History: the Truth About Cleopatra

Mozelle Martin

Cleopatra has been one of the most prominent and flippantly mentioned women in history, at least since I was a child. Yet, in real life, the true story of Cleopatra (69 - 30 BC) is much more mysterious than historical stories led me to believe. That’s why I decided to look into the real Cleopatra a bit more assertively. Perhaps you feel the same way.

First off, Cleopatra ruled Ancient Egypt for 22 years. She had unrivaled riches (for that time, in the ancient world), and gave birth to two sons who turned out to be a couple of the most powerful men in Rome. Yet, all I ever heard about her was that she was a seductive, ill-intended woman who was a force to be reckoned with. After a bit more research, it seems that the scandalous reputation of her and her harem of men was most likely just enemy propaganda.

Here are some of the main things I found:

  • Cleopatra won people over with her intellect and social skills, not beauty.

Author Jones stated that Roman enemies wanted to denigrate Cleopatra by giving her a seductress reputation with the likes of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, saying she won them over through her beauty and womanly charm. However, even Plutarch, the Roman historian, stated, “There was much more to Cleopatra than beauty” even though he claimed her of unremarkable appearance. Plutarch continued, “She was persuasive, of stimulating behaviors, and sweetness in her voice. She could readily change to whatever language she needed and very rarely needed to use an interpreter.”

Cleopatra was a linguistic protégé. In addition to speaking Greek and Egyptian, Cleopatra was fluent in Persian, Parthian, Latin, Ethiopian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, and Median. But, in addition to languages, she was a naval commander, religious leader (messianic), an expert administrator, and a worthy Roman opponent. Moreover, she was worshipped in Egypt for over 400 years after she passed away.

As if that wasn’t enough, she was a prolific writer for the time and published two texts. One was on physical health and caring for one’s body and the other was on medicinal weights and measurements. In other words, instead of being famous for a harem of men and her promiscuity, she was famous for her intellect.

  • Perhaps she was a force to be reckoned with… a strategic one.

Her relationship with Julius Caesar was one of strategy, not love and affection. In fact, the Roman poet Lucan stated she was not a “lascivious fury and only had two romantic partners during her 39 years of life of which both were political-based.”

When she became queen at age 18, she took over a kingdom nearly in ruins. Rome was the ascendant power in the area and it threatened Egypt’s independence. Cleopatra’s younger brother was her co-ruler and husband who was 10 years old at the time.

Were humans more advanced then? I mean, what 10-year-old today would be capable of strategically trying to force his sister out of rule so he could be the only ruler?

As an aside… as with many royal families, "family love" was rampant to keep the bloodline (in this case, Macedonian Greek) pure. That’s why it is believed by scientists that Cleopatra’s parents were siblings. In fact, throughout her reign, Cleopatra married two of her brothers and after Caesar and Antony had died, she married one of her sons.

So, knowing that her brother-husband was trying to push her out when Caesar arrived in Egypt, Cleopatra knew she needed him as a political ally. When Caesar, an older man, saw her, he was immediately interested. So, by winning over Caesar’s alliance, she took back the throne and gave birth to a son named Caesarion. This relationship locked in her family ties to Rome.

Later, her second relationship with Mark Antony, who was second in command next to Caesar, it because one of the most legendary and tragic relationships in history. However, this relationship was also a political strategy.

After Caesar was assassinated, Cleopatra knew her kingdom could still meet demise at the hands of Rome, still the reigning superpower. Knowing that Egypt needed protecting and that Caesar's death had left a hole for an easy overtake, she needed to pursue Antony. At this time, Cleopatra was older and Antony was younger and needed money. So, she became his sugar momma of sorts. Since Cleopatra was the richest woman in the world at that time, in exchange for her money, Antony became Egypt's ally and most powerful defender. This relationship provided Cleopatra with three more heirs to Rome.

At this time, Cleopatra was older and Antony was younger and needed money. So, she became his sugar momma of sorts. Since Cleopatra was the richest woman in the world at that time, in exchange for her money, Antony became Egypt's ally and most powerful defender. This relationship provided Cleopatra with three more heirs to Rome.

Through DNA testing and other discovery methods, archaeologists and researchers found that Cleopatra – at least the one we thought we were learning about – was not even Egyptian. She also wasn’t the only Cleopatra, but more on that as we go along.

In her book Cleopatra: A Sourcebook, author Prudence Jones who is also a history professor at Montclair State University stated Cleopatra was the “last in a long line of Macedonian Greek kings and queens who ruled Egypt starting with the conquest of Alexander the Great.” After Alexander’s demise, through Ptolemy I’s reign as king of Egypt, Cleopatra (who was well-versed in Egyptian culture and identified with the Goddess Isis), was made queen in the Ptolemaic Dynasty. She was the only queen of that time that took the time and effort to learn the Egyptian language.

Using archaeology and other findings and research, it’s a complicated story. Cleopatra was born in 69 BC. Her ascendants were an entire line of Egyptian kings going back the previous 250 years. Her ancestor Ptolemy I founded the dynasty in the late 4th century BC. Ptolemy was Macedonian Greek in origin but grew up in the northern Greek peninsula. The descent passed through six succeeding Ptolemies with the last being Cleopatra’s father. At any given time, Cleopatra was no more than eight generations away from being a pure Macedonian Greek.

That’s her father’s side. Now, on her mother’s side, it’s more difficult. For the first six generations, each of the wives in the Ptolemies was Macedonian Greek. Until her great-grandfather, the entire dynasty was solely Macedonian Greek, especially since two of her ancestors married their sisters.

That purity potentially stops with Cleopatra’s grandfather. Even though he had two wives of traditional Macedonian background, he had one of unknown ethnicity. That unknown wife was Cleopatra’s grandmother. If so, researchers state she was likely Egyptian. This means they would have injected an Egyptian element into the Greek race.

Cleopatra’s father had several wives over time, too. One wife was his sister and some of his five children had a different mothers. Historians and researchers have found that each of his wives was upper class, not concubines. However, the unknown wife may have been from the Egyptian religious elite with a long history of intermarriage within the Ptolemaic dynasty. In other words, Cleopatra’s mother could have been a mixture of both Egyptian and Greek. The best evidence suggests she was 75% Macedonian Greek and 25% Egyptian for there is no room for anything else based on migration and geography.

Race seems irrelevant in such a situation, and it is unlikely that Cleopatra gave a damn about her racial mixture. Yet, here we are over 2000 years later, still obsessing about it. We should credit her accomplishments instead, as that’s what is really important.

  • Were they both a danger to themselves (DTS)?

Plutarch, a Greek Middle Platonist philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, stated that both of their deaths were tragic. However, the way Shakespeare eventually wrote it was not accurately represented. It is said that both were DTS and died deliberately by smuggling a poisonous snake into their home.

In reality, it is more like Romeo and Juliet. Per history.com, “Antony was mistakenly led to believe through rumors that Cleopatra was dead after a lost battle at sea (Battle of Actium) when unbeknownst to him at the time, she took refuge in the mausoleum she commissioned for herself. Feeling emotionally distraught, Antony fell on his own sword.”

Then there is speculation from historians that after Cleopatra buried Antony, she retreated to her chamber, where she took her own life by being bitten by an asp, a poisonous snake, while others claim she poisoned herself.

Or perhaps the death was somewhere in between because modern scholarly ‘Cleopatrian’ experts believe that poison was the easiest and fastest of that time but that Cleopatra wrote a suicide note to Caesar to include drama about the snake because it represented loyalty.

What do you think?

Ironically, many online images and articles depict Cleopatra as a plain and unremarkable-looking woman, almost manly. The video below will show you what she looked like in real life, and she wasn't ugly...

Finally, per History Extra, "Officially, only seven princesses with the name 'Cleopatra' are credited as sitting on the throne of Egypt, although there is some confusion over the length of reigns and the degree of real power held. The last, Cleopatra VII, is the most famous, thanks to her romantic dalliances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony."

CleopatraPhoto byHistory

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