Cleopatra VII, last queen of Egypt (51-30 BC)

Cleopatra VII, last queen of Egypt (51-30 BC)

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Cleopatra seventh of the name is one of the most illustrious women of all time. She was there last queen of egypt, and at the height of his reign, which lasted some 20 years, his power extended throughout the Mediterranean east. She was able to hoist her declining but rich kingdom of a prestigious past into a rival power of Rome. His sulphurous relationship with César and then Marc-Antoine, as well as his tragic end, gave him a good place in our imagination and inspired many literary, musical or cinematographic works.

Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt

In the 1st century BC, Egypt was the last Mediterranean power to enjoy relative independence from Rome. Since the conquest of the land of the Pharaohs by Alexander the Great, it is a Greco-Macedonian dynasty, the Lagids, which reigns supreme over the Nile valley from Alexandria. The Ptolemies maintained themselves not without difficulties in the face of the contestation of the Egyptian population and were gradually weakened by numerous palace intrigues. To face it, the lagids must regularly appeal to the rising Mediterranean power: Rome. The latter is not being asked to intervene, the political stability of its granary being vital to it. So much so that a relationship of vassalage was gradually established between Egypt and Rome.

It was in this context that Cleopatra was born in the year 69 BC Daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletus, Cleopatra married at the age of 17 and according to the custom of the Lagides, her own brother Ptolemy XIII, with whom she reigned from 51 on the death of his father. Soon their reign was marked by unrest caused by insufficient agricultural harvests, to which were added numerous plots fueled by the young king and his sister Arsinoe to get rid of Cleopatra. Driven from the throne by Pothin, adviser to her husband, the queen leaves for Syria to raise an army. She ends up resolving to ask for the support of Julius Caesar, who has just landed in Alexandria after the murder of his rival Pompey. According to legend, she was smuggled into the royal palace in Alexandria, hidden in a large hemp sack, and presented to the Roman general.

What effect could Cleopatra VII Philopator have on Caesar? We have only a vague idea of ​​the physiognomy of one of the most idealized figures in history. We can hardly trust the official representations of the queen, which according to the millennial Egyptian tradition, are very codified by aesthetic canons, apart perhaps from the portraits appearing on the coins. Struck during his lifetime, it is very likely that they received his approval. His features appear rather heavy and his legendary nose, strong and hooked, harms the harmony of his face. Rather, it is his lively intelligence, his culture and his natural charisma that must have been his assets during his confrontation with Julius Caesar.

The alliance with Caesar

Quite upset by the fate that was reserved for Pompey, who was beheaded, Caesar chooses to support Cleopatra. They are then besieged in Alexandria by the troops of Ptolemy XIII. The latter is finally defeated at the Battle of the Nile in 48 and Cleopatra is restored to the throne with the protection of Julius Caesar, of whom she became the mistress. Ptolemy XIII having died during the fight against the Romans, she remarried in 47 with her brother Ptolemy XIV, who was only a puppet while the queen used her loves with Caesar to try to restore, with the aid of the Romans, the supremacy of Egypt of the Lagides in the eastern Mediterranean. She had a son by Caesar, the young Caesarion (or Ptolemy XV).

In Rome, the assassination of Caesar while the queen was staying there catches Cleopatra by surprise. Fearing for her life, she takes advantage of the reigning confusion to return to Egypt, and have her brother murdered there. As a new civil war rages between Caesareans and Republicans, Cleopatra remains in a neutral position. It agrees to place its fleet at the disposal of the Roman legions stationed in Egypt to fight the Republicans in Syria. After the victory of the Caesareans in Philippi in -42, Cleopatra joined the winning camp. in In 41 BC. AD, General Marc Antoine orders Cleopatra to go to Tarsus (in present-day Turkey) to explain his wait-and-see attitude. As soon as he meets the Queen of Egypt, the Roman general falls in love with her and, instead of punishing her, returns with her to Alexandria.

Cleopatra and Marc Antoine, Sovereigns of the Orient

A year later, Marc Antoine had to return to Rome to marry the sister of Octavian, under a customary political agreement in Rome. In Alexandria, Cleopatra gives birth to two twin children, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios. Marc Antoine and Cleopatra will later have a third child: Ptolemy Philadelphe. In -36, Marc Antoine, who had just obtained the governance of the eastern provinces, launched a war against the Parthians. Cleopatra joined him with her army in Antioch, but the expedition against the Parthians was a failure. The couple returned to Alexandria, and set up a government of the East shared between Marc Antony, Cleopatra and their children. The Roman general, permanently installed in Egypt, abandons his wife Octavia, from whom he ends up officially separating.

Maneuvering more easily than with Caesar, Cleopatra succeeded in leading Antony towards the dream of a great Eastern Empire, and for a time their common projects seemed to threaten Roman hegemony over the Mediterranean. Relations with Rome and Octavian quickly deteriorate, and the discovery of a testament by Mark Antony bequeathing the Eastern Roman provinces to the children he had with the queen sets fire to the powder. Cleverly, Octavian declares war on Cleopatra alone, guilty in the eyes of the Romans of having bewitched the brilliant general. In the famous naval battle of Actium, Octavian defeats the two lovers who flee to Egypt.

Tragic end and posterity of Cleopatra

In Alexandria, Marc Antony, who succumbed to depression and debauchery, ended up killing himself in the year 30 BC as the armies of the victor of Actium approached the capital. Cleopatra tries one last time to use her charms to obtain Octavian clemency. The latter showing herself inflexible and preparing to take the queen of Egypt with him so that she could figure in her triumph in Rome, Cleopatra committed suicide, at the age of thirty-six, by being bitten in the arm by a aspic. With this princess, whose romantic legend has taken hold but who was, above all, an ambitious and skilful politician, ended the dynasty of the Lagides - Caesarion will be eliminated by order of Octavian - and the independence of Egypt. The kingdom of the pharaohs was then integrated into the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra has inspired many writers, including Shakespeare, Benserade, La Calprenède, Bernard Shaw, but also musicians like Handel (Julius Caesar in Egypt) or Berlioz (Cleopatra), as well as painters: Giambattista Tiepolo (the Banquet of Cleopatra) , Claude le Lorrain (The Landing of Cleopatra in Tarsus), Sébastien Bourdon (The Meeting of Antoine and Cleopatra) ... In the cinema, Cleopatra was immortalized by Elisabeth Taylor in an anthology peplum.


- Cleopatra - A dream of power, by Maurice Sartre. Tallandier, 2018.

- Cleopatra: The goddess-queen, biography of Christian-Georges Schwentzel. Payot, 2014.

For further

- Cleopatra, the romantic biography of Stacy Schiff. Free Champs, 2016.

- The fate of Rome, documentary by Fabrice Hourlier.

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