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Cleopatra VII (69 - 30 BC) was the last Pharaoh of Egypt. She is undoubtedly one of the great romantic figures in world history. Remarkably, the facts of her life do live up to the legend.
A descendent of Ptolemy, the Greek general who claimed the throne of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra served as co-ruler of Egypt first with her father and later with her two husbands (who were also her brothers, as was the custom among the Egyptian pharaohs). In approximately 51 BC she sought to seize sole power from her second husband, but was forced to flee Egypt when the attempt was thwarted.
Shortly thereafter the Roman general Julius Caesar seized the Egyptian capital, using the power-struggle between the two pharaohs as an excuse for his actions. According to legend, Cleopatra had herself smuggled into the palace wrapped in a Persian carpet which was presented to Caesar as a gift. When the carpet was unrolled Cleopatra tumbled out, and she pled her case to the bemused general. Apparently her pleading was effective: Caesar backed her claim to the throne and the two became lovers, Cleopatra giving Caesar a child some nine months after their first meeting.
In 44 BC Caesar was assassinated and Rome was ruled by a "triumvir" of three men. Cleopatra allied herself with Mark Anthony, one of the triumvirs and a close friend of the late Caesar. The two also became lovers and had several children together. In 37 BC Anthony married Cleopatra, abandoning his Roman wife. This act was considered an outrageous insult to his wife, and Octavian, another of the triumvirs, convinced the Senate to go to war against Anthony and Egypt. The two forces met in a great naval battle off of the coast of Actium, and the lovers fleet was decisively defeated.
Shortly thereafter a Roman army invaded Egypt, virtually unopposed. Mark Anthony committed suicide and Cleopatra followed soon after. According to legend, she died by the bite of the asp, a poisonous snake. The victorious Octavian annexed Egypt, ending the thousand-years' reign of Egyptian pharaohs.
It is somewhat difficult to judge Cleopatra's effectiveness as a leader. Egypt was weak, and it certainly did not have the military strength to face mighty Rome, now coming into the height of its power and majesty. Her wit and beauty were virtually the only tools she had to protect her throne. Cleopatra's liaisons with first Caesar and then Anthony were able to stave off the inevitable for a few years, but in the end passion alone could not save Egypt from conquest.
Cleopatra remains one of Europe's most romanticized figures. She has been featured in no fewer than four films, two television shows, three operas, four plays, numerous carvings and statues and over a dozen paintings.
Cleopatra's numerous heirs were unable to exercise any power after their homeland's conquest by Rome. Ptolemy XV, also known Ptolemy Caesar, was the son born of Cleopatra's union with Julius Caesar and ruled Egypt for the short period after his mother's death. He was executed upon his capture by Augustus Caesar, who famously stated that "Two Caesars are one too many."