We continue our series on ancient Egypt by traveling ahead in time over 1400 years from Hatshepsut for a chat about Ancient Egypt’s last great ruler, the Queen of Kings -Cleopatra VII.
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt (courtesy Museum Syndicate)
Between the two rulers there was not only a great deal of time, but a great deal of change. By the time Cleopatra is born, Egypt is no longer ruled by Egyptians but instead by Macedonian Greeks, who were put in place during Alexander the Great’s land grab about 300 years prior.
Bust of Cleopatra VII, Altes Museum, Berlin
The family that Cleopatra was born into is, by modern standards, pretty dysfunctional. But not by their standards, and really isn’t that what’s important? We cover the whys and hows during the podcast but it was common for brothers and sisters to marry and for all of them to play a life or death game of Survivor to determine who the would next sit on the throne. (Do not play Musical Chairs with a Ptolemy)
But before Cleopatra would have all her story arcs, challenges, schemes and victories, she was a little princess. Born Cleopatra VII Philopator, the third child to father Ptolemy XII Auletes and mother, his Great Wife (also most likely his sister or half sister) Cleopatra Tryphaena V. She was raised and educated by tutors in Alexandria and learned to read and write in Greek. She learned art, philosophy, science and drama, and proved herself forward thinking by learning nine languages including one that the rest of her family didn’t know: Egyptian.
Egyptian Itty Bitty Kitty- the Great Sphinx was almost 2500 years old when Cleopatra was born.
Of course we go into what we know of her childhood and the scheming by family members to take over rule from her father. He officially named Cleopatra and her husband/brother Ptolemy VIII as co-rulers upon his death. When she took the throne, Cleopatra was 18 and the Egypt that the pair inherited is a bit of a mess. Famine and the pesky Roman Empire breathing down Egypt’s neck didn’t make the future look all that bright. A clever smear campaign by her brother’s advisers and soon Cleopatra was forced to hit the road, hang out in Syria, and wait for the right moment to strike.
But the same men who who drove her out of Alexandria made a misstep with Julius Caesar who had arrived in town. Cleopatra took a moment of faux pas confusion to come back to Alexandria, sneak into the palace to see Caesar (legend says rolled up in a rug and unfurled at his feet, but it might have been an unromantic burlap sack)…and the rest really is history. Cleo and Jules errr… combine assets, shall we say? As always, we go into greater detail in the podcast, but her co-ruler/brother/husband P13-died fleeing Alexandria, she is reinstated to the throne, has to marry another younger brother…and within a year she gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar known as Caesarion- Julius Caesar’s son.
Granite head believed to be Caesarion
Caesar headed back to Rome and was handed a sweet dictatorship for all his victories. Cleopatra decided to visit him and bring their son along to try and get him named Caesar’s heir. The trip wasn’t entirely successful (Understatement City): There is a bit of embarrassment involving Cleopatra’s remaining sister, Arsinoe, as well as quite a bit of of gossip and rumors about Cleopatra and Caesar. And then this happened.
Et tu, Brute? Death of Julius Caesar by Jean-Leon Gerome
Caesar had named his nephew, Octavian his successor.
Cleopatra is about 28 and her husband/brother is still co-ruling but she would prefer that her son sit next to her, so…in family tradition-boom. Done. Cleopatra wants what Cleopatra wants, right? Right. The woman made things happen, got to give that to her. But she also needs an ally in Rome. Enter womanizing, party boy with an ambitious streak and some serious battle cred- Marc Antony. This is the relationship for the ages! How did Cleopatra catch the eye of this man? Was it her famous looks? Probably not. Eh? While scholars don’t know exactly what Cleopatra looked like, we all know, right?
Faces of Cleopatra? Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh, Liz Taylor and Angelina Jolie (movie in production)
Um, no. Here she is on one of her coins.
But she was smart, confident, politically savvy, cunning and charming – those qualities add up to one beautiful, powerful and compelling woman. While her ability to finance them certainly didn’t hurt her chances she most likely won both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony over with her brains, confidence and personality… as all women should .
Yes, we say that.
She had a flair for the flashy that might have helped to catch her men’s eyes. Cleopatra’s Barge, by Andre Bauchant
She did also play to Antony’s weaknesses- women, money and bawdy behavior. For quite awhile the pair played house (and by house, we mean palace) in Alexandria. But he had to head back to Rome at some point, his (soon to be deceased) wife had made a bit of a war mess on his behalf and -long story short- he was politically forced into marriage with Octavian’s, sister…right about the time that Cleopatra is giving birth to his twins, Cleopatra Selena II and Alexander Helios.
Statue of Cleopatra’s twins
There would be one more child, several power struggles and some raised eybrows when Marc Antony left his wife for Cleopatra and handed territory to his children and Cleopatra more power which leads to a very happy Egypt. But things turned for our super couple and the end game was launched by frienemy, Octavian: the Battle of Actium where Antony and Cleopatra are overcome by Octavian’s forces.
Octavian is reported to tell Cleopatra that maybe they can do business if she takes care of Antony and gets him out of the picture. She can’t do it. Instead she sends word to him that she has died (or maybe she did no such thing…ahh, the joys of looking back through time) – and he does it himself. However it happened, the result is the same-the man threw himself on his sword!
Cleopatra, knowing that she will die at the hand of Octavian, become his prisoner or have to watch her children die- kills herself. The snake, right? Maybe not. Some evidence suggests hemlock and opium but that result was the same as Marc Antony’s: at the age of 39 Cleopatra died and ended the reign of the Pharaohs.
Rome took over rule of Egypt after her death and a lot of her statues were destroyed. Antony’s former wife, Octavia, raised the twins and Ptolemy Philadelphus; Caesarion is murdered by Octavian. Octavian becomes Rome’s first Emperor and changes his name to Caesar Augustus I. Cleopatra’s tomb and mummy has not been found.
The remains of Cleopatra’s kingdom have been discovered off the coast of Alexandria.
Time Travel With The History Chicks
We’ve combined the media for both Hatshepsut and Cleopatra into one list: You know we love a good online museum trip and you can get your click on looking at the Hatshepsut collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hatshepsut’s temple, Djeser-Djeseru, is still standing and open for visits. Click the link for descriptions, photos and maps of the layout of this surprisingly contemporary looking architecture.
This National Geographic site is about a traveling exhibit and full of intel (including one of the books that we recommended), Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt
As far as movies go, the biggies you certainly know about- Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh and of course, Liz Taylor. But how about this version on YouTube with Billy Zane and Timothy Dalton?
Hatshepsut: The Female Pharaoh by Joyce Tyldesley
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (This is the one that the upcoming movie with Angelina Jolie is based on)
The Crook and Flail by LM Ironside
The Artifact Hunters Series
For the young set:
His Majesty Herself, by Catherine Adronik
You Wouldn’t Want to be Cleopatra by Jim Pipe
Excellent series- The Thinking Girls Treasury of Real Princesses by Shirin Yim Bridges and Albert Nguyen
And our favorite book about looking way back from the now (and kids like it, too):
Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay
Our friend Emily, the one who asked us to cover Cleopatra, recommended this book although neither of us got around to reading it but if there is one thing that Emily knows it’s good books. We trust her. Historical Fiction for Cleopatra:
Hand of Isis by Jo Graham
Podcasts! There are a few that you might enjoy if you would like to know more about the eras, countries and lives surrounding these women- The Egyptian History Podcast History of Rome Podcast History of Our World
As always, music provided by Music Alley. Visit them at music.mevio.com
(Closing song: Human After All by Stars and Skylines)