Cleopatra VII was the last queen of Egypt, ruling until her death (supposedly a suicide by asp bite, or injection of poison) after her and Marc Antony lost the Battle of Actium. She is famous and infamous as a symbol of ancient Egypt and as a seductress. She was an incredible scholar, and a polyglot that was fluent in at least six languages (some modern historians estimate it could have been as much as nine). The languages she definitely spoke are Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Ethiopian, Egyptian, and Aramaic.
One of the most surprising things for those just beginning to study Cleopatra to learn is that she was not Egyptian by blood. Cleopatra was a Ptolemy, and her family were Greeks that had ruled Egypt for 300 years. Ptolemy I was a general in Alexander the Great’s army, and upon Alexander’s death rule of Egypt was given to Ptolemy. Cleopatra was in fact the only Ptolemy that bothered to even learn to speak Egyptian.
The most iconic early moment of Cleopatra’s life took place when she was aged eighteen and going to Caesar for help in her battle against her siblings. She had herself wrapped in a rug and given to Caesar, and this was the legendary moment of Caesar first seeing Cleopatra unravelled from that rug. There are many who believe that this was unlikely to have actually occurred. I personally like to believe that if this did not occur, she still did something equally dramatic to win over Julius Caesar to her cause!
The role of Egyptian religion on the life of the Pharaoh was very important. This is especially true when we look at the fact that in Egypt Pharaohs were considered not just to be like Gods, but to be living incarnation of Gods. In the case of Cleopatra, she took on the moniker of Daughter of Isis. Isis is the supreme Goddess of the Egyptian pantheon, and it makes Cleopatra as the living incarnation of Isis incredibly powerful!
Cleopatra’s ability to seduce men is the stuff of myth. She has gone down as someone who was so beautiful and sexually skilled that she could have gotten anything she wanted from the opposite sex. Now most historians will tell you that Cleopatra was no beauty because of her depictions on coins minted in her lifetime. This is something I personally dispute since coinage was a way of utilizing propaganda, and making yourself be seen as you would want to be seen. It is quite likely that Cleopatra wanted to be seen as more Greek on coins used there, and more masculine in order to gain respect. She also could have tried to downplay her femininity in order to put rumors of her sexual exploits and sexual manipulations to rest.
The image of Cleopatra as a femme fatale is one that has stood the test of time for the last two thousand years. This particular image is one that has some basis in her history. She likely did order the deaths of both of her siblings (who were trying to have her killed, so in self defense). It is also known that Cleopatra was highly skilled in the art of poison. While this queen killed for protection and to defend her position, it is still a fact that she was a bit of a femme fatale.
Cleopatra was in truth bit of a seductress (as she is famously depicted), and she certainly used men’s feelings for her to her advantage. She used her sexuality and intellect to make Caesar more interested in her. Giving birth to his son even made him more attached to her, and he even had her triumphantly brought to Rome to show the strength of Egypt’s opulence! Cleopatra used her sexual skill to show Marc Antony a vision of her as the Goddess Aphrodite, and he ended up being the great love of her life. She in fact had three children with him.
Antony and Cleopatra were married in an Egyptian ceremony, even though Antony had already been married to Octavia (sister of Octavian, who would become the Emperor Augustus). Together Cleopatra and Marc Antony desired to bring Rome and Egypt together under their rule, and the rule of her son by Caesar. The Battle of Actium put an end to that dream. Antony would be dead not long after, and Cleopatra would follow him. Caesarian (son of Caesar and Cleopatra) was killed after his mother’s demise, and the children of Antony and Cleopatra would be taken in by Octavia.
There is modern conjecture that Cleopatra was actually killed by Octavian instead of committing suicide. This theory was backed up by the fact that it is not part of her personality to have given up and leave her children vulnerable. Another fact is that the poisons available at the time would not have acted fast enough for her and her attendants to be found dead by Octavian. That is a central part of the story, she was already dead when he saw her, but given how quickly he could get there this seems unlikely.
No matter how she actually died, her death by asp bite is ingrained in the cultural consciousness. She is a queen that has been immortalized by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Hollywood. In Hollywood she was famously portrayed by Claudette Colbert in the 1930’s and Elizabeth Taylor in the early 1960’s! Our love for the last queen of Egypt will likely never fade! I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on this formidable woman!
Note on Image: The painting at the top of the post is Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Those Condemned to Death by Alexandre Cabanel. I found the image on iartprints.com.
- Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
- Cleopatra (1934)
- Cleopatra (1963)
- Cleopatra (1999)
- Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer (2009)
- The Mysterious Death of Cleopatra (2004)