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Cleopatra

Cleopatra (klēəpăˈtrə, –pāˈ–, –päˈ–) [key], 69 B.C.–30 B.C., queen of Egypt, one of the great romantic heroines of all time. Her name was widely used in the Ptolemaic family; she was Cleopatra VII. The daughter of Ptolemy XII, she was married at the age of 17 (as was the family custom) to her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, and the two inherited the crown in 51 B.C. The force and character of the royal pair was, however, concentrated in the alluring (though apparently not beautiful), intelligent, and ambitious queen. She led a revolt against her brother, and, obtaining the aid of Julius Caesar, whose mistress she had become, she won the kingdom, although it remained a vassal of Rome. During the war, her young brother-husband was accidentally drowned in the Nile. She then married her still younger brother Ptolemy XIV, but she followed Caesar to Rome; there she bore a son, Caesarion (later Ptolemy XV), who was said to be his.

Returning to Egypt after the murder of Caesar and the battle of Philippi, she acceded to the summons of Marc Antony to meet him at Tarsus. She famously arrived (42 B.C.) on a gilded, purple-sailed barge, reclining on a divan and luxuriously attended. Intending to demand an account of her actions, he fell hopelessly in love with her. Cleopatra, conscious of her royalty and even her claims to divinity as the pharaoh's daughter, seems to have hoped to use Antony to reestablish the real power of the Egyptian throne. They were married in 36 B.C. Most of the Romans feared and hated Cleopatra, and Octavian (later Augustus) undertook to destroy the two lovers. Antony and Cleopatra were defeated in a battle off Actium in 31 B.C., and, returning to Alexandria, they tried to defend themselves in Egypt. When they failed, Antony committed suicide by falling on his sword. Cleopatra, faced by the cold and unmoved Octavian, also killed herself. Her schemes ultimately failed, but her ambition, capability, and remarkable charm have left a great impression on history. Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, based on Plutarch, describes the tragic end of the queen's career, and Dryden's All for Love: or, The World Well Lost is a reworking of Shakespeare. Caesar and Cleopatra, the comedy by G. B. Shaw, deals with the early years of her story.

See biographies by J. Lindsay (1971), M. Grant (1973), L. Hughes-Hallett (1990), J. Fletcher (2008), D. W. Roller (2010), and S. Schiff (2010); J. Samson, Nefertiti and Cleopatra (1987); D. Preston, Cleopatra and Antony (2009); A. Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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