Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of Egypt. She is famous in Western culture because of her alleged affairs with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and these affairs tend to be the focal points of biographies featuring her, but she was also beautiful, intelligent, and passionately devoted to Egypt's well-being. The well educated and savvy woman fought hard for Egypt during her lifetime, although she ultimately failed to secure freedom from Rome. These traits are sometimes forgotten when she is discussed, but they provide vital clues into her life and ultimate death.
The girl who became known as Cleopatra was born in 69 BC. She was Greek, not Egyptian, descended from the Ptolemaic dynasty, which had ruled over Egypt since 305 BC. Technically, she was Cleopatra VII, since this was a popular name among the dynasty, but since she is the most famous of the Cleopatras, the “VII” is usually dropped. She was also a co-regent, sharing power with her brother, Ptolemy XIII, and later with Ptolemy XIV, as well as her son, Caesarion, who was executed shortly after her death.
The Egypt that she was born into was a land slowly facing Roman subjugation. Although the Ptolemies tried to keep Rome out of Egypt, maintaining some form of independence for the country, it was evident that Rome would eventually seize control. Cleopatra actually spent some time in Rome, where she met Julius Caesar and had a child that she claimed was his. To her displeasure, Caesar refused to recognize the child as his heir, and after his assassination, she returned to Egypt.
Once in Egypt, the embattled co-monarch met Marc Antony, a powerful Roman official. Recognizing that allying with Rome might be better than giving in, she entered into an affair with Antony, who later killed himself when he received erroneous news of her death. Before his death, the couple had three children, who ended up in Rome, brought up by Octavia Minor, Antony's Roman wife. Cleopatra followed Antony in death shortly afterwards, allegedly allowing herself to be bitten by an asp in a basket of figs.
As a historical figure, Cleopatra has been heavily romanticized in popular culture. A 1963 film starring Elizabeth Taylor catapulted her into the popular imagination, and audiences had already been entertained for centuries by Shakespeare's eponymous play. Ultimately, her attempts to maintain Ptolemaic control of Egypt were unsuccessful, and Rome was governing the country within months of her death. Several extant busts and paintings document her appearance and accomplishments.