10 Unknown facts about Cleopatra

Anna Walker 19 April 2021

In a new meticulously researched book, Cleopatra: The Queen Who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity, Alberto Angela offers an unrivalled, epic account of the Egyptian queen. Here are 10 things we learned from reading.

1. Cleopatra had a stylist

Cleopatra's eyeliner

Cleopatra’s iconic black kohl eyeliner was created by her personal stylist, Eiras. A goldenrod was used to trace the long black kohl line from the eyes to the temples, exaggerating her eyes by surrounding them with blackness.

Eiras was the best makeup artist in the Egyptian court and became the queen’s greatest confidant. She was by Cleopatra’s side at the famous Battle of Actium, and it was in Eiras’s arms that she died in 30 BC.

 

2. She may have miscarried one of Caesar’s children

Cleopatra and Caesar (1866), a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Cleopatra and Caesar (1866), a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Some ancient sources claim that Cleopatra was pregnant when she left Rome following the assassination of her lover and ally Caesar. The conditions of her journey home were so perilous, that the stress may have caused her to miscarry her deceased lover’s child.

“If these rumours were true,” Alberto Angela writes, “we can only sympathise with this woman who, at night, when the sea is calm, goes to sit at the prow, away from everybody… and quietly watches the horizon, with that huge weight in her heart and soul.”

 

3. Her father loved music

Ptolemy XII
Bust of Ptolemy XII housed at the Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris

Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII was a terrible ruler, leading Egypt through political confusion and economical upheaval, in no small part because he enjoyed the lure of music more than he did ruling his country. Alberto Angela explains that Ptolemy XII was also known as Auletes or “flautist” because he considered himself a “new Dionysus”. He frequently played and sang during public celebrations, especially those celebrating his hero, Dionysus.

Despite his faults as a leader, Cleopatra was very much a daddy’s girl and earned the nickname “Cleopatra Philpator” or “she who loves her father” as she stayed loyally by his side even until his death.

 

 4. Cleopatra's mother may have been Greek

Very little is known about Cleopatra’s mother—we don’t know her name, where she came from or anything about her appearance.

One historical theory, however, posits that she “belonged to the Greek people”, making Cleopatra Greco-Macedonian.

 

 5. Cleopatra was not first in line

Cleopatra smiling

Cleopatra’s elder sister, Berenice, was originally destined to be the queen but died before she could take the throne. From the moment of her sister’s death, Cleopatra became first in line and so received an incredible education and travelled her country frequently in order to become acquainted with the country she’d one day call her own.

Cleopatra was only 18 when her father passed in 51 BC. Alberto Angela explains that on the journey around Egypt that followed in order to introduce the people to their new ruler, she was instantly popular on account of her fluent Egyptian, which she spoke without the need for an interpreter. This was rare among Ptolemaic rulers.

 

6. It was her voice that captured Caesar’s heart

cleopatra

Upon their first meeting as the pair spoke in Greek, Alberto Angela explains that “the true ‘elixir’ that ensnared and seduced Cesar was her voice.”

Indeed, as the Roman writer, Cassius Dio wrote at the time, “No sooner did Caesar see her and hear her speak than he was immediately fascinated.”

 

 7. She took a romantic honeymoon with Caesar

Caesar and Cleop]

Once the pair had become Egypt’s absolute rulers, Cleopatra and Caesar decided to take a romantic honeymoon to celebrate their union: a cruise down the Nile.

“This certainly was a unique event in the history of the Mediterranean,” says Alberto Angela. “Two of the most famous figures in history taking a romantic trip in one of the most fascinating places on the planet. It’s like something out of a novel. And yet it truly happened. Anybody who’s been to Egypt knows what a sunset over the pyramids or on the Nile, by Luxor, means, with a red sky and sailboats sliding calmly on a surface like a mirror. Well, imagine this atmosphere with Caesar embracing Cleopatra from the back and kissing her neck. No ancient writer has ever told us this, but we can imagine it must have happened very often.”

 

8. Cleopatra created a stir when she first met Antony

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra (1885), by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra (1885), by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Mark Antony was sat in the middle of the main square of Tarsus awaiting Cleopatra’s arrival the day of their first meeting. Despite several letters from his court requesting her hurried arrival, the queen took her time.

Suddenly, the square was “invaded by an increasingly intense perfume,” Angela explains. “The light breeze diffuses an unfamiliar fragrance that is both refreshing and pungent and that seems to fill people’s lungs with a thousand olfactory colours… it’s not just perfume that fills the air. There’s now also a distant and equally gentle sound growing louder. People look around, trying to understand, then somebody shouts, pointing at the river, and everybody runs to the bank, as though drawn by a powerful magnet… Her ship appears on the river… It’s a memorable spectacle and even Antony is speechless.”

 

9. Her honeymoon with Antony lasted six months

Antony and Cleopatra

Cleopatra’s spectacular honeymoon with Caesar pales in comparison to the six-month love-in she enjoyed in her legendary courtship with Mark Antony.

“They’re inseparable,” says Angela. “They spend every minute together, every hour, every dawn and every dusk… They’re like two teenagers in love. They play dice together, drink and go hunting together, and if he trains in military exercises, then she is beside him… They love to indulge in night time outings, incognito, down the streets of Alexandria, mixing with people, roaming around dressed as ordinary people.”

 

10. Cleopatra was a book worm

Library of Alexander
Nineteenth-century artistic rendering of the Library of Alexandria by the German artist O Von Corven

Alberto Angela explains that “Cleopatra adores Homer and can recite by heart large sections of his work…Every corner of the Library is familiar to Cleopatra…Scholars and librarians probably know her well, and perhaps at times forget that they have before them the queen.”

According to the testimonies of Arabic sources, Cleopatra was a scholar who wrote as well as read. They claim that she wrote books on medicine, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and toxicology, though unfortunately, no evidence of such work exists.

 

Cleopatra: The Queen Who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity, by Alberto Angela (£22, HarperVia) is available from 29 April 2021

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Header image: The Triumph of Cleopatra, 1821, by William Etty