Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of Egypt. She was descended from a line of kings who were nearly all known as Ptolemy, and who were set up by Alexander the Great after he conquered Egypt in 332BC. These kings were Macedonian and spoke Greek (Macedonia was a country to the north of Greece). This period is known as the Ptolemaic Period.
The Plot Against Cleopatra
Cleopatra was the daughter of Ptolemy XII (she herself was Cleopatra VII). She became queen at the tender age of 17 with instructions to marry her younger brother Ptolemy XIII. He, however, wished to rule alone and with the help of two courtiers, Achillas and Pothinus, made plans to get rid of her. She was warned in time and fled to Syria. She raised an army and returned to Egypt, where there was a stand-off with her brother's army.
Caesar Steps In
The Romans now entered the scene, creating a tale which has been told countless times in plays, books, and films. Julius Caesar, a powerful Roman general, had just defeated his enemy Pompey in a civil war and pursued him to Egypt. He landed at the capital, Alexandria, where Achillas and Pothinus had just murdered Pompey, hoping to please Caesar. Caesar, however, was outraged (Pompey, although his enemy, was an old friend and well-respected). He had Pothinus killed. He then met Cleopatra and it would seem they fell in love - or Cleopatra very cleverly manipulated him. Caesar favoured her and set her on the throne. Ptolemy attacked with his armies, besieging Cleopatra and Caesar on the island of Pharos. They were unsuccessful and Ptolemy drowned.
Cleopatra and Caesar then had a son, Caesarion, who was later murdered by the Romans.
After Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BC, Egypt - a land very rich in crops like wheat and barley - was up for grabs. The contest was between Octavian, Caesar's heir, and Marc Antony, one of Caesar's former commanders. Antony also fell in love with Cleopatra and with their armies they fought Octavian in the sea battle of Actium in Greece, in 31BC. Octavian won and took Egypt as his personal domain (he later became Rome's first emperor, Augustus). Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra killed herself (supposedly by getting a cobra to bite her). Neither wished the humiliation of defeat.
Roman Egypt was immensely prosperous and numerous new cities, temples, and other buildings were constructed. However, after the Roman Empire became Christian in the 4th century the Egyptian religion died out. The last hieroglyphic inscription dates from AD394. A few hundred years later the Arabs conquered Egypt and since then Egypt has been Muslim, conquered by many other nations and finally independent since 1922 (the same year Tutankhamun's tomb was discovered).
The Death of Cleopatra - modern painting by Reginald Arthur (1892)
bust of Cleopatra
Carving of Cleopatra on the wall of the temple of Hathor at Dendara