Here’s our Cleopatra story so far:
She was born in Alexandria, Egypt as part of the Ptolemaic dynasty. We don’t have any direct evidence of her childhood, but we can surmise a few things. First, she’s Greek. The Ptolemaic dynasty was a bunch of Greek elites ruling over the Egyptian lower- and middle-classes. Second, she was educated. Alexandria was where you sent your child to be educated; she can, as an adult, speak nine languages. This speaks to a good education.
The political world is basically: the Roman Republic is taking over the Mediterranean; and it’s also busy beating up on itself. There have been a series of dictators in Rome, all of whom have been generals. There are consuls – elected leaders – in between the dictators, but about once a generation for the last 60-80 years, there’s been a civil war between two generals, with one eventually coming out on top. The generals cut their teeth getting new land for Rome, and then they come to take over the whole thing. What this means for Egypt: by Cleopatra’s time, Rome runs all the land around the Mediterranean except for Egypt. The Ptolemies need to be in Rome’s good graces if they’re going to continue to rule. Cleopatra’s father, Auletes, knows this, and bribes Roman officials accordingly.
After Auletes dies, Cleopatra co-rules Egypt with one of her younger brothers. But then her brother’s advisors force her out. At the same time, Rome’s latest civil war – between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus – shows up on Egypt’s shore. Pompey has just been defeated in a major battle; the advisors decide to behead Pompey to gain favor with Caesar. Caesar is appalled.
Cleopatra decided to appeal to Julius Caesar to get back on the throne. He backs her, they fight her brother’s advisors and their troops, and they win. Cleopatra gets almost sole control over Egypt (she has to co-rule with an even younger brother, but she’s powerful and she’s got Rome’s might behind her, so that’s just a formality).
Cleopatra and Caesar have a son, Caesarion.
Cleopatra, as monarch, heads to Rome when Caesarion is about a year old because she continues to need their support. And Rome needs Egyptian grain and money because it’s about to mount a war against a third country, Parthia.
But then Julius Caesar is assassinated, and about six weeks later, Cleopatra heads back to Egypt. We’ll pick up our story there next time.