Cleopatra: The Last Queen of Ancient Egypt (Facts Explained)

Some lesser-known facts about Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh and one of the most famous yet elusive women of the ancient world.

Apr 20, 2020By Charlotte Davis, BA Art History
Portraits of Gaius Julius Caesar and Cleopatra VII, via Staatliche Museum Berlin


Cleopatra (known as Cleopatra VII) was one of the most prominent Queens in antiquity, known for her intelligence, powerful army, and notorious affairs with political leaders. Adept in many areas of study, she has become a symbol of women’s power, characterized by ambition, political tact, and adaptability. Despite her tragic end, she successfully maneuvered a predominantly male domain with striking aptitude. Below are some facts about her life and political career.


Cleopatra Was Queen of Egypt But Wasn’t Egyptian

stone bust of pharaoh ptolemy
Fragment of a basalt Egyptian-style statue of Ptolemy I


Cleopatra VII, born in 70-69 BC, was the daughter of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V Tryphaena. Believed to be siblings, Cleopatra’s parents were the descendants of Ptolemy I Soter, a general of Alexander the Great and the eventual founder of the Ptolemaic line. Cleopatra’s heritage can thus be traced to Macedonian Greece, where the Ptolemaic dynasty emerged. Her name, Cleopatra, was famously translated to ‘honor of the father’ in ancient Greek.


She Married Two of Her Younger Brothers

At age 18, Cleopatra was married to her 10-year-old brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIII, who succeeded his father as Pharaoh. Shortly after coming to power, Ptolemy made an attempt on his sister’s life, causing Cleopatra to flee to Syria. She subsequently gathered an army and returned to Alexandria, fighting a civil war with her brother for rulership. During this time, Julius Caesar had traveled to Alexandria under the invitation of Ptolemy XIII. However, Cleopatra won Caesar’s support, and their joint Roman-Egyptian army overthrew Ptolemy XIII’s. After Ptolemy XIII’s defeat and subsequent death, Cleopatra then married her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV. She was 22 and he was 12. 


She Was Intelligent, Well-Educated, And Very Ambitious

19th century painting of cleopatra
Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse, 1887


Cleopatra’s intelligence has been praised by numerous historians, including Plutarch, and she was well-versed in mathematics, philosophy, and debate. She was also gifted with languages; her native tongue was Koine Greek, but she became fluent in at least nine languages during her rule, including Arabic and Hebrew. She was the only Pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty to learn the Egyptian language, which made her an effective leader because she could communicate with her armies without a translator.

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Cleopatra Introduced the Leap Year

illustration of the ancient library of alexandria
The ancient Library of Alexandria


During her affair with Julius Caesar, Cleopatra brought him to the ancient University of Alexandria. Here, she introduced him to an astronomer named Sosigenes of Alexandria, who proposed a calendar that followed solar cycles rather than the previous lunar calendar. This calendar featured an additional day every four years for consistency, now called the ‘leap year’. Caesar adopted the idea and implemented it in Rome in 45 BCE, and one year later in Egypt. Names of Caesar and subsequent Roman emperors became names of months we still use today, such as ‘July’ after Julius and ‘August’ after Augustus.


She Was Linked To The Egyptian Goddess Isis

Limestone stele of Cleopatra Making an Offering to Isis,
Limestone stele of Cleopatra Making an Offering to Isis, 51 BC, Louvre


Numerous rulers of ancient Greece and Rome linked themselves with gods to claim divine power or influence. Cleopatra did the same by associating herself with the powerful Egyptian goddess Isis. The famed sister and wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus, Isis presided over motherhood, the afterlife, and life cycles. Cleopatra encouraged this association by dressing herself as Isis for ceremonial events and often looked to religious prophecy to justify her actions. 


Only Two Marble Busts of Cleopatra Survive

bust of cleopatra
Bust of Cleopatra, ca. 40-30 BCE, via Altes Museum Berlin


While Cleopatra VII has been remembered for her striking beauty and seductive allure, there has been debate about what she actually looked like. There is significant evidence of her face on ancient coinage, but only two busts depicting her survive and only one of them is complete. Her bust matches her profile as seen on coins, but there is some suggestion that her image was portrayed as hypermasculine to convey her strength as a ruler as if to compare her to her male contemporaries.  


She Had Affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony

19th century illustration of cleopatra and caesar
Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866


After Cleopatra won Caesar over in 48 BCE to overthrow her brother, it is said the two embarked on a turbulent, politically-fueled love affair. Their liaison proved mutually beneficial, as they each proved powerful political allies to one another. Cleopatra is even believed to have had a child with Caesar, which was named Ptolemy XV Caesar, often called Caesarion.

After the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC, Rome was sent into turmoil, with several parties bidding for leadership over the state. One of these interested parties was general Mark Antony, and in 41 BCE, he met with Cleopatra to ask for her support. The two quickly became lovers and political allies. They were known for their extravagant lifestyle, indulging in decadent gatherings and fine goods. They eventually married and produced three children together, but their political and romantic partnership was severed after the Battle of Actium and subsequent deaths.


Her Famous Affair With Mark Antony Inspired A Famous Play By Shakespeare

19th century painting of cleopatra and mark antony
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1883, Sotheby’s


Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra was first performed at the Globe Theatre in 1607. The play is based on the relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra, beginning with the meeting of the two characters and ending with Cleopatra’s suicide by snake bite. The play popularized and romanticized the relationship between the two, resulting in other modern interpretations of the tragic love story, including the iconic film Cleopatra (1963). Shakespeare’s Cleopatra has also been described as one of the first complex, multifaceted female characters in modern western literature.


Her Escape to India After The Battle Of Actium Was Intercepted

After her and Mark Antony’s infamous defeat at the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra fled the scene using a sea route known only by members of the Ptolemaic dynasty. This route had been discovered after some Egyptians rescued an Indian man from a damaged ship in the Red Sea. The Indian man agreed to share his secret route with King Ptolemy II in exchange for safe passage, to which the King agreed. 

However, the route was not well maintained and had become overrun with bandits, so they switched courses onto what is known today as the Suez Canal. Unfortunately, the Nabatean people who occupied the area had made alliances with Augustus (Octavian) and intercepted the escape, forcing Cleopatra to return to Egypt and strengthen her defenses. 


Her Cause of Death Remains Uncertain

19th century painting of the death of cleopatra
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892


While Cleopatra is widely believed to have died by suicide, the details vary between historians. Some accounts state that Cleopatra died by allowing an asp, or Egyptian Cobra, bite and infect her with its venom. However, others claim that she poisoned herself with a toxic substance on a hairpin or other sharp object. Additionally, there has been modern skepticism about whether or not Cleopatra was actually murdered or if Octavian let her die by suicide as her method of choice


Her Resting Place Has Yet to Be Found

Archaeological site in the Temple of Taposiris Magna
Archaeological site in the Temple of Taposiris Magna


While ancient accounts indicate that Mark Antony and Cleopatra were likely buried together, the exact location of their burial site remains unknown. There has been significant speculation and investigation on the subject, beginning with Alexandria and extending into surrounding areas. Although several tombs have been discovered with leads to important burial sites, her tomb has yet to be discovered.

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By Charlotte DavisBA Art HistoryCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.