Ancient Egypt is heavily mythologized in modern media. The idea of a timeless land of pyramids and divine pharaohs marching on seemingly unaware of the world shifting around it is iconic but inaccurate. Perhaps none of its pharaohs is more popularly misunderstood than Cleopatra, its last queen whose legacy has been obscured by film and literature portraying her as a seductress rather than the dynamic figure known to historians. In this article, were will dive directly into the real history of Cleopatra.
1How Many Cleopatras Were There?
The name ‘Cleopatra’ (meaning ‘glory of the father’), was popular for female royalty name in Egypt during the last, ‘Ptolemaic’ dynasty. There are seven princesses with the name ‘Cleopatra’ that are credited as sitting on the throne of Egypt. The last among them all, Cleopatra VII, is the most famous, thanks to her romantic dalliances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Although Cleopatra was born in Egypt in 69 B.C., she wasn’t necessarily Egyptian. Her family origins come from Macedonian Greece and Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals.
3Cleopatra's Sibling Marriage
The Ptolemaic Kingdom in which Cleopatra was born into practiced sibling marriage. It was introduced by Ptolemy II and his sister Arsinoe II. By the reign of Cleopatra VII, however, it was considered a normal arrangement for Ptolemaic rulers. Cleopatra married her brother Ptolemy XIII when he was 12 years old and she was 18.
4Cleopatra's Inbred Ancestry
Due to inbreeding amongst the Ptolemies, Cleopatra had only two pairs of great-grandparents. One of those pairs was the son and daughter of the other.
5Cleopatra's Court Diversity
In the 1963 ‘Cleopatra’ movie, the young queen of Egypt had a Chinese servant named Lotus. The character of Lotus, like many elements from the film, is a modern fabrication, but it is possible that a Chinese person could have been present in Cleopatra’s exceptionally diverse court. Ptolemaic maritime trade with Asia is well documented and Ptolemaic propaganda boasted about the various people represented in the royal court, and in the diversity of the nations that paid homage to them.
6Pyramids During Cleopatra's Rule
The Great Pyramids of Giza were already close to 2,500 years old when Cleopatra was ruling Egypt. We are living closer to Cleopatra’s time than she was to the Pyramid’s building. During her rule, pyramids were already a big tourist attraction, as were the Valley of Kings and the Talking Colossi of Memnon. Even back then, the tourist industry in Egypt was thriving enough to support tour guides and package tours up the Nile.
Cleopatra is depicted with bangs in modern movies and media, but this hairstyle is not attested to in ancient depictions of her. Her most iconic hairstyle from an archaeological and historical perspective is known as the “melon coiffure.” This hairstyle derives its name from its appearance, as braids or rows of hair are pulled back from the forehead into a bun that resembles the ridges on a melon’s gourd. Usually, in statuary and coin portraits of the queen, we also see corkscrew curls behind and/or in front of the ears and around the forehead.
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8Cleopatra the Philosopher
According to modern Historian Dr. Bettany Hughes, “Cleopatra was a poet and a philosopher. She was incredibly good at math and she wasn’t that much of a looker. But when we think of her, we only think of big breasted seductress bathing in milk.” She was also fluent in multiple languages and she was the first Ptolemaic ruler that could speak Egyptian.
Julius Caesar and Cleopatra were in a relationship and political alliance despite her marriage to her brother because Egypt allowed polygamy. Julius Caesar needed Cleopatra’s money, and Cleopatra needed the help of Caesar’s army to take control of Egypt from her husband/brother Ptolemy XIII.
10Ptolemy XIII's Death
Cleopatra’s husband/brother Ptolemy XIII died in the Battle of Nile in 47 B.C at the age of 15 fighting Caesar and Cleopatra’s forces.