What was Cleopatra? - History, Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and achievements of the Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra and test your understanding about ancient Egypt, the Greek Empire, and the Roman Empire.

Walk Like an Egyptian

When we think about Egyptians, we usually think pyramids, mummies, cats, and, of course, Cleopatra. But who was Cleopatra? The last true Pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra was a complex figure who wasn't even Egyptian; her family was Greek! Nevertheless, Cleopatra has made a sizable impact on history and is a name we all know today.


Background and Power

Cleopatra VII Philopator (69 BC- 30 BCE) was born in the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt. When Alexander the Great (356-323) took control of Egypt, he placed his general, Ptolemy, in charge. When Alexander died, Ptolemy became the King and Pharaoh of Egypt. His heirs, the Ptolemaic Dynasty, refused to speak Egyptian and only used Greek. Court documents, including the famous Rosetta Stone, had to be in both languages. Cleopatra was the first to speak Egyptian and revive the custom of presenting herself as a reincarnation of the god Isis. She rose to the throne at age 14 and ruled with her father in 55 BCE after a relative tried to steal power. When Cleopatra's father died four years later, she ruled with her brother, Ptolemy XIII, who was 10 and had little real power and left Cleopatra as the true Pharaoh. Cleopatra made enemies with Roman troops in Egypt, the Gabiniani, and was deposed around 48 BCE, leaving her younger brother as the Pharaoh.

Roman marble bust of Cleopatra

Cleopatra went into exile around the same time civil war broke out in Rome between the forces of Pompey and Julius Caesar. Pompey fled to Alexandria, in Egypt, where Ptolemy had him killed to try and ally with Caesar. It didn't work; Pompey was a Roman citizen and had married Caesar's daughter, so Caesar was outraged that someone would interfere in Roman affairs. Caesar seized Egypt.

Cleopatra and Rome

Caesar planned to make Egypt part of the Roman Empire and was very upset with Ptolemy, so Cleopatra saw a chance to restore her power. She had herself smuggled into Caesar's palace, allegedly rolled up in a carpet, and quickly became his mistress. In 41 BCE she gave birth to their son and named him Ptolemy Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion. Ultimately, Julius Caesar decided to let Egypt be its own kingdom, left Cleopatra as Pharaoh, and defeated Ptolemy's armies. Ptolemy drowned in the Nile during the battle.

Roman coins of Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra

When Caesar was murdered in 44 BCE, war broke out in Rome as people tried to claim power. Egypt was contested territory during the war, and in 41 BCE the Roman general, politician and Caesar supporter Mark Antony asked Cleopatra to meet with him to ally in the war. He was so impressed by her that he stayed in Egypt for the winter. In 40 BCE Cleopatra gave birth to their twins, Alexander and Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra were married four years later. By 33 BCE, Mark Antony's relations with the other main leader of Rome, Octavian, fell apart and Octavian attacked Egypt.

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