One of the few women who ruled ancient Egypt, Cleopatra VII was destined to be the last of her dynasty. But while she's often thought to be a great beauty who seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, historians aren't sure what Cleopatra looked like.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIE'S IMAGES / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
She ruled Egypt and seduced the Romans. But who was Cleopatra?
The legendary pharaoh is known for using her political savvy and considerable charm to gain power. But, in truth, there’s little we know for sure about her life.
PUBLISHED APRIL 28, 2023
9 MIN READ
Was she beautiful? Debatable. Was she charming? Probably. Was she politically astute and bent on using both her gender and her outsized power to further her needs? Certainly.
Perhaps no historical figure has so enflamed passions—and debates—than Cleopatra VII. Destined to be the last of her dynasty, the Egyptian pharaoh used seduction and political savvy to further the interests of ancient Egypt in the face of Roman expansion.
But though she is one of the best-known women in history, there’s little that historians and archaeologists can say for sure about Cleopatra. Here’s what is known about the legendary, yet mysterious, queen.
Who was Cleopatra?
Born to Egyptian king Ptolemy XII Auletes and an unknown mother in 69 B.C., Cleopatra was a member of an ancient Greek dynasty that had taken over Egypt in 305 B.C.
Though the Ptolemaic Kingdom had adopted some Egyptian religious traditions, it ruled from the largely Greek city of Alexandria. As a result, Cleopatra grew up speaking Koine Greek, though she was reportedly the only one of her lineage to also learn Egyptian. Her life would be inextricably bound to unrest in Egypt—and the politics of the Roman Empire.
Top: This ragment of a bas-relief bears the image of Cleopatra—or at least what the artist believed Cleopatra may have looked like.
G. DAGLI ORTI /© NPL - DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Bottom: A bronze coin with the profile of Cleopatra wearing a diadem. Coins found bearing her image tell conflicting stories of what Cleopatra might have looked like.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KENNETH GARRETT, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
How did she come to rule Egypt?
When her father died in 51 B.C. Cleopatra, then 18, was plunged into a controversy over which of Ptolemy XII’s children should rule Egypt. At first, she ruled jointly with the younger Ptolemy XIII, even marrying him in a nod to Egyptian tradition. But the young king wanted the throne for himself, and civil war soon broke out as they formed factions to help them gain full power. In response, Cleopatra briefly fled to Roman-controlled Syria.
Cleopatra’s father had been sympathetic to—and reliant on—Rome during his rule. The warring siblings were no different, and they quickly aligned themselves with different sides in Rome’s own brewing civil war. From her exile in Syria, Cleopatra turned to Julius Caesar, then a general and politician intent on becoming Rome’s sole dictator, for help regaining her throne.
Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
Despite a dramatic age difference—Caesar was about 30 years older than Cleopatra—and the fact that he was married, they began a romantic relationship, and he pledged his support for her.
In 47 B.C., while fleeing Caesar’s troops, Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile River near Alexandria. With Egypt in the hands of Caesar, Cleopatra took back the throne as her own, swiftly married her 12-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIV, and declared him her co-ruler. She gave birth to a child her contemporaries assumed to be Caesar’s son, whom she named Caesarion. (No, this is not the origin of the term “cesarean section.”)
Cleopatra and Caesar’s relationship lasted until his murder on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., at the hands of his enemies in the Senate.
Cleopatra had been on an extended visit to Rome at the time of Caesar’s murder and briefly remained there in the hopes of convincing the Romans to recognize Caesarion as the rightful heir of Roman power. Soon, though, she returned to Alexandria, where she is thought to have had her brother assassinated by poison before taking up her throne once more alongside Caesarion.
Antony and Cleopatra
PHOTOGRAPH BY THE HOLBARN ARCHIVE / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Caesar was dead, but Cleopatra’s relationship with Rome was far from over. Roman general Mark Antony—who had ascended to power as one of Rome’s three joint leaders, or triumvirs—demanded a meeting with Cleopatra in an effort to continue the Egyptian-Roman alliance. Eager to maintain Egypt’s close relationship with Rome, Cleopatra traveled to Tarsus in modern-day Turkey to meet him in 41 B.C.
Cleopatra is believed to have arrived in Tarsus in high style on a sumptuous barge. “Cleopatra invested her ocean excursions with carefully chosen costumes, divine associations, expensive textiles and jewels, music, and exotic essences,” writes art historian Diana E. E. Kleiner. The pharaoh meant to impress, and it worked. Almost immediately, she began a torrid love affair with the married Antony, who moved to Alexandria to be with her.
The fall off Cleopatra
But Antony’s infatuation with Cleopatra—and the reputed excesses of their life in the Egyptian seat of power—led to both their downfalls. The Roman ruler plunged into outright war with his co-triumvirs and his own people, who resented what they saw as Egypt’s influence in Roman affairs.
After a battle in 30 B.C., the Egyptian queen realized that Antony’s troops were headed to total defeat. So she barricaded herself in her royal mausoleum and told Antony she planned to kill herself. In response, Antony stabbed himself, eventually dying in her arms.
Cleopatra attempted to negotiate with Octavian, her lover’s former co-ruler, but when she realized he intended to take her captive and parade her in the streets as a prize, she again barricaded herself in her tomb with some servants and killed herself, likely with poison. The rule of her dynasty was over, and Egypt was taken over by Rome.
What we don't know about Cleopatra
Cleopatra's death has been dramatized many times throughout history—most notably in Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra—but historians have found little evidence of how her life ended.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TARKER / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Legend has it that Cleopatra took her life with the help of a poisonous viper called an asp, but there is no proof. Nor have archaeologists ever found the mausoleum where she, and likely Antony, died. As Chip Brown wrote for National Geographic's July 2011 issue, “Most of the glory that was ancient Alexandria now lies about 20 feet underwater.”
There’s also no way to gauge the accuracy of historical portrayals of the queen, which are deeply contradictory and show the biases of their time. Some extant coins show Cleopatra as a plain-looking woman, while others depict a mirror image of Antony, reflecting their makers’ opinions about the female ruler’s liaison with her Roman lover. Debates also still rage about Cleopatra’s race, although historians point out that not only do we not know for sure but our entire concept of race didn’t exist in Cleopatra’s time.
Written sources about Cleopatra are also scant. The library of Alexandria was destroyed multiple times, taking contemporary accounts of Cleopatra with it. According to the ancient chronicler Plutarch, whose biography of Antony is one of the most detailed accounts of Cleopatra’s reign, Cleopatra was a woman of “the most brilliant beauty and...at the acme of intellectual power.” But he wrote about the Egyptian queen hundreds of years after her death—and brought a decidedly Roman viewpoint to his work on the queen.
Despite our lack of understanding of Cleopatra’s life, she remains relevant today. From Shakespearean tragedy to Netflix docudrama, she has gained a nearly legendary reputation as a wily politician with an almost superhuman ability to seduce.
Though the former was almost certainly true, we may never know why some of the world’s most powerful men succumbed to Cleopatra’s charms. What is certain is that, more than 2,000 years after her death, the woman who so cannily ruled men—and her people—still manages to enchant and mystify modern audiences.