"For (as they say) it was not because her [Cleopatra's] beauty in itself was so striking that it stunned the onlooker, but the inescapable impression produced by daily contact with her: the attractiveness in the persuasiveness of her talk, and the character that surrounded her conversation was stimulating. It was a pleasure to hear the sound of her voice, and she tuned her tongue like a many-stringed instrument expertly to whatever language she chose...."
From Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony
She may not have been an Egyptian, but she was Egypt's queen, ruling on her own rather than in the name of her husband. Her relationships with the leaders of Rome led to scandals. Her death continues to inspire playwrights, movie producers, and romantics.
She was . . . Cleopatra.
Cleopatra came to power in Egypt at the age of 17. She reigned from 51-30 B.C. As a Ptolemy, Cleopatra was Macedonian, but even though her ancestry was Macedonian, she was still an Egyptian queen and worshipped as a god.
Since Cleopatra was legally obliged to have either a brother or son for her consort, she married brother Ptolemy XIII when he was 12.
"However she soon dropped his name from any official documents regardless of the Ptolemaic insistence that the male presence be first among co-rulers. She also had her own portrait and name on coins of that time, ignoring her brother's."
How did Queen Cleopatra get away with such high-handed actions? Perhaps because Egyptian women were uniquely accepted as capable of holding office and handling affairs.
"Despite the many rights of women, Egypt was not an egalitarian society. There were many class-based distinctions. Women did not inherit equally with men and fewer were literate. Rather than legal restrictions, custom dictated that middle and upper class women usually engage in child-rearing and home-based activities."
(http://www.library.nwu.edu/class/history/B94/B94women.html) Excursus III: The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society)
Cleopatra Rolled in a CarpetTo rid herself of brother-spouse Ptolemy XIII, who had sent her into exile, Cleopatra needed Roman support. After she supposedly enticed Caesar with the infamous gift of herself rolled up in a carpet, Ptolemy was killed. In 47 B.C., Cleopatra dutifully married the next Ptolemy brother in line, Ptolemy XIV, an 11-year old, and then went on a cruise with her lover, Caesar.
"Cleopatra's union with Julius Caesar... would have placed Egypt firmly back on the map as a world power after a period of increasing weakness, with Caesar and Cleopatra reigning as joint rulers of the classical world. With this in mind she promptly produced the necessary son and heir to launch the dynasty. Republicans in Rome thwarted this by assassinating Caesar on the steps of the Senate before he was offered a Throne. Octavian later had their son Caesarion strangled following Cleopatra's defeat and ritual suicide."
Rediscovering Cleopatra, by Stuart MacWatt
Also see Pharaoh, by Karen Essex -- the second part of an historical fiction biography of Cleopatra -- which brings to life the meeting between Caesar and Cleopatra and shows how and why Cleopatra managed to present herself to the Roman leader in this manner.
CaesarionAn outcome of the affair between Caesar and Cleopatra was a son, the soon-to-be-murdered Caesarion, whom Cleopatra set up as her co-regent (remember the rule about women ruling as pharaohs with a male) after the murder of her second brother.
In the wake of Caesar's March 15, 44 B.C. assassination and the Civil War, Mark Antony arranged to meet Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.
He fell in love with her, but married a Roman, Octavia, sister of Caesar's heir, Octavian, later known as Augustus. It was with Cleopatra, however, that Antony lived. Octavin led the Romans to believe that Mark Antony was in the process of handing over what should be theirs to the Egyptian queen. Between this potential international threat, competition over the legacy of Julius Caesar (that Octavian was heir to the estate of Julius Caesar didn't necessarily put him in charge of the Roman Empire), and the familial insult to Octavian's sister, tensions mounted in Rome. Ultimately Mark Antony divorced his Roman wife when Octavian declared war on him (and Cleopatra).
Rule of Egypt Passes to Rome
In the end, defeated, Antony committed suicide and Cleopatra committed suicide, according to legend, by putting an asp to her breast.
The Macedonian/Greek Ptolemies had ruled Egypt from the time of the death of Alexander, in 323 B.C. After two centuries power shifted. During the reigns of the later Ptolemies Rome had become hungry guardian of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Only tribute paid to the Romans kept them from taking over. With Cleopatra's death, rule of Egypt finally passed to the Romans. Although her son may have held nominal power for a few days beyond Cleopatra's suicide, she was the last, effectively ruling pharaoh.
Cleopatra Study Guide
- Cleopatra Overview
- Important Facts
- Discussion Questions
- What Did Cleopatra Look Like?
This article is one of the "stops" on the Virtual Amazing Race, a lesson plan suitable for grades 5 and up. The lesson plan features research on around-the-world topics and Web Page Design Using PowerPoint.