Cleopatra VII: Early Life

Egyptian style bust of Cleopatra VII copyright Keith Schengili Roberts

We cannot be sure who her mother was, but the most likely candidate is Cleopatra V Tryphaena, the wife (and the sister or cousin) of her father Ptolemy XII Auletes (“the flute player”). Yet, it is equally possible that she was the daughter of one of Ptolemy Auletes minor wives, perhaps a member of the Memphite priestly dynasty. In his recent book, Roller proposed that Cleopatra may even have been a Roman citizen – in part because of the long standing connection between her family and the Roman Empire. This is an interesting idea, but does seem a little unlikely given the later reaction of Roman citizens to her union with Julius Caesar.

Cleopatra had one older sister, Berenike IV, one younger sister, Arsinoe, and two younger brothers both imaginatively named Ptolemy. We do not know for sure who the mothers of any of her siblings were, but all seemed to have been considered legitimate.

Her father found himself in a rather precarious position. He had to appease the Romans who were the major superpower at the time, but this policy (and the high levels of taxation he applied to his population) did not make him popular at home. The situation came to a head when Alexandria rebelled and Ptolemy was forced to flee. He was replaced by his sister-wife Cleopatra V Tryphaena and his eldest daughter Berenike IV. A Greek source confirms that he took one of his daughters with him, and it seems likely that it was Cleopatra who made this journey with him.

Ptolemy Auletes first went to Rhodes, then Athens and finally on to Rome to meet with Pompey in hopes of obtaining his support for a return to the throne of Egypt. However, trying to win the support of Rome proved costly and Auletes finally moved on to Ephesus, his treasury depleted.

In the meantime, Cleopatra V died and Berenike IV married Archelaos, who purported to be the son of Mithridates VI of Pontus. Pompey had recently defeated Pontus and this may have prompted his decision to belatedly support Ptolemy Auletes. Ptolemy Auletes and his daughter Cleopatra met Gabinus (the subordinate of Pompey) at Ephesus before marching back to Egypt. One of Gabinus’s commanders was a certain Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and it is possible that this was when Cleopatra met him for the first time.

coin depicting the profile of Cleopatra VII

The Roman army captured Pelusium and advanced on Alexandria, where Archelaos was killed. Ptolemy Auletes then had his daughter Berenike IV killed and was intent on slaughtering all of her supporters but he was apparently dissuaded by Mark Antony – earning the love of the people of Alexandria.

On 31 May 52 BC he named his four children “Philadelphos” (sibling-lovers) but only Cleopatra was given the additional title “Thea Philopater” (Father-loving Goddess). At this ceremony she was appointed as his co-regent and heir with the stipulation that his elder son Ptolemy XIII would be her co-regent. As she was only fourteen it is unlikely she had any real power at this point, but she was able to return to her studies later earning herself the title “Theosebia” (Scribe of the Gods). When her father died four years later she became de facto ruler of Egypt.

Fearing that the advisors of her younger brother would try to oust her from power or that Rome would enforce his co-regency, she withheld news of her father’s death for almost four months. She continued to refer to her father in official documents (making no mention of her brother) and tasked her cousin, Pasherenptah III, with arranging his burial in secret while she established her rule. She continued her father’s building works at Dendera and Hermonthis, thus ensuring the support of the Egyptian priesthood. She even had coins cast on which Cleopatra appeared as the sole ruler. However, the treasury was almost empty and Cleopatra knew that she would have to impose unpopular high taxes to replenish it, so she decided to take the risky move of touring the country to shore up support.

Cleopatra dressed as a king offering to Isis
Cleopatra dressed as a king (right) offering to Isis (left)

There is no record of the date or location of her coronation, but it may well have taken place when she visited Memphis where her cousin Paserenptah III held high priestly office, as at around this time she adopted the title “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” (one of the five names of the pharaohs along with the titles “Female Horus, the Great One, Mistress of Perfection, Brilliant of counsel, Lady of the Two Lands, Cleopatra, the Goddess who loves her father, Image of her Father” and the unique title ” Upper Egyptian King of the Land of the White Crown, Lower Egyptian King of the Land of the Red Crown”. She took to wearing a number of the traditional crowns of ancient Egypt including the combined Red and White crowns symbolising the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt, the crown of Geb (featuring rams horns, a sun disc and two tall feathers representing IsisHathor) and frequently wore the white linen robes associated with Isis covered with a black cloak or outer sheath dress. Her clergy became known as the “Melanephoroi” (wearers of black). In this traditional garb she travelled to Dendera to check on the progress of the temple of Hathor and then on to Thebes for the installation of the new Buchis Bull, an important ancient Egyptian ceremony which other Ptolemaic rulers seem to have left to their priests but the records make clear Cleopatra led the ceremony and was recorded as the sole ruler. Shortly afterwards, the chief priest of Isis, Wennefer, erected a stele in the Faiyum area which again referred to Cleopatra as the sole ruler and made no mention of her brother.

Ptolemaic queen, possibly Cleopatra

Cleopatra’s tour of Egypt, her close connection with the priesthood and the fact that she was careful to be depicted as a traditional pharaoh seem to have been effective as she managed to raise taxes to replenish the treasury without suffering a rebellion. However, her brother’s supporters were not prepared to give in without a fight. It seems that they managed to convince at least some of the citizens of Alexandria that Cleopatra favoured the people of Egypt and was neglecting them and succeeded in preventing “on pain of death” shipments of grain from leaving Alexandria. The order was issued in the name of Ptolemy XIII with Cleopatra named as the secondary ruler. As there was a widespread famine at the time it was not long before this caused great suffering outside the capital. She held her nerve and refused to turn her back on Upper Egypt while asserting her right to rule Lower Egypt. She funded the funeral of an Apis Bull in Memphis and appeared at the ceremony wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt.

Meanwhile, Julius Caesar inflicted a resounding defeat on Pompey at Pharsalus depriving her brother of his Roman backer and the Nile flood failed dramatically indicating to many that the rule of Ptolemy was not supported by the gods either. Cleopatra decided the time was ripe to take back her throne. The armies of Ptolemy and Cleopatra faced each other on the plains east of Pelusium but before battle was engaged the news came that Pompey was about to land in Egypt with Julius Caesar in hot pursuit. Ptolemy’s advisors feared that members of the Gabiniani may defect to support Pompey and argued that the defeated Pompey was of no value to Ptolemy anyway – however, his assassination might put them in Caesar’s good graces. Appian suggests that this idea was proposed by Theodotus while Dio lays the blame with Achillas and a Roman soldier, Lucius Septimius. In any case the young Ptolemy, as ever, bent to the will of his advisors and Pompey was murdered in front of his wife and child as soon as he set foot on the beach. Achillas took command of the troops at Pelusium and Ptolemy returned to Alexandria with the severed head of Pompey to await the arrival of Julius Caesar.

posthumous picture of Cleopatra

In Rome the power struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey was intensifying. Pompey sent his son to Egypt to rouse support for his father’s cause and there were unsubstantiated rumours that he and Cleopatra became lovers. In any case Cleopatra and Ptolemy agreed to send five hundred of the Gabiniani (Roman troops left in Egypt by Gabinus to protect Ptolemy Auletes) to help Pompey. However, when members of the Gabiniani murdered the sons of Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus (the Governor of Syria) Cleopatra handed them over to Bibulus for trial. As a result the Gabiniani lent their support to Ptolemy XIII and his three influential guardians, the eunuch Pothinus, General Achillas and his tutor Theodotus.

In the summer of 49 BC, encouraged by his guardians, Ptolemy deposed Cleopatra and Pompey (somewhat ungratefully) and personally recommended that the Senate acknowledge him as sole ruler of Egypt. Cleopatra may have lost the support of Rome and Alexandria, but the rest of Egypt was still behind her. She retreated to Thebes and then made her way out of Egypt to Askalon where she established a base and began to build an army.


Classical Texts

  • Cassius Dio (155 or 163 – post 229 AD) Roman History
  • Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus aka Plutarch (c46 – 120 AD) Life of Antony
  • Strabo (64 or 63 BC – AD 24) The Geography
  • Flavius Josephus (c37 – 100 AD) Antiquities of the Jews
  • Marcus Annaeus Lucanus aka Lucan (39 – 65 AD) Civil WarAppian (95 – 165 AD) Civil War

Modern Texts

  • Joann Fletcher (2011) Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend
  • Prudence J. Jones (2006) Cleopatra: a sourcebook
  • Duane Roller (2011) Cleopatra: a biography

Copyright J Hill 2011