Egypt was home to one of the most powerful civilizations of all time. They built the gigantic pyramids that are still standing today. They were led by a king, who they called a pharoah. They believed he was a god and worshipped him. They used advanced math, astronomy, created a system of writing, their own paper and were able to farm the land and build on a massive scale. Their armies were powerful and dangerous and controlled all the land in Northeast Africa for thousands of years! It can be hard to imagine just how long Egypt was in power compared to countries today, but it was much, much longer than British Empire was in power or the United States has been a global power, for example.
But over time other civilizations became powerful. Eventually, it was the Greeks under Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great was a skilled military hero, who conquered lands all across the Medeterranean and eventually took Egypt. From this time forward Egypt was controlled by the Greeks. When Alexander the Great died, one of his captains named Ptolemy became the new King of Egypt or Pharoah. Ptolemy and his children ruled Egypt from the city of Alexandria for many, many years. And this is where our story about Cleopatra begins.
Cleopatra was born 69 BCE in the city of Alexandra, Egypt as a princess to the current pharoah, Ptolemy the 7th. Like Alexander the Great, who had conquered Egypt, Cleopatra and her family were Greek, even though they ruled the Egyptian people. She had an older sister named Berenice, a younger sister named Arsinoe and two younger brothers who also had their father’s name of Ptolemy.
Cleopatra had a good and safe childhood as a princess of Egypt. She probably played dice games popular in Egypt and with carved wooden dolls. Because she might be the pharoah herself someday, she was given a very good education. She had very good teachers and was able to study in the grand library of Alexandria, one of the best libraries in the history of the ancient world. Smart people from all over the world gathered at Alexandria and her library to study and learn from each other.
At school she memorized long poems and lists of gods, goddesses and heroes. She was taught to speak in front of other people, an important skill as a queen. Cleopatra dressed in beautiful silk robes, wore lots of jewelry and makeup, and made to look like a goddess, since that’s what the people believed she was, as the daughter of a god.
Unfortunate for Cleopatra, she was born during a time when there were many problems going on in her family and in Egypt. Her father and the pharaohs before him had been poor leaders, so the Egyptian people no longer wanted him as their ruler. When Cleopatra was 11, the people finally made her father, Ptolemy, leave Egypt.
After Ptolemy left, Cleopatra’s older sister, Berenice became the new pharoah. In order to take power, Berenice had to do some horrible things and Cleopatra watched as all of this happened. The struggles going on her family made her want to stay out of the fighting, but she also watched carefully knowing that someday she may be the one having to take control and rule Egypt. She was very smart and probably already started thinking about what the right moves might be when she was in the same position as her older sister. She also learned that the best rulers were the ones who had the support of their people, unlike her father. She decided the best way to do this was to find ways for the Egyptian people to like her. Cleopatra learned everything she could about the Egyptian people and learned their language. She started dressing like their goddess Isis to gain their support.
Another great civilization that rose to power after the Greeks was the Roman Empire. They were the most powerful empire during the lifetime of Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy, after being run out of Egypt, fled to Rome and convinced the Romans to join him and retake control of Egypt. A battle broke out between the fearsome Roman Army and the Egyptians of Alexandria. The Roman Army won the battle and Ptolemy once again became the pharaoh of Egypt. But even though her father was in control again, Cleopatra knew if she made the right moves, she could become the next ruler once he was gone.
And by 51 BCE, Ptolemy died and Cleopatra became the new queen, the Pharoah of Egypt. She was only 18 at the time, but had been preparing for her entire life for the job. She knew she’d have to be very careful and win over the people if she wanted to stay in power. One of her first moves was to take a trip to the city of Thebes by boat in a grand ceremony and declare herself the goddess Isis. Isis was worshipped by the Egyptian people, so she hoped in turn they would worship and honor her.
Sadly, luck turned against Cleopatra though and the Nile River didn’t flood for the first two years she was pharaoh. The Nile River was how the Egyptian people survived when once a year it flooded and watered their farmlands. The people wondered why if Cleopatra was a goddess she wasn’t able to control the Nile. Soon the people were going hungry, because their crops weren’t growing. Guess who they blamed? Yes, Cleopatra. Seeing that the people were growing angry, she decided to leave before they forced her out. But did Cleopatra give up easily? No. Right away she started plans for how she would return to power. In the desert she used her mastery of language to start making allies, which means friends with those who she could join with, warriors who could help her become pharaoh again.
Around this time a war was going on in Rome between two generals, Pompey and Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar won and after beating Pompey and taking control over the entire Roman Empire as its first emperor, he headed to Egypt to make sure it was also under his control. When he arrived, Cleopatra’s younger brother, Ptolemy, was the pharaoh. Caesar wanted Ptolemy and Cleopatra to work together to figure out who should rule Egypt, but Cleopatra was afraid her brother might try to harm her when she returned from the desert. So she came up with a very cunning plan. Cunning means to be very tricky and smart. With the help of her friend, Apollodorus, Cleopatra put on a disguise and rowed up the Nile River to Alexandria in a small boat. After reaching the palace, she climbed into a big sack and had Apollodorus carry her over his shoulder. No one knew he was carrying Cleopatra as he walked across the grounds of the palace and right into the room where Julius Caesar was waiting. Next, Cleopatra climbed out of the bag to Caesar’s great surprise!
Cleopatra then used her great skills of talking and persuasion to convince Julius Caesar to let her be the Pharaoh of Egypt in place of her brother. Caesar agreed to let her rule with her brother, who was angry with the decision. Her brother, Ptolemy’s army later attacked too, but Ceasar’s army was more powerful and won The Alexandrian War and Ptolemy did not survive, leaving Cleopatra once again in control of Egypt. After the war Julius Caesar stayed in Egypt and Cleopatra became his wife. They travelled up and down the Nile and had a child together and named him Caesarion, which means “Little Caesar.” Eventually, they returned to Rome together.
The Roman people liked Caesar, but the other leaders did not. They did not like that he had become an emperor and also did not like that he had married a woman who was not Roman. While in Rome, one of Julius Caesar’s friends, Brutus, and the other leaders turned against him and Caesar did not survive their attacks. The reign of Emperor Caesar was over, so Cleopatra left Rome and returned to Egypt.
While Cleopatra was in Egypt, a new war in Rome began over who would lead the empire. The battle was fought between one of Caesar’s generals, Mark Antony and Brutus and Cassius. This was called the Roman Civil War. Mark Antony eventually sailed to Rome to gain Cleopatra’s support. At first she was unsure if she should befriend him, because she wasn’t sure which side would win the war. Eventually, she met him on the Nile in one of her huge, decorated boats. She was dressed as the goddesses Isis, the boat was covered in flowers, small torches, and purple sails making it a beautiful sight to behold. When Mark Antony met Cleopatra he was stunned by her beauty and her power of speech and persuasion. Soon, he and Cleopatra were a couple and spent the next several months sailing together along the Nile and throwing huge parties together at Cleopatra’s palace. They paid for huge feasts and dancers and acrobats. These were some of the biggest parties Egypt had ever seen!
While Mark Antony was away from Rome, Julius Caesar’s nephew, Octavian had risen to power. Mark Antony knew it was time for him to give up the parties and his time with Cleopatra and return to battle to conquer his own lands. He left Egypt and fought far away while Octavian won the Civil War and now wanted to make sure Mark Antony wasn’t a threat. He sailed to Egypt to finish him off. In Egypt, Cleopatra and Mark Antony joined forces to fight Octavian. Their ships and soldiers battled on the ocean, but Octavian’s navy was stronger and he beat Cleopatra and Mark Antony. They retreated to the big city of Alexandria and waited for Octavian to come after them. Cleopatra and Mark Antony loved each other and refused to be separated during their final days. They passed away in Alexandria together, where a funeral was also held in honor of them. The Egyptian people were sad to see their goddess queen, their pharaoh go.