Cleopatra: ‘Queen of the Nile’

Cleopatra and Caesar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1866) / Wikimedia Commons

As the last Ptolemaic heir of Alexander the Great, she remained committed to his policy of cultural fusion.

Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian


Cleopatra VII Philopator (January, 69 B.C.E. – August 12, 30 B.C.E.) was queen of Ancient Egypt, the last member of the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty and hence the last Greek ruler of Egypt. Although many other Egyptian queens shared the name, she is usually known as simply Cleopatra, all of her similarly named predecessors having been largely forgotten. She has been nicknamed the “Queen of the Nile.”

As co-ruler of Egypt with her father Ptolemy XII Auletes, her brother/husband Ptolemy XIV, and later her son Caesarion, Cleopatra survived a coup engineered by her brother’s courtiers, consummated a liaison with Julius Caesar that solidified her grip on the throne, and, after Caesar’s assassination, aligned with Mark Antony, with whom she produced twins.

After Antony’s rival and Caesar’s legal heir, Octavian, brought the might of Rome against Egypt, Cleopatra took her own life on August 12, 30 B.C.E. Her legacy survives in the form of numerous dramatizations of her story, including William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and several modern films. Partly, she is remembered because of the glamour and tragedy of her life but she is also significant as a woman who exercised considerable power and influence in a male-dominated, patriarchal world whose chief goal was not power for her own sake but to protect the ancient autonomy of her state. As the last Ptolemaic heir of Alexander the Great, she also remained committed to his policy of cultural fusion, valuing all races and cultures with the ultimate aim of a single world community.

Early Life and Name

Bust of a young Cleopatra / Public Domain

“Cleopatra” is Greek for “father’s glory,” and her full name, “Cleopatra Thea Philopator,” means “the Goddess Cleopatra, Beloved of Her Father.” She was the third daughter of Ptolemy XII of Egypt, a Greek born in Alexandria, Egypt. She was first briefly co-ruler with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes and on his death became co-ruler with her brother Ptolemy XIII in the spring of 51 B.C.E. She was at that time the oldest child of Auletes, since two older sisters had died. She also had one younger sister whose name was Arsinoe IV. Since the Ptolemaic throne was transmitted in matrilinear fashion, as had been the historic practice in ancient Egypt (illustrated in the classic 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, produced by Cecil B. DeMille), the Kings had to marry their sisters in order to be qualified to rule. Following the deaths of her brothers she named her eldest son co-ruler as Ptolemy XV Caesarion (44–30 B.C.E.).

The Ptolemies were probably Macedonian-Greek (see debate below), however, they saw themselves as heirs of the ancient Egyptians and in addition to cosmetic adoption of Egyptian dress they also fused many Egyptian customs with Greek culture, thus perpetuating the project of cultural fusion launched by Alexander the Great. Like the Pharaohs, they claimed to be sons and daughters of the Sun God, Ra. They not only called themselves Pharaoh but used all the titles of the earlier Egyptian rulers. Some statues depict Cleopatra as the goddess Isis. Cleopatra may have been the first member of her family in their 300-year reign in Egypt to have learned the Egyptian language. The similarity between several statues and engravings of Cleopatra with images of queens of Ancient Egypt is obvious. The Ptolemy’s capital city of Alexandria contained the famous Alexandria Library, a repository of all known knowledge at the time.

Cleopatra’s Reign

The Berlin Cleopatra, a Roman sculpture of Cleopatra wearing a royal diadem, mid-1st century BC (around the time of her visits to Rome in 46–44 BC), discovered in an Italian villa along the Via Appia and now located in the Altes Museum in Germany. / Wikimedia Commons

At the age of 18, she was left the throne on the death of her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, in spring 51 B.C.E., to rule jointly with her 12-year old brother, Ptolemy XIII. However, by August she was dropping his name from official documents, which flew in the face of Ptolemaic tradition that female rulers be subordinate to male co-rulers. Furthermore, it was Cleopatra’s face alone that appeared on coins. Perhaps because of her independent streak a cabal of courtiers led by the eunuch, Pothinus, removed Cleopatra from power—possibly in 48 B.C.E., possibly earlier—a decree exists with Ptolemy’s name alone from 51 B.C.E. She tried to raise a rebellion around Pelusium but she was soon forced to flee Egypt. Her sister Arsinoë accompanied her.

In the autumn of 48 B.C.E., however, Ptolemy imperiled his own power by injudiciously meddling in the affairs of Rome. When Pompey, fleeing the victorious Julius Caesar, arrived in Alexandria seeking sanctuary, Ptolemy had him murdered in order to ingratiate himself with Caesar. Caesar was so repelled by this treachery that he seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra. (It should be noted that Pompey had been married to Caesar’s daughter, who died giving birth to their son.) After a short war, Ptolemy XIII was killed and Caesar restored Cleopatra to her throne, with Ptolemy XIV as new co-ruler. The main reason why Egypt was important to Rome was as a major source of grain, but also because Egypt was in financial debt to Rome. Rome preferred a stable Egypt so that the flow of grain was not disrupted. Effectively, Pompey’s death marks the end of Republican Rome and the beginning of Imperial Rome, thus Egypt was at the time center stage as historical events of great significance occurred.

Caesar wintered in Egypt in 48–47 B.C.E., and Cleopatra shored up her political advantage by becoming his lover. Egypt remained independent, but three Roman legions were left to protect it. Cleopatra’s winter liaison with Caesar produced a son whom they named Ptolemy Caesar (nicknamed Caesarion, little Caesar). However, Caesar refused to make the boy his heir, naming his grand-nephew Octavian instead.

Cleopatra and Caesarion visited Rome between 46 B.C.E. and 44 B.C.E. and were present when Caesar was assassinated. Before or just after she returned to Egypt, Ptolemy XIV died mysteriously; she may have poisoned her brother. Cleopatra then made Caesarion her co-regent.

In 42 B.C.E., Mark Antony, one of the Second Triumvirate who ruled Rome in the power vacuum following Caesar’s death, summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus in Cilicia to answer questions about her loyalty. Cleopatra arrived in great state, and so charmed Antony that he chose to spend the winter of 42–41 B.C.E. with her in Alexandria. During the winter, she became pregnant with twins, who were named Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios.

Four years later, in 37 B.C.E., Antony visited Alexandria again while on route to make war with the Parthians. He renewed his relationship with Cleopatra, and from this point on Alexandria would be his home. He may have married Cleopatra according to the Egyptian rite (a letter quoted in Suetonius suggests this), although he was at the time married to Octavia, sister of his fellow triumvir Octavian. He and Cleopatra had another child, Ptolemy Philadelphus (Cleopatra). At the Donations of Alexandria in late 34 B.C.E., following Antony’s conquest of Armenia, Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of Egypt and Cyprus; Alexander Helios was crowned ruler of Armenia, Media, and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene was crowned ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus (Cleopatra) was crowned ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia. Cleopatra also took the title of Queen of Kings.

Antony’s behavior was considered outrageous by the Romans, and Octavian convinced the Senate to levy war against Egypt. In 31 B.C.E., Antony’s forces faced the Romans in a naval action off the coast of Actium. Cleopatra was present with a fleet of her own, but when she saw that Antony’s poorly equipped and undermanned ships were losing to the Romans’ superior vessels, she took flight. Antony abandoned the battle to follow her.

Cleopatra’s Death

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur (1892) / Roy Miles Gallery, London, Wikimedia Commons

Following the Battle of Actium, Octavian invaded Egypt. As he approached Alexandria, Antony’s armies deserted to Octavian. Cleopatra and Antony both committed suicide, Cleopatra doing so on August 12, 30 B.C.E. Cleopatra’s son by Caesar, Caesarion, was executed by Octavian. The three children of Cleopatra and Antony were spared and taken back to Rome where they were reared by Antony’s wife, Octavia.

Legend says that Cleopatra used an asp to kill herself. “Asp” technically refers to a variety of venomous snakes, but here, it refers to the Egyptian Cobra, which was sometimes used to execute criminals. There is also a story that Cleopatra asked several of her servants to test out various forms of suicide, before choosing the method which she believed to be most effective.

The Race Debate

There is often a debate between Egyptologists and Afro-centric historians as to what race Cleopatra belonged to. Egyptologists say that Cleopatra was descended from the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Macedonian family, whose patriarch Ptolemy I Soter was one of Alexander the Great’s generals, among whom his empire was distributed after his death. Ptolemy I was the son of Arsinoe of Macedonia by her husband Lagus, a Macedonian nobleman, or her lover Philip II of Macedon.

Egyptologists say the Ptolemaic family tree indicates that there was a great deal of interbreeding in the family, and that because Cleopatra was the first monarch to learn the Egyptian language that Cleopatra was white. Ancient busts and coins of Cleopatra also appear to point to her Caucasian ancestry. Contemporary descriptions of Cleopatra describe her as being short, slightly overweight, with a hawk-nose and red-brown hair.

Afro-centric historians, however, claim that Ancient Egypt was a predominately black civilization and that most ancient Egyptians were black people, considering that Egypt is an African country. Even though they acknowledge Ptolemy was white, they believe there must have been sexual liaisons between the monarchs and the people of Egypt. Since Cleopatra’s mother is not known (not identified on the Ptolemaic family tree), many believe she was a black concubine.

However, a version that her mother was Auletes’s sister, Cleopatra V Tryphaena (it was commonplace for members of the Ptolemaic dynasty to marry their siblings), exists. Significantly, the charge of illegitimacy was never made against Cleopatra, which is surprising considering the wealth of Roman propaganda against her, which adds credence to the latter theory regarding her mother. In light of the matrilinear nature of Egyptian succession, it is unlikely that her father would have named her as his heir had she been the offspring of a concubine considering she had a legitimate sister Arsinoe IV of Egypt. Finally, no Roman historian ever describes Cleopatra as black, another odd omission from the propaganda against her if it was true.

Debate about Cleopatra’s skin-color and racial identity is an example of identity or cultural politics. Cultural politics rightly points out that much history reflects cultural bias which gives credit for achievement say to Europe where credit is really due to Africa. On the other hand, such politics perpetuates us-and-them polarities and misses the point of what Alexander the Great had tried to achieve, a world in which all cultures fuse within a single human civilization thus allowing all people to claim credit for anyone’s achievements.


Most likely a posthumously painted portrait of Cleopatra with red hair and her distinct facial features, wearing a royal diadem and pearl-studded hairpins, from Roman Herculaneum, Italy, 1st century CE. / Wikimedia Commons

The fiction, film, and art that Cleopatra’s life has inspired evidences the impact she has made on history. However, does her legacy have any real value for us today or is it only of interest because of its romantic and tragic aspects? Arguably, Cleopatra was a marginal figure in terms of the wider stage of history on which she moved, the expansion of Roman power and the emergence of Imperial Rome from Republican Rome. Yet she was also the last representative of an independent Egypt, though her dynasty was itself the result of conquest.

Egypt, however, had a long and noble history as one of the most ancient sources of civilization. Her aim in life was to protect her heritage. Ultimately, the goal of a unified world may be nobler than one in which autonomous states compete, yet her desire to protect her heritage is wholly understandable. From the perspective of family and morality she may not have been ideal. She may have had few scruples. On the other hand, she used the limited power that she had—personal charm rather than force of arms—to try to safeguard her land and her subjects. She was a woman in a man’s world who was not content to merely be a nominal queen or the matriarch that validates her brother’s or son’s rule but wanted to be an actor in her own right. In a sense, she rebelled against men’s manipulation of her traditional role.

Perhaps no man could have done as much as she was able to do to stave off Roman domination, even though her efforts eventually failed. Her legacy has also been the cause of race-rivalry yet her own inclination was towards cultural fusion, itself a strategy to further cooperation as opposed to competition. Issues arising from cultural politics are also of contemporary significance. Aspects of her legacy thus remain of more than romantic interest.

Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 09.19.2001, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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