Cleopatra, the fabled ‘Queen of the Nile’ was one of the most powerful women in history. But just how much do you know about her?
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Here are a few interesting facts about the queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, and its last active ruler:
1. She was not originally Egyptian
Although she was born in Egypt, Cleopatra’s ancestral origins could be traced to Macedonian Greece and Ptolemy I Soter, a general of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy reigned over Egypt after Alexander’s death in 323BC, and his progeny of Greek-speaking rulers governed the land for nearly three centuries. Although Cleopatra wasn’t ethnically Egyptian, she fully embraced the country’s ancient customs and became the first in the Ptolemaic line to learn the Egyptian language.
2. She was a product of incest
Within the Ptolemaic dynasty, the custom was to marry a family member to preserve the purity of the bloodline. More than a dozen of Cleopatra’s ancestors married cousins or siblings, and historians think it’s probable that her own parents were siblings. In keeping with the tradition, Cleopatra also married both of her adolescent brothers, each of whom served as her ceremonial spouse and co-regent at different times in her reign.
3. She wasn’t just a beauty
Cleopatra is often depicted in films and stories as a debauched femme fatale, but she was actually renowned for her intellect, rather than her looks. She spoke over a dozen languages, and was well-educated in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and many other subjects. According to a report in History.com, she was considered to be a ruler “who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company”. The ancient writer Plutarch downplayed her beauty in one of his writings, and said that it was her melodious speaking voice and “irresistible charm” that made her so attractive.
4. She was a performer
Cleopatra considered herself to be a living deity, and often used ingenious stagecraft to woo potential allies and reinforce her seemingly supernatural status. One of the most famous examples of her flair for drama came in 41BC, when she was summoned to meet the Roman Triumvir. She arrived on a golden barge adorned with purple sails and rowed by oars of silver. Cleopatra herself was made up to look like the deity Aphrodite, and she sat beneath a gilded canopy while attendants dressed as cupids fanned her and lit sweet-smelling incense. Roman general Mark Antony was instantly enchanted.
5. She may not have died from an asp bite
Cleopatra and Antony famously took their own lives in 30BC, after Roman emperor Octavian’s forces drove them to Alexandria. While Antony stabbed himself in the stomach, Cleopatra’s method is shrouded in mystery. Some historians think she died by enticing an asp (a viper or cobra) to bite her arm, but ancient chronicler Plutarch admitted that “what really took place is known to no one”. Cleopatra was known to conceal poison in one of her hair combs, and the historian Strabo wrote that she might have applied this fatal “ointment”. Today’s scholars think she used a pin dipped in some sort of potent toxin, like snake venom.
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