The Real Cleopatra
"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety" (Act III, Scene 13)
The life of Cleopatra is a story of love, greed, and romance. Cleopatra lived after the era of the pharaohs had passed, but in some parts of her kingdom the Egyptian people worshipped her. Cleopatra was born in Egypt 69 years before the common era, but her ancestry was Greek
Alexander the Great was a military genius from Macedonia, a mountainous land north of Greece. He led his army into Egypt and freed the Egyptian people from Persian rule. The grateful Egyptian people worshipped Alexander as a pharaoh. Alexander's empire was divided among his top generals when he died in 336 BCE. Ptolemy became the ruler of Egypt and the first ruler of the Ptolemic dynasty.
Ptolemy XII was Cleopatra's father. When he died in 51 BCE, Ptolemy XII willed that seventeen-year-old Cleopatra and her twelve-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, were to marry and rule Egypt. Cleopatra was a very different ruler than the Ptolemies who came before her. She learned the Egyptian language; the other Ptolemies spoke only Greek. Cleopatra also practiced the religious customs of Egypt, and many of the Egyptians viewed her as a pharaoh. In 48 BCE, Cleopatra's generals found they could not control her, so they ousted Cleopatra and made her brother the sole monarch of Egypt.
A few months later, a Roman army led by Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt. Caesar was pursuing another Roman army that tried to keep him from returning to Rome. Caesar's army was much larger than the Egyptian forces, so Cleopatra concluded that Caesar could return her to power. She arranged to have a huge carpet was delivered to the 54-year-old Caesar. When he unrolled it, he found the 22-year-old former queen wrapped inside. Caesar and Cleopatra became lovers, and the Roman general led his army to capture and kill the people who removed her from power. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile while trying to flee.
Egyptian law did not allow a queen to rule without a king, so Cleopatra married another brother, Ptolemy XIV, but she was in love with Caesar. Caesar and Cleopatra spent the next several months traveling along the Nile, where Caesar saw how the Egyptian people worshipped Cleopatra. Caesar was a very powerful general who conquered many lands, but he knew that becoming a pharaoh was something he could not ever achieve.
Caesar returned to Rome in 46 BCE with Cleopatra and their newborn son, Caesarion. Caesar was very popular with the Roman people. They named him dictator. A dictator is a ruler with complete power. Cleopatra was less popular with the Romans. She had called herself the "new Isis." Many Romans were unhappy that Caesar was planning to marry a foreigner. Caesar was murdered in 44 BCE, so Cleopatra left Rome to return to Egypt. She murdered Ptolemy XIV and named her four-year-old son as the new king.
Rome was in turmoil after Caesar's murder. Several armies competed for control. The two greatest were those of Mark Antony and Octavian. Octavian was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, but Mark Antony was believed to have led a larger army. When Antony asked Cleopatra to meet with him, Cleopatra decided that she had another opportunity to return to power both in Egypt, and in Rome. A legend says that Cleopatra adorned her ship with so many rose petals that the Romans knew of her fragrance before they could see her ship. She walked off the ship dressed as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Antony was immediately love-struck with the Egyptian queen. Antony was already married to Octavian's sister, but he took Cleopatra as his wife, and they had two children.
Octavian's army defeated Mark Antony's forces and led an invasion of Egypt in 30 BCE. Antony committed suicide by falling on his sword. When Octavian called Cleopatra to appear before him, she attempted to charm him, but Octavian showed no interest. Fearing that she would be forced to live as a slave in the land she once ruled, Cleopatra decided it would be better to end her life. According to legend, the former queen asked that an asp, an Egyptian cobra, be delivered to her in a basket of figs. The asp was a symbol of divine royalty to the Egyptians, so by allowing the asp to bite her, Cleopatra is said to have become immortal.
The preceding essay is copyright 1998 Mike Dowling, Roosevelt Middle School, West Palm Beach, FL
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