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Born from the ruins of a 5,000-year-old dynasty, this young woman outsmarted the most powerful men of her age to become the most famous queen in history!
Egypt was in chaos. The corrupt Pharaoh, Ptolemy XII, known for his love of wine and music, was hated by his people. They protested increasingly high taxation, which Ptolemy XII exacted to pay tribute -- a sign of respect, submission, and/or allegiance -- to the powerful Roman Republic, rulers of the Mediterranean. The cost of living was high enough! So they overthrew Ptolemy in 58 B.C.E., forcing him into exile. He fled to Rome, taking his teenage daughter, Cleopatra, with him.
Ambitious Roman leaders had long hungered for Egypt's wealth. Using Ptolemy's crisis as an excuse, Rome dispatched an army to restore the corrupt despot. Divided into pro and anti-Ptolemy factions, Egypt easily fell to the Roman legion. The Romans raised taxes even higher, increasing the suffering of the Egyptian people.
Ptolemy XII died several years later, in 51 B.C.E. (remember, years go backwards before the Common Era). He left his now 18-year-old daughter Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII to co-rule an exhausted, occupied Egypt. Because the rules, likely written by men, said women could not rule alone, Cleopatra was made to marry Ptolemy XIII, who was then just 10 years old.
Cleopatra was not only the older, but clearly the wiser and smarter of the two -- everyone could see it. While Ptolemy XIII played with toys, Cleopatra studied. She learned to speak nine languages. And though her family, who had descended from the Greeks, held Egyptian customs in disdain, Cleopatra saw a deeply proud and religious people. To earn their respect, she styled herself as a reincarnation of the goddess Isis, protector of Egypt.
Still, Cleopatra had to reckon with gender-based bias. And in that era the haters were plentiful!
A group of courtiers, for example, offended that a woman controlled Egypt (and them) rebelled against Cleopatra, forcing her to flee. They propped up Ptolemy XIII as sole ruler of Egypt. But the young Pharaoh was an immediate disaster. When Roman Consul Pompey fled to Egypt for protection, Ptolemy XIII had him murdered. The boy presented Pompey's head to his chief rival in Rome, Julius Caesar, in the hopes of winning Caesar’s good graces. But the move backfired. Horrified by Ptolemy's impudence, Caesar seized control of Egypt’s capital city, Alexandria.
Cleopatra sensed an opportunity. She had herself smuggled back into Alexandria in a rolled up carpet and dropped at Caesar's feet. The 52-year-old Roman leader was awestruck by the beautiful, audacious 21-year-old queen.
With Caesar as her loyal ally, Cleopatra put down Ptolemy XIII, becoming the first woman in more than 1,000 years to become sole Queen of Egypt. Caesar returned to Rome, leaving Cleopatra in control of Egypt. Through charm and intelligence, Cleopatra had freed her people from both foreign rule and the incompetence of chauvinistic males.
Ordinary Romans citizens, however, resented Cleopatra. They believed the Egyptian queen had enchanted their leader. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., politically savvy Cleopatra quickly formed a new alliance with Caesar's greatest general, Marc Antony.
Marc Antony had a rival: Octavian. He was the nephew of Julius Caesar, and he continued to fan the hatred of Cleopatra in Rome. He accused her of corrupting Antony's masculine Republican values as she had earlier corrupted Caesar.
Antony and Cleopatra formed a mighty army and navy to push back against Octavian. But Antony lost his life in the Battle of Actium. His ship sunk. He died at sea.
This doomed the dream of a fully independent Egypt. Octavian rushed to Alexandria to capture Cleopatra. But she was not having it. In a final act of defiance, she allowed a highly poisonous asp snake to bite her on the breast. She died almost instantly. The asp was sacred in Egyptian religion. Therefore, in the eyes of her people, Cleopatra ascended into godhood in that final act of defiance against the foreign occupiers.
In a world of patriarchal male rulers, Cleopatra outwitted her enemies time and again, becoming the last leader of ancient Egypt. Her defiance made her a hero to the modern Egyptian nation. And as a woman whose fierce intelligence was grudgingly accepted, even by her enemies, Cleopatra continues to inspire women today. That's why we’re proud to claim her as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero this Women's History Month 2018.