Cleopatra VII statueCleopatra (also known as Netjeret-mer-it-es, or Neos Isis) ruled Egypt, from 51 to 30 BC, the seventh ruling queen of that name, having previously been co-regent with her father Ptolemy XII. She was 18 when she ascended the throne in her own right – as co-ruler with her young brother-husband Ptolemy XIII – and 37 when she died.

Her reign started badly: her father had left the country in a mess; the first few years of her rule saw poor Nile floods, with consequent food shortages and economic problems; and she did not get on with her co-ruler – indeed most of her siblings and their “supporters” were angling for the throne and none too fussy about what they had to do to get it. After three years, Ptolemy ousted her and she had to leave Egypt, although she regained her throne soon enough.

Ptolemy made the mistake of thinking that the assasination of Pompey (who had been appointed Cleopatra’s guardian on the death of her father and who had rebelled unsuccessfuly against Julius Caesar) would both please Caesar and remove Cleopatra’s potential ally. The idea backfired: Caesar instead brought Cleopatra back to Egypt and became her lover; Ptolemy was killed.

After the death of Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra shared the throne with a younger brother, her new brother-husband, Ptolemy XIV. However, it was not long before she had a son by Julius Caesar and she soon had her brother disposed of, placing her infant son on the throne in his place.

Later, Cleopatra took up with Mark Anthony, who had become ruler of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire after Caesar’s death, and had twins by him, a boy and a girl. Mark Anthony left and made a political marriage back in Rome, but then returned to Cleopatra. They were later married, and had another son.

Mark Anthony gave Cleopatra and her children parts of his Eastern Empire and this was Cleopatra’s downfall, for it led to a declaration of war by Octavian, ruler of the Western part of the Empire. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra were defeated and both elected to commit suicide rather than be humilated by the Romans. Egypt was thus conquered by Rome, lost after thousands of years of magnificent independence.

So much for the political / historical events of Cleopatra’s life, so much for Cleopatra the Queen. If she lost an ancient and proud nation, and killed herself to avoid worse humiliation at the hands of Egypt’s conquerors, how does she get to be a Touchingly Naive Role Model?

For one thing, this is a woman who managed to survive the dangerous times in which she lived, with assassins round every corner and Rome waiting to pounce, as the leader of a rich and important nation for twenty turbulent years. We should not criticise her for losing Egypt, but admire her for keeping it and leading it for as long as she did.

For another, it is in my view vital to know about and to remember such a woman. She was ruthless – ruthless enough to have people “disposed of”, even her own brother. She was clearly politically astute, forming effective alliances with powerful Romans to further her ambition and protect her country. These alliances were openly personal as well as political, and Cleopatra had no trouble in defying convention to openly have sexual relationships with and bear chidren to men she had not married, despite being already married to her own brother(s). And she carried it all off on the whole to her own advantage. She was also fantastically good at popular politics. She was apparently the only Ptolomaic ruler to learn the Egyptian language (she was a gifted linguist and very well educated), and was much loved by her people. This was not just because of her good government. She also had a gift for self-promotion. She made the most of her status as divine Pharoah, her association with Isis, and her links with Caesar and Mark Anthony, flaunting her wealth and power with extravagant and popular displays.

She was brilliant, clever, ruthless and unbelievably talented.

Cleopatra’s life was legend before she even died: and afterwards the tales of her exploits grew to mythic proportions. She has inspired bards, poets, artists, writers and film-makers unceasingly, for two thousand years.


End note:

This amazingly powerful, compelling woman has been in the news again just this week. Why? Because researchers in Newcastle have just “discovered” that she was “not beautiful”. (See here and here for examples of this “news” story.) It seems, that based on the study of a single Roman coin, researchers have established that Cleopatra had “a shallow forehead, pointed chin, thin lips and sharp nose”. Goodness me.

I wish to point out, firstly, that this is NOT a news story. This coin has not been recently discovered. Nor is it the only decent image of Cleopatra that we have – see above for one example, and see this site for numerous others. I can only speculate that the researchers in question are after a bit of publicity of their own.

Secondly, I woulld like to point out that images on 2000-year-old coins are NOT necessarily a reliable guide to what the person depicted actually looked like. This depended on the skill of the person who minted the coin, the technology available to that person to create miniature images, the degree of knowledge that the minter had of what his subject actually looked like and the extent to which he wished to flatter his subject – and that was when the coin was newly struck. After two thousand years, there is bound to be a bit of wear and tear, no? Wear and tear is clearly visible on the coin images we have of Cleopatra. Other images I have seen of her look very different from the coin that has recently hit the news.

Thirdly, as we all know, beauty standards vary enormously with place and time. What we think of as “beautiful” now may be completely different to what Egyptians and others thought of as beautiful in Cleopatra’s era. Completely. Perhaps even diametrically opposed. Who is to say that sharp noses and pointy chins weren’t all the rage in those days? Who is to say that the minter did not exaggerate the shallowness of Cleopatra’s forehead or the thinness of her lips because he thought that this would make her look better, more powerful, more striking than her real high-foreheaded full-lipped self? In fact, strong protruding chins and hooked noses were an important feaure of the Ptolomaic dynasty, and linked Cleopatra to her line.

And all this brings me to my final point – where do these people get off saying that this amazing, powerful, sexy, successful woman was “ugly”? Who do they think they are to pass such judgements? And why do they think it matters whether Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor or whether she looked like the back end of a horse? What matters is what she did, what she accomplished – not what she looked like. We don’t go around analysing how beautiful key historical figures were if they were men. So why do we do that to women?

Rhetorical questions, those.


The British Museum
Egyptology Online