As Kathleen Martinez mentions in this episode clip, what most of us know about Cleopatra is based on her portrayal in Hollywood movies. Cleopatra was, in fact, much more than the Hollywood seductress of legend. Who was the real Cleopatra? And what are her achievements? Here are nine things you might not know about her:
1. She was the 7th Cleopatra
Known simply as Cleopatra (Greek: “Famous in Her Father,” 51 – August 12, 30 B.C.), the last active pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt was actually named Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (“Cleopatra the Father-Loving Goddess). The original Cleopatra (Cleopatra of Macedon, c. 355/354 B.C. – 308 B.C.) was the sister of Alexander the Great (July 20/21, 356 B.C. –June, 10/11, 323 B.C.).
2. Cleopatra was actually Greek, not Egyptian
While Cleopatra was born in Egypt, she traced her family origins to the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Macedonian Greek origin that took the reigns of Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C. The Ptolemies spoke only Greek and the dynasty lasted for nearly three centuries.
In Cleopatra’s Lost Tomb, the foundation deposits Kathleen Martinez discovered at the temple of Taposiris Magna revealed the first direct link between the temple site and Cleopatra’s family line. Watch a clip and learn more.
3. Cleopatra’s parents may have been siblings
To keep the sacred bloodline pure, like many royal families, the Ptolemaic dynasty often tied the knot within the family. More than a dozen of Cleopatra’s ancestors married with cousins or siblings. Cleopatra married both of her brothers as her ceremonial spouse. It is likely that her parents, Ptolemy XII Auletes and Cleopatra V of Egypt, were siblings.
4. Medieval Arab writers portray her as a philosopher, scientist and astute political leader
Cleopatra’s beauty may not have been her biggest asset. It is believed that Cleopatra was highly educated and spoke as many as a dozen languages. A 9th century poet named Al Masoudi mentioned in his writing that Cleopatra wrote several books about medicine, and other fields of science. While Roman propaganda painted Cleopatra as a sinful temptress, in the Arabic sources, Cleopatra is only described as a ruler or a great monarch who protected Egypt, and not a seducer.
5. Cleopatra was a naval commander
To fight against Mark Anthony’s rival Octavian, who instructed the Roman Senate to declare war on Antony in 32 B.C., Antony and Cleopatra commanded their ships against the Roman navy. Cleopatra personally led several dozen Egyptian warships alongside Antony’s fleet, but they lost the battle and both fled with their ships to Egypt.
6. Cleopatra’s cat eye makeup was to boost the immune system
Cleopatra’s and ancient Egyptians’ heavily painted eyelids were not just to attract admirers but to protect against eye infections as well. Everyone, man or woman, wore green eye paint and black kohl. The eye makeup was believed to have a magical role in ancient Egyptian culture. Bacterial eye infections would have been common along the Nile, and the chemicals used in the eye makeup are known to stimulate the immune system.
7. Not everyone thought Cleopatra was beautiful
In regards to Cleopatra’s beauty, Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote: “For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking.“ On the other hand, a century earlier than Dio, Greek historian Plutarch wrote: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.”
In 48 B.C., just three years after Cleopatra came to the throne, Julius Caesar conquered Egypt. But rather than surrender, the Queen sought an audience with the great general. As Dr. Darius Arya points out in Cleopatra’s Lost Tomb, we could talk about both seduction and political maneuvering when we think about the relationship between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra.
Cleopatra started producing a Roman coin while she was living with her new lover Marc Antony. This Roman Denarius is very unique for bearing portraits on both sides of it. Having a foreign queen on a Roman coin was unheard of, and what’s more intriguing is that it suggests that Cleopatra occupies the ‘head’ side. If this image on the coin is an accurate depiction of her, would you describe her as a woman of surpassing beauty?
8. The events around Cleopatra’s death and what happened to her body are unknown
It is believed that Cleopatra and Marc Antony took their own lives in 30 B.C., after Octavia’s forces pursued them to Alexandria. While Antony is said to have stabbed himself in the stomach to death, we do not know exactly what happened to Cleopatra. Some say she killed herself by having an asp —a viper or Egyptian cobra— bite her arm, but the truth is, barely any traces of Cleopatra or her reign survive today.
9. The movie Cleopatra is one of the most expensive movies of all time
The original budget for the 1963 “historical” epic Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was $2 million, but it eventually ended up at $44 million, including $200,000 just to cover the cost of Taylor’s costumes. That is the equivalent of about $342 million today. It was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release.