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Defiant Pharaoh: Cleopatra the Great

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Cleopatra and Caesar

Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Isis Incarnate

Defiant Pharaoh: Cleopatra the Great

The Ptolemy clan was not well liked. Of Greek descent, the Ptolemies had gained control of Egypt after their ancestor Ptolemy, a general in Alexander the Great’s army, was awarded the sandy country upon the legendary conqueror’s death. A Greek by birth, Ptolemy ruled Egypt like a dictator, refusing to learn the native tongue. Each one of his descendants followed suit, so there really was no reason why Princess Cleopatra—the seventh of such names princesses and queens—should be any different.

Born about 69 or 70 B.C., Cleopatra Philopater was the second daughter of Pharaoh Ptolemy Auletes XII(called “the Flute Player” after he played a dirge on his flute at his murdered sister’s funeral—the sister he murdered) and his sister-wife, most likely Cleopatra V Tryphanea, and their capital was located in Alexandria, Egypt. She was extremely intelligent and very well educated, able to read and write (some claim she published a manual on cosmetics), and was able to speak Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian and Egyptian, the first Ptolemic ruler to do so in 300 years.

In 51 B.C., Cleopatra married her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, and though they were supposed to rule jointly, Cleopatra did what any older sister would do and ignored her brother. She began monopolize the throne, ruling without his input—but she did it well, reforming Egypt’s economy and guiding the country through a terrible drought. She addressed her subjects in Egyptian, making them feel that, unlike the other Ptolemies, she actually gave a damn about the Egyptians, and they adored her for it.

Unfortunately, while the lower class Egyptians loved Cleopatra, the rest of the nobility didn’t. Resenting the fact that she largely usurped the pharaoh’s power, was minting coins in her own image and was making sweeping changes to their society, Ptolemy XIII and their sister Arsinoe led a coup against Cleopatra in 48 B.C. Cleopatra fled, escaping the city of Alexandria, but instead of going into hiding she headed straight to the nomads that lived on the outskirts of the city and raised an quickly army.

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

It soon became obvious that her hastily raised army might not do Cleopatra any good; currently stationed in Alexandria was a man named Julius Caesar, a Roman general sent to survey Egypt to see if it would be profitable to annex the country to Rome. Upon hearing of the coup, Caesar ordered both Cleopatra and Ptolemy to come before him so he could mediate the dispute. Now that he had Cleopatra out of the city, Ptolemy had no plans on letting her back in and refused to obey the order, establishing 20,000 troops around the city with orders to kill Cleopatra on sight.

Surveying the assembled soldiers, Cleopatra knew she couldn’t just simply walk past them all, and if she went in disguise she would be searched and then recognized. But she had to get back into Alexandria—she was certain that if she could appeal to the Roman general then he would help her regain her throne. But how to do it?

Spotting an ornate carpet, Cleopatra ordered her servants to roll her up in the heavy cloth, then instructed them to carry her past the guards and up to Caesar’s headquarters, telling them that the rug was a gift. Rolling her up and hefting her on their shoulders, the likely very nervous servants walked up to the gates, were frisked, then permitted to pass—without the soldiers ever examining the rolled up rug. Hurrying through the streets, the servants found the general’s headquarters and, after claiming they had a gift for the Roman hero, were admitted in. Seeing the servants approach with a beautiful carpet, Julius Caesar told them to unravel it … then was shocked into speechlessness when Cleopatra rolled out and stood regally before him.

As Caesar gaped, Cleopatra quickly pleaded her case to the Roman, telling him that she was only trying to do the best for her people and that her brother and sister hated her for it. She promised Caesar that if he helped her regain her throne, then she would be a willing ally of Rome. Impressed with her speech, her poise and her offer—and still angry that Ptolemy XIII had killed a criminal Caesar had been pursuing—Caesar agreed.

The next morning, young Pharaoh Ptolemy marched into Caesar’s headquarters with his bodyguards—and nearly shrieked in disbelief when he saw a smug Cleopatra lounging there. Smirking, Caesar stepped forward and told the boy that he was no longer pharaoh anymore and that Caesar was going to install Cleopatra as ruler of Egypt. When Ptolemy tried to launch his army against Cleopatra, Caesar loaned her three Roman legions, and the rebellion was soon crushed, with Ptolemy dying in the battle. Caesar then chased down and captured Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe.

Her throne returned to her, 21 year old Cleopatra married her little brother Ptolemy XIV to legitimize her claim, but by now she was infatuated with 52 year old Caesar, and he was besotted with her as well. Their attraction turned into a full-blown affair, with Caesar spending the entire winter in Alexandria with her. Spending all those hours in his arms, Cleopatra dreamed of starting her own empire with Caesar at her side. They’d conquer Rome, and move its power base to Alexandria, where they would rule as the most power people in the world. The dream was so heart wrenchingly vivid that Cleopatra vowed to make it a reality.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

In 47 B.C., Cleopatra gave birth to their son Caesarion, and was heart-broken when Caesar had to leave soon afterwards. Later that year, she was distraught to learn that Caesar had named someone other than his son as his heir—his adopted nephew, Octavian. Caesar had not named Caesarion his heir because he was born illegitimately … well, that wasn’t going to put a crimp in Cleopatra’s plans. That following year Cleopatra and Caesarion visited Caesar in Rome amid much fanfare. Caesar was delighted to see his Egyptian family, but the rest of Rome was disgusted; what was a married hero of Roman doing tramping around with a foreign queen? They seemed far too cozy together—could she be giving him secret orders? And that gold statue of her and her son that Caesar had commissioned—now that was just too much.

It was Caesar’s ongoing relationship with Cleopatra that contributed to his downfall. On March 15, 44 B.C., amid fears that he would declare himself an emperor and take orders from Cleopatra, the Roman senators killed Julius Caesar on the steps of the Senate. The assassination devastated Cleopatra; not only was her lover dead, but he had left no will for them, and now her dream of an Egyptian empire was dead too … and with Caesar gone, Rome could have Cleopatra removed from the throne. She fled back to Egypt where, a short time afterwards, her brother-husband Ptolemy XIV, allegedly by poisoning. Acting quickly, Cleopatra installed Caesarion as her consort and ruled as pharaoh-regent for him.

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In time, Cleopatra came to learn of a Roman general and statesman named Mark Anthony. In 33 B.C., Anthony was battling for control of the Roman empire with Caesar’s heir Octavian—the man that Cleopatra viewed as cheating Caesarion out of his inheritance. Upon discovering that Anthony was currently in the city of Tarsus (in modern Turkey), Cleopatra knew she had to act fast. An expert at making an entrance, Cleopatra had herself and her servants ornately made up, put together a harp and flute band, fabulously decorated her ships to show off her wealth, and sailed to meet Anthony. According to Plutarch, “She came sailing up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps, She herself laid all alone, under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed like Venus in a picture …”

Anthony was suitably impressed, and after three days of feasting and reveling he was hopelessly in love with Cleopatra. It would seem that Cleopatra initially had no interest in Anthony other than to set up an alliance against Rome to create her own empire—all of those banquets were really just to show him how wealthy she was—but all too quickly she found herself desperately in love with him as well. He returned with her to Alexandria, where they feasted every night, set up “The Society of Inimitable Livers” of which they were the only members, and would reportedly role play by sneaking out of the palace dressed as a maid and a slave.

After a while and with intense reluctance, Mark Anthony had to briefly return to Rome to attend to his wife Octavia … who was also his rival Octavian’s sister. Not long after Anthony left, Cleopatra then gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Though she loved her children, their birth and Anthony’s departure reminded Cleopatra of how Caesar had left her before Caesarion was born, and she was utterly convinced that Anthony had abandoned her. Imagine her ecstatic delight when she saw Anthony come rushing through the palace doors, desperate to see her again. Soon she gave birth to their second son, Ptolemy Philadelphius.

Meanwhile in Rome, Octavian was beside himself with outrage that Mary Anthony was shaming his wife and Octavian’s sister in front of all of Rome by publicly having an affair with Cleopatra. He mocked Anthony, calling him and emasculated puppet, and began a smear campaign against Cleopatra. All of Rome was angry too; they had just gone through this with Julius Caesar a few years ago … did Cleopatra get her claws into another heroic Roman? Were they conspiring against the empire?

Then, in 34 A.D., Mark Anthony allegedly went too far: he commissioned thrones made of gold to be cast for him, Cleopatra, and each of their children, and gave each of his sons territories that Rome still owned. This was seen as Anthony declaring himself and his illegitimate family to be rulers, and the giving away of territories as an act of aggression and invasion.

That was the last straw. Octavian and Rome declared war on the lovers.

Cleopatra greeting Antony in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra by A. M. Faulkner

Cleopatra greeting Antony in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra by A. M. Faulkner

Cleopatra greeting Antony in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra by A. M. Faulkner

Scrambling to prepare, the lovers fought the Romans in a sea battle in September 2, 31 B.C. near Actium, Greece. With Anthony in one flagship with 300 additional warships and Cleopatra in another flagship with 200 warships of her own, they fought for hours with no clear winner until Cleopatra unexpectedly withdrew and retreated. Anthony’s ship raced after her, pulling up alongside so he could board. They retreated to an island where their bedraggled fleet regrouped. Their sailors reported that Octavian had most certainly won, and the news spiraled Anthony into a deep depression. Thinking that perhaps they could surprise Rome, Cleopatra then ordered their fleet dragged across the desert to the Red Sea, but it was soon attacked and torched by Bedouin warriors. Things were looking ever more desperate.

Returning to Alexandria, Cleopatra rushed to move her capital further south while Anthony remained on the outskirts of the city to set up defenses. Knowing at this point that they stood no chance, Anthony’s advisor Ahenobarbus told him that Cleopatra wasn’t worth fighting for and was too foolish to rule effectively. He urged Anthony to murder her. Anthony’s friend Canidus Crassus responded angrily that Cleopatra had paid almost all of their war costs, and she had ruled an immense country for years, equal to any king. She was not foolish, and she would reward them handsomely. Anthony agreed with Canidus Crassus and refused to harm the woman he loved.

Meanwhile, Cleopatra held an elaborate coming of age ceremony for Caesarion and for Anthony’s eldest son by his ex-wife Fulvia. Cleopatra was likely attempting to assure that should anything happen to her and Anthony then Caesarion could rule Egypt as a man. The plan backfired; now that the boys were considered to be men, Octavian was even more hell bent to wipe the family out. He could afford to leave any eligible heirs to the throne of Egypt living. He pressed his attacks harder.

It wasn’t long before Octavian’s forces plowed their way into Alexandria, but Cleopatra was ready. After constructing a mausoleum and filling it with treasure, Cleopatra ordered her servants to spread a rumor that she had died—this may lessen the ferocity of Octavian’s attack. Tragically, Anthony did not receive word of her ruse, and when he heard that Cleopatra was dead he was so overcome with grief that he threw himself upon his sword. His horrified messengers arrived in time to tell him that Cleopatra was indeed alive, and, knowing his wound was fatal, Anthony ordered his men to carry him to Cleopatra’s mausoleum.

Cleopatra and her maids had sealed themselves inside the mausoleum, but Anthony’s men shouted up to an open window, telling her that Anthony was dying. In near hysterics, Cleopatra helped hoist Anthony through the window, but the effort was too much and Anthony died in her arms. Outside, Octavian and his men closed in.

Perhaps it was the gut-wrenching sobbing from the mausoleum that alerted the future emperor, but somehow Octavian discovered the shattered Cleopatra and the dead Anthony inside. Despite his anger at Anthony’s betrayal and his hatred for Cleopatra, Octavian was not completely unfeeling, and he granted the heartbroken Cleopatra’s request to bury Anthony. After Anthony’s funeral, Octavian left Cleopatra in the mausoleum to prepare to be extradited as criminal to Rome, where she would be publicly humiliated and executed.

As the story goes, after reaching his tent, Octavian hadn’t rested long when a messenger arrived with a letter from Cleopatra. It was a simple request, asking that he be kind enough to bury her beside Anthony … Realizing what had happened, a shocked Octavian shouted for his men to rush to the mausoleum and find Cleopatra.

Running up to the soldiers guarding the mausoleum, Octavian’s men demanded to know if anyone had passed through there. Surprised, the guards responded that only one person had entered the mausoleum: a peasant, devoid of weapons, carrying a basket of figs. Racing inside, the Roman soldiers stopped dead at the sight; her two maids collapsed beside her, Cleopatra was dead, an venomous asp slithering out of her slackening grasp. The snakes had been smuggled in the bottom of the fig basket. She was 39 years old.

Cleopatra works referenced:

Bad Girls, Jan Starling 2008

Women Warriors, David E. Jones 2000

Uppity Women of Ancient Times, Vicki Leon, 1997

Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011

Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff 2011

Cleopatra; Empress of the Nile, Ron Miller et al 2012


Cleopatra by Frank Bernard Dicksee

Cleopatra by Frank Bernard Dicksee

Cleopatra by Frank Bernard Dicksee


Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 29, 2020:

Woman in command and in control.

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 20, 2020:

On your knees and beg for mercy !

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 17, 2020:

There were other Women who defied the 'might' of Rome. One British Queen, Carthamundra was of particular concern. So they didn't provoke her tribe.

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on January 15, 2020:

Women who dare to break the rules !

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on October 18, 2019:

She remains an enigma to this day.

Karen Anne Harris from Jacksonville, FL on March 27, 2014:

Very interesting...voted up :)


Eiddwen from Wales on March 27, 2014:

Wow a brilliant hub; voted up, shared and wishing you a wonderful day.


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