Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cleo Myths

Cleopatra is one of the most famous women in the historical record. Pretty much everyone recognizes her name, and is usually able to spout of some information they've heard about her. 

1) She was an Egyptian Queen.
2) She had two husbands/lovers -- Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.
3) She was black.

Let's see... that's a quasi right, a nope, and a.... nope.

This is what she actually looked like.
Bust of Cleopatra VII from life. Altes Museum, Berlin.

1) She was an Egyptian Queen.

Most people when they hear "Cleopatra" are actually thinking of Cleopatra the seventh. And yes, she was a ruling queen of Egypt. When she ascended to the throne at the death of her father, she shared the throne with her husband -- her brother Ptolemy XIII. They didn't get on well. 

A very long story short, an important Roman was murdered at what was thought to be Ptolemy XIII's order, and Julius Caesar came to town intended to annex Egypt. Caesar and Cleopatra VII got on well, and Cleopatra was soon pregnant with his child. Caesar threw his support behind Cleopatra ruling in her own right, and her husband-brother was conveniently poisoned -- leaving Cleopatra alone on the throne. She married her other younger brother, Ptolmey XIV, who was her co-ruler but since he was only 8 or 9 years old, he didn't do much ruling. 

Minted in 41 BCE. Mark Anthony is on the left. Cleopatra is on the left. 

2) She had two husbands/lover, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, and one son.

As I pointed out just above, Cleopatra VII was actually married to her brothers. She also married Mark Anthony, though she was his 4th wife and it's complicated. She didn't marry Caesar. 

She did however have Caesar's son, Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar (nicknamed Caesarion). She also had three children with Mark Anthony, the twins  Alexander Helios & Cleopatra Selene II, and Ptolemy Philadelphus.

3) She was black.

It sounds rude to say it this way, but Cleoptra VII was inbred. Her family was Greek, and had gotten power in Egypt after Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world at the time. They were also very xenophobic. When they didn't marry within the family, they married within other Hellenistic noble families. Cleopatra VII was the first person in her family to even bother leaning how to speak Egyptian.

There were black queens of Egypt (my favorite is Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III, she was King Tut's grandmother, and if you ever need a role model, she's always an excellent choice), but the Ptolemy dynasties kept themselves tied as closely to Greece (and to a lesser extent, Rome) as possible -- especially in matters of marriage and lovers. 

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