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The Mythical ‘Queen of Queens’ – Cleopatra VII

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Helsinki chapter.

Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra is the most famous queen of all times, perhaps together with Elisabeth I of England. She and other famous and powerful queens known to history have a reputation of being calculating, civilized, strong-willed and charismatic. Unlike Elisabeth, Cleopatra is also notorious for sexual manipulation, seductiveness and promiscuity. Cleopatra VII Filopator, indeed, was not a “virgin queen” – this fact may have given a tool for her contemporaries who wanted to blackmail her for political reasons, just as much as it gave later historians a reason to resent all female rulers and inspiration to all kinds of fantasy stories for orientalists and such.

Even though the reasons for blackmailing Cleopatra might have been political at first, there is no doubt that her reputation has also suffered from the fact that she was a woman who managed to stay long in an unusually high position. How could she have ruled one of the richest and greatest kingdoms of the known world without using her female assets in a reprehensible way? She must have been a fatal beauty who brought chaos everywhere just by existing! Or was she? Cleopatra Filopator’s legend lives on, even though most of the myths surrounding her have already been busted with water-proof certainty.

Star-crossed lovers Marc Antony and Cleopatra can also be found in the palace of Versailles lamenting their faith. René Antoine Houasse´s work from 1680.


Cleopatra was not Egyptian by definition. She was a member of Ptolemaic family, originally from Greek Macedonia. Nevertheless, she was greatly loved by native Egyptians. The Ptolemaic family had ruled Egypt for 275 years, and they were notorious for incestuous relationships (marrying one’s sister or brother was the norm) and killing relatives in search for more power. It was not exceptional for a woman to rule in Egypt, but she was not supposed to do it alone. During her reign Cleopatra was married to two of her younger brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, and after the latter’s death she ruled together with her son Ptolemy XV Caesarion.

Cleopatra’s father was Ptolemy XII Auletes, who executed his oldest daughter Berenice IV after she had seized the power in Egypt during Ptolemy XII’s exile in 58‒55 BC. In 51 BC, he left his kingdom to her favorite daughter Cleopatra (Cleopatra’s name Filopator means ‘the one who loves her father’), who was supposed to rule with her younger brother Ptolemy XIII. The siblings did not stand each other, and a civil war ensued.

The most important city for Cleopatra was the dazzling Alexandria of her childhood, the city of culture, education, sciences, tradespeople and the famous library. Alexandria was the stage of many of the most dramatic moments of her life, while the citizens themselves had mixed feelings for the Ptolemaic and felt mostly anger towards the Roman.

Carvings in antique coins are the only reasonably reliable pictures of Cleopatra VII. Her nose was of Ptolemaic heritage. The coin is from Syria.

Cleopatra and Caesar

The legendary general Caius Julius Caesar (100‒44 BC) arrived in Alexandria in 48 BC to try to gather the unpaid dues of Ptolemy XII. Even though Caesar tried to secure an agreement between the siblings, a great skirmish broke out, where the Alexandrians decided to fight against the Roman intruder and his new allies. Caesar eventually won the battle, and as Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile, Cleopatra married her second younger brother, docile Ptolemy XIV. Now she was the first and foremost ruler of Egypt, and her position was secured not least by the fact that she bore a child for Caesar: Ptolemy XV Caesarion.

The nature of Cleopatra and Caesar’s relationship has been up to debate ever since its topicality. We have to keep in mind that the Roman historians considered a great story to be better than a boring truth. The posterity has wanted to remember Cleopatra as a dangerous she-wolf, from which no man was safe – it is easier than explaining her actions as results of wit and realpolitik. More than likely her relationship with Caesar was not very passionate: Cleopatra was a young girl who needed to secure her position during violent turbulence of power politics and Caesar was known for seducing queens everywhere.

For some people, the image of Cleopatra is that of Elizabeth Taylor. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ massive Cleopatra (1963) is to blame. Rex Harrison starring as Julius Caesar. 

Cleopatra’s rule

Whether she is remembered from it or not, Cleopatra managed to restore some from the Ptolemaic glory that had faded during her father’s times. She was not simply the ruler of the grain storage of the Great Rome: she was worshipped by her people as a personification of the goddess Isis. Cleopatra was never afraid of showing off her godly position and great heritage by organizing breathtakingly luxurious dinner parties and festivities. She led an amazing life of exuberance, which was outraging for the anti-monarchist Romans.

Cleopatra ruled for 20 years, and she invested on good relationships with Roman rulers, which was elementary for Egypt that still retained its practical independence under the pressures of Rome. She knew how to manage economic policy, and her kingdom thrived. The golden times of Cleopatra’s rule took place during the years 34‒33 BC, right before the happenings that led to her doom. During those years Egypt had plentiful harvests and Alexandria flourished as the center of the world, while Cleopatra received more land from her Roman allies.

Cleopatra and Antony

One of the most well-known fatal love stories of history is that of Cleopatra and Marc Antony (83-30 BC). The great state of Rome was torn apart after the murder of Caesar in 44 BC. Both a renowned general and a mischievous, naïve and impulsive drunkard, Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) was competing for Caesar’s heritage together with a frail country bumpkin of 18 years, Gaius Octavius (63‒14 BC), the adoptive son of Caesar, and future Emperor Augustus and Rome’s dictator. Antony had decided that winning the Roman citizenry and senators on his side meant defeating the kingdom of Parthia, covering the lands of contemporary Iran. He needed the help of Cleopatra, since no successful campaign was possible without the plentiful Egyptian resources. Antony and Cleopatra were both fond of spectacular feasts, and during one of the welcoming parties they became lovers.

Despite the fact that Antony was married (after his powerful wife Fulvia died in 40 BC, he married Octavius’ sister Octavia as a way of hammering a pact between him and his rival), he spent a lot of time with Cleopatra during the fatal campaign to Parthia. The two had three children together. While Antony was away, Octavius’ popularity grew in Rome, and not least because of the fact that he did all he could to blackmail his rival, who was clearly bewitched by a foreign prostitute. Antony’s merrymaking with Cleopatra was in stark contrast with Roman virtues of reticence and frugality – especially when Antony left the perfect and beautiful Roman wife Octavia for an Eastern ‘witch queen’.

When the eventual war between the pursuers of power broke in Greek archipelago, the Egyptian fleet was crushed by Octavius and the lovers fled to Alexandria. Octavius landed on Alexandria in 30 BC, and the crushed and depressed Antony tried to kill himself, hoping that Octavius would spare Cleopatra. Antony allegedly missed his heart by an inch and was brought to Cleopatra, bleeding. The proud queen wanted to avoid being seen at Octavius’ triumph in Rome and committed suicide soon after Antony’s death.

Shakespeare´s Antony and Cleopatra is a theatrical classic with one of Shakespeare’s most passionate texts. Antony’s death depicted by Nathaniel Dance-Holland in 1780.

The queen of myths

 For symbolical reasons perhaps, Octavius presented Cleopatra’s statue bearing a poisonous snake during his triumph parade. From there on has lived the myth of Cleopatra letting a cobra bite her. It is unlikely that she would have committed suicide this way, as she was bound to know that cobra’s poison was a painful and uncertain way to die.

Cleopatra was unlikely to cause the death of either Caesar or Marc Antony. The stormy domestic politics of Rome, arrogance and lust for power (not for women) were most likely the doom for these men. Cleopatra was surely not a witch nor a whore and probably not even the most beautiful woman by those days’ standards. She was not a lustful she-wolf, but definitely a smart, educated, multilingual, adaptable, charismatic, unyielding and proud woman, who used the assets she could to secure her power. Until the very end, she defended her children’s rights to power. Cleopatra and Antony’s daughter Cleopatra Selene married an African prince from Numidia.

An Egyptian Cobra is hiding in the basket the servant is holding. It is very unlikely that this popular cobra was the cause of Cleopatra’s death. Johann Liss: The Death of Cleopatra, painted between 1622 and 1624.

While the story of independent Ancient Egypt came to an end with Cleopatra’s death, she is not to blame for that. Cleopatra’s rule, no matter how she is later presented, prolonged Egypt’s independence and gave some plentiful times for its residents.

This article is mostly based on Stacy Schiff’s book Cleopatra: A Life, as well as on remarks of female historians, such as Claudia Goldin, who have done research on great women. ‘Extremely well, befitting the last of so many noble rulers’ were the last words of Cleopatra’s servant Charmian in 1963 Mankiewicz film. Pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and in public domain or under fair use in the United States. Thumbnail by the author (2018).

Siiri Sinko

Helsinki '21

The author is a student of political history in the University of Helsinki. She is a sensible freak who enjoys the fine little details of life. Her interests and hobbies include history, music, visual arts, cartoons, national symbols and international competitions.
Helsinki Contributor