How Cleopatra's Disastrous Love Affairs Shaped Western Civilization

How Cleopatra's Disastrous Love Affairs Shaped Western Civilization

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

Cleopatra has fascinated historians and the general public for her strong personality and powerful influence in the politics of her time. Here's how her love affairs were at the center of a political storm that reshaped the face of Europe forever.

A long time ago, an extremely powerful dictator was murdered on the steps next to the Theater of Pompey. That same man, known to the world as Julius Caesar, had traveled to Egypt some time before and entered into an affair with its ruling Queen, Cleopatra VII Philopator. Years later, she and Mark Antony, Caesar's most trusted general, would commit suicide together—paving the way for the rise of the Roman Empire and changing the history of Europe forever. And it all started in Egypt, when Cleopatra was but a child.

cleopatra love affairs shaped western civilization

cleopatra love affairs shaped western civilization

A royal origin story

Cleopatra was born into the ruling family of Egypt in the first half of 69 BC. She was the last in a centuries-old dynasty that dates all the way back to Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's most famous generals, who ruled the region after Alexander's death in 323 BC. That's a long time for a single dynasty to rule over the rich and mystical lands of Egypt.

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It is said that when she was about eleven, she accompanied her father, Ptolemy XII, into exile after he enraged his subjects due to economic stress and submission to their Roman overlords. So, the family traveled to Italy and remained along the outskirts of Rome proper for nearly a year. There she got a taste for Roman culture and traditions, and adopted a proportionately friendly view of Rome as it helped return her father to power through a Roman-led military campaign.

Did you know… 
 Cleopatra's name is composed of the Ancient Greek words kléos, which means glory, and pater, which means father. So her name actually means "glory of her father."

During the campaign, led by one Aulus Gabinius, a young Roman cavalry officer distinguished himself by preventing Ptolemy XII from massacring an entire city. His name was Mark Antony, and he would later claim that it was at this time when he first fell in love with Cleopatra, then barely 14 years of age.

After securing his throne once again, Cleopatra's father created a will that clearly designated Cleopatra and her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, as joint heirs.

cleopatra love affairs shaped western civilization

The siblings' war

And so it was. Cleopatra and her brother rose to the throne and were supposed to rule peacefully together. But the young rulers had other plans, as each wanted power for themselves alone.  

Cleopatra tried to strip her brother of his power, but he had powerful allies. So civil war broke. Eventually, Cleopatra was forced to flee Alexandria and seek help elsewhere to regain her throne. The answer was making its way to her domains, right from the nearby land of Rome across the Mediterranean. 

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By this time, the Roman Republic was submerged in a civil war of its own. Julius Caesar, an influential and powerful Roman general, had just crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy after his enemies tried to prosecute him as a war criminal for his unauthorized conquest of Gaul (in present-day France). Pompey, another great general of Rome and previous ally of Caesar, was leading the fight against his former friend. Even though Pompey had the full backing of the Senate, Caesar had military prowess on is side, and managed to defeat his enemy's armies in a series of decisive battles. 

Pompey had good relations with the Ptolemies, so he decided to flee to Egypt to gather more troops and continue the fight against Caesar. Ptolemy XIII feigned friendship and assured the old general that he had his support. Upon arriving to Egyptian shores, however, Pompey was betrayed and brutally murdered on Ptolemy's orders. The young Pharaoh thought Caesar was the better choice for an ally, and figured that handing him Pompey's severed head would make a friend out of him.

cleopatra love affairs shaped western civilizationBut Ptolemy miscalculated. Caesar was outraged by Egypt's assassination of a respected Roman general, and decided to take residence on the palace to mediate the sibling's civil war and undermine Ptolemy's authority.

The Julius Caesar affair

After Caesar ordered Ptolemy to end the war and disband his army, the young Pharaoh reacted by directly defying the Roman. He arrived at Alexandria at the head of his army instead. Meanwhile, Cleopatra had heard that the general was staying in the city, and she managed to smuggle herself into the palace by hiding inside a bed sack that was brought by her allies right to Caesar's feet. No one can say she didn't know how to make an entrance. 

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The Queen of Egypt was a fascinating character. It is said that she had incredible charisma and seductive powers, which she knew perfectly well how to use to get whatever she wanted. Her tantalizing prowess had the desired effect on Caesar, who took a liking to Cleopatra right away. Initially, Caesar tried to broker a peace between Ptolemy and his sister, but the young ruler felt confident that he could overpower Caesar and Cleopatra at once, since the Roman had only 4,000 garrisoned troops in the city, whereas Ptolemy had over 20,000 outside its walls. A siege began that entrapped Caesar and Cleopatra in Alexandria that lasted into the following year. 

The two were thus trapped and powerless inside the city, and could do nothing but wait for Caesar's reinforcements to arrive. This was the perfect setting for a love affair—and a love affair is what we got. Having charmed Caesar out of his mind, Cleopatra soon found herself pregnant with the general's child. After a little while, the reinforments came and Caesar defeated young Ptolemy, who drowned in a river after his ship was capsized. As the story goes, Caesar and Cleopatra then traveled South for a cruise of the Nile and did some sightseeing of Egypt's most famous monuments. How romantic.

cleopatra love affairs shaped western civilizationCaesar giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt (1637) by Pietro da Cortona.

Rome falls apart

By the middle of that same year, in 47 BC, Caesar had to return to Rome to cement his power. A few months later, the fruit of the affair was born: a child named Caesarion. As a politician married to an influential Roman woman, Caesar was quiet about his relationship to the newborn, leaving Cleopatra out in the cold. Though she made repeated attempts to have the child recognized as the official child of Caesar, she was ultimately ignored.

Did you know… 
Cleopatra was the first of the Ptolemaic rulers in Egypt to actually learn and speak the Egyptian language. She was in fact a talented polyglot with a knack for languages, and as such mastered over 10 of them—including Hebrew, Ethiopian, Arabic, Syriac, Troglodyte, Parthian, Latin, and Koine Greek.

But Cleopatra would not give up that easily. Some years later, she traveled to Rome and stayed in one of Caesar's villas under his protection. It was 44 BC—a momentous year if there ever was one. Caesar was testing the limits of his power and of the people's willingness to accept him as "dictator for life," a title that basically rendered him a king of Rome. He would soon find that the elite families of the Republic were radically opposed to that amount of power concentrated in a single man for such a long time. 

On the 15 of the third month that year, during the infamous Ides of March, a group of conspirators executed their plan to assassinate Caesar. They succeeded, thus throwing the whole Republic into chaos. It is unclear exactly what Cleopatra had to do with the assassination, but some think it wasn't a coincidence she was present in Rome at the time. Perhaps it was—we'll probably never know.

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Regardless, Cleopatra remained in Rome for a time hoping to have Caesarion recognized as Caesar's heir. Unfortunately for her, the late dictator's will granted this privilege to his grandnephew, Octavian, once again denying Cleopatra and her child. 

Octavian arrived in Rome a short time later, which forced Cleopatra to leave for Egypt. She was technically co-ruling with another one of her brothers at this time, so she had him poisoned and elevated Caesarion to rule with her.

cleopatra love affairs shaped western civilizationFor a while after Caesar's death and Octavian accession, Rome was co-ruled by three men: Octavian himself, Marcs Aemilius Lepidus (another general), and Caesar's former protégé, Mark Antony. The three had a common enemy and were bound by a single cause: to bring Caesar's killers to justice. Together, they achieved this goal by the autumn of 42 BC.

Without a common cause, though, the three rulers soon had a falling out. While Lepidus was left mostly marginalized, Octavian ended up controlling most of the Western territories of the Roman dominion, while Antony controlled the East. They were at each other's throats quickly enough, throwing the Republic into yet another civil war.

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Loving Mark Antony

Mark Antony sought Cleopatra around the summer of 41 BC, supposedly to clarify an official matter regarding some of her troops. In reality, Antony also wanted to enter into a political and romantic relationship with the queen. (Remember he claimed to have fallen for her years before, when she was 14 and he a young Roman soldier fighting for her father's throne.)

Antony and Cleopatra finally met again on the Kydnos River, sailing upstream on a lavish ship with sumptuous  banquets. The two became lovers shortly after, and lived together in Alexandria in a haze of luxury and excess. 

cleopatra love affairs shaped western civilizationEventually, however, Mark Antony also went away like Caesar did before him, leaving Cleopatra to rule alone while he was pursuing affairs of state. Antony and Octavian reached some uneasy periods of volatile peace between themselves, but it was never a stable situation. After a while, their animosity became too great, and they came head to head in their war against each other. Cleopatra made a clear and unequivocal choice, and allied herself with Antony. With Octavian at his heels, Antony settled in Egypt for good, waiting for a good opportunity to strike.

The fall of a queen and the birth of an empire 

But Octavian was too powerful. In the spring of 30 BC, Caesar's heir set out to invade the land of Egypt and put a violent end to the strife once and for all. Octavian's army surrounded the city, and Cleopatra hid herself in a tomb she had constructed not long before. She sent a message to Antony saying that she had committed suicide, which was indeed her intention at that point. Upon hearing this, Antony fell into despair, and stabbed himself in the stomach, taking his own life at the age of 53. According to some versions of the story, Antony was brought to the tomb before he died, and managed to speak to Cleopatra one last time, telling her he had died honorably. 

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Cleopatra had threatened to burn herself along with her treasure in the tomb so that Octavian didn't get any of it, but she was seized before she could do it. She was allowed to embalm and bury Antony, and was later escorted to her palace. In despair and to avoid being paraded around Rome as a trophy, the queen poisoned herself with the venom of an Egyptian cobra and died in August of 30 BC, when she was only 39 years old. She was buried alongside Antony, deep in the chambers of her now-lost own tomb. 

cleopatra love affairs shaped western civilizationThe Death of Cleopatra (1796–1797), by Jean-Baptiste Regnault.With Mark Antony's death, the path was clear for Octavian. He would soon declare himself an emperor under the name of Augustus, thus founding the mighty Roman Empire.

Though her son Caesarion technically ruled after her, he only lasted 18 days before Octavian executed him. For all effects and purposes, Cleopatra's death marked the end of Ptolemaic rule, the last dynasty of Ancient Egypt. The newly-formed Roman Empire, founded on the ashes of Cleopatra and Antony, would forever change the face of Europe and Western society as a whole.

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