Cleopatra: Early Life and Ascension to the Throne
It is difficult to piece together Cleopatra’s biography with much certainty since no contemporary account exists of her life. Majority of what is known about the life of Cleopatra originates from the work of Greco-Roman scholars, especially Plutarch. Cleopatra, born in 70 or 69 B.C, was a daughter of Ptolemy XII (Auletes). It is believed that her mother was Cleopatra V Tryphaena, the king’s wife. Upon the apparently natural death of Auletes in 51 B.C, 18 year-old Cleopatra ascended to the throne with her 10 year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII.
Soon after that, Cleopatra was forced to flee Egypt in 49 B.C for Syria due to Ptolemy’s advisors acting against her. She returned the following year after raising an army of mercenaries to face her brother’s army on Egypt’s eastern border. At the same time, after permitting the murder of the Roman general Pompey, Ptolemy XIII welcomed Julius Caesar’s arrival to Alexandria. Cleopatra sought Caesar’s support in order to help her with her cause, apparently smuggling herself into the royal palace to state her case with him.
Cleopatra and Caesar
On his part, Caesar needed to finance his own return to power in Rome, and required Egypt to pay the debts incurred by Auletes. Following four months of war between Ptolemy XIII’s forces and Caesar’s outnumbered forces, Roman reinforcements arrived; Ptolemy had to flee Alexandria and was thought to have drowned in the River Nile. Going into Alexandria as an unpopular conqueror, Caesar gave the throne back to the also unpopular Cleopatra and her younger brother, then 13-years-old Ptolemy XIV. Caesar stayed in Egypt with Cleopatra for some time, and Cleopatra gave birth to a son in about 47 B.C, named Ptolemy Caesar. He was thought to be the son of Caesar and the Egyptian people called him Caesarion or Little Caesar.
Caesar was murdered in Rome in March 44 B.C, Ptolemy XIV died soon after and Caesarion (then three years old) was named co-regent (Ptolemy XV) with his mother.
Cleopatra and Mark Antony
Cleopatra’s grasp on power in Egypt was now more secure than ever seeing as her infant son was co-regent. However, irregular flooding of the Nile led to failing crops and resulted in hunger and inflation. At the same time, a conflict was happening in Rome between Caesar’s allies (Lepidus, Octavian and Mark Antony) and his assassins, Cassius and Brutus. Both sides requested Egyptian support, and after delaying, Cleopatra sent four Roman legions posted in Egypt by Caesar to support Caesar’s allies. After defeating the forces of Cassius and Brutus in 42 B.C in the battles of Philipi, Octavian and Mark Antony divided power in Rome.
Soon, Mark Antony summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus to explain the role she played in the wake of Caesar’s assassination. According to Plutarch’s story, Cleopatra sailed to Tarsus dressed in the robes of Isis. Antony, who identified himself with the Greek deity Dionysus, was seduced by her charms. He agreed to protect Cleopatra’s crown and Egypt, vowing support for the removal of her rival and younger sister Arsinoe, who was then in exile. Antony left his third wife and their children in Rome and followed Cleopatra to Egypt, spending the winter of 41 – 40 B.C in Alexandria. After Antony’s return to Rome, Cleopatra gave birth to twins in 40 B.C – Cleopatra Selene (moon) and Alexander Helios (sun).
Defeat and Death
Octavian’s forces defeated those of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s ships left the battle and returned to Egypt, and Antony followed her with a few ships. With Octavian’s forces attacking Alexandria, Antony heard a rumour that Cleopatra had killed herself. He fell on his sword and died just before it was discovered that the rumour was fake.
After burying Antony, on August 12 30 B.C Cleopatra locked herself in her chamber with two female servants. The means of her death is undetermined, but there is a theory that she used a poisonous snake.