Egypt’s Last Pharaoh–
Cleopatra VII—A Synopsis
When Cleopatra VII ascended the Egyptian throne, she was only seventeen. She was the direct descendant of Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy who became ruler of Egypt when Alexander died. With the Ptolemy’s, Greek became the official language of the Egyptian court for over 300 years. Cleopatra was the last one of the Ptolemies to rule and it is said that she is the only one to learn the Egyptian language.
Before Cleopatra came to the throne, Egypt had started paying tribute to the Romans in order to get their agreement to leave Egypt alone. So, the threat of Roman rule was right at their door. Cleopatra was married to her brother Ptolemy XIII. They were in competition with each other for the throne and for power. Not surprisingly, a civil war broke out between them.
In the middle of all this turmoil, Julius Caesar left Rome to visit Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 48 BC. Alexandria had become the capital of Egypt during these centuries of Greek rule. The royal palace in Alexandria was under the control of Cleopatra’s brother-husband. Cleopatra wanted badly to talk to Caesar to try and win Roman support for herself against her brother. However, she knew she would be in danger for her life is she were caught anywhere near Alexandria, much less the palace. So, she had her servants wrap her up in an oriental rug. The rug was delivered to Caesar as a gift from a foreign embassy. Caesar was amazed when the rug was unrolled and he found the beautiful 22 year old Cleopatra wrapped inside. This is one of history’s most famous gifts (second only to the Trojan Horse).
Ceopatra was young, gorgeous, seductive, and smart. She easily and quickly won Caesar over to her side. He sent to Rome to ask for Roman reinforcements to fight the brother for Cleopatra. After a few battles in Alexandria, Cleopatra’s husband was defeated and killed. (This may be when the library in Alexandria burned).
Cleopatra then married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. But shortly after, in the summer of 47 BC, Cleopatra and Caesar embarked on a two month trip along the Nile. Caesar fell in love with Clelopatra, they became lovers, and later, she bore him a son, Caesarion. Two years later, Cleopatra and Caesarion left Alexandria to live in Rome, where Caesar had built a separate palace just for them.
Meanwhile, Caesar was already in trouble with many Romans because he had proclaimed himself to be Dictator for Life, which greatly diminished much of the power of the Roman senate. One year after Cleopatra’s arrival – in 44 BC– Caesar was killed in a conspiracy by his Senators. (Et tu Brute’?) With Caesar’s death, Rome became divided again between the supporters of Mark Antony and those who backed the younger Octavian, Caesar’s nephew whom he had appointed as heir to the throne (notice- there’s no elections now!).
Cleopatra was watching all the politics. When it looked like Mark Antony would be the victor, she began to support him and Mark Antony fell in love with her, too. Shortly after, they became lovers. Cleopatra had twins by him.
Mark Antony’s alliance with Cleopatra angered Rome even more. The senators called her a sorceress, and accused her of all sorts of evil. The Romans became even more furious as Antony began giving away parts of their Empire – Tarsus, Cyrene, Crete, Cyprus, and Palestine – one after the other to Cleopatra and her children.
Rome becomes the Enemy
Finally, everything reached the boiling point and Octavian declared war on Cleopatra. Off the coast of Greece they met in one of the most famous battles in history: Actium. Cleopatra’s Egyptian forces were defeated.
Then Octavian waited for a year before he sailed to Egypt to claim it as an official Roman province. He arrived in Alexandria to take it by force – fighting in ships at sea– and easily defeated Mark Antony’s forces.
In the confusion that resulted from the battle, Mark Antony was mistakenly told that Cleopatra was dead and he committed suicide. Realizing that she had lost her kingdom and also Mark Antony, she decided to put an end to her life. It is not known for sure how she killed herself, but the tradition is that she used an asp as her death instrument.
With the death of Cleopatra, a whole era in Egyptian history was closed. She was the very last of the Ptolemies to rule. Alexandria remained capital of Egypt, but Egypt was now a Roman province. The age of Egyptian Monarchs gave way to the age of Roman Emperors, and Cleopatra’s death gave way to the rise of Rome. The Ptolemies were of Macedonian descent, yet they ruled Egypt as Egyptians – as Pharaohs. So, Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh.
She was only 39 when she died.