Who's Who: Cleopatra

by Jasmin Jahal, October 2001 (back)


Cleopatra VII was born in 69 B.C.  She was a part of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled ancient Egypt.  Although the Ptolemies were of Macedonian decent, they ruled as Egyptians, as Pharaohs.  The story of Cleopatra has become famous, as it is filled with love and war, alliance and intrigue, tragedy & drama, and especially because it is the end of an era in Egyptian history.

For two centuries, the Ptolemies allied themselves with the Romans, paying tribute to the powerful empire in order to keep them out of Egypt.  In 51 B.C. Ptolemy XII died, leaving the job of ruling Upper and Lower Egypt to his eldest living Daughter Cleopatra VII and to his eldest son Ptolemy XIII.  At the time, Cleopatra was only 17 years old and her brother 12.  As was the custom at the time, Cleopatra married her brother, but the joint rule didn't last very long.

Cleopatra was an educated woman, inheriting both the knowledge of the Egyptian culture and that of the Greek culture.  She was well versed in mathematics, literature, astronomy, and medicine, and could speak several languages.  In fact, she was the first Ptolemy to speak the Egyptian language.  Her intelligence was assisted by her beauty, charisma and passion.  These elements made her a powerful leader and a formidable foe.

In 50 B.C., Egypt had become a land riot and famine.  Several people sought to take over the government, including Cleopatra's younger sister, Arsinol, and three official councilors.  Ptolemy XIII was yet a child.  Thus, they felt he was much easier to control than the educated Cleopatra.  Together, they successfully drove Cleopatra into exile in 48 B.C.

Cleopatra collected her army and cleverly sought the aid of the great Julius Caesar.  Caesar came to Alexandria in 47 B.C.  There he received a gift of an oriental carpet, in which the 21-year-old Cleopatra had hidden herself because she knew her brother's spies would otherwise kill her.  Cleopatra instantly charmed Caesar, and they quickly became lovers.  He helped her overthrow Ptolemy XIII, but the victory paid a steep price.  During the fighting, the Great Library of Alexandria burned down.

Cleopatra was proclaimed the Queen of Egypt and married her youngest brother, 11-year-old Ptolemy XIV, to fulfill the obligations of custom and tradition.  Cleopatra and Caesar became inseparable.  They took a two-month cruise on the Nile river, visiting Dendara where Cleopatra was worshipped as Pharaoh.  Cleopatra bore him a son, named Caesarian.  In 45 B.C., she traveled with Caesar to Rome.  There she lived with him as his mistress, offending the conservative Republicans.  Cleopatra's social manners upset many.  She started calling herself the New Isis and was the subject of much gossip.  Caesar planned to marry Cleopatra despite the fact that he was already married and there were laws against bigamy as well as against marrying foreigners.  It was a difficult time for them.

In 44 B.C., a conspiracy of Senators assassinated Caesar, finding him too much of a threat.  Ptolemy XIV was poisoned, and Cleopatra hurriedly returned to Egypt.  Civil war reigned in Rome between Mark Anthony and Octavian, Caesar's heir.  Mark Anthony already had fallen in love with Cleopatra.  For the next three years, Cleopatra remained in Egypt, watchful over the outcome of the Civil War.  It became clear that Mark Anthony was the greater power.  He came to Egypt in 41 B.C., looking for Cleopatra.  The two united both politically and intimately.

A year later, Mark Anthony was recalled to Rome, and, for political reasons, married Octavia, the sister of Octavian.  Just after he left Egypt, Cleopatra bore him twins, a daughter, Selene, and a son, Alexander Helios.  They did not see Mark Anthony again for four years.

Eventually, Mark Anthony traveled east again, this time to lead a campaign against Parthes.  As soon as possible, Mark Anthony summoned Cleopatra to his side.  He was still quite in love with her, and they married.  A third child was born, another son.  The war with Parthes continued until Rome was victorious in 34 B.C.  Mark Anthony celebrated in Alexandria, and soon it became evident to Rome that he intended to stay with Cleopatra, rather than return to Octavia.  In 32 B.C., when Mark Anthony denied Octavia's request to return to Rome and instead chose to divorce her, Octavian declared war on Cleopatra.  They fought long and hard, culminating in one of the most famous battles in history.  The battle of Actium was fought off the coast of Greece in the Adriatic Sea between Octavian's forces and those of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.  Rome was the victor.  Cleopatra and Mark Anthony fled.

Octavian waited one year before he claimed Egypt as a Roman providence.  During this time, Cleopatra had a mausoleum built for her, a large squared tower with two windows.  The generals of Mark Anthony falsely report that she died in her mausoleum, driving Mark Anthony to throw himself upon his own sword to commit suicide.  Dying, he was taken to Cleopatra and learned she was yet alive.  Mark Anthony died in Cleopatra's arms and was buried as a king.

When Octavian entered Alexandria, he easily defeated the army.  Cleopatra was captured and taken to him.  He made it very clear that he had no intention of having a relationship with her, nor in negotiating with her.  He planned on taking Cleopatra to Rome to exhibit his triumph.  Cleopatra was not interested in becoming   a slave.  She locked herself in her mausoleum, which suited Octavian just fine.  He kept her there as if in prison until they traveled to Rome.  Three days before they were to leave Egypt, Cleopatra had two hand servants bring her a basket filled with figs.  Hidden within was a snake.  The Egyptians believed that death by snakebite secured immortality.  Cleopatra was bitten by the asp, as were the hand servants.  Octavian found them dead.

Following Cleopatra's death, Caesar's son, Caesarian, was strangled, and the two sons of Mark Anthony mysteriously disappeared in strange circumstances.  Selene was taken to Rome to be raised by Octavia.  Egypt became a Roman providence.  A whole era in Egyptian history was closed.  The age of Egyptian monarchs ended, giving way to the age of the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of Egypt.  Her reign lasted from 51-30 B.C.  Her life formed the basis for many literary works, the most notable being the play "Anthony and Cleopatra" by Shakespeare.  Films were made about her, including a fantastic film by J.L. Mankiewicz in 1963, starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Mark Anthony.

The story of Cleopatra is brought to present day through colossal sculptures, bronzes, paintings, ceramics, gems and caricatures that are stored and displayed in the British Museum in London.  Hundreds of artifacts and pieces of artwork will be exhibited on loan at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, from October 20, 2001, through March 3, 2002.  The exhibit, entitled "Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth", will be the only showing in the U.S.  It will include a free play that will run every Saturday afternoon telling the story of Cleopatra and including singing, music and dance.  I am honored to have been contracted to be the choreographer for this play.  The exhibit will reveal Cleopatra as one of history's most powerful rulers, an aspect of her life not emphasized by most Hollywood portrayals.  If you can travel to Chicago in the next five months, it would be worth your while to visit this great exhibit about a great queen of Egypt.

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©2001 Jasmin Jahal