Unlike many of the other names on this month’s feature Women in History, Cleopatra has GREAT name recognition. Almost everybody has at least heard the name. Ask most people exactly what she did though, and mostly she’s just known as some kind of Egyptian ruler, so let’s take this day and specify exactly the legacy Cleopatra left behind her, the effect she had on the world, and why in her time she was known as the reincarnation of the goddess “Isis”.
Cleopatra VII was born in late 69 BC to Ptolemy XII Auletes, ruler of Egypt as part of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Cleopatra at first ruled jointly with her father, then her brothers (Ptolemy XIII and XIV), but Cleopatra was the powerful figure of the family, with her brothers ruling in name only. While she married her brothers (according to Egyptian custom), she continued to act as the lover of Roman dictator Julius Ceasar. Cleopatra has always been depicted as being exceptionally beautiful, and the way she kept the interests of the world’s most powerful man certainly seem to confirm that.
Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII clashed over power, and when she had his face removed completely from the coins of Egypt over a dispute, Cleopatra was forced to flee Egypt and look for help elsewhere to secure her place on the throne after a failed attempt at rebellion. Her brother became the sole leader of Egypt for this short time. Around 48 BC the 21 year old Cleopatra had herself smuggled inside the palace of Julius Ceasar, then 52 years old was captivated by her beauty. While she was at his palace, Pompey-the political enemy of Ceasar by this time-was in Alexandria, seeking refuge from her brother. Ptolemy XIII instead beheaded Pompey, delivering the head to Ceasar in the hopes that such an action would earn him Ceasar’s backing in Egypt. Of course he didn’t know what his sister was up to at that point in time, and he didn’t fully appreciate the relationship between Ceasar and Pompey, which ran a great deal deeper than simply politics.
Angered, Ceasar went to Alexandria and took over, appointing himself the arbitrator of the dispute between would be rulers of the Egyptian lands. He backed Cleopatra’s claim to the throne, and Ptolemy XIII soon found himself drowned in the Nile. Ptolemy XIV then stepped in as co-ruler with his sister, who by then had given birth to “Ceasarion”, fathered by Julius Ceasar. While Cleopatra wanted Ceasar to accept the boy and name him heir, Ceasar did not, favoring his nephew Octavian instead.
Following the famous assassination of Julius Ceasar, Cleopatra returned to Egypt where she ruled with her brother Ptolemy XIV until his death, at which time she appointed her son Ceasarion co-regent and successor to the throne. She met Mark Antony in 41 BC, and he was quickly taken by her beauty and charm. Before long they’d had three children-a set of twins and another boy-and lived together in Alexandria. Antony found himself in a power struggle with Octavian, the appointed heir of Julius Ceasar, and after losing the battle of Actium both Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves. There are two stories of Cleopatra’s suicide, one involving ointment, and one involving a direct bite, but either way it seems clear she was killed by the venom of an asp, or an Egyptian cobra.
Ceasarion outlived his mother, but only by a short time, being killed by Octavian’s forces shortly after her death. She was also survived by her other three children: Ptolemy Philadelphus it is believed lived until 29 BC where he may have died of disease, Alexander Helios (one of the two twins) died between 29 and 25 BC, and Cleopatra Selene II, who is the only one whose life is mentioned after the expiration of her mother, was wed to King Juba II, and died some time later, perhaps as late as 17 BC. More than that, Cleopatra was a woman who was survived by her legacy, one of a woman of beauty, cunning, and leadership. A woman who knew what she wanted out of life and didn’t let anything stand in her way.