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Cleopatra: the African Queen

Cleopatra VII was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, ruling Egypt from 51 BC - 30 BC. She is celebrated for her beauty and her love affairs with the Roman generals Gaius Iulius Caesar and Marcus Antonius [1].

Cleopatra was born early in 69 BC. When her father Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, she became co-regent with her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII, to whom she was also married according to Egyptian tradition. Whether she was as beautiful as was claimed she was, nevertheless, a highly intelligent woman; reputedly she could speak eight languages [2]. Cleopatra was, moreover, an astute politician, who brought prosperity and peace to a country that was bankrupt and split by civil war.


In 48 BC, however, Egypt became embroiled in the civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (En: ‘Pompey’) for leadership of the Roman state. In that year, having been defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus (August 9th, 48 BC), Pompey sought refuge in the Egyptian capital of Alexandria. Fearing that Pompey would use Egypt as his base in a protracted Roman civil war, Pompey was assassinated in a plot devised by the courtiers of Ptolemy XIII, Pompey died one day before his 58th birthday.


Believing he had demonstrated his power and prevented Egypt’s embroilment in Rome’s civil war, Ptolemy XIII had Pompey's head severed, embalmed and sent to Caesar. The latter had arrived in Alexandria a few days after Pompey, in early October, and taken up residence in the royal palace. Caesar was outraged over the killing of Pompey and, according to Plutarch, cried when given his deceased rival's seal ring [3]. Empowered by Rome to settle their dynastic dispute Caesar called on both Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra to disband their forces and reconcile with each other.

Ptolemy XIII arrived at Alexandria at the head of his army, in clear defiance of Caesar's demand to disband it beforehand. In contrast Cleopatra initially sent emissaries to Caesar, but eventually decided to meet him in person. The historian Cassius Dio records that she did so without informing her brother, dressed in an attractive manner, and charmed Caesar with her wit. The two would become lovers.

With Roman military support, Cleopatra was soon re-installed as queen. Attacked by Caesar’s forces at the Battle of the Nile (47 BC), Ptolemy XIII tried to flee by boat, but it capsized, and he drowned. Caesar appointed Cleopatra's 12-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIV, as joint ruler with the 22-year-old Cleopatra in a nominal sibling marriage, but Cleopatra continued living privately with Caesar. On June 23rd, 47 BC, Cleopatra bore Caesar a child - Caesarion - though Caesar never publicly acknowledged him as his son.


The following year Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV were hosted by Caesar in Rome. When Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March (March 15th, 44 BC), Cleopatra stayed in Rome in the vain hope of having Caesarion recognised as Caesar's heir. His will named Octavian, his grandnephew, as Caesar's primary heir so, when Octavian arrived in Italy in mid-April, Cleopatra decided to depart for Egypt. A few months later, Cleopatra had Ptolemy XIV killed by poisoning, elevating her son Caesarion as her co-ruler.


In 41 BC, Mark Antony, at that time in dispute with Caesar's adopted son Octavian over the succession to the Roman leadership, began both a political and romantic alliance with Cleopatra. They subsequently had three children - two sons and a daughter. In 31 BC, Mark Antony and Cleopatra combined armies to take on Octavian's forces in a great sea battle off the west coast of Greece at Actium. Octavian was victorious and Cleopatra and Mark Antony fled to Egypt. Octavian pursued them and captured Alexandria in 30 BC. With his soldiers deserting him, Mark Antony took his own life and Cleopatra chose the same course, committing suicide on August 12th, 30 BC. Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.

Endnotes:


1. Anglicised as Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.

2. Cleopatra’s native language was Koine Greek (i.e. ancient Greek). In addition, by adulthood, Cleopatra was well-versed in many languages including Ethiopian, Hebrew, Arabic, Median, Parthian, and Latin. She was the only Ptolemaic ruler to learn Egyptian. Before her, the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt had refused to learn the native language (i.e. late Egyptian), which undoubtedly explains why both ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian appear on official court documents such as the Rosetta Stone.

3. Plutarch, ‘The Parallel Lives’, The Life of Pompey, in Vol V of the Loeb Classical Library edition (1917), Available on-line Thayer, B., Plutarch Life of Pompey, penelope.uchicago.edu. Loeb Classical Library. p. 80:5, (accessed January 3rd, 2022).

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