Who is Cleopatra?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

­Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of Egypt. She is famous in Western culture because of her alleged affairs with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and these affairs tend to be the focal points of biographies featuring her, but she was also beautiful, intelligent, and passionately devoted to Egypt's well-being. The well educated and savvy woman fought hard for Egypt during her lifetime, although she ultimately failed to secure freedom from Rome. These traits are sometimes forgotten when she is discussed, but they provide vital clues into her life and ultimate death.

Although Cleopatra was Greek, she was a pharaoh of Egypt based on the dynasty from which she descended.
Although Cleopatra was Greek, she was a pharaoh of Egypt based on the dynasty from which she descended.

The girl who became known as Cleopatra was born in 69 BC. She was Greek, not Egyptian, descended from the Ptolemaic dynasty, which had ruled over Egypt since 305 BC. Technically, she was Cleopatra VII, since this was a popular name among the dynasty, but since she is the most famous of the Cleopatras, the “VII” is usually dropped. She was also a co-regent, sharing power with her brother, Ptolemy XIII, and later with Ptolemy XIV, as well as her son, Caesarion, who was executed shortly after her death.

Julius Caesar is said to have been one of Cleopatra's lovers.
Julius Caesar is said to have been one of Cleopatra's lovers.

The Egypt that she was born into was a land slowly facing Roman subjugation. Although the Ptolemies tried to keep Rome out of Egypt, maintaining some form of independence for the country, it was evident that Rome would eventually seize control. Cleopatra actually spent some time in Rome, where she met Julius Caesar and had a child that she claimed was his. To her displeasure, Caesar refused to recognize the child as his heir, and after his assassination, she returned to Egypt.

Cleopatra was featured in a play written by William Shakespeare.
Cleopatra was featured in a play written by William Shakespeare.

Once in Egypt, the embattled co-monarch met Marc Antony, a powerful Roman official. Recognizing that allying with Rome might be better than giving in, she entered into an affair with Antony, who later killed himself when he received erroneous news of her death. Before his death, the couple had three children, who ended up in Rome, brought up by Octavia Minor, Antony's Roman wife. Cleopatra followed Antony in death shortly afterwards, allegedly allowing herself to be bitten by an asp in a basket of figs.

As a historical figure, Cleopatra has been heavily romanticized in popular culture. A 1963 film starring Elizabeth Taylor catapulted her into the popular imagination, and audiences had already been entertained for centuries by Shakespeare's eponymous play. Ultimately, her attempts to maintain Ptolemaic control of Egypt were unsuccessful, and Rome was governing the country within months of her death. Several extant busts and paintings document her appearance and accomplishments.

Cleopatra and the Ptolemies tried to keep Rome out of Egypt.
Cleopatra and the Ptolemies tried to keep Rome out of Egypt.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I read Cleopatra was small busted and big hipped, not ugly but more a plain Jane look and not very tall.


She could have been very ugly!


Cleopatra only conquered many because she had a good personality. She was charming and enchanting and also educated.


i think the writer of this story is confused. if you read the last paragraph, it says that antony killed himself after he heard the news of cleopatra's death, then the last sentence says that cleopatra killed herself after antony died. so who died first?


i read this book about her it says she had a sister and that her sister was evil. they said she was a beautiful girl. they think her eyes are blue in the book. she was not evil and her father died because he was poisoned by a drink.


Clearly, Cleopatra used opium or a similar addictive drug, added to food or administered during sexual encounters, or both, to gain control of Caesar, then Marc Anthony while they were guests in Egypt.

They would have been familiar with excesses of both sex and food, but it was addiction to the decadent Eastern drugs, which Cleopatra would have had extensive knowledge of, which turned them into desperate slaves who disgusted their fellow Romans.

I'm surprised that this is not evident to scholars.


Yes they are right beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we may never actually know if she was ugly, fat or whatever. What they considered ugly then may be considered beautiful now, and marc Antony did die before her. Marc was so upset at the loss of alexandria to octavian and an unknown source had told him that cleopatra had already killed herself when in fact, she hadn't, but when she got the news that he had committed suicide by falling on his sword and had lost alexandria to octavian, she had committed suicide as well for the same reasons marc did.

Cleopatra committed suicide using poison, not by allowing herself to be bitten by an asp, says a German scholar. He deduced that the widely known story of Cleopatra killing herself by allowing an Egyptian cobra to bite her was false, despite having made it into Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. "It is certain that there was no cobra," historian Christoph Schaefer tells CNN.

Schaefer sees several reasons why a death by snakebite is unlikely. For one, Cleopatra wanted to die, and an asp's venom may not be fatal. Cleopatra knew about poisons, and the Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that she died a "quiet and pain-free death." The asp's poison would have been agonizing, and Schaefer postulates Cleopatra used hemlock, mixed with wolfsbane and opium. "Opium is quiet and with it, one can really fall into a deadly sleep," he said.


i had read it from a book that says that cleopatra was not a beautiful woman. She was just charming and intelligent and that's why she had an appeal for many people in Egypt.


Since she was so cruel, she made me laugh.


She only had affairs with two people? and yes, she was terrible. she stuck golden pins into her slaves and fed them poison to watch the effects.


I read that Cleopatra was kind of ugly, so how was she having so many affairs and marrying so many people, plus what made them so attracted to her? Ugh!


other sources say that Marc Antony died before Cleopatra, not vice versa as it had been written in this article. So, not quite sure which is more historically accurate.


but one has to remember that being over weight was considered to be beautiful and that one can't judge a woman by today's standards. beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


Somewhere else on the net, this person says he is reading from the book of knowledge. And it shows that Cleopatra was not beautiful but more manly and overweight in the upper-body. It also says that she was a terrible woman.

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