What was the origin and appearance of Cleopatra, one of the most powerful women in history

The lack of reliable information about Cleopatra has fueled debates for years about what the queen of Egypt was like.

Eternized in popular imagination as a white-skinned, blue-eyed woman by British actress Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra has sparked debates for centuries about her political savvy, her beauty, her identity, and her legacy for Egypt.

The controversy around her was revived this week with the revelation that the monarch of Egypt will be embodied in the cinema by the Israeli actress Gal Gadot , known for her role as “Wonder Woman.”

“We hope that women and girls around the world who aspire to tell their stories will never abandon their dreams . We will make their voices heard by and for other women, ”said Gadot, announcing the film to her 43 million followers on Instagram.

The film, still without a release date, will be directed by Patty Jenkins , director of “Wonder Woman.”

On the one hand, many celebrated a female-led production that should avoid the seductive cliches of previous films.

On the other, many criticized the choice of the actress for the role, as she is accused of whitewashing the historical figure , a descendant of a Greek dynasty linked to the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, but probably of mixed ethnic origin.

For many, it must have been an actress of African or Arab origin.

Gal gadot
Actress Gal Gadot will play Cleopatra, which has drawn criticism.

But what is the true origin and history of the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 51 BC to 30 BC, brought prosperity and peace to a country in decline and knew how to take political advantage of uniting two generals? Romans?

For the British historian Mary Beard, the thousands of representations of Cleopatra over time are ” based on a dangerous series of deductions from partial or blatantly unreliable evidence.”

So little is known about her that Beard argues that Cleopatra should appear to us today as “the queen without a face.”

Origin and lineage

Cleopatra VII was born around 69 BC in Egypt. His name, of Greek origin, means “great as the father.”

He was Pharaoh Ptolemy XII , he belonged to a line of monarchs of the Ptolemaic dynasty that began in 332 BC. That year, Alexander the Great led the Greek and Macedonian troops in a battle that liberated the Egyptians from Persian rule.

Alexandria became the new capital of Egypt.

The city was “the capital of Hellenistic and Greek words, where were the books of very important writers of the past. And we see how the new Greek culture is associated with the ancient Egyptian religious tradition, which existed for 3,000 years, ”explains Egyptologist Christian Greco, from the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.

An illustration of Cleopatra
All representations that have been made of Cleopatra are only interpretations.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his kingdom was divided. And this is where the position of ruler of Egypt was claimed by Ptolemy I, the son of a Macedonian nobleman who started the Ptolemaic dynasty.

From there, Egypt would be ruled by her descendants until the death of Cleopatra VII, in 30 BC, more than 300 years later. Egypt would become one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world and one of the last to be dominated by the Romans.

This mix of towns and places, coupled with the lack of reliable information about the Ptolemaic dynasty and Cleopatra, has fueled debates for years about the queen of Egypt.

After all, was she Macedonian, Greek, or North African? Everything indicates that he was of mixed ethnic origin.

According to researchers from the Austrian Archaeological Institute, analyzes of the bones of a sister of Cleopatra showed in 2009 that the Egyptian queen was, in part, African.

The conclusion was drawn after identifying the skeleton of his younger sister, Princess Arsinoe, found in a more than 2,000-year-old tomb in Ephesus, Turkey.

Evidence obtained by studying the dimensions of the Arsinoe skull indicates that it had some characteristics of European whites, ancient Egyptians, and black Africans.

But there are also other identity issues involved in the debate.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1963
Elizabeth Taylor’s performance in 1963 fixed the image of Cleopatra in the popular imagination.

According to Maria Wyke, a Latin professor at University College London (UCL), there is great disagreement over whether Cleopatra could be considered Egyptian.

“In the 19th century, there was a debate about whether he had Egyptian blood, in part because there is very little, if any, information about his mother or grandmother. But at the end of the 20th century, the question was not whether Cleopatra was Egyptian in the genetic sense, but whether she was black. “

“This mainly arises in the 1990s with Afrocentrism, with Egypt as the starting point. Thus, Cleopatra became the personification of a powerful woman at the origin of African history, ”he continues.

Therefore, claiming Cleopatra as black on a historical basis or not is irrelevant. Claiming her as black becomes an important counterattack against gender and race prejudices and the appropriation of Cleopatra by the white man of the western world over time ”.

According to Joyce Tyldesley, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Manchester and author of “Cleopatra: The Last Queen of Egypt”, the monarch “manipulated the Egyptian religion to be seen as a living incarnation of the goddess Isis, which allowed her to consolidate by I complete his position of power ”.

A relief of Cleopatra
Everything indicates that Cleopatra was of mixed ethnic origin.

And, for Tyldesley, this manipulation of religion holds the key to the great mystery that haunted her while writing her book.

“There was a question that haunted me all the time: Did leopatra consider herself Egyptian? I think so, she was queen of Egypt. What else would have been considered? His father was king of Egypt, one of his sisters had been queen. I think she considered herself Egyptian, although she was not a native, but a Greek Egyptian ”.

According to her, when the Greeks settled in Egypt, there were two populations living next to each other and both were beginning to become familiar with each other’s culture.

“Above all, Cleopatra was beginning to exercise Egyptian culture, especially in terms of religion. Other Ptolemies did something similar before, to a lesser extent, but it’s very interesting that she uses an Egyptian base to promote herself, ”he explains.

In addition, there are scientific attempts to reconstruct the true features of Cleopatra, which gave her a face dissociated from the popular imaginary eternalized by Western culture.

In 2009, British archaeologist and Egyptologist Sally Ann Ashton used images etched into ancient artifacts, such as a ring dating from the time of her reign, to recreate the face of the Egyptian queen.

Cleopatra's face, according to the reconstruction carried out by British archaeologist and Egyptologist Sally Ann Ashton
Cleopatra’s face, as reconstructed by archaeologist and Egyptologist Sally Ann Ashton.

His work points to a woman of mixed ethnicity, with Egyptian features and Greek heritage.

Power over beauty and seduction

For a long time, Cleopatra was portrayed as a beautiful queen of Egypt who seduced the Romans; it fascinated the French philosopher Pascal and inspired works by Shakespeare, paintings by Tiepolo, and various Hollywood films.

But for Tyldesley , from the University of Manchester, it is necessary to put aside all this popular imagination to understand it.

“She was not that glamorous seductress that directors seem to like so much. There is no evidence that he had more than two sexual partners: Julius Caesar, to whom he was faithful until his death, and Marco Antonio. I think we like to see her like this (as a seductress of several men). There is something attractive in that, but it is very unfair, “he maintains.

“She was a very smart woman . He ruled for more than 20 years and managed to elude Roman rule over Egypt, something that was somehow a threat throughout his reign. In addition, she received a nation from her father who was in poverty and led her to recover economically.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1963
For Tyldesley, the image of a seductive woman built around Cleopatra is “very unfair.”

There is another characteristic of the Egyptian queen that is debatable. Thanks to Shakespeare, Tiepolo, and actresses who lived in the movies, from Elizabeth Taylor to Amanda Barrie, the modern image of Cleopatra is stunningly beautiful, but there is no proof.

“We don’t have many images of her, and the ones we do have are very stereotyped. They are classic, it looks like a Greek or Roman queen. They were there to represent ideas of royalty, rather than to show what it really looked like, ”says Tyldesley.

“People tend to think that coins with her effigy are more realistic and if you look at them, she is not particularly beautiful, as she has a very large nose and chin. But then how accurate can a coin portrait be? ”He says.

“It depends on the skill of the person making the coin, who may not have actually seen it, and also what they wanted to portray. Cleopatra may have wanted not to look delicate and beautiful, but powerful. “

It is likely, then, that Cleopatra would not have been incredibly beautiful, not a fatal woman or an evil manipulator, but a shrewd politician who, in the end, was unlucky enough to be on the defeated side of a dispute bigger than herself.

The struggle for power

Cleopatra’s trajectory at the head of Egypt was plagued with power struggles within and without her dynasty.

His family history is also full of murder and betrayal. For some researchers, it was necessary to assassinate or be assassinated to consolidate in the throne, something that she herself lived later.

Coin with the image of Cleopatra
One of the images of Cleopatra is that of some coins with her profile.

His coming to power was not without obstacles.

When Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, died, women could not rule without having a man by their side. Then, following the traditions, the solution was for 18-year-old Cleopatra to marry her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII so that they could reign together.

It was a matter of time before the disputes arose.

Years after assuming power, Ptolemy XIII conspired against his sister to remove her from power, prompting her to flee to Syria. From there began a fratricidal civil war for the command of Egypt.

Curiously, Rome also experienced an internal battle for power, between Julius Caesar and Pompey, and the disputes ended up being mixed.

Virtually defeated, Pompey went to Egypt to seek the support of Ptolemy XIII, but the young man was advised not to ally himself with Pompey and to kill him so as not to be displeased with Julius Caesar.

A bust of Julius Caesar
Cleopatra’s union with Julius Caesar strengthened the power of the monarch in Egypt.

The strategy ended up having the opposite effect. Julius Caesar was furious when he learned of the murder. As a consequence, the Roman general went to Egypt and promoted a truce between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII.

The king did not want to surrender while in command of Egypt and made another attempt to fight the Roman general while he was still in Alexandria. But he would end up defeated and killed during the so-called Battle of the Nile.

Thanks to her alliance with Julius Caesar and Rome , Cleopatra’s position at the head of the country was more solid.

According to some historians, the queen established her popularity in Egypt by speaking and dressing like an Egyptian while carrying out her official duties, but used Greek in private settings. It was at this time that he decided to be the living incarnation of the goddess Isis.

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar ended up loving each other and spent nine months together in Alexandria, when she became pregnant with the Roman general.

Caesarion was born in 47 BC, but was never publicly recognized by his father.

New tragedy and new love

Cleopatra went with Julius Caesar to Rome, but when the leader was assassinated by a group of senators of the Republic in 44 BC, she returned to Egypt, where she killed her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, to rule the country alongside his son.

An illustration of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
The assassination of Julius Caesar seemed the end of the alliance with Rome, but it was not.

But Cleopatra’s trajectory would not be far from Rome for long.

Julius Caesar’s death sparked a new dispute for the command of the Roman Empire. In particular, between General Marco Antonio and Julius Caesar’s adopted son, his nephew Octavio.

Cleopatra then formed a political and loving alliance with Mark Antony.

For some historians, the couple went on to live a life of lust and debauchery in Alexandria, which, for some, would have been a form of worship to the god Dionysus. During that period, they had three children.

From a geopolitical point of view, the association with Marco Antonio would end up being Cleopatra’s great strategic mistake.

“She simply made a mistake and sided with Marco Antony, and not Octavian (later to become Emperor Augustus) when they fought. And it was an easy mistake to make. If you were betting, you wouldn’t have been betting on Octavio, ”says Tyldesley.

However, it is likely that this unique mistake made Cleopatra the misrepresented figure that she is today. If he had chosen the right side or if Marco Antonio had won, history could have treated his figure very differently, even leading to her being forgotten.

Jean-André Rixens painting on Cleopatra
Cleopatra and Marco Antonio were together until his death (Painting by Jean-André Rixens from the 19th century).

For Tyldesley, many descriptions of Cleopatra as rampant and murderous came from Roman authors interested in showing that.

“What happened is that many of the oldest pharaohs were forgotten, but Cleopatra managed to survive because it was part of Roman history , although she survived as an enemy of the Romans, described by classical authors.”

These Roman writers did not harm Cleopatra just by creating a myth around her, according to the Egyptologist. They also got something important out of his story: his intelligence.

On the other hand, Muslim historians constructed another image of Cleopatra based on local records, which they accessed after the Arab conquest of Egypt around 640 AD.

According to these, the Egyptian queen was a scholar, scientist, philosopher, and astute politician.

“No grave on Earth will lock up such a famous couple”

The tragic fall of the Egyptian queen occurred during the so-called Last Civil War of the Republic of Rome.

Antony and Cleopatra joined forces to fight Octavian, but suffered a disastrous defeat at the famous naval battle of Accio (near Greece), in 31 BC.

Later, the couple fled to Egypt. While Cleopatra was hiding in her mausoleum, her lover set out for her last battle, in which she was again defeated by Octavian.

Cleopatra suicide painting
Cleopatra committed suicide on August 12, 30 BC.

According to Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Professor of Ancient History at Cardiff University, the Roman general, devastated by the pain and shame of defeat, ended up stabbing himself with his own sword after wrongly learning that the Queen of Egypt had also died.

But Cleopatra was still alive, she had hidden in her tomb, where Marco Antonio was taken after being wounded with the sword. Finally he would have succumbed to his injuries in the arms of his lover. Instead of falling under Roman rule, Cleopatra, surrounded by sumptuous pearls, gold, silver, and countless Egyptian treasures, committed suicide on August 12, 30 BC. “

When Cleopatra died, she was 39 years old. She was mummified and buried next to Marco Antonio, with whom she had lived for 11 years.

Almost 16 centuries later, the English playwright William Shakespeare wrote in the play Antony and Cleopatra: “No grave on earth will enclose such a famous couple.”

But the location of the tomb is an enigma that has not yet been revealed. If they are buried in Alexandria, the region has become increasingly difficult to study, as most of the city is now submerged.

With the death of Cleopatra and the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egypt would finally become a province of the Roman Empire.

False indications of Cleopatra’s suicide

Interestingly, even the truth about the most famous event in his life, his suicide, is uncertain. The most publicized studies say that it induced an asp viper to bite it.

Theda Bara as Cleopatra
The image of Cleopatra has always been associated with snakes.

“This snake thing is interesting. There is no evidence to say how he died. One story mentions a snake and suddenly all the images we have of Cleopatra have a snake. But snakes are linked to Egyptian royalty , so it could be a case of inaccuracy, “says Tyldesley.

“The closest thing we have to an eyewitness testimony, which was actually written hundreds of years later, says that he had puncture marks on his arm, which can be anything, even nothing. But it is a beautiful story ”.

For Wyke of University College London, Cleopatra’s suicide has a political, rather than romantic, connotation about the loss of her lover.

“I think the Romans saw the act, not of suffering and sadness over the death of Mark Antony, but as an act of pride, an attempt to escape the consequences of capture, because they knew that if they captured her, they would take her back. to Rome, dragged through the streets like a Roman trophy and possibly executed, ”he says.

“His death appears to be a political act. Regardless of the form that has occurred, it can be believed that a queen, so endowed with the power of self-representation, would guarantee a death that would correspond to her authority as the ruler of a great kingdom.

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