The Life Of Cleopatra: The Queen Of The Nile

The last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, Cleopatra is also considered to be the last pharaoh of Egypt before it fell in the hands of the Roman Empire. Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra was a successful young ruler. Yet, her name is cemented in history for her various love affairs with the likes of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, her supposedly unparalleled beauty, and her tragic death, which possibly inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Today, she is considered to be an iconic figure in both history and pop culture. Take a look, and see why.

She Wasn’t Egyptian

Portrait of Cleopatra
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While Cleopatra may have been born in Egypt, her family origins can be traced back to Ptolemy I Soter of Macedonian Greece, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Following Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Ptolemy took over control of Egypt, where he started a reign of Greek-speaking rulers of Egypt, which lasted over three centuries.

Although ethnically, she was not Egyptian, she adopted many ancient Egyptian customs and was the first member of the Ptolemaic line to learn the Egyptian language.

She Was Far More Than A Pretty Face

Cleopatra accepting a gift
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although ancient Romans depicted Cleopatra as a temptress who used her good looks for political leverage, history has proven it wasn’t just her looks that helped her succeed. She spoke a number of languages and was skilled in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, and more, making her more than a capable ruler.

Furthermore, some historians believe that she may not have even been as attractive as the legends say, with old coins showing a rather masculine image of her. Ancient writer Plutarch also proclaimed that Cleopatra’s beauty was “not altogether incomparable,” and that her “irresistible charm” made her so intriguing.

She Was Living In Rome At The Time Of Julius Caesar’s Assassination

Statue of Cleopatra
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cleopatra made her way to Rome with Julius Caesar at the beginning of 46 BC. Caesar made little attempt to hide the fact that she was his mistress, as they also brought their son Caesarion with them, and he erected a statue of her in the temple of Venus Genetrix, offending many Romans.

When the senate assassinated Caesar in 44 BC, Cleopatra was forced to flee Rome for fear of her own life. However, by the time she left, she had made an impact on the city, with her hair and clothing style becoming incredibly popular.

She Had A Drinking Club With Marc Antony

Cleopatra and Marc Antony
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 41 BC, Cleopatra began her famous love affair with the Roman general Marc Antony. Besides being attracted to one another, their relationship also had a political aspect. Cleopatra needed Antony to keep Egypt’s independence and protect her crown, and Antony needed the resources of Egypt.

Supposedly, in the winter between 41 to 40 BC, the two lived a life of luxury in Egypt, forming a drinking club known as the “Inimitable Livers.” The group was known to participate in frequent feasts where they would heavily indulge in wine. While some claim this was an excuse to party, others believe it could have been a cult to the god Dionysus.

She May Not Have Died From An Asp Bite

Dead Cleopatra
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In 30 BC, Cleopatra and Antony took their own lives after they were tracked down in Alexandria by Octavian’s forces. Antony is said to have stabbed himself with his sword, whereas Cleopatra supposedly coaxed an “asp” or poisonous snake to bite her in the arm.

However, Plutarch writes that “what really took place is known to no one.” He continues that Cleopatra was known to keep poison in one of her hair combs or used a fatal ointment. Today, some scholars agree that Cleopatra may have used a pin dipped in a toxic substance.

She Believed That She Was The Embodiment Of The Goddess Isis

Ancient hieroglyphics
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

In ancient Egypt, Isis as one of the most renowned goddesses and was considered to be both the divine mother and the sentinel of death. Isis was married to Osiris and the two were considered to be gods in Egypt.

Believing herself to be a goddess, Cleopatra styled herself like Isis possibly as a sign of respect as well as for political reasons. She would also behave like a goddess and point to ancient prophesies to prove her divinity.

She Wasn’t The First Cleopatra

Drawing of Cleopatra
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

Today, if someone mentions the name Cleopatra, just about everyone knows who they are referring to. However, by no means was Cleopatra the first of her name. The Queen of the Nile was actually the seventh Cleopatra in the Ptolemaic dynasty to have the name.

Her official name in Cleopatra VII Philopater. The name Cleopatra, in Greek, translates to mean “she who comes from glorious father.” Surely, a lot of fathers wanted to opt for this name for their daughters.

She Led Forces In A Naval Battle

Battle of Actium
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Eventually, Cleopatra married Mark Antony and the two had three children together. Yet, their relationship caused an uproar in Rome with Antony’s rival Octavian portraying Antony as a traitor and Cleopatra a scheming temptress.

Then, in 32 BC, the Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra. This resulted in the decisive naval Battle of Actium, in which Cleopatra personally led Egyptian warships into the fray. Unfortunately, Antony’s fleet was no match for Octavian, and Cleopatra and Antony were forced to flee.

The 1963 Film On Her Life Is One Of The Most Expensive Films Ever Made

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

Although Cleopatra has been portrayed in films by countless actresses such as Claudette Colbert and Sophia Loren, the most well-known depiction of her was by Elizabeth Taylor. She starred in the 1963’s Cleopatra, a film that had more than its fair share of production issues.

With an initial budget of $2 million, by the end, it cost $31 million to make, with $200,000 covering the cost of Taylor’s costumes alone. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive film ever made, nearly bankrupting Twentieth Century Fox. However, today, it’s regarded as one of the greats.

She Raided Alexander The Great’s Tomb

Mosaic of Alexander
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Like many rulers before her, Cleopatra looted Alexander the Great’s tomb when the location was known. After her defeat at the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra was left with little forces and even less money.

So, she raided Alexander’s grave as well as some of her own ancestors’ to fund her military campaign against Rome. Primarily, she took gold, but other treasures as well. When Octavian conquered Alexandria, he returned some of the stolen artifacts to Alexander’s tomb.

A Complicated Relationship

Cleopatra thinking
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Before Cleopatra and Julius Caesar became romantically involved, Caesar was actually her rival. Her brother had allied Caesar to help him take the crown from her. However, when Cleopatra snuck Caesar’s tent inside a rolled-up carpet, Caesar couldn’t help himself.

Although her looks and charm helped it’s still unclear what Cleopatra said to convince Caesar to switch sides. Nevertheless, he did, and together they helped get rid of her brother, securing Cleopatra’s throne.

The Fate Of Her Children

Picture of Cleopatra's daughter
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although Octavian had her oldest son Caeserion killed, he spared the other three children that she shared with Antony. He had them sent to live with Octavia, Octavian’s sister.

Although two of the children died in childhood, the third, Cleopatra Selene, was married to Juba II, a friend of Octavian who went on to become the ruler of Numidia, a kingdom in northwest Africa that is now Algeria. There, she is credited with bringing the Greek language and Egyptian art to the kingdom.

The Month Of August Is Named In Celebration Of The Defeat Of Cleopatra

Statue of Augustus
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Augustus’ reign truly began after the defeat and death of Cleopatra. So, when he had the chance to have a month named after him, instead of choosing what is now September, the month he was born, he chose the eighth month, in which Cleopatra died.

Although Augustus had plans to parade Cleopatra through the streets of Rome as other generals did with their prisoners, Cleopatra took her own life to ensure this didn’t happen. Instead, Augustus paraded an image of her through the streets.

The Last Pharaoh

Cleopatra and Octavian
National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images
National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images

While Cleopatra is usually referred to as the last of the Egyptian pharaohs, that might not necessarily be the case. In 2010, researchers discovered that a stele at the Temple of Isis at Philae has Octavian’s name written in a cartouche, an honor that is reserved for pharaohs. Although Cleopatra was dead and her dynasty in ruins, the priests of Egypt refused to let go of the idea that they didn’t have a pharaoh.

According to professor of Egyptology, Martina Minas-Nerpel, “(The priests) had to have an acting pharaoh, and the only acting pharaoh (possible) under Octavian was Octavian […] The priests needed to see him as a pharaoh; otherwise, their understanding of the world would have collapsed.”

Her Eye Makeup Wasn’t All For Looks

Elizabethe Taylor as Cleopatra with makeup
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

One of Cleopatra’s staple looks was the heavy dark makeup around her eyes. Although this probably helped her look more attractive, it served a greater purpose than enhancing her looks. In ancient Egypt, it wasn’t uncommon for people to put dark makeup around their eyes.

This was because it helped to protect their eyes from the intense glare of the sun reflecting off of the sand and water. Incredibly, thousands of years later, this style of makeup is still popular, although strictly for fashion purposes.

She Was The Product Of Incest

Portrait of Cleopatra
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

Like many royal families throughout history, it was not unusual for families to preserve their bloodlines by marrying within their family. This was no different for the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Over a dozen of Cleopatra’s ancestors married either their siblings or close cousins, and it’s believed that her parents were brother and sister. In turn, Cleopatra went on to marry two of her brothers, who served as her ceremonial spouse and co-regent at various times during her reign.

She Was Involved In Three Of Her Sibling’s Deaths

Cleopatra meeting Caesar
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Murder and plotting against one another was nothing new in Cleopatra’s family line, with her relationship with her siblings being no different. At one point, her first brother-husband, Ptolemy XIII, drove her out of Egypt after she tried to take the throne. After Cleopatra sided with Julius Caesar, a civil war ensued in which Ptolemy drowned in the Nile.

She then remarried her brother, Ptolemy XIV, although it’s believed she had him murdered to secure her son’s position as co-ruler. Finally, in 41 BC, she had her sister Arsinoe executed, who she saw as a rival to the throne.

She Became Pharaoh When She Was 18

Drawing of Cleopatra
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Incredibly, Cleopatra was just 18 years old when she became the pharaoh of Egypt. However, one downside was that she had to share the throne with her brother Ptolemy XIII, who was only ten years old at the time.

While most siblings fight over meaningless things, Cleopatra and her brother fought over the throne, which would turn into a bloody affair. Just three years after coming to power, Cleopatra was exiled by Ptolemy III, only to later ally with Julius Caesar to secure her throne.

She Was A Writer On Greek Medicine And Cosmetics

Portrait of Cleopatra
Ken Welsh/*/Design Pics/Corbis via Getty Images
Ken Welsh/*/Design Pics/Corbis via Getty Images

Known for her extravagant clothing and makeup, Cleopatra also released a publication titled “Cosmetics” on medicinal practices. However, this was no Cosmopolitan magazine, but a detailed work on Greek medicinal and pharmaceutical practices, describing the different remedies for health issues.

She mostly focused on those that could have an effect on someone’s physical appearance such as baldness and other diseases. Although only fragments of the publication remain, on top of that, she also owned a perfume factory near the Dead Sea.

Her Burial Location Remains A Mystery

Head of Cleopatra
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP via Getty Images
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP via Getty Images

Although it’s considered fact that Cleopatra killed herself along with Mark Antony, historians aren’t exactly sure where her remains are buried. The Greek historian Plutarch was convinced that she and Antony were buried somewhere in Egypt, although his assumption may not be totally reliable.

Some modern historians also presume that she had a tomb built for herself in Alexandria which is now beneath the sea. However, recent suggestions in Egypt suggest the couple could be buried art the Taposiris Magna Temple in Abusir.