Updated On: November 07, 2023 by Dina Essawy
One of the most famous historical figures, Cleopatra’s life and death is full of mystery and controversy. To this day, historians are not sure where she was buried and her tomb has never been found.
If you visit Egypt’s second capital of Alexandria, you’ll be sure to spot several locations where the famous queen might have visited. Some of them are actually underwater since the ancient city of Alexandria is now fully submerged.
Let’s see how you can get to know more about the famous Queen.
Who was Cleopatra? And why is she so well-known?
Aside from being immortalised by Elizabeth Taylor is the famous 1963 film, Cleopatra led a life of glory, intrigue and of course fame.
She was born in 70 or 69 B.C. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V Tryphaena. Her name is Greek for “glory of her father”. Upon the death of her father in 51 B.C., the Egyptian throne passed to Cleopatra (18 years old at the time) and her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII (10 years old).
Cleopatra is also related to Alexander the Great by virtue of belonging to the Ptolemic dynasty. They are descendants of Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general who was one of the companions of Alexander the Great.
During her youth, Cleopatra presumably studied at the Library of Alexandria, where she learned the Greek arts of oration and philosophy at the hands of her tutor Philostratus.
Before she was the Egyptian Ruler
Before she became ruler of the country, she is said to have ruled alongside her father since she was 14 years old. Which helped her gain experience in how to run the kingdom. She also accompanied her father Ptolemy XII during his exile to Rome. After a revolt in Egypt led his eldest daughter Berenice IV to claim the throne.
Berenice was killed in 55 BC when Ptolemy XII returned to Egypt aided by the Roman military. When Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, he was succeeded by Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII as joint rulers. But a falling-out between them led to the start of a civil war.
In 48 BC, the Roman statesman Pompey fled to Egypt after losing the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece against Julius Caesar. In the meantime, Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra’s brother, had Pompey killed as Caesar took over Alexandria. Afterwards, Caesar attempted to reconcile Ptolemy XIII with Cleopatra.
However, Ptolemy XIII did not agree to their terms and his forces besieged Caesar and Cleopatra at the palace. The siege was lifted by reinforcements and Ptolemy XIII died shortly after in the Battle of the Nile. Caesar declared Cleopatra and her other younger brother Ptolemy XIV as joint rulers of Egypt.
Julius Caesar and Cleopatra
Caesar’s ongoing affair with Cleopatra produced a son, Caesarion (Ptolemy XV). Cleopatra travelled to Rome in 46 and 44 BC, staying at Caesar’s villa. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, she wanted to have their son Caesarion named as his heir, but the title went to his grandnephew Octavian. So, in order to guarantee her son had a throne she had Ptolemy XIV killed and announced Caesarion as her co-ruler of Egypt.
In the Liberators’ civil war of 43–42 BC, she sided with the Roman Second Triumvirate formed by Octavian, Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Cleopatra had an affair with Antony that produced three children: Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene II, and Ptolemy Philadelphus.
Antony became reliant on her for funding and military aid during his invasions of the Parthian Empire and the Kingdom of Armenia. Her children with Antony were declared rulers over various territories under Antony’s authority. Antony was married to Octavian’s sister Octavia Minor, whom he chose to divorce, which led to the Final War of the Roman Republic.
Octavian’s forces invaded Egypt in 30 BC and defeated Antony’s army, leading to his suicide. When Cleopatra found out that Octavian planned to take her to Rome to parade her in front of the people of Rome announcing his triumph, she committed suicide by poisoning, which led to the popular story detailing how she was bitten by an asp.
What was Cleopatra’s most famous for?
Although she is famous in history and dramatic depictions for her relationships and affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Cleopatra also had many great achievements. She was a very intelligent woman. She could speak several languages and was educated in philosophy, oratory skills, mathematics and astronomy. Some Egyptian sources say that she was a ruler “who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company”.
Moreover, Egypt’s economy grew under her rule, which made the country attractive to conquerors. A sign of how independent she truly was is that although she was co-regent for most of her reign. First with her two brothers then her son, she had her image stamped on coins that were used at the time.
Cleopatra was the first woman to have a Caesarian?
Her first son Caesarian was reportedly cut from her body at first, and that is why it was afterwards named a Caesarian section.
Who was the lover of Cleopatra?
After her ill-fated marriage to her brother in order to preserve the purity of the royal family’s bloodline, Cleopatra went on to have two lovers: Julius Caeser, the famous Roman Politician who was assassinated, and Mark Antony, the Roman military general who died right before she took her own life.
Did Cleopatra kill herself?
After Octavian’s forces invaded Egypt in 30 BC and defeated Mark Antony, she committed suicide, and when she learned that Octavian planned to bring her to Rome for his triumphal procession, she committed suicide by poisoning, with the popular belief being that she was bitten by an asp.
Was Cleopatra Egyptian?
No, Cleopatra was not of Egyptian descent. She was the last reigning monarch descending from the Macedonian Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt for around 300 years, from 323 BCE to 30 BCE.
What happened to Cleopatra’s Children?
Cleopatra’s eldest child was Caesarion, the product of her affair with Julius Caeser. Unfortunately, he was murdered under Octavian’s orders.
However, the lives of the three children she had with Mark Antony were spared. Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios (aged 10), and Ptolemy Philadelphus (aged four) were taken to Rome and put under the care of Mark Antony’s former wife. Who he divorced to be with Cleopatra. She was also Octavian’s sister.
Has Cleopatra been found?
The long-lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra remains unknown somewhere near Alexandria, Egypt. According to historians Suetonius and Plutarch, the Roman leader Octavian (later renamed Augustus) permitted their burial together after he had defeated them.
Was Cleopatra married?
Yes, as we’ve mentioned before, she married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV of Egypt in order to preserve the royal bloodline.
How old was Cleopatra when she died?
She was 39 years old at the time of her death. She lived from 69 BC to 30 BC.
Was Cleopatra bitten by a snake?
Stories vary as to how the famous Queen Cleopatra actually committed suicide. But the most popular theory is the one proposed by Plutarch, who stated that Cleopatra tested various deadly poisons on condemned people and came to the conclusion that the bite of the asp (the Egyptian cobra) was the least torturous method. As its venom brought on the feeling of sleepiness or heaviness without major spasms of pain.
Where did Cleopatra die?
She died in the city from which she ruled the Kingdom of Egypt: Alexandria. While the location of Cleopatra’s tomb is unknown, it is believed that Octavian allowed her and Mark Antony to be buried together properly.
What language did Cleopatra speak?
Cleopatra was very well-educated. She spoke Ethiopian, Trogodyte, Hebrew (or Aramaic), Egyptian Arabic, the Syrian language, Median, Parthian, Latin, and Greek.
Did Cleopatra speak Egyptian?
She could speak multiple languages by adulthood and was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn the Egyptian Arabic language; the language of the common people. Cleopatra was also the first in her family to accept and embrace the local customs and religions, including the Egyptian gods.
Who burned down the Library of Alexandria?
The Library of Alexandria was one of the largest libraries of the ancient world. It contained thousands, if not millions, of books and scrolls containing the details of many ancient arts and sciences that are lost to us nowadays, due to the fact that it burned down. Historians differ on when the library was destroyed. It may have experienced several fires during different historical periods over eight centuries.
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great, but it was his successor Ptolemy I Soter who founded the Museum of Alexandria or the Royal Library of Alexandria in 283 BC. The Library of Alexandria included lecture areas, gardens, a zoo, and shrines for each of the nine muses as well as the Library itself. It’s believed that at one time the Library of Alexandria held over half a million documents from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India and many other nations.
The most popular theory concerning the destruction of the Library of Alexandria is that it was caused by Julius Caesar in 48 BC, as he was outnumbered by an Egyptian fleet at Alexandria during his pursuit of Pompey into Egypt. Caesar ordered the ships in the harbour to be set on fire. Which spread and destroyed the Egyptian fleet and it also burned down part of the city, including the Library of Alexandria.
Cultural Depictions of Cleopatra
From ancient times to our modern day, writers, artists and filmmakers have adapted the story of Cleopatra into numerous works, none more famous than William Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1607) and the 1963 epic film starring Elizabeth Taylor.
Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra
The Shakespearean play was first performed by the King’s Men at either the Blackfriars Theatre or the Globe Theatre in c.1607. The play first appeared in print in the Folio of 1623.
Shakespeare derived the plot from the translation of Plutarch’s Lives. It focuses on the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony until her suicide. The play draws a contrast between Alexandria, portraying it and the Egyptian people as sensual, imaginative and passionate, and the pragmatic and austere Rome.
The famous historical couple invoked many themes, such as sexuality, strong female leadership, complex political relations, and it is still heralded as one of Shakespeare’s finest works.
Cleopatra (1963) film
Cleopatra was the highest-grossing film of the year, earning $57.7 million in the US and Canada (equivalent to $472 million in 2018). It received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won four of them: Best Production Design (Colour), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Visual Effects and Best Costume Design (Colour).
Trace Cleopatra’s Steps around Egypt
Hammam Cleopatra (Cleopatra’s Natural Bath) in Marsa Matrouh
Cleopatra was renowned for her beauty and it is believed she went to great lengths to maintain her attractive appeal. Including taking baths in a tub full of milk. It is said that she spent fifty percent of her shares of the kingdom’s income on beauty and other luxuries.
But even that was not purely for fun. Although she is always depicted wearing heavy black eyeliner, it is believed that the black coal used by Cleopatra contained substances that are used to fend off eye infections which were common at the time. Which makes sense since she was a talented chemist who also owned her own perfume factory.
One of the well-known attractions that are related to Cleopatra is Hammam Cleopatra or Cleopatra’s bath in Marsa Matruh. A hollow stone structure remains from ancient times where the sea water gathers inside which presumably allowed her to bathe in sea water away from prying eyes. The open roof also allowed the sun rays to warm the water inside naturally.
The landmark which still stands to this day is visited by thousands of people every year in the summer resort town of Marsa Matrouh.
Cleopatra’s spring is located on the path leading to the Temple of Amun, where Cleopatra performed religious rituals. The natural spring water stays at a 24 degrees Celsius throughout the year. It is said that it has healing qualities due to its sulfuric qualities. The path is frequently used by tourist, while in ancient times it was reserved for new brides.
It’s also said that Alexander the Great visited the spring during his visit to the Temple of Amun.
Hathor Temple at the Dendera Temple Complex
Dendera Temple complex is located about 2.5 kilometres south-east of Dendera, Egypt. It is one of the best-preserved temple complexes in Egypt. The complex covers 40,000 square meters. The complex was added to by many ancient Egyptian pharaohs from different dynasties.
The main building in the complex is the Temple of Hathor. The temple has been modified several times from the Middle Kingdom to the time of the Roman emperor Trajan.
Visitors to the Temple of Hathor can find depictions of Cleopatra in the back where there is a carving of her and her son Caesarion.
Cleopatra’s Needle is the name given to three Ancient Egyptian obelisks re-erected in London, Paris, and New York City in the nineteenth century.
The obelisks in London and New York are a pair; the one in Paris is also part of a pair originally from a different site in Luxor, where its twin remains.
All three needles are genuine Ancient Egyptian obelisks, although they have no connection with Cleopatra VII of Egypt since they were constructed over a thousand years before she was born. The New York needle was the first to acquire the French nickname, “L’aiguille de Cléopâtre” when it stood in Alexandria.
There is no doubt that Cleopatra was a woman to be reckoned with and the stories of her achievements will live on forever.
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