While most people think that the famous Cleopatra was a great beauty who used her feminine wiles to seduce Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius to their doom, what they don’t realize is that all of the famous stereotypes surrounding this infamous Queen were part of ancient Roman propaganda created by Augustus in order to discredit her. Not only did Cleopatra VII speak several different languages, she looked nothing like Elizabeth Taylor either. Like many Mediterranean women, Cleopatra had a strong nose, curly hair, and sharp cheekbones.
The reason why Caesar and Marc Antony fell in love with her was because she was charming, a claimed descent from Alexander the Great, and was the wealthiest woman in the world. There hasn’t been a Queen since Cleopatra who held so much power. Not only was she the ruler of ancient Egypt, but she was considered an incarnation of the Goddess Isis as well.
A good example of what she didn’t look like.
Cleopatra VII has been unfairly maligned in both history and the media. She should properly be lauded as a feminist icon because she wielded incredible power and fought like a lioness to save her family and Egypt from Roman rule.
Not many people know the true history about this amazing Queen, so–hold on to your seat belts–here’s a quick history lesson: Cleopatra became co-ruler of Egypt with her father Ptolemy Auletes at the age of 18. However, thanks to the dysfunctional Ptolemaic family politics, after Auletes died, she was forced to marry her half-brother Ptolemy XIII, and after realizing she had no intention of sharing power with him, Ptolemy declared war on his big sister.
When Ptolemy XIII misguidedly beheaded a patron of the Ptolemy family to please Julius Caesar (spoiler alert: it didn’t), Cleopatra took advantage of the controversy and smuggled herself into Caesar’s palace to plead her case. The two began an affair, and during the Alexandrian War, she became pregnant with his child, Ptolemy Caesar (Caesarion).
After Julius Caesar was assassinated, the feisty Queen managed to make her country prosperous once more, despite the chaos that followed after the death of her lover. In an attempt to back the winning horse and neutralize the threat of Octavian (the future Augustus), who was Caesar’s heir, she fell into a romantic relationship with Marc Antony.
Their love affair had its ups and downs, as for a time Antony briefly married Octavia despite Cleopatra being pregnant with his twins, Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios. However, once Antony realized that Octavian was no friend of his, the two reconciled and attempted to free the East from the crushing heels of Rome. Of course, their plans for an empire that joined East and West led to the ill-fated Battle of Actium and the fall of Alexandria, during which Marc Antony perished and Cleopatra committed suicide in order to outfox Octavian. After all, a Queen of her stature would never, ever be degraded by being paraded throughout the streets in chains for the Roman mob to spit on. Plus, despite Octavian “winning” at the end, Cleopatra’s legend survived, even though the first Roman Emperor’s lies about her clung to her story like dirt on the edge of the dress.
Cleopatra’s story has been popular in the media for years, although until the recent trend of historical fiction, most people relied on the Roman version of her story. Even though the most popular depiction of Cleopatra is Liz Taylor’s famous 1963 movie of the same name, historical fiction authors have made the fiery Queen a best-seller amongst Egyptophiles.
Whether it’s Margaret George’s stunning novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra, which allows readers to get inside the infamous Queen’s head, or Stacy Schiff‘s non-fiction piece Cleopatra: A Life, which finally sets the record straight about this incredible woman, after so many years of being labeled as a “whore” who used her “feminine wiles” to ensnare Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, Cleopatra has emerged from the muck as a feminist icon in her own right who was unfairly maligned for centuries.
However, while all women can find a worthy idol in the figure of this feisty Macedonian Queen, Cleopatra is also a heroine for women of Mediterranean descent as well. If you are Greek, Middle Eastern, Jewish, or Italian, you may have suffered bullying due to many common features that are found in women of Mediterranean heritage: a large, hooked nose, rounded face, unruly curly hair, and a “strong” bone structure.
Let’s face it, in today’s society; the beauty ideal is still tall, thin, blonde, and dainty features. Not all Mediterranean women fit that mold and neither did Cleopatra. While no one is quite sure what she looks like, Egyptologists do know that she was mostly Macedonian, with a Seleucid princess ancestor or two in her family tree. Therefore, it’s likely that she had olive skin and perhaps even dark hair and eyes as well. Author Stacy Schiff points out in Cleopatra: A Life that Rome wouldn’t have been in an uproar about Caesar and Antony falling in love with an Egyptian woman if she’d been pale-skinned with light-colored hair, so she clearly didn’t look like Liz Taylor or Vivian Leigh.
While Cleopatra was reasonably attractive, she wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous like a Victoria Secrets model. However, her strong Macedonian features didn’t stop this Queen from having men such as Caesar and Antony fall in love with her—they admired her for her keen mind, not whether or not she could grace the cover of Vogue.
Most of what people think they know about Cleopatra is a lie based on Octavian’s sexism. The real Cleopatra VII was a strong ruling Queen in her own right who loved her children, her two husbands, and her country. She did everything she could to save Egypt and even though Augustus beat her, she left the world on her own terms instead of being humiliated in a Roman triumph. For that alone, she’s worthy of praise, and with luck, one day her side of the story will be sung in the history books and not the Roman propaganda that has smeared her life for so long.