The Faces of Cleopatra

Most of us --even those not particularly interested in Egyptian history-- are familiar with black-eyed image of dark and beautiful Queen Cleopatra, rolling out of a carpet and into the shocked presence of Julius Caesar. But even more fascinating than the dark and sexy screen vixen we've seen depicted in dozens of films is the real Cleopatra. An incredibly intelligent, vibrant, and ruthless woman, Cleopatra was an intriguing historical character.
The Queen's real history began in 49 B.C., when Cleopatra was in her early twenties. After a failed attempt to establish herself as the sole Pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra was driven from the palace by Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Cleopatra's brother, husband, and co-ruler). But she soon returned with an army, setting up camp outside the palace in Alexandria and setting herself and her brother into something of a stalemate.
Soon, Julius Caesar of Rome took up residence in the palace, trying to bring peace between brother and sister. But when summoned to the palace by Caesar for a peace conference with Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra was barred entrance by her brother. Desperate for Caesar's help (and with something of a flair for the dramatic), Cleopatra came up with a plan to sneak into the palace. She had her servant roll her in a carpet and present the carpet to Caesar. Her dramatic gesture won over Caesar, and when Cleopatra rolled out and begged him for help regaining her throne, he agreed.
Though her brother-husband, Ptolemy XIII, rebelled against Caesar's decision to return Cleopatra to the throne, the civil war that resulted was soon ended by Ptolemy XIII's drowning. After his death, Cleopatra wasn't willing to take any more risks. After bearing a son to Caesar (a son who was next in line for the Egyptian throne), Cleopatra had both her brother, Ptolemy XIV, and her sister, Arsinoe, killed to keep the throne safe for herself and her son.
Left free to rule, Cleopatra was a popular ruler. Her main goal as Pharaoh was to keep Egypt free from the Roman Empire, which was rapidly expanding. So she allied herself with Roman general Mark Antony, who was rival to Octavian, next-in-line for the Roman throne. And though their relationship was beneficial to Cleopatra and to her throne, she actually loved Antony --a love which would become legendary as time went on-- and bore him three children.
But Antony's protection didn't last forever, and in 30 B.C., Cleopatra committed suicide to avoid being captured by Octavian, using either a vial of poison or the venom of an asp. This ended the life of one of history's most fascinating female figures, and began a legend that would live on for thousands of years.
Interested in Pharaoh Cleopatra and her history? Visit the Smithsonian Magazine website for fascinating facts about Cleopatra, including the surprising revelation that the Queen was not the legendary beauty she was made out to be, visit the Smithsonian Magazine website.
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