Most people believe they have the inside scoop on Cleopatra from the numerous films made about her, the first of which was a silent film in 1912. She was said to be very beautiful and seductive, and that she used her feminine wiles to gain power and become the famed Queen of the Nile. However, much of what we know about this mysterious historical figure may well be fiction rather than fact. There is actually very little documented evidence about the life and death of Cleopatra despite her fame, and popular depictions of the woman are most likely false, or at the very least, inaccurate. Here are some surprising facts about Cleopatra that may provide some insight into the hidden woman.
Cleopatra is not the first of her name
Most people refer to Cleopatra as simply Cleopatra, much like Cher or Madonna, but she wasn’t actually the first of her name in her family. She was the seventh Cleopatra, and her full name was Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, which means “Cleopatra the Father-Loving Goddess.” This may cause some confusion when referring to other women of the same name, although that is unlikely in popular use. Cleopatra, incidentally, means “Famous in Her Father.”
Cleopatra was born to rule
Despite the common belief that she “slept her way to the top,” Cleopatra was actually born into royalty. Her family, the Ptolemies, had ruled Egypt since 323 B.C. after the death of Alexander the Great, with Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt being the first of the line. Cleopatra was born in either 70 or 69 B.C., and while she could not rule without a male consort, she was certainly accomplished enough to do so on her own.
According to records, she was the first of her family to learn the Egyptian language (Coptic), and was also fluent in Greek, Kush (Ethiopia), Aramaic, Trogodyte, Hebrew, Arabic, and other languages spoken during her day. At some point, she also styled herself as the new Isis, an important Egyptian goddess, which was pretty smart as it signaled her immersion in Egyptian traditions and beliefs.
Additionally, her father Ptolemy XII expressed his desire in his will to have her rule Egypt together with his son Ptolemy XIII upon his death. That pretty much established her as a legitimate successor, and even when Ptolemy XIII challenged the will, she didn’t give up her rights. She went to Syria to amass an army and came back to retake Egypt. Julius Caesar’s intervention merely served to expedite her return to power.
Cleopatra was Macedonian
Ptolemy I was a Macedonian general serving Alexander the Great, and came to Egypt to rule after his death. Therefore, while Cleopatra and 300 years worth of Ptolemies before her were born in Egypt, they are not actually Egyptian by ethnicity. This is the reason why the ruling family refused to learn the Egyptian language, preferring to stick to their own native Greek, and why there was a need for the Rosetta Stone to transcribe official documents. Cleopatra was different, though, which is why she is so famous.
Cleopatra and incest were no strangers
Research suggests that incest is common among Egyptian royal families, probably to keep the blood “pure,” and the Ptolemies were no exception. Cleopatra’s own parents are widely believed to be brother and sister, namely Ptolemy XII and possibly Cleopatra V Tryphaena, who ruled Egypt briefly while Ptolemy XII was exiled in 58 B.C. Not to be outdone, Cleopatra also married two of her brothers so she could rule Egypt when Ptolemy XII died when she was 18. Both brothers were much younger, and as far as the records show, there were no children by either marriage, so the marriages were probably not consummated.
Cleopatra did not commit suicide
One of the most commonly held “facts” about Cleopatra is that she committed suicide by snake while a prisoner of Octavian in 30 B.C. when she was 39 years old. Mark Antony had earlier killed himself after his defeat in the Battle of Actium, and learning falsely that Cleopatra had died. However, some scholars are skeptical about the death by asp or Egyptian cobra story, and a recent investigation by criminal profiler Pat Brown suggests that Octavian may have ordered her murder. This is further supported by the fact that her son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy Philopator Philometor Caesar a.k.a. Caesarion, was also killed by order of Octavion after her death. Murder by unknown means may not be as theatrical as suicide by snake, but it is more probable based on circumstantial evidence.
Cleopatra committed fratricide
All the drama popularized in fiction happened in fact in Cleopatra’s life. In order to cement her position as the ruler of Egypt together with her son Caesarion, she caused the death of her two sibling husbands, Ptolemy XIII (drowned) and Ptolemy XIV (poisoned), and persuaded Mark Antony to execute her sister Arsinoe IV, who had tried to unseat Cleopatra.
Cleopatra had a great personality
Most people imagine Cleopatra to be beautiful, which is why beautiful actors such as Elizabeth Taylor portrayed her in films. However, no one has ever found any likeness of Cleopatra to show that she was physically beautiful in the modern sense. In fact, she may have been rather masculine.
That said, historians agree that anecdotal references to Cleopatra’s beauty, particularly the accounts of Plutarch, emphasize her “delicious voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone” and “irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it.” In other words, she had a great personality!
Much of what is known about Cleopatra came from anecdotal references by people that lived long after she had died, so it is inevitable that the line between fact and fiction would be rather blurred. Some of the facts stated above are actually still speculation, but they are at least as possible as any other theory about what actually happened to this hidden woman. At any rate, they do create a different and more likely picture of Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh of Egypt.
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