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The Last Pharoah

The Last Pharoah

Cleopatra was a brilliant young queen in a race against time, trying to save her ancient Egyptian kingdom from the rising power of Rome. Ultimately, she would fail—yet become legendary as one of the most famous rulers in history.

As You Read, Think About: What made Cleopatra such a legendary leader?

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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.

Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, lived more than 2,000 years ago. Much about her is still a mystery. However, 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. In Egypt, civil war was brewing. Queen Cleopatra VII was about 21. She had been forced to leave 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. Rome had become a rising power. It had conquered most of the land around the Mediterranean Sea (see map, "Cleopatra's World," below). And the city-state had become more and more involved in Egypt’s affairs. A decade before, the Roman army had put Cleopatra’s father back on the throne after a revolt. Rome also depended heavily on Egyptian grain to feed its people. Now Caesar wanted to keep the peace. So he sailed to Alexandria. He took over part of the royal palace and sent for the warring siblings.

Ptolemy had soldiers blocking the main pathways to the capital. He was counting on his troops to keep his sister from showing up. Ancient historians say her next move 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 surprise, he soon found himself face-to-face with Cleopatra.

The Roman ruler was impressed. So was almost anyone who met the clever, resourceful young queen. Caesar had intended to put both siblings on the throne. But 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 later died in a clash with Roman soldiers. When Caesar departed Alexandria, he left Cleopatra as pharaoh.

For nearly 20 more years, she protected 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 Duane Roller, a historian. Still, Cleopatra risked everything. And she made her mark as one of the most skillful rulers in world history.

What You Need to Know

iStockPhoto/Getty Images

To this day, experts don’t know how the massive pyramids of Giza were constructed.

Ancient Egypt: For almost 30 centuries, beginning around 3000 B.C., one of the world’s first great civilizations thrived in the Nile River Valley. There, major discoveries were made in many fields of knowledge, such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Egyptians invented a 360-day calendar, black ink, and a type of toothpaste. Their use of the plow and irrigation with the Nile’s waters helped turn a desert land into a flourishing kingdom. The construction of Egypt’s majestic pyramids remains a wonder.

Ancient Egypt: For almost 30 centuries, beginning around 3000 B.C., one of the world’s first great civilizations thrived in the Nile River Valley. There, major discoveries were made in many fields of knowledge, such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Egyptians invented a 360-day calendar, black ink, and a type of toothpaste. Their use of the plow and irrigation with the Nile’s waters helped turn a desert land into a flourishing kingdom. The construction of Egypt’s majestic pyramids remains a wonder.

Young Cleopatra

One surprising but important fact about Cleopatra is that Egypt’s last pharaoh was not, strictly speaking, Egyptian. Her family descended from Ptolemy I, who was originally from the European kingdom of Macedonia. He was a chief officer under Alexander the Great, the famed military commander who conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. After Alexander’s death, his top generals divided up his empire. Ptolemy took control of Egypt and founded a dynasty that lasted for 300 years. 

Ptolemy I moved the kingdom’s capital from the city of Memphis to Alexandria. Over time, Alexandria became one of the greatest cities of its day. Its university and library were the source of much of the ancient world’s learning. A center of trade, its streets teemed with people from all over the known world.

And yet, says Roller, “the Ptolemies had little contact with the mass of Egyptians, essentially never leaving Alexandria.” That was something Cleopatra, born in 69 B.C., would change.

As a child of royalty, Cleopatra received the best education available. Historians say she was exceptionally smart, spoke multiple languages, and possessed great charm. Displaying a strong interest in the people who would later become her subjects, she may have been the only member of her family’s dynasty to learn the Egyptian language.

Following a longstanding practice, Cleopatra and her younger brother became co-rulers when their father died in 51 B.C. It would take every bit of her smarts to survive what she had inherited.

One surprising but important fact about Cleopatra is that Egypt’s last pharaoh was not, strictly speaking, Egyptian. Her family descended from Ptolemy I. He was originally from the European kingdom of Macedonia. Ptolemy I was a chief officer under Alexander the Great, the famed military commander who conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. After Alexander’s death, his top generals divided up his empire. Ptolemy I took control of Egypt. He founded a dynasty that lasted for 300 years.

Ptolemy I moved the kingdom’s capital from the city of Memphis to Alexandria. Over time, Alexandria became one of the greatest cities of its day. Its university and library were the source of much of the ancient world’s learning. It was also a center of trade. Its streets were crowded with people from all over the known world.

And yet, says Roller, “the Ptolemies had little contact with the mass of Egyptians, essentially never leaving Alexandria.” That was something Cleopatra, born in 69 B.C., would change.

As a child of royalty, Cleopatra received the best education available. Historians say she was exceptionally smart. She spoke multiple languages. She possessed great charm. She may also have been the only member of her family’s dynasty to learn the Egyptian language. She showed a strong interest in the people who would later become her subjects.

Following a longstanding practice, Cleopatra and her younger brother became co-rulers when their father died in 51 B.C. It would take all of her smarts to survive what she had inherited.

Queen, Goddess, CEO

Especially after her brother’s death, Cleopatra threw herself into the task of ruling Egypt. Doing so involved a steady stream of meetings, decisions, and demands for justice from ordinary citizens who came to her with their complaints. 

The lives of the Egyptian people—and the wealth of the royal family—depended on the grain that grew each year after the Nile flooded over its banks onto the fields. Cleopatra oversaw an enormously complex farming system that included distributing seeds and gathering crops. In bad years, when there wasn’t enough rain to flood the Nile, she would open up the kingdom’s stores of grain to hungry villagers.

Especially after her brother’s death, Cleopatra threw herself into the job of ruling Egypt. Doing so involved a steady stream of meetings, decisions, and demands for justice from ordinary citizens who came to her with their complaints.

The lives of the Egyptian people, and the royal family’s wealth, depended on grain. It grew each year after the Nile flooded over its banks onto the fields. Cleopatra oversaw a hugely complex farming system. It included giving out seeds and gathering crops. In bad years, there was not enough rain to flood the Nile. So she would open the kingdom’s stores of grain to hungry villagers.

With Cleopatra in charge, Egypt was prosperous and at peace.

The queen embraced Egypt’s deep cultural history. Cleopatra regularly appeared at religious festivals dressed as Isis, the Egyptian goddess whose tears were said to cause the Nile to rise. Ordinary Egyptians worshipped her for it.

“She was [judge], high priest, queen, and goddess,” writes historian Stacy Schiff. “She was also—on a day-to-day basis and far more frequently—chief executive officer.”

Cleopatra was no saint, however. She was probably involved in killing at least two rival siblings. But in the first years after Caesar left her in charge, the kingdom of Egypt was prosperous and at peace.

Importantly, Caesar also left her with an heir. In 47 B.C., Cleopatra gave birth to a son called Caesarion, who the Roman ruler would later acknowledge as his child.

What could go wrong?

The queen embraced Egypt’s deep cultural history. Cleopatra regularly appeared at religious festivals dressed as Isis, the Egyptian goddess whose tears were said to cause the Nile to rise. Ordinary Egyptians worshipped her for it.

“She was [judge], high priest, queen, and goddess,” writes Stacy Schiff, a historian. “She was also—on a day-to-day basis and far more frequently—chief executive officer.”

Cleopatra was no saint, however. She was probably involved in killing at least two rival siblings. But in the first years after Caesar left her in charge, the kingdom of Egypt was wealthy and at peace.

Importantly, Caesar also left her with an heir. In 47 B.C., Cleopatra gave birth to a son called Caesarion. The Roman ruler would later acknowledge him as his child.

What could go wrong?

Illustration by David Saavedra

Cleopatra and Marc Antony forged a fateful alliance in Tarsus.

Civil War in Rome

In March 44 B.C., peace in the Mediterranean was shaken when Caesar was assassinated in Rome by a group of rebels. The murder would lead to a civil war that concluded two years later when the rebels were defeated by two of Caesar’s allies: Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, and a brilliant army officer named Marc Antony. 

After the war, Antony and Octavian agreed to be co-rulers, overseeing different Roman territories. Antony took land to the east, including in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). There, he set up camp at the city of Tarsus. Hearing a rumor that the queen of Egypt had aided the rebels who had killed Caesar, he sent for Cleopatra to report to him. 

Again, she made a memorable entrance. One day in the summer of 41 B.C., Antony received word of an amazing sight. It was the queen of Egypt, sailing up the river to Tarsus on a flower-covered ship to the music of flutes and harps. She lay under a canopy as young maidens steered the craft and the scent of incense wafted to shore. Cleopatra had come to report.

Like Caesar before him, Antony was wowed. Over the next few days, the two leaders met several times. Antony was not only satisfied by Cleopatra’s assurances of loyalty, he was impressed by her intelligence—along with the wealth of Egypt displayed in the jewels, tapestries, and golden drinking cups she had brought with her. The two may have discussed whether she could fund Antony’s plan to conquer Parthia (in modern-day Iran).

Later that year, Antony paid a visit to Alexandria. In late 40 B.C., Cleopatra gave birth to their twins. Once again, the queen had a link to a powerful Roman leader who could help safeguard her kingdom.

In March 44 B.C., peace in the Mediterranean was shaken. Caesar was assassinated in Rome by a group of rebels. The murder would lead to a civil war. The war ended two years later when the rebels were defeated by two of Caesar’s allies. The allies were Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, and a brilliant army officer named Marc Antony.

After the war, Antony and Octavian agreed to be co-rulers. They oversaw different Roman territories. Antony took land to the east, including in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). There, he set up camp at the city of Tarsus. He heard a rumor that the queen of Egypt had aided the rebels who had killed Caesar. So he sent for Cleopatra to report to him.

Again, she made a memorable entrance. One day in the summer of 41 B.C., Antony received word of an amazing sight. It was the queen of Egypt, sailing up the river to Tarsus on a flower-covered ship to the music of flutes and harps. She lay under a canopy as young maidens steered the craft. The scent of incense wafted to shore. Cleopatra had come to report.

Like Caesar before him, Antony was wowed. Over the next few days, the two leaders met several times. Antony was satisfied by Cleopatra’s assurances of loyalty. He was also impressed by her intelligence and by the wealth of Egypt displayed in the jewels, tapestries, and golden drinking cups she had brought with her. The two may have discussed whether she could fund Antony’s plan to conquer Parthia (in modern-day Iran).

Later that year, Antony visited Alexandria. In late 40 B.C., Cleopatra gave birth to their twins. Once again, the queen had a link to a powerful Roman leader who could help protect her kingdom.

Antony and Cleopatra

By the time the babies were born, Antony and Cleopatra had gone back to their daily lives. For a few more years, all was calm in Egypt. 

But trouble eventually returned. Over time, Rome’s two ambitious rulers, Antony and Octavian, began to clash. Antony’s campaign against Parthia, paid for by Cleopatra, resulted in an embarrassing defeat. He began spending more and more time with the Egyptian queen—and not with his wife, Octavian’s sister. To make things worse, Antony began granting lands to Cleopatra that Rome had seized around the Mediterranean Sea.

By the time the babies were born, Antony and Cleopatra had gone back to their daily lives. For a few more years, all was calm in Egypt.

But trouble eventually returned. Over time, Rome’s two ambitious rulers, Antony and Octavian, began to clash. Antony’s campaign against Parthia was paid for by Cleopatra. It resulted in an embarrassing defeat. He began spending more time with the Egyptian queen instead of with his wife, Octavian’s sister. To make things worse, Antony began granting lands to Cleopatra that Rome had seized around the Mediterranean Sea.

In bravely facing an unstoppable foe, Cleopatra became a legend.

Then in 34 B.C., Cleopatra and Antony held a grand ceremony in Alexandria. The couple sat side by side on golden thrones. Going forward, they announced, Cleopatra was to be known as “Queen of Kings.” Caesarion, her 13-year-old son by Julius Caesar, was to be called “King of Kings.” Octavian—who had been adopted by the former Roman ruler—must have been alarmed at the symbolism. Egypt was on the rise again, the ceremony seemed to announce. Would the only biological heir of the great Caesar someday come to claim Rome as rightfully his?

Octavian and his supporters began to denounce Antony—often by verbally attacking Cleopatra. Antony had disgraced himself by falling for a foreign queen, they said. They even claimed Cleopatra was demanding that Antony make Rome an Egyptian province!

Yet Antony remained popular in Rome, and Octavian did not want to start a new civil war. So in 32 B.C., he instead declared war on Cleopatra.

Then in 34 B.C., Cleopatra and Antony held a grand ceremony in Alexandria. The couple sat side by side on golden thrones. They announced that going forward, Cleopatra was to be known as “Queen of Kings.” Caesarion, her 13-year-old son by Julius Caesar, was to be called “King of Kings.” Octavian, who had been adopted by the former Roman ruler, must have been alarmed at the symbolism. The ceremony seemed to announce that Egypt was on the rise again. Would Caesarion, the only biological heir of the great Caesar, someday claim Rome as rightfully his?

Octavian and his supporters began to find fault with Antony. They often did so by verbally attacking Cleopatra. They said Antony had disgraced himself by falling for a foreign queen. They even claimed Cleopatra was demanding that Antony make Rome an Egyptian province!

Yet Antony remained popular in Rome. Octavian did not want to start a new civil war. So in 32 B.C., he instead declared war on Cleopatra.