More than 2,000 years after she lived, much about Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, remains a mystery. But most experts agree on one thing: She knew how to make an entrance. Julius Caesar, ruler of Rome, learned that firsthand.
The year was 48 B.C.—and civil war was brewing in Egypt. Queen Cleopatra VII, then about 21, had been banished from the capital of Alexandria by her 14-year-old brother and co-ruler, King Ptolemy (TAH-luh-mee) XIII. In a camp to the east of the city, she waited with an army. Bloodshed was certain.
Caesar needed to prevent it. As Rome had become a rising power and conquered most of the land around the Mediterranean Sea (see map, "Cleopatra's World," below), the city-state had become more and more involved in Egypt’s affairs. A decade before, the Roman army had restored Cleopatra’s father to the throne after a revolt. Rome also depended heavily on Egyptian grain to feed its people. Now, seeking to keep the peace, Caesar sailed to Alexandria, took over part of the royal palace, and sent for the warring siblings.
Ptolemy, whose soldiers were blocking the main pathways to the capital, was counting on his troops to prevent his sister from showing up. Her next move, ancient historians say, was genius. In a tiny boat, she sailed south, away from Alexandria, on one branch of the Nile River. Then she sailed back to the capital on a different branch of the river. As dusk settled, she hid in a large sack. An aide slung it over his shoulder, then carried it into the palace. To Caesar’s astonishment, he soon found himself face-to-face with Cleopatra.
The Roman ruler was impressed—as was almost anyone who met the wily, resourceful young queen. Although Caesar had intended to place both siblings on the throne, he quickly saw that Cleopatra was someone Rome could depend on. Her brother Ptolemy, not so much.
The boy king was determined not to share the throne. He soon joined his army, which attacked Caesar at the palace. Ptolemy ultimately died in a clash with Roman soldiers, and when Caesar eventually departed Alexandria, he left Cleopatra as pharaoh.
For nearly 20 more years, she safeguarded the legacy of Egypt’s ancient civilization (see “What You Need to Know,” below). Cleopatra also, almost, did the impossible and kept Egypt independent from Rome.
But she would fail in the end. “The inevitable march of Rome was something she could not stop,” says historian Duane Roller. Still, risking everything, Cleopatra made her mark as one of the most skillful rulers in world history.