Cleopatra, the name that stands out as the one that hasn’t lost its shine, despite the efforts of eons of time and layers of desert dust. There are just so many fascinating things about this Egyptian queen, like her being the last Egyptian pharaoh, her being the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean of her time and her being the most influential woman in that era! In a time of battles, whether for glory or greed, where great warriors have come and gone, one woman still has us obsessed with her, and she is Cleopatra!
Cleopatra, the Greco-Roman celebrity that is the fascination of millions worldwide and is yet quite starkly put, simply misunderstood. The recantations of Shakespeare and Shaw had already built her notorious personality before archaeologists ever got the chance to present the real her. Michelangelo and ambitious actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor, Leonor Varela and Monica Bellucci have proceeded to put a face and figure on her historic persona. We have indeed lost the real queen Cleopatra in this humdrum of commercialization!
Then again, as it is with most accounts of history that are always colored in favor of the victor, Cleopatra has always been painted with a biased hand. Historic accounts of her have hence been unfairly cruel to the great queen. It is time to clear the cobwebs and separate the facts from the fiction. There are several myths associated with the great queen, both good and bad, and it is time to debunk them, one by one. As archaeologists and historians present us with more accurate facts, it is time we get to know the real queen of the Nile.
10) Cleopatra Was Not Quite The ‘Ruthless’ Murderer
In a life that spanned less than four decades, Cleopatra murdered many of her family members, as was the norm of the time. Sounds brutal when you know that she did it for her own safety and right over the throne, but many historians agree that contrary to popular belief, she only resorted to murder when it proved to be absolutely necessary. Many documentaries paint the Egyptian queen to be a cold-hearted killer, especially after the remains of her murdered half sister, Arsinoe were found during archaeological investigations. Yet, many historians concur that considering her family’s tradition for the same, her siblings would just as easily have killed her, if she hadn’t gotten to them first. Of course, the dead would disagree, but it would seem to be the norm of the times to kill for power and for the lust of a throne.
9) Cleopatra May Not Have Died Of An Asp Bite
We all know the versions where Cleopatra, heartbroken over the death of her beloved Antony and scared of being paraded as a victory trophy by the Romans, killed herself most dramatically by taking the bite of an asp to her breasts. Yet, many researchers obsessed with Cleopatra claim that this particular version, though highly appealing to our emotions, may not actually be accurate. Whether it was one asp, two asps, an Egyptian cobra or a poisonous concoction, different people have different accounts of Cleopatra’s death and while very little archaeological and documentary evidence exists to help us find the indisputable truth, doubt still remains. Prior to Shakespeare throwing in his two bits of romanticism into an already mystery-shrouded area, all accounts had claimed that Cleopatra was bitten on her arm. To further complicate things, knowing how good the Egyptians were with their poisons, German historian, Christoph Schaefer and his toxicologists, Dietrich Mebs have thrown another equation into the mix. They claim that the great Egyptian queen poisoned herself using a mixture of opium, hemlock and wolfsbane; a concoction that was pre-tested on several hapless subjects for its painlessness, as well as swiftness, of course.
8) Cleopatra May Not Have Died Of Heartbreak
Still staying on the point of Cleopatra’s dramatic adieu to the mortal word, it is time to set the records straight. While everyone loves a good romantic story, most times the romance is more in our heads than in actual reality. Yes, Cleopatra was indeed overwrought over the death of her beloved Mark Antony (by all accounts) and the depth of her despair must indeed have played a part in her suicide. But knowing Cleopatra’s personality and brains by now, historians think there may have been other motivations for her death. The real reason behind her suicide was more likely to have been related to the fall of Egypt to Rome. Cleopatra could foresee herself being paraded through Roman streets as something of a victory trophy, and the humiliation of that for this Egyptian monarch would have been simply unbearable. This coupled with the fact that the once rich-beyond-anyone’s-best-dreams queen was now completely penniless was enough to break anyone’s resolve to live, let alone this proud, luxury-loving queen. These motivations may no longer seem romantic, they are definitely more real.
7) Cleopatra May Not Have Been Buried With Mark Antony
Once again, it appeals to our romantic sensibilities to believe the legend that Cleopatra was buried with her beloved Mark Antony, somewhere in Egypt, especially because the legend seems to have originated from Plutarch’s early recantations. There are cases to be made on both sides of this theory. While one set of experts believe that Cleopatra actually had a tomb built for herself in Alexandria, others believe that the couple was entombed together in a temple in the Taposiris Magna temple, in Egypt. Believers of the former theory trust the evidence that suggests that Cleopatra was entombed alone in her self built tomb, which is unfortunately now resting at the bottom of the ocean’s floor, along with the ruins of the rest of Alexandria’s ancient city. Since Cleoptara herself hasn’t really be found yet, there can be no conclusive answer.
6) Cleopatra Loved To Spend & Not Only On Luxuries, Hair & Beauty
Due to all the Hollywood renditions and due to early theories mis-painting her, many portrayals of Cleopatra show her as a sex siren who played on her beauty, rather than her brains to get everything she wanted. Most knowledgeable historians are offended for her when she is seen as a frivolous queen who went to great lengths for her beauty and spent like crazy on her beauty rituals. While it is indeed a well documented bit of history that Cleopatra took the way she looked and smelled very seriously, it was not the only things she spent enormously on. Yes, she did indeed take 50 percent of the whole kingdom’s GDP into her personal coffers, but she ruled Egypt extremely well. The queen gave good thought to, and implemented several great public welfare schemes during her time and gave Alexandria its world renowned splendor. So yes, Cleopatra did like to dress well in expensive muslin, do her hair in pretty exotic braids and spend a lot of time on grooming and hygiene, but so what, she was definitely not the fluff brain that did only that!
5) Cleopatra Was A Strategist & Political Thinker
Not that anyone says it out loud, but a lot of people even now see Cleopatra as someone who used sex rather than brains to rule a great kingdom. Unfortunately, that is most definitely not true. For the times that she did use sex in order to achieve an interest that was favorable to her or her kingdom, one can easily see that it was a well thought out strategy that obviously worked! There have been several other instances where Cleopatra has shown unparalleled prowess as a strategist, thinker and political tactician. Her image building for herself, her positioning of her son Caesarion as a powerful future ruler, her ability to foresee the outcome of wars, even the one where Antony (and herself) lost, as well as her battle strategies of trying to get the stronger opponents on their weakest ground, all prove her brain strength. Any historian worth his salt now accepts that previous versions depicting Cleopatra as a dimwit are most gravely erroneous versions that have been thoroughly scrapped by archaeological, as well as historic evidence now.
4) Cleopatra – Was Not Beautiful (At Least In The Standard Sense)
When we now know that Cleopatra was not beautiful, at least not according to the standard definition of beauty, it comes as a tectonic shock that breaks down the very foundations of Cleopatra, as she has always been cleverly presented to us. Though Plutarch and several historians have built up the whole concept of Cleopatra as a gorgeous woman, they seem to have reached such a conclusion through the simplistic route of progressing forward on the thought that she managed to captivate and seduce two of the most powerful men of her time – Julius Caesar and Mark Antony! If Cleopatra was beautiful, it was definitely not because of her face! Coins from her time which bear the image of her face show her to have a sharp chin, a rather pointy nose and a decidedly cranky expression, hardly the attributes associated with beauty. Yet, Cleopatra was certainly exotic, erotic and unabashedly smart. As a conversationalist, she could easily hold her own, even among well educated companions. All of these attributes, though certainly not associated with traditional measurements of beauty, seem to have been the ones that made her appear to be simply stunning, if you ask the men that fell at her feet.
3) Cleopatra Was Educated Unlike Most Women Of Those Times
Though Cleopatra ascended to the throne at the age of 17, what she lacked in experience was made up for with education and skills. In line with her ancestry as a Ptolemy (an ancestry that always stressed on education and learning), a lot of effort and interest was put in her education, learning of languages and sciences, and even the strategies of warfare. For someone so young, history shows evidence of Cleopatra being sharp enough to absorb all the knowledge in her youth and implement its essence as the ruler of the kingdom. Cleopatra made sure that the women in her kingdom had rights, unlike so many other great kingdoms of the time, she ensured that the collection of taxes and its redistribution into the economy was well thought out, if not fair and transparent, and she promoted trade and learning. All of these point at a sharp, educated and strong woman, who simply cannot be put down by the falsified information that has come down through history.
2) Cleopatra Was Not A Tramp, As Historically Portrayed
Though history that has been colored by Roman sympathizers and misogynists has taken great pleasure in portraying Cleopatra to be a sexpot, almost all historians unanimously concur that this was most certainly not the case. In fact, though Cleopatra was married twice before her liaisons with the Romans, she seems to have slept with only two men in total. Both her relationships, with Julius Caesar, as well as Mark Antony, also appear to have been started on a note of strategy rather than real lust or passion. Whether one or both affairs progressed into affection and passion (at least the one with Antony seems to have grown into something more genuine) is still a debate. For a great queen to have been deemed a slut by anyone and everyone did not sit well with several historians though and many have worked hard to separate this myth from fact with real documented as well as archeological evidence.
1) The Egyptian Queen Who Was Not Egyptian
The great queen of the Nile, Cleopatra was shockingly not born an Egyptian, but was more Egyptian at heart than any Egyptian out there. Cleopatra was actually descendant from a Greek Macedonian dynasty that started with Ptolemy I, the most trusted of Alexander’s (as in Alexander The Great) lieutenants. This dynasty ruled Egypt from 323 to 30 B.C and though most of its rulers largely remained Greek in their thoughts and culture, this young queen was different. Cleopatra took great efforts in her youth to study and understand Egyptian culture (probably knowing it in her heart that it was her destiny to be Egypt’s ruler). She was the only one who actually learnt the Egyptian language when no one in her family took the effort to do so, in the 300 years that they ruled the country. Though she was not Egyptian by birth, her study of Egyptian gods, culture and ethnic sensibilities made her the most empathizing of queens. The way she worked on her image by projecting herself as a goddess and her son Caesarion, as a young god, helped her gain weight with the local Egyptians and it seems that they really did love the queen that brought them prosperity and safety. It is such a pity that she was to be the last Pharaoh of Egypt!