The king of Egypt, Ptolemy XII, dies in 51 BC. He leaves the kingdom to his young son, Ptolemy XIII. But he decrees that the boy shall rule jointly with his older sister, Cleopatra. He must also marry her, in the tradition of royal incest which has become a feature of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
The eighteen-year-old Cleopatra soon proves herself one of the most ambitious and flamboyant figures in this period of Mediterranean history. But her close personal involvement in Roman politics will eventually lose Egypt its independence.
Caesar and Cleopatra: 48-44 BC
The arrival in Alexandria of Julius Caesar gives Cleopatra her first chance of a wider role in the world. She seizes it, becoming the mistress of the man who is now unmistakably – after his defeat of Ptolemy – the most powerful Roman. Caesar spends the winter of 48-7 BC in Egypt, helping the young queen suppress the forces of her even younger brother (who fails to survive these events).
Soon after Caesar’s departure from Alexandria, Cleopatra gives birth to a son (in the summer of 47), whom she claims – almost certainly correctly – to be Caesar’s. In 46 Caesar invites Cleopatra to Rome with her son (subseqently known by the nickname Caesarion, ‘little Caesar’) and provides them with a villa. After Caesar’s assassination, in 44, she returns to Egypt with the child.
Antony and Cleopatra: 41-31 BC
Cleopatra’s Egypt is still technically an independent kingdom. But every region of the Mediterranean is by now involved in Roman politics and there is a rumour in Rome that Cleopatra has given help to Cassius, one of the assassins of Caesar.
In the spring of 41 Mark Antony, commanding the Roman army in the east, summons Cleopatra to explain herself at his headquarters in Anatolia. She crosses the Mediterranean to see him, but not in any mood of apology.
Antony’s camp is at Tarsus, several miles up the river Cydnus. The queen arrives in a Golden barge, dressed as Aphrodite. She is irresistible, and the goddess of love is soon in the great general’s bed.
He accepts an invitation to visit her in Egypt and arrives in Alexandria in time to spend a winter of pleasure. After his departure Cleopatra gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl.
It is not until 37 BC that Cleopatra and the children are reunited with Antony. He summons Cleopatra to Antioch, in Syria, where he marries her.
They are now openly together; and openly a team against Octavian, Antony’s rival for power in Rome.
As a Roman general, with a powerful army in the eastern provinces, Antony is able to give his new wife a spectacular wedding present – much of the Middle East.
In the tradition of many eastern monarchies, Cleopatra and Antony now begin presenting themselves as divine. To Greeks they appear as Dionysus and Aphrodite; to Egyptians as Osiris and Isis.
The Donations of Alexandria: 34 BC
A great crowd gathers in a stadium in Alexandria. All eyes are on two tiers of thrones. On the upper level sit Antony and his wife Cleopatra, robed as the Egyptian goddess Isis. On four lower thrones are their own three children together with Cleopatra’s eldest son, Caesarion, the child of Julius Caesar.
In the ensuing ceremony, later known as the Donations of Alexandria, Antony distributes the kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean to his new family.
Antony declares Cleopatra to be the Queen of Kings and Caesarion the King of Kings, jointly ruling over Egypt and Cyprus and joint overlords of the kingdoms of the other children. To Alexander, his own elder son, aged six, he gives the territories east of the Euphrates; to Alexander’s twin sister, Cleopatra, he gives Libya and Tunisia; and to his younger son, Ptolemy Philadelphus, aged two and appearing in Macedonian costume, he gives Syria and much of Anatolia.
It is a gorgeous occasion, but one which will need to be explained on the battlefield.
Actium and after: 31-30 BC
The battle between the forces of Octavian and of Antony and Cleopatra takes place at Actium, in Greece, on 2 September 31. Both sides have large numbers of infantry and cavalry, but the decisive engagement is between their fleets of Roman warships.
Antony and Cleopatra have the advantage, with about 500 ships to Octavian’s 400. These are heavy wooden craft, propelled by oars and with crews of up to 250 men.
Antony draws his ships up in line, with Cleopatra and her squadron in the rear. Much of the treasure of Egypt, essential to pay for fleet and army, is on board with her. The exact course of the battle is not known, but it goes against the eastern couple. At a certain point Antony signals to Cleopatra, on her own ship, to break away and escape with him.
Antony and Cleopatra succeed in getting back to Alexandria, on Cleopatra’s flagship. But both commit suicide in the following year, when Octavian arrives in Egypt with his army.
The sacred asp: 30 BC
Cleopatra chooses to kill herself in a manner of great significance to her subjects. She has always taken her Egyptian role seriously, and is the only ruler of her dynasty in three centuries to have learnt the Egyptian language.
She is already a prisoner of Octavian, restricted by his guards to part of her own palace. She arranges for a small poisonous snake, an asp, to be smuggled into her quarters in a basket of figs.
Cleopatra puts on her royal robes, lies on a couch of gold, and applies the asp to her breast. Sacred to Amen-Re, the Egyptian sun god, the snake both protects the royal house and deifies anyone it strikes.
The queen’s final moment is as dramatic, and as much remembered, as anything in her life. But it brings to an end the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt.
Octavian kills Caearion (briefly Egypt’s last nominal pharaoh as Ptolemy XV), takes Mark Antony’s three children back to Rome to be displayed in his triumph, annexes Egypt as a Roman province, and carries away the the vast treasures of its royal dynasty.
When this rich hoard reaches Rome, the standard rate of interest falls from 12% to 4%.