She was born in Alexandria, Egypt as part of the Ptolemaic dynasty. We don’t have any direct evidence of her childhood, but we can surmise a few things. First, she’s Greek. The Ptolemaic dynasty was a bunch of Greek elites ruling over the Egyptian lower- and middle-classes. Second, she was educated. Alexandria was where you sent your child to be educated; she can, as an adult, speak nine languages. This speaks to a good education.
The political world is basically: the Roman Republic is taking over the Mediterranean; and it’s also busy beating up on itself. There have been a series of dictators in Rome, all of whom have been generals. There are consuls – elected leaders – in between the dictators, but about once a generation for the last 60-80 years, there’s been a civil war between two generals, with one eventually coming out on top. The generals cut their teeth getting new land for Rome, and then they come to take over the whole thing. What this means for Egypt: by Cleopatra’s time, Rome runs all the land around the Mediterranean except for Egypt. The Ptolemies need to be in Rome’s good graces if they’re going to continue to rule. Cleopatra’s father, Auletes, knows this, and bribes Roman officials accordingly.
After Auletes dies, Cleopatra co-rules Egypt with one of her younger brothers. But then her brother’s advisors force her out. At the same time, Rome’s latest civil war – between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus – shows up on Egypt’s shore. Pompey has just been defeated in a major battle; the advisors decide to behead Pompey to gain favor with Caesar. Caesar is appalled.
Cleopatra decided to appeal to Julius Caesar to get back on the throne. He backs her, they fight her brother’s advisors and their troops, and they win. Cleopatra gets almost sole control over Egypt (she has to co-rule with an even younger brother, but she’s powerful and she’s got Rome’s might behind her, so that’s just a formality).
Cleopatra and Caesar have a son, Caesarion.
Cleopatra, as monarch, heads to Rome when Caesarion is about a year old because she continues to need their support. And Rome needs Egyptian grain and money because it’s about to mount a war against a third country, Parthia.
But then Julius Caesar is assassinated, and about six weeks later, Cleopatra heads back to Egypt. We’ll pick up our story there next time.
To recap last week: Alexandria was an awesome place, Cleopatra as a child was smart and capable, but the Ptolemies didn’t get along. At all. Her father, Auletes, was deposed because he was too much under Rome’s thumb. Her sister took over, but the Romans (after much bribery by Auletes) said: no, really, Auletes is in charge, and here’s our army to back up our words. Auletes rules for a few more years, with some evidence that Cleopatra was his co-ruler for the last year of his life.
Auletes died in 51 BCE. He left Egypt to Cleopatra (18 years old) and her brother, Ptolemy XIII (13 years old), in his will. They co-ruled for a bit. Which really means that Cleopatra did what she could to sideline Ptolemy. Ergo, Ptolemy’s advisors schemed to get rid of Cleopatra – she was too independent from them and he was more malleable. (The History of Rome, ep 44) She also takes part in religious festivals – an important part of being an Egyptian ruler. (The History of Rome, ep 44) Since they couldn’t control her, they wanted her gone. She was banished.
Back in Rome, they’re having their own civil war. Julius Caesar is fighting Pompey Magnus for control of the Roman Republic, which, remember, basically controls all the land around Egypt and is breathing heavily down Egypt’s neck. In the course of said war, Pompey is fleeing Caesar’s army. He aims for Egypt because they’ve been nice to him in the past. But not this time.
Ptolemy and his advisors know that without Rome’s blessing, their government isn’t long for this world. Seeing that Caesar has the upper hand at this point, Ptolemy and his advisors behead Pompey as he comes ashore in September of 48 BCE. Caesar follows shortly thereafter, and is appalled when Pompey’s head is presented to him. Ptolemy and his advisors have misjudged the situation. Caesar takes over a portion of the royal palace. (Cleopatra, p14)
Cleopatra has been raising armies in Syria. (Cleopatra, p11) She’s persona non grata in the Egyptian palace, and both she and Ptolemy have armies ready to fight. But she sees an opportunity: Caesar can help her. He’s not inclined to like Ptolemy, since he and his advisors killed Pompey (The History of Rome, ep 44).
Ptolemy asks Caesar to leave, he refuses because he needs Egyptian money. Egypt still owes 6000 talents to Rome, promised by Auletes, so this isn’t conquer and pillage per se. (Cleopatra, p39) Caesar (age 52) asks Cleopatra (now 21) to come to the palace. (The History of Rome, ep 44) Note that it’s also in Rome’s interest to have a stable Egypt. Caesar wants a stable client kingdom that will pay up in either gold or grain as needed. (Cleopatra, p14)
She smuggles herself into the palace, probably in a bag typically used for carpets. She isn’t particularly lovely by modern standard, but she was smart and charming. “Generally, it was known to be impossible to converse with her without being instantly captivated by her.” (Cleopatra, p16) She impresses Caesar, who also reportedly likes her flair. Ptolemy discovers Cleopatra and Caesar together and freaks out. (Cleopatra, p40)
Caesar and his troops take over the palace, placing Ptolemy under house arrest and protecting Cleopatra. Unfortunately for Cleopatra, the Alexandrians are on Ptolemy’s side, and his advisors claim that the Romans are trying to turn Egypt into a province. (The History of Rome, ep 44) The Egyptians were grumpy about Auletes being in Rome’s pocket and now Cleopatra is in Rome’s bed. Ptolemy ostensibly agrees to a reconciliation, but his advisors are raising troops at the same time. (Cleopatra, p43) Caesar eventually manages to calm the Alexandrians down somewhat by returning Crete. (Cleopatra, p44)
Caesar is protecting Cleopatra, but they’re all prisoners in the Royal Palace. There was a lot of street fighting in Alexandria – by this time one of Ptolemy’s advisors has troops in the city (Cleopatra, p45). The Roman legions were tougher, but they didn’t have urban warfare tactics. (The History of Rome, ep 44)
In January of 47 BCE (if my calculations are correct), a delegation heads to the palace to secure Ptolemy’s release. It works, and it’s unclear exactly why. Certainly Caesar’s typical leniency plays into it. (Cleopatra, p 61) Ptolemy, of course, heads straight for his armies.
Shortly thereafter, Ptolemy’s and Caesar’s forces meet in the Battle of the Nile. Caesar wins easily. Ptolemy dies when his boat capsizes. (The History of Rome, ep 44) The Alexandrians throw down their weapons. (Cleopatra, p 62) Cleopatra is ruler, albeit with her even younger brother Ptolemy XIV, but he’s a puppet. Cleopatra and Caesar are firmly in control. So they take a trip down the Nile to show off her power and glamour to her people, but also: vacation.
Next week: Cleopatra is pregnant with Caesar’s only son at the end of the Nile trip. He heads back to Rome to consolidate his power. Long-distance romance!
Cleopatra was born in 69BCE. There are no records of her childhood, but it was likely very luxurious. For example, we know her palace in Alexandria had lush gardens and a zoo (Cleopatra, p27). It also seems that she was groomed for the throne along with her older sister. Cleopatra was a Ptolemy; succession was often bloody and confusion and everyone needed to know how to govern. She was almost certainly educated by the pre-eminent scholars of her day at the Library of Alexandria and its attached Museon. She studied Homer, reading, writing, Egyptian gods, Alexander the Great, rhetoric, math, geometry, music, astrology, and nine different languages. She was notably the only Ptolemy who ever spoke Egyptian. (Cleopatra, p33)
Life in Alexandria Alexandria, at this point, was the second city of the Mediterranean, only behind Rome in terms of population and wealth. It was founded in 334BCE by Alexander the Great; his general Ptolemy ruled it on his death. Ptolemy was Greek and he and all his descendants acted and spoke Greek. It was the official government language (Cleopatra and Antony). But Alexandria is also Egyptian – Ptolemy styled himself the new Pharaoh, going so far as to adopt the brother-sister marriages the Egyptian pharaohs practiced.
The Ptolemies developed Alexandria into a center of culture and learning. Alexandria was a city of marble, full of statues, home to the famous lighthouse and the more famous library. “For centuries both before and after Cleopatra the most impressive thing a doctor could say was that he had trained in Alexandria. It was where you hoped your child’s tutor had studied.” (Cleopatra, p37)
Egyptian women had more control over their lives than you might think: they were traders, owned barges (Egypt grew more grain than any other Mediterranean country [Cleopatra and Antony, p12] and transporting it was a great way to earn a living), and could initiate divorce proceedings. Women inherited property equally and independently. (Cleopatra, p 24) They ran their own businesses. Women went into the markets while the men tended the looms at home (the opposite of Ancient Greece).
Overall, Alexandria was a cultured and modern place.
Egypt’s place in the world Rome was slowly taking over the entire Mediterranean. It conquered Carthage – near modern Tunis, Tunisia – in 146 BCE, and Pompey (a Roman general whose name will come up again) conquered Macedonia, Syria, and Jerusalem in the early 60sBCE. Egypt was becoming surrounded by Roman land and forces. In fact, Egypt had made a series of treaties and agreements with Rome going back to 193BCE, but the agreements were more and more in Rome’s favor.
What about Cleopatra’s family?
All the brother-sister intermarriage wasn’t helping the Ptolemaic bloodlines. Cleopatra’s grandfather wasn’t right in the head; there’s a particularly gruesome story about him dismembering his own child. (Cleopatra and Antony, p18) Ptolemy Auletes – Cleopatra’s father – was rumored to care more about the arts than governing. Which doesn’t make him crazy, but might make him incompetent.
Rome annexed the Egyptian province of Cyprus in 58BCE. Auletes couldn’t retaliate militarily and was forced to travel to Rome to bribe various senators to get the island back. The Egyptians weren’t happy about losing Cyprus without a fight, and as soon as Auletes left, Cleopatra’s older sister Berenike seized the throne.
It’s worth mentioning that no one knows where eleven-year-old Cleopatra was during this coup. She may have been with Auletes in Rome, where she would be getting a lesson in diplomacy. Or she may have fled to the countryside with her handmaidens (many of whom were her illegitimate half-sisters), getting a lesson on how to relate to your subjects. Either way, she was gaining valuable experience.
Auletes eventually bribed enough of the right people in Rome, and Roman troops, led by Marc Antony, put Auletes back on the Egyptian throne. One of the first things that Auletes did was put Berenike to death. (Antony’s stay in Egypt, this time, was brief, and it’s unclear if he ever saw Cleopatra.)
Auletes ruled until 51BCE, and the last year of his life he co-ruled with Cleopatra. His popularity had never recovered from the whole Cyprus incident. Cleopatra was 18 and she was effectively co-leading Egypt with her ill father.
Next week: Auletes dies. Cleopatra is forced to co-rule Egypt with her younger brother-husband Ptolemy XIII. It doesn’t go well.