Ancient History & Civilisation



FROM THE BEGINNING OF EGYPTIAN HISTORY, THE HIGH PRIEST OF Ptah had been one of the most important men in the kingdom. Since the unification of the country, Memphis had been the national capital, and Ptah was the city’s principal deity. So Ptah’s chief officiant was in the very top echelon of clergy, one of a handful of high priests responsible for guarding Egypt’s revered religious traditions. In theory, the high priest of Ptah—or the “greatest of craftsmen,” to give him his ancient and esoteric formal title—was a royal appointee. But the notion of the royal prerogative had a habit, throughout Egyptian history, of conflicting with the even more deeply ingrained hereditary ideal, whereby fathers passed their offices to their sons. So it was that, under the Ptolemies, the top job in the Memphite priesthood had been held by a single family, son succeeding father in unbroken succession for more than 260 years. As generation followed generation, the high priests of Ptah skillfully combined hereditary office with ultraloyalty to the sovereign, to become the most powerful and influential native family in the land. In the great southern city of Thebes, once the religious capital of the Egyptian Empire, the high priests of Amun had displayed lukewarm enthusiasm toward their Greek rulers. Not so the high priests of Ptah, who had been resolute supporters of the Ptolemies, eagerly bestowing the stamp of divine authority in return for royal favor. Their southern compatriots may have regarded such collaboration with disgust, but in truth nothing could have been more Egyptian.

At the time of Cleopatra’s birth in 69, Greatest of Craftsmen Pasherenptah had more cause than most of his ancestors to support the regime. Succeeding to the high priesthood at the age of fifteen, he had dutifully crowned Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, as one of his first official acts. He remained a member of the king’s trusted inner circle, and could boast with only a touch of hyperbole of having been “born Egypt’s sovereign.”1 For the forty years after Cleopatra’s birth, the fortunes of the two individuals, Pasherenptah and Cleopatra, would be closely intertwined. Priest and princess—their lives and fates chart the final chapter in the long history of ancient Egypt.

From the moment of her birth, Cleopatra was regarded as a semi-divine being. Her royal father had been hailed as the “new Dionysus” (or, for his Egyptian subjects, the “young Osiris”), and the long-standing royal cult of the Ptolemies had effectively made him a god on earth. The Egyptian clergy—with Pasherenptah as their cheerleader—saw no difficulty in accepting and supporting the divinity of the first family, since it had been one of the central tenets of pharaonic religion since the dawn of history. But the reign of Ptolemy XII was no golden age—quite the reverse. Instead of growing rich from agricultural bounty and foreign trade, Ptolemy XII presided over an abrupt and precipitous decline in the nation’s fortunes.

It all came down to protection money. Egypt had long ceased to be a major power in the eastern Mediterranean. Of the once extensive Ptolemaic lands, only Cyprus remained within the fold, ruled by Ptolemy’s brother. The Mediterranean had a new power, Rome, determined to extend the frontiers of its nascent empire. In the face of such a ruthless and well-armed opponent, nations had only two options: resist and be eliminated, or collaborate. Ptolemaic Cyrenaica had already fallen to the Romans in 75, and Ptolemy had no intention of letting Egypt go the same way. Getting into bed with the enemy was the lesser of two evils. For its part, Rome was like a lion on the hunt: it could sense weakness in its quarry, and lost no time in moving in for the kill. The legal will of Ptolemy X, which had seemed to promise the Nile Valley to Rome, provided the Romans with the perfect excuse for extorting revenues from what was still the richest country in the region. For its part, Egypt had no choice. It was a question of pay up, or else.

When Princess Cleopatra was a mere toddler of four years, this stark reality came into sharp focus. Far away in the Roman senate, the republic’s political leaders, as competitive and disputatious as ever, began to use Egypt as a tool to further their own ambitions. In 65, Crassus proposed the formal annexation of the Nile Valley as a Roman province, a move vigorously opposed by Cicero as detrimental to the stability of the republic. Temporarily thwarted, the hawks on the Capitoline Hill turned their attention instead toward an easier prey, the Seleucid Kingdom of western Asia. At a stroke, the Ptolemies’ old rival in the Near East was liquidated by the armies of Pompey the Great and absorbed into the Roman realm. Anxious to back a winner, Ptolemy XII responded to this momentous development by sending eight thousand cavalry to support Pompey’s further expansion into Palestine. No matter that his extravagant gesture of goodwill exhausted the crown revenues, forcing tax rises and cuts in public expenditure, and stirring up a minor revolt. Keeping on the right side of Rome was now the number one priority, irrespective of the domestic repercussions. Pompey looked on with customary Roman hauteur, refusing even to help Ptolemy put down the insurrection that the tax rises provoked.

Egypt should have learned its lesson from this unhappy episode, but its naive foreign policy seemed to have a momentum of its own. As the country became progressively indebted to its bullyboy “protector,” the Egyptian population came to hate the Romans and everything associated with them. It did not augur well for the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

To make matters worse, Rome had two rival strongmen. Buying off Pompey was not enough, since Julius Caesar was equally powerful. The devil had two faces; both needed appeasing. When in 59 Caesar threatened to raise “the Egyptian question” once more in the senate, Ptolemy resorted to his favored strategy. He paid protection money equal to half of Egypt’s annual revenue, in return for official recognition as king of Egypt and a “friend and fellow of the Roman people” (amicus et socius populi Romani). Not that it did him much good. Barely a year later, as Ptolemy celebrated the marriage of his close confidant the high priest Pasherenptah to a fourteen-year-old bride, his newfound “friends” went ahead and annexed Cyprus, driving its king (Ptolemy’s brother) to commit suicide. Joy thus turned to sorrow within a matter of months, but Ptolemy kept quiet, for fear of angering Rome. The pharaoh was now bankrupt morally as well as financially.

It was all too much for the proud and passionate citizens of Alexandria, who rose up and ousted their craven king, forcing him into exile. A dejected Ptolemy went first to Rhodes, to kowtow before the Roman magistrate who had just accepted the Cypriot surrender. In the ultimate humiliation, Ptolemy was ushered in to see Marcus Porcius Cato while the latter was on the toilet after a particularly effective dose of laxative. In the days of old, the pharaoh had been accustomed to grinding foreigners underfoot; now he was less significant than a barbarian’s bowel movements. There was no farther to fall.

Yet, far from seeking a way out of its imperiled position, the Ptolemaic Dynasty continued to behave as before, ever the author of its own ruin. In Alexandria, the throne was offered first to Ptolemy’s wife and then, after her untimely death, to Ptolemy’s eldest daughter, Berenike. A woman ruling alone was anathema to the Greeks, so attempts began immediately to find her a suitable husband. But Berenike was as recalcitrant and bloodthirsty as her ancestors. The first suitor died en route; the second was stopped at the border by the Romans; the third made it to Alexandria but was strangled after a few days when his bride-to-be declared herself fatally unimpressed.

From Rhodes, Ptolemy wound his way to Ephesus and thence to Rome, arriving in 57 and staying for two years. During that time, he acted the archetypal dictator-in-exile, ordering the liquidation of his domestic opponents while living it up in foreign villas. Eventually, he clinched the deal he had come for. In exchange for a sum of ten thousand talents—equal to Egypt’s entire annual income, and borrowed from a banker named Rabirius, who could scarcely believe his fortune—Ptolemy would be restored to his throne by Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria. On April 15, 55, with Gabinius’s army at his side, Ptolemy marched into Alexandria, reclaimed his kingdom, executed his daughter Berenike, and named Rabirius as his new finance minister.

Egypt was not just in Rome’s pocket; it was now effectively a provincial branch of the Roman central bank. For Ptolemy XII, restoration equaled utter humiliation.


DURING HIS TWO YEARS OF ENFORCED EXILE IN ROME, PTOLEMY XII seems to have received comfort and reassurance from a particularly beloved companion. There is evidence that he took one of his daughters with him on his travels to Rhodes, Ephesus, and Rome, and while her identity cannot be proven with certainty, Cleopatra is the most likely candidate. For the princess had just turned eleven at the time of her father’s ousting—old enough to travel, young enough to be allowed out of Egypt without posing a threat to her elder sister Berenike. If Cleopatra did indeed spend her preteen years in Rome, she learned valuable lessons from the experience. No Ptolemaic ruler could afford to pander entirely to Roman wishes, but nor could Roman might be ignored. Keeping one’s throne while preserving national sovereignty required the deftest of footwork on the narrowest of tightropes. Cleopatra would soon find herself walking it alone.

Soon after his return from Rome, Ptolemy moved to shore up his position among the priesthood and the native population at large. Since the time of Narmer, kings had burnished their credentials and bolstered their authority by beautifying the gods’ shrines and going on tours of inspection. Nearly three millennia later, Ptolemy XII saw no reason to depart from accustomed practice. He therefore ordered construction to commence on a vast new temple to the goddess Hathor, at Iunet, in Upper Egypt; the foundation stone was duly laid on July 16, 54. At the same time, Ptolemy carried out an official visit to Memphis, accompanied by the leading representative of the native aristocracy—Pasherenptah, high priest of Ptah. Both acts were a deliberate show of traditional pharaonic power, and Ptolemy took a further step to secure his dynasty by appointing Cleopatra as his formal co-regent in 52. After nearly three decades on an uneasy throne, perhaps he sensed his days were numbered. On March 7, 51, a solar eclipse over Egypt was widely interpreted as a portent of doom. A few days later, Ptolemy XII was dead, and Cleopatra was proclaimed ruler of Egypt. She was just seventeen.

In accordance with her father’s will, she shared the throne with the elder of her two brothers (the ten-year-old Ptolemy XIII), while Rome was appointed as their official protector. Like most of the Ptolemies’ previous dynastic arrangements, it was a disaster in the making. At first, Cleopatra tried to go it alone, sidelining her co-regent brother and ruling single-handedly for the first eighteen months of their reign. But a series of natural and political disasters soon turned the public mood against her. In the summer of 50, an unusually low inundation led to crop failure and widespread food shortages. Cleopatra had to enact emergency legislation to prevent outright famine. A pharaoh’s first and foremost responsibility was to placate the gods and ensure the continued prosperity of Egypt; for the gods to have deserted Cleopatra so early in her reign was a profoundly worrying development. She compounded her growing unpopularity by bowing to a request to deport some fugitives who had fled Syria after murdering the sons of the Roman governor. By sending them back to their deaths, she confirmed the native Egyptians’ worst fears about Rome’s unstoppable rise. The tide of opinion now began to turn rapidly against Cleopatra and in favor of her brother.

In the midst of all this domestic turmoil, Cleopatra also had to contend with unwelcome developments abroad. Rome’s two military strongmen, Pompey and Caesar, were now embroiled in a bitter civil war. To pay back old debts, Cleopatra sided with Pompey (whose close ally, Gabinius, had restored Ptolemy XII to his throne). But even an alliance with a foreign warlord could not protect her from the wrath of her own people. In the early months of 48, like her father before her, Cleopatra was forced into exile. However, instead of going with cap in hand to Rome, she decided to raise an army closer to home, in her still-loyal province of Palestine. By the late summer, two opposing armies—one backing Cleopatra, the other her brother—faced each other in the eastern Nile delta.

Bronze coin of Cleopatra  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

Ptolemy XIII, who had already won recognition by Rome as sole pharaoh, must have felt the more confident of the two siblings. But when Pompey fled to Egypt on August 9, 48, after suffering a crushing defeat by Caesar in Greece, Ptolemy’s confidence turned to recklessness. He watched nonchalantly from the harborside at Alexandria as Pompey was ferried ashore and promptly stabbed to death by one of Pompey’s own officers (now in Ptolemy’s pay), before he could even set foot on Egyptian soil. If Ptolemy had thought that killing Caesar’s sworn enemy would win him friends, he was sorely mistaken. When Caesar himself arrived in Alexandria four days later, to be presented with Pompey’s severed and pickled head, he reacted furiously to this savage treatment of a fellow Roman general. He marched straight to the royal palace, set up residence, and summoned Ptolemy XIII to meet him. Sensing the importance of the moment—with Pompey dead, Caesar was now the undoubted ruler of Rome—Cleopatra seized her chance. Evading detection by her brother’s guards, she made her way to Alexandria and smuggled herself into the palace to join the audience with Caesar.

In the humid heat of a mid-August day, in the royal quarter of Alexandria, the legendary meeting took place—the twenty-one-year-old Ptolemaic queen and the fifty-two-year-old Roman general. With her long, aquiline nose and pointed chin, she was not particularly attractive by modern standards. Battle-worn and weather-beaten, he was hardly in the prime of life. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and power is a proven aphrodisiac. The chemistry worked.

To the disgust and disbelief of Ptolemy XIII and his supporters, Caesar threw his weight behind Cleopatra and her claim to the throne of Egypt. Ptolemy’s army besieged the palace while his Alexandrine allies proclaimed Cleopatra’s younger sister Arsinoe queen in her place. Events then moved swiftly. In March 47, Roman reinforcements arrived to liberate Caesar and Cleopatra from their palace prison. Fierce fighting ensued, during which Ptolemy was drowned in the Nile. With her rival out of the way, Cleopatra was restored to the throne with her eleven-year-old brother (yet another Ptolemy) as her co-regent, and Cyprus was returned to Egypt as a further gesture of support by Rome. Arsinoe was taken captive and deported to Italy.

Caesar and Cleopatra sailed up the Nile to celebrate their triumph—although the accompanying flotilla of four hundred Roman troopships hardly gave the Egyptian populace much cause for celebration. Cleopatra had won, but Egypt had lost. The three Roman legions now stationed permanently in the Nile Valley were a testament to that. As Caesar remarked in his later account, he

thought it beneficial to the smooth running and renown of our empire that the king and queen [Ptolemy XIV and Cleopatra] should be protected by our troops, as long as they remained faithful to us; but if they were ungrateful, they could be brought back into line by those same troops.2

An occupying army was not Caesar’s only legacy to Egypt. In the summer of 47, after he had left to continue his campaigning, Cleopatra gave birth to a boy. In no doubt about his paternity, she named him Ptolemy Caesar. At her command, the Cyprus mint issued special commemorative coins to celebrate the arrival of the royal baby. Decorated with the double cornucopia, they proclaimed the abundance and promise of the Romano-Egyptian union.

Another birth to different parents, a year later, was the cause of equal celebration and thanksgiving. This time, both father and mother were present to share the joy. The happy parents were the high priest Pasherenptah and his wife of twelve years, Taimhotep. Their delight at the birth of a son was all the greater because of the anguish that had preceded it. In the early years of their marriage, Taimhotep had born her husband three healthy children, but they had all been daughters. In ancient Egypt, every man wished for a male heir, the more so when he was the high priest of Ptah and the hereditary holder of an office that had been in his family for eleven generations. By the time he turned forty-three, Pasherenptah must have begun to wonder if he would die without a successor. In desperation, his wife turned to the trusty native gods—in particular, to Imhotep. The courtier of Netjerikhet who had lived twenty-six centuries earlier, at the dawn of the Pyramid Age, and whose crowning achievement, the Step Pyramid, still rose majestically on the Memphite skyline, was worshipped throughout Egypt as a god of wisdom, magic, and medicine. His cult was especially strong in Memphis, and Taimhotep herself, as a daughter of the city, carried his name. If any of the gods would answer the couple’s prayers for a son, surely Imhotep would. So, Taimhotep “prayed together with the High Priest to the majesty of the god great in wonders, effective in deeds, who gives a son to him who has none: Imhotep, son of Ptah.”3 Wondrously, the prayer was answered. Imhotep appeared to her in a dream, promising her a son if she would arrange for his Memphite shrine to be beautified—you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. It helped that Taimhotep’s husband was perhaps the most influential man in Memphis and head of the local priesthood. The builders, painters, and decorators must have completed their work in record time. On July 15, 46, at around two o’clock in the afternoon, Taimhotep gave birth to the longed-for son. “There was jubilation over him by the people of Memphis. He was given the name Imhotep and was also called Padibastet. Everyone rejoiced over him.”4

For Taimhotep, the birth of a son was the culmination of her wifely duties. For Cleopatra, her son’s birth had a deeper, religious significance. To mark the birth of her Caesarion, “little Caesar,” the queen consecrated a roof shrine at Iunet, a temple dedicated, appropriately, to the ancient mother goddess Hathor. At Iuny (Greek Hermonthis), she built a “birth house” to celebrate the institution of divine procreation. In Ptolemais and Alexandria, the two great Greek cities of Egypt, she actively promoted the cult of Isis, already one of the most popular Egyptian deities and now a goddess with whom Cleopatra felt a special affinity. For, in popular belief, Isis was a divine mother and protector, caring for her worshippers as she did for her infant son Horus. It was not difficult to draw the parallels. The royal propaganda of the time encouraged the association, and statues deliberately blended the iconography of Isis with the features of Cleopatra. Goddess and queen were becoming one.

Cleopatra certainly had more credibility as an Egyptian deity than her forebears, since, unlike every previous Ptolemy, she seems to have taken the trouble to learn the native language. She evidently considered Egypt to be her home, and took pains to honor the traditional cults. She adopted a feminine version of the earliest and purest expression of divine kingship, the Horus title, and at least some of her Egyptian subjects viewed her as a fully legitimate pharaoh. All the stranger, then, that at the height of her popularity she should have left Egypt to travel to Rome as Caesar’s guest when he finally returned home from campaigning in 46. For two years, she stayed in his estate across the Tiber. The relationship between them was the subject of much gossip, not least when Caesar dedicated a gold statue of Cleopatra in the Roman shrine of Venus Genetrix. His subsequent preparation of a bill, to be put before the senate, to allow him to marry (bigamously) outside Italy, have children with a foreign wife, and create a second capital city seemed to confirm the Romans’ worst fears: under the malign influence of an oriental queen, their war hero was going native.

The assassination of Caesar on March 15, 44, put paid to his exotic ambitions. Within a month, Cleopatra left Rome and returned home to Alexandria. Another month later, her brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV, was conveniently dead. In his place, Cleopatra elevated Caesarion to the throne as Ptolemy XV, “the father- and mother-loving god.” In Cleopatra’s mind, the parallels between her own life and the life of the gods seemed to grow stronger by the year. Caesar had been murdered, just like Osiris; his son and heir Caesarion was the new Horus. As for the widowed mother, Cleopatra, no one could now doubt her transformation into the living Isis.


IF CLEOPATRA HAD ACHIEVED APOTHEOSIS, HER FELLOW MEMBERS OF the pantheon were not impressed. Indeed, the gods seemed to have deserted Egypt. A further series of low Niles in 43–41 led to more food shortages. In the big cities and in the countryside, the Egyptians felt increasingly desperate. Hard-pressed and hungry, they ceased even to look forward to the promise of a more comfortable afterlife. Imagining the hereafter as a continuation of their earthly lot, they turned their backs on two thousand years of faith and began to dread what lay beyond the grave. Nobody expressed this fear of death more movingly than Taimhotep. On February 15, 42, at the age of thirty, she died, leaving her husband, son, and three daughters to mourn. As befitted the wife of a high priest, her funerary stela was beautifully fashioned from a slab of fine pale limestone, carved by the country’s finest craftsmen. On its face, underneath a winged sun disk, a delicately carved frieze showed Taimhotep worshipping the cream of Egypt’s traditional deities: Anubis, god of mummification; Horus, son of Osiris; Nepthys and Isis, Osiris’s sisters and chief mourners; the sacred Apis bull of Memphis; and, finally, Sokar-Osiris, god of the dead. If the divine lineup recalled Egypt’s traditional self-confidence, the accompanying inscription, in twenty-one lines of finely cut hieroglyphs, embodied the new, darker zeitgeist:

Oh my brother, my husband, friend, High Priest!

Do not weary of drinking, eating, getting intoxicated and making love!

Make holiday! Follow your heart day and night!

Let not care into your heart otherwise what use are your years upon earth?

As for the west, it is a land of sleep; darkness weighs on that place where the dead dwell.5

Taimhotep’s funerary inscription is the longest and most heartfelt lament from ancient Egypt, a poignant assertion that the old certainties had well and truly disappeared.


For the country as a whole, as well as for its individual citizens, the future looked ominous. With the murder of Caesar, Egypt had lost its protector. It was anybody’s guess how his killers on the one hand and his heirs on the other would now behave toward Cleopatra and her realm. To make matters worse, her younger sister Arsinoe, freed from captivity in Rome and now living at Ephesus, provided a natural focus for dissenters within the Ptolemaic lands.

Cleopatra’s mettle was tested to the full as first Cassius and then Mark Antony and Octavian sought military assistance from Egypt. Deploying all her political acumen, she read the situation correctly and threw her lot in with Caesar’s allies. Antony’s subsequent victory over Cassius and Brutus at the Battle of Philippi vindicated her decision. Egypt was saved—for the moment—but the country’s reprieve came at a price. Its unforeseen, and ultimately tragic, consequence was Cleopatra’s entanglement with a second Roman war hero.

She may have met Antony for the first time in 55, when he came to Egypt as a young cavalry officer with Gabinius’s army. Antony and Cleopatra must surely have come into contact again during her two-year stay in Rome in 46–44. It was to be a case of third time lucky. In the summer of 41, following the entente between Egypt and Caesar’s heirs, Antony summoned Cleopatra to meet him at Tarsus, in southeastern Anatolia. With the wind in his sails after Philippi, Antony had set his sights on defeating the Parthian Empire, Rome’s last major enemy in Asia. To mount such a campaign he required a forward base in the eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt was ideal. For her part, Cleopatra was in urgent need of a new protector. Mutual advantage thus brought the two together.

With her instinctive skills of presentation and propaganda, Cleopatra turned a diplomatic and political summit into a religious spectacle, arriving by river in the guise of Aphrodite/Isis coming to meet her divine consort, Dionysus. Antony must have been flattered by the analogy, and beguiled by a queen fourteen years his junior. Like Caesar before him, he offered Cleopatra his support in return for her favors. Not even the news of Pasherenptah’s death, on July 14, could cool her ardor. Toward the end of the year, Antony and Cleopatra returned together to Alexandria. Nine months later, their twins were born, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, the sun and the moon—fitting issue for a match made in heaven.

Except that it wasn’t. No sooner had the twins come into the world than their father upped and left Egypt. Returning to Rome, he sealed a deal with his great rival by marrying Octavian’s sister (Octavia) and spurning Cleopatra. As for the queen of Egypt, she should have learned from bitter experience that a whirlwind romance with a Roman general meant life as a single mother.

For the next three years, with Antony off the scene, Egypt enjoyed a brief respite from the wearying succession of wars, intrigues, coups, and countercoups that had plagued it under the Ptolemies’ wayward rule. Imhotep (though only a boy of seven) was appointed high priest of Ptah in succession to his father and forefathers. The Nile inundation returned to accustomed levels, and agricultural production increased. If it had not been for the staggering levels of foreign debt, a legacy of Ptolemy XII’s reign, Egypt’s economy might have returned to prosperity. As it was, the government coffers were running on empty. Silver coinage was debased from 90 percent to 40 percent precious metal, before virtually disappearing from circulation. In its place, most coins were minted in bronze. Egypt’s legendary wealth was going straight into Roman pockets.

Restless to subdue Parthia and win himself even greater renown, by the autumn of 37 Antony had come to the conclusion that Octavian was not going to assist him. Egypt once again seemed the likeliest ally. So he traveled east once more, to Antioch, and called a second summit meeting with Cleopatra. As a sweetener, Antony gave her the contents of the great library of the kings of Pergamum, said to number two hundred thousand volumes—partial compensation for the holdings of the Alexandrian library destroyed a decade earlier during Caesar’s war against Pompey. Antony also allocated Egypt a host of Roman territories around the eastern Mediterranean. This allowed Cleopatra to pose as an imperialist pharaoh, a ruler who had restored some of the luster to her forebears’ once great empire. To mark this renaissance, she introduced a system of double-dating, proclaiming her sixteenth year on the throne the first year of a new era. But it was all a mirage. The eastern lands were not Antony’s to give. Phony title deeds and a collection of books in return for real troops and supplies was hardly a fair exchange. In the far-off days of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt had been respected and feared as the mighty bull of Asia; now, it was Rome’s milk cow.

Due to a combination of poor preparation and overconfidence, Antony’s first Parthian campaign was a complete disaster. In the space of a few months, he lost a third of his legionaries and nearly half his cavalry to a fierce and determined opponent. The only good news that year was the birth of another son by Cleopatra, Ptolemy Philadelphus. A second Parthian campaign in 34 saw Cleopatra travel with Antony to the banks of the Euphrates. This time, Antony won a limited victory over Armenia, celebrated with quite disproportionate pomp in the “Donations of Alexandria.” Before an enormous crowd, Antony and Cleopatra appeared together on silver thrones, she in the guise of Isis. He then boldly proclaimed their children to be the rulers of Rome’s eastern provinces. To Cleopatra and Caesarion would be given the traditional Ptolemaic lands of Egypt, Cyprus, and Cyrenaica, together with Coele-Syria; Alexander Helios—attired for the occasion in Persian dress—would be given Armenia, Media, and Parthia (ignoring the inconvenient fact that the last remained unconquered); while the two-year-old Ptolemy Philadelphus, dressed in Macedonian garb, received the provinces of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia (southeastern Anatolia). The boys were hailed as “kings of kings,” destined to rule over the entire eastern empire.

It was a complete pipe dream. By acquiescing in it and siding so publicly with Antony, Cleopatra was risking the wrath of Rome, whose senators and citizens took a particularly dim view of orientalist fantasies.


A REMARKABLE DOCUMENT ON PAPYRUS SUMS UP EGYPT’S RAPID DECLINE in the last, tragic years of Cleopatra’s reign. Dated February 23, 33, it records an Egyptian royal decree granting extraordinary tax privileges to a Roman general. Not just any general, but Antony’s right-hand man, Publius Canidius. Cleopatra’s edict gave him permission to export ten thousand sacks of wheat from Egypt—not for nothing was the country called the breadbasket of the Roman Empire—and import five thousand amphorae of wine each year, duty free. If that were not enough, Canidius was also exempt from all tax on his Egyptian landholdings, as were his tenants. In effect, he was declared to be outside the normal tax system. As a political bribe, it must rank as one of the biggest and boldest in history. The decree was addressed to a high-ranking government official in Alexandria, whose job it was to notify other bureaucrats in the administration. To give the measures effect, the Greek word “ginesthoi,” “make it happen,” was added at the bottom of the papyrus. It may just be in Cleopatra’s hand. If so, she was not so much passing a tax measure as signing her own death warrant.

During the course of 33, it had become obvious for a second time that the Roman realm was not big enough for two leaders. Antony, with the eastern provinces at his disposal and friends in the Senate, looked the better bet. But Octavian, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and legal heir, was equally determined. As with Caesar and Pompey sixteen years earlier, the clash of two mighty egos led all too readily to civil war. Cleopatra’s close identification with Antony made it easy for Octavian to brand her as public enemy number one, using her to create a distinction between himself, the true Roman, and Antony, the dissolute traitor. No matter that Cleopatra’s co-regent (Ptolemy XV Caesarion) was Caesar’s own son. In Octavian’s eyes, she stood conveniently for everything that was alien and detrimental to Rome’s interests. Her fate, and the fate of Egypt, now rested on the outcome of Rome’s internal conflict.

As the feud between the two Roman factions intensified, Cleopatra and Antony sailed from Alexandria with an armada of two hundred Egyptian ships. After stopping at Ephesus and Samos, they finally reached Athens. There, Antony publicly repudiated Octavia and cut all ties with his rival’s camp. When winter gave way to the milder weather of spring 31, formal hostilities broke out. It soon became apparent that Antony’s delusions of grandeur were not matched by his tactical ability. By the beginning of September, his land forces were pinned down in western Greece and his warships were blockaded in a large bay. A naval breakout under fire seemed the only remaining option. The Battle of Actium, on September 2, 31, was more a flight than a military spectacle. Antony and Cleopatra escaped with their lives and 60 of their 230 ships. He fled to Libya, she to Alexandria.

History had taught her that defeated leaders usually did not last long, so she took pains to dress her ships as if she had been victorious. When Antony joined her in the royal palace a few days later, the two of them tried hard to create an impression of normality. A huge festival was organized to celebrate Caesarion’s coming of age, royal spectacles always being guaranteed crowd-pleasers and welcome distractions from bad news. On a more mundane level, the wheels of the administration continued to grind, government edicts to be issued, and taxes collected (unless you were Canidius). In the Upper Egyptian town of Gebtu, a guild of linen manufacturers drew up a detailed contract with two local priests to provide for the expenses of the local bull cult. Bureaucracy and animal worship—a quintessentially Egyptian combination. To some, pharaonic civilization must have seemed immortal, impregnable.

But beneath the public display of business as usual, Cleopatra was making feverish preparations for permanent exile. She had the remains of her naval fleet hauled overland from the Nile to the Red Sea, intending to send Caesarion away to India. But the local Nabataean Arabs literally burned her boats, and she found herself trapped in Alexandria with no escape route. As Octavian closed in from Syria and another of his divisions closed in from Cyrenaica, Cleopatra sent him a desperate embassy, offering to abdicate in favor of her children if he would only spare Egypt. Octavian did not reply.

On July 29, 30, the high priest of Ptah, Imhotep, died at age sixteen years and three weeks. He was the casualty either of a weak constitution or, more likely, of a foe determined to eradicate all vestiges of Ptolemaic rule. For three centuries his forebears had successfully safeguarded Egypt’s ancient religious traditions, the country’s very soul. No more. Three days later, on August 1, Egypt fell to the might of Rome. As Octavian’s forces bore down on Alexandria by land and sea, Antony led his own army and navy through the city’s gates for one last battle. But, after years of campaigning, he was a spent force. Antony was comprehensively defeated and, as Octavian entered the city, Cleopatra fled to her fortified treasury-cum-mausoleum in the royal quarter of Alexandria. Subsequent events have passed into legend. Misinformed that his lover had already taken her own life, Antony fell on his sword. At Cleopatra’s anguished insistence, his weak and almost lifeless body was hoisted up into her apartment, where he expired at her side. She in turn was tricked into leaving the building and promptly incarcerated in the royal palace.

Just ten more golden sunsets over Alexandria and, on August 12, the last queen of Egypt followed her Roman paramour to the grave. In her comparatively short but turbulent life, she had seen one of her sisters overthrown and killed, another paraded as a Roman trophy. Suicide must have seemed a better ending than being lynched or than living the rest of her life in captivity. Whether it was an asp hidden in a basket of figs or a poisoned comb, “the truth about the manner of her death no one knows.”6

Cleopatra died. Her memory lived on. Four centuries later, a worshipper still lovingly tended her cult statue in Rome. Twenty centuries later, re-creations of her life and loves grip the Western world. She is still with us.

So, too, is her world. In the centuries since her death, the Nile Valley has been fought over by Romans and Arabs, Christians and Muslims. The unrelenting Egyptian sun has bleached the gods’ once gaudy temples into romantic sand-colored tumbledown ruins. Tombs have been stripped of their treasures, pyramids of their shimmering capstones. But the allure of pharaonic civilization, embodied in the Western consciousness by its last queen, has proved altogether more resilient.

In physical terms, Cleopatra’s enduring monument, her most extravagant architectural legacy, is the temple of Hathor at Iunet. From its porticoed façade, the benign half-human, half-bovine face of the ancient mother goddess still peers down in concerned protection, as it has for two thousand years—as it did over the graven image of Narmer, Egypt’s first king, at the dawn of pharaonic history. The iconography and ideology of divine kingship, arguably the ancient Egyptians’ greatest inventions, were there at the end, just as they were at the very beginning.

As heir to this extraordinarily ancient tradition, Cleopatra wished, above all, for her dynasty to have a future. On the rear wall of the temple, she was depicted side by side with her son Ptolemy XV Caesarion, making offerings to the gods as her royal forebears had done for three millennia. If she was Isis-Hathor, the divine mother, he would be Horus—the avenging son of a murdered father who would rise in glory and rule Egypt as a great king.

As with so many of Cleopatra’s hopes, fate had other ideas. Caesarion was eliminated by Octavian within days of Alexandria’s fall. There would be no future for the Ptolemaic Dynasty—for any dynasty of pharaohs.

Yet alongside the last, bold assertion of divine kingship, the stones of Cleopatra’s monument proclaim a deeper, more enduring truth. Next to the figure of the very last Ptolemy are carved four simple hieroglyphs: a sandal strap, a snake, a loaf of bread, and a stretch of alluvial land. The quintessence of pharaonic civilization. Together they form an epithet that had been applied to kings since time immemorial: ankh djet—“living forever.”

It is a fitting epitaph, not just for Cleopatra but for ancient Egypt.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!