Cleopatra – the last queen of Ancient Egypt – has fascinated writers and artists for the past 2000 years. The roman poets often wrote about her (not too kindly). Shakespeare turned her life into a tragic play – Antony and Cleopatra. Hollywood celebrated her loves and life in an epic and very costly film staring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
She was the lover of two of the most powerful Romans of her time – Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony. But the Romans were also her enemies, and eventually brought Egypt into their empire. She was fabulously wealthy, witty, charming, intelligent, educated – and a woman with power and influence. Our story tells her life.
We tried a little history over Christmas with our story of Herod the Great. Let us know if you would like to hear more true stories like these.
Written by Bertie.
Read by Natasha.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
Hello, this is Natasha, and I am here with a story that is actually a piece of history. In fact, it’s a biography. A biography, as you probably know, is the story of a person’s life. The person in this case is one of the wealthiest and most glamorous women who ever lived. Her name was Cleopatra, and she was the last queen of Ancient Egypt. Her life was exciting and brilliant – but be warned, she met a tragic end.
But first, here’s three facts which you might have heard about Cleopatra:
She was Egyptian.
She was smuggled in to see Julius Caesar rolled up in a carpet.
She was a stunning beauty.
I bet even your mum and dad could have told you those facts! But actually, they would definitely have been wrong about the first one. In fact, Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian, she was Greek. She was a member of the Ptolemy family who had ruled Egypt since the time of the Greek general, Alexander the Great. The second fact about Cleopatra rolled up in the carpet, is not so far from the truth. The ancient historians say that she was smuggled in to see Julius Caesar, but they talk about a sack, rather than a beautiful carpet. And as for her beauty; impressions on her coins show a rather hook-nosed face – and the historian Plutarch says that her irresistible charm lay more in her wit and conversation than her looks.
First let me tell you a bit about her family. 300 years before she was born, Alexander the Great from Macedonia in Northern Greece had conquered a large part of the known world. His empire stretched around the shores of the Mediterranean sea. Ptolemy was one of his generals, and he became ruler of Egypt. His family ruled Egypt right up to Roman times.
If you think that your own family is a little bit difficult sometimes, just be glad that you are not a Ptolemy. Although they were magnificently rich and powerful, being born into the family that ruled Egypt was a mixed blessing. They did not like to share their power with people outside the royal family. For that reason, brothers and sisters were often expected to marry each other. Even worse, they were prone to murdering each other – often by poison. If you were king or queen of Egypt, you could live a life of fabulous luxury, but you would never feel entirely safe.
At least a ruler of Egypt would always be rich. The Egyptian pharaohs had perfected the art of collecting taxes. It was a wealthy country, and when the Ptolemys took over, they raked in the money. The crops grew amazingly well because Egypt had a wonderful combination: sunshine and water. Every summer, the River Nile flooded its banks and watered the fields. Its mines produced gold – which of course contributed immensely to its wealth – and also salt which was used to embalm the Egyptian mummies in their tombs.
The city of Alexandria was built on wide sweeping streets. Eight chariots could ride alongside each other down its main avenue. The pavements were sheltered from the Egyptian sun by colonnades. Almost every race in the world could be seen there.
Giant hawk-headed statues guarded the temples and palaces. Out to sea, a 400 foot tall beacon blazoned in the sky at night. The lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the highest buildings in its time – and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The most powerful city of the age was Rome, but the money and glamour were to be found in Alexandria.
I’ll just make a little note here about dates. When we are talking about years that are BC – or Before Christ – we are counting back. The year 10 BC is closer to our time than the year 100 BC.
Cleopatra was born in the year 69 BC and lived to 30 BC. Her father, Auletes, was king of the most important country in the Middle East. But on the other side of the Mediterranean sea, in Italy, the City of Rome was flexing its muscles. The Roman army was a highly scientific fighting machine. It was not invincible, but only the most warlike people could fend them off.
The Egyptians had many talents, but in a battle, they were no match for the Romans. Their main advantage was wealth. Roman leaders always needed money – and in return, the Senate declared that Egypt was a, “Friend and ally of the Roman People.” That meant that they wouldn’t invade it, at least for the time being.
The Romans were fairly conservative people. In their view, women should be loyal wives and good mothers. The idea that a woman could rule as a Queen was – to a Roman – quite unthinkable, barbaric even. The Egyptians were far more broadminded. Cleopatra was brought up to be a ruler – and the Ptolemaic idea of a ruler was somebody who was highly educated. Her city was a centre of learning. The Library of Alexandria was the greatest in the world and many of the best scholars were based there. The young Cleopatra had to do her homework well. She must know her Greek plays and philosophy. She had to practice speech-making. She was fluent in several languages. She took a deep interest in medicine, which in those days overlapped with the arts of magic and poison. She was as clever as she was educated. Many Romans saw her as an exotic witch – someone like Medea or Circe from Greek mythology.
Auletes died when Cleopatra was 18 years old, in 51 BC. She now ruled Egypt with her younger brother, Ptolemy. As was the custom in her family, Ptolemy was also her husband. It was a difficult time: the Nile failed to flood, causing famines. It was not long before Ptolemy and Cleopatra fell out. She had to flee from the country together with her sister, Arsinoe.
Now that Cleopatra was out of the way, her younger brother Ptolemy ruled alone – officially. But he was just a boy. In practice, his advisors made the real decisions. And soon they faced a crisis – one that would decide the future of Egypt. Two Roman generals were fighting each other for the leadership of Rome, and for world domination. One was called Julius Caesar, the other Pompey. In 48 BC, Caesar defeated Pompey at a battle in Greece. Pompey fled by ship with this family. He headed for Egypt where the old king Auletes had been his friend. For Egypt, this was a diplomatic crisis – old loyalties prompted them to back Pompey, but it looked like Caesar was already the master of the world. The clique of advisers who ruled in place of Ptolemy came up with a simple solution. They sent a small boat out to Pompey’s ship. The Roman general climbed into the boat, and began to sail ashore. On the way the Egyptian sailors murdered him. I am afraid to say that they cut off his head. When Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria a few days later, they gave it to him. They thought he would be pleased. In fact, he was horrified. Pompey was his enemy, but he was also a noble Roman and a great general. He deserved to be treated with dignity.
Fortunately for Cleopatra, she was out of the country, and could not be blamed for this crime. She knew that she had to see Caesar to win his backing. The Roman commander was staying in the palace in Alexandria, and it was surrounded by Ptolemy’s soldiers. How could she get through? She was a clever woman, and not short of enterprising ideas. She climbed into a sack, and her trusted servant Apollodorus slung her over his shoulder. He carried Cleopatra into the palace, saying that he had a present for the great Caesar. He stood before the Roman leader, and emptied the sack. When the exotic young queen sprung into view, the Roman general was amazed and totally enchanted. It was one of the most stunning entrances of all time.
Ptolemy heard that his sister was in the palace, and that she seemed to be getting on well with Caesar. He flew into a panic, and ran out of the gates shouting that he had been betrayed. In fact, Julius Caesar said that he wanted the brother and sister to rule Egypt together. Outside, the Egyptian army, led by Ptolemy’s courtiers, began to attack the palace. Caesar’s Roman guards where heavily outnumbered but they were much better soldiers. The struggle spilled over into the harbour, where ships were set alight. The fire spread, and warehouses around the waterfront began to burn. Then the flames reached the great library, and many of the most famous works of literature and philosophy were burned and lost for all time.
Julius Caesar, then in his 50s, was so besotted with the 21 year old queen that he was in no hurry to return back to Rome. It was not just her looks that attracted him. Plutarch – a historian from Roman times – says that it was, “a delight merely to hear the sound of her voice with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could flit from one language to another.”
It took six months to win the war against the forces of Ptolemy, and after that Caesar still did not want to go home. Cleopatra took him on a cruise up the Nile in her Royal barge. Eventually, Caesar could linger no longer in Egypt – he sailed for Rome. Soon after he left, Cleopatra gave birth to his son, whom she named Caesareon. No doubt she hoped that the Roman leader would declare his son as his legal heir. If she thought so, she was much mistaken. The Roman people would not accept the child of a foreign queen as their ruler.
A year and a half later, Cleopatra made the 2000 mile trip to Rome to visit Caesar. In the summer of 46 BC, She stayed in his villa outside the city. Caesar ordered a gold statue of her to be set up in the temple of Venus.
Cleopatra arrived in time for Caesar’s celebration of his victory in the Egyptian war. It was a sort of military carnival, and a great holiday for the people of Rome. The triumphal procession included forty elephants, paintings of the River Nile, and a model of the Lighthouse of Alexandria complete with flames. By tradition, captives were made to take part in the triumph. Cleopatra’s sister, Princess Arsinoe, was forced to walk the streets of Rome in chains of gold. You can imagine how Arsinoe felt about that – especially when she knew that her sister was living in luxury in Caesar’s villa.
In Rome, Caesar was at the top of his career, but he also had enemies. Cicero, a well known speech maker, was constantly warning that Caesar was too powerful. Others went even further. A group of senators lead by Cassius and Brutus surrounded Julius Caesar as he came into the Senate, and they murdered him.
Rome was plunged into Civil War and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt.
By the time the Romans had finished slaughtering one another, two men emerged as the victors. Both were friends of the dead Julius Caesar. One was a tall, flamboyant, and good-looking general called Mark Antony. Plutarch said that he resembled a statue of Hercules. The other was a young man endowed with great political cunning – his name was Octavian. Octavian was not so dashing, and not much of a general – but he had others to do the fighting for him. His claim to greatness was that his uncle, Julius Caesar, had adopted him as his heir.
Octavian and Mark Antony split the empire between them. While Octavian ruled Rome and the West, Mark Antony came out to the Middle East. Cleopatra soon realised that her future depended on this new Roman. She had already made a big impression on one Roman general. She decided to make an even bigger one on the next. This time, subtlety played no part in her plans.
Mark Antony was camped with his army at Tarsus, in what is now Southern Turkey. It was then part of the Roman Empire, and later on it would be the birthplace of St. Paul. Cleopatra sailed up river to meet Antony. The wonderful description of her barge made its way from Plutarch’s history into Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra.
“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.”
Poor Antony could not help but be overwhelmed by the amazing sight of the queen on her barge. Cleopatra invited Antony and his generals to a lavish dinner. At the end she gave each of them fabulously expensive gifts. The next day Antony invited Cleopatra to his camp. He could not begin to match the opulence of her hospitality. The queen teased him that he was a man with the simple tastes of a soldier. Antony fell madly in love with Cleopatra.
Antony soon made his base in Alexandria, where he lived in the palace with Cleopatra. Like Caesar before him, he was deeply impressed by the amazing country. Cleopatra took him on a fishing trip on the Nile. When he failed to catch anything, she ordered her servant to fix a salted fish to his line. He pulled it out – and was about to boast of his catch – when he noticed that it had already been filleted and prepared for the dinner table. Cleopatra laughed and teased him saying:
“Leaving the fishing to us. You, Mark Antony, are a general, and your prey are cities, kingdoms, and continents.”
But not all Antony’s military campaigns went well. He led an expedition against the Parthians – fierce people of Asia whom the Romans never succeeded in conquering. Cleopatra provided much of the money to fund the campaign. The Parthians were famous for their cavalry tactics – their horsemen could turn and shoot arrows behind them as they galloped. Antony marched into Parthian territory – but he made the classic mistake of stretching his supply lines too far. He had to retreat, and on the way back a large part of his army died. The humiliation for Antony was a blow to his reputation.
In Rome, the young and wily Octavian was plotting to be sole ruler of the empire. He took advantage of Antony’s weakness, and started a propaganda campaign against him. He said that Antony had been growing soft while he was out in the east, that he was a drunkard who had been seduced by a foreign queen. Now this queen, he warned, wanted to take over Rome, and Antony planned to help her. Antony replied to Octavian’s insults with insults of his own, but he also wrote to Octavian asking that they remain friends. Octavian’s reply was to declare war on Cleopatra. Of course his ambition was to eliminate Mark Antony, but he understood that a new civil war would be unpopular. It sounded so much better to tell the Romans that they were going to war against a foreign queen who was plotting to take them over.
The fate of Antony and Cleopatra was decided off the coast of Northern Greece. This was the great sea battle of Actium in 31 BC.
A lot of war is about waiting, and choosing a favourable time and place to fight. The Battle of Actium was proceeded by a long hot wait. Octavian’s forces, commanded by his general, Agrippa, camped on one side of a narrow straight of water. Mark Antony’s forces, a collection of Romans, Egyptians, and soldiers from kingdoms all over the Middle East, camped on the other side. Cleopatra was with Mark Antony. She had a huge cache of gold with her. Mark Antony’s Roman generals did not like the sight of a woman. They thought it was unRoman for a female to have so much influence. She was rude to some of them. During the long delay, several of Antony’s oldest friends crossed over to join Octavian’s side. It was a huge blow to the morale of his troops.
Eventually Antony and Cleopatra decided that the time had come to fight the battle at sea. They mustered their ships and began to sail out to meet the opposition. Agrippa sent his ships out in a giant arc. They engaged closely and started to fight with spears, swords and burning torches. Half way through the battle, Cleopatra’s barge started to leave. Mark Antony’s ship followed her. No doubt Cleopatra did not want to wish to risk her gold to the fortunes of war. Perhaps Antony felt he had to protect her. But the sight of the two leaders fleeing the scene was too much. The battle was lost. Many of the kings and generals who had supported Antony and Cleopatra now defected to the other side. Nothing could stop Octavian and Agrippa from conquering Egypt. The victory was a turning point in Octavian’s career. He later changed his name to Augustus, and became the first Roman emperor.
Octavian arrived in Alexandria the following year. Mark Antony had little choice but to commit suicide – It was the Roman way. He fell on his sword. Cleopatra was taken prisoner. She did not wish to be made to walk the streets of Rome as a captive, like her sister Arsinoe. She tried to stab herself, but Octavian’s soldiers prevented her. A few days later she smuggled herself into her tomb with three loyal servants. Legend holds that she called for a bowl of figs with a venomous snake inside it. Perhaps she took poison, which would have been a more gentle death. What we do know is that Cleopatra killed herself. The last queen of Egypt was 39 years old when she died, and had been on the throne of Egypt for 21 years. For 11 of those years, Mark Antony had been at her side. She had kept Egypt prosperous and independent throughout her reign. It was probably inevitable that Rome would eventually conquer her country and bring it directly into its Empire. She had little choice but to befriend the greatest Romans of her day. She gambled, and in the end she lost. But the story of her life has fascinated people ever since.
I very much hope that you have enjoyed this retelling of her tale. Bertie has asked me to say that there are many sources for her life from the Ancient World, including Strabo, Plutarch, Cassius Dio, and Josephus. Bertie’s account was partly inspired by a recent history book, Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff, which you can find on Amazon. It gives you a great feel for the times in which Cleopatra lived. You can also find plenty of books about Cleopatra aimed at younger readers. We do hope that you have enjoyed our version, and that perhaps it has given you a taste for Ancient History. We will be doing more histories on Storynory.com.