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Cleopatra VII, Last Queen of Egypt

Consort of Julius Caesar, Wife of Marc Antony

Cleopatra is one of those legendary and romantic figures of history who have captured the imaginations of every generation since her own time. She was the subject of one of Hollywood’s most popular movies, and her character in this movie was portrayed by an actress whose powerful intellect and personality, as well as whose human weaknesses, were similar to Cleopatra's own.

Cleopatra was an ambitious woman, determined to rule her kingdom and keep it out of the hands of the ever more powerful and expansionist Romans in Italy to the West. She was considered to be one of the most intelligent and canny female rulers of all times and was not afraid to utilize her feminine charms to advance her political ambitions. She was the lover of one powerful Roman leader and married to another.

Cleopatra was born in about 69 B. C., the daughter of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra VI. When her father died, she and her brother Ptolemy XIII were to rule Egypt jointly. It was the custom amongst Ptolemaic rulers that brother should marry sister and rule jointly. This was to ensure that none of the powerful families would gain enough influence to control the throne of Egypt. Instead of marrying her, Ptolemy exiled her and took over the throne himself. Cleopatra gathered an army and tried to take back what was rightfully hers, but was having no success.

In 48 B. C., Julius Caesar landed in Egypt, searching for Pompey, whom he had defeated at the battle of Pharsalus earlier that year. Some Egyptians thought they could gain Caesar's favor by murdering Pompey and presenting his head to Caesar, but Caesar instead mourned the death of a friend, even though Pompey had been his rival. Cleopatra, with her talent for seduction and a flair for the dramatic, used a much more subtle way to gain the attention and affection of Julius Caesar. She had herself rolled up in a carpet, and, disguised as a gift to the famous Roman, she was delivered by one of her slaves to Caesar's camp. Immediately captivated by her charm and wit, Caesar fell madly in love with the Egyptian queen.

Over the course of the next three years, the two royal lovers joined forces to defeat and kill her treacherous brother, took a trip up the Nile, and planned to carve out an empire for themselves. After Ptolemy XIII's death, she was compelled by custom to marry her other brother, Ptolemy XIV.

Caesar then took Cleopatra to Rome and set her up in a household of her own. Cleopatra had a son by Caesar whom she named Caesarion. Cleopatra was not very popular with the Romans, who resented this foreign queen who had seduced their popular leader. When Caesar was murdered in 44 B. C., Cleopatra decided that the wise thing to do would be to return to Egypt and try to make the best of things. After Caesar's death she got her second brother out of the way by poisoning him. She then ruled jointly with her infant son.

By this time, the rivalry between Marc Antony and Octavian had heated up to the point of becoming open civil war. Antony summoned Cleopatra to his camp to have her declare her loyalty to his cause or face the consequences. Instead, she came to him with her court, her royal barge all decked out in splendor. Of course, Cleopatra was the center of everyone’s attention, a rich and powerful Eastern queen surrounded by luxury.

Antony could no more resist the Egyptian queen than Caesar could before him. With Antony eating from the palm of her hand, she believed that she could use Roman military might to further her plans to build an Egyptian empire. Antony fell in love with and eventually married Cleopatra. In the meantime, Octavian was denouncing Antony and his Egyptian queen, saying that he wanted only to make Rome part of an Oriental empire ruled by a despot.

As time went on, Antony lost more and more support from Roman soldiers and citizens alike. The forces of Octavian were becoming stronger day by day. The showdown between the two was not long incoming. At Actium, in 31 B. C., Octavian's naval forces defeated Antony's fleet after Antony himself deserted them. It seems that Cleopatra, who had joined her ships with Antony's fleet, decided to cut and run in the midst of the battle. In fact, the battle was nowhere near a lost cause until after she had fled. Antony chose to take a boat himself and join his lover in flight instead of remaining with his men. The battle was soon over with most of Antony's men deserting or surrendering after he had gone.

Antony and Cleopatra had only a few short months left. After Actium, Octavian's army inexorably pushed onward, conquering Egypt after some spirited but wholly inadequate resistance. With troops entering Alexandria, Cleopatra retired to her own tomb to await the end. Antony had fallen on his sword in despair, but survived his suicide attempt long enough to be taken to Cleopatra, where he died in her arms. Cleopatra herself, rather than be taken alive, preferred suicide. She could not face the prospect of having to march in shame and degradation in Octavian's triumph, having once been a proud queen of an independent Egypt. As Roman soldiers searched noisily in the streets of Alexandria for Cleopatra, she accepted a final gift from one of her faithful serving girls. Hidden within a basket of fruit was a deadly poisonous asp. The bite from the snake was painless, and Cleopatra held the serpent to her breast. The poison worked swiftly, and her two servant girls followed her in death. When the soldiers finally broke into the tomb and roughly demanded where Cleopatra was, only one girl had enough life remaining to tell them that in death, Cleopatra had escaped her captors.

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