Cleopatra is one of the most famous women in history. But despite her fame, there are many things about her that most people don’t realize. There are also some assumptions about her that have been distorted, either by the Roman propaganda that was perpetuated against her while she was alive or simply by the long lens of history. Here are five things you didn’t know about Cleopatra.
Cleopatra’s intellect was as valuable as her beauty
One of the most negative portrayals of Cleopatra casts her as a beautiful temptress who seduced great Romans such as Caesar and Mark Antony. In reality, Cleopatra was a very intelligent woman and skilled diplomat. Some sources have reported that she could converse in as many as a dozen languages.
Reports of her beauty may be exaggerated as well. Mark Antony’s biographer from the time, Plutarch, states that her looks were far from her greatest asset, and it was her charming nature and beautiful speaking voice that made her such an appealing woman.
Cleopatra was responsible for the deaths of her siblings
Ancient Egypt was a land of complex and often deadly family intrigue and politics, which Cleopatra was very much at the center of. History suggests that Cleopatra enlisted Mark Antony to kill her sister Arsinoe IV after it appeared that oppositional forces within Egypt were rallying around Arsinoe IV and not Cleopatra.
After that, Cleopatra was married to her brother Ptolemy XIII, as was customary in Ancient Egypt royalty. However, he forced her out of Egypt after she tried to take the throne for herself. She led a civil war against Ptolemy XIII, in which she was victorious and Ptolemy XIII died. She then remarried her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, who died of a poisoning that has been attributed to Cleopatra. This allowed Cleopatra’s son to take control of the Egyptian throne.
Cleopatra was in Rome when Caesar was killed
Cleopatra traveled to Rome in 46 B.C.E. with Caesar, and the two made no effort to hide their relationship. Cleopatra brought along their young son, Ceasarius, and Caesar had a golden statue of Cleopatra placed in the temple of the goddess of life, Venus.
Cleopatra was not a popular figure in Rome. She insisted on being referred to as a queen, which did not sit well in a city that had rid itself of a monarchy. When Caesar was killed at the hands of the Senate, Cleopatra fled the city.
An asp bite may not have been the thing that killed Cleopatra
Mark Antony and Cleopatra took their own lives after they were surrounded by Octavian’s forces at Alexandria. Supposedly, Mark Antony stabbed himself and then bled to death while Cleopatra prodded an asp, most likely a cobra, to bite her, and she died from the snake’s venom.
While death by snakebite certainly wasn’t unheard of in Ancient Egypt, even Plutarch admits that despite the popularity of this version of events, no one knows what really happened. Cleopatra could have just as easily poisoned herself using a needle, and the historian Strabo speculated that she may have just applied a fatal ointment to her skin.
Cleopatra may have been less of an Egyptian than is thought
Cleopatra was born in Egypt, but her family was of Greek descent. Her lineage reached back to Macedonian Greece, and her father was Ptolemy I, a prominent general of Alexander the Great’s army. Ptolemy was given control of Egypt by Alexander when he died in 323 B.C.E., and this began three centuries of Greek-descended Egyptian rulers. Cleopatra was in fact the first of the Ptolemaic dynasty to learn to speak Egyptian.
The story of Cleopatra is a fascinating tale and has been reimagined many times. To learn more about the queen, you can read Shakespeare’s classic play Antony and Cleopatra or watch Elizabeth Taylor's iconic performance in 1963's Cleopatra, one of the most expensive films ever made.