Cleopatra VII was the last queen of Egypt and the last ruler in the Ptolemies, a Macedonian Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries. Known today simply as “Cleopatra,” she was a strategic politician who used familial and romantic relationships to strengthen her position as queen. This involved having children with dictators, marrying her siblings, killing her siblings and installing her toddler son as co-ruler. 

Cleopatra’s Sibling Rivalries: Incestuous and Deadly

Cleopatra was born around 70 or 69 BCE in Alexandria, Egypt to King Ptolemy XII. (Her mother’s identity is uncertain.) During Cleopatra’s childhood, rivals ousted her father from Egypt, replacing him with her older sister, Berenice IV. Young Cleopatra traveled with her father to Rome, where he gained support to retake the throne. Using this support, he overthrew and killed his daughter Berenice. In 52 BCE, he made Cleopatra his co-regent, and they ruled together until his death a year later.

With her father’s death in 51 BCE, Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII, who was around 10 years old, became co-rulers of Egypt. This reflected their father’s wishes and, as was the political custom at the time, the siblings likely married each other. Soon, however, her young co-ruler drove her out of Egypt. With Cleopatra in exile, her other sister Arsinoe IV attempted to claim the throne as co-ruler.

It can be difficult to tell exactly who was making the decisions in cases where ruling kings and queens were children. Young Ptolemy XIII’s ouster of Cleopatra from Egypt was likely carried out “with the influence and assistance of his advisers,” Prudence Jones, a classics professor at Montclair State University, tells HISTORY. Both Ptolemy XIII and Arsinoe IV “likely had tutors who were ambitious” about their own positions, and this influenced the decisions they made.

Historians don’t know much about the political advisors Cleopatra may have had, but it does seem that her late father served as an important political role model. After Ptolemy XIII forced her out of Egypt, she decided she needed Roman support to reclaim her throne—something she had observed her father gather during his own exile.

“She ruled with him during the last year of his life,” says Jones, “and the way she interacts with the Romans reflects lessons she would have learned by observing the way her father leveraged Roman power to regain his throne when he was deposed.”

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Cleopatra Allies Herself With Julius Caesar

Cleopatra found the support she needed in Julius Caesar, a married Roman ruler with whom she began a sexual relationship. With Caesar’s help, she regained control of Egypt in 47 BCE, becoming co-ruler with her brother Ptolemy XIV, whom she married following Ptolemy XIII’s drowning in the Nile. That year, Cleopatra gave birth to her first child, Ptolemy XV Caesar, known by the nickname “Caesarion,” meaning “little Caesar.” As the name implies, he was likely the son of Julius Caesar.

Sometime after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, ancient sources claim that Cleopatra killed her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIV in order to replace him with her son, Caesarion. Unlike her teenage brother, her toddler son didn’t present an immediate threat to her reign. With Caesar gone, Cleopatra soon found a new romantic and political partner in Rome.

Cleopatra’s Love Affair and Children With Mark Antony 

Mark Antony was an ally and distant relative of Caesar. In the wake of Caesar’s assassination, Antony became one of the three dictatorial rulers of Rome’s Second Triumvirate government. And like Caesar, he developed a close political and sexual relationship with Cleopatra. In 41 BCE, he ordered the execution of Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe IV at Cleopatra’s request. In 40 BCE, Cleopatra gave birth to her and Marc Antony’s twins: Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II.

As with Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship proved complicated. Antony was married when he began his romantic relationship with Cleopatra. The same year Cleopatra gave birth to his twins, Antony’s wife died, and he married the sister of Octavian, one of the other rulers in the Second Triumvirate. The marriage occurred for political reasons, but Antony and Cleopatra spent a few years apart before resuming their public romantic relationship. In 36 BCE, Cleopatra gave birth to Ptolemy Philadelphus, her third child with Antony.

Antony and Cleopatra both had clear political motivations for their relationship. Cleopatra used it to maintain Egypt’s independence from Rome, and Antony used it to access Egypt’s resources and make a case for his continued rule. His rival, Octavian, was Caesar’s adopted son, and Antony played up the fact that Cleopatra’s son Caesarion was Caesar’s biological child to make Octavian’s rule seem less legitimate.

In 32 BCE, this political tension between Octavian, Antony and Cleopatra erupted in the War of Actium. The Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra, and Antony sided with her. Cleopatra and Antony married around this time, but the marriage was short-lived. In 30 BCE, facing defeat by Octavian, Antony and Cleopatra died by suicide.

The war led to Rome’s conquest of Egypt under Octavian’s rule. A few years later, Octavian consolidated his power by becoming the first Roman Emperor and taking the name Caesar Augustus. Cleopatra and Antony’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene II, married a ruler in the Roman Empire’s North African territories, but it is unclear what happened to Cleopatra and Antony’s sons. As for Cleopatra and Julius Caesar's son, Caesarion, it is likely that Caesar Augustus had him executed.

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