and feminised east – and the misogyny and racism present in such ‘fake news’ still distorts our modern world. Yet the evidence reveals that, despite being misrepresented for over 2,000 years, the real Cleopatra was a consummate politician, gifted scholar and inspirational leader – a true role model for our own times in which powerful women still generate hostility and are still far too rare.


Joann Fletcher is honorary visiting professor in archaeology at the University of York. Her books include Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) and The Story of Egypt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015)

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This article was first published in the Issue 10 edition of BBC World Histories Magazine