Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Trisha. Trisha Wonders, “Who was Cleopatra?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Trisha!
If you could go back in time to see an ancient civilization, which would you choose? Would you head to Rome? Perhaps you’d prefer to visit Babylon? If you’re like many kids, there’s probably one place you’d choose before any other: Egypt!
What does ancient Egypt have to offer? Many people like learning about King Tut and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Others are more interested in the Queen of the Nile. That’s right! We’re talking about Cleopatra.
Although she was born in Egypt around 70 or 69 B.C., Cleopatra wasn’t ethnically Egyptian. Instead, her roots could be traced to Macedonian Greece. Ptolemy I, a general under Alexander the Great, took over leadership of Egypt when Alexander died in 323 B.C.E.
Ptolemy’s rule began a dynasty of Greek-speaking rulers over Egypt. This would last for nearly 300 years. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, died in 51 B.C.E. That’s when control of Egypt passed to 18-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII.
Unlike most of her predecessors, Cleopatra embraced Egyptian life and customs. She was the first of the Macedonian leaders to learn the Egyptian language. Unfortunately, her little brother’s advisors plotted against her. They forced her to flee to nearby Syria in 49 B.C.E.
Of course, that wasn’t the end for Cleopatra. She raised an army and built an alliance with the Roman military leader Julius Caesar. With Caesar’s help, Cleopatra was restored to the throne alongside Ptolemy XIV. Cleopatra’s relationship with Caesar was more than strategic, though. In 47 B.C.E., the two had a son. They named him Ptolemy Caesar, but he became known to the Egyptian people as Caesarion (meaning “Little Caesar”).
In 46 B.C.E., Cleopatra and Caesarion joined Caesar in Rome. Her beauty, style, and sense of fashion quickly left their mark on the city. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., however, Cleopatra went back to Egypt.
Shortly after Cleopatra’s return to Egypt, Ptolemy XIV died. Some historians believe she likely played a role in his death. Cleopatra then strengthened her grip on the throne by naming her son Caesarion her co-regent as Ptolemy XV.
Her involvement in Roman politics did not end with Caesar, though. In the wake of Caesar’s assassination, a power struggle began. Eventually, two men named Mark Antony and Octavian split control of Rome.
Consistent with Egyptian tradition, Cleopatra believed that she was a living goddess. She closely associated herself with the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis. She became known as much for her intelligence as her beauty. She was educated in astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics. Cleopatra also spoke a dozen languages.
Dressed as Isis, Cleopatra sailed to Tarsus to meet with Mark Antony. Antony believed himself to be the living symbol of the Greek god Dionysius. He was the perfect military and romantic partner for Cleopatra.
Their story was famously told by Shakespeare in his play, “Antony and Cleopatra.” The two would have three children. Antony supported Cleopatra’s rule in Egypt and helped her to prosper and regain much of Egypt’s eastern empire.
The Roman Senate, however, thought Antony was rejecting his Roman roots. They said he showed too much favor to Cleopatra and their children. Eventually, the Senate took away Antony’s power. Octavian then declared war on Egypt, Cleopatra, and Antony.
On September 2, 31 B.C.E., Egyptian fleets led by Cleopatra and Antony met the Roman navy in the Battle of Actium. Octavian’s ships quickly defeated the Egyptians, so Cleopatra and Antony both fled back to Egypt.
Later, while under attack in Alexandria, Antony heard a rumor that Cleopatra had died by suicide. Although the rumor would prove to be false, Antony fell on his sword and died.
Cleopatra buried Antony. Then, she met with Octavian, who had claimed victory. On August 12, 30 B.C.E., Cleopatra shut herself in her chamber with two servants. Legend holds that she allowed a venomous snake known as an asp to bite her. It’s also possible she poisoned herself with snake venom or a similar toxin.
Cleopatra was one of the most famous rulers of all time. She was also the last independent pharaoh of Egypt. What other ancient rulers are you interested in? Spend some time learning more about the ancient world today.
Standards: C3.D2.His.2, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.3, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.W.9, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2