Cleopatra Thea Philopator was considered quite alluring in her time (although standards of beauty have certainly changed since). She also managed to miss the ravages of time, being dead at the age of 40. But in that short span of years, she had been married to two of her brothers, had affairs with two of the most powerful men in Rome, and lost an empire. A full life by anyone’s standards.
Born to Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V in 69 BC, the young Cleopatra declared herself the reincarnation of the goddess Isis, a charming affectation for a child but somewhat less so as an adult. After some poisonings and executions among the female Ptolemies, at the tender age of 14 she was made regent and deputy to her father. Four years later, in March 51 BC, her father died, leaving her and her ten-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII as joint rulers. Although now married to her younger brother, Cleopatra – the seventh of that name to rule – had no intention of sharing power with her sibling.
By August 51 BC, any pretense of filial harmony had disappeared. Cleopatra dropped Ptolemy’s name from official records and put her face alone on the new coinage. Ptolemy, showing more sense than expected, went into hiding. A palace revolution in 48 BC led by the eunuch Pothinus and Ptolemy’s tutor Theodotus disposed Cleopatra and made Ptolemy XIII sole ruler. Although she raised a rebellion, Cleopatra was soon forced into hiding herself.
Meanwhile, the general Gnaeus Pompey had the bad fortune to be on the opposite side than Julius Caesar in the latest Roman civil war. When things went awry, Pompey fled to Alexandria seeking sanctuary. The somewhat-less-than-genius Ptolemy, on the advice of Pothinus, had Pompey murdered hoping to ingratiate himself with Caesar, a miscalculation of epic proportions. When Julius arrived two days later, he was furious and announced his intention to execute Ptolemy and Pothinus in turn. Pothinus whipped up the local rabble in opposition. Caesar landed his legion. He seized the capital and so inserted himself into the dynastic sibling spat as arbitrator.
In the ensuing negotiations, Pothinus, acting on Ptolemy’s behalf, was openly insolent to Julius Caesar, another miscalculation (and really bad career move). Cleopatra had herself smuggled into the palace, where she beguiled the 52-year-old Julius. It must have been a spectacular first meeting between the stoic Roman general and fiery Egyptian queen, for nine months later she gave birth to their son. But before that, Caesar declared the sister and brother co-rulers, oversaw renewed nuptial vows, had Pothinus executed, weathered a siege of the palace and put down a rebellion in the city (accidentally burning most of the Great Library there in the process).
Ptolemy XIII, rather than be happy in exile, raised an army and challenged Caesar and Cleopatra, only to be decisively defeated in the Battle of the Nile (another of many in Egyptian history) and drowned in the river. Caesar reaffirmed Cleopatra as ruler of Egypt and married her to her younger brother Ptolemy XIV to keep the locals complaisant (the three legions he stationed in the country may have helped in this). Despite the faux marriage, Caesar and Cleopatra continued their torrid affair, and soon enough went to Rome, dragging along the latest Ptolemy and Caesarion (“little Caesar,” Julius’ son). There Cleopatra and her Egyptian entourage were ensconced in one of Caesar’s country estates, while Caesar’s wife Calpurnia resided in their home in Rome.
This two-year idyll came to an end with the Ides of March. Caesar had never named his son his heir, choosing instead his grandnephew Octavian. With no prospects in sight in Rome and generally reviled by the power elite – save Caesar’s friend Marc Anthony – Cleopatra returned to Alexandria. Soon enough Ptolemy XIV died, rumored to be at his sister’s hand. Cleopatra made her Caesarion co-regent and her designated successor.
In the course of the ensuing Roman civil war between the triumvirate headed by Octavian and the assassins of Julius, Anthony came to Egypt. Cleopatra met him with her usual glittering flair, and so charmed him that he chose to spend the winter of 41 BC with her instead of pursuing the war. It must have again been a fun-filled interlude, for in December 40 BC she gave birth to twins fathered by Anthony. Oh, and she had Anthony order the killing of her last surviving sibling, her sister Arsinoe, before the general returned to the battlefield.
Four years later, Anthony returned, ostensibly to make war on the Parthians to the east. But he was caught once again in Cleopatra’s web and married her in an Egyptian rite – although he was currently married to Octavian’s sister. The expansive territories Anthony had conquered in Armenia and Medea were given over to Egypt, and the whole vast Ptolemaic holdings divvied up among Cleopatra, young Caesarion (who was declared by Cleopatra son of Horus and “king of kings”), and Anthony’s twin children. It was the proverbial straw for Octavian, who convinced the Roman Senate to “levy” war on Egypt in 33 BC.
Following two years of skirmishing, Anthony’s forces squared off with Octavian’s in a naval action off the coast of Actium in western Greece. Decisively defeated, Anthony fell upon his sword – literally. Cleopatra was present at the battle with an Egyptian fleet of her own, but fled before it was resolved (perhaps contributing to Anthony’s demise by doing so). Within months, Octavian invaded Egypt against minimal resistance. Anthony’s remaining troops deserted Cleopatra and opened the city gates to Octavian on the first day of August 30 BC.
As his troops moved in and surrounded her in the palace, or perhaps her mausoleum, Cleopatra committed suicide by clasping her asps to her bosom (although some claim she took a mixture of hemlock and opium). Caesarion was captured and executed, and Egypt absorbed into the empire. In Rome, Octavian became emperor; in death, Cleopatra became legend.