previous next


10. Third and eldest surviving daughter of Pto lemy Auletes, was born towards the end of B. C. 69, and was consequently seventeen at the death of her father, who in his will appointed her heir of his kingdom in conjunction with her younger brother, Ptolemy, whom she was to marry. The personal charms, for which she was so famed, shewed themselves in early youth, as we are told by Appian (App. BC 5.8), that she made an impression on the heart of Antony in her fifteenth year, when he was at Alexandria with Gabinius. Her joint reign did not last long, as Ptolemy, or rather Pothinus and Achillas, his chief advisers, expelled her from the throne, about B. C. 49. She retreated into Syria, and there collected an army with which she designed to force her brother to reinstate her. But an easier way soon presented itself; for in the following year Caesar arrived in Egypt in pursuit of Pompey, and took upon himself to arrange matters between Cleopatra and her brother. (Caes. Civ. 3.103, 107.) Being informed of Caesar's amatory disposition, she resolved to avail herself of it, and, either at his request, according to Plutarch, or of her own accord, clandestinely effected an entrance into the palace where he was residing, and by the charms of her person and voice and the fascination of her manner, obtained such an ascendancy over him, that, in the words of Dio Cassius (42.35), from being the judge between her and her brother, he became her advocate. According to Plutarch, she made her entry into Caesar's apartment in a bale of cloth, which was brought by Apollodorus, her attendant, as a present to Caesar. However this may be, her plan fully succeeded, and we find her replaced on the throne, much to the indignation of her brother and the Egyptians, who involved Caesar in a war in which he ran great personal risk, but which ended in his favour. In the course of it, young Ptolemy was killed, probably drowned in the Nile (Liv. Ep. 112; Hirt. B. Alex. 31; D. C. 42.43), and Cleopatra obtained the undivided rule. She was however associated by Caesar with another brother of the same name, and still quite a child, with a view to conciliate the Egyptians, with whom she appears to have been very unpopular (D. C. 42.34), and she was also nominally married to him.

While Caesar was in Egypt, Cleopatra lived in undisguised connexion with him, and would have detained him there longer, or have accompanied him at once to Rome, but for the war with Pharnaces, which tore him from her arms. She however joined him in Rome, in company with her nominal husband, and there continued the same open intercourse with him, living in apartments in his house, much to the offence of the Romans. (Doubts have been thrown on her visit to Rome, but the evidence of Cicero (Cic. Att. 14.8), of Dio Cassius (43.27), and Suetonius (Suet. Jul. 35), seems to be conclusive.) She was loaded with honours and presents by Caesar, and seems to have stayed at Rome till his death, B. C. 44. She had a son by him, named Caesarion, who was afterwards put to death by Augustus. Caesar at least owned him as his son, though the paternity was questioned by some contemporaries [CAESARION]; and the character of Cleopatra perhaps favours the doubt. After the death of Caesar, she fled to Egypt, and in the troubles which ensued she took the side of the triumvirate, and assisted Dolabella both by sea and land, resisting the threats of Cassius, who was preparing to attack her when he was called away by the entreaties of Brutus. She also sailed in person with a considerable fleet to assist Antony after the defeat of Dolabella, but was prevented from joining him by a storm and the bad state of her health. She had however done sufficient to prove her attachment to Caesar's memory (which seems to have been sincere), and also to furnish her with arguments to use to Antony, who in the end of the year 41 came into Asia Minor, and there summoned Cleopatra to attend, on the charge of having failed to co-operate with the triumvirate against Caesar's murderers. She was now in her twenty-eighth year, and in the perfection of matured beauty, which in conjunction with her talents and eloquence, and perhaps the early impression which we have mentioned, completely won the heart of Antony, who henceforth appears as her devoted lover and slave. We read in Plutarch elaborate descriptions of her well-known voyage up the Cydnus in Cilicia to meet Antony, and the magnificent entertainments which she gave, which were remarkable not less for good taste and variety than splendour and profuse expense. One of these is also celebrated in Athenaeus (4.29). The first use Cleopatra made of her influence was to procure the death of her younger sister, Arsinoe, who had once set up a claim to the kingdom. (Appian, App. BC 5.8, 9; D. C. 48.24.) Her brother, Ptolemy, she seems to have made away with before by poison. She also revenged herself on one of her generals, Serapion, who had assisted Cassius contrary to her orders, and got into her hands a person whom the people of Aradus had set up to counterfeit the elder of her two brothers, who perished in Egypt. All these were torn from the sanctuaries of temples; but Antony, we learn from both Dion and Appian, was so entirely enslaved by Cleopatra's charms, that he set at nought all ties of religion and humanity. (Appian, App. BC 5.9; D. C. 48.24.)

Cleopatra now returned to Egypt, where Antony spent some time in her company; and we read of the luxury of their mode of living, and the unbounded empire which she possessed over him. The ambition of her character, however, peeps out even in these scenes, particularly in the fishing anecdote recorded by Plutarch. (Ant. 29.) Her connexion with Antony was interrupted for a short time by his marriage with Octavia, but was renewed on his return from Italy, and again on his return from his Parthian expedition, when she went to meet him in Syria with money and provisions for his army. He then returned to Egypt, and gratified her ambition by assigning to her children by him many of the conquered provinces. (D. C. 49.32.) According to Josephus (J. AJ 15.4.2), during Antony's expedition Cleopatra went into Judaea, part of which Antony had assigned to her and Herod necessarily ceded, and there attempted to win Herod by her charms, probably with a view to his ruin, but failed, and was in danger of being put to death by him. The report, however, of Octavia's having left Rome to join Antony, made Cleopatra tremble for her influence, and she therefore exerted all her powers of pleasing to endeavour to retain it, and bewailed her sad lot in being only regarded as his mistress, and therefore being liable to be deserted at pleasure. She feigned that her health was suffering,--in short, put forth all her powers, and succeeded. (Plut. Ant. 53.) From this time Antony appears quite infatuated by his attachment, a nd willing to humour every caprice of Cleopatra. We find her assuming the title of Isis, and giving audience in that dress to ambassadors, that of Osiris being adopted by Antony, and their children called by the title of the sun and the moon, and declared heirs of unbounded territories. (D. C. 49.32, 33, 1. 4, 5.) She was saluted by him with the title of Queen of Queens, attended by a Roman guard, and Artavasdes, the captive king of Armenia, was ordered to do her homage. (D. C. 49.39.) One can hardly wonder that Augustus should represent Antony to the Romans as "bewitched by that accursed Egyptian" (D. C. 1. 26); and he was not slow in availing himself of the disgust which Antony's conduct occasioned to make a determined effort to crush him. War, however, was declared against Cleopatra, and not against Antony, as a less invidious way. (D. C. 1. 6.) Cleopatra insisted on accompanying Antony in the fleet; and we find them, after visiting Samos and Athens, where they repeated what Plutarch calls the farce of their public entertainments, opposed to Augustus at Actium. Cleopatra indeed persuaded Antony to retreat to Egypt, but the attack of Augustus frustrated this intention, and the famous battle took place (B. C. 31) in the midst of which, when fortune was wavering between the two parties, Cleopatra, weary of suspense, and alarmed at the intensity of the battle (D. C. 1. 33), gave a signal of retreat to her fleet, and herself led the way. Augustus in vain pursued her, and she made her way to Alexandria, the harbour of which she entered with her prows crowned and music sounding, as if victorious, fearing an outbreak in the city. With the same view of retaining the Alexandrians in their allegiance, she and Antony (who soon joined her) proclaimed their children, Antyllus and Cleopatra, of age. She then prepared to defend herself in Alexandria, and also sent embassies to the neighbouring tribes for aid. (D. C. 51.6.) She had also a plan of retiring to Spain, or to the Persian gulf; and either was building ships in the Red Sea, as Dion asserts, or, according to Plutarch, intended to draw her ships across the isthmus of Suez. Which-ever was the case, the ships were burnt by the Arabs of Petra, and this hope failed. She scrupled not to behead Artavasdes, and send his head as a bribe for aid to the king of Media, who was his enemy. Finding, however, no aid nigh, she prepared to negotiate with Augustus, and sent him on his approach her sceptre and throne (unknown to Antony), as thereby resigning her kingdom. His public answer required her to resign and submit to a trial; but he privately urged her to make away with Antony, and promised that she should retain her kingdom. On a subsequent occasion, Thyrsus, Caesar's freedman, brought similar terms, and represented Augustus as captivated by her, which she seems to have believed, and, seeing Antony's fortunes desperate, betrayed Pelusium to Augustus, prevented the Alexandrians from going out against him, and frustrated Antony's plan of escaping to Rome by persuading the fleet to desert him. She then fled to a mausoleum she had built, where she had collected her most valuable treasures, and proclaimed her intention of putting an end to her life, with a view to entice Antony thither, and thus ensure his capture. (This is the account of Dio Cassius, 51.6, 8-11; the same facts for the most part are recorded by Plutarch, who however represents Cleopatra's perfidy as less glaring.) She then had Antony informed of her death, as though to persuade him to die with her; and this stratagem, if indeed she had this object, fully succeeded, and he was drawn up into the unfinished mausoleum, and died in her arms. She did not however venture to meet Augustus, though his rival was dead, but remained in the mausoleum, ready if need was to put herself to death, for which purpose she had asps and other venomous animals in readiness. Augustus contrived to apprehend her, and had all instruments of death removed, and then requested an interview (for an account of which see D. C. 51.12, 13, and Plut. Ant. 83). The charms of Cleopatra, however, failed in softening the colder heart of Augustus. He only "bade her be of good cheer, and fear no violence." Seeing that her case was desperate, and determined at all events not to be carried captive to Rome, she resolved on death; but in order to compass this, it was necessary to disarm the vigilance of her goalers, and she did this by feigning a readiness to go to Rome, and preparing presents for Livia, the wife of Augustus. This artifice succeeded, and she was thereby enabled to put an end to her life, either by the poison of an asp, or by a poisoned comb (D. C. 51.14; Plut. Ant. 85, 86), the former supposition being adopted by most writers. (Suet. Aug. 17; Galen. Tyheriac. ad Pis. p. 460, ed. Basil; Vell. 2.87.)

Cleopatra died in B. C. 30, in the thirty-ninth year of her age, and with her ended the dynasty of the Ptolemies in Egypt. She had three children by Antony: Alexander and Cleopatra, who were twins, and Ptolemy surnamed Philadelphus. The leading points of her character were, ambition and voluptuousness. History presents to us the former as the prevailing motive, the latter being frequently employed only as the means of gratifying it. In all the stories of her luxury and lavish expense, there is a splendour and a grandeur that somewhat refines them. (See Plin. Nat. 9.58.) In the days of her prosperity, her arrogance was unbounded, and she loved to swear by the Capitol, in which she hoped to reign with Antony. She was avaricious, to supply her extravagance, and cruel, or at least had no regard for human life when her own objects were concerned,--a Caesar with a woman's caprice. Her talents were great and varied; her knowledge of languages was peculiarly remarkable (Plut. Ant. 27), of which she had seven at command, and was the more remarkable from the fact, that her predecessors had not been able to master even the Egyptian, and some had forgotten their native Macedonian; and in the midst of the most luxurious scenes we see traces of a love of literature and critical research. She added the library of Pergamus, presented to her by Antony, to that of Alexandria. Her ready and versatile wit, her knowledge of human nature and powerof using it, her attractive manners, and her exquisitely musical and flexible voice, compared by Plutarch (Plut. Ant. 27) to a many-stringed instrument, are also the subjects of well-attested praise. The higher points in her character are admirably touched by Horace in the ode (1.37) on her defeat.

The following coin represents the head of Antony on the obverse, and Cleopatra's on the reverse.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
69 BC (1)
49 BC (1)
44 BC (1)
31 BC (1)
30 BC (1)
hide References (14 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (14):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 14.8
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 15.4.2
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 5.1.9
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 5.1.8
    • Caesar, Civil War, 3.103
    • Caesar, Civil War, 3.107
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 17
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 35
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 9.58
    • Plutarch, Antonius, 53
    • Plutarch, Antonius, 85
    • Plutarch, Antonius, 27
    • Plutarch, Antonius, 83
    • Plutarch, Antonius, 86
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: