Mini-bio : Cleopatra.
Queen of Egypt and romantic companion of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony
Ancient - Roman Empire
Why it’s important for you to know her
One of history’s smartest and most beautiful queens whose charm and craftiness carried her and her country through romantic, albeit doomed relationships with two of history’s greatest leaders, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
I. Alexander’s Legacy.
Alex the Great died. Until cryogenics actually starts working, that’s what happens to even the greatest of conquerors. They die. So Alexander took over Egypt, and for three hundred years after his death, Egypt was ruled well by the Ptolemy family (named after one of Alex’s generals). Don’t forget to not pronounce the ‘P.’
If you loved books, learning, and culture, then Alexandria, the capital, was the place to be.
Unfortunately, they got caught up in enjoying the cultured life a little too much and eventually had to get some help and protection from Rome. Beware who you ask for help from (see: the Celts in Gaul and their hazardous relationship with Mr. Julius Caesar)...
II. Closer than a bro.
Around 50 B. c., one of the Ptolemies dies. He has two children. A boy and a girl. Siblings are great, aren’t they? The Egyptians had some different ideas about sibling relationships than some of us do today. The plan was for seventeen-year old sister Cleopatra to marry her fourteen-year old brother Ptolemy. This was a thing. What anthropologists call “a custom.”
Cleo and Ptol had trouble getting along, as brothers and sisters sometimes do. They had a minor disagreement over the following:
- Ptolemy wanted to rule Egypt by himself.
- Cleopatra wanted to rule Egypt by herself.
Thus, a problem. Sadly, there was not great compromise that led to everyone being happy. Ptolemy was more powerful to begin with and Cleo fled for Syria.
Has anyone ever told you something like, “...well, at least your problem isn’t as bad as ___?” And then they gone on to tell you how your problem isn’t such a big deal because there are bigger problems in the world than yours? So the bigger problem than the little family drama unfolding in Egypt is this: Julius.
The Roman Civil War is happening. Julius Caesar has just defeated his old ally Pompey, and now Pompey has fled somewhere for safety. Any idea where that somewhere might be?
Yep. Egypt. He runs off to Egypt. Sadly though, he is murdered by buddies of Ptolemy. Caesar heads to Alexandria and prepares to tell the Egyptian government what to do. Because he is on top of the world now. And then he meets Cleopatra...
Julius is getting old. This may or may not be relevant. All the good judgment he had shown in winning political battles and physical battles and conquering lands and all that...it leaves him when he meets Cleopatra. He is intoxicated by her beauty and charm.
Jules decides to have her and her bro rule. Strangely, Ptolemy isn’t a big fan of this plan. He starts a rebellion, but Caesar finally puts it down and he’s killed. Cleopatra sits on the throne alone...except for her eleven-year old little brother that Caesar tells her to marry. His name is Ptolemy XIII.
IV. Ides of March.
Caesar may have had Cleopatra marry her little bro, but that doesn’t stop him from hanging out with her. A lot. A whole, whole lot. He hangs out with her for a year in Alexandria before heading off to do a little more conquering in Armenia and Syria, just to make sure he’s unquestionably master of the universe. Once he’s back in Rome, he sends for Cleo, and apparently her husband-bro is okay with it, because she comes.
So she’s living in Rome as Julius’s mistress. Many Romans are not excited about this, as they suspect she wants to be Queen. And remember, she never did that whole “co-ruling” thing super well.
March 15, 44 B.C. A date that will live in infamy. Julius is walking with sixty of his close friends when they attack him and make him dead. Now there’s civil war again.
A triumvirate is formed. The Second Triumvirate. One of the guys was Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Don’t worry about remembering his name, a bunch of historians think he wasn’t super important. Then there was Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Don’t worry about remembering his name either, we’ll talk about him later because he was super important, and also you probably know him better as simply “Caesar Augustus.” The third fellow was Marcus Antonius. You may simply call him “Mark Antony.” Aah, Mark. We’re going to talk about him a bunch, because he was one-half of one of the most famous romantic couples in history.
V. Mark Antony.
Mark had been a general under Caesar. After Caesar’s assassination, Mark defeated the armies of the two main conspirators (Cassius and Brutus). Two of the triumvirate divided up the Roman world: Octavian took Rome and the West. Mark took the East. Which included Egypt. Which is where Cleopatra was.
You might be wondering why Lepidus, the third member of the Triumvirate is, in all this. It doesn’t really matter. He kind of got mostly forgotten by history because of some bad decision-making and even worse, trying to play it safe and not really make decisions when he needed to. He lost power early on to Mark, then even more to Octavian, and pretty much had a humiliating and pathetic period of trying to be in charge of things. So we’re done with him now. It’s just Octavian in the West and Mark in the East. Or rather, Mark and Cleopatra in the East.
VI. Under a Spell: Mark loses it.
After Julius died, Cleopatra returned to Alexandria, where she was so overcome by grief and possibly by desire to rule by herself, that she poisoned her husband-brother. Sad.
So now she’s on top. She’s actually quite a proficient ruler. Peace, prosperity, law, order, justice, building, trading, bunch of good stuff. Even people who didn’t like her admitted she was pretty good at governing and taking care of her people.
Her beauty is what people talk about, but she was super smart. She foresaw what Mark Antony’s ascension to power could mean to Egypt, so she put plans in place to make sure Rome wouldn’t try and depriving her of her crown.
So she decided to take over Mark. To just blow him away with herself.
The short version of their first meeting is something like this: she comes sailing down the river on a decked-out, purple-sailed barge, with music going, while she lies all alone on a gold cloth and boys fanned her on each side. The ship was covered in perfume so profusely it spread out to the riverbanks. Crowds were gathered all along. Finally she arrives at the tribunal of Antony.
She knew how to make a first impression.
So they fall in love. In a redux of Julius, Antony spends the winter with her in Alexandria. History describes her as never leaving his side, though it would seem there might be occasional moments where one might want a bit of privacy. Or maybe not. They were inseparable. They did everything together. Everything? That’s what the historians seem to say about them. Are they in love? Apparently so.
They spend some months together, but then Antony has to head back to Rome. Why? Here’s the deal.
VII. Octavian is coming.
Like Egypt, Rome kept having trouble with the whole “co-leader” idea. Antony and Octavian are not getting along. In an attempt to get along better, Octavian offers his sister to Mark. They get married and divide up the Empire again. Antony, in no big surprise, takes the Eastern portion again, and heads back to Egypt, where you-know-who is waiting for him. They strike up their relationship again, which is more than a friendship.
VIII. Almost the end.
Remember, Mark is married to Octavian’s wife Octavia. I suspect she is not all together joyful about her husband Mark’s dalliance with Cleopatra. And Mark can simply not say no to Cleopatra. He is intoxicated, obsessed, fixated, totally and completely in love with her. What does this do to his judgment and ability to make good decisions?
Well...he continues elevating Cleopatra to high positions and places of honor, making no attempt to disguise his relationship with her. They have kids. He hands out kingdoms to them. They carouse and party and live large together. And this is the beginning of the end.
His relationship with Octavian falls apart. The Roman Senate strips him of his powers and declares war on Cleopatra.
As a sidenote, Octavia gets some sort of props: even after how she’s been treated, she tries to make peace between her husband and her brother. No way, bro says. I’m destroying Mark and bringing Cleopatra back to Rome in chains.
So it begins. Both sides prepare for war. Well, Octavian prepares. Antony and Cleopatra spend their time together in bliss and brainstorming. But not enough hardcore planning and strategizing. It’s actually a toss-up of how things might go. Both sides have decent armies, in fact, Antony’s has the stronger land army. But Cleo has an idea.
Her idea is to force a sea battle. Alone, Antony’s sea force is inferior. But she’ll kick in sixty ships. He listens to her, and like Julius at the Rubicon, makes a fateful decision: the die is cast, all will be decided in this one battle.
IX. September 2, 31 B.C., Actium, Greece.
Short version: the battle does not go well. Cleopatra orders her ships home. Antony leaves the battle to follow her.
Octavian wins. He is now atop the Roman world. No more power-sharing. He will go on to become its first Emperor and bear the title “Augustus.”
Back to Antony and Cleopatra. They’ve raced back to Alexandra and know that things are over. Antony tries one last move and challenges Octavian to a personal duel, but Mr. Smartman Octa says no. They march on the city.
You know that phrase “fake news?” Here is one of history’s great examples of real “fake news.” The fake news is this: Antony receives the news that Cleopatra has committed suicide, in a rare moment where she was not by his side. This is fake. She is not, in fact, dead.
But Antony thinks she is. So he stabs himself with his sword. He then finds out that the news was fake. She is not dead. He is carried to her, where he dies in her arms.
She is still alive. Thirty-nine years old and beautiful as ever. But Octavian, virtuous and incorruptible Octavian will have none of her charms. He will not be controlled like Julius or Mark. He informs her that she’s not cool and that he is adding Egypt to his domain and that true to his word, she will be accompanying him back to Rome...in chains.
She has one last trick up her sleeve. Literally. Up her sleeve. She has a venomous adder - an asp - smuggled to her in a basket of figs and lets it bite her boob or bosom, or somewhere up there, and shortly thereafter, she dies. Dead and beautiful.
Cleopatra is one of history’s most fascinating figures for several reasons. She set a benchmark for beauty, brains, and charm. She was involved in incredibly intriguing and tragic romances with two of history’s great generals. She did some good things for her country in her role as the last Ptolemaic descendant going back to Alexander the Great, including a commitment to cultural fusion and world community. She fought hard to keep her country’s heritage intact and to build alliances and cooperation with others in the context of a world community.
But perhaps her greatest legacy is as a feminist. In an era that was dominated by patriarchy and males, she refused to be cowed and seized power and control. She stood apart as a woman who would not bow to existing expectations, but would fight for what she wanted. She was not content to be a figurehead queen or mother. Her scruples may be questionable, but she used what she had - personal charm instead of brute force - to get what she wanted for her and her country. As the last leader of independent Egypt, she may have helped Egypt remain autonomous and independent longer than any man may have been able to do. Although she failed in the end.
Cleopatra. A beautiful, sexy, smart, and Machiavellian queen who refused to conform to expectations and used her charms to keep her country independent as long as possible.