Cleopatra VII Philopator is a figure surrounded by myth, legend and pop
culture. She has been the subject of biographies beginning with Plutarch, who
was one of the earliest historians, to present day biographies that present her
life through different lenses and explore new historical findings as they
emerge. Her life has been retold in countless ways, from William Shakespeare's
1606 play titled Antony and Cleopatra to 20th century films. She has been
portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor as well as many other actresses and her name is
attached to modern day beauty products that claim to hold the secrets to her
reputation as a seductress. Regardless of the legend surrounding her persona,
there lays a complex narrative that weaves political plots, trials, tribulation
and strategy all together into a compelling story. There is more to Cleopatra
than meets the eye, including her trademark kohl rimmed gaze.
15) Trademark Eye
Makeup Warded Off Infections
One of the most recognizable traits of Cleopatra is the eye makeup; the smoky
twist that flares out around the edges of the eye is associated with seduction,
desire and cunning. One of the most widely held assumptions about Cleopatra is
that she was a symbol of temptation and poise that immaculately outfitted a gaze
that could melt hearts. That broad dramatic sweep of black liner out from the
edge of the eye was actually quite common amongst everyday Egyptians, regardless
of gender. This was due to the fact that the eye makeup commonly associated with
Egyptian culture isn’t solely for show but also holds the pharmaceutical perk of
protecting against eye ailments and it was associated with godly protection
against various illnesses. Eye infections were common in that time, therefore
protection to ward off any disease was highly valued. Based on newly emerged
research, the cosmetics contained particular properties that boosted the bodily
production of helpful chemicals and supported the human immune system. Little
did you know that vanity can also lead to good health!
Cleopatra is a symbol of sex appeal; she is revered for her beauty, charm, wit,
seduction techniques and supposed wild affairs with Greco-Roman dictators as
well as generals. Her beauty is viewed by many to be unsurpassed in her time due
to her reputation but recently new discoveries reveal that she was not
A coin that was 2,000 years old surfaced, it depicted Cleopatra as
having a sharp chin and nose with a flat mouth. No rouged lips or plump cheeks to speak
of here. The new discovery also depicts Mark Antony as an unattractive man with
prominent eyes and a thick neck, perhaps even a bit of extra fat on his profile. The
coin was issued under Antony’s rule in honor of his campaign in
Armenia and provides startling new evidence about what Cleopatra may have looked like in real life. She may have been no Elizabeth Taylor
but that movie was panned by critics; beauty alone does not a kingdom
Coin of Cleopatra
13) Keeping it in
The name Cleopatra is derived from Greek and means “glory of the father”.
Unfortunate for her, Cleopatra’s familial background was plagued by strife and
conflict but that
was usually the case at that time. Cleopatra was the offspring of King Ptolemy
XII and a woman who may have been his sister. Little is known or documented
about Cleopatra’s maternal lineage but the marriage of siblings was common
practice at that time to solidify households, kingdoms and political alliances.
Cleopatra bore Caesar a son but he was
already married, so it was customary for her to marry her brother. She later killed
him as part of Caesar's overthrow and recently discovered bones suggest she probably offed her
sister, Arsinoe, as well to avoid challengers to her son’s claim to the throne.
Cleopatra had to ensure her son’s viability in order to survive, since she was
at a disadvantage because she was a woman during that era.
Keeping it in the family was due to political posturing and planning more so
than any type of loyalty; sex, desire and charm were tools used to achieve
12) Cleopatra Was
Not Ethnically Egyptian
Although Cleopatra is one of the most famous Egyptian rulers in history, she was not Egyptian by blood. Her heritage was Greek,
descending from a line that originated in Macedonia and started with a
lieutenant in Alexander the Great’s army.
The same dynasty from which Cleopatra descended was in charge of Egypt for
hundreds of years and retained their own Greek sensibilities during the time.
Regardless of her non-native heritage, one of Cleopatra’s most
well known and cited accomplishments was her ability to speak the Egyptian
language because she was one of the first rulers in many years to do so. Not
only does this demonstrate talent but reveals that she had a knack for knowing
how to administer her own agenda smoothly. She received an
excellent education as a child, having been born into a royal family and she
used it to her advantage throughout her political career.
There has been debate over Cleopatra’s race but her family descended
from Greek Macedonian ancestry. There is conjecture that her paternal
grandmother may have been Alexandrian or Nubian. It’s also assumed that
Cleopatra’s mother is her aunt but there is not much known about her
Race itself was differently defined than in a modern day setting due to the different invasions of cultures and Imperialist, which Cleopatra’s family were
a part of.
Multicultural Fashion as a Political Statement
You’ve probably seen many young women dressed up as Cleopatra on Halloween,
donning the wig, the hair extensions, fake eyelashes and maybe even a few snake
bracelets. Cleopatra is associated with beauty and grace. Despite
this image is bolstered by legends and stories, there is an element of truth to
Cleopatra blended Greek and Egyptian components into her appearance right
down to the very basics of fabrics as well as where they were made. This included
garments that adopted Greek style draping as well as Egyptian
fashions that were more revealing. The combination of modesty and provocative
styles may have contributed to the Queen of the Nile’s seductress image but it
was also a shrewd political move. Cleopatra was of Greek descent, yet she ruled
Egypt. Not only did she appear perfectly groomed and in the height
of style but she also made a political statement with just her wardrobe. The
vast majority of Cleopatra’s moves were not out of vanity but out of her own
personal shrewdness toward politics and strategy.
Ancient Egyptian female dress
Ancient Greek woman's attire
Seductive Scent or Smell of the Dead?
Oils and fragrances were frequently used in all modes of Egyptian life, starting
from birth and going right into death. Today,
many perfumes boast about encompassing the secret seductive strategies of Cleopatra
and are even named after her. Oils and
perfumes were used for everyone in Cleopatra's Egypt and there were no social stratospheres to separate what
people smelled good from those who did not. Due to the intense heat and sun,
ointments along with protective poultices need to be worn by manual laborers
toiling all day; this also included balm that assuaged
Additionally, Cleopatra purportedly owned an entire perfume factory and used
a ship full of incense to win over Mark Antony in the grand tradition of
There are perfumeries today that continue to try and replicate ancient
smells, one being based one Cleopatra. The fragrance is entitled, “The Sacred Scent of
Cleopatra”, the perfume’s creator credits the fragrance of a lotus and links it
with Egyptian royalty.
Fragrances were also used to prepare and embalm the dead. You may associate
Cleopatra’s modern day reputation with sexuality but don’t forget that many
times those same perfumes used on the living were also applied to corpses and
often contained dangerous materials like mercury.
9) Cleopatra Won the
Masses with Charisma, Not Kohl
Like perfume, one of Cleopatra’s legacies that continues on into pop culture
today is her love of cosmetics. Her kohl rimmed cat-eye look hasn’t gone out of
style and survives to this day. This matches the traditional view of Cleopatra
as a harlot, a seductress and a creature of passions. However, in recent years
many of these assumptions have been debunked or at least challenged. Some
historians have come to the conclusion that Cleopatra’s success had little to do
with her mastery of cosmetic application and more to do with scintillating wit,
her knowledge of languages, wisdom in culture and her poise. Her sexiness is
attributed to her IQ and conversation skills, rather than thick eyeliner. The
first biographical account of Cleopatra that was written about 100 years after her death
by the ancient biographer Plutarch described her disposition as these exact
qualities. The recent surfacing of that coin depicted her as
anything but star quality, however this was irrelevant since Cleopatra possessed such
The Egyptian cuisine was heavy on the olive oil, cheese, vegetables, legumes,
grains, herbs, fish and meat.
Cleopatra herself was known for serving stuffed pigeon with a side of
season appropriate vegetables, what better way to initiate a conversation?
Known to be charming and an adept conversationalist, it’s easy to see how
Cleopatra acted as a fashionable hostess who courted dignitaries
over the finest of entrees. On especially fine occasions, Nile caught fish were
on the menu in order to stay true to nationalistic cues.
It was through the translation of recipes from ancient Egypt that these
gastronomical details emerged, an important social element of hosting and
entertaining. Additionally, desserts were lush with figs and sweet honey that
was accompanied by Greek spirits.
Ancient Egypt was a country shaped by culture as much as it was by force,
political maneuvering and tumultuous rulers. This is why Cleopatra’s wit and
charm influenced world events. Serving fine food and offering up conversation
was a way to win over those whom she wished to and exert her influence without
an army, despite having a big one.
7) Romanticized in
Cleopatra’s history as a political ruler and her savvy ruling strategies has become a subject of serious interest for centuries but it hasn't bled
through to the silver screen. She has been paraded through pop culture by
numerous actresses and starlets as a vehicle to ooze sex appeal and fantastic
costumes. Ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Sophia Loren, she was always
portrayed in the part of a scorned lover and scantily clad dramatic temptress.
A recent biographer named Stephanie Schiff described her as a woman depicted
by historians as being a symbol of unrivaled passions, unrestrained sexuality and illicit love, as reported in the New York Times. As a historical figure,
Cleopatra has been less explored than her validity as a dramatic role in
overwrought films with froofy costumes trimmed in a lot of gold and bare leg.
This doesn’t undermine the value of her social status, since in 2011 Taylor’s
wig from the 1963 film, “Cleopatra” was valued at $11,000 in an auction. Just another testament to the ongoing
intense fascination with Cleopatra as a glamorous figure in pop culture that is
6) Twins in Stone
Cleopatra had four children, who were fathered by different people but two were a set of
twins named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. These children were fathered by Cleopatra’s
famous lover, Mark Antony. Just recently, these two mysterious figures finally
may have a face. An Egyptologist rediscovered the sculpture that was
brought to the Egyptian Museum around 1918 from west of the Nile, the back of
the work indicates it was part of a ceiling. The two figures were identified as
Cleopatra’s children by a university in Poland, paying special attention to
symbols that the figures sported. There’s a sun disc and a lunar disc as well as
snakes. Although the faces have been somewhat eroded, it is clear that the
female figure is done up in the hair style of Cleopatra or a “melonenfrisur”
The twins were recognized by their father later in life, which ties in with
the celestial sun and moon symbols they bear in the sculpture. There isn’t much
around in the way of information today about the twins after Antony and
Cleopatra died but eventually they were cared for by other relatives.
Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, Cleopatra's twins
with Mark Antony
5) A Reincarnated
One of Cleopatra’s best PR tactics was aligning herself as a reincarnation of
the goddess Isis, which was a cult that had been burgeoning in the Mediterranean culture
for some time. She additionally tried to link her lover, Mark Antony, with
Osiris and reinvented herself as a goddess. Cleopatra made sure that she was
reflected in portraiture and sculpture in the same way, using art to
further her political agenda. She went so far as to appear dressed as Isis at an
event related to a successful military campaign into Armenia.
The association with motherhood and fertility is what drew Cleopatra to the
goddess Isis. By aligning herself with those characteristics, she adopted a
magical and mystical quality to her subjects. She evoked a sense of otherworldliness
by elevating herself to this status as if her subjects were able to interact
with an actual goddess.
4) Dramatic Death by
Snake Bite or a Peaceful Sleep?
The legend that Cleopatra committed suicide after the defeat of her forces to
the oppositional leader Octavian may be false. The story goes that she willingly
succumbed to the bite of an asp, a snake that is associated with symbols of
royalty in Egyptian art and architecture. However, there has been a recent
conjecture that perhaps Cleopatra actually died from ingesting a lethal dose of
A researcher studied a number of ancient texts and concluded that if
Cleopatra died a pain free death then there was no way she could have expired
due to a poisonous snakebite. He posits that it had to be some other cause,
since when bitten by an asp the body takes hours to die as the victim becomes
slowly paralyzed and suffers a prolonged as well as torturous death.
Ancient texts on papyrus indicate that Cleopatra knew a fair
bit of poisons and that she
would have had apt knowledge to know exactly what would do the trick. It’s been
suggested that she may have used a mixture of hemlock, wolfsbane and opium,
causing the recipient to fall into a peaceful but fatal slumber.
Nevertheless, snake imagery has remained a popular motif in works of art
featuring Cleopatra and her story. The tale of her death at the bite of an asp
is almost as famous as her reputation as a seductress.
3) Distorted by
History and Biographers
The earliest biographical account of Cleopatra goes back to 100 years after her
death by one of history’s earliest biographers, Plutarch, mentioned in “Life of
Antony” (75 CE). However, it was 16th century France that had interest in Cleopatra’s biography
and they energetically renewed it after Francois I
had Plutarch’s biography of Antony translated. This was done for social
posturing but it was one of the main factors that initiated a centuries-long
social fascination with Cleopatra and her dramatic life.
Shakespeare also focused on the passionate and unbridled tempestuous
nature of Cleopatra as a character in his play, “Antony and Cleopatra”, in 1606.
Even contemporary films that have been released since the beginning of the 20th
century have painted Cleopatra in much the same way and dramatized her life right up into the 21st century.
Now there is a renewed interest in what the true history of what her
life was like and her historical actions. Some biographers have championed her
as an underappreciated political genius, while others have positioned her as a
person of influence but not as noteworthy as Mark Antony. The rekindled interest
in fact over fiction about Cleopatra’s life continues to result in new
information as research is conducted and organized.
Although you might only associate Cleopatra with her iconic eyes, she was a
master of beauty products and approaches in general. Ancient Egypt was already a
place rich in aesthetics, art and fashion but Cleopatra was one of the first to
experiment with other types of cosmetics.
Cleopatra and her court were known to experiment with bold lip color, using a
combination of iron oxide, clay, iodine, seaweed, henna and other materials to
create a dramatic red lip. Some of these components were toxic, which frequently
happened in ancient time periods when cosmetics or other types of powders were worn. However, there were other
ingredients without those side effects that could be used but you may not
want to try them out once you find out what they are. Crushed up beetle blood
applied directly to the lips is one of the not so fun alternatives to toxic
Cleopatra definitely armed herself with both a madeup face as well as
knowledge of chemistry.
1) Using Science and
Not Seduction to Win a Bet
Cleopatra had a very comprehensive knowledge of
chemistry and science, ranging from her experience with poisons to cosmetics and
there is a good chance that the story of her dissolving a pearl to win a bet
with Mark Antony was plotted out.
The story goes that Cleopatra made a bet with Mark Antony by wagering that
she could spend a fortune on a single meal, which she then won by dissolving an
expensive piece of pearl jewelry in a cocktail.
Recently a scientist set out to prove or disprove this legend, to see if
he could dissolve a pearl in vinegar. He found that he could dissolve the pearl due
to a chemical reaction between pearls and vinegar. Ancient Egyptians generally
had decent knowledge of different chemical properties, particularly since they
used so many different substances in everything from burial rituals to personal
Cleopatra continues to be a subject of fascination in all walks of culture, from
the serious historical researcher to pop culturists to cosmeticians. Her appeal
as a sex symbol, a dramatic story or as a woman in a rare place of extreme
political power still places her to this day at the center of cultural
fascination. She continues to be a
part of pop culture that isn’t fading any time soon due to new biographies,
museum exhibitions exploring her legacy, and archeological digs turning up more
evidence about who she was and what her life was like. Just take a look this
Halloween at the costume store and see how many black bob wigs and gold snake scepters you see.