The Cleopatra Mystery Lasts 2,050 Years

August 12, 2022, marks the 2,050th anniversary of Cleopatra’s death at age 39. Officially reported as a suicide, the Queen ruled Egypt for 21 years, but her legend still defies time, surpassing two thousand years of mystery.

Historians differ to this day over her appearance, ability, and participation in Egyptian or Roman political events, with film, literature, theater, and fine arts tangled up in that medium and often contributing to misinformation. To begin with, there was more than one Cleopatra in the Ptomolaic dynasty, of which the queen was a part. The one that eludes us in curiosity is the seventh of its (and last) lineage.

Cleopatra VII, therefore, was an astute Egyptian monarch, born under Roman control, who ruled Egypt for 21 years, generations before the birth of Christ. His family, the Ptolemies, were of Macedonian Greek origin, who called themselves Pharaohs and remained in power for 10 generations.

She ascended the throne alongside her husband-brother (whom she hated), who was only 10 years old and by all accounts truly detestable. It should be noted that the Ptolemies intermarried to keep their bloodline “pure” (which inspired George R.R. Martin to draw the Targaryens in House of the Dragon and Game of Thrones). Older and better prepared than her husband-brother, Cleopatra soon came into conflict with him, which worsened the situation in an unstable region of great importance to the Roman Empire. No one disputes that the glory years of the pharaohs and, in particular, of the Ptolemaic empire were long gone.

In the struggle for power, the queen at first took the worst and had to go into exile in the desert. In the meantime, her brother had Pompey the Great killed and beheaded, a General who was on a collision course with Julius Caesar and had fled to Egypt. Caesar might have been quarreling with Pompey, but a Roman general being murdered by foreigners was inadmissible so he went to Alexandria personally to deal with the matter. By staying in the runaway queen’s former palace, she saw the opportunity to return as she had been waiting. Legend recalls she arrived hidden wrapped in a rug (or inside a bag). Be that as it may, she returned and soon allied herself with the Roman Emperor, who was enchanted by her beauty, youth, and wit. The bond was so strong that within a few months the Queen became pregnant. Julius Caesar restored her as sole commander in Egypt (under Roman control, of course), which made Cleopatra VII one of the first women in history to rule an empire with (relative) autonomy.

At just 18 years old, he controlled virtually the entire eastern coast of the Mediterranean, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler.


Her portraits of coins that circulated while she was still alive are the only images considered authentic because they would have been approved by her. Which doesn’t help 100% in the fight over the true appearance and color of her skin, a sensitive subject still in 2022. What there is no doubt was her political acumen. Under her direct command a fleet of ships was built, she dealt with the plague, the famine of her subjects, quelled an insurrection, controlled a currency and the hearts of the two most important men of Rome: Julius Caesar and later, Mark Antony.

Rich, famous, powerful, ruthless, and seductive, she had the fate of the Western world in her hands. She remained Queen for 18 years after ascending the throne alone and dealt with political insecurity made worse by her gender. She played for two constituencies to ensure herself, both the Greek elite and the native Egyptians, who saw her as a Goddess, compared to Isis (one of the most popular deities of the time).

If she was adored in Egypt, she was seen as a villain in Rome, which contributed to her image as a seducer and calculating figure in the official accounts of history and which are used as a basis to this day. After all, the two most respected generals fell in love with her, and Mark Antony abandoned everything to join her, in the midst of the Roman civil wars. Eventually, Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, and Mark Antony, Caesar’s protégé, ended up on opposite sides and Cleopatra was one of the points of conflict. Octavian hated her.

The end of the Egyptian queen’s life and her rule was born out of Octavian’s ambition to be the sole emperor in Rome, clashing with the triumvirate and the popularity of Mark Antony. It didn’t help that the general left Octavian’s own beloved sister, with whom he was married, to join Cleopatra, with whom he went on to have three children. Together they planned to lead an eastern Roman empire, giving Octavian the cause he needed to carry out his personal plan.

By declaring war on Cleopatra at the end of 31 BC, Octavian knew that Mark Antony would not abandon the Egyptian queen, shaking his image in Rome. Mark Antony led the battles, but at Actium he lost, fleeing with his queen to Alexandria. The troops lost trust in the legendary general, defecting and leaving him to a humiliating defeat for Octavian too.

Isolated and betrayed, Cleopatra and Mark Antony were left without many options, and some biographers suggest that the queen belatedly understood that she was alone to try to save her kingdom and her children, for whom she tried to negotiate protection and guarantees. Still, opponents tried to put the couple on a collision course, to no avail.

On August 1, Mark Antony’s naval fleet surrendered to Octavian, followed by cavalry. Clearly defeated and anticipating public execution and humiliation, Cleopatra hid in her tomb with her slaves. For whatever reason, she sent a message to her lover that she had committed suicide, which led him to follow suit, stabbing himself in the stomach and taking his own life at age 53. But she was still alive and was prevented from killing herself by setting fire to the hiding place, filled with her treasures. Imprisoned, she received permission to embalm and bury Mark Antony within her tomb before being escorted to an audience with Octavian.

Faced with the enemy, Cleopatra declared in Greek, “I will not be guided in a triumph”, having the assurance that she would be kept alive, but when she learned that she would be taken to Rome, she took it upon herself to take her own life. Historians differ on whether she died on the 10th or 12th of August, and whether the suicide took place inside the palace or in her tomb. Her handmaidens also took their own lives. Another controversy is the cause of his death. Legend says that she allowed a viper to sting and poison her. No venomous snake was found, but as there were small punctures in his arm, the legend was born, although there are those who argue that he injected the venom with a needle. But she was dead at her own hands.


Octavian was frustrated at the impossibility of exposing Cleopatra, but happy to be rid of an enemy. He buried Cleopatra in royal fashion beside Antony in her tomb. Her death is the end of the so-called Hellenistic framework. Octavian became the only emperor of Rome at the time in the world.

In cinema, very typical of the sexist version that tarnished her legacy, Cleopatra’s name was associated with that of the vamp, sexually compulsive, untimely, manipulative, and profiteer. More than 2 thousand years of defamation.

On-screen, she was played by various beauty icons, but always caucasian actresses. The most famous, of course, is Elizabeth Taylor, who starred in Cleopatra which for a long time was the most expensive film of all time. There are two projects in the works, one that once had Angelina Jolie associated with it, but no longer. This is Scott Rubin‘s project and it’s being directed by Dennis Villeneuve. The other, more discussed, is the one that is in pre-production, directed by Kari Skogland and that will bring Gal Gadot as the queen of the Nile. We already have the official image. do we approve?

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