The life of Cleopatra VII, the last Egyptian pharaoh, was infamous, but she was far more than just the lover of Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Born in 69 BC, she was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes, a notoriously lackadaisical monarch, and rose to power as co-ruler with her brother in 51 BC.
Who was Cleopatra, aside from a queen? Eventually, after her other siblings died or were killed, Cleopatra became sole ruler of Egypt, with Caesar's help. They conceived a secret love child, but after his death, she took up with his number one guy, Antony. They had a ton of fun together, but trouble was brewing in the form of Antony's brother-in-law and arch-rival, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus). Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in Greece in 31 BC, after which she and Antony committed suicide.
And what did Cleopatra do during her reign? She maintained Egypt's independence until her dying breath by allying herself with her most powerful enemies, and in the tradition of Hellenistic and Egyptian monarchs, she divinized herself and played the role of a goddess. Unlike her predecessors, though, Cleopatra bothered to learn Egyptian, making herself popular with her subjects. Brilliant, charming, and ruthless, Cleopatra was one of the most fascinating rulers of the ancient world.
Cleopatra Was Probably No Elizabeth Taylor in the Looks Department
Sadly for Cleopatra, she probably didn't match her famed portrayer in the looks department. Archaeologists uncovered a coin bearing her face, on which she looks pretty plain, but ancient accounts differ. Roman historian Cassius Dio claimed "she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking." Plutarch alleged that her intelligence, charm, and voice were more alluring than her physical appearance, though neither of these accounts were contemporary. But the academic consensus today is that her political brilliance and alluring manner were her real attractions.
Cleopatra Used Julius Caesar to Help Her Get the Throne
Cleo didn't flirt with Caesar because he was hot; she used him to get what she wanted. Rome started to threaten Egypt during her father's reign, with some politicians talking about annexing Egypt and granting its lands to the Roman citizenry. Cleopatra's father fled to the Eternal City once he was deposed, and the Senate - and Caesar - helped him get his throne back, but at a cost. The Romans gave him a "finance minister" to help him out, but the guy stole a lot of money from Egypt.
Cleopatra needed money and military help to stay in power, so she matched wits with the man at the top - Julius Caesar. Cleo used him to cultivate military support for herself over her little brothers. They met in 48 BC, when Caesar's arch-rival Pompey landed on Egyptian shores and was promptly killed by Cleo's little brother. Caesar followed Pompey and came to Egypt, where he met a brilliant young queen who appealed to him intellectually and sexually. And history was made.
Legend Says She Smuggled Herself Into Caesar's Bedroom Wrapped Up in a Rug
Legend has it that Cleopatra had herself wrapped in a rug and smuggled into Caesar's room, but that was probably false. Plutarch states she was tucked into a "bed sack" (probably a bag for royal linens) and plopped into his chambers. Other sources claim she was rolled into a carpet to evade her brother's forces. Regardless of how she really arrived at Caesar's side, it is no wonder he was enraptured with her: she was brilliant, charming, sexy, and less than half his age.
They went on Nile cruises together, probably made love until dawn, and exchanged political ideas. Who knows exactly what they discussed? But he did leave her with a present - a bun in the oven.
Cleopatra Made Herself a Goddess
In true Egyptian fashion, Cleopatra declared herself a goddess. Although her Ptolemaic predecessors had done the same, often assuming the roles of Greek deities, she went one step further and echoed previous Ptolemaic queens by associating herself with Isis, the mother goddess. Isis was the mother of Horus, the first pharaoh-god of Egypt.
By making herself Isis incarnate, Cleopatra was declaring she was the divine mother and protectress of the Two Lands and her people. She also tied herself to her subjects and solidified her rule. Like Isis and other mortal queens, Cleopatra married her brother(s). She wore sacred robes at a festival and had herself portrayed as Isis in statuary. She was dubbed "Nea Isis," or "new Isis." In fact, her consort Mark Antony became Osiris in these depictions, to show that a divine pair was once again ruling Egypt.
She Was Married to Two of Her Own Brothers (And May Have Killed One of Them)
In true royal Egyptian fashion, members of the Ptolemaic dynasty married their siblings and immediate relatives. Cleopatra was no different. Upon the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, this 18-year-old began to rule Egypt alongside her 10-year-old brother, the inventively named Ptolemy XIII. The two probably got married; he exiled her from Egypt, and she went to Rome to get Julius Caesar's help in retaking her kingdom. When the Romans invaded Alexandria, Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile, probably due to the weight of his armor. To maintain dynastic face, Cleopatra then wed her other surviving brother, Ptolemy XIV, whom she may well have murdered after she had a son of her own, a son she named Ptolemy XV Caesarion and claimed was fathered by the Roman general.
In Order to Fund Her Treasury, Cleopatra Stole Gold from Alexander the Great's Grave
Alexander the Great's tomb was located in Alexandria, and it was a major tourist attraction into late antiquity (whether or not the king was actually buried in a giant vat of honey). The first Ptolemaic king had brought it there, but successive generations looted Alex's grave. Cleopatra was no different. After the Battle of Actium that pretty much wiped out her forces, Cleo raided Alexander's mausoleum and her own ancestors' resting places to get precious metals to fund her continuing campaign against Rome. She took gold from Alex's grave, in particular, for her mission. Ironically, it wasn't until the Roman Octavian, Cleopatra's mortal enemy, conquered Alexandria that Alexander got a gold crown again.