Cleopatra was the last of the Egyptian pharaohs. Her passing marked the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which had ruled Egypt since 305/304 BC, following the collapse of the empire established by Alexander the Great. It also enabled Octavian, who in 27 BC would become Augustus, the first Roman emperor, to get his hands on her lands.
Cleopatra had a history of staking the fortunes of her nation on Roman men. Firstly, she plumped for Julius Caesar and then, following his assassination, his staunch supporter Mark Antony. A third, however, would prove to be beyond even her legendary powers of persuasion.
Together, Antony and Cleopatra tried to block Octavian’s path to power, combining their armies in a bid to defeat him. The conflict reached a climax at the legendary Battle of Actium in Greece – a ferocious encounter that did not go well for the Queen of Egypt and her Roman general, and they were forced to flee back to Egypt.
On the podcast: the amazing history of Egypt
This audio lecture from Professor Joann Fletcher is a great introduction to the greatest hits of ancient Egypt, from its pharaohs and pyramids to the lives of its citizens.
After Egypt was annexed by Octavian, it was renamed Aegyptus and became – thanks to its prodigious grain production – a key contributor to the Roman economy. The port of Alexandria grew to be the empire’s second-largest city.
With Octavian’s troops marching towards Alexandria, Antony rejoined the battle. Cleopatra, meanwhile, hid herself away in her mausoleum, along with her treasure and two maidservants.
Antony picked up information that Cleopatra was dead. Devastated, he fell upon his sword, saying, according to Ancient Greek biographer Plutarch: “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.”
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How did Cleopatra die?
Antony then received word that Cleopatra was still alive. Fatally wounded, he was taken to her. The queen was distraught but, before he succumbed to death, Antony asked her to make peace with Octavian.
Octavian, however, wasn’t doing any deals. He wanted Cleopatra as a trophy to parade in Rome but, rather than submit, she too committed suicide. Legend has it she did this by encouraging a snake to bite her, although her two handmaidens died at the same time, suggesting that some other form of poisoning saw her off.
While Cleopatra’s demise might have taken the edge off of Octavian’s victory parade, he was greeted back in Rome as the conquering hero. He now had absolute power over the richest kingdom along the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt had become a mere province for Rome, one of the largest, most powerful empires of the ancient world, to plunder. It would remain under Roman rule until the 7th century.