In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cleopatra

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Literary Sources
  • Modern Biographies
  • The Ptolemaic World and Hellenistic Monarchy
  • Cleopatra’s Kingdom
  • Julius Caesar
  • Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony)
  • Cleopatra and Rome
  • Cleopatra’s Scholarship
  • Cleopatra’s Children
  • Cleopatra’s Death

Classics Cleopatra
Duane W. Roller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0130


Cleopatra (Kleopatra) VII is arguably the most famous woman from classical antiquity, and one of the most familiar personalities in human history. She is best known through the extensive art and literature that was generated after her death. The information from Greek and Roman sources about Cleopatra herself is surprisingly sparse and generally misinterpreted. She is familiar today largely through her representation by Shakespeare and in modern film, as a seductress who ruined the men in her life and destroyed her kingdom, an erroneous depiction that is in large part the result of extremely eloquent opponents and male-dominated historiography. More accurately, she was a capable administrator and military commander, a linguist who knew a dozen languages, and a published scholarly author. Yet she was also the last ruler of her kingdom, and her defeat by the Romans led to the destruction of her reputation. She ruled for twenty-one years, from 51 to 30 BCE, and skillfully attempted to salvage her dying kingdom in the face of growing Roman power and involvement in the affairs of the eastern Mediterranean. Best remembered for her liaisons with Julius Caesar, and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), she in fact carefully chose her partners in order to produce heirs who could carry on the kingdom. But her own plans became caught up in the ongoing civil war at Rome, beginning with the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE. Her original relations with Antonius were a matter of stabilizing her kingdom and creating a mutually beneficial relationship between Egypt and Rome, but the personal involvement between the two eventually hampered these plans, and allowed Octavian (the future emperor Augustus), in power in Rome, to marginalize Antonius (who was his brother-in-law) and to claim that he was being destroyed by an eastern seductress. Matters quickly moved out of control in the 30s BCE, and eventually a Roman invasion of Greece was mounted. Cleopatra attempted to disassociate herself from Antonius in order to salvage her kingdom, but would not give it over to Octavian, and was driven to suicide in August of 30 BCE at the age of thirty-nine. Her son Kaisarion ruled for a few weeks, but soon the Romans took over the kingdom. Although the Roman literary machine turned her into a dangerous monster who almost destroyed Rome, within Egypt she was honored for centuries.

Ancient Literary Sources

Ancient literary sources about Cleopatra are remarkably sparse. Women never fare well in ancient history, and there is no work specifically devoted to the queen, nor is there a major contemporary source. Plutarch’s biography of Marcus Antonius (see Plutarch 1988) is the closest to an actual narrative about the queen, but was written one hundred years after her death and is limited in its focus. Second in importance is the Roman History of Cassius Dio (see Dio 1914–1927), the only continuous extant history of Cleopatra’s era. Also of significance are the works of the Jewish historian Josephus (Josephus 1928 and Josephus 1930–1965), whose interest was limited to the southern Levant, but this was an area of importance to Cleopatra. Other historical sources have exceedingly limited references to the queen, although Cicero 1999 (#374, 377) is the only source for a possible miscarried pregnancy by Cleopatra in early 44 BCE. The poetry of the Augustan period, although eloquent, helped to destroy her reputation. For example, in Book 8 of the Aeneid (Vergil 2000) the Battle of Actium is described, but Cleopatra is not named, called only the “Egyptian mate” of Antony. Propertius 1990 (3.11), also not deigning to mention her by name, ranked her with the sorceress Medea. Horace 1999 (Ode 1.37), while also highly critical, showed some admiration for a woman who would not be humbled in a triumph.

  • Cicero. 1999. Letters to Atticus. Edited and translated by D. R. Shackelton Bailey. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    These letters contain some contemporary notices of Cleopatra, especially from the 40s BCE.

  • Dio, Cassius. 1914–1927. Roman history. Translated by Ernest Cary. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    The original Greek with the only complete English translation, which is flawed because of its age. The era of Cleopatra is in books 42–51, with scattered references to the queen. Dio wrote over two hundred years after her death, and was not always sensitive to nuances of her career or era, but his is the only existing continuous narrative of the period.

  • Horace. 1999. Odes and epodes. Translated by C. E. Bennett. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Although firmly within the Augustan negative tradition, Horace was able to admire Cleopatra’s courage.

  • Josephus, Flavius. 1928. The Jewish War. Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This and the following Jewish Antiquities focus on events in the southern Levant, an area of importance to Cleopatra because of her relationship with Herod the Great. The two were cautious allies and often rivals.

  • Josephus, Flavius. 1930–1965. Jewish antiquities. Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray and Louis Feldman. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    These parallel works were written a century after the death of Cleopatra. Although their focus is on events in the southern Levant, this was an area of intense interest on the part of Cleopatra, since she and Herod the Great were cautious allies and often rivals.

  • Plutarch. 1988. Life of Antony. Edited by C. B. R. Pelling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The best edition of the most important ancient literary source on Cleopatra. Written a century after her death, the biography of Antonius provides the most detail about Cleopatra’s life and that of her children. Plutarch was not immune to the anti-Cleopatra propaganda that was well established by his time, but nonetheless also had access to sources within her circle (such as the memoirs of her personal physician) that were outside the Roman negative tradition.

  • Propertius. 1990. Elegies. Edited and translated by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Propertius compared Cleopatra to Medea.

  • Vergil. 2000. Aeneid 7–12, Appendix Vergiliana. Edited by H. R. Fairclough and G. P. Goold. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library.

    A text and good translation of the second half of the Aeneid in the Loeb Classical Library series.

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