The Death of Cleopatra


Elizabeth Taylor famously starred as the Egyptian Queen in the 1963 film Cleopatra

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, famously took her own life on 30th August 30BC, after the defeat of her forces against Octavian, the future first emperor of Rome. Her life and death, and most notably her relationship with Mark Antony, have gone down in popular myth, legend and literature.

Born in 69BC, Cleopatra VII became Queen of Egypt on the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, in 51BC. She didn’t rule alone, however. Her brother was made King Ptolemy XIII, and although they were siblings, they ruled Egypt as husband and wife.

Before long, Cleopatra and Ptolemy fell into dispute, and civil war erupted in 48BC. At the same time, Rome had splintered into its own civil war, with the Empire torn between supporting Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar.

Cleopatra was preparing to attack her brother with the help of a large Arab army when the Roman civil war broke across the Egyptian border. Caesar defeated Pompey in Greece. Pompey then fled to Egypt in the hope of gaining protection. However, he was immediately murdered by agents of Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy XIII.

Prior to the Roman civil war, Cleopatra had endeavoured to improve Egypt’s political power and influence with Rome by winning favour with Caesar, who became her lover. Caesar arrived in Alexandria soon after Pompey’s death, and agreed to restore order in Egypt.

In 47BC, Ptolemy XIII was killed after a defeat against Caesar’s forces, and Cleopatra was made dual ruler with another brother, Ptolemy XIV. Later that year, in June 47BC, Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar’s son, Caesarion.

With victory in the civil wars secured, Caesar returned to Rome with Cleopatra and their child. Cleopatra didn’t return to Egypt until after Caesar’s assassination in March 44BC.

It is believed Cleopatra was responsible for the murder of Ptolemy XIV, who was poisoned very soon after her return. Taking back the title Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra made her son her co-ruler, calling him Ptolemy XV Caesar.

After Julius Caesar’s murder, Rome fell back into a state of civil war. This was temporarily resolved in favour of Emperor Octavian in 43BC, under the general Mark Antony. Cleopatra sought to seduce Antony, as she had Caesar before him, and eventually she broke up his marriage to Emperor Octavian’s daughter, and bore him twins.

Octavian declared war against Cleopatra and Antony, and in September 31BC the Octavian and Egyptian fleets clashed at Actium in Greece. After heavy fighting, Cleopatra ran away, setting course for Egypt with 60 of her ships. Antony broke through the enemy line and followed her. The disheartened fleet that remained surrendered to Octavian.

In the aftermath of the battle, Cleopatra took refuge in the mausoleum she had commissioned for herself. Antony, who’d been told Cleopatra was already dead, stabbed himself with his sword. When Octavian arrived, Cleopatra attempted to seduce him, but the Emperor resisted and Cleopatra committed suicide on August 30th, 30BC.

Legend has it that Cleopatra killed herself with the bite of a poisonous asp. Modern research by German historian Christoph Schaefer, however, suggests it was more likely that she drank a lethal drug cocktail. An asp bite would have caused an agonizing death over several days. Schaefer believes that, ‘Queen Cleopatra was famous for her beauty and was unlikely to have subjected herself to a long and disfiguring death.’

In a life of so much plotting, manipulation and arranged assassination, perhaps it was inevitable that ultimately, this most famous of figures would die in such circumstances. And it may also be small wonder that  her life did not end at the hands of another. Then again, had she not killed herself, that may well have been the case.

See more by

Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

Connect with Oxford Home Schooling