Significant Woman: Cleopatra
I chose to write my “Significant Woman” paper on Egypt’s last pharaoh, Cleopatra. When I began my report, I knew very little about Cleopatra, except that she was the mistress of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony of Rome. I wondered what impacts on history Cleopatra made on her own.
I feel that Cleopatra was a very significant woman in history because she was very aggressive and assertive, characteristics that have always been considered unfeminine. At the same time, however, Cleopatra has been remembered by some as somewhat of a sex object, which is and always has been a common judgement of attractive females. Cleopatra did use her sex appeal to her advantage. It was one of the few manipulations that nobody could take away from her, and it was a very convincing form of persuasion.
Cleopatra’s family had been ruling Egypt since 305 BC, when Ptolemy I declared himself King of Egypt sometime after Alexander the Great’s death. The Ptolemy family was of Macedonian decent, not Egyptian.
Cleopatra, more precisely, Cleopatra VII, was the third daughter of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos “Auletes”, who began his rule of Egypt in 80 BC. Cleopatra VII’s mother could possibly have been Cleopatra V Tryphaena, who either died or disappeared in 68 BC, right after Cleopatra VII’s birth in 69 BC. Cleopatra VII had two older sisters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice IV, and one younger sister, Arsinoe IV. She also had two younger brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV.
Ptolemy XII ruled until his death in 51 BC, with only a brief interruption in 58 BC when his second eldest daughter, Berenice IV, took over the kingdom. His will named Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII as heirs to the throne. Leaders in Rome were named as guardians and were to uphold the choice of Ptolemy XII for the two to marry and jointly rule Egypt. Ptolemy II had established these brother-sister marriages as custom when he married his sister Arsinoe II.
As children, Cleopatra and her siblings witnessed the defeat of their guardian, Pompey, by Julius Caesar in a duel. Meanwhile, Cleopatra and her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII were dueling, albeit silently, over the throne.
In the middle of all this turmoil, Julius Caesar left Rome for Alexandria in 48 BC. During his stay in the Palace, he received the most famous gift in history: an oriental carpet . . . with a 22-year-old Cleopatra wrapped in. She counted on Caesar’s support to alienate Ptolemy XIII. With the arrival of Roman reinforcements, and after a few battles in Alexandria, Ptolemy XIII was defeated and killed.
In the summer of 47 BC, having married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, Cleopatra and Caesar embarked for a two-month trip along the Nile, aboard a legendary boat. Together, they visited Dendara, where Cleopatra was being worshipped as Pharaoh, an honor beyond Caesar’s reach. They became lovers, and indeed, she bore him a son, Ptolemy XV Caesar “Caesarion”. In 45 BC, Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIV, and Caesarion left Alexandria for Rome, where they stayed in a palace built by Caesar in their honor.
Caesar’s acts were anything but overlooked by the Romans. In 44 BC, he was killed in a conspiracy by his Senators. With his death, Rome split between supporters of Mark Antony and Octavian.
Soon after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra returned to Egypt. It is believed that Ptolemy XIV survived the trip home, but died shortly thereafter. Many believe that Cleopatra had him killed. This is possible because he was 15 years old and would probably start to assert his right to the throne.
Cleopatra was watching Rome in silence, and when Antony seemed to prevail, she supported him and, shortly after, they too became lovers.
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 was giving away parts of their Empire – Tarsus, Cyrene, Crete, Cyprus, and Palestine – one after the other to Cleopatra and her children, which, in addition to Caesar’s son, included Antony’s twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios and his son Ptolemy Philadelphus.
It was the boiling point when Octavian declared war on Cleopatra, and off the coast of Greece in the Adriatic Sea, they met in one of the most famous battles in history: Actium. The Egyptian defeat was often attributed to the early withdraw of a coward Cleopatra from the battle scene, although this claim is now discredited by most historians.
Octavian waited for a year before he claimed Egypt as a Roman province. He arrived in Alexandria and easily defeated Mark Antony outside the city. Antony asked to be taken to Cleopatra. He died in her arms and was buried as a King.
Octavian entered Alexandria in 30 BC. Cleopatra was captured and taken to him, and the Roman Emperor had no interest in any relation, reconciliation, or even negotiation with the Egyptian Queen. Realizing that her end is close, she decided to put an end to her life. It is not known for sure how she killed herself, but two small puncture wounds left on her arm have led many to believe that she used an asp as her death instrument. However, there were no signs of a snake or any poison present at the scene of her death.
With the death of Cleopatra, a whole era in Egyptian history was closed. Alexandria remained the capital of Egypt, but Egypt is 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 decent, yet they ruled Egypt as Egyptians – as Pharaohs. And, indeed, Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh.