*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Widely regarded as one of the most beautiful and cunning women in world history, Cleopatra VII Philopator ended up on the wrong side of Rome on August 12, 30 BCE, killing herself as Octavian’s legions marched toward Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. Though legend says she held an asp to her chest after learning of her lover Mark Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium and subsequent suicide, there is no way to know for sure. What is certain, however, is Cleopatra’s death opened the door for Rome to be the dominant power in the Mediterranean for centuries to come.
The last of the Ptolemy monarchs, Cleopatra took the reins of the Egyptian empire in 51 BCE upon the death of her father Ptolemy XII Auletes. Though her family had spoken Greek for generations – the Ptolemies had gained control of the country when Alexander the Great’s kingdom was divided after his death – she made every effort to learn some Egyptian in order to be able to better converse with her subjects. Forced to marry her brothers according to local custom, she ruled with them separately. Using an affair with the powerful Roman general Julius Caesar, who defeated her brother Ptolemy XIII at the Nile, she managed to seize the throne for herself.
With her brothers out of the way, she elevated her son Caesarion – a love child conceived with Julius Caesar – to co-ruler after allegedly disposing of her brother Ptolemy XIV upon the assassination of the Roman Emperor in 44 BCE. The scandalous mistress to the dead emperor, Cleopatra hoped to expand her control by siding with those seeking to avenge her former lover in the Roman Civil War – Octavian and Mark Antony. Leading her navy toward what is today southern Greece, she received orders from the Caesarians to return to Alexandria due to the damage inflicted on her boats by a violent storm.
When she met Mark Antony in 41, ostensibly because he wished to secure her loyalty in his upcoming conflict with the Parthians to the east, she charmed him such that he decided to spend the winter with her in Alexandria. Late in 40 BCE, she gave birth to a son and daughter, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II, pushing public outcry in Rome against the Queen of Egypt to another level – Antony was married to Octavia Minor, his fellow leader Octavian’s sister.
In 37 BCE, Antony, on his way to attack Parthia, returned to Alexandria to rekindle the romance with Cleopatra and made the city his home for the rest of his life. Marrying her according to the Egyptian rite, the two conceived another child – and Rome became even more suspicious of her intentions. Octavian, having seen his relationship with Antony implode over the years, headed to the Senate floor to seek the right to wage war against Egypt.
Two years later, in 31, Octavian would defeat Antony in a pitched sea battle off the coast of Actium. Moving to land, the Roman armies began pushing toward Alexandria. Fearful and ill-equipped, the Egyptians surrendered, abandoning Antony on the field August 1, 30 BCE. According to Roman tradition, the general fell on his sword in disgrace.
Clearly no longer able to maintain her place as the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra ended up dead on August 12th – whether by the asp or a toxic drink is still up for debate to this day.