I have a confession to make. Most of what I know about the ancient Greece and Rome comes from watching the classic TV show Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena not only encounters Julius Caesar, Pompeius, and Octavian in her adventures, but Marc Antony (Marcus Antonius) and Cleopatra as well. Obviously, the writers use ample creative license, so when I sat down to read Cleopatra by Duane W. Roller, I was eager to learn how the fictional Cleopatra and the historical one compared.
Below are ten things I learned.
1. Cleopatra was actually Cleopatra VII.
Whenever I think of the name Cleopatra, only one person comes to mind. However, there were six other Cleopatras before her, not including the original Cleopatra–Alexander the Great’s sister.
2. Cleopatra was a powerful and important woman; she didn’t need to “seduce” Caesar or Marcus Antonius.
There were many reasons why Caesar and Marcus Antonius had a sexual relationship with Cleopatra. First, political relations between Rome and Egypt went back generations–it was in both of their interests to maintain close relationships. Moreover, it was common for Caesar and Marcus Antonius to have liaisons with royal women; the only difference was that Cleopatra was not shy about the paternity of her children. After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra needed to maintain a close relationship with Marcus Antonius because he controlled the eastern Roman Empire, her geographical neighbor. Likewise, after Marcus Antonius lost control of this area, he had to rely on Cleopatra’s wealth and power.
3. Cleopatra was a writer; she wrote a medical treatise called, Cosmetics.
It may have been called Cosmetics, but this was no Cosmo article. It was a medical and pharmacological work including several remedies for hair loss and dandruff.
4. Cleopatra murdered two of her siblings.
Cleopatra had Marcus Antonius kill her younger sister, Arsinoë IV when it became apparent that opposition forces were rallying around her. Her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, both ruled with her for a short time; however, Ptolemy XIII died in an ensuing battle while Cleopatra allegedly poisoned Ptolemy XIV after the birth of her son, Caesarion. While these actions seem brutal, this makes Cleopatra no different than any other ruler. For example, Octavian went on to murder Cleopatra’s son and Marcus Antonius’s son to ensure his own power.
5. Cleopatra was in Rome when Caesar was assassinated.
Romans were not particularly enthralled with Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra and her visit probably provided the final impetus to remove Caesar.
6. Cleopatra had four children–only one survived to adulthood.
Cleopatra’s first child was a son by Caesar. She also had twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, as well as another son, Ptolemy Philadelphos, all by Marcus Antonius. Cleopatra Selene eventually became the Queen of Mauretania.
7. Cleopatra successfully expanded her kingdom.
While Caesar and Marcus Antonius granted her requests for new land, it was also in Rome’s best interest for Cleopatra to control local areas. Rome actively sought alliances with friendly kings to manage these areas with Rome’s interests in mind.
8. Cleopatra was not friendly with Herod, King of Judea.
The same Herod that sought the baby Jesus, was in a constant power struggle with Cleopatra.
9. Cleopatra was most likely a Roman citizen.
Rome would often confer citizenship upon allied kings. Marcus Antonius could have bestowed citizenship upon Cleopatra if she didn’t have it already. Many of Cleopatra’s ancestors could have had citizenship as well and their citizenship would have passed to her.
10. It’s unclear that Cleopatra died from an asp’s bite.
While death by snake bite wasn’t unheard of in Cleopatra’s time, it probably wasn’t the most effective method. She could have administered poison through a needle which could have been mistaken for an asp’s bite.