Scull has lived in different countries and taught International Business Relations and Strategies at Panamanian and Chinese Universities.
Cleopatra has captivated our imagination for centuries. She is said to have been a beautiful and mysterious seductress that put the political and military titans Julius Caesar and Mark Antony under her spell. While we may never know what Cleopatra looked like or how she was in person, there are some basic facts about her life that are clear: for one, she wielded great power and ruled over one of the greatest kingdoms in the ancient Mediterranean region.
After 2,000 years, historians, writers and Hollywood producers of all sorts continue to attempt molding her enigmatic persona into an image that, more often than not, fits their narratives. Even Augustus, Rome’s first emperor following Julius Caesar’s assassination, attempted to slander her. This, most experts agree, was out of fear for her ability to sway other men of power eventually threatening his position as Emperor of Rome.
Conceivably, Augustus understood the alliances Cleopatra had forged with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and potentially placed her a heartbeat away from becoming the queen of Rome. Hence, Augustus' depiction of Antony as un-Roman and enslaved “to the passion and witchery of Cleopatra,” helped to forever cement her image as a seductress of immense beauty.
Even Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, some sixteen hundred years later, further enshrined the Queen of Egypt as an eternal bewitching beauty when he wrote: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.”
Barring our thirst for creating an image of Cleopatra as the sensual, conniving and manipulative siren she probably was not, the following are interesting facts about the Queen of the Nile.
#1 — Cleopatra was actually Cleopatra VII
Her public name was Cleopatra VII Philopator, and she was the last member of the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty, hence the last Greek ruler of Egypt.
Her real name, however, was “Cleopatra Thea Philopator” which means “the Goddess Cleopatra, Beloved of her Father.” To most people there was only one Cleopatra: however, there were six others before her, not including Alexander the Great’s sister — the original Cleopatra.
#2 — Cleopatra was not ethnically Egyptian
While Cleopatra was born in Egypt, her genealogy goes back to Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Upon Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, Ptolemy took control over Egypt, eventually launching a dynasty of Greek-speaking rulers that lasted three centuries. Although Cleopatra was not ethnically Egyptian, she understood the need to not seem like a foreigner to her subjects. Consequently, she was the first of the Ptolemaic line to learn Egyptian and adopt many of the country’s ancient customs.
#3 — She was extremely intelligent
While we might not know how beautiful she was, there is one aspect of Cleopatra of which we are certain: she was exceedingly intelligent.
In spite of Roman propaganda painting her as an oversexed temptress, it is believed Cleopatra was a polyglot who could converse in close to twelve languages. She was educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy.
The Arab historian Al-Masudi (896–956 CE) described Cleopatra as a sage and a philosopher, “who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.” He also claimed that she wrote a number of books on medicine, charms and cosmetics. In the writing she called Cosmetics, she proposed treatments for hair loss and dandruff.
#4 — Cleopatra was born out of incest
Incest among the royals is nothing new. Some fourteen hundred years after Cleopatra, in the American Continent, the Inca kings also practiced incest as a way of keeping the purity of their bloodline. In fact, thirteen hundred years before Cleopatra, King Tut (Tutankhamun) was also a child of incest. His deformed body remains as evidence of this fact.
In the case of Cleopatra, many of her ancestors married and procreated with cousins or siblings. Furthermore, it is likely that her parents were in fact brother and sister. Cleopatra herself married both of her adolescent brothers, each of whom served as her ceremonial spouse and co-regent at different times during her reign.
In reality, the intermingling among blood relatives, especially when it involved access to the throne, was a legal necessity in ancient Egypt. From the beginning of its dynastic period, the transmission of the throne had been done in a matrilinear fashion. Hence, the kings had to marry their sisters in order to be qualified to rule.
#5 — She was ruthless
In addition to incest, the Ptolemaic family’s tradition extended to power grabs and murder; a convention to which Cleopatra willingly adhered. As a result, she had a hand in the deaths of three of her siblings.
The first to fall was her sibling-husband Ptolemy XIII, who exiled her out of Egypt after she tried to take sole possession of the throne. The pair faced off in a civil war that eventually led to the Battle of the Nile in 49 BCE. Prior to this battle, Cleopatra teamed with Julius Caesar which facilitated her victory against her brother. Shortly after his defeat, Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile as he was fleeing the opposing army.
Following the civil war, Cleopatra, now a widow, married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. However, she is believed to have had him murdered in order to make Caesarion, her son with Julius Caesar and her co-ruler.
The last of the siblings to die directly or indirectly at the hands of Cleopatra was her half-sister Arsinoe IV, who was queen and co-ruler of Egypt with her brother Ptolemy XIII from 48 BCE to 47 BCE. In 47 BCE, Arsinoe took an active role in conducting the siege of Alexandria against Cleopatra. She was taken as a prisoner of war to Rome by Julius Caesar following the defeat of Ptolemy XIII in the Battle of the Nile. She was then exiled to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Roman Anatolia, where she was later executed in 41 BCE by Mark Antony at the behest of his lover Cleopatra.
#6 — Cleopatra could also be a charmer
Greek biographer Plutarch wrote:
“To know her was to be touched with an irresistible charm. Her form coupled with the persuasiveness of her conversation and her delightful style of behavior — all these produced a blend of magic… her voice was like a lyre.”
From ancient writing, we know Cleopatra was slender, well-proportioned and exquisitely perfumed. She had the uncanny ability to be a seductress vamp one moment and an extraordinarily intelligent politician the next. When Julius Caesar summoned her brother-husband Ptolemy XIII in order to tell him to disband his army, he also asked for a meeting with Cleopatra.
History makes it abundantly clear that once the fifty-something Roman military and political giant met the young Egyptian queen, he was totally under her spell. The conqueror was summarily dominated by a woman who could be cunning and intelligent one minute, while acting as a playful kitten the next. They became lovers that very night. Caesar had been bewitched. Had he not been assassinated upon his return to Rome, he probably would have married the Queen of the Nile.
Council Mark Antony was no different. While Cleopatra initially was purposely coy, and traveled to Tarsus to avoid meeting him until she could do so under her terms, Antony’s fate was sealed. Once their eventual meeting took place, the Roman soldier, athlete, orator and well-known lover became her slave. It is said that Mark Antony became fascinated by Cleopatra’s ability to show a different facet of her personality daily.
Cleopatra played her cards right. She assessed his weaknesses and strengths and played to them in order to intertwine his life with hers. She played dice with Mark Antony, knowing he was a consummate gambler. Aware of his love for wine, she drank heavily with him. Knowing his fondness for practical jokes, she would join him in the streets of Alexandria in order to dupe unsuspecting citizens.
Consequently, Antony laid his sword at her feet, only to follow her to his grave.
#7 — Cleopatra was living in Rome, as the mistress of Julius Caesar, at the time that he was assassinated
Cleopatra was living in a Roman palace with her son Caesarion when Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Her residence was on the other side of the river Tiber, across from Caesar’s household. It is believed that she did not take permanent residence there but rather would visit regularly from Egypt.
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As soon as Caesar’s assassination took place, Cleopatra sensed danger and left at once with Caesarion. She knew how hard the people of Rome had worked to get rid of the kings that ruled the nation prior to becoming a republic. Cleopatra on the other hand not only insisted on being addressed as ‘queen’ but also on having an affair with the man who most thirsted for power.
Making matters worse, Caesar placed a statue of Cleopatra covered in gold in the temple of Venus Genetrix — the goddess who brings forth life. She, in turn, associated herself with Isis — the goddess of the moon, life, afterlife and motherhood. She often did this by dressing as Isis for ceremonial events and often looked to religious prophecy to justify her actions.
#8 — She had four children but only one survived to adulthood
Cleopatra’s first child with Julius Caesar was Caesarion. She also had twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, as well as another son, Ptolemy Philadelphos Antonius, by Mark Antony. Cleopatra Selene eventually became the Queen of Mauretania.
While Caesarion was murdered under Octavian’s orders, the lives of Cleopatra’s other three offsprings with Mark Antony were spared. However, Alexander, aged 10 and Ptolemy Philadelphus Antonius, aged four, were moved to Rome and put under the care of Octavian’s sister, Octavia to whom Mark Antony was still married.
Some years later, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus Antonius would disappear without a trace. It is believed they were killed by order of Augustus (Octavian).
Only Cleopatra Selene survived. Married to King Juba II of Mauretania, she had at least one child, Ptolemy Philadelphus, likely named in honor of his mother’s little brother. Her image was minted on coins along with Juba’s, suggesting that she ruled as an equal partner.
#9 - Cleopatra successfully improved Egypt
Cleopatra didn’t just want fame and fortune for herself. Her love affairs with Julius Caesar and later with Mark Antony weren’t just about her desire to consolidate her power as much as creating an alliance with a powerful state that could eventually help her kingdom to expand. In reality, Cleopatra wanted Egypt to remain independent from Rome and, to that end, she built its economy by establishing trade with many Arab nations.
#10— It’s unclear whether Cleopatra really died from the bite of an asp
According to popular belief, Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing an asp (Egyptian cobra) to bite her but, according to Greek and Roman historians, Cleopatra poisoned herself using either a toxic ointment or by introducing the poison with a sharp instrument such as a hairpin.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on April 30, 2021:
Thank you Gilbert.
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on April 30, 2021:
Interesting story JC. Amazing research.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on April 29, 2021:
Thank you Femi.
femi from Nigeria on April 29, 2021:
I was transported to an amazing time. Wonderful writing.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on April 29, 2021:
Thank you MG.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on April 29, 2021:
Thank you Lorna. Good to hear from you.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on April 29, 2021:
This is a wonderful article about a subject I have read a lot. She was a calculating woman but I think she did love Mark Antony.
Lorna Lamon on April 29, 2021:
Cleopatra was an amazing and gifted woman, however, I feel that history did not portray her in this way. A powerful brilliant woman reduced to a stereotype. I enjoyed this informative article JC.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on April 28, 2021:
Thank you Ann. I agree with you. Not fun being a king or queen.
Thank you John.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 28, 2021:
JC, this article offered a lot of information about Cleopatra that I was not previously aware of. An interesting and educational read.
Ann Carr from SW England on April 28, 2021:
Interesting history of this famous woman. I certainly did not know any of these facts. What complicated lives these rulers followed. They must have been constantly afraid of someone murdering them, hungry for power. Dog eat dog, I suppose!
Thanks for the education!