Facts About Cleopatra: 10 Little-Known Insights

Introduction

Cleopatra, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, has intrigued historians, scholars, and the general public for centuries. Her story is filled with mystery, romance, and political intrigue, making her one of the most renowned figures in ancient history. In this article, we will uncover the facts about Cleopatra, separating historical truths from legends. Join us as we delve into the life and times of this captivating queen.

Cleopatra: Not Just Egyptian.

Bust of Cleopatra
Marble Bust of Cleopatra VII, Berlin, Germany. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although Cleopatra was born in Egypt, her family lineage can be traced back to Macedonian Greece and Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Ptolemy took the reins of Egypt after Alexander’s demise in 323 B.C., establishing a dynasty of Greek-speaking rulers that lasted for nearly three centuries. Despite not being ethnically Egyptian, Cleopatra wholeheartedly embraced her country’s ancient customs and became the first in the Ptolemaic line to learn the Egyptian language.

She Was a Product of Incest

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963.

Like many royal houses, the Ptolemaic dynasty practiced intermarriage within the family to preserve the purity of their bloodline. Cleopatra’s ancestors, including more than a dozen before her, married cousins or siblings. It’s highly probable that her own parents were brother and sister. Following this tradition, Cleopatra eventually married both her adolescent brothers, each of whom served as her ceremonial spouse and co-regent at different periods during her reign.

Cleopatra’s Beauty: Beyond Skin Deep

Roman propaganda depicted Cleopatra as a debauched temptress who used her allure as a political weapon, but her intellectual prowess likely surpassed her physical appearance. Proficient in numerous languages, she received education in mathematics, philosophy, oratory, and astronomy. Egyptian sources praised her as a ruler “who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.” Historical evidence also challenges the notion of her striking beauty. Some coins bearing her likeness portrayed her with strong features and a prominent, hooked nose. Some historians argue that she deliberately presented herself as more masculine to display strength. Ancient writer Plutarch noted that Cleopatra’s beauty was “not altogether incomparable,” attributing her allure instead to her mellifluous voice and irresistible charm.

She Played a Hand in Three Sibling Deaths

Power struggles and murderous plots were customary within the Ptolemaic tradition, and Cleopatra and her siblings were no exception. Her first sibling-husband, Ptolemy XIII, banished her from Egypt when she sought to claim the throne solely for herself. Later, they engaged in a civil war, which Cleopatra won by forming an alliance with Julius Caesar. Ptolemy XIII met his end by drowning in the Nile River after being defeated. After the war, Cleopatra remarried her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, but evidence suggests she had a hand in his murder to secure her son’s co-rule. In 41 B.C., she orchestrated the execution of her sister, Arsinoe, whom she viewed as a threat to her power.

Cleopatra Knew How to Make an Entrance

Cleopatra Before Caesar
Cleopatra Before Caesar, Jean-Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1866. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Believing herself to be a living goddess, Cleopatra skillfully employed theatrics to win over potential allies and reinforce her divine status. One famous instance of her dramatic flair occurred in 48 B.C., during her conflict with her brother Ptolemy XIII when Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria. Knowing that Ptolemy’s forces would prevent her from meeting with the Roman general, Cleopatra had herself wrapped in a carpet—some accounts say it was a linen sack—and secretly delivered to his quarters. Caesar was captivated by the sight of the young queen in her regal attire, and their ensuing alliance blossomed into a romantic relationship.

Cleopatra repeated a similar act of theater in 41 B.C. during her meeting with Mark Antony. When summoned to Tarsus to meet the Roman Triumvir, she arrived on a golden barge with purple sails, rowed by silver oars. Cleopatra herself was adorned to resemble the goddess Aphrodite, seated under a gilded canopy while attendants, dressed as cupids, fanned her and burned sweet-smelling incense. Antony, who saw himself as the embodiment of the Greek god Dionysus, was instantly enchanted.

She Resided in Rome During Caesar’s Assassination

Caesar(Rex Harrison) and Cleopatra(Elizabeth Taylor) from the Cleopatra movie, 1963.

Cleopatra joined Julius Caesar in Rome around 46 B.C., and her presence caused quite a stir. Caesar openly acknowledged her as his mistress, and she even arrived in the city with their lovechild, Caesarion. This sparked scandal among many Romans when Caesar erected a gilded statue of her in the temple of Venus Genetrix. However, Cleopatra was forced to flee Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. Nevertheless, her impact on the city was substantial, with her unique hairstyle and pearl jewelry influencing Roman fashion to the extent that statuary of other women was often mistaken for Cleopatra herself.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony: Partners in Revelry

Cleopatra and Mark Antony
Painting of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Source: Historycollection

Cleopatra’s legendary love affair with the Roman general Mark Antony began in 41 B.C. Their relationship served political purposes, with Cleopatra seeking Antony’s protection for her crown and Egypt’s independence, while Antony desired access to Egypt’s wealth and resources. Yet, beyond their political interests, they were genuinely fond of each other’s company. Ancient sources recount how they spent the winter of 41-40 B.C. indulging in a life of luxury and excess in Egypt, forming their own drinking society known as the “Inimitable Livers.” The group engaged in nightly feasts, wine binges, and elaborate games, occasionally playing pranks on Alexandria’s residents while wandering the streets incognito.

She Led a Fleet in a Naval Battle

Although Cleopatra eventually married Mark Antony and bore him three children, their relationship became the subject of a massive scandal in Rome. Antony’s rival, Octavian, used propaganda to portray him as a traitor under the influence of a scheming seductress, and in 32 B.C., the Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra. The climax of this conflict occurred the following year in a well-known naval battle at Actium. Cleopatra personally commanded several dozen Egyptian warships alongside Antony’s fleet, but they proved no match for Octavian’s navy. The battle turned into a rout, and Cleopatra and Antony were forced to break through the Roman line and flee back to Egypt.

Cleopatra’s Demise: Not Just an Asp Bite?

The end of Cleopatra and Antony’s lives in 30 B.C. in Alexandria remains shrouded in mystery. While Antony is believed to have fatally stabbed himself in the stomach, the exact manner of Cleopatra’s suicide remains uncertain. Legend claims she enticed an “asp” (likely a viper or Egyptian cobra) to bite her arm, but Plutarch admits that the truth behind her death remains unknown. Other accounts suggest that Cleopatra concealed a deadly poison in one of her hair combs, while historian Strabo proposed she applied a fatal “ointment.” Modern scholars speculate that she used a pin coated with potent toxin, which might have included snake venom.

A Cinematic Extravaganza: “Cleopatra” (1963)

Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.

The Queen of the Nile has been portrayed on the silver screen by various actresses, including Claudette Colbert and Sophia Loren. However, Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra in the 1963 epic “Cleopatra” remains the most renowned. The film encountered numerous production problems and script issues, leading to a budget that soared from $2 million to a staggering $44 million. A significant portion of this cost was attributed to Taylor’s costumes, which alone amounted to around $200,000. Upon release, “Cleopatra” became the most expensive movie ever made, nearly bankrupting its studio despite its box office success. Even considering inflation, “Cleopatra” continues to rank as one of the costliest movies in history to this day.

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