Cleopatra VII Philopator, known widely today as just Cleopatra, was a woman who exerted a considerable impact on the ancient world, operating across the sometimes fractious interface between the ancient powers of Egypt and Rome, all around the time of 50 BC.
She has achieved almost legendary status because of her supposed beauty and romantic liaisons with some of the most powerful Roman men of the time, including Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Cleopatra was the last Macedonian ruler of ancient Egypt in a dynasty that was begun by Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals whose forces conquered Egypt in 332 BC.
She ascended to the throne of Egypt as an 18-year-old in 51 BC, acting as co-regent with her younger brother. Through a turbulent period of time she become Egypt’s last independent Pharaoh, amid continuous and ruthless power struggles with her siblings.
Clever and articulate, Cleopatra was said to speak at least three languages – Egyptian, Greek and Macedonian, and she reinforced her mystical public image by claiming to be a reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis – the patroness of motherhood, nature and magic.
She was able to consolidate her power base through strategic military and political alliances, and through her affairs with Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome and Mark Antony, one of Caesar’s generals. Both of these liaisons produced children and Antony married Cleopatra in 36 BC, soon after the birth of their twins.
Following his defeat in battle to the forces of Octavian in 31 BC Antony committed suicide and Cleopatra killed herself soon after in 30 BC, reputedly by applying a poisonous snake to her body.
Cleopatra has been immortalised in modern times through literature, plays and cinema, notably with the 1963 extravaganza “Cleopatra” that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was the most expensive film ever made up until that time and reportedly drove 20th Century Fox into near bankruptcy.
Image: A marble head of Cleopatra, held in the Brooklyn Museum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.