Her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…Plutarch, Life of Antony
Cleopatra VII Philopator (‘father-loving’) was born in January 69 BCE in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes and possibly Cleopatra V Tryphaena. Cleopatra was to become the last monarch of the Ptolemaic Empire, ruling Egypt from 51 BCE to 30 BCE. In 48 BCE Cleopatra had become an ally and lover of Julius Caesar and remained so until his assassination in Rome in March of 44 BCE. While she was with Caesar, she bore him a son and he had a statue built of her and had it placed in a temple in the Roman Forum. The Senate was upset by their relationship, but Cleopatra gave them scientific knowledge – time. Taught them to use a solar cycle system (modern), rather than a lunar system.
The death of Caesar threw Rome into turmoil, with various factions competing for control, the most important of these being the armies of Mark Antony and Octavian, the former a supporter and loyal friend Caesar, the latter his adopted son.
Cleopatra was clever and talented – formed strong alliances. In 41 BC Cleopatra was summoned to Tarsus by Mark Antony. She is said to have entered the city by sailing up the Cydnus River in a decorated barge with purple sails, while dressed in the robes of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Antony, who equated himself with the god Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was instantly won over. Much like the meeting between Cleopatra and Caesar, both sides saw something in the other which they needed. For Cleopatra it was another opportunity to achieve power both in Egypt and in Rome, for Anthony the support of Rome’s largest and wealthiest client states in his campaign against the might of the Parthians was highly desirable. At the meeting Cleopatra allegedly requested that her half-sister Arsinoë, living in protection at the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, be executed to prevent any future attempts on her throne. Anthony and Cleopatra soon became allies and lovers and he returned with her to Alexandria in 40 BCE.
In Alexandria, Cleopatra and Antony formed a society of “inimitable livers”, which some historians have interpreted as an excuse to lead a life of debauchery, though it was more likely to have been a group dedicated to the cult of the mystical god Dionysus. Cleopatra bore Antony the twins Alexander Helios (the Sun) and Cleopatra Selene (the Moon).
The political situation in Rome compelled Antony to return to Italy where he was forced to conclude a temporary settlement with Octavian, part of which was that he married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. It was to be three years before he and Cleopatra were to meet again. One result of this meeting was that Cleopatra became pregnant with her third child by Antony (the future Ptolemy Philadelphus); another was that parts of Rome’s eastern possessions came under Cleopatra’s control.
In 34 BCE, despite the fact that Antony’s Parthian campaign had been an extravagant failure, Antony and Cleopatra celebrated a mock Roman Triumph in the streets of Alexandria. Crowds flocked to the Gymnasium to see the couple seated on golden thrones surrounded by their children, and Antony made a proclamation known today as the ‘Donations of Alexandria’. In this declaration Antony distributed lands held by Rome and Parthia amongst Cleopatra and their children, and proclaimed Caesarion as Caesar’s legitimate son.
Not surprisingly, the ‘Donations of Alexandria’ caused outrage in Rome, where the rumor began to spread that Antony intended to transfer the empire’s capital from Rome to Alexandria. In 32 BCE, Octavian had the Senate deprive Antony of his powers and declare war against Cleopatra, calling her a whore and a drunken Oriental. To avoid another civil war, Antony was not mentioned in the declaration, but this was to no avail and Antony decided to join the war on Cleopatra’s side.
The culmination of the war came at the naval Battle of Actium, which took place near the town of Preveza in northwestern Greece, on September 2, 31 BCE. Here Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s combined force of 230 vessels and 50,000 sailors were defeated by Octavian’s navy commanded by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, effectively handing control of the Roman world over to Octavian. In 30 BCE Octavian invaded Egypt and laid siege to Alexandria. Hopelessly outnumbered, Antony’s forces surrendered and, in the honorable Roman tradition, Antony committed suicide by falling on his sword.
After Antony’s death Cleopatra’s was taken to Octavian who informed her that she would be brought to Rome and paraded in the streets as part of his Triumph. Perhaps unable to bear the thought of this humiliation, on August 12, 30 BCE Cleopatra dressed in her royal robes and lay upon a golden couch with a diadem on her brow. According to tradition she had an asp (an Egyptian cobra), brought to her concealed in a basket of figs, and died from the bite. Two of her female servants also died with her. The asp was a symbol of divine royalty to the Egyptians, so by allowing the asp to bite her, Cleopatra became immortal. Other historians believe that Cleopatra used either a poisonous ointment or a vial of poison to commit suicide.
Mark Antony died by stabbing himself with a sword after wrongly believing Cleopatra was dead.
Cleopatra had lived thirty nine years, for twenty-two of which she had reigned as queen, and for fourteen she had been Antony’s partner in his empire. After her death her son Caesarion was declared pharaoh, but he was soon executed on Octavian’s orders. Her other children were sent to Rome to be raised by Antony’s wife, Octavia. Cleopatra represented the last significant threat to Roman authority and her death also marks the end of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. The vast treasures of Egypt were plundered by Octavian, and Egypt itself became a new Roman province. Within a few years the Senate named Octavian Augustus and he became the first Roman Emperor, consolidating the western and eastern halves of the Republic into a Roman Empire.
Octavian later published his biography in which he stripped Cleopatra of her political ability and portrayed her as an immoral foreigner, a temptress of upright Roman men. A number of Roman historians and writers reinforced the image of Cleopatra Empire an incestuous, adulterous whore who used sex to try and emasculate the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, such Roman propaganda has had a profound influence on the image of Cleopatra that has been passed down into Western culture. The real Cleopatra was highly skilled politically (though ruthless with her enemies), popular with her subjects, spoke seven languages, and was said to be the only Ptolemy to read and speak Egyptian. Barely any traces of Cleopatra or her reign exist today. Cleopatra often portrayed herself as a living Isis (a goddess) (As mourner, she was a principal deity in rites connected with the dead; as magical healer, she cured the sick and brought the deceased to life; and as mother, she was a role model for all women.)
It is also a sobering thought to remember how different the history of western civilization might have been if Cleopatra had managed to create an eastern empire to rival the increasing might of Rome, which she very nearly succeeded in doing.
Recent archaeological work has cast some interesting but controversial light on the possible location of Cleopatra’s tomb. Greco-Roman historian Plutarch wrote that that Antony and Cleopatra were buried together, and, in 2008 CE archaeologists from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and from the Dominican Republic, working at the Temple of Taposiris Magna, 28 miles west of Alexandria, reported that one of the chambers in the building probably contained the bodies of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The team have so far discovered 22 bronze coins inscribed with Cleopatra’s name and bearing her image, a bust of Cleopatra, and an alabaster mask believed to represent Mark Antony. Work at the site is ongoing, and only time will tell if the archaeologist are correct in their theory that the great couple were interred at such a distance from Alexandria.
The ancient historians Suetonius (lived A.D. 69 to 122) and Plutarch (lived A.D. 46 to 120) both claimed that Antony and Cleopatra were buried together inside a tomb. Plutarch wrote that Octavian gave orders that Cleopatra’s “body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion.”
While Suetonius wrote that Octavian “allowed them both the honor of burial, and in the same tomb, giving orders that the mausoleum which they had begun should be finished.” This tomb has never been found.
Reports in 2008 and 2009 focused on an announcement by the noted Egyptologist Zahi Hawass that he might find the tomb in Taposiris Magna, a temple to Osiris, located west of Alexandria, Egypt, in excavations with Kathleen Martinez that have yielded ten mummies in 27 tombs of Egyptian nobles, as well as coins bearing images of Cleopatra and carvings showing the two in an embrace. So far, the tomb remains elusive, but the temple excavations continue, with additional sites below the surface identified using ground-penetrating radar in 2011.
The search seeks to find Antony’s mummy as well, despite Plutarch’s statement that Antony was cremated: “After Cleopatra had heard this, in the first place, she begged Caesar that she might be permitted to pour libations for Antony; and when the request was granted, she had herself carried to the tomb, and embracing the urn which held his ashes.”
“The long-lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra will be eventually uncovered. The burial site has been finally estimated to be in the region of Taposiris Magna, 30 kilometersaway from Alexandria,” Egyptian archaeologist ZahiHawass said in a statement during Palermo Conference.
“I hope to find the tomb of Antony and Cleopatra soon. I do believe that they are buried in the same tomb,” Hawass stated. “We are so close to discover the accurate location of the tomb; we are on the right way. We know where exactly we have to dig,” Hawass stated to the Italian News Agency.