Heritage Daily recently published “The early life of Cleopatra” to describe the fascinating rise of power of Pharaoh Cleopatra VII (69 BC to 10 BC), who solely ruled Egypt from age 18 to her death. The problem is, Heritage Daily just wrote the dry facts – where she attended, some brief disputes, and when documents finally started listing her as sole ruler. But there is so much more to Cleopatra.
The eldest daughter of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra was born into royal Egyptian life. Her young life was filled with love: Egyptian culture valued children, with mothers looking after them constantly into young childhood. Cleopatra likely had a nurse, when her royal parents were serving in official capacities, but she would have had a lot of contact with her parents. This parental love was even reflected in the names given to children; in Cleopatra’s case, her name actually comes from her family’s Greco-Roman heritage and means “glory of the father.” It was passed on to her from female relatives, most likely her mother. Unfortunately, it is unclear exactly how the name was passed on, as the Ptolemaic family tree is really complicated and records about them are fragmentary at best.
Beyond family love, Cleopatra knew a rich palace life. She had pets, toys, games, and dancing. She helped her parents take care of her siblings and family pets. As she grew into late childhood (about 5 to 7 years of age), Cleopatra began helping with royal tasks. Since she was royal, she probably didn’t learn much about housework. Instead, her learning was focused on skills she would need to effectively rule – math, science, reading, writing, languages. She also learned about Egyptian religious beliefs, and as a royal, Cleopatra would have also learned her roles and functions in religious ceremonies.
Records state Cleopatra was tutored by Philostratus, a sophist philosopher and orator. Having been educated in Greek language and culture, Philostratus likely taught this to Cleopatra as well. Around age seven, Cleopatra was sent to the Mouseion in Alexandria, similar to what we would call an academy. The Mouseion had existed for over 300 years and was supported by the royal family. Some of the best scholars in the Hellenistic world were there, so it was akin to Cleopatra attending the best of the best schools. She furthered her studies while being exposed to literary criticism, scientific research, translations of foreign texts, and debates on history and politics.
During Cleopatra’s youth, Egypt was in a bit of a political tough spot. Her father, Ptolemy XII, was fighting against Roman senators who wanted to annex Ptolemaic Egypt into Rome – effectively ending Egypt’s independence. Ptolemy wanted to maintain that independence, and offered lavish gifts to Roman statesmen to sway their votes. Yet this lavish gift-giving hurt Egypt’s financial position and Ptolemy’s popularity with the Egyptian people. During at least one year of her life, Cleopatra either witnessed or accompanied her father abroad during his exile; the evidence for if she accompanied him is unclear. Egypt was ruled by Cleopatra’s sister, Bernice, but Rome didn’t like that. Romans helped Ptolemy regain control of Egypt within three years, through a series of military campaigns that are far too complicated to detail here.
The important part is to remember that for Cleopatra, this separation and/or exile with her father would have been heartbreaking. While many paint the picture of a scheming family out to kill each other to gain power, Cleopatra’s bond – at least with her parents – would have included a great deal of love. This is seen in Ptolemy’s choice to appoint Cleopatra as co-successor to Egypt’s throne, along with her brother Ptolemy XIII. (Remember, marriage of siblings was common among Egyptian royals in order to preserve power.) Ptolemy also made Cleopatra regent of Egypt on May 31, 52 BC; he died about one year later.
It was 51 BC and Cleopatra was 18 years old – and now Queen of Egypt. As a young woman, her early reign focused on traditional duties of the Pharaoh: installing new sacred statues and animals, helping her people through hard times (notably a famine), and taking over relationships with the Roman Republic. Despite having been designated co-ruler, Cleopatra quickly seems to have taken over Egypt as a sole Pharaoh – rejecting the idea that her younger brother should co-rule with her. Whether she married him is still debated, as there is no evidence either way. Unfortunately, Cleopatra’s brother retained powerful allies, who made life difficult for Cleopatra.
Two years after her accession, Cleopatra was at war with her brother. Sometime in 49 BCE, at age 20, Cleopatra fled Egypt for exile, which guaranteed her safety. She traveled to Roman Syria, gathering forces to help her invade and take back Egypt. Her attempt was fairly unsuccessful, but Cleopatra seems to have returned to Egypt around the same time that Roman senator Julius Ceasar came to live in Egypt at the royal palace.
By late 48 BC, Cleopatra’s stage was set: the 21-year-old was about to sneak her way into the chambers of Julius Caesar and open the doors to her infamy.
If anything, Cleopatra’s girlhood had set this stage. She had been deeply loved by her family, but keenly aware of the political implications of having many royal children (and potential heirs). She was also highly educated by some of the best minds in the Hellenistic world, in both book-learning and how to be an effective ruler and leader. She had become experienced as a ruler under her father’s tutelage, both shadowing him in exile and as regent upon his return. And she was about to use these skills to impress one of the greatest military generals at the time – and secure his support and help in becoming one of the most infamous Pharaohs in history.
Girl Museum Inc.
“Childhood”, Royal Ontario Museum – https://www.rom.on.ca/en/learning/activities-resources/online-activities/ancient-egypt/life-in-ancient-egypt/childhood
“Filostrato el Egipcio” – https://second.wiki/wiki/filc3b3strato_el_egipcio
“Children in Ancient Egypt” by Peter Thoth for the British Library –https://www.bl.uk/greek-manuscripts/articles/children-in-ancient-egypt