She became queen of Egypt following the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, in 51 BC, and is often portrayed by Hollywood as a glamorous femme fatale. Mary Hamer argues that most of what we think we know about Cleopatra is merely the echo of Roman propaganda. Here, writing for History Extra, Hamer reveals six lesser-know facts about the Egyptian ruler…
As a woman, the ruler of a very rich country, Cleopatra’s independence was anathema to Rome. What’s more, she had ‘seduced’ two of their leading generals – Caesar and Mark Antony – then joined Antony in a war against Rome.
Outside Europe, in Africa and in Islamic tradition, she was remembered very differently. Arab writers refer to her as a scholar, and 400 years after her death a cult statue of Cleopatra was being honoured at Philae, a religious centre that also attracted pilgrims from further south, outside Egypt.
But did you know…
Cleopatra made an ally of Julius Caesar, who helped to establish her on the throne
She then invited him to join her on a voyage up the Nile, and when she subsequently gave birth to a son, she named the baby Caesarion – ‘little Caesar’.
In Rome this caused a scandal. This was, firstly, because Egypt and its pleasure-loving culture were despised as decadent. But it was also because Caesar had no other sons – though he was married to Calpurnia, and had had two wives before her – and he had just made himself the most powerful man in Rome. Elite Romans were meant to share power, but Caesar seemed to want to be supreme, like a monarch. It was a doubly unbearable prospect: Caesarion, an Egyptian, just might grow up to claim to rule over Rome as Caesar’s heir.
Fantasies about Cleopatra’s beauty are just that
Plutarch, the Greek biographer of Mark Antony, claimed it wasn’t so much her looks that were so compelling, but her conversation and her intelligence.
Cleopatra took control of the way she appeared, coming across differently according to political need. For example, at ceremonial events she would appear dressed as the goddess Isis: it was common for Egyptian rulers to identify themselves with an established deity. On her coins minted in Egypt, meanwhile, she chose to be shown with her father’s strong jaw line, to emphasise her inherited right to rule.
Sculptures don’t give us much of a clue to her looks either: there are two or three heads in the classical style, but also a number of full-length statues in Egyptian style, and her appearance in these is quite different.
A coin with the head of Cleopatra. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Cleopatra was living in Rome as the mistress of Julius Caesar at the time that he was assassinated
Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC meant Cleopatra herself was in danger, so she left at once. With her little son, Caesarion, she had been living in a palace of her own on the other side of the river Tiber from Caesar’s household (though it is likely she hadn’t taken up permanent residence there, but returned on regular visits from Egypt).
Not surprisingly, Cleopatra had been much disliked in a city that had got rid of its kings, for she’d insisted on being addressed as ‘queen’. It can’t have helped that to honour her, Caesar had placed a statue of Cleopatra covered in gold in the temple of Venus Genetrix – the goddess who brings forth life, who was held in high regard by his family.
Cleopatra was a mother as well as the ruler of Egypt
She had Caesarion, her eldest son, represented on the temple wall at Dendera alongside her, as sharing her rule. After her death, the Roman emperor Augustus lured Caesarion back with promises of power, only to have him killed. He was aged 16 or 17, though some sources say he was as young as 14.
Mark Antony was the father of Cleopatra’s other children, Ptolemy Philadelphus and the twins, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios. The twins were aged 10 and Ptolemy six when their mother died. They were taken to Rome and treated well in the household of Mark Antony’s widow, Octavia, where they were educated.
The adult Cleopatra Selene was married to Juba, a minor king, and sent to rule with him over Mauretania. She gave birth to (another!) Ptolemy – Cleopatra’s only known grandchild. He died in adulthood by order of his cousin, Caligula, so none of Cleopatra’s descendants lived to inherit Egypt.
A colossal head of Caesarion (Little Caesar), the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, from the 1st century BC. The head went on show in Los Angeles in 2012. (Photo by World History Archive / Alamy)
When we refer to the eighth month as ‘August’, we are celebrating the defeat and death of Cleopatra
Augustus founded his reign on the defeat of Cleopatra. When he had the chance to have a month named in his own honour, instead of choosing September – the month of his birth – he chose the eighth month, in which Cleopatra died, to create a yearly reminder of her defeat.
Augustus would have liked to lead Cleopatra as a captive through Rome, as other generals did with their prisoners, in the formal triumphs that celebrated their victories. But she killed herself to prevent that.
Cleopatra didn’t die for love. Like Mark Antony, who killed himself because there was no longer a place of honour for him in the world, Cleopatra chose to die rather than suffer the violence of being paraded, shamed and helpless, through Rome. Augustus had to make do with an image of her that was carried through the streets instead.
Cleopatra’s name was Greek, but it doesn’t mean that she was
Cleopatra’s family was descended from the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who had picked up Egypt in the shareout after Alexander died. But 250 years then passed before Cleopatra was born – 12 generations, with all their love affairs and secret assignations.
Today we know that at least one child in 10 is not attributed to their correct biological father – “Momma’s baby, Poppa’s maybe”, as they say. Egypt’s population included people of many different ethnicities, and naturally that included Africans, since Egypt was a part of Africa. So it’s not at all unlikely that long before Cleopatra was born, her Greek heritage had become mixed with other strains. And since the identity of her own grandmother is unknown, it is foolish to think that we’re sure of her racial identity.
Mary Hamer is the author of Signs of Cleopatra: Reading an Icon Historically (Liverpool University Press, 2008). To find out more, visit mary-hamer.com.
This article was first published by History Extra in April 2015