Society - People
By: - at October 9, 2013

15 Interesting Facts About Cleopatra

Bust of Cleopatra VII

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!

Egyptian Eye Makeup Protected Against Infections

14)  Cleopatra Was Not a Looker

Coin of Mark Antony
Coin of Mark Antony 2000 Years Ago
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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 physically attractive.

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 make.

Coin of Cleopatra
Coin of Cleopatra from 2000 Years Ago

13)  Keeping it in the Family
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 particular goals.

Julius Caesar, father of Cleopatra's son
Julius Caesar was the Father of Cleopatra's Son, Caesarion

Cleopatra and Caesar's son, Caesarion
Cleaopatra and Julius Caesar's son, Caesarion on a Tomb Wall
By Alex Lbh, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

Cleopatra was Greek and Macedonian

11)  Incorporating 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 it.

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
Egyptian Style of Clothing Depicted in Nefertari's Tomb

Ancient Greek woman's attire
Ancient Greek Women's Attire

10)  Cleopatra’s 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 sore muscles.

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 Egyptian scent.

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.

Perfume Oils and Ingredients were Used in Ancient Egypt

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 extraordinary charisma.

Cleopatra Won the Masses with her Personality

8)  Cleopatra’s Favorite Foods
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.

Cleopatra used Ancient Egyptian Food to Win People Over

7)  Romanticized in Popular Culture
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 constantly revisited.

Cleopatra had Unbridled Passion

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” (melon hairstyle).

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.

Mark Antony
Mark Antony was Cleopatras Famous Lover

Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, Cleopatra's twins with Mark Antony
Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, Cleopatra's Twins

5)  A Reincarnated Goddess
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.

Cleopatra Said she was an Reincarnation of Isis

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 poisons.

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.

The Death of Cleopatra was by Asp or Poison

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.

Cleopatra was Distorted by History and Biographers, She was a Genius

2)  Cleopatra’s Makeup Tips
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 ingredients.

Cleopatra definitely armed herself with both a madeup face as well as knowledge of chemistry.

Cleopatra Made Cosmetics Via Crushed Herbs and Metals

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 fragrance.

Cleopatra Dissolved a Pearl Jewelry Piece in Vinegar

Final Thoughts
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.





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