Thursday, August 30, 2012

Cleopatra (69-30 BC)

Alexander 3rd of Macedon led an army to victory over Egyptian forces in 332 BC. He founded the city of Alexandria the next year before leaving Egypt for further conquests to the east. When he died in Babylon in 323, Ptolemy, one of his generals, became ruler of Egypt. Ptolemy brought the body of Alexander back to Egypt for burial.

Cleopatra was a descendant of that first Ptolemy and the daughter of Ptolemy 12th and his wife Cleopatra. She was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 69 BC and died there in 30. She was the last pharaoh of Egypt.

Since the first Ptolemy, all the rulers of Egypt had spoken only Greek. Cleopatra was the first to speak Egyptian as well. In all she spoke nine different languages.

When her father died in 51, the 18-year-old Cleopatra became joint ruler with her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy 13th. Neither had any interest in sharing control. Powerful generals and courtiers took sides. Those supporting Ptolemy finally forced Cleopatra to abandon Alexandria in 48.

As Cleopatra went into exile, two leaders of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey, were locked in mortal combat. Ptolemy, ruling in Alexandria, had Pompey murdered as he came ashore seeking help. Two days later, Caesar arrived to decide whether Ptolemy or Cleopatra would rule Egypt. Ptolemy presented Caesar with the head of Pompey, hoping to gain favor, but instead angered him.

Cleopatra used this break in the relationship between Caesar and her brother Ptolemy to persuade Caesar to support her claim to the throne. She boldly had herself rolled into a rug and smuggled passed Ptolemy’s guards into the presence of Caesar. She was less beautiful than tradition says, but she was smart, imaginative, humorous, charming, and possessed an iron will. Nine months later she gave birth to their son, Ptolemy Caesar or Ceasarion.

Ptolemy didn’t care for this close relationship between his sister and Caesar. He sent an army to murder them both. It came close to doing so. In the end, however, Caesar’s army won and Ptolemy died.

In 46, Caesar returned to Rome with Cleopatra and their son. Caesar stayed in his main house with his wife Calpurnia while Cleopatra and her son stayed at one of his impressive houses in the country. Many ordinary Romans regarded this situation as scandalous. Marcus Cicero, an important Roman politician and one of the world’s great writers, hated Cleopatra. Caesar had a statue of Cleopatra as the Egyptian goddess Isis made and placed in an important temple near the center of Rome.

Political enemies, led by Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, murdered Caesar in 44. Cleopatra took her son and returned to Alexandria. Two men sought vengeance for the death of Caesar: Octavius, his adopted son, and Mark Antony, his most important general. Despite pressure from Brutus and Cassius, Cleopatra supported Octavius and Antony. Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide after their armies suffered defeat in October 42 in two battles at Philippi (in today’s Greece).

Once back in Alexandria, Cleopatra governed as the sole legitimate ruler of Egypt. She ruled her country well and enjoyed wide popular support. She also promoted international trade which strengthened the Egyptian economy.

In 41, Antony ordered Cleopatra to leave Alexandria and meet him in the port of Tarsus in Anatolia. Cleopatra charmed him as easily as she had Caesar. Antony then traveled with Cleopatra to Alexandria.

Antony returned to Rome in the spring of 40. Cleopatra gave birth to their twins in December. Four years later, Antony sailed to Alexandria, married Cleopatra, and lived there with her for the rest of his life.

Just as Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey had fought to the death in 48, so, by 33, Octavius and Antony fought for supremacy in Rome. The climactic battle between rival armies actually occurred just off the Greek coast near Actium in September, 31. In that battle the forces of Octavius triumphed.

In August, 30, Octavius sent an army to attack Alexandria and murder Antony. As that army approached the city, Antony’s army deserted him. Antony committed suicide and died in the arms of Cleopatra. She committed suicide shortly after him. Tradition says she caused a poisonous snake to bite her. Octavius then had her son by Julius Caesar murdered.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.