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Cleopatra

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Her name is synonymous with mystery. When she crosses the threshold of
human thought, words such as “elusive,” “seductive,” and “powerful,” flood
the mind. Her death was as awe-inspiring as her life, and she continues to
intrigue scholars centuries after her lifetime. Who could this woman be?
There is only one possibility: Cleopatra VII. Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra was
from the family line of Ptolemy and was of Greek heritage. She came to the
Egyptian throne in 51 BC during the time of the Roman Republic, when she
was only eighteen years old. She and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII
inherited the throne after the death of their father, Ptolemy Auletes.
Theoretically, Ptolemy XIII should have been the dominant
ruler, but the seven year difference in age between the two made her the
more optimal choice for Queen Cleopatra accomplished much for her people in
her reign, but the three most important events in her life were her
relationship with lover Julius Caesar, her relationship with lover Mark
Antony, and her tragic and premature death. By understanding these topics, we can
better understand and appreciate Cleopatra for the brilliant and
compassionate strategist that she was.

Competition between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII escalated as
Ptolemy grew older, and he eventually began strategizing ways to gain full
control of Egypt. One of his plans to achieve this was to murder the rival
of Julius Caesar, Pompey. By murdering Pompey, Ptolemy hoped to gain the
support of the Romans and claim the Egyptian throne for himself. However when Caesar realized what Ptolemy had done, he sent for both
Ptolemy and Cleopatra and declared his alliance with Cleopatra. Meanwhile,
the Egyptian citizens had declared Cleopatra’s younger sister Arsinoe IV
the Queen of Egypt. Caesar and Cleopatra were trapped in the royal palace
in Alexandria for a long winter, and it was there that their alliance
became a passionate affair. When the two lovers were released by Roman
forces in 47 BC, Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile
River, and her younger sister Arsinoe was captured and taken back to Rome.
Cleopatra now had full control over Egypt, and was free of competition with
her siblings. Cleopatra bore the son of Julius Caesar in June of 47 BC,
whom was named Ptolemy Caesar and nicknamed Caesarion. Caesar, however,
could not formally recognize this child as his own because he was already
legally married to a Roman wife. The relationship between Caesar and
Cleopatra was not simply a lustful desire for the other person, but a
political move that solidified the alliance between Rome and Egypt.
Egypt remained independent but was protected by Rome, and
Rome benefited from Egypt’s fertile land and generosity. Cleopatra had
successfully used her intelligence and seducing powers to help her country
and its people, although her actions are often misinterpreted for
promiscuity.

When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, a whirlwind of events took
place. Three men, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Marcus Lepidus sought to kill
the assassins of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius. Rome, intent on revenge, asked
for the support of Egypt; Cleopatra gladly gave her support to the
triumvirate and sent a fleet of ships to Octavian and Mark Antony, but her
fleets were destroyed by a storm. Before she could send
another fleet, she heard the news that the assassins of Caesar had been
defeated. Rome’s land was now ruled by two men: Octavian controlled the
west, while Mark Antony controlled the East. Cleopatra decided to ally with
Mark Antony; this was perhaps the only time her judgment failed her. Mark
Antony, less intelligent and less experienced than Julius Caesar had been,
quickly submitted to Cleopatra’s alluring powers. She gave birth to his
twins in 40 BC; meanwhile, Antony was in Rome about to marry Octavia, the
sister of Octavian. The marriage was an attempt to reconcile with Octavian,
but the relationship was short lived and quickly fell to pieces. Antony and
Cleopatra reunited to form a grand scheme of restoring Egypt to some of its
former glory; however, the plan was ultimately a failure. Antony and
Cleopatra were at that point an official couple, which angered Octavian
immensely. Octavian then defeated Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of
Actium, which effectively began the downfall of Cleopatra and Antony. When
Antony departed to fight his last battle, Cleopatra isolated herself in her
mausoleum. Antony was misinformed that Cleopatra had committed suicide, and
fell on his sword out of misery. He was taken back to Cleopatra, where she
soon committed suicide herself. The date was August 30, BC.

Cleopatra’s death was an alarming end to such a seemingly invincible human
being; however, she left behind some mysteries that are still waiting to be
solved. Her death is shrouded in uncertainty: How exactly did she commit
suicide? Some believe that she had an asp (an Egyptian cobra) brought to
her in a basket of figs, and the asp bit her. The snake bite is the oldest and most commonly known theory, but
where the snake bit her has been debated over the years. Most argue that
she was bitten on the arm, while William Shakespeare’s version of the story
entails her clutching the asp to her breast. Other historians believe an
entirely different tale of her death: one such theory claims that the Queen
drank a mixture of poisons including hemlock, wolfsbane and opium. Whatever the scenario was, the ultimate question remains:
Where is her body? To this day, her remains have never been recovered.
Perhaps it is Cleopatra’s way of ensuring that her legacy lives on, even if
she does not.

Cleopatra was by far the most powerful woman in ancient history. She was
not only intelligent and cunning, but kindhearted and devoted to her
country. While her death was certainly a tragedy, her life is something to
celebrate. We can still learn from her determination and self respect, even
centuries after she lived. While some critics of Cleopatra may call her
immoral and devious, she actually used her physical attributes and
seductive powers to benefit her people, a method that is worth commending.
She pursued relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in an attempt
to help her country, and she died so that her and her nation’s dignity
would remain intact. Despite all of the shadows surrounding her life and
death, one thing is for certain: Cleopatra hasn’t left us yet. Perhaps her
body is waiting to be found, waiting to impart all her secrets to us. But
maybe it is simply fortuitous that she will remain unfound. As stated in
the July 2011 edition of National Geographic Magazine, “…Maybe finding her
tomb would diminish what Shakespeare called her “infinite variety.”
Disembodied, at large in the realm of myth, more context than text,
Cleopatra is free to be of different character to different times, which
may be the very wellspring of her vitality.” Long live Cleopatra, wherever
she may be.




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