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Legend has it that Cleopatra took her own life by succumbing willingly to the bite of a cobra. If this story is true, was suicide by snake venom an easy way to go, or did the last Egyptian pharaoh die in excruciating pain?
10 Facts About Cleopatra
The last true pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC) has been immortalised through centuries of art, music and literature for her great physical beauty and love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
But she was much more than a femme fatale or tragic heroine – Cleopatra was a fearsome leader and brilliantly astute politician. During her rule between 51–30 BC, she brought peace and prosperity to a country that had been bankrupt and split by civil war.
Here are 10 facts about the legendary Queen of the Nile.
Cleopatra was born in Alexandria, then the capital of Egypt. When she was 18 years old, her father, who was king, died. She and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, became the leaders of Egypt. She was queen and her brother was king. Her brother was only 12 years old, so she was the real leader.
Cleopatra made some enemies amongst the courtiers. The reign of Cleopatra was ended by a cabal of courtiers, led by the eunuch Pothinus. They removed Cleopatra from power, and made Ptolemy sole ruler, in about 51 to 48 BC. She had to leave the country. Ptolemy was king, but because he was still a boy, Pothinus and his friends were the real leaders of Egypt.
Cleopatra VII Philopator (69 BC – August 12, 30 BC) was an Egyptian Queen and the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. Cleopatra was a member of the Greek-speaking, Ptolemaic dynasty, who ruled Egypt from 300BC to 30 BC. Deposed from power by her brother, Cleopatra aligned herself with Julius Caesar to regain the throne. After Caesar’s murder, she became the lover to Mark Anthony. But, after Mark Anthony had been defeated by the forces of Octavian in the Roman Civil War, Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide, rather than fall into the hands of Octavius. Her death marked the end of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt – and Egypt became absorbed into the Roman Empire.
Cleopatra was born around 69 BC. Her father Ptolemy XII died (in 51 BC) when she was 18, leaving Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII as co-regents. As was the custom of the time, Cleopatra married her brother, and together they ruled Egypt. However, Ptolemy soon had Cleopatra exiled, leaving him in sole charge.
In 48 BC, the Roman Empire was embroiled in a civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. When Pompey fled to Alexandria, the capital of Egypt, he was murdered on the orders of Ptolemy. Ptolemy had hoped to curry favour with Caesar, but when Caesar arrived in Alexandria, he was enraged at the murder of a Roman consul by a foreign subject.
Taking advantage of Caesar’s displeasure with Ptolemy, Cleopatra sneaked into Caesar’s rooms and successfully endeared herself to Julius Caesar. With Caesar’s military strength and support siding with Cleopatra, her brother Ptolemy was overthrown and killed. It enabled Cleopatra to be reinstalled as Queen. In 47BC, Cleopatra gave birth to Caesarion, which means “little Caesar.” though Caesar never publicly declared him to be his son.
For a time Cleopatra’s reign brought relative stability to the region, bringing a degree of peace and prosperity to a country bankrupt by civil war. Although she was brought up to speak Greek like her family, she also made an effort to learn Egyptian and later only spoke only in the native tongue of her subjects.
In 44BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated and this led to a growing power struggle between Mark Anthony and Caesar’s adopted son Octavian.
Despite being married to Octavian’s sister (Octavia), Mark Anthony began a relationship with Cleopatra. Together Cleopatra and Mark Anthony had three children. In his pursuit of power, Octavian claimed that Mark Anthony would give away Rome to this Egyptian Queen, who seemed to have Mark Anthony under her spell. It was also seen as a family insult that Mark Anthony was married to his sister but, at the same time, having an affair with Cleopatra.
The antagonism between Mark Anthony and Octavius grew into civil war, and in 31BC, Cleopatra joined her Egyptian forces with the Roman forces of Mark Anthony and fought Octavian’s forces on the west coast of Greece.
Cleopatra and Mark Anthony were decisively beaten in battle and scarcely escaped back to Egypt. However, Octavian’s forces pursued the couple and captured Alexandria in 30BC. With no chance of escape, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra both took their own lives, committing suicide on 12 August 30BC. In one account of her death, Cleopatra committed suicide by persuading a cobra to bite her on the breast.
Octavian later had their son Caesarion strangled, ending the Cleopatra dynasty. Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire, and Cleopatra proved to be the last of the Egyptian Pharaohs.
The Mystique of Cleopatra
Cleopatra has been immortalised by William Shakespeare’s play ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, Jules Massenet’s opera Cléopâtre and the 1963 film Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor).
Many contemporary sources spoke of the mystique of Cleopatra’s beauty and allure. Her image was put on Egyptian coins, which was very rare for the historical period. Plutarch writing in the Life of Mark Antony wrote:
“For (as they say) it was not because her [Cleopatra’s] beauty in itself was so striking that it stunned the onlooker, but the inescapable impression produced by daily contact with her: the attractiveness in the persuasiveness of her talk, and the character that surrounded her conversation was stimulating. It was a pleasure to hear the sound of her voice, and she tuned her tongue like a many-stringed instrument expertly to whatever language she chose….”
She was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greek origin that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death during the Hellenistic period. The Ptolemies, throughout their dynasty, spoke Greek and refused to speak Egyptian, which is the reason that Greek, as well as Egyptian languages, were used on official court documents such as the Rosetta Stone. By contrast, Cleopatra did learn to speak Egyptian and represented herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess, Isis.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Cleopatra”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net , Published: 1st Feb. 2011. Last updated 7th March 2017.
Cleopatra by Diane Stanley at Amazon
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Major periods in world history. A list of the major periods in world history. Including the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. It also includes modern eras, which have lasted only a few decades, such as the Gilded Age, Progressive Age and the Information Age.
Famous historical figures (throughout history) A list of the most famous figures throughout history. Includes, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Julius Caesar, Albert Einstein and Constantine the Great.
Cleopatra and Caesar
Around this same time, the civil war between military leaders Julius Caesar and Pompey was consuming Rome. Pompey eventually sought refuge in Egypt, but, on orders by Ptolemy, was killed.
In pursuit of his rival, Caesar followed Pompey into Egypt, where he met and eventually fell in love with Cleopatra. In Caesar, Cleopatra now had access to enough military muscle to dethrone her brother and solidify her grip on Egypt as sole ruler. Following Caesar&aposs defeat of Ptolemy&aposs forces at the Battle of the Nile, Caesar restored Cleopatra to the throne.
Cleopatra eventually followed Caesar back to Rome, but returned to Egypt in 44 B.C., following his assassination.
A Sensational Entrance
Cleopatra dramatically played on Mark Antony’s fascination for Greek culture and his love of luxury. She approached Tarsus by sailing up the Cydnus River in a magnificent boat with a golden prow, purple sails, and silver oars. As musicians played, Cleopatra reclined under a gold-embroidered canopy dressed as Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love. She was fanned by youths dressed as Eros and waited upon by girls dressed as sea nymphs, while servants wafted perfume toward the gaping crowds lining the river. As sound and smell embellished this visually suggestive tableau, the impression made by Cleopatra must have been truly extraordinary.
Antony was overwhelmed by the spectacle. The Greek historian Plutarch describes a scene in which the Roman was abandoned in the city square as his attendants joined citizens racing to the river for a first glimpse of the queen. Caught off guard, Antony decided to invite Cleopatra to a banquet. However, the Egyptian queen was in complete control of events, and instead Antony found himself accepting her invitation to a feast she’d already prepared. According to Athenaeus, quoting Socrates of Rhodes, gold and precious gems dominated the decor of the dining hall, which was also hung with expensive carpets of purple and gold. Cleopatra provided expensive couches for Antony and his entourage, and to the triumvir’s amazement, the queen told him with a smile that they were a gift. Antony tried to reciprocate but soon realized he could not compete with Cleopatra.
Cleopatra's younger sister was captured by Julius Caesar in 47 B.C., and sent to live in Ephesus at the temple of Artemis. Six years later, following Cleopatra’s meeting with Mark Antony, the queen persuaded him to have her executed.
According to Plutarch, the queen had been convinced that her conquest of Antony would be easier than her earlier seduction of Julius Caesar—she was now far more experienced in the ways of the world. At 28 she had the confidence, intelligence, and beauty of a mature woman. She was sure of winning over Antony through a combined assault of conspicuous consumption and generosity, proving both Egypt’s abundant resources and her famed seductive charms. By some accounts Cleopatra’s beauty would not have turned heads at first sight, but she was deeply charismatic and was noted for her sweetness of voice. Cleopatra also knew she had the advantage: Antony had seen her in Alexandria 14 years earlier and been captivated by her then. Now they fell wildly in love.
Cleopatra - HISTORY
Queen, Goddess, Politician
By Bob Frost
Biography magazine, 2003
How to make Egypt great again? Queen Cleopatra pondered the question often during her career. Perhaps she sought answers while sitting on the balcony of her palace, shaded from the sun, examining her capital city.
Alexandria stretched out below her, a seaport of 300,000 people, center of Egypt's economy. Sailing ships lined the wharf. Men loaded the vessels with sacks of wheat for export to Rome and Athens. Businessmen haggled about prices, their white caftans billowing in the breeze, while the Lighthouse of Pharos, 40 stories tall, watched over the proceedings.
Alexandria, and Egypt, were wealthy by way of export products - grain, papyrus, exquisite gold jewelry, slabs of granite hewn from desert quarries. But for all its riches, the kingdom was weak at the core.
As the queen knew, much illegal activity occurred behind closed doors on the wharf - royal officials accepted bribes chunks of profit were skimmed from the export trade. Meanwhile the country was plagued by frequent armed conflict between factions jousting for power. And Romans were a major presence in the land, making noise about annexation.
Egypt was a mere shadow of what it had been in centuries past, when pharaohs carved empires, when the approach of Egyptian chariots caused Syrians and Nubians to tremble. Ruling a weak kingdom was not acceptable to Queen Cleopatra. To make her country as strong and great as possible, she was prepared to roil the known world.
Cleopatra VII Philopator , the future queen, was born in Alexandria in 69 BCE. She was informed as a child that she was not merely royal but divine - a goddess incarnate, the "New Isis." This knowledge didn't ruin her, surprisingly enough. She grew up focused and ambitious, eager to satisfy the expectations not only of the royal court but of her heavenly peer group.
She applied herself to her lessons, developed a supple mind, delighted in philosophy, history, and languages, took an "almost sensuous pleasure in learning and scholarship," writes historian Duane W. Roller. Ascending to Egypt's throne at age 18, she reigned until her death at age 39 (she initially shared power with her father and brothers but eventually gained sole rule).
She was a strong monarch, an "admirable administrator," says historian Mary Hamer. She was not at all like the kittenish ruler of the play "Caesar and Cleopatra" by George Bernard Shaw, written in 1901, a time, notes journalist Alessandra Stanley, of "Edwardian discomfort with female empowerment." Cleopatra was fully empowered. In fact, she possessed a ruthless streak wide as the Nile at flood tide - she was willing to kill anyone who stood in her way. Her cold-blooded approach was just what a young woman needed to succeed in the ancient world, where royal folk stalked each other with knives (or, rather, ordered their minions to stalk).
The peasants of Egypt, eight million in number, were fond of their goddess queen. As they well knew, she was deeply immersed in the life of the kingdom, studying its every aspect, traveling its great river, contemplating its future not only from her balcony but from byways and back roads. One shrewd tactic used by Cleopatra to endear herself to the populace was learning the Egyptian language she was the first member of her dynasty to do so. Her native tongue was Greek her heritage was Macedonian/Hellenistic/Greek. As a member of the Ptolemy Dynasty she was strongly connected to Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt 300 years before her time and founded Alexandria to handle the grain trade.
Egypt's laborers strove to please Cleopatra, producing an abundance of grain (if the river god smiled) along with many other products. Despite this wealth, and despite a thriving culture, Egypt, as noted, was not what it had been. The empire was gone, and with it, a large chunk of revenue. Foreigners invaded the Seleucids, from a neighboring kingdom, attacked just a century before Cleopatra was born. Corruption was pervasive, and the kingdom was frequently beset by "murderous bouts of internecine strife," writes historian Alan B. Lloyd.
The queen was tossed off her throne in 48 BCE in a complex squabble with rivals. In the wake of this embarrassment, her first goal was to return to her rightful place. She needed assistance. A helping hand arrived later that year with the arrival in Alexandria of Gaius J ulius Caesar, consul of Rome.
Egypt was officially independent but was a de facto protectorate of the Roman legions. Cleopatra had been taught since childhood the value of collaboration with Rome - "anything else would have been suicidal," notes historian Michael Grant, her most thorough biographer. Could she, perhaps, use Roman strength not only to regain her throne but as a lever to make her kingdom great again? To unify the government and acquire new lands? Could she somehow channel Roman power toward making Egypt entirely independent of Rome?
Tricky. But possible. Perhaps, as a sort of mantra, she spoke to herself the powerful Greek word ginesthoi: "make it happen."
Caesar was 52 years old when he arrived in Alexandria, at the peak of his life, the greatest statesman/warrior/scholar of antiquity – a brilliantly successful politician, superb general, and gifted writer of history. He was adored by his troops - he not only brought them victories and paid them well, he reputedly knew all their names, thousands of them, an interesting parallel to Cleopatra’s linguistic skill. He was a legendary lover of women (and, in his youth, of men, or so his army believed). He was somewhat corrupted by power as author Ernle Bradford writes of him, "No man is capable of exercising so much power and receiving so much adulation without his head being turned."
He came to Egypt in search of cash to finance the civil war he had instigated by crossing the Rubicon River, from Cisalpine Gaul into Italy, on January 19, 49 BCE. He was engaged in a massive task, trying to reform a corrupt and complacent Rome, serving as champion for a radical party in its struggle with the conservative nobility, meanwhile advancing his dreams of personal glory.
Caesar was ensconced at the palace in Alexandria. Cleopatra was denied access to the royal compound by her enemies, so, according to one version of events, she had herself smuggled into the Roman's presence encased in a rug or sack, which was probably unfurled by her servant with great care.
There she stood. Caesar cast his eyes upon the 22-year-old goddess, and vice versa.
We don’t know exactly what she looked like. Crude portraits exist in busts and coins, but nothing as clear and definitive as, say, renderings of Caesar (or of Nefertiti). It's not inconceivable that a sculpture is buried somewhere, today, that vividly captures Cleopatra's features. If it's out there, perhaps it will surface in one of history's most interesting archaeological discoveries.
The ancient authorities say she was not drop-dead gorgeous. She seems to have burnished every gift she possessed. She exhibited wit and charisma. She spoke superb Latin, Caesar's primary language. (Plutarch writes, "She tuned her tongue like a many-stringed instrument expertly to whatever language she chose.") She had perfect taste in makeup and clothing - she was a trendsetter in the wearing of sheer silk to reveal, but conceal, her body. Also, Egypt's perfumes were the finest in the world. (Did Caesar catch her lovely scent before the rug was unfurled?)
She was probably a virgin when she met Caesar she shed this status with him behind a gauzy curtain, possibly on that first night.
Historian Ingrid D. Rowland writes, "The shiver of flirtation that allegedly accompanied the meetings of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher may be a chaste reminder of less inhibited times, when divine right permitted a more extensive range of royal behavior."
Caesar and his troops restored Cleopatra to her throne, and he stayed with her in Egypt for eight months, even as his presence was sorely needed in Rome to negotiate the stormy political seas. Why did he tarry? Napoleon, centuries later, a devoted student of Roman history, was baffled by the sojourn. Was Caesar so obsessed with her that he couldn’t bear to part? Maybe. More probably, he remained in Alexandria to help Cleopatra strengthen her regime, calculating that this investment of time would pay dividends in the future, and that the problems in Rome could wait a few extra months. There's also, of course, the possibility of mixed motives - perhaps he was obsessed with her and wanted to strengthen her hold on power.
They likely discussed their future together, and Egypt's prospects. Michael Grant writes, "She probably influenced him more than is often nowadays believed" by scholars. Historian Will Durant speculates, "It is not impossible that she whispered to him the pleasant thought of making himself king, marrying her, and uniting the Mediterranean world under one bed." If she and Caesar ruled the known world, Egypt would once again be great, and could find its way to complete independence.
On at least one occasion - probably several times - Caesar and Cleopatra paid respects to the remains of Alexander the Great, which were preserved in honey and encased in a glass coffin in Alexandria. We can imagine the two visitors on bended knees in a hushed candlelit hall before the Macedonian warrior. (The 1963 movie "Cleopatra" squashes all the magic out of this moment, as it does with several incidents. The excellent HBO/BBC series "Rome" inexplicably avoids this spectacularly interesting tableau.) Did Caesar feel a primal connection to Alexander, his idol, while making love to a woman so viscerally connected to the conqueror? Maybe so.
See here for more on Alexander’s mummy see here for reading suggestions on the ancient world.
Caesar eventually returned to Rome Cleopatra followed and took up residence on his estate.
In the Senate, Caesar allowed himself to be named dictator for life (a sort of super-president, not quite a king), possibly because he saw no other way to heal a chaotic government, or perhaps because he loved power so much. (Or, again, possibly because of some combination of these impulses. Julius Caesar was at once a reformer and an autocrat, much like Napoleon, and therein resides some of the fascination of these two men - so gifted and shrewd, so interested in changing the world for the better, yet obsessed with power, altered by their possession of it, and unwilling to walk away from it.)
Roman nobles watched Caesar and worried. They deduced, probably correctly, that he was inclining toward naming himself sovereign, which would mean an end to the republic and creation of a permanent ruling dynasty. In 44 BCE, in the Senate chamber, Caesar's enemies assassinated him - history's most significant, most-studied political murder. Cleopatra fled Rome for Egypt, probably grief-stricken, certainly focused on preserving her life and the life of a little boy named Caesarion, her child by Caesar.
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Assassination of President Kennedy
Marc Antony, consul of Rome and successful warrior, saw himself as Caesar's heir. He and Cleopatra first met in 55 BCE when she was 14 they began an affair in 41 BCE, three years after Caesar's death. She bore several of their children as they sought control of the Roman world.
Their quest met with opposition. A spectacular war broke out - Antony & Cleopatra vs. Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar who would later take the name Augustus Caesar.
Antony and Cleopatra wanted the Roman Empire to be ruled by a Roman/Greek partnership, with Antony having final responsibility for major decisions, and Cleopatra possessing vast territories and wealth in the East, able to bestow her throne upon Caesarion. Octavian, meanwhile, believed the empire should be ruled from Rome by Romans. Or, more precisely, by one Roman – him.
The Roman citizenry sided with Octavian. Cleopatra became the target of Roman propaganda, "one of the most terrible outbursts of hatred in history," writes historian W.W. Tarn: "No accusation was too vile." Octavian's hack writers, notes Michael Grant, depicted Cleopatra as "the oriental woman who had ensnared the Roman leader (Antony) in her evil luxury, the harlot who had seized Roman territories, until even Rome itself was not safe from her degenerate alien hordes." Historian Mary Hamer writes, "Our entire mind-set about Cleopatra was organized for us by the man who defeated her" - and hated her - Octavian. One common bit of propaganda was that Cleopatra was wildly promiscuous and perverted. This was nonsense. In all likelihood she took exactly two lovers in her 39 years - Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. The made-up stories about her sex habits live on today they're eternal, as juicy lies about sex often are.
Octavian (later Augustus Caesar)
The war climaxed in a sea battle in 31 BCE at Actium, in Greece, where Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra. Antony's troops subsequently deserted him. The lovers fled to Egypt. In 30 BCE, at the royal palace at Alexandria, with Octavian closing in, Antony, believing that Cleopatra had killed herself, fell on his sword in a suicide attempt. The blade did not find its mark the warrior's heart still beat. Word came that the queen was still alive. Antony, in agony, was carried to her. He requested a glass of wine. He died in her arms.
Shortly thereafter, Octavian's men captured Cleopatra. I n the ruthless calculation of power, the Roman victor decided that his purposes would be best served by a dead queen. He allowed her the option of suicide. She took the bite of an Egyptian cobra, also known as an asp. (Various accounts exist of her death most ancient sources say a snake killed her.)
As the venom coursed through her, as the chilly numbness reached toward her heart, were her last thoughts of Antony? Of Caesar? Of her children? At the very end - and here we enter a realm of pure speculation - perhaps she thought of a hot summer's day when she was nine years old. She was running. She was running barefoot through a dimly-lit corridor in the Royal Library of Alexandria. The marble floor was cool to her feet the ceiling was ever so high. At the end of the hallway stood her tutor, a wise old Greek clad in a graceful snow-white toga. He smiled and beckoned to his prize pupil. He held a scroll, two scrolls, three he held ancient wisdom that offered answers.
She ran faster. But - how odd! - she didn't move. Could she reach the scrolls in time?
In the wake of Cleopatra's death, history, an unsentimental thing, proceeded on its course. Her son with Caesar, Caesarion, was murdered at the order of Octavian. The conqueror annexed Egypt and went on to brilliantly rule the Roman Empire for more than 40 years.
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Teresa Rolfe Kravtin, Lauren. Lauren said: Controversy over Cleopatra's true race–but does it matter? http://bit.ly/gH3lvy […]
It is ironic claiming Cleopatra being Macedonian Greek.There is no such thing as Macedonian Greek.Obviously, the Greek friends do follow Greeces historical falsifications as did this writer.It is shameful to say the least an outsider to fabricate true history.To put it in perspectiveThe City States were under the Macedonian yoke since 338 BC when the Macedonians defeated them at Chaeronea.Their history ceased to exist till 1829.Remember,Macedonia existed before Greece ever did.Greece annexed part of Macedonia in 1913,Never before Macedonia belonged to Greece.
There is no such thing as Macedonian Greek ethnicity for a historian you dont know much Macedonian and Greek are two separate ethnicities and I find it offensive when you refer to this mix, Macedonians are Macedonians stop distorting history, there is no Greek in this elemant whatsoever.
Cleopatra was Macedonian Greek, anyone with a history degree knows ancient Macedonians had a Greek identity and culture or else they wouldn’t have spread Greek culture, identity, language, etc. from one end of the world to the other, and Cleopatra’s native language wouldn’t have been Greek. What’s shameful is to fabricate true history by trying to claim otherwise. CLEOPATRA: look it up, its Greek too and we know in ancient times where passports and identity cards didn’t exist to show one’s ethnic origins their names were used for such things.
Cleopatra was olive toned.
Interesting article, although I too contest the use of the phrase “Macedonian Greek”, although unlike my two learned friends above, I am not motivated by CONTEMPORARY POLITICS (viz. Republic of Macedonia vs Greece over the use of the name)- sticking to a purely ancient historical context here, as is the nature of this text.
The Ancient Greeks had a very good understanding of who were Greek and who were not- there was never a grey area for them. Ancient Macedonians (called ‘Makedons’ by Herodotus and Thucydides) were never considered Greek stories remain from ancient texts- notably Herodotus- of specific Macedonian kings like Alexander I (Macedon King during the early 5th century) claiming Greek ancestry, from the city-state of Argos I believe. Paraphrasing, he claimed to be:
“A Greek king ruling over a barbarian people”
Herodotus recalls him going over to Greek side before the Battle of Platea (479BC) and giving advice, despite the fact he was fighting with the Persians. He also recalls him participating in the Olympic games- something you had to be Greek to do.
It is likely that Herodotus got most of his sources from Athens, who around the mid fifth-century would have wished to paint the Macedonian KING (as opposed to the general people) as Greek in order to maintain a steady supply of pitch and timber from the Macedonian forests, to maintain their navy. Whenever Athens had no use for the Macedonians, she considered them as barbarous as other tribal people north of Thessaly.
The rhetoric of Demosthenes in the fourth-century certainly painted them as such, although this must be taken with a pinch of salt since he had utter political motives.
The Macedonians that defeated the poleis in 338 at Chaeronea would go on to spread Greek language and traditions over Asia and yes, Egypt…Much like the Romans continued to up to the middle ages. But to class them as “Greek” themselves would be erroneous in my opinion. Although “Macedonians with Hellenistic identity” doesn’t really have such a nice ring to it.
Sorry to waffle, very refreshing article aside from that.
Of course it matters! A white man can easily find hundreds of great white men in the history books. Finding role models and inspiration is more difficult for women, and especially difficult for women of colour. Even I get a little frisson from knowing that Elizabeth I was a redhead like me. I can only try to imagine the psychological impact for a Black woman if one of history’s greatest women, powerful, brilliant, daring, and alluring, was a Black woman like her.
Afer, I would be curious what the evidence is for this. As far as I know there is no evidence whatsoever for Cleopatra’s skin color.
Duane W. Roller
I heard Stacy Schiff suggest (book tour interview with Diane Rehm) that there might have been Persian princess in the bloodline. This makes sense to me, thinking about both the dynastic trend (Egyptian and otherwise) to tie to other ruling dynasties, and in particular the sense of “keep it in the family” (sorry!) between the successors of Alexander.
And for the record, what does “person of color” mean in this context (or any other). Is a ‘classic’ light skinned Egyptian a ‘person of color’? What about a Persian? How much pigmentation is required to get this designation, or is this based on other either ethnic/racial characteristics?
To Kate: Your comments are worthwhile and interesting but really have nothing to do with Cleopatra herself.
To David Emery: If there were any Persian blood, it would be so far back as to be miniscule. Stacy Schiff’s novelistic biography has a good deal of speculation in it. And you’re right that racial designations can degenerate into numbers and statistics, often used for nefarious purposes. Your comments demonstrate in the long run the very point I am trying to make: race doesn’t matter, and is usually used negatively.
It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion of this article — that Cleopatra’s ethnic ancestry is irrelevant to her career and achievements. Though I also think that the original article, while a little over the top, had a fair point to make: there should be no reason, other than acting ability, why Halle Berry or Rashida Jones could not have been cast as Cleopatra. Or Lucy Liu for that matter. But that’s modern politics.
That said, there are a few points in this article which could do with some clarification.
In a couple of places, it uses the phrase “sources suggest” to introduce a theory. This phrase is a little misleading: these sources are modern scholars, not ancient text. No ancient text has anything to say about the identity of either Cleopatra’s mother or her grandmother(s).
Also, Strabo does not say that Cleopatra’s father had multiple wives nor that they were of high status. What he does say is that Cleopatra’s elder sister was their father’s only legitimate daughter — and the accuracy of that statement is disputed.
While it is (most likely) true that Cleopatra spoke Egyptian, it’s a bit of a stretch to infer that this reflects her mother’s influence. She was clearly a skilled linguist, being able to speak 8 or 9 other languages beside — including Hebrew, Troglodytic, and “Ethiopian”. Why is this not evidence that her mother was a Jew? a Troglodyte? Or, indeed, black African?
The theory that Cleopatra’s mother came from the Egyptian religious elite has been used to explain why her legitimacy was not attacked by Roman sources, by scholars who accept the accuracy of Strabo’s statement. But exactly the same theory has been proposed for her father’s mother — to explain why his legitimacy _was_ attacked by Roman sources, even though he was accepted as king in Egypt. In both cases, it is purely speculative. It rests on an earlier marriage (whose existence is also disputed) between a Ptolemaic princess (whose mother is unknown) and a High Priest of Ptah. It is the father of this High Priest who is the most likely subject of the statue found in Algeria.
Cleopatra’s maternal ancestry, regardless of its ethnic makeup, has some relevance to establishing _ancient_ ideas of what constituted dynastic legitimacy. But the argument about whether she was black, like the argument about whether Macedonians were Greeks, is about _modern_ politics. It is tiresome and irrelevant.
I appreciate a scholar of Dr. Bennett’s stature taking the time to make his comments. While I don’t agree with everything he says, he did point out an error of mine in the original entry: it was not Strabo who mentioned the wives of Cleopatra’s father, but an Egyptian priest. Dr. Bennett also points out the confusing nature of the material, and reminded me of another theory, that Cleopatra’s mother was actually the wife of her father, which probably would reduce non-Macedonian ancestry even more.
FYROM propagandists are out in full force it seems. Why they hide their ethnic Bulgarian roots and pretend to be “Macedonians” is beyond me. One would think they would be proud and cherish their own ancestors-instead of trying to oppress their own Bulgarian heritage. Truly bizarre.
“We, the undersigned scholars of Graeco-Roman antiquity, respectfully request that you intervene to clean up some of the historical debris left in southeast Europe by the previous U.S. administration.”
“On November 4, 2004, two days after the re-election of President George W. Bush, his administration unilaterally recognized the “Republic of Macedonia.” This action not only abrogated geographic and historic fact, but it also has unleashed a dangerous epidemic of historical revisionism, of which the most obvious symptom is the misappropriation by the government in Skopje of the most famous of Macedonians, Alexander the Great.”
I have watched the documentary called Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer and it clearly states that Cleopatra had an African mother they based this theory with the recent discovery of her sister’s Arsinoe bones. If any of you are familiar with the story of Cleopatra becoming queen of Egypt you would know that she had to fight her sister Arsinoe to be restore to her throne. It is in discovering her bones that archaeologist, such as Neil Oliver can gives us an insight into the real Ptolemy destiny. To make matters even better they even have a picture of what they believed she even looked like in real life.
I also viewed the documentary called Cleopatra! Her mother was African, and this is relevent because I will now tell my daughters the TRUTH about Cleopatra. They need to know that this powerful Woman in history ,looked just like US!
P W Botha former Prime Minister of South Africa was also born in Africa and was therefore an African. We also know that he was white, member of the white segregationist elite and of Dutch descent. Just because Cleopatra was born in Africa does not make her black. The historical reality and fact is that she was a Mediterranean Caucasian of Macedonian – Greek stock.
It still detracts from the absolute truth, that ancient Egypt was a black place for a long time with African language, black cultural cues, and black trade and black Pyramid building, the Ptolemys’ didnt build a Pyramid, did they? No. If we focus on the “Eurocentric perspective” of Egypt it comes across as a European enclave and it is this that angers every Black African, already feeling the effects of centuries of discrimination and historical denials and destruction of thier heritage, Credit has been taken away from Black Africans for the Nubian contribution to ancient Egypt, and it is this issue that creates the furore regarding race and ethnicity of a Pharoh dynasty. Black Africans are central to ancient Egyptian culture, they are not a footnote. Egypt is in AFRICA, not Europe, and there is no such thing as a Macedonian Greek, and May I draw your attention to the work of Hilke Thuer who has deduced a strong probability that Cleopatra was MIXED RACE,m through insight into Arsinoes discovered remains.
I don’t think its fair of you to refer to notions that others have raised as “just silly,” the fact is that we have an incomplete picture, why the door has been opened to such much gossip and radical suggestions, its all fair game in the realm of the imagination and personal interpretation, while she was the last Ptolemy to rule Egypt, and therefore had Greek ancestry as well, with 50 to 75 percent of her background a mystery due to her mother and grandmother all of us can only draw speculations, while you are doing some thinking… at the end of the day you too have to speculate about what might have been, and there’s nothing wrong with that. While she might not have had shared some Egyptian or African heritage… she also *might* have, perhaps it was another culture entirely that we haven’t considered yet, its something that nobody can ever prove one way or the other. I also believe you give a lot of extra weight to the way that she is depicted in Greek and Roman artwork, implying that this proves that she could not have been a woman with a background other than Mediterranean. The word that this “demolishes” the idea I found to be especially melodramatic. I am not a historian, but I am an artist by profession, and I think a statement like you made is almost unrealistically literal when it comes to the land of art. Throughout the world, in ever age, it is a human instinct, especially in scenes of some majesty or beauty, heroism to create art that you can identify with, if you look at an image of the Madonna throughout different cultures, be it Egyptian Coptic art, Greek Orthodox, the Renaissance movement or an African-American church, the main figure they want to convey usually is representative of their own culture. I think rather than telling us what Cleopatra actually looked like, an artistic representation, be it in the ancient world or modern, tells us more about the artist who made it, than its subject. If you look at Greek and Roman art to gain knowledge I think the only knowledge that you would come away with is that it was… Greek and Roman art. As a second point to consider, this is by no stretch of the imagination art of any realistic detail, these are beautiful periods, but it is stylized artwork, a coin bearing Cleopatra’s image may not be anymore plausible as a realistic human being than a tapestry or effigy of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in the medieval era would. These are images of a very heightened, almost caricature-like reality, and not irrefutable evidence of what anyone would have actually looked like, often a work like this is barely feasible as a human being, let alone a specific personage. Third I would argue that it is a matter or perception whether or not ancient art portraying Cleopatra could reflect the East or not, The Tetradrachm of Cleopatra of the Syrian mint to me shows a striking woman whose features are not limited to a specific culture, a lady with thick deeply curling hair and bushy eyebrows, a round face with fleshy facial features, slack cheeks, a round skull, a powerful, strong nose, very large beautiful eyes with heavily veiled lids. It is a face as far as I’m concerned that might appear in Europe, or Asia, Africa, Australia, North or South America. While you ask does it really matter, you’ve laid out your argument with such passion and research that it doesn’t seem that it doesn’t matter to you. I think it is something that would be an empowering thing to remember no matter who you are that you are of the people of Queen Cleopatra. If I were British I would be proud to remember Queen Elizabeth as apart of me. If I were Sudanese I would count myself blessed to have been apart of a culture that produced Taharqa. An Egyptian person might find power in remembering Ramses II, we all want heroes whether it is a Greek person remembering Alexander the Great, or a Chinese man or woman remembering where they came from and their talented ancestors like Emperor Taizong of Tang. Whether it was Akbar the Great or Catherine Great, the human race looks to the past for people that they can admire, so with some doubts as to every part of who she was it is not at all surprising that we might want to fill in the blanks and find away to bring Cleopatra even closer to us, whether that is by thinking of her as a black woman or a white woman. There is power in an image of yourself. It is not because people care about color why people propose different theories about Cleopatra’s mixture of cultures… it is because they care about her, it is in deed her intelligence, her charisma, her bravery and her gifts to the world why we remember her… and want to be her.
I always am a bit suspicious when someone says, does knowing the racial ethicity of character in history matters. Especially when the Europeans have gone out of their way to rewrite history to suit their own agenda and esthetic taste. Even the American history and it’s characters have been distorted and it’s not as old as Epypt and Cleopatra.
No one wants to admit in Africa of all places, that Cleopatra had any black African blood. Give me a break. Egyptian blood is black African blood, and they had mixed peoples, too. It’s kind of hard to get away from black blood in Africa. Most dynasties in Egypt hailed from Nubia, modern day Sudan…and Kush…all from Noah’s black son, Ham. So, I’m not convinced that she wasn’t more like a Mariah Carey type. And if you’re talking about her likeness on those coins, that ship won’t float either. Her nose could very well be like that of one of the hostesses on ABC’s The Chew, Carla Hall. Turn her sideways and let an artist go to work, I’m sure you’d get a very similar coin to Cleopatra!
It seems to me that most black people want Cleopatra to be black, and most white people want her to be white, I am a white male in my mid sixties, and I would be happy to find out that Queen Cleopatra the 7th was black.
To keep it simple, her race does matter such as any other powerful figure in our history…..
I feel that her race is important to a certain degree because I come from a culture (Black American) whose historical importance has been methodically denied and erased. The author of this article dismissed the point that Kate made as irrelevant but she her point is absolutely astute. Please watch the documentary “Hidden Colors” and you will understand why it is important to so many to clarify the lineage of great historical figures.
Seems like she was 1/4 black If anything pers call her mixed and stop Being racist on both sides.the history now thinks most ancient egyptians were super tall red heads and blondes so she coulda had a bit of white,black,and greek .
All this talk does indicate that Cleopatras “ethnicity does matter”. Personally I take this theory of mine she was not just of Ptolemaic stock, the Seleucids were also inbred to a certain degree retaining the blood of upame or apame, a Persian princess. Then later, they intermarried with the Persian-Greek Pontic kings strengthening the Persian blood. It was then that the first Cleopatra came. She was a cousin tp the Ptolemy but she was known as his cousin. Obviously after that we know that the ptolemy, the later ptolemies truelying became inbred as well as they were the worst rulers and a series of politics took place. I have no other reason to not believe that cleopatras parents were inbred. StraBos statement makes a firm stand but he does not elaborate. With the inbreeding, Cleopatras Persian heritage is justified to its quantity, she was a quarter to this Theory and looks very much like it. Another justification is that she looks almost exactly like her father implying stronger genes or pure inbreeding though her parents were probably double cousins and double relatives.
ask any copt (modern descendents of egyptians) if they are black and you will get your butt kicked.
Wow. I couldn’t even finish the article. So just because there is no “evidence” she was black African (although there is) she is presumed to be white? And acting ability?? So they couldn’t find a black or brown actress? (They didn’t try to) there were and are plenty of amazing actresses that were more true to cleopatras REAL race that could have given a performance just as if not BETTER. Cleopatra was mixed race, mulatto looking. And the race IS very much important because white people have been portrayed as victors and dominant. Black people are not portrayed this way, and on purpose. White people are always seen as default, when that is not the case. When they portray all powerful historical figures as white, that subliminally send the wrong message. So yes IT DOES MATTER. CLEOPATRA WAS A STRONG BLACK WOMAN.
It matters, it matters.. And to say it doesn’t shows color blind ignorance. Not something to be proud of.. Little girls and women everywhere need to know she was black. I’m sorry but the writer here sounds angry about the true possibility that she was brown or black.
“Macedonian greek”? This does not make any sence: it is Macedonian or greek?
Why Was Cleopatra so Famous?
Cleopatra is an iconic figure of ancient Egypt for a variety of reasons, according to BBC History. She was the last queen of ancient Egypt, formed alliances with Roman leaders and took her own life in a final act of defiance against the Roman Empire.
Just 17 years old when she assumed the throne of Egypt and married to her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra took leadership of a country in serious turmoil under constant threat of invasion from the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Not only was she the last queen of Egypt, she was also the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty. One reason for her fame is her notorious love affairs and alliances with two of Rome's most noted leaders: Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar. Her fame, according to National Geographic, is also in part due to her suicide that occurred shortly after Mark Anthony took his own life. The pair suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Octavian and the capture of Alexandria. According to HISTORY, Cleopatra is also famous because she was a Greek Macedonian who ruled Egypt and is famed for being one of the first members of the Ptolemaic dynasty to speak fluent Egyptian.
Cleopatra (c.69 BC - 30 BC)
Cleopatra of Egypt © Cleopatra VII was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, ruling Egypt from 51 BC - 30 BC. She is celebrated for her beauty and her love affairs with the Roman warlords Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Cleopatra was born in 69 BC - 68 BC. When her father Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, Cleopatra became co-regent with her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII. They were married, in keeping with Egyptian tradition. Whether she was as beautiful as was claimed, she was a highly intelligent woman and an astute politician, who brought prosperity and peace to a country that was bankrupt and split by civil war.
In 48 BC, Egypt became embroiled in the conflict in Rome between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Pompey fled to the Egyptian capital Alexandria, where he was murdered on the orders of Ptolemy. Caesar followed and he and Cleopatra became lovers. Cleopatra, who had been exiled by her brother, was reinstalled as queen with Roman military support. Ptolemy was killed in the fighting and another brother was created Ptolemy XIII. In 47 BC, Cleopatra bore Caesar a child - Caesarion - though Caesar never publicly acknowledged him as his son. Cleopatra followed Caesar back to Rome, but after his assassination in 44 BC, she returned to Egypt. Ptolemy XIV died mysteriously at around this time, and Cleopatra made her son Caesarion co-regent.
In 41 BC, Mark Antony, at that time in dispute with Caesar's adopted son Octavian over the succession to the Roman leadership, began both a political and romantic alliance with Cleopatra. They subsequently had three children - two sons and a daughter. In 31 BC, Mark Antony and Cleopatra combined armies to take on Octavian's forces in a great sea battle at Actium, on the west coast of Greece. Octavian was victorious and Cleopatra and Mark Antony fled to Egypt. Octavian pursued them and captured Alexandria in 30 BC. With his soldiers deserting him, Mark Antony took his own life and Cleopatra chose the same course, committing suicide on 12 August 30 BC. Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.