Cunning, charming and captivating, the Egyptian Cleopatra was horrifying, yet fascinating to many of Rome’s citizens.
|Relief sculpture of Cleopatra at the Temple of Hathor, Dandara, Egypt
Just when she may have thought she was in sight of the Roman throne – the biggest prize in the ancient world – her own world came crashing down.
Cleo and Julius
In the middle of the civil war that would bring him to power, Julius Caesar spent the winter of 48 BC in Egypt. There he met Cleopatra, the woman who would set Roman nerves on edge for most of the next 20 years.
Cleopatra was soon to become Queen of Egypt, the richest kingdom in the Mediterranean. With Caesar already notorious for his sexual energy, the two became lovers almost immediately.
The following year, Caesar returned home and, in 46 BC, was named dictator of Rome. Cleopatra followed, bringing along her young son Ptolemy XV Caesar, also called Caesarion, whom she claimed was the son of Julius Caesar.
Romans did not know what to make of her. They were horrified by having an Egyptian Queen in Rome, yet fascinated by the woman herself. Her charm clearly won them over and many members of Rome’s elite visited her temporary palace in Rome (reserved for her by Caesar) and paid her homage.
Love didn’t last
This love-in was short-lived. By 44 BC, Caesar was dead and Rome had again sunk into civil war. Cleopatra returned to Egypt as Caesar’s great-nephew and heir, Augustus, teamed up with Marc Antony and Lepidus to fight Caesar’s assassins.
By 42 BC, Augustus and his allies had gained the upper hand. They divided the Roman Empire between them. Augustus took Rome, and Marc Antony took Egypt.
Cleo and Marc
Marc Antony fell in love with Cleopatra soon after they first met. Captivated, he decided to stay with her in Egypt.
The news spread quickly and worried many Romans. They believed that Cleopatra was planning the unthinkable and wanted to rule Rome for herself.
Rumors then spread that Marc Antony and Cleopatra had married. In truth, this is unlikely: he was already married – to Augustus’ sister, Octavia – and it was illegal for a citizen to marry somebody who was not. But to many, the rumors seemed to confirm that Marc Antony had fallen for the worst possible type of woman and switched sides.
Walk like an Egyptian
To make matters worse, Antony and Cleopatra portrayed themselves as the earthly version of the divine couple. They adopted the images of both the Greek gods Aphrodite and Dionysus, and their Egyptian counterparts, Isis and Osiris.
Relations between Augustus and Marc Antony disintegrated. In Rome, Augustus let loose a barrage of negative publicity about the couple. He then revealed that Marc Antony had made arrangements to leave large gifts and royal titles in his will to his illegitimate children by Cleopatra.
A final solution
This was widely seen as definitive proof that Antony and Cleopatra were leaders of a rival empire and wanted to invade Italy and conquer Rome for themselves. Augustus urged the Senate to strip Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra.
In 31 BC, Augustus’ army and navy clashed with Antony and Cleopatra's Egyptian forces at Actium in Greece, in what Virgil would later depict as an epic struggle of eastern barbarians against western civilization.
Over for good
The Egyptians were completely outgunned and outmaneuvered and the battle destroyed three-quarters of their fleet. Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Alexandria but, within a year, the city was besieged by Roman soldiers.
Rather than be captured and taken to Rome as prisoners, the two lovers committed suicide. Augustus was now the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire, an empire which finally included the great kingdom of Egypt.
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Emperors - Augustus
Emperors - Julius Caesar