Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator / Κλεοπάτρα 69 – 12 BCE
Cleopatra the Seventh: Queen of the Nile, alleged reincarnation of the goddess, Isis, and the last Pharaoh of Egypt. As the last ruler of the Macedonian dynasty, she was actually part Greek. Cleopatra was considered a wise and just ruler by her people, but she was also notorious for using her good looks (and murder) to achieve her goals. According to the Romans, Queen Cleopatra was “a poisonous seductress whose lust for power had no limits” (paraphrased). Oh yeah and she also dated a lot of famous historical dudes of the time, including Julius Caesar! (Yeah, that one.)
Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator was descended from Ptolemy the First, one of the successors of Alexander the Great, who got to keep Egypt when Alexander died. Cleo’s father, King Ptolemy XII (the twelfth?!), was a crazy guy and at least one source refers to him as a weak, self-indulgent drunkard who married his cousin and / or sister (gross).
Evidence suggests that in 58 BCE, Cleopatra’s older sister, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, had her husband strangled, then murdered her mother, Cleopatra V, and seized the throne while their father was out of town. Then one of their other sisters, Berenice IV Epiphaneia, ordered the assassination of her sister, Cleopatra (#6 for those keeping track), in order to seize the throne for herself. Upon their father’s belated return from Rome, Berenice was beheaded!
This was the household that Cleopatra (#7) grew up in.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, considering her circumstances, that she grew up to be a cross-between a pop-diva and that one evil alien chick from ‘Species’.
After Ptolemy’s own (somewhat suspicious) death, the 18-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, inherited the throne together as co-rulers. They ruled Egypt from the port city of Alexandria for over a year, but she had no interest in being married to her bratty brother. (Who could blame her?)
Ptolemy Jr. started to get jelly of all the attention his sis was getting, so his regent, Pothinus attempted to have her killed, as was apparently custom? Cleopatra managed to evade her would-be-assassins, and fled into exile, where she then raised her own army, sparking a full on civil war. As if this sibling rivalry weren’t complicated enough, her other other sister, Arsinoe IV, got all salty and decided she wanted to be queen too.
Meanwhile back in Rome (48 BCE), some dude called Julius Caesar and this other Roman guy named Pompey (the Great?) were at each other’s throats. Something about crossing a Rubicon? (Long story – read more here.) Anyway, basically Caesar got the upper hand and Pompey ran with his tail between his legs. Caesar’s legions pursued him to Egypt. When Pompey arrived on the Nile, he rowed out to meet with Ptolemy’s regent. Pompey’s wife, Cornelia, watched helplessly as her husband was greeted by several knives to the back.
Maybe they thought that’s just how Romans shook hands?
Turns out Pothinus had already calculated the potential advantage of siding with Caesar, and figured they’d be doing him a favor by taking out his nemesis for him. He also figured the Roman dictator could help end the civil war in Ptolemy’s favor. This plan backfired horribly. Upon arrival in Egypt, Caesar received the gift-wrapped severed head of his rival, Pompey, his son-in-law. According to Plutarch, JC was furious AF and took this as a cowardly insult to both himself and the honor of his fallen frenemy.
Caesar stayed in Egypt, determined to end this family feud (oh and reestablish control over the region). One night, while he was attempting to figure out precisely how to go about all that, Caesar received a delivery. The Egyptian servants bowed before Caesar with a carpet, gifted to him by Cleopatra. When the carpet was unraveled before him, out rolled none other than
Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra, the original drama queen herself!
You see, Caesar had somewhat of a reputation as a lady’s man, so being the uh… resourceful woman she was, Cleopatra decided to use that to her advantage. She was 21 at the time, he was 52 – and married to his third wife. Regardless, Caesar was instantly captivated, but not just by her looks – he also admired her tenacity AND of course the fact that she had more money than Oprah!
You see, Caesar was in – what I can only describe as chronic debt, and Cleopatra needed an army, soooo win-win?
Nine months later, Cleopatra gave birth to Caesarion, which literally translates to ‘Little Caesar’.
Cleo’s siblings, Ptolemy XIII and Arsinoe IV, joined forces to take on their sister’s new arm candy, Caesar. Between the Siege of Alexandria and the Battle of the Nile, the library of Alexandria was partially torched, and thousands of Egyptians died in the cross-hairs, but the Roman Legionnaires were victorious. As Ptolemy’s army crumbled around him, he attempted to make a run for it, but drowned when his golden armor caused him to sink into the river! Arsinoe was captured and Caesar reestablished Cleopatra as co-ruler with her other younger brother, Ptolemy XIV (because who needs original names?).
Cleopatra’s son with Julius, Ptolemy XV Caesarion, was never acknowledged as a legitimate heir, but ended up being Caesar’s only male child. In 46 BCE, JC’s sugar momma, and their son (Lil’ Caesar), accompanied him back to Rome, where they met his wife, Calpurnia and stayed at his villa on the outskirts of the city. If that wasn’t enough, Caesar also commissioned a golden statue of Cleopatra in the temple of Venus.
Then Caesar had to go and get himself murdered by his bros in the Senate.
Cleopatra needed a new man. Enter: Marcus Antonius.
So Marc Antony was a famous Roman general, a loyal supporter of Caesar to the end, who carried out the will in his absence. He even championed for Cleo’s son as Caesar’s one true heir. Problem was, the Romans had no interest in being ruled by Caesar’s side-chick. Antony was snubbed (much like the Lego Movie at the Oscars), without even a nomination to take Caesar’s place!
Caesar’s great-nephew on the other hand, Gaius Octavian, had the support of the people and one heck of a publicist. Octavian began a relentless smear campaign against Antony (#MarcAntonySucks), which unfortunately now made Cleopatra and ‘Little Caesar’ a target. Marc Antony helped Cleopatra get back to Egypt to lay low.
Upon returning to Alexandria, her brother / husband / co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV ‘mysteriously’ disappeared from the historical record, conveniently opening up the position for Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion. Elsewhere, after pummeling Caesar’s enemies in Philippi, Marc Antony randomly decided to attack the Persians in Parthian, for no apparent reason. It was during this military excursion that Marc realized he was nearly broke…
In 41 BCE, at 28 years old, Cleopatra arrived in Tarsus, in style! She sailed aboard a luxurious ship adorned in what can only be described as extravagant excess. Instead of meeting Antony on his terms, she expected him to come crawling to her, which of course he did. Marc and Cleo dined aboard her magnificent vessel, and (each with their own ulterior motives) toasted to the future.
That night, Cleopatra convinced Marc Antony to give up his invasion, forget about his wife (Fulvia) back home, and come back with her to Alexandria. This home wrecker of a queen had Antony wrapped around her finger. She manipulated him for political gain at every opportunity and even used him to orchestrate the assassination of her sister, Arsinoe, all because she had to be the fairest of them all or something?
During his steamy romance novel of an encounter with the Egyptian Queen, Antony fathered twins: Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Meanwhile back in Rome, after the passing of his wife, Fulvia, Marc Antony made a truce with Octavian and agreed to marry his sister, Octavia.
Back in Egypt, King Herod of Judea (the dude from that one story from the Bible and stuff) was in town, so Cleopatra paid him a visit. Herod allegedly rejected her advances. Enraged, Cleopatra vowed revenge! She convinced Marc to give her a chunk of Herod’s territory in Jericho just because.
In 37 BCE, Antony married Cleopatra to the surprise and outrage of: his brand new wife (Octavia), his brother-in-law (Octavian), and pretty much all of Rome. To them, Marc Antony had ‘gone native’. Octavian used this scandal as an excuse to crush his opposition and take complete control of the entire Roman Empire himself. Knowing full well that she was the one who wore the pants in that relationship, he declared war on Cleopatra herself.
On September 2nd, 31 BCE, Antony’s fleet of 500 war ships engaged Octavian’s 250 boat armada at the Gulf of Actium. The Battle of Actium raged among a torrential sea, wooden vessels ramming up against one another as their armored crews clashed with spear and shields. Octavian’s men may have been outnumbered, but their ships were smaller and easier to maneuver giving them the edge they needed to decimate Antony’s forces. Cleopatra ordered her squadron to retreat, leaving their navy behind for the slaughter.
Returning to Egypt, a complete and total failure, Marc Antony was understandably a mess. After hearing rumors that Cleopatra had been captured and killed, he made the totally sound decision to fall on his sword, but after stabbing himself, he then heard that she was actually in the other room. As he was bleeding out, Antony made his way to Cleopatra and died in her arms. Upon losing everything – the men she’d loved, her wealth, her country, and soon her freedom, Cleopatra chose to keep her dignity. Instead of being paraded around Rome for a public execution, Cleopatra took her own life, with a lethal snake bite from an Egyptian Cobra.
After her death, Caesarion was killed, the Roman Republic gave way to The Empire, Octavian took complete control of Alexandria, and changed his name to Augustus, becoming the first official Emperor of Rome. With the death of Cleopatra, the sun had officially set on an ancient civilization that had stood for over three thousand years. Egypt’s mysteries would lie dormant in the sand for centuries to come… well that is until some guy called Napoleon showed up. Shakespeare later wrote a play about Antony and Cleopatra (he apparently had a thing for suicidal lovers? idk).
Sure, Cleopatra may have been a malicious, manipulative, and murderous b*#$%, BUT we should consider that given her circumstances it’s really not all that surprising how she turned out, after all that was the world she’d been born into: kill or be killed, and ultimately she did what was necessary for her own survival. Even if she failed, she never really gave up. In a world ruled by men, she was a very powerful woman at a time when that simple concept seemed like an impossibility and for that alone she’s certainly earned my respect.
Hope you enjoyed this edition of “Epik Fails of History!”, if you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions let me know in the comments below! Also, be sure to ’Like’ EPiK FAILs on Facebook, or Follow on Twitter, and SHARE IT with your friends!
More articles on Historic Failure:
“Antony and Cleopatra: Masters of Rome” by Colleen McCullough
“Cleopatra” (1963) – Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Starring: Elizabeth Taylor
Ancients Behaving Badly: Cleopatra (2009 documentary)
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