Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Saturday 22nd July 2017 | Manchester, UK

Cleopatra: The Best Known Egyptian in History

Cleopatra is one of the most well-known Egyptian historical figures of all time, but why is she so iconic? She was born in Alexandria in 69 BCE into the Ptolemaic dynasty. From birth until the time of her suicide in 30 BCE, Cleopatra’s life consisted of incredible drama, incest, murder, mystery and undeniable scandal.

Cleopatra has become well known, not only since she was the last pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty, but also due to the methods she employed to achieve this feat. Our sources tell us that in 51 BCE she became joint ruler of Egypt with her ten-year old brother and husband Ptolemy XIII. After being forced into exile in 48 BCE, she supposedly took advantage of tense relations between her brother and Roman general Julius Caesar to start a civil war in which her brother was killed. This allowed her to regain power. She was also allegedly behind the deaths of her other younger brother Ptolemy XIV and sister Arsinoe, for they were considered potential rivals. These depictions present Cleopatra as a murderous and scheming individual who was prepared to do anything in order to gain power, therefore, leaving a lasting impression on history.

Cleopatra is also famous for her scandalous romances and supposed corruption of Roman generals Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. According to our sources such as Plutarch and Cassius Dio, in 48 BCE she seduced Caesar with her striking beauty in an elaborate plot to dispose of her brother. When she and their child joined him in Rome in 46 BCE, it enraged the conservative republican Roman state. Then, in 41 BCE; after Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra et Mark Antony. They became lovers and had three children. Mark Antony’s rival Octavian saw this as an opportunity portray him as a traitor, and so persuaded the senate to declare war on Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra led their own naval armies against Rome, however, they were defeated at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE Cleopatra then followed Antony in committing suicide in 30 BCE. These striking stories of her romantic involvement and corruption of prominent Roman men have resulted in Cleopatra remaining a prominent figure in historical thought. These stories also present her as a strong and independent female leader, unusual for this time period.

Overall, Cleopatra has been depicted in our sources as a powerful, vindictive and enticing villain who murdered her own siblings and corrupted powerful Roman men in order to secure her own position. This has led to her being considered a great and strong female figure in Ancient history, thus leading to her becoming one of the best known Egyptians.

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