Cleopatra: separating fact from fiction

And the one thing you think is true, but isn’t

Back in the thirties, Cecil B. de Mille offered the role of Cleopatra to Claudette Colbert with the words, ‘How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?’

Was she really history’s wickedest woman, reclining on an antique sunbed, being fed grapes by Nubian slaves and giving eyes to every man who strolled in from the desert?

Even today, some people believe she bathed in asses’ milk and slept with hundreds of men.

So what is the truth?

Cleopatra was certainly conscious of her image. But for political reasons, not because she was vain. Evidence suggests she was a spin doctor of the first rank.

Isis, goddess of all Egypt

Even though she had Greek and Syrian blood, she presented herself to the Egyptian people as Isis, goddess of all Egypt. In doing this, she secured the priesthood and the working people as her power base.

When she went to meet Mark Antony at Tarsus, she used this public persona in another way.

Antony had been hailed as the new Dionysus, a god in his own right. After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra needed Antony’s support and influence. But she did not seduce him with anything as unreliable as pillow talk.

Instead, she sailed into Tarsus in a galley with gold-tipped oars and purple sails.

Servants dressed as nymphs were draped in the rigging. The sails had been impregnated with rich perfumes so that the wind announced her arrival long before she docked at the quay.

She herself sat on the deck under an elaborate canopy, dressed as Isis, Queen of the Ocean.

This astonishing spectacle announced to the whole world that she had come to meet Antony not as a supplicant, but as a fellow divinity.

It worked.

He returned with her to Alexandria and a deal was struck. Together, they would become king and queen of the entire Mediterranean.

So was Cleopatra the siren Hollywood has made her out to be?

That slur came from Antony and Cleopatra’s main rival, the man now known to us as Emperor Augustus. He was as astute as Cleopatra at manipulating public opinion, and he denounced her as a sultry temptress to the Roman senate in order to demean her.

He even leaked rumours about her having sex with crocodiles.

Augustus’s smear campaign was possibly one of the most effective in history. It still informs popular opinion about Cleopatra two thousand years later, with a little help from Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.

The real Cleopatra spoke a dozen languages and was well-versed in mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy. She was also an excellent administrator.  

She wasn’t promiscuous. In fact, it seems she only slept with two men all her life, both of them husbands.

Well, not her husbands, admittedly. Though in fairness, she did marry them later.

Both of these affairs were politically expedient, for her and for the two Romans she married – Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Through these alliances Cleopatra almost became ruler of the entire western world.

In the end, she scandalized the Romans not because of her sexual conquests, but because a woman almost beat them at their own game.

Macedonian heritage

The one thing that everyone does seem to agree on is THAT hairstyle, the one worn by Elizabeth Taylor and the many actresses who have portrayed Cleopatra through the years.

But because of her Macedonian heritage – she was a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals – historians now believe there’s a good chance that Cleopatra may have, in fact, been blonde.


FOOTNOTE: If you are interested in the intrigues of Cleopatra, Caesar, Antony and Augustus, you may enjoy my novel
When We Were Gods. Available on Amazon in Kindle ebook, paperback and in Kindle Unlimited.

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About Colin

Colin Falconer
Colin Falconer is a best-selling author known for historical thrillers such as Silk Road, Harem, Fury, and Feathered Serpent. He has published over 30 books, which have been translated into 25 languages, distinguishing him as a prominent figure in historical fiction.

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