Cleopatra, officially Cleopatra VII Philopater, was born in 69 B.C. She was the last pharaoh to rule Egypt and part of the Ptolemaic dynasty that was begun by a general of Alexander the Great’s army. Unlike other Ptolemaic rulers, Cleopatra learned the Egyptian language and more fully immersed herself in Egyptian culture than her Greek ancestors. She is remembered as one of the most famous figures of antiquity and one of the most important historical women.
Cleopatra was a co-ruler of Egypt with her father and later with her brothers. According to custom, Cleopatra was married to her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. Her seizure of power caused her brother to exile her. During this conflict between the co-rulers of Egypt, both Caesar and his political enemy Pompey visited Egypt. Ptolemy tried to win Caesar’s approval by beheading Pompey. This execution, however, prompted Caesar to take control of Egypt’s capital.
Cleopatra took the opportunity to meet secretly with Caesar. After meeting with her and becoming her lover, he altered his plan to annex Egypt and backed Cleopatra in a civil war with her brother from which she emerged victorious. She also gave birth to Caesar’s son, Caesarion, and eventually named him as her co-ruler. Caesar, however, was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis and naming Caesarion as heir would have further scandalized Rome, which was already unhappy with his relations with the Egyptian queen when she visited Rome in 46 B.C. Instead, Caesar named Octavian, a grandnephew, as his heir.
After Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. civil war ensued between the assassins party led by Brutus and the Caesarion party led by the Roman general Mark Antony and Octavian. Cleopatra backed the Caesarion cause. She did not meet Antony until 41 B.C. when he requested her to come to Tarsus to clarify her support. He began a relationship with Cleopatra and she bore him twins, a son and a daughter. After leaving her for several years, he returned to make his home permanently in Alexandria. He and Cleopatra had another son. He married her in accordance with Egyptian rites, but he was already married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia Minor.
Relations between Rome’s joint rulers, Antony and Octavian, became strained and finally erupted into war. Octavian was backed by the Roman senate. Cleopatra backed Antony. After the famous Battle of Actium, Antony’s army deserted him and Octavian successfully invaded Egypt. Although there are many questions concerning her death, Cleopatra is believed to have committed suicide by allowing an Egyptian cobra or asp to bite her so that she could avoid being paraded through Rome as the despised Queen of Egypt. Cleopatra’s son Caesarion was killed, but her children by Antony were taken to Rome and raised by Octavia Minor. Egypt became a Roman province. Cleopatra is remembered as a strong female ruler as well as for her reputed wit and charm. She also played a pivotal role in the history of Rome and is remembered for her relations with powerful Roman rulers.