Cleopatra – A Master Manipulator or Just a Survivor

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”


This quote from Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra, is the most befitting description of the legendary Queen of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra. She is perhaps the most popular female icon and her charisma is kept alive even today, thanks to the numerous movies and plays describing her life. The most famous female ruler of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra, besides being a linguist, (she spoke nine languages), a good mathematician, a great businesswoman, was also a great seductress, and a ruthless murderer! Cleopatra’s origins are supposedly Greek although her lineage also mentions her to be of Black African descent. Her ancestors, the Ptolemys, ruled Egypt for almost three hundred years.


Early life
Bust of Cleopatra VII

Bust of Cleopatra VII, Altes Museum, Berlin

Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, was born in 69 BC to king Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V Tryphaena. Her siblings included two elder sisters, Cleopatra VI and Bernice; a younger sister Arsinoe and two younger brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. She was the last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty which was established in 323 BC. After Alexander’s death, his staff officer, Ptolemy, took over as the ruler of Egypt and for the next three hundred years, during the Ptolemy era, Egypt flourished and was one of the greatest powers in the world. Cleopatra was the last ruler of this dynasty and after her, Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire in 30 BC.


In 51 BC, her father, Ptolemy XII, died, leaving Cleopatra vii the heir to the Egyptian throne along with her brother, Ptolemy XIII, whom she married according to the tradition of that time. The years that followed her accession were quite tumultuous due to various factors like famine, floods and an unhealthy economy, which was perhaps the reason for souring of relations between her and Ptolemy XIII, who exiled her to Syria. Being the megalomaniac that she was, she refused to give up, and started building her own army to get back the throne. During this time, Rome was in the throes of a civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Defeated, Pompey escaped to neighboring Egypt. Julius Caesar followed him into Egypt and eventually killed him. Using her charm and female wiles, Cleopatra, seduced Caesar and lured him into an alliance in order to get back her throne. The popular legend states that she rolled herself into a carpet and asked her men to carry her to Caesar’s palace in Egypt, perhaps to escape detection by Ptolemy XIII, and this was supposedly the first meeting between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar! Ptolemy XIII, his sister Arsenois and the younger brother led a rebellion against their sister, Cleopatra, and it was Julius Caesar who led an army against them and finally defeated them in the Battle of the Nile. He chased the young king and allegedly drowned him in the river Nile at the behest of Cleopatra. Arsenois was captured and imprisoned in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. To appease the Egyptians he also got Cleopatra married to her youngest brother Ptolemy XIV.


Life with Julius Caesar

Cleopatra’s attraction towards Caesar was part passion and part manipulation. They became lovers even though he was 52 years old and she just 21, between 48 and 47 BC. In 47 BC she gave birth to a boy, presumably through Caesar, whom she named Caesarion. She visited Rome during the summer of 46BC along with Caesar and son Caesarion. Though Caesar could never acknowledge their relationship in public, since he was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis, he cared for her which is evident by the fact that he erected a golden statue of her in Rome and while in Rome she resided in one of Caesar’s country homes. She saw in Caesar a political ally and used him to piggy back her way to regain the throne of Egypt. Caesar’s assassination on the 15th of March forced her to return to Egypt where she once again took over the reins of the country by poisoning her younger brother and husband king Ptolemy XIV.


The carving of Cleopatra VII and her son Caesarion

The carving of Cleopatra VII and her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera, in Egypt

Entry of Mark Antony

After the death of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony became part of the second triumvirate that ruled Rome. Wanting to know where her loyalties lay, he summoned Cleopatra to Rome. Not one to miss such a golden opportunity, Cleopatra arrived in all her finery and so charmed Mark Antony that he was captivated by her beauty and personality and what followed was a torrid affair, (made immortal later by Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra.) They had three children, including twins namely Alexander, Helios and Cleopatra Selene. However, this union of Antony and Cleopatra was a mutually manipulative one. Antony wanted the military and financial support of Cleopatra when the great nephew of Caesar along with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus launched an attack on the second triumvirate to gain control over Rome. Being a shrewd businesswoman, Cleopatra was quick to oblige and in exchange of her help she sought complete control of Egypt’s Eastern Empire which included large areas of Lebanon and Syria. They got married according to Egyptian rites although he was already married to Octavian Minor, sister of another triumvirate, Octavius. Feeling that her only remaining sibling, her sister Arsinoe, might cause problems for her later, she had Mark Antony to get her murdered where she was imprisoned in the temple of Artemis.


Cleopatra and her son Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of Egypt and the title “Queen of Kings” was bestowed upon her. After his marriage to Cleopatra, Antony’s relations with Octavius started getting sour and in 33 BC war finally broke out. The combined armies of Antony and Cleopatra engaged in a fierce battle at sea at Actium, on the west coast of Greece. The Egyptians suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Romans and were forced to flee back to Egypt. Story has it that when Cleopatra saw the dismal condition of Antony’s fleet of ships, she took flight. Heartbroken and defeated, Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself to death. Devastated upon hearing about Antony’s death, Cleopatra also committed suicide. She died on August 12, 30 BC after being bitten by an Asp (a type of snake.), thus bringing to end an era of the Ptolemy Rulers.


Cleopatra, the Administrator

As famous as she was, Cleopatra is often misunderstood as a scheming seductress, and a power hungry woman. In his book, Cleopatra A biography, the author, Duane W Roller reveals that “Cleopatra was in fact a learned and visionary leader whose overarching goal was always the preservation of her dynasty and kingdom.” She was an able administrator who managed a huge and diverse kingdom, from Asia Minor to the interior of Egypt, a good naval commander who led her own fleet in battle, a great scholar who mastered various languages. Even her portrait of a seductress was in reality a means to an end for her- her passion to rule as the Queen of Egypt and she was so focused in her goal that she did not hesitate to wipe out all competition that came her way!


Her legacy

Hundreds of years after her death, Cleopatra and her life are most sought after by historians, story tellers and the general public. Her affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony have been immortalized by a great number of poets including Shakespeare, and several movies have been made on her life and times.


This lady of substance, the last Ptolemy to rule over Egypt and who took over the reins of Egypt at a young age of 15, continues to be an inspiration to all women. After her death, all evidence of her greatness; her shrines and temples, were razed to the ground probably to erase all evidence of her greatness, but that did not happen and even today she is remembered for her ability to stand brave and tall in a male dominated society, ruling Egypt with an iron thumb.

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